The golden era of the self-published photo book may be coming to an end. There are a number of reasons for this and the majority of them can be traced directly to the current economic crisis.
Let’s begin with funding. Many self-published photo books use funding platforms such as Kickstarter to fund them, often relying on other photographers and members of the broader photo community to contribute to reaching the required total. This is evidence of a supportive community of people engaged with photography and photo books, but the problem is that it is a relatively small community with many people repeatedly supporting work. Such a small community can be negatively affected if some of the supporters find themselves having to financially tighten their belts and stop funding the work of others. It is too early to see if it is the case, but it is hard to see a global financial crisis not impact on funding platforms.
Art funding and bursaries are always under financial pressure and constraints particularly those supported by institutions and initiatives that rely on funding to exist. If they cease to exist so do the books they finance.
Without paper we do not have books and there is currently a global paper shortage. The price of paper is on the rise. In 2021, demand grew and supply sunk, and although experts predict a return to pre-pandemic rates in late 2022, new supply problems are adding to the sense of uncertainty. Manufacturers, wholesalers, marketing companies, and printers continue to experience difficulties securing materials and producing goods for a number of reasons. Industry experts agree that there has never been a shortage this big before. COVID-19 lockdowns and global supply chain issues have had a significant impact on the availability of paper products. As we emerged from the lockdown period, demand for printing paper and direct mail services increased faster than supply was able to meet. Today, the demand for paper is actually greater than pre-pandemic 2019 levels.
Prior to the COVID pandemic, several large domestic paper mills planned to convert to packaging material production, and during the pandemic, some navigated the shortage by switching from paper to packaging, producing cardboard, and other materials to cater to increased online shopping demands. Paper mill strikes in Finland also had an impact on the market, limiting the availability of lightweight and medium weight coated papers primarily used for magazine and catalogue production.
No one knows when the paper shortage will come to an end because the paper industry has truly never seen a shortage of this magnitude before.
I recently saw this tweet by a small UK based publisher, “Our printing costs have increased by 52% (since 2019, but most of the increase has happened this year, and it’s finally hit home with the latest printer’s quote). Everything seems hopeless. Never mind.” Printing costs have increased dramatically as this quote evidences. Printing presses need to be kept running to work efficiently, often day and night and to do that requires large amounts of electricity, paper and ink. All of which are far more expensive now. The result is that printing is no longer a relatively cheap form of production.
Distribution is another issue that is facing economic pressure. Small shops and galleries are facing difficult times, with rising energy prices forcing many to consider the viability of their businesses. Rising fuel costs are impacting on transportation services resulting in higher postal costs. Add to that from a UK perspective the additional export costs and paperwork introduced since Brexit and it is clear to see that the price of producing a book has increased so has the price of delivering it.
Time has a cost attached to it, but it is often ignored as a cost attached to a project based on passion and to produce any book takes a considerable amount of passion and commitment. In good times that time can be offset against other activities that have revenue streams attached to them, but when those revenue streams dry-up that time becomes evermore precious and therefore valuable. It needs to be spent on paying the rent, rather than a passion project.
None of this is good for the photographer hoping to publish a book of their work, the small publisher hoping to support work or the large publisher trying to meet their overheads. The same issues face all publishers, whatever their size or history. The result has to be that fewer books are going to be published. Digital publishing had placed the possibility of creating a self-published book into the hands of the independent, but economic crisis and global politics seem to be taking that option away. The future may be bleak in that respect, but it may also force us to consider new options of dissemination. I have long believed that the so called ‘golden age’ of photo book publishing has seen too many books published with too little reason for them to exist. Perhaps, this will be a forced re-start, and the beginning of a new age of publishing. Only time will tell.
Dr. 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, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2022