This series features interviews with independent photobook publishers. This month’s interview is with Al Palmer of Brown Owl Press.
Don’t Take Pictures: How would you describe Brown Owl Press to someone who has never seen your books?
Al Palmer: Short-run publications telling quiet photographic stories. We rarely publish work that is particularly conceptual, preferring to focus on narrative and atmosphere.
DTP: What series of events led you to start your own publishing house?
AP: I grew up in the DIY punk/hardcore scene and those values have stayed with me to this day. No-one else was going to do it for me, so I did it myself! I will admit to preferring a certain degree of control so being the publisher suits me. I had some work I’d made that I wanted to publish and some spare time, so that resulted in the first Brown Owl Press title, Flood of Sunshine. Five years later and we’ve published 15 titles and have another three coming soon.
DTP: How do you find photographers that you want to work with and how do you determine what might make a good photobook?
AP: Initially we accepted unsolicited submissions, which resulted in seeing some fantastic work and some not so fantastic work. Eventually the amount of submissions just got overwhelming, and primarily from photographers who hadn’t researched who Brown Owl Press was, just blanket submissions that would be going to every small publisher they could google.
Now I’ve been involved in the photobook scene for so long I’m probably only one person removed from any photographer whose work I like, I can (within reason) pick and choose who we work with. Generally, I tend to favour photographers who haven’t received the press or coverage they deserve.
DTP: Have there been any books that have been particularly rewarding to produce or that you felt a special kinship with?
AP: Two books we’ve published have particularly resonated with me. The Thirsting Flowing by Hans Nøstdahl and Old Domino by Jackie Roman. Old Domino documents a very short lived punk/garage scene in NYC that I bought a lot of records from at the time but never got to see in person. It’s just a perfect document of scene that mattered but could possibly be forgotten otherwise. The Thirsting Flowers is just a perfect example of work that I love, it all fitted together perfectly. I just love the whole thing.
DTP: What are some forthcoming titles you are particularly excited about?
AP: We have three books in various stages of production. The first is Even the Sound of Your Name by Grace Ann Leadbeater which is a combination of photography and prose, a first for us. Beyond that we have books almost ready by Jenny Riffle and Brian David Stevens. I love them all, three very different titles by three very different photographers.
DTP: What was one of the most challenging books that you have published and why?
AP: The publishing process has actually been relatively uncomplicated. I’ve never had a photographer have major issues with a book I’ve designed, and I’ve never struggled with the requests of any of the photographers we’ve published. The most challenging thing is marketing the books. Blog traffic has mostly moved to social media, social media posts increasingly struggle without paid promotion, GDPR has definitely made our strongest marketing tool (the mailing list) a lot weaker. Also, the amount of titles released appear to be outgrowing the audience.
DTP: It seems that an increasing number of photographers, at all stages of their careers, are looking to publish a book. What should photographers think about before they embark on the book process?
AP: Actually creating a book has never been easier, with so much information available online and the low cost of digital print. The real hard work comes afterwards. There are so many books and zines being released every week. Standing out is tough and most photographers are not PR experts. I’m certainly not.
With regards to approaching publishers, I do feel that photographers can often just send the same submission to every publisher which is not something I’d recommend. Also, it’s quite often to have a submission that just talks about what Brown Owl Press can do for the photographer and not what the photographer brings to the table. Publishing is a book is very much a collaborative act. Does your work sit alongside the publisher’s other titles well? Does the publisher have a similar ethos to you?
Visit the Brown Owl Press website to learn more about their books.