There are two photography book publishers who I know of, who specialise in the small, light in weight, but not content books. They are the UK based Cafe Royal Books and Another Place Press. There are many other publishers who produce small, limited pagination titles, but these two publishers are masters of the slim volume.
Two independent one-man bands who prove that size is not everything when it comes to publishing. Their publications focus on strong narrative, strong images and context when needed. They are not playing the art book game and yet they exist in that overblown, over designed and over weight world of so many photography books. Those that favour the bloated pretension of size and weight over narrative and content.
I am sure that none of the photographers whose work that features in the titles to which I refer would wish their books to be described in this way or would see their books from my perspective. But there is a common thread shared by the books to which I refer. It is that they are published by publishers who require the photographer to make a financial contribution to cover the costs of the book – I have heard figures of between £8-12,000 as starting points for this – that the publisher has agreed to publish.
In return for this investment I am aware that these publishers then feel that it is appropriate for them to dictate who will design the book, and how it should look. Don’t forget that they are not paying, and therefore the idea of a big, over-designed art book becomes an attractive proposition for the publisher trying to raise their art world profile. The lead as to whether to publish in these cases is not the work but the available cash, from which the publisher will take a cut of the designer fee, and production costs.
This option was recently put to a friend of mine, who did have a strong body of work, but he didn’t have the required funding available and therefore turned down the offer. The publisher left it at that and the photographer successfully crowd funded the book as they wished it to be working with a like minded independent publisher.
When speaking with a photographer, publishers taking no financial risk may be happy to indulge ideas that may flatter the photographers ego but not necessarily serve the work well. The body of work may not be ready to be published, it may need more work, it may have no potential audience, it may be repetitive, lacking in depth, originality or creativity. It maybe all of these things and more but if the funding is there it would appear that some publishers are happy to publish it.
I currently have six big boxes of these books sitting in my garage. All of them given to me or sent to me for my approval. In my opinion none of these books should have been published or have a reason to be published other than the desire of the photographer’s who created them’s wish to make a photo book. There seems to be no sense of understanding of narrative, selective editing or of the work speaking for itself in these books.
A common belief over the last few years is that the photo book needs to be a beautiful thing, a collectable artefact, a work of art, in and of itself. That as a reaction to the ephemeral, digital nature of the photographic image in the 21st Century such a physical statement is required to ensure both its importance and longevity. The problem with this belief is two fold.
Firstly a book is only collectable if a collector wishes to collect it and the serious photo book collectors market is small, specific and as influenced by big names and recognised work as the contemporary art market. It will not be easily swayed by tricksy design, and weak work.
Secondly, big books, poorly edited and featuring weak work are not beautiful, they may be differently packaged, but that does not constitute a beautiful collectable artefact.
I started off this post by mentioning two specific book publishers both of which produce and sell books at low price points, starting at just £6.50. Both have adopted simple, sometimes repetitive design formats that emphasise the work and not the book designer or publisher. Both carefully curate the work they publish, collaborating with the photographers without large financial commitments from those photographers. They print small editions, sometimes with prints as an additional purchase option. The books that both publishers sell, sell out, and go into additional print runs. Their books are collectable.
I have heard many stories from photographers disillusioned with the process of working with publishers, whom have taken their money and delivered a book but no audience. Who have allowed the book to disappear into a photo-book-black-hole, unreviewed, un-purchased and unnoticed. Big is not alway better, paying is not always a good idea and all photography does not have to be published in a book.
You can read an interview with Iain Sarjeant the founder of Another Place Press here: https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2017/01/23/the-new-publishing-landscape-in-conversation-with-iain-sarjeant-of-another-place-press/
© Grant Scott 2020
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, 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 was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.