Jonathan Blaustein: How do you define great? What motivates you? What do you think is interesting?
Dewi Lewis: It’s almost indefinable, isn’t it? For me, great work is work that excites me. If I see something that I feel is fresh, and has something to say, I think that’s quite important to me, rather than photographers just producing aesthetically pleasing images.
What encourages me to publish something is when I’m surprised and exhilarated by it. It’s as simple as that, really.
JB: When I think about your program, the words “Social Documentary” come into my mind. Do you think that’s a fair description?
DL: There are a number of the books that certainly come under that category. But there are also some that really defy it, I suppose. Some are firmly placed within a “Photography as Art” environment.
But I would say I’m more likely to respond to documentary work than conceptual or abstract work.
Taking it forward a bit, I’ve done many landscape books over the years, but usually those landscapes are saying something about the social or human condition. For me, they need to have that level, otherwise they’re not very interesting.
JB: We might call it cultural criticism?
DL: Yeah. Essentially. I’m looking for projects that say something about our culture as it’s lived today.
There are books we’ve done that have a more historical perspective to them. But essentially I’m really looking at what’s happening in a period that you could bracket by two or three years, at any time.
I’m really interested in the human aspect. Why do people do the things they do? And it’s probably no more complicated than that, actually.
JB: That was the impression that I got. And you find projects by word of mouth, I’m sure. You work with some artists multiple times, like Phil Toledano.
And you look at work at portfolio reviews. But I also noticed on your website that you do accept unsolicited submissions, if people follow a certain set of rules.
DL: Yeah, we get recommendations from other photographers. We work with people we’ve worked with before. But we also have 2 open submissions each year. Generally, one in May, and one in November. Anyone can send in work.
What I don’t like, and what is a real problem, is people sending through Dropbox. Links, and all the rest, throughout the year.
I really do like to focus it down to these two periods. It’s surprising. Most of the work that comes in from open submissions is not that interesting, I have to admit. But you do find things you’ve never come across before. Photographers who are totally unknown. And that’s kind of interesting.
We do about 20 books a year, and I would say it’s pretty rare to get more than 1, maximum 2 from open submissions in a year.
JB: Your website was almost shockingly honest. I’ve never done this before, but I want to read back to you some text from the site. If you’ll allow.
You said, “We’re increasingly finding that we can only publish established, international names, projects with major exhibitions, or those that come with sufficient funding to underwrite the risk. There are now only very few first books that we’re able to do with emerging photographers.”
JB: That’s naked honesty right there. And that has to be a function of all of the increased competition that we were talking about 15 minutes ago, no?
DL: Not really. When I started in publishing, one of the reasons there were very few photography publishers was that photography books simply didn’t make money. Or were very marginal.
There were people such as Aperture, but they were doing it by raising funds as a charity. Many of the other photo books were either mega-names, like Ansel Adams or Cartier-Bresson, or you would find that a mainstream publisher would publish one or two photo books, and then they would drop them.
They were trying them, finding they weren’t financially successful, and then moving on to something else.
It’s never been easy, financially. When I started in the Cornerhouse days, the arts center was a registered charity, so it was much easier to access public funding for books. A number were funded from public sources.
When I went independent, most of those sources dried up. It was a matter of how do we finance books? For the first 10 years, I had to finance them myself. The only way to do that was to do other work, so I did consultancy, and put that money into the books.
We developed it slowly like that. Then, about 10 years ago, there was a switch when it became apparent that increasingly, other publishers were expecting photographers to at least partially fund books.
That switch has just developed exponentially, really.
When we started, 100% was funded by us. Now, it’s generally no more than 50 to 60 %. Some books we totally fund, others we fund partially, and then others, we have to have totally funded. It’s that balance that helps to keep us going.
JB: In your opinion, why has there never been a significant demand in the marketplace? Why don’t they make money?
DL: It’s misleading, in a way, because you have to look at all forms of book publishing. And indeed music publishing. If you look at new fiction, for example, it’s not unusual for novels by unknown writers just to sell in the few hundreds.
DL: They don’t make any money. It’s always that balance where a mainstream publisher will decide on taking a risk on certain titles, to see whether they can make them work. We did publish fiction for a while, because my degree with in English, not photography.
We were very successful in getting various awards, but we weren’t very successful in terms of sales. When I started doing fiction, you could get about 1000 copies of advanced orders into the shops. We stopped when those advanced orders had dropped to about 200.
We were no different than any other publisher. The book shops just stopped taking a risk on new fiction.
Back to photo books, there are big sellers. The last Salgado, I know that well over 100,000 copies have been sold. Helmut Newton’s last book was also probably well over 100,000. However, most photo books, these days, are produced in runs of between 500-2000 copies.
It’s partly that the book shops don’t really support visual books very much. If you take that forward, if you’ve got a limited amount of space in a book shop, and you’re trying to generate revenue from it, you put onto those book shelves the things that you know will sell.
You don’t put on photo books when you can put on best-selling novels, or how-to manuals and guidebooks. It’s very difficult to get the level of distribution that’s necessary to pump up those physical numbers.
JB: If you’re working with established artists with a collector base and a standing in the marketplace, like Martin Parr, with whom you’ve worked before, and you know the books will sell you can go ahead and lay out those funds for publication and distribution.
If you have no way of knowing if the books will sell, you’ll shift that risk onto the photographer. And for that, they get the benefit of your expertise, design team, and distribution network.
Is that the way it works?
DL: It’s more or less the way it works. Obviously, we don’t fear too much when we’re doing a Martin Parr book. It doesn’t mean they’ll sell in enormous numbers, but we’re pretty confident that we’ll at least break even, or make a small profit, and generally do a lot better than that.
But if you look at work by an emerging photographer, you’ve got to realize it’s not only the production cost of the book. We also have other direct costs, for example, my attendance on press to supervise the printing.
Then we have the issue of getting out press copies, which we generally do on a worldwide basis. On a dollars basis, that’s between $1500-2000. Attendance on press will be another $1500. This is just covering expenses, not getting any payment for the time involved.
Even if you have a book which is funded in terms of production costs, we would generally expect it to cost us anything from $4000-5000 to launch it.
JB: And books are heavy objects, and you need to ship them to stores around the world.
DL: Yeah, that’s the next factor.
JB: Of course.
DL: It’s not usually understood that for most bookshops, books are sold on a “sale or return” basis. For Barnes and Noble, for example, you’re not actually selling the book to them. You’re lending it to them.
If they sell it, you get paid, if they don’t, it gets sent back to you.
Essentially, you’re covering the cost of sending the books out, they can be sent back to you, and your distributor will then charge you a cost for actually handling it.
JB: Oh my goodness.
DL: You can actually lose money on certain books. Even above the cost of production.
JB: Let me read you the next quote from your website, as we set it up perfectly: “Please also remember that we must be able to sell the books that we publish. Please be realistic, when assessing your project, and don’t waste your or our time by sending proposals which have only a limited commercial appeal. Just because all your friends say it would make a great book doesn’t mean that anyone would buy it.”
JB: Yowzers. It’s like a kidney punch. You’re taking the air out of people’s false expectations.
DL: It doesn’t work though, Jonathan.
JB: It doesn’t work?
DL: They still send them in.
JB: You’re asking people to be honest with themselves about their dreams, which is very difficult to do.
But what do people buy? That’s where I wanted to head. You’re telling people that you have a sense of what commercial appeal is. Within the market that does exist, of people that do buy photo books, outside of a big name, how do you know what people will buy? When do you feel comfortable?
DL: Essentially, you never know, so you have to go on your own judgement. You go on the basis of belief in a project. Sometimes, I ignore the commercial reality.
One of our big successes last year was Laia Abril’s book “The Epilogue.” Now, that’s the story of a girl dying from bulimia, and the impact on her family. If you just put that in a sentence, and emailed me saying you had this great book project, my instant reaction would be, “How on Earth can I sell it?”
But I was so convinced by the photographer, by the way I knew she would approach the subject, that I thought it was an important book that needed doing. It was one where we had no funding towards it, a big financial risk. But we still felt it was important to do.
It’s one of the great things about being a small publisher, where I’m not working for a large company, nor responsible to a committee, or anyone else. Caroline and I can make decisions where we say, “We really want to do this, and if we lose badly on it, then we’ll have to balance it out with other things.”
We can work that way. There can be projects that come along where I do think, “Well, this is so interesting that I don’t even really think about what the audience is out there.”
I can give you an example of projects that I don’t think work.
JB: Great. Let’s hear it.
DL: Something that happened in the UK a few years ago was that students at the colleges seemed to be told to do a very personal project. They must have been told by tutors to go off to houses that had some meaning to them. It wasn’t unusual to have people who were going to their grandmother’s house, or something like that, photographing the things that had memories for them as a child.
JB: Of course. Dead grandparents?
DL: Dead grandparents.
JB: Yeah, that was big.
DL: Yup. You have to be realistic. Unless there’s something REALLY stunning about the photography, it’s not a subject that’s going to appeal to a wide audience. That seems obvious to me.
And if friends, relatives, etc may get a feel from it, most people won’t. I always say, when I’m giving a talk, that I can’t explain what photographers should send in to me. I don’t really know what I’m looking for until I see it.
This is the great difficulty. But there are guidelines you can give people, and one of the things I always say is that we’re publishing on an International basis. Therefore, the work has to carry across International boundaries. It has to resonate at the human level, so that it touches something within a human being.
There’s a book we did called “Mother and Father,” by Paddy Summerfield. He photographed almost exclusively in the back garden of his parent’s house in Oxford, as they were getting older.. His Mother had Alzheimer’s. She died. His father was left alone. Then, his father died.
He photographs, more or less, the last 10 years of their lives. But almost every photograph is taken in the back garden.
How small scale can you get, in one sense? But the story that it tells is such a human story, that it leaps all International boundaries. It’s understood by everyone, without reading any text.
It’s a very moving book, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from. That is a very difficult subject too, but it’s done reasonably well in the shops, and had a good response from the critics and the audience.
JB: You’re looking for Universality?
JB: This is a big reason why I wanted to interview you. I write about books each week, and we’ve already agreed everyone wants one. But it’s rare that people out there get to hear such specific advice from someone with your expertise.
Let’s carry it forward, a bit. Where do you see it all going? If we’re talking about an industry that’s already had this much disruption, do you ever ask yourself what the climate will look like in 5 or 10 years?
DL: I try to look ahead, but I try not to respond to it.
JB: What are you suspecting?
DL: Let me tell you the problems, as I see them. Perhaps the biggest is that so many photographers now have books. Every photographer wants a book, as we said before. And every photographer now wants to do a more impressive book than other photographers have done.
By that, I mean in terms of the object. Not necessarily the content.
JB: That’s the competitiveness that we discussed earlier.
DL: Yeah, so there’s a sense in which they want a more complicated design, or more complex means of production. They’re driving up the expectations, which is good, in some ways, but it is making it increasingly impossible for many of them to ever get any of their money back.
You have some designers doing the same thing. Some of them don’t understand the technicalities, and are adding cost unnecessarily. Essentially, I think you have designers trying to leapfrog each other. On and on it goes.
The same thing is happening with photographers. I think it’s starting to go too far. I see that as a problem.
DL: I don’t see digital as a problem, as a competitive element, and I don’t see it happening over the next 5 years or so. Certainly, if you talk to publishers who are doing digital books, they’re pretty disappointed with the results they’re getting.
Not necessarily in terms of the production of them, but in terms of the response from audiences. People aren’t really buying them.
JB: Right, because is a digital book any different than a website? Or an app? The things people want out of a book are the tactile qualities.
DL: Right. Is it any different to a .pdf? It depends, though. If you have a book like “Mother and Father,” it’s very poetic and quiet. What you want is simply the images in the sequence that they are.
If you had a book that had something to do with the Yangtze River, say, then you might want to have lots of external links to images within the pages. You might want things about population, history, particular towns, cultural elements within the River area.
You can imagine video, audio, all sorts of extra things being brought into the digital book. That makes it interesting and exciting, something that can’t be done on paper. There are some books that would work digitally, and there are some that would be a disaster. It would add nothing, and simply take away from them.
So the digital question is almost a side issue.
JB: That’s not surprising. It’s one thing to read a thriller on a Kindle, but with photo books, people want to hold a set of photos in their hands.
DL: For me, what’s much more of a concern is that already the large book shops have partially removed themselves from visual books. Waterstones and Barnes and Noble carry very few photo books now, and very obvious titles. I think the days of those large book shops are severely numbered.
I wouldn’t be surprised, speaking of Waterstones in the UK, I can imagine that within 5 or 6 years, they might be down to less than a dozen stores. Key stores in major cities. At the moment, I think they still have over 300.
And while speciality stores are building, I don’t think they can take up the slack across towns and cities in various countries. I think that’s a problem.
JB: Well, the big chains have been shutting down here for years.
DL: But the area I worry about most is the printers themselves. Printing presses are hungry beasts. They need a lot of material coming through. Commercial work will dry up. Things like hotels and other business will no longer produce sales brochures. They’ll put content online, and digitally in some form.
The commercial side of printing is really going to reduce. I’m not convinced that there’s enough printing demand from other areas.
JB: So the prices will go up for those that stay in business.
DL: It’s a matter of, can they stay in business? It’s a whole chain. If printers close, what happens to the printing machine manufacturers. People like Heidelberg, and KBA. Will there be enough printers for them to continue doing this heavy engineering?
Very serious stuff. I do worry a bit about that chain. That’s probably 7-10 years out, but I do think that’s a problem.
If there is an end to the printed book in the numbers that we know now, then it’s going to come from that side, not just from people switching to digital.
JB: So now, we’re dealing with proliferation. Think about Kickstarter. When people are raising money, it’s not their money. There’s not a lot of risk involved when it’s not your money. You’re just accessing the funds from others, $10 at a time.
If what you’re speculating comes true, the people who are left in business are going be able to charge a lot more for their services. If all of a sudden, it costs $150,000 to make a book, instead of $50,000, then it won’t be nearly as easy to raise other people’s money on Kickstarter, and you end up with fewer and fewer books, the way it was before.
You’re saying this is potentially a bubble?
DL: I think it’s still got a few years to live…
DL: I’m really talking about offset printing. It’s pretty complex, isn’t it. I’m thinking longer term. It’s not round the corner.
A big question is what happens on the digital printing side. It’s been around a long time now, with Indigo and others. The printing sheet is still pretty small, though it’s starting to get larger.
It’s not cost effective to do large numbers of copies digitally. Can that take up what might be lost from offset printing? It’s a very complex arena, really.
JB: I want to take you off the prognosticator seat. Predicting the future is impossible, but I was just curious to see how you imagined the future of your industry.
You’ve been a great sport, and we really appreciate your time. You’re planning on being in business for a while, and you’re still excited about what you do?
DL: 50% of the time I’m excited. And that’s enough.
DL: It’s like this. Say you’re at FotoFest, for example, looking at portfolios, and you might have had a really awful day. Then the last session is something really stunning. That’s what publishing is.
You just go through a lot of shit to get to the crock at the end of the rainbow. You do find these extraordinary things, and that’s what keeps you going all the time.
Dewi Lewis on press with John Blakemore
Dewi Lewis Receiving World Press Photo Krazna-Krausz Award
Susan Barnett – T: A Typology of T-Shirts
Stags, Hens & Bunnies – Dougie Wallace
Maybe – Phillip Toledano
Bitter Honeydew – Kirill Golovchenko
Martin Parr – Autoportrait (new edition being published early 2016)
DL: Never. Why would I admit to something that isn’t true?
JB: (laughing.) Of course. But what if I secretly deposited £200 in your Paypal account? Would that entice you?
DL: I think you’d need to add several noughts. (zeroes.)
JB: OK. That’s fair. I’m sure most of our readers don’t care about English football, so we can move on. But you do live in the Manchester area, and you’re from Wales.
You were originally a musician back in the day, yes?
DL: It’s a bit strong to say that. I played in bands in my younger years, through to my early to mid 20s, and then decided that I just wasn’t good enough.
JB: Is that typical Welsh humility, that you played in bands for close to15 years, but won’t call yourself a musician?
DL: When you play with real musicians, then you know where you are. I’m not of that standard. Nowhere near.
JB: At what point did you segue into visual art?
DL: It was a long process. I started playing in bands from about 13, in different venues. Then I became involved in performance and theater. My first job was much more related to music and theater than anything else.
JB: Makes sense.
DL: I had a general interest in the visual arts. But I met my wife, Caroline, when I was 20, and her father was a photojournalist working on The Times newspaper in London. That started to give me a stronger relationship to photography.
I got more and more fascinated by it. But then I also became involved professionally, because we had an exhibition space in the first art center that I set up.
That got me thinking more about what shows we should put on, in photography and contemporary arts. I just got increasingly involved in photography.
JB: You set up an arts facility from the ground up?
DL: Two. After University, I worked in the arts first with the local council in Cambridge. Then I ran the Fringe Festival club up in Edinburgh, for one festival.
From that, I moved to a place in North Manchester called Bury, to set up an arts association. It seemed to me we needed a building, so I found one, and we converted an early 1800’s building into a performance space with exhibition facilities, and a bar area as well.
JB: This is with public financing?
DL: Yeah. It was a registered charity, and we raised money primarily from public funding, but also the private sector.
DL: That was the first one, and I ran that for six years. I then set up an arts center in Manchester called Cornerhouse. I was brought in to do a feasibility study on that, and it’s where the shift in my career really took place, I suppose.
Initially, there was interest to establish Cornerhouse for theater and visual arts. But I wanted to set up a film space in Manchester as well, because there was no good, independent cinema there. So rather than going for performance, we ended up focussing on visual arts and film.
At Cornerhouse , I got more and more involved with visual arts, that’s when the publishing started.
JB: Was the facility, in fact, in a corner house? Is that how you name such a place?
DL: It was a building quite close to a railway station, on the corner of two roads. We couldn’t come up with a name. That was the reality of it.
JB: If I told you that I was drinking tea right now, would that impress you?
DL: Not really. I almost never drink tea.
JB: So you’re typical in that you like Manchester United, atypical in that you don’t drink tea, and since you started playing in bands at 13, we probably all have visions of a little 13 year old Welsh punk smoking cigarettes, and acting tough.
Does that about sum it up?
DL: Close to that.
JB: (laughing) OK.
DL: Plus the pints of beer.
JB: (laughing) Plus the pints of beer. Now we’ve got the visual. That’s the best thing I can do, is evoke strong mental images for the readers.
Now they know that I’m drinking tea, and you’re unimpressed, and you used to be a party guy as a 13 year old punk. Now we’re getting somewhere.
DL: It was before the time of Punk, though. I’m that old.
JB: You’re being literal. In America, the term “punk” can have a broader meaning, rather than simply relating to the musical period. But my father was a lawyer when I was young…
JB: …so I appreciate your specificity with language.
JB: Moving through your career trajectory, in 1994, you founded your own publishing house with your wife as your partner? Is that correct?
DL: More or less. I started publishing at Cornerhouse Because we were primarily doing exhibitions, I came across photographers, and in discussions with them, it became clear that what they really wanted were books. And there was almost no one publishing at that time.
So in ’87, we launched the first book, and I carried on publishing there until ’94. But my job was as Director of the place, and it was quite a large organization. We had three cinemas and three floors of galleries. Bar, catering, book shop, education facilities.
So my time was pretty heavily occupied with all that.
JB: Is it still there?
DL: It’s still there, and just about to move to a new home in a couple of months time. It’s still pretty successful. (ed. note, this interview transpired in March 2015.)
But for me, the publishing side became something I became obsessed with. I ended up doing it almost all in my spare time. Although it was for Cornerhouse , I’d be spending weekends and days off developing the publishing side. As I got more involved in it, it became increasingly something I wanted to spend all my time on.
So at the end of ’93, I decided to leave Cornerhouse and set up my own company. Initially, it was just me – Caroline joined me 18 months to 2 years later. We’ve been working on it ever since.
JB: You started in 1994, in a pre-Internet world, where there were not a lot of people doing what you were doing. Everything would have been based on your catalogues, and sending them out in the mail to people, so they could see what you were going to publish.
We’re doing this interview in 2015. Photobooks are everywhere. The world you’ve been working in probably could not have changed much more. It’s almost perfectly different, I’d say. Would you agree with that assessment?
DL: Yeah, I think that’s totally true. I remember in ’95, very few people had email access. I was talking to an American photographer who told me about this new thing, the email, but when I explored it a little further, I couldn’t find anyone else who was on email. There was no point in using it until about ’96.
JB: (laughing) Unless you wanted to email yourself as a digital diary. “Good Morning, Dewi. How are you today? I’m quite well, thanks, but I still don’t like tea.”
DL: Exactly. It’s hard to remember how slow things were, in terms of early Internet access. But although it was a very different world before, I’m not sure it was problematic. You used the phone a lot more, and it was still at the point, really, where if you phoned someone, they answered.
DL: These days, most people will just have answer-phone-messages. You can waste so much time trying to phone people, so you end up just emailing them instead.
JB: It’s remarkable, isn’t it? I was discussing that with a friend the other day, how if you talk to someone on the phone these days, you’ve got to schedule it in advance.
I thought we could talk about the world today, and the landscape, and what you’ve observed. How long ago was it that a book was a rare, coveted object that was a career-defining moment, and now we’re living in a world in which almost everyone has a book? Or if they want one, they can get one, one way or another.
It’s gone from scarcity to ubiquity. How do you feel about that?
DL: First of all, I totally agree with you. It was incredibly difficult for photographers to get a book in the late 80s, early 90s. I’d say, really, through to 2005-6.
JB: Still fairly recently.
DL: There were many well-known photographers who, if they got one book during their lifetime, felt that they’d really achieved something. It is such a massive change.
JB: So how do you feel about it?
DL: Negative and positive. There are too many books being produced. There’s no doubt about that. Too many photographers are producing books without really having developed the work enough.
To explain why I think that, in talks I’ve given over the years, one of the things I’ve always said to photographers, certainly in the UK, is that every book has to be deposited with the British Library. And some of the other copyright libraries in the UK.
In theory, that means that if you’re a photographer, and you publish a book, it will be deposited in that library, and then, in 200 or 300 years time, your great, great, great grandchildren can go along and ask to see a copy of that book. If you think of that longevity of the book, surely it’s worth photographers spending time getting it right.
I think sometimes things are raced through much too quickly. And very young photographers expect a book within a year or two of graduating.
JB: For things to have changed that dramatically, and that quickly, should we not parallel that to the rise of our instant gratification culture through the Internet and Social Media?
These two things go hand in hand. People’s expectations that they ought to have a book, and their ability to produce one via self-publishing, or Kickstarter funding.
It’s a very contemporary situation that we’re dealing with.
DL: Yes, there are a number of factors. One is cultural change generally. The last 15 years, certainly up to the financial crash, everyone kind of believed that they could have whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. So there’s that element.
But there’s also the element that you have to think about affluence. Western societies have become increasingly affluent, over the last 15-20 years. So people have that money to spend on things that they never did before.
I mean, a young photographer in the early 90s could never have put together enough money to publish a book. Most, today, find it possible. So there are changes in terms of the cultural environment, the access to funding that people have, and I suppose also the sense of competition.
There are far more photographers around than there ever used to be.
JB: Of course.
DL: Or at least, a lot more people around who call themselves photographers.
DL: They all want to compete. They all want to be seen as getting to a certain level. And the book seems to help them on that.
JB: How has the change in the landscape changed how you approach your job?
DL: It hasn’t changed that much. That’s the strange thing. There are some things that have definitely changed. I’ll talk about funding in a minute. But essentially, I don’t really see any more great projects than I used to 20 years ago.
There are more good photographers around, but there aren’t more very good photographers. It’s still hard to see great work.
Jonathan Blaustein: I just called you on the phone. We’re not Skyping. And I noticed that your phone number was 444-BOOK.
Paul Schiek: Yeah.
JB: Who did you have to bribe, as a book publisher, to get BOOK as your phone number? How much money did they make you pay?
PS: OK. Awesome first question, because I love these little details that most people don’t notice, or care about. A lot of people don’t have landlines anymore, and to me, a landline represents this classic way of doing business, so people can just call you at 444-BOOK.
It was sort of, I don’t want to say kitschy, but it was…
PS: I’ve had this long goal of being a business in the Oakland community, and that TBW would sponsor a Little League team. In the same way that Joe Schmo the plumber buys a Little League team their uniforms.
JB: (laughing) You’re gonna do that?
PS: That’s been a dream of mine for my publishing company. When I set up a landline, I said, “How much would it cost to have my number be 1-510-TBW-BOOK? But that was taken just numerically, by chance. So I just said well what about 444-BOOK?
They said it was available. So I said, “OK, how much is it going to cost to have that for the rest of my life, as my landline for my business.”
They were like, a one time charge of…$35.
JB: (laughing.) There it is. 35 bucks.
PS: So that’s the office phone number. In certain circumstances, it’s totally appropriate to tell people that’s the number. Sometimes, it’s goofy, and I just say the numbers 444-2665. But I like having it. It’s cool, and it references the workmanlike qualities that I like to instill in this company.
Some people get it, some people don’t.
JB: Listen, that was the fun first question. The next question is more traditional, but something that I’m really curious about. You’re a successful artist, as well as being a publisher. Why did you gravitate towards art to begin with?
PS: The short version is that I was out in the world, shooting a lot of bands that I would go see. I always had a camera with me, but I didn’t have an understanding of photography. I’d moved to California, and was working whatever menial jobs were possible, just to get by.
I was having a great time, away from a seemingly culturally oppressive environment where I grew up, in Wisconsin. At the time, for a 17 year old, it sure felt that way. Anything left or right of center was frowned upon. So I moved to California, and lived that lifestyle for a long time.
I made the decision that I was going to take something seriously. I think I was 26 at the time. I applied to one local art school, which at the time was California College of Arts and Crafts, but now it’s California College of Art.
JB: Right. They dropped the last C.
PS: Yeah, but when I was there it was CCAC. I got in, and it was an immediate life-changing experience. This isn’t my quote, but I became like the jock of art school. I would stay there 24 hours a day. I had no email account. I had never been on a computer, and here was a room filled with 25 computers, and you could do whatever you want on it.
I was blown away at the idea that I was encouraged to challenge things. It didn’t matter what I did at school. They were like, “Oh that’s interesting. Why did you choose to do that?”
That was extremely liberating and fascinating.
JB: Did you get to work with Larry Sultan?
PS: Yes, I worked with Larry my last year, but the whole time I was there I became really close with Jim Goldberg, and worked with him extensively. He’s 100% responsible for introducing me to photobooks and sparking that interest in me.
I worked with Larry, in 2005, but I didn’t become extremely close with him. He was a very influential person on my work there though. He was a extremely smart man, and someone I was very honored to have a opportunity to work under.
JB: In working with Larry Sultan and Jim Goldberg, you were introduced to super-star artists just as you were beginning your career. That must have been foundational for you?
PS: I knew that they were well-respected, and great artists, but I was just excited by what they were willing to offer up in terms of them being interesting people with interesting perspectives on things. I knew that they had books out, and I could go in a library and look at their book.
To me, that was something. That these guys, that I knew, that I could go sit one-on-one with, and talk about photography, I could also go in a library and, amongst these stacks of books, pull out a hardcover, coffee-table book with their images in it.
That amazed me. I’d never known people that had books out. You know? In a lot of ways, that inspired me to say, “I’m going to make a book.”
JB: And now, it’s 10 years later, and everybody’s got a book. That whole idea of it being a super-exclusive career marker, it seems like that mystique has been watered down a bit. Would you agree?
PS: I would agree with that. Yeah. Somewhat frustratingly, I agree with that. It bums me out a little bit, because I loved the exclusivity of it. It was this defining thing.
JB: Well, you can see everything from grumpy cats to gestating grandmas on the Internet, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great pictures there too, right?
JB: Well, in 2005, which is when I’m guessing you graduated, you decided to publish your own book. It’s a perfect segue. You were fascinated by books. You had professors who knew how to make them. And well, well before everyone was doing it, you said, “I’m going to make my own book.”
Is that how it happened?
PS: That’s exactly how it happened. The more intricate part of it was that part of our requirement to graduate is that we had to mount a show, and make a post card announcing it. We had to print and frame it ourselves.
That was what we had to do to graduate, and prove that we are photographers. To me, it was just absurd. No one knew who I was. I had friends who were on the East Coast, in the Mid West, and Down South. I wanted to share what I was doing in school with these photos, and it just made no sense to spend this money to print these large photographs and frame them.
No one was going to see it. No one was going to care. Then, I was going to have to sit on this product that I didn’t know what to do with, that no one wanted to buy.
It made a lot more sense to me that I would be a publisher, and I would make a book. Then, I could mail it to those people, and use it as a promotional tool. Et cetera, et cetera. I had asked for Jim and Larry’s blessing, to do the book instead of a show, and they said it was fine.
I should also say that at that point, I’d been making ‘zines for years.
PS: So the idea of a book to me was the next level ‘zine.
JB: I’m glad you pointed that out. It didn’t come from nowhere.
PS: No. I was looking at, and participating in these things that were happening alongside the music world. I’d collected and seen fan ‘zines for years. Ever since I was 13 years old in Wisconsin, I’d seen ‘zines. More importantly, I was buying and seeing records.
A lot of times, a record was hand-printed, and on a random, nothing label. It was just like a name. So I just applied all those same concepts to publishing a book. In my classes, people would say, “You can’t just say you’re going to make a book. You need a publisher.” So I’d be like, “Well, I’m the publisher.”
JB: (laughing) That’s awesome.
PS: They’d be like, “What does that mean? Who’s going to print it?” So I said, “I’ll print it.” Then they’d be like, “Well, you need a distributor.” And I’d say, “I’m the distributor.”
JB: (laughing) That’s rad. Oh my god.
PS: This, to me, was not foreign whatsoever.
PS: This was just how you made something that was yours, and you put it out in the world. For me, it wasn’t weird at all, but to some of the people I was studying with, they thought it was a circus sideshow. They said, “This dude says he’s going to have a book in a month for his senior thesis.”
To me it was just, I’ve got to get to work. I’ve got to figure this out. So that’s the way it worked out, and how I published what essentially was my first art book. It’s funny to call it a book. It was 4″x6″, and 40 pages, but I really did the best I could to challenge the materiality of what a ‘zine was, and to make a book out of it. To bring it into the feel of what a book is.
Really, I gave them away. I had a book release party at my friend’s little book/zine shop here. I said, “First 100 people get a free copy of the book.” That was just this technique for me to say, “There’s gonna be 500 people there.” Probably 30 people showed up. But on the flyer, I wrote first 100 people at the door get a free copy of the book.
That was just me trying to be funny, but it was also allowed me to believe in myself, in a strange way. So we screen-printed flyers, and had the party. It was what I’d seen other people do, having record release parties for their band.
You do it in this little space with 7 foot ceilings, and cram a bunch of people in, and hang up a few photos. It was cool, and it was fun, and it felt like mine.
I never played in band…
JB: I was just about to ask you that.
PS: No, I never played in bands, but I was around that, and was living with and knew people in bands. I watched how they operated, and ran little businesses. I never felt a part of that. I was always making photos of it, but was never a part of it.
I tried to apply those same techniques and understandings and operations to this new thing that I was starting, which was making books. I should also mention that at that point, I was becoming obsessive about photography. I was looking at everything I could get my hands on.
Spending as much time as possible either making photos, or printing photos. I was becoming really entrenched in it. While I was in school, I was making so much, but also working jobs, because I needed to pay rent and basic life needs.
So I really wasn’t able to focus, for a bunch of different reasons, on the reading assignments. I wasn’t really getting the History of Photography. After school is when I started to take a moment and go back to read. I really wanted to study the medium. I just wanted to be the kid who knew everything. I didn’t want anyone to be able to say to me, “Do you know those early daguerreotypes by blah blah blah?” and I’d have to say, “No, I don’t know it.”
I wanted to be able to say, “Yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about, and we can have a conversation about it right now.” I really wanted to be able to back up the decisions I was making. I was aware people would want to pigeon hole me and while in no way am I an intellectual, I wanted to at least be able to know the history of the medium to a T.
JB: Yeah, I had a buddy in school like that, back at UNM in the late 90’s. My friend Scott B. Davis looked like he worked in a record store, and he knew everything. He had the background.
I came to it at 23, so I didn’t have the background. Everyone would just look at him, and the eye-rolling was ridiculous. It was like, “How the fuck do you know that? I don’t know that. I wouldn’t even know how to learn that.”
So you were that guy.
PS: Here’s the thing I want to be clear about. I wanted to be that guy as a defense mechanism. I was insecure in the art world because I was really just a dirt bag from Wisconsin. I felt like this new world that I’d discovered, which was the art world, I was seen as the kid who could go to a house party, or a show, and make pictures of kids throwing up, or whatever. And I did make those photos!
But I was making tons of photos. I was shooting everything and later relying on the editing process to extract meaning and try to create new narratives. I was trying to use images as signposts. This was the time when VICE was doing their annual photo issue.
This style of photography was hyper-on-the-radar. You shoot with a point-and-shoot…flash at night. From my perspective it was a really exciting time for photography.
JB: Listen, I was living in Brooklyn when Ryan McGinley had that show at the Whitney. The whole Beautiful Losers thing.
PS: So you know exactly what I’m talking about. I wanted to be a part of the academia side of things also. I wanted to prove that I was deeply invested in this. That this wasn’t by chance, that I was working really hard at something.
It’s funny, but I haven’t thought about this work in a long time. I was shooting with a point-and-shoot, 35mm, but I would crop my photos like a 6×7, to give it a more formal quality. Larry was shooting with a 6×7, so I would take these 35mm photos, but then I cropped them so they had a snap-and-shoot aesthetic, but they were presented more formally.
JB: When you say crop it like a 6×7, you mean use that aspect ratio, so people would think it was made with a bigger camera?
PS: Exactly. Maybe it was grainy, or had a bright flash. Or it was in a situation where you wouldn’t use a big camera. But then the prints would look like something Larry would do. It would be more serious, not the snap-shot thing. Perhaps it was staged, that whole conversation of fact and fiction in photography.
I was trying to do both things; to be in two places with the work. I’m digressing…
JB: There’s no such thing in one of these interviews, man. You’re supposed to. That’s part of the deal, and why these are different from everyone else’s interviews.
We don’t stick to a script. We want to give the readers a chance to learn from your experience. People have their own big ideas, and don’t know where to go with it. Or they don’t feel like they have permission to just do it themselves.
I’ve done it in my career, and it’s always been helpful.
JB: Sometimes, you just have to self-declare. Like you said earlier, “I am a publisher,” and then you are one. We manifest these aspects of our personalities, and our careers, through hubris.
PS: That’s exactly right. That’s a main tenet of what I was privy to growing up. You say you’re a guitar player in a band, not because you either have a guitar, or you know how to play it, but because you do it. That can obviously translate into any facet in life. You determine it.
This is sounding corny, so I want to stop talking. Next question. I feel like I’m on a soap box now.
JB: You can stop right there, but I actually know what you’re talking about. Back in graduate school, I had a friend who asked me, “How do you get a show?” I said, “The easiest way to get a show is to make a show?” So he said, “How do you make a show?”
I said, if there are pictures on the wall, and people in the room to look at them, and they have wine in plastic cups in their hand, then you have a show.
PS: That’s right.
JB: He said, “Oh, it’s that easy?” So I said, “Watch. I’ll show you.” We had a beautiful apartment in Greenpoint, with white walls and hardwood floors, so I just did it. I invited my grad school buddies, and hung pictures, and there were some people there. Then, in the second show, there were more people there, and then in the third show, it was a wall-heaving jammer, and I thought that was great, until I had to clean up the next day.
PS: (laughing) Yeah.
JB: I had to mop up all the dried, stinky beer from my kitchen floor, and I thought, “OK, I think I’ve made my point.”
But a lot of people don’t necessarily give themselves permission to take risks, and let it hang out. I try to use these interviews as a way of giving people some confidence to do what they want to do, even if it’s not necessarily related to what you and I are talking about.
I’ll put myself on the soapbox, so you don’t have to be. How’s that?
JB: But back to the publishing. You made one book for yourself, and then a couple more, but then at some point, you decided that you were going to publish other artists. You must have woken up and said, “Well, I do have a company. And I might not have a Little League team under sponsorship yet, but this is no longer just for shits and giggles. This is a real thing.”
JB: And then you managed to cultivate relationships with some really successful artists. Can you walk me through the genesis of that, from doing your own work to publishing other artists, and selling books, and really trying to push the envelope?
PS: That is another example of form following function. I’d gotten out of school, I’d made that book “Good by Angels” as my senior thesis, and I wanted to do another book. By that point, I was making different photographs, and I wanted to show them again. But I still hadn’t cultivated a following, beyond my immediate friends, and I didn’t know how to reach a larger audience.
It was really just a practicality thing. I’d been studying with Jim, and he and I had become close, so I asked him, “Hey, I want to make another book. Would you also do a book with me?” He agreed to it, and I always think of it as him extending an olive branch to me, you know?
This is something I don’t normally talk about, but I feel comfortable talking with you about the business side of things.
JB: Sure. Thanks.
PS: I didn’t have any money. Big surprise. I had no money to print anything. So I developed this system where I said, “I’m going to make these four books. One’s going to be by Jim, and I got two other artists, and one will be mine. People are going to buy these books because Jim’s involved in it. And I’m going to force people to look at my own book.”
They’re going to have to buy my book, because they want to get Jim’s book. They’re only sold as a set. That’s going to be a way to expose my work to a larger audience, and also, more importantly, it’s going to secure some funds for me to pay for this thing.
Once Jim agreed to do it, I promoted it, and got some orders coming in, and I took that money and I developed a program where the books would come out individually over the course of the coming year. The reason that I did that was because it was an opportunity for me to make the money to produce them as they came out, to pay for production of the other books.
I took the money from the initial orders and go to the printer, pay them, and then go and pay the bindery. Then I’d have the first book, but people already paid for all four books. So I’d ship the first book to the customers, and then I’d start praying.
I’d be like, “Fuck. I need more orders.”
PS: Then I’d do more promotions, and more emails, and I’d ask some friends and tell them about it, and a couple of more orders would come in. You can see what I’m saying here.
JB: Yeah. It was a great hustle.
PS: Eventually, I got enough cash together, and I’d print book number two. And then I’d start praying again. And then repeat.
Finally, it got to my book, and I was shipping it out to my subscribers. I was like, “Wow. Here’s a subscriber in England, man. England! I’m shipping a book to England!”
JB: (laughing) Right.
PS: Anyway, I realized that I was doing something of value, and that I should continue pursuing it. That opened up opportunity, because I was cultivating a client list, and was able to print better books, because I could start relying on these people to order.
I was really trying to build an old school business, no different than a plumber. “Hey, you’re going to hire me, and I’m going to come in and provide excellent service, and give you and excellent product, and next time you need that again, you’re going to call me.”
That’s really what I believe in. It’s how I grew up.
JB: I was just going to say, this has to be a Mid-Western thing.
PS: Yeah, I’m from Wisconsin. 100%. And it’s really funny, because when I was there, I was miserable. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this. Did you grow up in New Mexico?
JB: I grew up in Jersey, man, so I can relate.
PS: Jersey. So you understand what I’m talking about.
PS: Because you have this dichotomy in your ethos and approach to things. The cultural differences, right?
PS: I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but when I was in Wisconsin, I really couldn’t appreciate it. This year’s really important for me, because it’s my 18th year in Oakland. So this year marks the same amount of time in Oakland as I was in Wisconsin.
It’s a strange feeling. Maybe that’s beside the point.
Now that I’m in California, steeped in the art world, I find there’s a lot things I don’t appreciate. Things I’m not in line with. When I break it down and look at it, it’s because of the way I was raised.
JB: Jersey gets a bad rap, and I couldn’t wait to get away, frankly. But one person’s “Bridge and Tunnel” is another person’s grounded, down-to-Earth, everyday American.
JB: I could see the Twin Towers from my town, but it was so different from New York City.
PS: That’s exactly right. Do you feel that now that you’re in New Mexico, which couldn’t be more different from where you’re from?
JB: It’s like what you were saying with your 18 and 18. My folks first brought me out here when I was 14, and they moved here permanently when I was still in college.
PS: Moved here, meaning New Mexico?
JB: Yeah. Taos. They still live here. So I’ve been around this place, on and off, for 27 years. This is home, and Jersey is the place that made me, that I still go visit occasionally.
In my own psyche, I don’t relate as an East Coaster so much.
PS: All my family is still in Wisconsin, and I go back to visit, so I’m still connected to it. I think about it a lot. And then I come back from these trips, and within four hours, I’m back in this liberal, hippie bubble that we live in in the Bay Area.
JB: The sun is shining, and the palm trees are swaying.
PS: Totally. And I find it comforting, and I love it. At the same time, so much of it is not in line with how I want my life. In a lot of ways, I create this environment for myself, like the phone number, that harks back and references this nostalgic America. I don’t know…
In a lot of ways, I’m antiquated, and still not in touch with the way things really are. But, whatever. It’s this weird world that I’ve created for myself. I assume it’s idealized in a lot of ways.
JB: Let’s go into that world a little bit. I’m looking at the “Subscription Series Number 1” on your website, which I assume is the project we were just talking about, without naming it.
That’s the first time I see Mike Brodie’s name pop up on the website, and it was put out in 2006.
JB: I’m going to go ahead and assume that people will know who Mike is, without having to do a lot of backstory. I’ve reviewed his first book, by Twin Palms, and he’s had a ridiculous amount of success in the last few years.
How did you guys meet? How did you come to become friends and collaborators?
PS: I was introduced to Mike through a friend of ours: Monica. Mike would travel through Oakland, and Monica lived in a punk house that we’d go to and hang out at, they would have parties and shows there. He’d stayed there a couple of times, and she told me, “This kid comes through town, and he’s great. His name is Brodie, and he’s got all these Polaroids with him.”
At the time, I shot a lot of Polaroid stuff. It was natural, and that simple. There was a party at the house, I think it was actually Monica’s birthday. My good friend DV and I were there. We all just hung out, I remember I made a photo of Brodie that night with his dog Pucci. My wife recently put it in this special cabinet at home. Brodie looks like he’s 12 years old in the photo now!
I told him to bring some Polaroids next time he was in town, and he did, so we sat there and talked about them. He was showing me these Polaroids he was getting while he was traveling, and I was already becoming versed in the Fine Art world. I was hearing terms like “archiving,” because of school. You know?
PS: I was like, “Archiving. OK. Acid free.” I said to him, “OK, why don’t you send me these Polaroids, and I’ll archive them and for you, and catalogue them. Because I think these things are pretty incredible.”
He and I started hanging out. He was younger than me, and I had a little more knowledge than he did at the time, so I was kind of…
JB: Big brother?
PS: Maybe A little bit. Maybe like I could help this kid, in some way, because I was pretty sure he was going to get steam-rolled pretty soon. Based on how good these things are. That’s all.
He and I became pretty fast friends, so when he came through town, he’d stay with me. I enjoyed his stories.
There were other things happening. I got in a gallery around the same time, so I was really getting into the art world. I was seeing prices, and how important art became on the secondary market. Understanding and learning the habits of collectors.
When I was thinking about the stuff that Brodie was making, I thought there was probably an opportunity for us to collaborate a little more than just hanging out as friends, and looking at photos. He had no interest in the art world whatsoever, and I did, so I thought maybe he and I could work out some sort of system.
I could help oversee things, and help ensure that they were done properly. Not butchered.
JB: It’s come across in the interview that you have a good business mind, to go along with your work ethic. But if I understand things right, the creative collaboration worked both ways.
PS: That’s exactly right. At one point, he was traveling in Georgia, and was spending time in an abandoned prison. When you’re 23, it sounds really fun to go to an abandoned prison.
He found all these mug shots, and sent them back to me, and said, “You got to look at these. They’re incredible.” And I looked at them, and I thought they WERE incredible.
I don’t know if you’ve pulled this together, but I have a real interest in vernacular photography. I think a lot of people do at this point. I’m interested in found photography, and re-contextualizing images that were never intended to be seen in certain ways.
How history can re-shape the meaning of photographs. I love all that stuff. So this was really up my alley, and he knew that, so he sent them to me in a big, beat up box. My nature is to organize and archive, so I began immediately to put them into groups and categories, to make sense of it. Because there are hundreds and hundreds of them.
I made categories: Black guys, white guys, old guys, young guys. I wanted to make some sense of what he sent me. Eventually, I edited the images to become a book with the conceptual approach that I was choosing images with likeness to myself. That in an almost Becher-esque way, you could see all the images and get a generic idea of the Author. In this case, me.
JB: It’s funny, because you keep using the word archive, and the word we haven’t used yet is appropriation. I’m constantly surprised that the idea of appropriation is still as dangerous and edgy to some people as it seems to be. You know?
Richard Prince is held up as a god and a devil, depending on which side of the fence you sit. Is that something that you were thinking about at the time, with this work? You mentioned archiving and vernacular, so that makes me think maybe it wasn’t a conscious decision on your part to say, “I’m appropriating this. I’m taking it, and making it mine.”
PS: It’s interesting. Appropriation, in my mind, has a negative connotation to it. So I think earlier, I said re-contextualizing, which is another way of saying appropriating. I archived and organized, at first. Then afterwards, when I was making the book, it certainly can be argued that yeah, I appropriated those photos for my own artistic enjoyment.
I certainly did that.
JB: Yeah, I think you’re probably right that it’s seen as a pejorative term, but the process is so well-established within the tradition of art that I almost wonder whether we’re selling the word short.
Frankly, I had a different read when I saw the pictures as over-sized prints on the wall at Pier 24 than I did with the book. I much preferred the hand-held experience.
PS: Yeah. Books and prints have very little in common. They are very distinct and separate experiences to me.
JB: That’s why I wanted to talk to you about this. Aside from the word itself, do you think that it ought to still be controversial, in 2015, when people have been doing it successfully and intelligently for decades?
PS: I personally don’t see any problems with it. It’s a response to the appropriation that happens every day on the Internet. My personal belief is that we live in a time, for better or worse, where images are made, consumed, and used by everyone at all times.
We live in a borderless, fenceless, Wild, Wild West when it comes to images online. It sounds arrogant and pompous, because it is, but my job as an artist, as a person who thinks about and consumes photography at every level, as a person who attempts to contextualize images in our culture, my job is to use images any way that I feel is responsible and appropriate
There might be repercussions from that, but that’s a world we live in now. (pause.) Now I’m thinking about what I just said. Certainly, if there’s copyright on things, that’s a legal binder to an artist and complicates this whole conversation above my pay grade and expertise.
(pause.) Hey look, can we chalk it up and say I don’t know the answer. I’m just reacting. I’m doing what I do, and I don’t necessarily know the answer to your question.
JB: I wanted your opinion, and you gave it. It’s a great opportunity to talk with someone who’s working with that practice, and doing it well. How could I not want to touch on that in the interview?
But there are other things I’d like to talk about. Let’s jump back into photobook publishing, before our brains burn out.
JB: Both Rob and I thought this thing was really, really dynamite. Creative, smart, political, positive. You’ve been publishing for ten years, and now it seems like you’re in a place where you’re almost re-inventing what a photobook could be. Do you think that’s a fair statement?
PS: Well, yes. But also no, in the fact that I wish you had a copy of my first book, and it wasn’t much more than a bunch of glued together postcards. So I really have always had that idea that a photobook is not what we’re told a photobook is. How it’s experienced. The materiality of it.
A large portion of what I do with TBW are these limited editions. They’re objects in a way that’s interactive, and sculptural. I have parts that are machined by motorcycle builders. I’d like to hope that the work I’m doing with TBW is always questioning the format of books.
This particular project, “Assignment Number 2,” was just a great opportunity to explore and think about what this thing should be. It went through many different incarnations, in the design phase. That project was 3-something years in the making, and it was always talked about that it was going to be a book.
We just finally got to a point where it just was telling us it didn’t want to be a book. You’re photographing that yellow-hand-written paper against a black backdrop, so you can lay it out on a page. Then, against a white backdrop. Then, it’s against concrete, which will reference the idea of a prison cell.
Nothing’s working. It’s not feeling right. At some point you just say, “What we need to do is reprint it at scale, page for page. That’s the way it wants to be.” It needs the tactile, interactive experience, so that the person can get the sense of what this thing is.
So you come to that conclusion. It’s an organic, natural process when designing a project, where you say “OK, so if we have this yellow paper, we have 10 of them, and it looks exactly like his original paper, then how do we bind it into the hardcover book?”
It’s not enough pages. It’s not in signatures, so we can’t stitch it. We don’t want to staple the side of it.
JB: It’s a process.
PS: It’s a process and you have to trust the process. The real story is, I was going to FedEx, and I go to these really great ladies near my house, to drop off my packages. They’re these old school ladies that have this packing and shipping store. You know those stationary store type places?
PS: I went in and asked, “Anne, do you have any old clips?” Because everything in there is from the 70’s. Dead stock. I asked for clips for a binder folder, and she pulled out three different options.
So I had one of each, and one of them happened to have those old two-hole punches. So we mocked it up, and I said, “What if we just punched it two times, and put in a folder like this? Actually, that feels really good. That feels right. Let’s do that.”
Then, we’ve got into developing and aging this folder. That’s the process. I’m as excited these days about the design of these things. Coming up with those solutions.
For a lot of people, the dream is to be a photographer. You travel the world, you make photographs. And that’s it. You know this.
JB: I know this.
PS: 99% of what you do as a photographer is not photographing. The actual photographing, or working with photos, is very limited. Most of it is going to Fed Ex and trying to find the exact two hole punch.
So in the process of designing this, we wanted it to have this exterior feeling. Really grubby, dingy, worn out. And then the inside you open it up, and you have these perfect reproductions of Hiroshi Sugimoto and Richard Misrach photos.
How do you achieve that? We sampled out all these papers, and we found a manufacturer who did double-sided paper. One side uncoated, and the other with a gloss UV varnish.
That whole process: How does a viewer see this? How do they touch it? How do they open it? What’s the feeling they get when they slide it out of the package? If they open this flap first, what are they presented with?
There’s a whole process to looking at books. You know this as a reviewer. You look at them in a certain way, in a certain environment. Are you standing up, or are you sitting down? Are you drinking a beer, or are you not?
I take all these things into consideration. Who is my audience? How are they going to experience this? I love, love, love thinking about all those things.
JB: It comes across. I kind-of wanted to hear you say that stuff, because, in my experience, these things are never arbitrary. They can’t be.
PS: That’s right.
JB: When something works that well, I wanted to hear you talk about all the thought that goes into it. You must have learned quite a bit about process these last ten years, or am I assuming incorrectly?
PS: My process has never changed. Now, I’m balancing this thing where I have to run a business now. I know through your writing that you have kids too. I have a kid now.
Things change when there are real life issues that need to be dealt with, so I’ve had to make certain adjustments that I wouldn’t have made before.
It used to be, “Hey, I’m going to hand stamp all these covers, and if it takes me three weeks, all night long, I’m happy to do that.
And I thrived on that. But now, I can’t do that, because I have these other things that I have to pay attention to. I’ve had to make certain decisions, in production, and how to stream-line day-to-day business, to make it more efficient.
But I still am doing insane things that make no sense. Like hand-stamping that cover with the date, and the red tornado that you talked about.
PS: I’m not kidding when I say I tested that hand stamper 100 times, so that I learned when I stamped it, to twist it at the same time, so that it smudged. Lester, who runs the office, said, “Why are you stamping it twice?” I said, “I think, from a design perspective, it looks more interesting if the date is there, and then also there’s this weird red smudged date. As if the person who stamped it made a mistake.”
And he just looked at me like, “If you want to stamp it twice, go ahead.”
PS: So I was stamping it twice. Here’s the thing: the reason that I started hand stamping things is because on that first book I did, “Good by Angels” I didn’t have a budget to print a cover.
So I found a printer, and they were like, “Here’s what we’ll print for you. And if you want a 4 color cover printed, it’s this much more. If you want black and white, it’s this much more. I said, shit, I don’t have any money. So what I’m going to do is buy a rubber stamp with my title on it, and I’ll hand stamp them to save money.”
I had this book at the time, called “The Self-Publish Bible,” or something like that, and there was literally 10 commandments. One of them was, “Make sure that your title can be read from 10 feet away. Use a bright color, and bold font, so that when it’s on the shelf in the book store, people flock to it like a moth to a flame.”
I thought, this is insane. This book is not going to be in a book store, so that doesn’t apply to me whatsoever. So in an antagonistic approach, I did my cover black on black in a Old English font. You could just see it slightly reflecting in the sunlight, but I hand-stamped them all, and that became this thing that I’ve done ever since.
Each one is subtly different. Now I have the resources to print 4 color covers, and we did. On “Assignment Number 2,” all that weathered edging is printed 4 color. So all I had to do was make a stamp logo with the date, and print that on there too, and it would have eliminated me hand-stamping thousands of covers.
JB: You’re risking carpal tunnel syndrome for your creativity.
PS: (laughing) Exactly. But I was really driven to be able to provide something that was subtly unique to each person. I think it’s awesome that on the review copy you got, it looked like a tornado. Somebody else buys it, reads your review, and thinks, “Why doesn’t mine look like a tornado.” And then they say, “Oh shit, mine doesn’t look like a tornado because they’re different. Are these hand-stamped? Who on Earth would hand-stamp these? Why? What does it matter?”
Well, when you think of an institution like San Quentin prison, and you think of the office there, there’s some lady there who got the thing, and received it on July 18th and…stamped it. That’s why. You know what I’m saying? That’s why. Because that makes sense with what we’re trying to get across in that project.
I love all that stuff. I want to tell you one other thing, because I want you to understand why these things are in my head. I told you earlier that I would order records direct from record labels when I was younger.
PS: I ordered a record a long time ago, and it had a white booklet with the lyrics of the song. Some photographs. And really delicately placed on the sleeve, and some of the pages, were these perfect, black fingerprints. And, I thought, “Oh my god, this is the best design ever. Somebody subtly took fingerprints, scanned them, adjusted the levels, and printed these fingerprints to reference a ghost. Or a person of the past, flipping through.
It fell in line with the aesthetic of the band. It made sense. I thought, “This is brilliant design. I love it. Super-smart. Super-subtle. Super-beautiful and poetic.”
Well, flash forward 8 years, and I was having a hard time. I was pissed off at the world, needed some cash, and sold all my records. I quickly realized that was a mistake, and went on the hunt to buy back the records that were important.
I ordered that record again, and I open it up: no fingerprints. I was totally crushed, because I realized that there wasn’t a smart designer that designed this with these fingerprints. But I was also amazed that someone had flipped through the booklet, and it got slipped back into the pile and packaged, and my record was unique in that way.
PS: I thought I’d bring it up. Those nuances are so powerful, and I try to put that into the books that I make now. Whether or not anybody gets it, or cares, I don’t know.
But for me, it’s that important.
JB: Don’t they stay that about Apple? That their engineers always want the innards that nobody will ever see to be as elegant and efficient as the design is outside?
PS: I heard the story that Steve Jobs said, “This motherboard is cluttered, and has to be redone,” and someone said, “No one’s ever going to see it,” so he fired them.
JB: Urban legend.
PS: There’s a madness to it. An arrogance to it. But maybe a reason for it? I don’t know.
JB: I don’t believe these things are accidental. When people are willing to do the kinds of things that you’re talking about: take risks, stay true to themselves, meld the different parts of their personality into a holistic object, people can tell.
They might not be able to break it down in the specific way that you build it up, but it’s communicated properly, and they understand they’re looking at something powerful. Something that’s really well built.
When you break it down for the readers, you’re giving them an opportunity to think a bit about these ideas might impact their work, and their careers.
You talk about paying attention to the smallest details, and no one would know this, but our interview was briefly interrupted when my phone line went down. And I didn’t need to go back to check my email to find your phone number.
510-444-BOOK. It was embedded in my brain. Like it or not.
PS: Man, I like that!
JB: True story. And thanks so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
Above door entering TBW Books offices, Oakland Ca.
Packing station,TBW Books, Oakland Ca.
Detail of Subscription Series #4, TBW Books
Detail of wall above packing station, TBW Books, Oakland Ca.
Every era gets the catch phrase it deserves. Just think about “Where’s the beef?” Remember that cranky old lady on the Wendy’s commercials? Of course you do. That it happened during the 80’s, when actors like Stallone and Schwarzenegger were beef-caking up the movie theaters?
Not a coincidence.
By now, you know my own catchphrase like you know the pixel count on your new iPhone. I always talk about the 21st Century Hustle. Hustle this, hustle that. I might as well be Huggy Bear strutting down the street in Starsky and Hutch, for all I talk about hustling.
What does it look like in real life though? I could tell you about how many different jobs I do in a given day, or a given week. But that would sound like complaining. Which I don’t want to do.
It just so happens that I bumped into the perfect embodiment of the 21st Century Hustle a couple of weeks ago, in Santa Fe. I was standing there, minding my own business, when WHAM, a hustler’s moment cracked me in the head like a steroidal cop’s blackjack.
I was at an after-party for a friend’s art opening. I’d already done 5 errands in 2 hours, including a futile search for a hoodie at Target. So I was pretty burnt, by evenings end.
Not such huge coincidence, as it’s a small town, but still. I was there, they were there, so we started talking. I’d met Brad briefly at Review Santa Fe in 2009, but not seen him since. I’ve bumped into Jamey 50 times since then, but we rarely chat at length.
Here was our moment.
Brad began telling us what it was like to go viral, and have his work everywhere, as it is now. Jamey and I had each had similar experiences, so we offered up our own coping strategies.
We kept talking. That’s what you do at parties.
But then, ten minutes or so into the chat, the guys both started talking about how they got their most recent book deals. And neither of them had to put up any money for the production. They were giving me serious details. Inside information.
My brain switched into journalist mode quicker than Obama would punch Vlad Putin flush in the face, if given the opportunity. It happened so quickly, I wasn’t even aware of it at first. But it wasn’t on the record…we were just chatting. The 21st Century Hustle says you don’t care. You go for the story. Period. (Everyone’s got to get paid.)
So I asked a bunch of more specific questions, and at the end, right before I had to head to my car, I asked the guys if we could consider the chat on the record. Could I write it up, so that you, the audience, could get the benefit of their accrued wisdom?
Classy guys, they both said yes.
Here we go.
Jamey had his first book published by Nazraeli Press a few years ago. They did a great job, and Jamey didn’t have to put in any of his own funds. How did it come about?
Turns out, Jamey first met Chris Pichler, the publisher, at Photo LA a while back. He was encouraged to go hand him a MagCloud booklet of his popular project, “The Bridge at Hoover Dam,” in which he had documented the creation of a major American infrastructure project.
Jamey didn’t want to hand it off like that, as it seemed too forward, but he was strongly encouraged to do it. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Pichler told Jamey he had never, ever published a book from someone who approached him randomly like that. Jamey, who is typically very diplomatic, made a rare faux pas and said something rude in return.
Bridge burned, he assumed. (Pun intended.)
Fast forward a couple of years, and he had a portfolio review with Mr. Pichler in Palm Springs early in the morning of the last review day. Luckily, the first meeting, brief as it was, had been forgotten. Jamey put Mr. Pichler at ease by saying that he knew he chose his books based upon a personalized set of criteria, so he was not looking to be published. Just wanted some feedback.
If you don’t know, letting people know you don’t want something from them is a great way to chill them out. It worked here, and Mr. Pichler offered to publish the project in short order. They also worked out an agreement where the funding Jamey sought and received from the Bridge’s chief engineering firm was used to create a special edition of the book for the company. They got to give out the “special edition” books as gifts. (The win-win is such a feature of the 21st C, I’ve found.)
When it came time for his second book, a series about the massive Ivanpah solar field in California, Jamey first approached Nazraeli Press about its interest. Though now good friends, Chris Pichler took a pass on the new project. Jamey also pitched another publisher he respected, but they also passed. (Which was fortunate, as they’re known for requiring photographers to spend a very large sum to get a book published.)
He did receive interest from another relatively new publisher, but the deal would also have necessitated significant funding. This seemed counter-intuitive to Jamey, based on his initial book publishing experience, and his belief in the new body of work.
Jamey felt he could do better.
He decided to give it a shot with Steidl, the gold standard of the photo book publishing world. As it transpired at the party, Brad knew the ending of this story, but I didn’t. So I got to express my surprise in real time.
Jamey hired a very reputable book designer to help him make a BLAD, an industry term for a mockup. Once done, they made a digital version as well. Jamey then set up a series of digital download incarnations, including Dropbox and WeTransfer. He was meticulous, he told me, and made sure it was absolutely perfect.
Then, having invested time and money into the potential book, he emailed it directly to Gerhard Steidl. How did he get the email address, I asked? It’s right on the website, apparently.
Jamey got an automated response the next day saying that they don’t accept digital submissions, so could he please submit a traditional paper version. But the next day, he got notification that the digital submission had been downloaded by Mr. Steidl. (Thank god for notifications, I suppose, which are normally annoying as hell.)
An hour later, he got an email saying that they wanted to publish the book. WTF? I bet he hollered louder than a drunk Texan skiing fresh powder, when he read that note.
Now, before I paint a picture that the book is free, so he’s the big winner of 2014, hold tight. Jamey told me he books helicopter time in massive amounts to get the aerial photos he seeks. He is a successful commercial photographer, but still, that shit costs money. So he invested in the work itself, and then in the preparations for a book, in order to get the end result he wanted.
“It takes money to make money” is a tenet of business for a reason.
Brad’s story is similar. He spent a bunch of his own resources hiring animal trainers, and traveling the country, as I speculated in the book review a few weeks ago. It was money he earned in his day job as a commercial photographer, but he chose to reinvest it in his art. This was a project he had to make, and it took three years.
At some point, a gallery in London had heard of his work, and bookmarked his website. They were negotiating with another fine-art animal photographer for gallery representation, but the deal fell through. They happened to go back to Brad’s website, saw that he had the new “Affinity” project up, and they offered him a contract and subsequent exhibition forthwith.
Brad decided to go all in, and made the prints 40×60, framed in museum glass, for the London exhibition. The cost was steep. But the show was a big hit, and the gallery hired a PR firm to get the word out. Brad specifically asked them to target book publishers, as he was hoping to make a book out of the project. And he knew he was putting his best foot forward.
Sure enough, a representative from Prestel came to the show, was smitten, and offered Brad a book deal. Like Steidl, they don’t ask the artist for any contributions. And they even gave Brad an advance. Very unlike the stories we’ve been warning you about, where less reputable publishers will take your $30,000-$50,000, as long as you have it.
Each artist stressed to me that they felt like this happened to them because they’d been working towards it for a long time. Separately, they each spoke of talent alone as an over-rated concept. You have to buckle down and be patient, if you’re going to get anything achieved.
They both put themselves in a position for good things to happen, they said, rather than feeling like they got lucky.
Each project was done out of passion and necessity. They invested their resources in themselves, because they believed if they were interested in the stories they were telling, others might be too. They had faith in themselves, but also told me they weren’t worried about outcomes while they were making the work.
Both guys were making photographic projects based upon major changes being wrought during the early stages of the 21st C. (Disappearing wildlife, emerging alternative technology.) They both found that things worked out in the end. (What? I’m American. I like happy endings.)
The moral here, though, is that nobody gets off for free. I accept that. When we make art, we invest time, money, psychic energy, and sometimes more than that. There are no guarantees.
Brad and Jamey both echoed each other, with respect to their attention to detail, serious preparation for when the moment was right, and a willingness to bet on themselves. I think we can all learn from that.
“Passion and Purpose” – The credo put forth by Robert Frank as the necessary ingredients to creating successful and meaningful photography. I would add to that another, “Perseverance”. In any endeavor it would be impossible to attain true success without Passion and Purpose. Many photographers exhibit either passion, purpose or perseverance but the ones that succeed exhibit all three.
To create a successful photography book you must exhibit these three traits. Your work must have a purpose, it must communicate and strike a chord with the audience. This will be impossible if you are not passionate about your pictures and it will not get done if you can not persevere through some failure. Good work requires one to take risks and everyone who takes risks occasionally fails, however those failures can and will make you stronger if you allow them to.
I strongly recommend you research the work which has preceded you. Look at the masters’ books and then look some more. Determine what it is about these books that makes them successful. You’ll see lots of passion on those pages, the work will have a purpose and clearly exhibit such. It will strike a chord with the viewer and hopefully initiate a creative or intellectual a response from them. If you wish to have some of that limited shelf space allotted picture books then your work must elicit a strong response.
Assuming you have a strong body of work it needs to be edited into a stronger body of work to meet this publishing criteria. Editing is a very important component to creating a cohesive and strong book. It is also a very difficult process. We all know how hard it is to toss a picture we love because it just doesn’t fit. We all become infatuated with the newness of recent pictures or those that proved technically difficult. Unfortunately no one cares how hard it was technically for you to complete, or how fresh the picture is to you. It is the content that matters and good editing will assure that your content is as strong as it can be. Many of us tend to work in a vacuum, focused on the task at hand while completing a series of pictures. Once photography is completed it is very helpful to get a second or even third opinion on the book edit. You may find you need to create some new pictures to round out the book. I appreciate working with a good picture editor and find that their contribution manifests itself in the success of the book. If you are serious about your project I encourage you to solicit the help of an experienced picture editor working in your genre.
Keeping the work as simple and honest as possible works best. This does not mean you need to make simple pictures but rather should strive to eliminate any element that does not contribute to the purpose of the picture and subsequently also the book. Adhere to the credo that you are only as good as your weakest link. Show less but stronger pictures that engage the audience, don’t over tell the story. Leave a little open to interpretation for the audience to connect with.
Work with the best designer you can and be sure they are as passionate about the book as you are. It’s their work on those pages that will show yours in the best light possible. I like simple design. I adhere to the Bauhaus principle of “less is more”. I believe good design is unobtrusive and efficient but also compelling. Remember you are making a picture book and it is about the pictures. No amount of flashy design can mask poor picture content.
The decision to self publish or work with a publisher can only be made by you. It’s your book and your career. The same goes for ebook vs ink-book. The ebook has made it easy for anyone to put together a “book”. I use ebook format as a e-maquette editing tool. It helps to see content in order and adjust accordingly. While I am not affiliated with any companies I find the new version of Lightroom® 5. to be very accommodating in this regard. If you are not familiar with the Lightroom® book options you may wish to investigate it.
Publishing is a business. Businesses need to turn a profit and while some publishers are quite passionate about their titles and authors they never loose sight of the bottom line. This is responsible business practice and necessary for success. A first time author is a big risk. Picture books present even more risk as they are very expensive to produce. Publishing is also a tough business and getting tougher therefore the risk allowance is diminishing. Many publishers will ask a first time author to guarantee a return on investment. Requesting the author either purchase a quantity of books or contribute financially to the volumes production costs. It’s not unheard of to request a first time author pay all costs associated with producing the book.This is in addition to the cost of producing the original photography for the book. Adding up all these associated expenses makes it apparent that publishing a book can become quite an expensive endeavor. This will test your passion.
Be prepared for non appropriate deals to come your way from publishers and have the strength to say no to them. You have no negotiating power if you are not prepared to walk away from a deal. I encourage the first time author to be patient and wait for the right deal, to persevere. It took 7 years to get the right deal for my first book. It was frustrating at times but I am very pleased I waited for the right publisher to work with. Beware the vanity press that exists solely to profit from production of your book. Once they have delivered your book you will find yourself all on your own. I consider producing a book a partnership with the publisher, a joint effort with mutual benefit.
The advantages of working with a publisher are many and beyond the scope of this essay to allow for me to detail each. The most important benefit you gain by working with a publisher is credibility. Self publishing and vanity presses fall short on the credibility front. However vanity books can be viewed as promotional pieces and work within that venue for the assignment photographer, but only if done very well. However as an author credibility is very important and quite frankly the best return you will find from publishing a book is the credibility it affords you, the author. What you will get with a good book is a piece that, if used properly, will open doors for career growth.
Unfortunately as previously outlined there is no substantial author income to be had from your book. This is true whether you self publish or work with a publisher. If you are making a book with the intent of generating an income you will be disappointed. If income is your only goal invest the money and time elsewhere. You make a book because you have to, you are passionate about doing so. In my workshops and seminars I break down the associated costs of book making, the business of publishing and the ways you can use your book to help generate a livelihood. Remember the credibility associated with authoring a good book tops the list for opening doors to further opportunity.
Some of the advantages to working with a publisher are less or no financial risk, distribution and warehousing services ( you don’t want a garage full of 5000 books and be running to the Post office for every order ), guidance in editing, quality book design, production expertise and solid marketing. I cant stress this enough. Publishers want your book to succeed. Remember it’s all about the bottom line for them and sales of your books make a better bottom line. In addition more sales of your book means more credibility for you.
Self publishing has some merits as well. If you should be fortunate enough to create a best selling book your profits will be substantially better. You may actually recoup all the original photography and book production expenses and break even. That is a big “IF” however, and quite hard to almost impossible to do with out a publishers expertise behind it. Another advantage, if you view it as such, is that you will have complete control over the edit, design, production specs, warehousing, distribution, marketing and PR. However you will also have the expenses and responsibilities associated with the above. I am biased to working with a publisher. I am a photographer. I focus upon making pictures and let others more experienced than I in book production deal with the publishing aspects of making books.
WORKING WITH A PUBLISHER
If you decide to approach publishers here are several key items you need to know to assure your book receives the best possible opportunity to get published. I have outlined these below.
Define your goal with the book.
What is it you want from the book? Write down your goals think about them and be specific.
Select a topic that has a purpose.
Research is very helpful here. Look at where there are gaps in the medium. Does there need to be more coverage of a certain genre.
Select a topic you are passionate about.
People can feel if you are passionate about your pictures. Passion is conveyed by your demeanor but even more so from your pictures. If you are not passionate about what you are working on stop working and find something you are passionate about to do.
Be sure the book engages the audience.
Tell the story in your voice. Lead don’t follow, but never loose sight of who your audience is or you will loose them.
Estimate production costs of photography.
Be sure you can complete the book before you start. Find funding if needed through grants or corporate sponsorship.
Remember you are only as good as your weakest link. A great picture diminishes when in the company of mediocrity.
You never get it perfect the first time.
Go ahead and edit a third time.
And rarely on the second.
Create a maquette or book dummy (these are the same thing but “maquette” sounds smarter).
“Maquette” is French defined as a sculptor’s rough test sculpture done before hitting the marble or casting the bronze. The maquette is very important in bookmaking. It is a rough of the book made prior to publishing. It’s also a very tricky item to get right as you want it to be rough but also enticing. Too finished and the publisher may feel pigeonholed and limited in input. Too loose and they may not be enticed to investigate further. I recommend you share a few pages from the book as a maquette, a “this is what I was thinking” sample and follow up with a color corrected and detailed PDF of just pictures. You may find other avenues better suited to specific publishers. Read the publisher’s submission criteria and adhere to it.
Research publishers that are appropriate for your work.
Like photographers publishers specialize. Fashion, documentary, landscape, reportage, narrative are all genres that some publishers limit themselves to. Be sure the publishers you contact are appropriate for your book. They like knowing you do your research as well.
Respectfully approach publishers with the maquette.
Publishers are dedicated hard working people trying to survive in a dwindling and ever more competitive marketplace. It’s a tough job, be nice to them.
Negotiate a favorable contract for all.
Be sure you are happy with the deal you make. You will live with it. I assure you the publisher will be comfortable with any deal they make. You want a pleasant and honest partnership surrounding your book.
Be realistic in negotiations and prepared to walk away.
What are you getting from the publisher in exchange for all your hard work, original photography financial investment and passion? Be sure they have a finely tuned operation capable of supporting you and your book. Design, production quality, warehousing, distribution, marketing, PR, and payment are the areas you should be concerned with. Ask other authors about the publisher. Bring up these areas when negotiating with the publisher. If you are a first time author it’s a tougher go negotiating.
I doubt the first publisher who sees your book maquette will publish it. Probably not the second, third, fourth, fifth….. You can not let rejection be a reflection upon the merit of your book or more importantly you. There are many publishers and most won’t be right for your book. When your book is rejected politely ask what it that the publisher is looking for. If you see a common denominator from publishers possibly adjust your book to eliminate the problem.
I hope this brief and opinionated synopsis proves beneficial to those of you wishing to publish a picture book. While extremely difficult, authoring a picture book is a rewarding, satisfying undertaking. Your book can serve as the instrument to inform, elicit response, effect positive social change and open doors for you to continue to do even more with your pictures. Just remember these three words and you’ll be off to a good start: Passion, Purpose and Perseverance.
Carl Corey is the author of three books; “Rancher” – Bunker Hill 2007, “Tavern League” – WHS Press 2011 and “For Love and Money” – WHS Press 2014. He is the recipient of over 100 awards from the photographic and publishing communities including the Crystal Book Award for Best Photography Book 2012, National Best Sellers Award 2012, INDIE Publishers Award of Excellence 2014, Pub West Gold 2012 and Foreward Top Ten. He presents group seminars and teaches one on one workshops.
This is the first in a series of interviews I’m conducting to promote my seminar at the 2012 Photo Plus Expo titled “Making a Career in Editorial Photography”. I’ve got 3 editorial photographers at the top of their game who I’m going to interview on stage about their careers and marketing methods. If you’re going to PPE, join Chris Buck, Jake Chessum, Martin Schoeller and me on Friday, October 26th from 1:30 to 3:30 pm.
Chris is somewhat of a regular around here, I really enjoy checking in with him, because he’s always honest with his answers. He’s got a new book out called Presence (get yours here), so I asked him all about creating it and finding a publisher. I know you will enjoy his insight into the process.
Rob: I remember from our previous interview that you place a lot of importance on personal projects and the promotional value you get from them. Can you talk about that and how you go about finding those projects?
Chris Buck: First, I’m trying to think of something that will be original, that’s a big part of it.
Rob: I was going to ask, does originality trump everything for you?
Chris: When I think of something interesting, I automatically assume that it’s been done already. This is a struggle for a photographer at any stage in their career – you want things that feel fresh and new, and not something that’s just a rehashing of what’s been done before.
But, one has to realize, nothing is entirely new, everything has a predecessor to it.
Rob: I gave up even writing about who copied who, because everything can be traced back further than the photographer who thinks they are the original.
Chris: I’ve attended lectures where well-regarded photographers talked about other photographers stealing their ideas and the whole time I’m thinking, “Seriously? You’re a legend. Get over it.”
Rob: A lot of the promotional and personal work that I see is photographers trying to put their own stamp on an idea that exists. I think it’s interesting that you are searching for an original idea completely.
Chris: That’s one thing I’ve realized when doing this and thinking about what I want to do next. Most photographers will find something interesting in the world and then construct a body of work around that. That’s not what I want to be doing and it’s not where I’m likely to make a unique stamp.
I’m going to do better by in my own quiet way, constructing something, or maybe constructing my own curious connection between things. I think that’s where my strength is.
A lot of the ideas I come up with, I’ve not done, because they’re not visual enough. They might be clever and funny, but they’re not visual.
Rob: Interesting, I hadn’t thought about it that way before. Before we get into this current project, how much does the end product play into it? You don’t just do this to entertain yourself. This is a business. This is part of the marketing. This is part of the business of Chris Buck photography, right?
Chris: Absolutely, but It’s hard to think about that until after I do it. There’s a certain level of faith that if I do interesting work and I put it out there, then work will come back my way.
Rob: Ok, let’s talk about this project. I want to know the germination of the idea, where it came to you. When did you realize that it was going to work, and that you needed to pursue this, and that you needed to talk all these celebrities during shoots into participating in your project? What was the beginning?
Chris: I was brainstorming ideas with my agent at the time (Julian Richards), and I had an idea that was very theoretical. It was just the idea of phoning it in. I liked the idea of literally not being on the set and giving instructions to an assistant, or whoever, as to what to do, what to tell the subject, and then whatever we got was the picture.
I liked it in theory, but I realized that the actual work itself would be wildly different based on who actually was on-set and did the execution, and also then, in most cases, it probably wouldn’t be very interesting.
And, just on a personal, selfish level, too, I wanted to control it. I didn’t want it to be entirely random, like a scientific experiment where the visuals wouldn’t have been that important.
So, I switched it. Rather than having me not there I decided to have the subject not there.
Initially, it was going to be a set where I just shot someone and they left. This is the room where I just shot George Clooney, or something. Then I realized it was a bit too esoteric, so I put the subject back in, which anchored it nicely.
Rob: Is this all happening in your head, or is this happening…?
Chris: This is hashing it out with Julian. Then the decision becomes, how much of them do we see?
Do we see an elbow and a top of a head? Are we seeing them peeking or something, and how much? Maybe not enough to recognize them, but enough to indicate where they are. But, I actually realized that I liked the cleanness of not seeing them at all. I also thought it was both funnier and a bit of a playful “F You,” to the audience.
Rob: [laughs] Oh God. I love that. We’re getting back to that, keep going.
Chris: I initially thought of it as a promotional piece, just 15 images in a little booklet, each one would be titled with the person’s name. It would be funny and kind of throwaway, and that would be the end of it.
The first one I shot was William Shatner, with these bales of hay. It was so rich with color and texture that I was like, “wow, even if a fraction of them are this interesting, this could actually have legs and become a full book.”
Rob: Tell me about the first shoot, though. The first time you told William Shatner what you were doing, and what you needed to do.
Chris: I’m pretty fearless about stuff like this, so, I just asked. Let’s put it this way, in my previous shoot with Shatner, I had him being arrested by two LA cops. So, asking him to hide in a scene was peanuts in comparison.
Rob: I remember from our previous interview, didn’t you ask him some other crazy things to do?
Chris: Yeah, I asked him to do a lot of crazy stuff and he just said, “No, I will not do that.”
Rob: So in comparison to what you normally ask celebrities to do, this is tame.
Chris: Right. Well, for one thing, they’re not even going to be visible. So it doesn’t matter how they look or what they’re doing. They can be crouching or standing, or whatever it is. It doesn’t matter , as we don’t see them.
Rob: Were some of the people reluctant? Thought it was stupid?
Chris: Well, a few of them kind of felt like, “If I’m not going to be in there, why waste my time with this?” But if they bothered to put up an argument, they ended up doing it. Because it mattered to me, and they just went with it. Whoopi Goldberg looked through my entire mock-up and she spent a good 10, 15 minutes on it and then wouldn’t do it.
I don’t really know what she was thinking. But she didn’t want to be part of it. Maybe she felt like she had worked hard to be visible and was not into being portrayed without being visible.
Rob: Then did some people get really into it and understand the whole concept?
Chris: Oh, some people totally got into it, and got really excited. Rainn Wilson I shot for New York magazine, and then afterwards I had him pose for the series. When he walked out of his hiding spot, he said, “We do a little business, we do a little art.”
Rob: So you finished the project. Tell me about approaching a publisher.
Chris: Well, I shot it in five years, and about three-and-a-half years into it, I began to look for a publisher. Remember, I contacted you early on asking you for some help and you have that list of publishers on your blog, which was one of my resources.
Basically, I made a list and started going down it. At first, I was approaching just one at a time, but pretty soon I was approaching three, four at a time. I’d go through a stack of mock-ups, and then I would stop and think, OK, what’s working, what’s not working? Then I’d make a new version of the mock-up.
In the end I made three different mock-ups, and was always improving on it. The last one I made with a designer and I hired someone to be my representative just for approaching the publisher (Alan Rapp).
Chris: Well, that’s because I had gone to seminars on how to do a photo book.
Rob: You went to seminars?
Chris: I’d gone to seminars over the years and it was made clear that one was expected to present the proposed book as a finished product – sequencing, layout, foreword or introduction, and cover design – everything.
One of the problems I think that I had with the publishers was it’s essentially an art book from someone who’s not an art photographer. They didn’t quite know where to put it. It’s a pop culture photographer making a fine art book, but they couldn’t sell it on my name as an art photographer.
Rob: Oh, I can see the pitch for sure. “A celebrity book?” “Yes.” “There’s no celebrities in it?” “Pass” [laughs]
Chris: Well, they’re in it. You just can’t see them.
Rob: Right. So, back to the process, because a lot of my readers will be interested in the book publishing part.
Chris: Basically, here’s the approach I took. I can put it very simply. I had never published a book before, so I didn’t really know that world. I knew editorial, and I knew advertising. I looked through my Facebook and through my general contacts, and I reached out to anyone I knew who had any connection to people who had been published
It was absolutely humbling and eye opening. It was such a good process for me. Not that I was arrogant, but I had a certain place in the editorial and advertising world and I had no place in the world of publishing.
Rob: Was that hard for you, to go back to square one after having your very successful career?
Chris: Well, the hard part is that while I’m well regarded in my field and have done well, a lot of people treated me really shabbily. Not responding at all or being rude.
Rob: Oh, my.
Chris: I found it surprising. You would expect people would at least think, “Maybe, I’ll cross paths with this person at some point in the future, I guess I should at least be polite.”
Rob: Absolutely. But, no that wasn’t the case?
Chris: Some people were, but many people weren’t. I found that amazing.
Rob: Right. Is that just publishing, they’re overwhelmed? They see so many projects that are horrible…
Chris: I don’t know. I think that these different areas are more separate from each other than we realize. Because my next step after that was trying to get a gallery, and that was the same thing just starting over from scratch. Again, contacting anyone I know who had ever had exhibitions in galleries at all. It’s contacting former assistants who are now as successful as me or more so.
Chris: Again, really humbling.
Rob: So back to the publishing. You had three mock-ups. You had an agent specifically for the book. You had gone through a series of publishers and then you finally found one who got the whole thing and was interested in you and the project. You just ran into them?
Chris: No, I did not run into them. What happened was I met with Darius Himes and Mary Virginia Swanson. They had just done a book called “Publish Your Photography Book”. I met with them as professional consultants and that’s what actually led to the introduction to Kehrer.
Rob: Can you tell me anything about the process of publishing the book? It’s a beautiful book.
Chris: Thank you. For people who are interested in doing a book, in terms of the actual execution of making it, I’d say the one thing that was a revelation to me in terms of the actual quality of the book itself, is that I made match prints for every visual for the book.
Now maybe that’s a norm, but when I was actually on press in Germany and the technician is working the machine he is standing there holding the match prints I made in New York. And, he did an amazing job of matching them. I went back and rescanned all the images from the original negatives and transparencies and worked on each file for hours at home. Then took them to Picturehouse.
B.J. DeLorenzo, who made the match prints there, would actually alter my files to make the match print look good he’d do what he had to do. Then those final files that made the match prints were the ones that went to the publisher.
Chris: The fact is I’m 99 percent happy with how the images look in the book because of the amount of care and time we put into making files I was happy with and then making match prints that matched those files.
Rob: So, how many did you print?
Chris: 1000 pieces.
Rob: Ok, that’s not very much.
Chris: It’s a small run. If people are serious about getting the book, they should get it sooner rather than later because it will sell out.
Rob: I want to go back to something that you said about the pictures being an “F-you” to the reader. How much of this project is in the outrageousness, the absurdity of taking pictures of celebrities where you can’t see them?
Chris: Well, it’s meant to be full on ridiculous and full on serious at the same time. I think that this ultimately comes across. I never even joke that the celebrity might not be in there. I take it very seriously. I spent five years shooting, two years looking for a publisher, and then a year and a half releasing the book.
Rob: Yeah, that’s no joke.
What about the fact that you’ve worked so hard and so long on a project that some people will think is the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen? [laughs]
Chris: I guess so. I like that.
Rob: Good, because I’m referencing the comments on article about the book on the “Huffington Post”.
Chris: Oh, God.
Rob: Do you enjoy that many people don’t get it?
Chris: Honestly, when I read through the comments, it actually is upsetting.
Chris: On a theoretical level, I like the idea that people think it’s a waste of their time or whatever. A lot of people obviously don’t understand what it is. One of the comments supporting me said something like, “This is a guy who’s been shooting celebrities for 20 years. You have to see the work in that context.”
I thought that was a nice way of framing it. But I don’t know. I mean, yes, at some level, it is fun that people dismiss it.
Rob: Well, it’s back to the “F-you.”
Chris: It’s never enjoyable to hear that people think you’re an idiot.
Rob: No. No. But there’s a little bit of “F-you” in the whole project, as you’ve said.
Chris: I suppose that I’m getting it back at me.
Rob: I think it’s an awesome project, and I do think it fits your personality so well. Obviously, as a promotional vehicle, it’s beyond the promo cards and the little booklets. It’s a full-on book that I assume you’ll be using it as a promotion as well as a part of your body of work.
Chris: Absolutely…but I do wonder. As I started Presence I was thinking, “OK, this is for creative directors and art directors in advertising who are top of the top, super creative, super imaginative, thinking outside the box. I want to show them I can really do work that’s outside the box.
Chris: Then I look at the finished thing. “What work on Earth would this ever lead to?”
Chris: In the long run I think it’s a really good thing only because I think it’s funny and it’s cool and it’s going to have a nice life to it.
Rob: Yeah, it’s memorable. It has great personality. It’s a standalone piece.
Chris: Even the relationship between the pictures and the names is actually relatively subtle. In a way people will complain and say, “I can see how the Jack Nicklaus one makes sense or the David Byrne one, but the rest of them…There’s no connection.”
I think that some people miss the point. When you look through the work you make your own connections. If you take it seriously and spend some time with it you can’t help but do that. That kind of subtlety will make the book interesting still in 10, 20 years.
Rob: After you launch this project is it just on to the next one? Have you already started the next one? You’ve got five years.
Chris: I’ve got other things going on, but I got a great piece of advice I got from someone who I reached out to in the book world who’s a curator and done a number of compilation books. She said, “One thing you have to do that a lot of artists don’t like is you need to stick with it. You worked hard to do this book. The book’s now done. Don’t just walk away because you’re bored with it”
I’ve taken that directive seriously. My New York book launch is going to be at the International Center of Photography, which took a lot of finagling and patience to pull off. I’m doing a book launch in Toronto in Canada, and doing a book signing in L.A., and I’m doing some workshops, and putting myself out there
I’ve seen friends do books where, the book comes out and does well, they get good buzz, but there are all kinds of other things they don’t do. They’re basically relying on inertia or word of mouth for their book to get played. I find that kind of shocking that someone is going to spend all that time and energy to make a book and then not put everything they can behind it.
Rob: Right. I mean, self-promotion is really difficult for artists and photographers.
Chris: It is. Maybe they feel like it’s below them to be doing that. I don’t know.
Rob: So, does anybody besides you and the assistant and obviously the celebrity know where they are on set and will you ever reveal that?
Chris: I will not reveal it. I don’t talk about where people are hiding. Obviously, my assistants and staff know where people were hiding. If they want to talk about it I don’t really care, but I’m not going to say.
I feel like the witness statement is enough. In fact, I purposely did not have the celebrities sign them. I wanted it to be someone who was observing. I felt like if the celebrities were signing for themselves then it’s almost too much proof.
A few weeks back I participated in Santa Fe Center’s Portfolio Bootcamp, a workshop they created to help photographers with their portfolio and portfolio presentation. The beauty of this event for me, was the diversity of the instructors: from editorial, to book publishing to curatorial. I always come away with a better understanding of how the other parts of the industry work. There was a great talk on the artist statement given by Katherine Ware Curator of Photography, New Mexico Museum of Art and Joanna Hurley President HurleyMedia, Co-Founder of Radius Books. You can read a summary on Joanna’s blog (here) which I recommend checking out if you need to write an artist statement.
As I was leaving the portfolio review session I overheard Joanna and Maggie Blanchard, Director of Twin Palms Publishers remark to each other how incredible it was that everyone wanted a photo book published. That stuck with me when I got home, so I decided to email Joanna and ask her “why does everyone think they need a photo book” and here’s her answer:
It’s interesting that in this digital age photographers still want a printed book of their work. They believe having a book will give them credibility as artists, and will open the door to opportunities and recognition with museums, curators and the general public.
That desire for recognition and acclaim is not new; what does seem new to me, looking at this from a perspective of 35 years in the publishing business, is that desire often overtakes perspective, and the sense of where one really is in one’s career as an artist, that is, where the work is, and whether or not it is truly ready for a book. While doing a book at the right time and in the right way can jump-start or revive a career, if you do a book too soon or at the wrong time, and without any kind of creative team behind you (such as a publishing company), then it can look like vanity because there has been no one objectively vetting the work and helping you shape its presentation into a coherent, well-designed narrative.
In our age of instant gratification and immediate communication, it is only natural for people to think that recognition of their talent should be accelerated as well, which can lead to the idea that projects may be ready to publish before they are. This rush to market––or bookmaking––can become detrimental to the development of an artist’s voice, and gravitas, and distract from thinking about and making the work itself. By the same token, the ease of communication and the many venues available to artists for sharing their work online can foster a wonderful dialogue that in the end can deepen and strengthen it.
In the end it boils down to the artist’s sense of himself and his creative process and when it is truly complete for a particular body of work. I do believe that a sense of self-awareness and perspective on one’s work are among the qualities that distinguish a truly great photographer or artist of any kind. I am mindful of a quote by Georgia O’Keeffe in talking about her work painting flowers, “to see a flower takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”
Photographers are definitely thinking of photo books in a different way than publishers. The large majority of photographers whom I talk with are relatively oblivious to the constraints under which publishers operate; they see it only from the vantage point of wanting a book and thinking they (and the world) are ready for it. They don’t understand that publishing is a business, so publishers are always looking for what will sell. For the large publishers, it’s generally either going to be a retrospective of a major artist, or a book on a well-known and perennially interesting subject.
The larger publishers operate much more like multi-national corporations (which most of them are), and thus have layers and layers of bureaucracy. It’s much harder for a single editor or even the publisher of a particular imprint such as Bulfinch, which is part of a larger company (Hachette), or even Abrams or Rizzoli (which are also owned by large, European conglomerates) to get permission to take a chance on a relatively unknown photographer or unusual project because of one simple fact: sales. Whereas those publishers need to sell upwards of 7,500 or 10,000 copies of a book to make it work financially for them, a smaller press can be quite happy with sales of 2-3,000––and often the decision to publish at a small press is made by one person.
That is definitely a big difference from the way the business operated when I first entered it. Now it’s the smaller presses who can be more nimble, and can take a chance on the work of an exciting, new talent who is presenting material and process in a new and very exciting way. The editors and publishers of these smaller presses basically act like curators. Their buyers are basically collectors of their books, and often so trusting of their taste, that these publishers can make someone’s career by their decision to publish them, in the same way that a curator can catapult someone to prominence by including their work in a show.
Speaking of photography books, Christopher Anderson has just released “Capitolio” which he claims is the first authored monograph photography book for the iPhone and iPad (here). I asked him a couple questions about it.
APE: I believe there are photobooks available as apps already so this is not the first is it?
CA: There are “photobooks” but they are all either collections of stock photography or something along the lines of a slide show that was put together for the ipad. The distinction I make is that it is the first authored monograph that was made for print and now has been translated to an “I” version. It may seem like a technicality outside the world of photo books, but it is a big difference for collectors, authors, and fans in general of photography books.
APE: Much of the value of a book comes from the printing, binding, paper and quantity that are made, essentially the cost to produce it. An app has none of this and in fact once you make one, the reproductions are free. Why would someone value the app over a book or in addition to the book?
CA: A book is the ultimate expression of the work, and obviously I count the original print version as the ideal original form of the book. But the technology got me thinking about how only a finite audience could see that end product where only 3,000 copies are printed and the price is out of reach for many people. By introducing the app version, I am democratizing the experience of the work by making it available to an infinite audience. And at 4.99 it is not a thing just for a certain elite. There are other implications as well such as the way that the book could now be used in an academic or educational setting. Perhaps the book could be used in a curriculum for photo students or, in the case of this book in particular, political science students for example. Yes, the print form is the consummate form, but now a wider audience can see it and understand the work how it was intended rather than just as a slide show on the web. Also, the app allows for added features such as a video interview that gives a deeper understanding of the work and a director’s cut of extra pictures.
APE: How does an app fit into the future of photobooks?
CA: As far as the future of photo books, I don’t really know, this is an experiment. But I imagine that the app version could ultimately drive sales of the print version…making it more valuable. It also might change the path of bringing a print version into existence. I could imagine a time where the existence of an ipad book might create a market for the print version. In other words, the app might become a successful self publishing model that could lead to a publisher making it into an actual printed book.
In my experience, every photographer would like a book of his or her work. It’s a given, like the misery of next month’s tax deadline. Whether we’re talking about an artist monograph proffered by an established publisher, or a 21st Century-style photo album of the family trip to Puerto Rico, everyone wants a book. Yet the process is complicated, and often opaque for the average photographer.
Mary Virginia Swanson, who’s had a long and illustrious career in the photography industry, and Darius Himes, a writer and co-founder of Radius Books, have just published Publish Your Photography Book, (Princeton Architectural Press) which I mentioned in my article about the PDN Photo Plus Expo this past fall. They allowed me to preview a pdf of the entire book earlier this winter, and agreed to answer some questions.
Suffice it to say, I think it’s a terrific resource, and well worth purchasing. The book is accessible, and laid out in an elegant manner that is easy to read. It’s a well-written, comprehensive look at the entire publishing process, from the conception of an idea through the marketing of a finished product. It also endeavors to push photographers to be honest about their desires and goals before embarking on what is obviously an arduous process. The authors have solicited expert opinions across a broad spectrum of the publishing industry, and include those other voices throughout the book. They also have a workbook section at the back, and an impressive trove of resources that will help a photographer realize their vision.
JB: The book mentions, and I would certainly agree, that all photographers would like to have their work printed in book form at some point. But I feel that many photographers, myself included, view a book as an abstraction. Publish Your Photography Book gives photographers the information necessary to move from idea to physical form. Was that one of your primary goals?
MVS: Yes, PYPB charts the path from concept through production to physical book to sales and marketing, and helps artists plan for extending the life of their title beyond its launch.
JB: Do you think that the rise in the market for photo books is actually a function of the power of the Internet? As images have become dematerialized, is it possible that photographers, long obsessed with the aging of paper, have become more invested in maintaining a connection to the history of the medium?
DH: While photobooks have had a growing collector’s market for decades, yes, I think that the Internet has played a huge role in the rise in the market. And it has played a correlative role in the interest in photography books. The publication of books like Andrew Roth’s Book of 101 Books, and the two Martin Parr and Gerry Badger volumes were extremely important in creating that interest. Market and interest are different things. The content of those books was created just ahead of the curve of the Internet marketplace.
Your suggested link between the “dematerialization” of images and the “history of the medium” as represented by photobooks is interesting, but not the full story in my opinion. What digital has done, and by digital I mean digital images and our being able to place them on, and send them around, the Internet, is to open up more possibilities for the medium. There are actually now more material ways to make a photograph, not less (as suggested by the word dematerialized). And while there is a heightened interest in some of the great photobooks of the past, there is more of a frenzy around everyone making books now, thanks to digital. So I don’t think book-making today is about a connection to the past so much as a flourishing of something very current. In many ways, the possibilities of digital print-on-demand have fed that.
JB: “Who do you want to reach, and what type of book will best access that audience?” is a direct question that you pose to your readers in the book. It’s a great point of entry to the process, and one that I think underpins the message of this book. The theme of asking difficult questions of oneself recurs throughout. So, allow me to turn it back to you. Your audience is very clear here. (Photographers.) I’m more curious about the why. Why did you want to publish this book, and why now?
DH & MVS: We wanted to publish a book that would be useful to photographers of all backgrounds and aspirations. Our column, which was written for the photo-eye Booklist (2004-2007) was successful and got people thinking about and talking about bringing their work to publication. Some of the updates include increased options for print on demand, the growing market for limited-edition books and e-marketing. We wanted to extend that conversation and expand the audience.
JB: You address your reader directly in this book. Why did you choose to adopt that format?
DH: It seemed the best way. It’s a book, essentially, about how to do something, so we addressed the people who want to do that something (ie the photographers).
MVS: And the “Industry Voices” featured in our book speak directly to our readers, sharing their area(s) of expertise and advice in a clear, direct way.
JB: I worked in the restaurant industry for many years, and it was obvious why so many restaurants don’t succeed. The balance of people management, food quality, service principles, attention to detail, graphic design, interior design, marketing, and business savvy are so rarely seen in one person. So when I read the following quote, “(Books) are also multifaceted objects requiring a range of skill sets to produce that you alone probably don’t possess,” it resonated. Do you think that photographers who go the POD route ought to consider bringing in some design or marketing experts to help ensure that the end result is worth the time and effort?
MVS: I admit to seeing many POD books by artists where the design is so bad it actually hurts the work, making a really poor first impression. I say seek professional help! A fine example is “My Brother’s War” with photographs by Jessica Hines, book design by Elizabeth Avedon (Blurb 2010)
DH: The quick answer to your question is yes.. But it’s a yes that is dependent on, again, what type of book do you want to produce, and what are your goals with that particular POD book? The bigger point you bring up is recognizing your strengths and weaknesses and learning how to build a team that can help you accomplish your goals.
JB: How big do you envision your potential audience?
MVS: All those who wish to produce an illustrated book featuring their artwork.
JB: How did the two of you divvy up the workload? Did you write collaboratively, or did each of you take responsibility for different sections of text?
DH & MVS: It was definitely a collaboration. At the beginning, before we had a clear sense of the final structure of the book, we created sections and each of us took lead on the sections that made sense. For instance, Section 4, The Marketing of Your Book was a natural for Mary Virginia. The First Section, The Photography Book Phenomenon, is an adaptation of a lecture and essay I had given over the past couple years, and therefore is mostly my words. But the whole book is written with a singular voice, which emerged in the authoring and editing process and there are not sections that can be called one or the others.
JB: Some ideas in this book do seem to transcend the subject matter. Like “Organization, organization, organization is the only way to stay on track…” Are each of you genetically pre-disposed to be organized, or is it a skill you have learned and cultivated? And if the latter, do you have any advice on how to improve one’s organizational capacity?
MVS: In my view, being organized speaks to the side of pursuing an art career—and wanting to create work such as a book—that requires you to think like a business. It’s like any business—being efficient, hard working and organized will help you achieve what you want to achieve. That is all.
DH: If you’re young, beg your parents to impose more discipline and a strong work ethic on you. You’ll thank them later. Advice on being more organized? Ask others to identify how you’re disorganized and then reflect on that, work to change it, and repeat that process. We all need help.
JB: Given that this book instructs photographers on all the aspects of the physical production, and stresses good typography and design, did you feel additional pressure to perfect the design of this book?
DH: Additional pressure? No. A natural self-imposed pressure because design is so important? Yes!
MVS: Designers David Chickey and Masumi Shibata brought an extraordinary elegance to our book, for which we are forever grateful. The fact that readers won’t be able to put it down is due in great part to their design sensibilities.
JB: This book began as a collaborative column between the two of you that was published in photo-eye Booklist. I haven’t had the opportunity to review that publication, so I was wondering if you might provide a bit of back-story about how the you came to work together?
DH: When Mary Virginia and I sat down for a break during the Society for Photographic Education (SPE) conference in Newport, Rhode Island, in 2003 to draft an outline for a series of articles titled “Publishing the Photobook” that would run in photo-eye Booklist, we knew that we had the makings of a book. We are ﬁrst and foremost grateful to Rixon Reed, the owner and director of photo-eye, for encouraging the column from the very beginning. The column ran for a total of twelve installments over three years (2004–07) and was a recurring topic of conversation among photographers wherever we went.
MVS: Like the book, the column began with the concept for your book, and continued in a logical learning path towards the final “Case Studies” from those who had brought their work to publication. It was timely then, and even more so now.
JB: Did you consider releasing this information in non-book format, like a password protected website or Ipad application? Do you have any intention to supplement the printed book with web-based materials?
DH: We’ve launched a website devoted to our book (www.publishyourphotographybook.com), which will continue to grow with some of the resources from the book as well as interviews and articles about photography books not found in the published book. There is a blog within our website, too, where we will inform our readers of upcoming events, book festivals, competitions and more. We want people to come to the website for lots of reasons.
MVS: We wanted to partner with a traditional publisher for a variety of reasons. Princeton Architectural Press (our first choice!) has a great brand, particularly for the type of book this is. They also have an amazing distribution arrangement with Chronicle Books and we felt like they would be able to get this book out into the world in a big way! The content of our book draws heavily on visuals, and we haven’t yet seen many good e-books that work for illustrated books. An iPad-specific book would be interesting, but the audience for this book is pretty specific, and again, we’re not sure enough people would purchase the book just for the iPad. (A Kindle version would do a disservice to the book, design- and content-wise. Kindles are great for text-only books.)
JB: The book makes a regular distinction between books on subject matters with wide appeal versus artist monographs based upon the reputation of the artist. Given the larger sales potential of the former, would you encourage photographers to consider ways to tailor their work to appeal to larger markets?
DH: Maybe. I would primarily encourage photographers to simply be aware of that distinction and set out to make the work and a book that best satisfies their own personal goals, whatever those may be. If you find there are subject-specific audiences likely to be interested in your book, market to them, as you would naturally want to draw them to your exhibition, your website, your public lectures and more. In my opinion, it is just as hard to make a successful subject-matter driven book as it is to make a successful artist driven book. Both have their own distinct path. In the end, if you know your audience, and how to reach them, you will stand a better chance of putting your books in their hands.
JB: How has the nascent cultural shift from paper books to ebooks influenced the process of having this book published?
DH: There is no ebook version of this book, but we welcome the e-possibilities down the road. Right now, ebooks are more or less restricted to the realm of literature, not illustrated books. If I were to be an oracle, I’d say we’ll see more and more e-book versions of illustrated books. Obviously, Phaidon and a few others are dabbling in this already. Whether they impact a broader population or are limited to the art world is yet to be seen.
JB: Given the current popularity of Print-on-Demand services, I found the following statement to be an incredibly concise piece of advice to photographers. “Successful self-publishers are those who are organized and entrepreneurial at heart, who know their audience, can effectively reach that audience, and have the financial and labor resources available to take on numerous roles.”
It seems like most photographers are using POD services to make books to market themselves and their careers, rather than making a book that might sell vigorously. Do you think, under the above circumstances, that a self-published project can produce a product with viable income stream?
DH: Quick distinction here: self-published does not strictly equate with print-on-demand (POD). Self-published only implies taking on the role of “publisher” of your project, regardless of the technical means you employ to manifest that project (which could still be offset lithography, POD, Xerox, what-have-you).
MVS: Essential elements (whether published or self-published): clarity of concept, design and production that enhances the work, and a plan to get the books to your audience. Can a self-published project produce a product with a viable income stream? Absolutely.
JB: It seems as if the advice in this book could apply to artists working in media beyond photography. Did you consider calling it Publish Your Art Book, and expanding the potential audience?
DH: That’s the title of our next book.
MVS: And the one after that: Publish Your Illustrated Book(.com). But seriously, what we offer the reader in this book could apply to creating a book featuring work created in any medium, to your point.
JB: Place and time are so crucial to the nature of photography. This book feels like a snapshot of the Publishing industry as the 21st Century begins to take shape. Did you feel like you were time-stamping a period of change?
DH: Perhaps. But the information in this book is written in a way to be useful for years to come. It is not simply an aggregate of information gathered off the Internet. What we make clear in this book is hinted at in the sub-chapter heading, Behind the Editorial Door: Understanding How Publishers Work. The fundamental issues at hand in publishing a book are the same for small and large publishing houses, they are the same whether you’re making an illustrated book or an ebook of a novel.
MVS: While it is true that production techniques and marketing tools will evolve, this book is timeless. We open a door to the industry that will help you understand how to make decisions in relation to your book.
JB: Eileen Gittins, the founder of Blurb, is quoted in the book as saying, as a result of the emerging POD market “…I think we are talking about an expansion in the book industry the likes of which we have never seen before.” Do you agree?
DH: Totally. All of these new technologies are transforming, once again, the landscape and creating new opportunities. The smart and the creative will find doors opening up to them.
JB: Again and again, the industry voices included in the book mention the value of teamwork and collaboration, as a book project is almost always a group endeavor. Would you encourage photographers to burnish their communication skills before embarking on a publishing project?
MVS: You will need to effectively pitch your project in short (soundbite), medium (one page) and long forms (publication proposal), and who better to talk and write about it than you? Our book will help you “speak” the language of publishing, from the front cover to the very last page.
DH: I’m always for “burnishing communication skills.”
JB: Rixon Reed, the founder and owner of photo-eye in Santa Fe, is quoted as saying, “…I’d recommend that photographers think realistically about how big their market is before deciding on edition numbers or print runs for their books. Too many photographers have too many of their self-published books stored in boxes gathering dust in their garages.” One message that pervades your book is that photographers should think clearly about what they want and what they can realistically expect. Do you think it’s hard for photographers to hear the truth about their prospects for a successful book project?
MVS: If you look at the monographs that stand the test of time, in nearly every case the artist had established their value in the collectible print markets or editorial market prior to the release of those titles, thus building their audience for their forthcoming book(s). You should be networking, attending portfolio reviews and submitting your work to competitions NOW. Today you can build a presence for yourself and your work on the Internet, and those interested in the subject(s) you are exploring are likely to find you as well. If you know your audience (clue to realistic press run), and how to reach them (path to distribution), AND your book falls within their price range, you have a far better chance of getting your books out of storage and into their hands of buyers.
DH: And it’s not just hard for photographers. All publishers are engaged in a gambling game. There is never a way to know precisely how many people will buy any particular book.
MVS: In summary: no matter if you are published or choose to self-publish, plan on being an active participant in the marketing and distribution of your book.
JB: Alec Soth is quoted in your book as saying, “A problem I see with print-on-demand is that it can be too easy to reach a sense of accomplishment. It’s too easy to make a book with that technology, but it doesn’t guarantee that the work is any good.” Your book makes a point of encouraging photographers who are interested in the POD route to consider hiring professionals to help them with different aspects of the process. Would you agree with Alec that the ease of the process leads to less than stellar productions?
DH: Certainly. The point to remember, in my opinion, is that a book is not just a group of photographs. It’s a very specific group of photographs that have been edited (often from hundreds of others), have been sequenced in a very particular order, and then surrounded by a design and text and typography and bindings and all of that!
With book making tools so easily accessible (in the form of POD, for instance), ALL of the aspects of making a book still need to be considered. There is a whole industry that has traditionally watched over those aspects. When you take all of that onto your shoulders without having been part of that industry, it’s natural that you’ll unwittingly overlook some of those aspects.
MVS: We do feel that POD is a great way to begin to experience the editing/sequencing of your book-to-be. “Case Study” Lisa M. Robinson speaks to the value of creating unique book dummies periodically as she continued to grow her body of work SNOWBOUND, ultimately allowing her to be more critical of her body of work and better preparing her for the bookmaking process itself.
JB: Paula McCartney and Alec Soth both mention meeting with publishers at Review Santa Fe. Among the many options for making initial contact with publishers, do you feel that Portfolio Review events give photographers a better opportunity to jumpstart the publishing process?
MVS: A 20-minute meeting is a great way to introduce yourself and your work to publishing professionals. The experience of showing your work at a Portfolio Review event is often referred to as “speed dating” It is, of course, up to you to follow up and grow those relationships; this year publishers were also at the review tables of PhotoLucida, Palm Springs Photo Festival, FotoFest, PhotoNOLA and more.
DH: At Radius Books, we’ve published at least 5 books with photographers we met at review events (Michael Lundgren, Transfigurations, Renate Aller, Oceanscapes, David Taylor, Working the Line, Janelle Lynch, Los Jardines De Mexico, Colleen Plumb, Animals Are Outside Today.
Mary Virginia Swanson and Darius Himes will be offering an all-day seminar in Santa Fe, NM, on April 9, 2011. For more information, visit www.publishyourphotographybook.com.
Meier und Mueller is a new photo book publisher founded by Andrés Marroquín Winkelmann and Jörg M. Colberg. They aim to publish high quality books that are a bit different than the norm. This book trailer gives you a good idea where their head is on this. I’m guessing the German electro music is not included like one of those new Hallmark cards.
Seems to be a new trend of people wanting more control over the book publishing process or wanting to publish books that the big publishers have not interest in (see: LBM). Either way it sounds like progress to me.
According to Jörg “Pre-sales start the week after Labor Day, the official sales start in early October.” The book is priced at $49 with special editions that include a print for $90 and a box edition with a large print and nice box to store it for $350. The book will be sold online only except for specialty shops like Dashwood.
It’s great to have blogs dedicated to photography books, because I love to buy a few each year but my office is no longer near Photo Eye or the MOMA bookstore like they once were so it’s difficult to make a decision what to buy.
Ben Zlotkin is the founder of Edition One Studios, a company that makes books for photographers (here). I wanted to ask him a few questions about publishing short-run photography books, because I feel like there’s not a lot of good information available on the subject. Also, I was curious if it really is that hard to satisfy a photographers needs when it comes to DIY books.
APE: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your business?
I completed an MFA in Photography at the San Francisco Art Institute a number of years back. I wanted to put my final project into book form as I thought the sequential presentation worked best and the intimate proximity of a book vs. a large print on the wall seemed to articulate what I wanted to say best. I looked at some online options and ended up with a local vendor. In the end, the books were a hit, but very expensive and the printing was poor at best. I shoot black and white medium format film and anyone who prints digitally can tell you that B&W is tougher than color. A year later I was teaching photography off and on and decided I could make a better book, that felt more like those I was buying from established publishers. So I did.
APE: You’ve probably read online that many photographers are not happy with the quality and consistency of the cheaper print on demand companies?
The big complaints in the digital book world come from ‘serious’ photographers. Many of the online options make excellent consumer products, and we often send clients looking for one-off family photo books, or travel books etc. to Blurb, Apple or Lulu. We think all of these companies are perfect for that.
The mistake made by these vendors is that they market to professionals whose demands are greater than the average consumer and in the end more than they can handle.
We think professionals and serious amateur photographers want the following:
Accurate and consistent color- we own our own printers and calibrate hourly. Plus, we’re photographers.
Better built books- stronger bindings, more decoration options such as true foil stamping and dust jackets.
Custom books- no preset formats, page counts and cloth color options.
Control- we need a PDF and that’s it. Most people use InDesign or something similar to get that done. We don’t offer template software, and have learned that people really like that. If they do not have the tools to layout their book, often they know someone who does.
Service – making a book is an expensive, and sometimes confusing process. We answer the phone, we know good editors, and even allow visitors.
APE: How is it possible to maintain high standards for color and printing while keeping the costs low and still make a profit?
Costs aren’t really that low for anyone involved. Our books are more expensive than some in smaller quantities and cheaper than most in larger quantities. We have spent money on a proprietary RIP for our presses and have top end calibration tools – we calibrate 6 or more times per day. More importantly, we are old-school wet lab printers, and my rule is that you cannot play with the presses unless you have worked in a wet lab with both color and silver gelatin prints. Nothing teaches you color better than burning though what little money you have wasting photo paper in the lab. We look at everything that comes off the press. If a job is 10% too magenta, we stop it and contact the client to sort things out. No one else in our industry does this that I know of.
We’re a new company, and marginally profitable with our current levels of efficiency. We think we offer solid pricing and really solid service. Most of the value we add is not ‘digital’ – the foil stamping is done by hand with a 300 degree metal plate, the custom book covers are glued by hand. There is no easy way to make nice books – perhaps this is our advantage. No everyone is as excited as we are about color, glue, and paper cuts
APE: Can you tell me on the printers side what do you do to ensure high quality?
The key thing to know is that all of the digital book makers are using the same basic tools. The printer run down is HP Indigo, Xerox Digital Presses, and Kodak’s Nexpress. All of these are really glorified laser printers with 600 dpi per color channel. What matters is the software you put in front of them, and the materials you put in them.
We use really high quality very smooth uncoated paper, and pretty cool software with lots of color control. As noted above, we look at the prints and are constantly making adjustments on our clients behalf. We make hard proofs – in fact, we offer complimentary proof prints to everyone who asks. When the book is ordered we add of a proof cost and that gets the client a complete printed unbound book for a nominal fee. We print two of them and keep one, because if changes are needed, we can then sit on the phone with the client, look at the proofs at the same time and talk about the image needs. There is no other way to do this.
APE: Can you tell me from the photographers side what do they need to do to ensure the book comes out the way they want?
Most important is to plan their book out and edit until they have a solid project. Then they should ask someone they trust to edit it again. This is the hardest part of making a book. People usually underestimate how long this will take by months, not days.
On the technical side, if you want consistent prints, make consistent files. Your target is 300 dpi, 8 bit, flattened images. Max quality jpegs work fine as do tiffs. There is no point in using 600 dpi file. All that will do is slow you down when processing the data. Once a client has a file with all of the images in the book, they need to be sure that the color profile for each image is the same. If they are from a digital camera, and all sRGB – they can leave them as is. If some are digital, some are scanned, and some are unknown, then convert (not assign) them the Adobe 1998 RGB profile in PhotoShop.
Once a potential client is this far, they should contact us and request some complimentary prints. We’ll take 5-10 images and print them out, then mail them for free.
After the images are prepared and sized as desired, then they should bring them into InDesign, Quark, Aperture or the application of their choice, and start to layout the book. In the end, they’ll make a PDF and send that to use. We’ll send them a helper file for this final and easy step.
APE: It seems like niche photography books can really serve a purpose in the market but can the photographer ever make a profit or is this entirely just a vanity project?
Making a profit is hard, but many of our clients do. I am constantly talking people into cheaper softcover books when they order a more expensive limited edition of hardcover books. The reason is that you inevitably want to give some books away, and this cuts your profits down badly. You also want to offer a product that is at a lower price point for those who cannot afford a $75+ book. If a client is a fine art photographer, then there is nothing better than releasing the book when a gallery show is up. People will buy the book who cannot afford an expensive original print, and people who can afford an original print will buy the book just to have a sampling of the wider body of work. Lastly, we encourage people to make portfolio sets. Perhaps they buy 50 books from us, and print out 25 original prints for an image that is in the book. They should sign and number those prints, then sign and number 25 of the books. Package those sets and sell them at a premium. Perhaps this set sells for $400, and the print cost them $5 , the book $45, and their time to package it al up $15. So they are out of pocket $65-70 for a $400 sale. I see this work everyday.
For the commercial photographers, and galleries, the books are really marketing tools. I’m happy to make a package price with a commercial photographer for a book set where the same contents is bound two ways, perhaps 5 cloth bound hardcover portfolio books and 45 cheaper softcover leave-behinds. The contents is the same, and we only set up for the job once. The savings can be passed on to the client easily.
APE: Now for the real test. If anyone has a book project and they’re willing to test out Edition One email Ben at: email@example.com and put APE as the subject of the email. Ben will pick one person out and give them a $300 credit or 25% off. After you’ve printed your book you can report back and tell us all how it went.
I saw this piece several months back (here) about how authors and publishers have taken to creating movie trailers for their book in hopes or reaching the web-addicted demographics and thought it seemed like a cool idea. I think the key is to have content available that can travel around the internet and snag potential readers. That means commissioning videos, author pictures and making excerpts available.
Will a trailer like this actually sell more books?
I’m not so sure, but if someone is a fan of the book and they want to write something online, it gives them more content to use and overall I think that’s a powerful thing.
So, when Andrew posted this video (here) of Dan Winters new book I immediately thought of the book trailer story and how this kind of thing really could sell more photo books. I think magazines could benefit from this kind of preview as well. Flipping through the book or magazine is exactly what you would do if you were standing in a bookstore or at a newsstand contemplating a purchase, so if you’re going to buy something online why not recreate the experience for the consumer. The added benefit is that it’s portable and can be passed along to reach even more people. I think ideally the book publishers are serving up these videos so when you click on them you’re taken some place where you have a buying opportunity. I think we will see more of this in the near future because I didn’t even know Dan had a new book coming out until I saw the video and now he sold one more book.
Bonus: Here’s an interview with Dan about the new book and a slideshow with high quality pictures (here) that someone left in the comments of Andrew’s post.
Photographer Jonathan Saunders found out like most people (I know we’ve covered this ground before) that Blurb Books are completely hit-or-miss in the quality of the final product. Much of this can be chalked up to blurb trying to find the point where acceptable cost meets acceptable quality. I had an interesting conversation last week with the Modern Postcard dudes where they said that the business started because they couldn’t find any reliable printers for their high end photo heavy real estate brochures, so they built their own printing facility and suddenly discovered the immense challenge of gang printing photographs and working with photographers who have an eye for detail and color. They told me the majority of their employees work in customer service.
So apparently after he saw some extremely high quality books at the Photography Book Now party in the fall of 2008 Jonathan decided to give Blurb another shot even though he had tried their service previously and been disappointed with the results. Then “Blurb banned me when I pointed out to Blurb the books at the Photography Book Now party in the fall of 2008 are of a higher quality then I was able to receive when placing an actual order with Blurb. So instead of helping me achieve that quality, Blurb “disabled” my account for me without my permission since Blurb could not achieve the quality Blurb advertises or actually support the B3 system I paid for.”
You can read the full story (here), but it looks like Jonathan did everything within his power to get a book that matched his expectations including paying for a higher quality product, contacting customer service and complaining and submitting frequent lengthy emails. I was thinking that I might say to him “too bad buddy” you got advertised to. It happens all the time where the marketing pushes your expectations beyond what the product can deliver but I think in this case it’s blurb that’s making the mistake by pushing very hard to be a print on demand book company for professional photographers and failing to meet the bare minimum of consistency and quality. A photo book that’s printed right is only as good as the photography on the pages and if Blurb would like to use professional photographers as their marketing vehicle they need to step up to the plate and meet their expectations. Banning someone from ever using your service again is headed the wrong direction.