2. What Works in the Photo Book World Today and What no Longer Works?
Veröffentlicht: 23.09.2014
in der Serie Past, Present and Future of the Photo Book
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The photo book market faces the same challenges that most markets are facing these days. This includes overproduction (or "overpublishing," as we call it in our world), a shrinking customer base in the main markets (Europe, USA), changing distribution channels, discount wars, and competition from other media (e-books, online information, print on demand), to name just a few. The competition of the Rencontres d'Arles festival can serve as an example for the current overflow:

All the photo books that were submitted to the book award competition at Rencontres d'Arles, 2014. Only two of them will win awards.

Accepting all these challenges as threats to the old-fashioned (I call it “analogue”) publishing world, for me there is still no better medium for most artistic photography than a real book. Sending a PDF or electronic link to someone to spark interest in a photographer might work, but sending a book always leaves a better or deeper and longer lasting impression. The book as a medium suits photography much better than any other artistic discipline, and many photography projects are conceived with the idea of a book as the final result – which is quite a unique proposition in the creative world.

Yet many books and concepts that worked well in the previous 20 years no longer work today: print runs are too low for a reasonable publishing budget, sales have slowed down, and, generally speaking, books only work when they come paired with an event or a sensation. This means that publishers need more funding for a book than they did 10 years ago, since revenue from book sales is lower.

I recently had a meeting with Willibald Sauerländer, one of the greatest living German speaking and writing art historians of our time. He is over 90 years old and has seen the rise and decline of art book publishing after the Second World War. During our conversation he shared with me his personal vision of the publishing world, and said that the more general art history books, like the ones he created from the 1960s to 1990s with notable publishers like Beck, DuMont, and Hanser (some of them were translated into French, English, and other languages) no longer exist. The print runs of his books, which used to be between 3,000 and 5,000 copies, have shrunk to 500 copies, which is simply not enough to make such books worthwhile for a serious publisher today. He made this remark as a rather dry statement, being not regretful, but just accepting of the status quo and a bit curious about what the future may bring otherwise. I mention this to explain that, before the turn of the millennium, it was possible to publish a book on a theme or on an artist without an exhibition or some other related event, and actually sell a few thousand copies if the book was any good and well reviewed. Those times are over.

Willibald Sauerländer is too old to refocus. His world is that of printed books and he still uses a typewriter to write. The next few generations after him are between the analogue and the digital publishing worlds, while those who are now in their twenties will likely experience only (or mainly) the digital publishing world.

And here we are: we have the privilege of being part of the change from analogue to digital – and this is what makes our current publishing world difficult. We are in between times and mediums. The new digital publishing world has yet to replace the old analogue world economically. Most digital publishing ideas in the art and photo book worlds are still not profitable, while the print runs of “real” analogue printed books are shrinking, making those publications less profitable as well. The printing world is adjusting to these new rules by offering smaller print runs (at lower costs than five years ago), faster production turnaround, and combinations of digital, on demand, and offset printing. Today, making a good book is cheaper than it was a few years ago. Anyone with a few thousand dollars or euros can produce a book today, and it may even be a beautiful one. But the amount of time spent on creating, editing, designing, and finalizing a book remains the same as before (also for digital content). Only the number of sellable copies is decreasing. This creates the contradictory situation that, while more books are published than ever before, hardly anyone can make a living from these books.

We must accept (again) that books (and photo books) are not made for profit but for educational reasons, for fame, honor, and immortality.

In the last years of my publishing career at Hatje Cantz I made more books with commercial galleries than with museums, for various reasons. The main reason was that galleries, with their clearly commercial mindset, realized that the best way to leave a sustainable impression on the tables or minds of collectors (after a visit to the gallery or fair booth) is a printed and bound book – simply because it is physical, sometimes even beautiful, and hard to throw away. Once a book is accepted into a household, it will leave its mark in the memory of the collector or curator. Most of these books are given away for free, but they have become more comprehensive and more carefully edited and can easily compete with museum catalogues, also since they are not always subject to the same financial constraints as regular publishing budgets. In the 1990s most of the gallery co-published books were what I would call “vanity books,” but more and more galleries realized that it makes sense to invest in content, careful design, and editing – possibly resulting in beauty – than to create just another meaningless book…

What I want to say by mentioning these examples is that I still believe in the printed book but the world of analogue publishing and bookselling is becoming much smaller than we have been used to. There will be fewer bookstores (hopefully the best will survive!) and smaller publishers, but this world can survive if publishers and the audience find a sustainable way of communication and distribution.

In my further blog contributions I will focus on themes like distribution, marketing and publicity, editing and sequencing, and other related topics.

PS: Presently, we are staying in Arles. For the first time I have visited the Rencontres d'Arles festival during its final and not its opening days. This was the last festival under the direction of Francois Hebel who has been the director for 12 years. The next director will be Sam Stourdzé, who is currently still the director of the Musée de L'Elysée, Lausanne. We are curious to see the changes and new ideas he will bring to the Rencontres and hope Francois Hebel makes a long journey after this year's festival, just like we are doing it now! You need to free your head after such a long time!

There were some very interesting exhibitions this year that we truly enjoyed, such as the Small Universe - The Dutch Need to Document by Erik Kessels:

Erik Kessels_Presenting Jos Houweling (29142)

The Chinese Photobooks by Martin Parr and WassinkLundgren:

ChinesePhotobooks (29143)

At first we were sceptical, whether walking through an exhibition on photobooks in a dark red light would really be helpful, but yes, it was! And finally the Walther Collection on Typology, Taxonomy and Seriality in Photography:

From the WaltherCollection_Martina Bacigalupo (29144)

Some exhibitions already closed at the end of August, so we couldn't get the full blend of events in Arles but it still was absolutely worth the visit.

We are always amazed by the great old and not so old spaces they turn into exhibition halls for the Rencontres. Buildings in ruins seem to be a perfect match for a lot of photography. We are aware that the "ateliers" are being renovated by the Luma Foundation but wish they keep the spirit of these buildings, whether they will be used for the Rencontres or for other exhibitions and projects.

GreatExhibitionSpaces (29145)

I will try to report on good books we have seen in Arles and on the journey during the next few weeks. As a start, please consider the two following books we saw in Arles. We'll leave it to the savvy reader which one we might consider to be the more and which the less noteworthy:

How to become a photographer_2 (29146)How to become a photographer_1 (29147)  8Minutes_Hirst_Bailey (29148)

9 Kommentar(e)
Lorenzo Rocha
Abgesendet am 24.09.2014 um 16:50

I really have nothing to add to Markus' impressive knowledge of the Photobook industry. Indeed we are living in a moment when digital media is bringing the analogue technology to a crisis. Times of change are also the best moments to raise new questions and rethink paradigms. Umberto Eco states in a conversation with Jean-Claude Carrièrre: "The book is like the spoon, the hammer, the wheel or the scissors. Once they have been invented, they cannot be improved. The book has passed the test of time, maybe its components will evolve, maybe its pages will cease to be of paper, but it will continue to be what it is now."
I used to disregard anything published digitally, on the grounds of its dubious rigor and quality. Self-publishing is a process that generally involves only the authors, therefore not enough eyes review the work and pass judgment on its relevance, but then again all generalizations are wrong. A fact is that today there are hundreds of thousands of new photography and books and magazines available on the Internet, free of cost. Recently I participated in a panel discussion about architecture guidebooks at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles, one of the invited speakers was the photographer Alex Slade. When we finished the discussion, all the guests exchanged our most recent books, and I was astonished to see that Slade's book —a catalogue of his most recent exhibition at Edward Cella Art & Architecture Gallery— was published by Blurb. It was the first time I have seen a carefully edited book, with important texts and photographs, which had opted for self-publishing and print on demand, instead of a prominent publishing house. On a different occasion, I was handed a beautiful bound volume for free, with sketches and texts about two public architecture projects not yet completed (the central library and the national film institute), commissioned by the government of Mexico City, that I found utterly insubstantial. They appeared as actual sketchbooks and were published by Moleskine.
Does that make Blurb a prominent publisher now? or on the contrary, By indulging government officials and architects in order to stay in business, is Moleskine turning into a vanity press?

Andreas Langen
Abgesendet am 24.09.2014 um 16:52

Dear Markus,
just read your last post, published yesterday. After trying to digest all the information (on the conditons of photo-book-production now, then and in future times; on festival directors, exhibition spaces, new books and presentations), I noticed the remarkable silence after your post: no comments during the first day after it´s online. I think that´s not a sign of ignorance, but a twisted compliment for the complexity and profoundness of your description and analysis. There is hardly any other response to it than: got it, in all probability!
Reflecting on the conditions of photo-book-production, you are giving inside-views few other people have. Critics, journalists, photographers, lovers of photography, people like me, can only focus on the final result of the production-process: we thumb through books. Not being inside publishing houses, but being visitors, readers, spectators, we sometimes argue what we cherish about photo-books and what not. But for the largest part of your post, analysing the changing conditions of photo-book-production, there is nothing to discuss. Instead, there is a lot to take notice of; and to beware of – like illusions on the side of photographers who wish to see their work published as books by any means.
In the swirl of the changes you describe, you mention two aspects that work as anchors to my digitally twisted brain: a good book needs the same amount of care for content and design as ever before; and such a book leaves deeper traces in most people´s minds than any message on a screen.
Last sunday, I had the pleasure to be part of the International Photography Scene Cologne, presenting the German Photobook Award at the Museum of Applicated Arts (MAKK). The number of publications that apply for this award (which gives honorable mentions, not funds to the winners) reminds me of the picture you send from the Arles-Award. There were almost 400 books submitted for this year´s award, with an inverse number of people in the audience on sunday – a few tens maybe.
At the same time, photokina is eager to reach 200.000 visitors; and one single photo-installation two walking minutes from MAKK, an impressive 360° panorama of Shanghai, was entered by a constant stream of visitors - about as many spectators in two minutes as we had the whole afternoon.
In short: photo-books are a minority thing – something I tend to forget when I´m in the middle of an intense dicussion on the matter. Keeping this in mind, I am not dissapointed when missing breaking-news-status. And I can very much enjoy the notion of an exquisite, beautiful medium which I am quite sure will survive all digital challenges: the photo-book.

Lorenzo Rocha
Abgesendet am 25.09.2014 um 18:43

In order to open more room for debate, it’s essential to temporarily set aside some of our personal assumptions and try to gain a wider perspective on the subject under discussion (I invite all of you to please consider “What if..?”).
Why did photo books appear in the first place? What is the experiential difference between watching printed photographs opposed to seeing them in a projection or on a computer screen?
Umberto Eco’s statement I mentioned in my last comment is initially assuming we will forever need spoons, hammers, wheels, scissors or books, but what if we don’t need them anymore in the future? He gives a hint of an answer to the discussion about the future of the book by saying: “Maybe its pages will cease to be of paper”.
There is a part of Markus Hartmann’s entry, regarding books commissioned by commercial galleries that I find particularly rich for debate. Galleries have improved their books by investing in contents, design and edition, but it seems that the main reason for it has been to leave a permanent mark on their potential clients and curators by giving them a beautiful, physical and “Hard to throw away” object.
Interesting arguments regarding the persistency and transformation of the photo book, from analog to digital technology can be found looking at the current scene in art photography itself. Today only a minority of photographs are generated analogically. Most of the photographers working now, have been using digital technology at least for the last 10 years, and most of their photographs are never printed and remain stored, transmitted and seen only digitally.
Two months ago I visited an exhibition at the Fotomuseum Winterthur: “Surfaces. New Photography from Switzerland”. Thomas Seelig, the curator of the exhibition addressed the subject about the smoothness and impenetrability of surfaces in contemporary photography. I wish to revisit the questions posed in the exhibition statement: Have new developments in photography been made due to the digital turn? How is our relationship to the tangible object changing, when photographs are no longer shown in photo albums but as files on screens? From an artistic perspective, does this lead to any conclusions for the future production of works of art?
Therefore my question to all of you would be: How does the transformation of artistic photography into a mostly digital medium, impact on the photo book industry?

Andreas Langen
Abgesendet am 30.09.2014 um 22:23

Dear Lorenzo,

you asked about the different experience of looking at photographs on paper and on screens.
I have a specific experience about that as a teacher in photography (which I am part-time for quite a number of years at a number of universities, academies etc).
In the beginning of a project, looking at monitors is very helpful in order to get an idea, a survey, the intention, the approach. But as soon as it comes to a more concentrated view, and it comes to the relations individual pictures may have among each other, you get lost on screens. At that point I need pictures as objects, lying on a table or on the floor. I could never edit a series of pictures on a computer, nor would I try to figure an exhibition on a screen. I need the three-dimensional space, and I need sheets of paper, to puzzle out any complex body of photographic stuff.
To me, that is no question of taste, but of plain necessity - without a material carrier of photos (even if it´s only reproductions), I miss the whole picture.
And when this is already true for the raw version of a work under construction, the effect is surely more significant in the form of an layouted series, bound and completed with typographically designed subtitles, text, with other forms of illustration, with cover, coloured paper, picking belt etc - shortly: a book.

Lorenzo Rocha
Abgesendet am 02.10.2014 um 18:01

Dear Andreas, thank very much for your thorough answer to my question. Since I'm not in contact with art and photography schools, your account illustrates the process for selection and edition for professional photographers. So it seems to me there is a creative relation between analog and digital process —printed and on-screen— and ultimtely what matters most is the image and its specific materiality

dennis Keeley
Abgesendet am 29.09.2014 um 17:06

Great thoughts that bring even more trouble to the analog publishing industry

Andreas Langen
Abgesendet am 30.09.2014 um 18:21

Hi Dennis,
maybe you are right assuming that the analog publishing industry is facing problems; but for a big part of the current people/authors/publishers who work on photo-books, "industry" is not quite the fitting dimension. I would rather speak of manufacturers, and maybe addicted people. They do not expect photobooks to be profitable in terms of cash; they want to realize projects, sometimes at their own cost. If this is the main intention, digital production offers a lot better options that offset-printing ever could.
Kind regards,

Bruno van den Elshout
Abgesendet am 03.10.2014 um 11:15

Dear Mr. Hartmann,

I believe that selling art is an art in itself. I would like to suggest that the current market conditions you so accurately describe, are inviting us to start distinguishing ever more between publishing as a commodity - where the medium serves to support and disseminate a representation of artworks or concepts - and the book as an autonomous manifestation of art itself. The latter comprises not only the work that its conveys but also the art of manifesting vision, inclusive of all that is required to make that happen. Including the mobilisation of means, financial or otherwise.

I will be happy to share with you my experiences while working on the publication of my book NEW HORIZONS in a single print run of 2.012 numbered copies with a budget of € 100,000 required. The book will be officially presented in The Netherlands on 4 December, but I will be able to show you a first copy as from Mon 20 Oct onwards. On that day, I will organise an excursion to the Swiss binder (Buchbinderei Burkhardt) where the book is then in production. I intend to take one copy with me and would be happy to make a stopover in Stuttgart on the way home to show it to you - or to invite you to join us on the excursion.

Markus Hartmann
Abgesendet am 27.10.2014 um 08:16

Dear Bruno van den Elshout,

I would be more than happy to have seen you with your first book in Stuttgart
but unfortunately we are still on our way back to Stuttgart, currently in Madrid.
Maybe you will be at Paris Photo and I can take a look there ?

Buchbinderei Burkhardt is a famous Swiss Bindery, I know them well!

But what a budget you have for your project. I am impressed. Most books of contemporary art photography have to survive with € 10.000,- or slightly less or more. Otherwise I share your ideas about the two ways art book publishing will go in the future and also that selling art is an art in itself.

Are you distributing your book yourself or with a publisher ?

all best
Markus Hartmann

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