Opinions photo education

The why, where, what and how of photobooks and what is ‘The Truth’?

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Any photographer today who finds themselves engaged with photography and photographers online, in print or in person, will find it difficult—if not impossible—to escape the presentation, distribution and critical dissection of the photobook. Social media is full of photographers promoting their self-published works as experts reveal the ‘secret’ to creating, dissecting and understanding one. Websites and blogs are dedicated to showcasing them and every month another competition or festival is announced encouraging you to enter your dummy or finished book with the hope of recognition and/or potential mainstream publication. But this was not always the case.

I have collected photobooks for many years, but I can vividly remember the first digitally printed photobook I purchased back in 1998. It was published by The Photographers Gallery in London and featured the work of the Magnum photographer Paul Fusco documenting the final train ride of Robert F. Kennedy’s body from New York to Washington D.C. It was titled RFK Funeral Train and I bought it on a limited-edition print on demand basis — only 200 were printed on a Xerox DocuColor 100 Digital Color Press. The printing was not good; it was crude and soft and the spine was weak. But today, due to its scarcity, it is a collector’s item.

At the time, I remember being dismissive of the book. The images were powerful and the layout of the book delivered the narrative simply and effectively. But I had to pay in advance, wait weeks for it to arrive and then make a second trip to pick it up. Most significantly, however, I did not believe that the process by which the book had been printed did justice to the images it contained. Of course, little did I know that what I had purchased would become a template for the future of the photobook.

I have deliberately mentioned the name of the printer used in the creation of the first edition of RFK Funeral Train because it is the process of digital printing that is fundamental to the explosion of independent photobook publishing we are experiencing today. The Photographers Gallery was not an established publishing house and neither are most of the people behind many of the photobooks currently being published. Digital printing is now the norm, and paying for a book and waiting for it to arrive is an experience that none of us question.

To help me explain where we are today with book publishing I often use the metaphor of football — soccer if you prefer — leagues, where the publishers are the teams and managers and the players are the photographers. The metaphor of league tables is not to denote quality of work but to explain an approach to the game and the medium of photography based on the financial clout of the teams involved.

The premier league includes the big-name established publishing houses that are looking for big sales, established profiles and/or a financial donation from the photographer to balance their level of risk in publishing a photobook. In the premier league, sales are king and the marketing department—amongst other various employees at the publishing house—expect to be involved in the name, cover and occasionally content of the book. However, the bigger your donation, the bigger your say will be, as the publisher’s financial exposure decreases. You should also expect Amazon metadata utilization to be part of both of these decisions.

The first division includes all of those publishers who are established, but not supported by non-photobook big sellers within their portfolios. These imprints will have limited distribution power outside of the photo community but may well have a level of prestige based on their previous publications which may be perceived as a stepping stone for a photographer’s career path. These publishers can also expect you to make a financial donation to publish your book. Either through your own funds, via a crowd-sourcing site and/or through a grant or bursary. These publishers are serious about photography and the intentions of the photographer in achieving the finished book they want, but are often restricted by their lack of distribution and marketing power.

The second division is made up of the many, mainly American, academic and museum publishers creating books connected with archives, exhibitions, academia and research. They exist within their own worlds reliant on independent funding and with no requirement to record substantial sales outside of their immediate sphere of influence. They do not need reviews, sales or to see a profit.

All of the players in these divisions may expect a level of independent funding to publish and will risk as little of their own money as possible. Where that funding comes from depends on the publisher, the work and the expectation of the photographer of the finished artefact. The sales expectations of the publishers—whatever league they are in—will rest in the very low thousands at best, even for ‘big’ name photographers, and marketing spend and activity will be minimal, if it exists at all.

I live in a medium-size UK city outside of London filled with photographers, filmmakers and associated creative industries, and yet the two main chain bookstores in the city — Waterstones and Foyles — have only eight feet of shelving between them dedicated to books associated with photography. Photobook sales outside of specialist book stores and galleries reside firmly online, and it is this fact that brings me to the third division, where photographers are fully utilizing the new digital tools available to them.

It has never been cheaper or easier to create and print a photobook. It has also never been easier to set yourself up as a publishing company. Choose a name for your publishing company, set up a blog, buy some ISDN numbers and create accounts with Instagram, Twitter and Facebook with which to build an online community, and slowly but surely with persistence and hard work you will be able to create a publishing profile. I’m talking about creating a publishing company here, not ‘just’ self-publishing your own work. The same rules apply to publishing your own work, but I want to make you think about that process differently.

A publishing company is judged by the titles they publish and the people they publish. So why not put your work in the company you want it to be seen in, whilst also showcasing the work of photographers whom you respect and admire? Two examples of how to do this have been created in the UK by Craig Aitkinson with www.caferoyalbooks.com and Iain Sarjeant with http://anotherplacepress.bigcartel.com. Both of these photographer/publishers are one-person operations based on passions for specific areas of photography. Their books are published as small print runs, well-designed and printed and positioned at low, affordable price points. They are self-financed, but their titles sell out thanks to intelligent online marketing and an engaged community that share the publishers tastes in photography.

These publishers are taking control of the publishing of their own work by including it alongside that of other photographers they choose to collaborate with and whom chose to collaborate with them. In the case of Craig, this has included collaborations with Magnum photographers Martin Parr, George Rodger and David Hurn, as well as Homer Sykes, John Bulmer, Arthur Tress and Simon Roberts, amongst many others. Whilst Iain collaborates with those exploring landscape photography such as Dan Wood, Cody Cobb, Al Brydon, Lark Foord and Nicky Hirst.

These books have an audience but the ease by which photobooks can be made today can too easily seduce photographers into creating and paying for books that are ill-conceived and under-developed. In this case, the expectation for such books to sell and/or raise the photographer’s profile is always going to go unrealized.

What is considered to be self-publishing today was termed ‘vanity publishing’ in the past, and—as the use of the word ‘vanity’ suggests—those publications were considered to have little more reason to exist than to fulfill the expectations of their creator. Today we are comfortable with self-publishing, but it is too easy to step over the line into the vanity project without being aware of the fact, and it is at this point that the audience is lost.

I often write about the importance of narrative to today’s professional photographer and the book is the most obvious vehicle for that understanding of narrative to be showcased. For the story to be told, and the construction of that story to develop through images, the storyteller requires a sense of narrative purpose. And yet this responsibility to communicate is too often ignored, resulting in non-communicative confused photobooks.

A book exists away from the photographer, and therefore it needs to be able to speak for itself. If it does not do so it fails in its basic purpose for existing.

Of course, the first step in creating a photobook is ensuring that you have a story to tell. Without that, everything I have outlined in this article is irrelevant as part of your process. But it is not irrelevant in finding a story, developing a process and understanding the realities of photobook publishing.

There is no great secret to creating a successful photobook, just as there is no great mystery to publishing. Success in both depends upon a level of understanding of the hard work required to create an engaging visual narrative and the process in presenting that narrative to a potential audience. The digital environment may have introduced a number of short cuts and made the once impossible achievable, but the ingredients of a successful photobook remain the same today as they have always been: a good story, strong images and a route to market.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography

 a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book #New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2018.

You can follow the progress of his documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay at donotbendfilm.com.

You can follow Grant on Twitter and on Instagram @UNofPhoto.

Text © Grant Scott 2017

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