Many photographers consider publishing a book of their photographs a triumph, one that is sometimes greater than an exhibition of prints. The longevity of photobooks reaches viewers in a manner that is different from the passive viewing experience in a gallery or on a screen. Art objects in and of themselves, these books present the entirety of a photographer’s work as a cohesive and ordered package that can be owned for a fraction of the cost of a single photographic print. Page by page, the reader can revisit the imagery as often as they wish. The publication of such a book once meant validation for the photographer and was seen as a milestone in their career, both artistically and professionally. The photobook industry of today is experiencing a shift, as is evident by the fast growing self-publishing movement.
Publishing houses once served as gatekeepers, vetting photographers and deciding whether a body of work should be published as a book based on the quality and marketability of the work. Publishing a photobook with a traditional press was considered a sure path to recognition. In addition to owning and operating the costly equipment, publishing houses have the means to finance production and marketing, as well as maintain distribution channels through which the books are to be seen and sold. These resources are sought by many, but awarded to a select few.
Prominent photobook publishers such as Taschen and Phaidon select photographers who not only produce beautiful work, but who have already achieved a certain level of critical success that will create a market for the book. By publishing well-established photographers such as Nan Goldin, Eugene Richards, and Stephen Shore, British art book publisher Phaidon Press ensured the books’ financial success. But it does so by playing it safe: despite having 1,500 titles currently in print, emerging and mid-career photographers are noticeably lacking from its catalogue. Helmut Newton’s Sumo, published by Taschen in 1999 exemplifies the power of artists’ celebrity and publishers’ resources. Measuring 20 by 27.5 inches and weighing 66 pounds, this volume attracted global attention from many photobook collectors. The expense of printing such a tome is unlikely to be shouldered or recouped by a self-publishing photographer. Taschen published only 10,000 signed and numbered copies, each priced at £6,000. At the time of publication, Newton was already a world-renowned fashion and erotic photographer. His reputation played a key role in the financial success of the book, which sold out soon after release. In 2000 Sumo set the auction record for the most expensive book of the 20th century, selling for 620,000 German Marks (approximately $358,882USD at the time). Already a celebrity in his own right, the publicity associated with Sumo and its subsequent auction sales continued to bolster Newton’s career.
Though photobooks are coveted for their tangible nature, their increase in popularity has grown alongside the digital revolution, which has streamlined the process of making pictures. Eliminating the need for chemistry, specialized equipment, and technical knowledge, the digital camera has allowed more people than ever before to make photographs. The ease of sharing photos on websites like Flickr, Instagram, and Tumblr has increased both the amount of photographs being made, and the number of people assuming the title of “photographer.” These platforms have fueled enthusiasm for fine art photography, creating a worldwide community independent of traditional institutions.
For some photographers, the book has replaced the exhibition as the ideal platform for presenting their work. While viewing images online is convenient, few photographers or curatorial institutions have resolved the limitations of viewing images one-by-one on un-calibrated monitors, or in grids on mobile apps. The photobook shares some of digital photography’s desirable characteristics—the hand-held size, and the ability to experience images at the viewer’s leisure. It also embraces the photographic print in its paper stock, sequence, and variable images sizes. We can still hold it in our hands, revisiting the images as often as we wish, while maintaining an archival quality.
Advancements in printing technology have allowed mid-career and emerging photographers to forego the traditional publishing model and produce their own books. This rise in self-publishing is due largely to technological advances both in the printing industry and in digital photography. Presses that once filled entire rooms are now condensed into single devices the size of a refrigerator. Not only are they smaller, this new machinery has significantly decreased the cost of printing and binding, and makes small print runs not only possible, but also economically viable. The popular web-based publisher Blurb markets itself to photographers specifically. The company provides downloadable software and online templates that allow anyone to upload photographs, select papers and binding, and order as few or as many copies as desired—all without leaving the sofa. With access to printers at their fingertips, photographers are no longer waiting for a traditional publisher’s approval. Since its launch in 2006, Blurb claims to have published books by 2.5 million authors from around the globe.
Photographers looking to produce more than a handful of copies of their photobook must consider distribution and funding. As with traditional publishing houses, the photographer’s own celebrity plays a crucial role in their book’s success. Without a publisher’s contacts and capital, self-publishing photographers often rely on financial contributions from their audience to realize a book. For some, this may mean fronting the production costs and hoping to recoup their expenses through sales. Others choose to pre-sell their books through crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Through website and social media promotion, some photographers have raised the amount of money required for the realization of their book many times over.
One such photographer is Joseph D.R. O’Leary, whose 2013 book Of Beards and Men: A Portrait of Man has been tremendously successful both in critical response and in fundraising. Through Kickstarter, O’Leary raised $40,441—more than $13,000 over his initial goal of $27,000. Of Beards and Men is comprised of over 130 studio portraits and bios of bearded men. The concept sounds simple, but the popularity of the topic and the flawless execution of the portraits resonated with audiences beyond those acquainted with the men photographed. The series was featured on many prominent blogs including The Dish, Laughing Squid, and My Modern Met. To capitalize on the publicity, O’Leary began pursuing exhibitions around the same time that he launched his fundraising campaign. A sought-after graphic designer by trade, O’Leary designed and printed an exquisite mockup of the book to encourage advance orders. Of Beards and Men went on to win awards at the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Minnesota 2014 Design Show, the 2014 Independent Publisher Books Award, and was juried into INFOCUS: A Juried Exhibition of Self-Published Photobooks.
Of Beards and Men by Joseph D.R. OLeary
Pre-ordering a book is not a new concept, but publically asking for donations to guarantee a book’s publication is a recent phenomenon. The independent press Minor Matters, while traditional in some aspects of production, is unusual in that it finances all of its books through crowdfunding. One of their titles, What Could Be is the second monograph by David Hilliard and was released in 2014. In order for What Could Be to go into production, Minor Matters first created a dummy copy and allowed themselves six months to obtain a minimum of 500 orders. The first 500 people who pre-ordered a copy had their name or organization listed in the book as co-publishers. Pre-ordering demonstrates an investment in the book’s publication. Even traditional publishers are exploring these financing tactics. In 2013, Aperture Foundation launched its first crowd funded Internet campaign through Kickstarter. The goal was to raise $10,000 for the publication of Touching Strangers: Photographs by Richard Renaldi. With 885 backers, the book went on to raise $80,943. Backers received a range of perks including signed prints and books, depending on their monetary contribution. Based on their initial success, Aperture launched a second campaign for the publication of Amelia and the Animals: Photographs by Robin Schwartz in 2014, which also exceeded its fundraising goal.
As a result of the accessibility of book production, the status associated with the publication of a photobook has declined. The market is now flooded with books by esteemed and unknown photographers alike. Book sales and critical acclaim have become less dependent on traditional publishers, and more reliant on publicity. Photographers lacking considerable name recognition may have difficulty finding an audience for their books. With a multitude of photobooks available, self-published and otherwise, sifting through them is a task that is too time consuming for most booksellers. Though there are exceptions, self-published photobooks are generally not carried by large retailers. Without traditional distribution channels, reviews and acknowledgements have become more important than ever in determining the success and longevity of a photobook. The visibility that photographers originally sought via traditional channels must now be attained through new gatekeepers in the form of media and distributors. Blogs and magazines are at the forefront of treating self-published photobooks as equal to those that are traditionally published. Their writers monitor festivals, awards, and crowdfunding initiatives in search of books to review and promote.
Online magazines such as Lenscratch and Fraction feature reviews of self-published photobooks. Annual “best of” photobook lists have proliferated and are published by the likes of Martin Parr, Hyperallergic, and Flak Photo. Reviews of this nature generate widespread publicity and attract the attention of those who appreciate fine photobooks, as well as those who are in a position to promote or purchase them.
A widely read photobook can have a significant impact on a photographer’s career. Joni Sternbach received Photolucida’s Critical Mass Book Award in 2007 for her tintype portraits of surfers. The resulting monograph, titled Surfland, sold the entire print run. Sternbach believes that the publication of Surfland directly led to her being offered an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, among other opportunities. The sold-out success of Surfland inspired Sternbach to turn to her (now much broader) audience to fund her forthcoming second monograph Surf Site Tin Type, which received nearly double its fundraising goal from over 300 supporters, and is scheduled for release in March 2015.
Awards can have a long-lasting impact on a book’s success. Valerio Spada’s Gomorrah Girl shows that self-published books are as relevant as those traditionally published. Now in it’s third edition, Gomorrah Girl includes street photography and original police documents that examine the mafia’s control over Naples, Italy, and its devastating impact on the community. Self-published through his own imprint, Cross Editions, the second edition of Gomorrah Girl received the 2011 Photography Book Now grand prize. This edition was subsequently included in Martin Parr’s The Photobook: A History, Volume III among his list of one of the best books published after World War II. The prestige of the award and associated press enabled Spada to publish the current third edition.
Today, the barriers to publishing have mostly been eliminated. This new democratization of photobook publishing means that, for better or worse, photographers themselves are in charge of their book’s creation and fate. The demand for photobooks, both from photographers and the buying public remain as robust as ever. When publishing through a major press is either unattainable or undesirable for creative reasons, photographers are now able to turn to self-publishing. The publishing of a photobook today, however, rarely comes with the same guarantees of recognition. Photographers must instead leverage social networks and awards to ensure recognition and financial success. By cultivating an audience and embracing the many media outlets through all stages of production, photographers do have the opportunity to bring their self-made books onto shelves and into the hands of readers.
Kat Kiernan is a photobook collector and the Editor-in-Chief of Don’t Take Pictures.
This article first appeared in Issue 9.