On introspection, navel-gazing and nitpicking

Colin Pantall has written an interesting post on his blog regarding the many year-end ‘best photobooks of 2011′ lists that have been published of late. In the post he raises questions about this process, the role of “tastemakers” in today’s photobook market and discusses the need for the expansion of the photobook market. I started to respond to his post initially as a comment on his blog, but it got so out of hand that I decided to turn my response into a post of its own.

After having compiled a non-exhaustive meta-list of 52 of the Best Photobooks of 2011 lists, I am interested by the reactions that these lists have generated. It seems to me that many of us have a love/hate relationship with them. We hate the idea that everything seems to get boiled down to a top 10, or even a top 50. But we can’t help but read them, particularly when they are written by people whose opinions we respect or have been on the telly, or just because everyone else is reading them and liking them on Facebook. As I recently posted in a Facebook group, there are myriad and sometimes very good reasons why we make and read lists. Umberto Eco has said it a little better than I can here (and Ken Schles has written a marvellous response to Umberto Eco’s ideas on lists which you can read here).

In his post Colin focused on Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood, the “winner” of my meta-list, as an example of a book that is getting all the plaudits. Colin bought it after it received so many recommendations but it left him cold. I got the feeling from his post that it was a book that he admired but did not enjoy. What I found amazing in the mind-bendingly tedious exercise of compiling all these lists is that Redheaded Peckerwood only got 14 mentions in the 52 lists that I compiled. In total 313 books got mentions. Colin mentioned Martin Parr, Alec Soth and Markus Schaden as three of the ‘tastemakers’ on photobooks, but Redheaded Peckerwood is not actually on Parr or Soth’s lists on Photo-eye (Soth did an expanded Top 20 list on which it does appear) and as far as I know Markus Schaden hasn’t done a 2011 list. What I found particularly interesting about the 2011 lists is that the tastemakers seldom agreed. To use Colin’s example Soth and Parr only agreed on 3 books of the 10 that they each selected. Expand the list of ‘tastemakers’ to 5 (I took Gerry Badger, Martin Parr, John Gossage, Alec Soth and Todd Hido) and there isn’t a single ‘best’ book that they all agreed on. John Gossage, who makes photographs and photobooks, designs and publishes them, and looks at more photobooks than most, said it best in his comment in response to Soth’s Top 20 Photobooks list, “None of us see more than a small part of what is being done in photobooks these days. So many things that touch people. A good time to be alive”… at least, if you like photobooks… it’s probably less good if you invested in sub-prime mortgages. That is the positive side of today’s photobook market. I think the tastemakers are generally a positive force: the more there are of them and the more that their opinions differ, the better. You can take or leave their recommendations, but they are often helpful in drawing your attention to new work.

That is the good side of the current photo-market. But as Colin points out, there are many bad sides too: books that are being bought and kept in shrinkwrap so that they are worth more on some “mythical future date of sale”, books that are bought and never looked at, photographers being stalked at their hotel by overzealous book dealers to sign hundreds of books so that they can be sold at an inflated price (true story)… I was amazed to see this article on the Guardian Money website a little while ago, which seemed to suggest that photobooks have become a good investment vehicle and a reliable way of doubling your investment within a couple of years. That might be true for a handful of books, but what percentage of the books being made are sold for less than their retail price 6 months after they have been published? Go and spend $100,000 on photobooks today and then try to sell them in 2 or 3 years time. Let me know how that goes for you.

I think that the most important and difficult question that Colin raises is the need for the expansion of the photobook market. As an artist it must be incredibly frustrating to spend years making a book only for it to be bought by a maximum of 1,000 people and seen only by a few hundred. The issues with the fragmentation of the photobooks market, the problematic distribution model, the proliferation of tiny independent publishers and self-published books, all made me think of some of the issues that there are with the music industry (although the almost-total digitisation of music has yet to happen to photobooks and is unlikely to). Big record labels are struggling, and people are distributing their music themselves or via small labels through the internet. Like with the photobook, I think this is a time where there is a huge amount of musical experimentation, of trying everything and anything. As a consumer of music, I see this as a golden age: I have never been able to access so much music so easily. Name an obscure musical genre (e.g. post-gangsta neofolkcore) and I will be able to listen to it within minutes and own (or steal) several albums of it within hours. But for those people making the music (let’s not worry about the ones selling the stuff) it is more complicated. I am no expert on the music industry but my understanding is that musicians now have to rely on concerts to make their money since virtually no-one makes anything from selling albums any more. What is the photographer’s equivalent of the tour? Exhibitions? Surely there is even less money in that than in books. Workshops maybe?

While I would love to see the photobook market expand, I can’t help but wonder exactly how big its potential is? The “population at large” never really bought photobooks before all these pictures were available online for free, so I’m just not sure why and how that would happen now. But then stranger things have happened. Allow me to leave you with this beautiful chart of vinyl sales over the last two decades which, if my tenuous musical analogy holds water, suggests there may be hope for photobooks yet.

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14 Comments

  1. Alec Soth
    Posted 13 January 2012 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’m starting to have a backlash to the list backlash. I’m convinced that these lists are a good thing. Take a look at, say, Paloma Al Aire. This is an absolutely perfect little book. The fact that Lesley Martin, Martin Parr and others named it as one of their favorite books means that hundreds of more people will see it and thousands of people will go to Ricardo Cases website or find a video flip-though of the book for free online. And the next time Cases publishes a book, more people will pay attention. That is not a bad thing at all. I have a hard time getting too cynical about this. It isn’t like the movie industry where studios are trying to buy academy award votes. This is people who love the medium promoting the things they love to others.

  2. Posted 13 January 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    The review of Paloma Al Aire in the BJP says the book features full-bleed images broken in two by crude metal ring binding, which keeps it on the right side of cute. I look at the little JPEGs of page spreads available here and there, and yes, I see interesting-looking full-bleed images that are broken in two by crude metal ring binding, which may indeed keep the entire objet on one side or other of this or that, but which also, ugh, breaks the photos in half. Now, when I am wondering whether or not to buy a photobook, the cuteness of the package is far lower a priority than the lack of a gutter (whether or not for crude metal rings) that will vandalize the photos. Because, surprise, I’m far more interested in photos than in bindings. Does this make me unusual?

    Meanwhile, Is Britain Great? 3 is an excellent 2011 photobook. I don’t have it with me and can’t promise cuteness of binding, but the photos make me laugh and it’s cheap, too.

  3. Barrie
    Posted 13 January 2012 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    I wish i could agree with you and Alec soth. my problem is, i have the feeling that many of this books made it to the various lists because the list makers were trying to do the photographer/publisher a favour. ……Why should a photographer want only 300 peolpe to have access to their work ( 300 limited copies ). This might work for Alec soth but not for all photographers. Imagine sleeping by the mississipi was printed as a limited editon of 300.

  4. Posted 14 January 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    very interesting post, marc.

    some days ago I posted a comment on the Flack Photo facebook page where I said that if we go on in this way, maybe, very soon we could have more lists than books! ;-))
    it’s just a joke, but I mean, we see that in many cases books and nominators are quite the same. don’t you think that in the long period the photobook world (and maybe photography at all) risks to be more and more self-referential?

    what I would say is that in the future I’d like to hear also some reviews of someone out of the “ufficial” world of photography or more borderline. just also to know if what seems to us like the greatest success of selfpublishing and photobooks is real or if this is not rather only a bubble, intended to explode sooner or later.

    Barrie, I totally agree with you.
    we all know the production costs of a book and the self-publishing is a good way to bypass the “system”, but printing a book only in “limited edition” (but 300 pieces are really a limited edition?) it means, for me, bet on it as an “object for collectors only”.
    I think the question is if we consider the book as an “end” or instead the “means” of a project.

  5. Alec Soth
    Posted 15 January 2012 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    I find Barrie’s brand of cynicism exasperating. To use my example of Cases, why would Barrie think I’m trying to do him a favor? I’ve never met him or his publisher. I read about the book from someone I respect, I got the book, I loved the book, I told other people about the book. It seems silly, and a little sad, to create a conspiracy about a niche market that generates so little money for everyone involved.

  6. Posted 15 January 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Barrie, you make two separate points in your comment. In my meta-list I compiled 52 different lists. The reason why I did this is because I wanted to avoid getting a skewed sample. I didn’t just want to use photo-eye and their 26 lists, which are already pretty diverse as it is. The 52 lists include bloggers, photographers, booksellers, curators, magazines and newspapers. I also made sure that the list was not overly European or American. This is a pretty diverse group of people because I wanted to avoid getting a biased view. Andrea, looking at the list of sources, do you think that these people are all “official”?

    Barrie, I understand your point, but where do you get this feeling from? In the case of booksellers for example, I think it is legitimate to ask the question of why they choose the books they recommend, but you would need to be incredibly cynical to think that the majority of these 52 people chose that the books that they did just to help out their friends. If you take all 52 lists, I think that the vast majority of people simply chose the books that they liked.

    As for the question of why a photographer would only choose to print 300 copies, is it not just economics? Photobooks are pretty hard to sell and are expensive to make. Most photographers have to pay for their books themselves or at least contribute a significant amount of the financing. Andrea, you say “we all know the production costs of a book”, but actually I think very few of us do, it is not something that is widely discussed. Printing 300, 500 or even 1,0000 copies of a book, could be construed as making a book for collectors only (although then maybe we should have a lengthy discussion of what is the difference between a collector and an ‘ordinary’ buyer), but what is the alternative? Printing 2,000 copies of a book if you are not already a well-established name with exhibitions to sell the books at is pretty ballsy, maybe even a little stupid. If the book doesn’t sell, you/the publisher will be left several thousand euros/dollars poorer. However, if you print 1,000 copies and sell them out in 3 months but you really want the book to be seen by more people, there is always the option of the reprint. There are a couple examples of photobooks in Japan recently that have sold tens of thousands of copies: Ume Kayo’s Ume-me and Kotori Kawashima’s Mirai-chan (Ume-me has sold over 100,000 copies). But these were not printed in huge editions in the first place, they were reprinted.

    The question that really interests me is the this idea of expanding the photobook market. In his post on the subject Jörg writes the following: “So I think what this all really comes down to is how we can make photobooks more widely available. After all, if they are more widely available we will have a chance to see more. Also, if they are more widely available people who are not interested in them right now might get hooked – making our community of photobook fans grow. If more photobooks are sold, edition sizes can grow because there’s more demand.”

    I don’t understand how this works in terms of economics. How do we make books more widely available? By making more books or bigger print runs, we will create more photobook fans/buyers? That seems like a pretty risky proposition for a niche market like this one. Or is it a question of improving distribution without making more books, so that more people can see them? Hasn’t the internet already done that by allowing people to distribute their books themselves? Has that increased the size of the market?

    This all brings me back to the question I asked at the end of my post with the example of sales of vinyl. How big do we really think the photobook market can get?

  7. Barrie
    Posted 15 January 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    To Alec : I am working on a copyright for my BRAND of cynicism. Coming out soon as a limited edition of 5. By the way, i like cases book very much. I managed to get a signed copy. I don´t understand why you think i was refering to you.

    “I think the question is if we consider the book as an “end” or instead the “means” of a project.´´ Andrea, you said it all.

    To eyecurious: Why do photographers that are selfemployed think someone else should pay to publise their work. The baker around the corner pays for his bread too. if there is anyone out there thinking someone else must pay to publise their work, i would recommend they spend some time offline in the real world.

  8. Posted 15 January 2012 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    In France, there is one single example of a recent book by a photographer alive which sold tens of thousands of copies. And still sells, many years after it came out. It is “The earth seen from the sky” by Yann Arthus-Bertrand. Initially annoyed by the success of a project that i didn’t feel such recognition, i think i failed then to see the key to one of the dilemas brought out in this conversation. This photo book has had such a wide success because so many people could relate to it, understand it and desire it. Buy it in the end.

    Aesthetic, commercial, easy, this project was perhaps all of this, but it was a photobook, and for many people i guess the first one they ever bought. In this regard i have ended up thinking very highly of Arthus-Bertrand endeavor.

    Just for the conversation’s sake, let me stick to the “Peckerwood” example: intelligent, smart, conceptual. All of that. But are those good qualities for a book to reach a “wider audience”? The amount of knowledge about the medium, its history, and its contemporary practices necessary to enjoy such a project are just enormous. It is a great project, in a small niche, for the small group of connaisseurs that we like to think we are (in varying degrees). And as such, it has had great success. I doubt it could reach a much wider audience.

    Regarding the issue of audience size. I think that there is a central question that i keep going back to as a photographer. What is the goal when putting a project out in the world?
    In September i reluctantly attended a lecture by Brian Storm of Mediastorm, and it is there that i had a revelation. He took an example very close to what we are talking about here, a book with a print run of 1000. But what if more than 1000 people could be interested in this project? Ok, so the guy does multimedia videos online, and that’s what he was selling. When i asked what his average figure was for viewers, his answer was one million viewers. I believe he caught my attention there.

    So those might be two possible responses to the concern for a wider audience. If we want the “general public” to be interested, let us start with speaking with a vocabulary which they can grasp (and i’m not putting down anyone by saying that someone not from this milieu might miss some of its in and outs). And if we want our project to reach more people, then the book might not be the main vector, but a side product.

  9. Posted 16 January 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    @ eyecurious: you are right. not all the lists of your meta-list were made by “official” peolple, even if less or more involved in photography, but you can’t say that some lists are more “influential” than others and that being or not on one of these should mark the destiny of a book (including to be sold out in a few).
    but I don’t want to be cynical. I believe the process is easier than it seems, as Alec said, even if it’s lawful to take some questions.

    you say “Most photographers have to pay for their books themselves or at least contribute a significant amount of the financing” and this because “Photobooks are pretty hard to sell and are expensive to make.”
    so the best way to make them easier to sell was to create a request.

    I think one of the started point of this story was “The photobook. An history vol I”, by Parr and Badger.
    for me, this was the born of the “photobook system” as we know today.
    I don’t mean “system” in a negative way (I think all the photographers must absolutely thank forever Martin and Gerry for their great work), but, after that, we began all to think that a photobook could become an “Object of Desire”, expecially if it was published in very few copies and immediatly sold out.

    I agree with you about “reprint” a book if it has success, but then we can’t speak of “limited edition”. a book of novel or a romance has normally more then one edition. if I’m a collector (or only a book lover) maybe I’ll look to get the first one.

    the question seems to become more and more complicated and I don’t think to have a final answer.

    but to come back to “How big do we really think the photobook market can get?” I think one of the answer could be the Baptiste’s one: “if we want our project to reach more people, then the book might not be the main vector, but a side product.”

    what I hope (and try to do everyday) is that photographers try to be less and less self-referential, going out of their niche, from the “safe harbour” of Photography to the open and “mistereous” sea of Image.

  10. Posted 16 January 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Baptiste, thanks for a very thoughtful and provocative comment. On the meta-list, I posted a list of the top 10 bestselling photobooks at the end of the post as a reminder of the fact that none of the books that make the best books lists are likely to sell more than a couple of thousand copies… nowhere near the sales figures needed to be on the bestseller lists. Your thoughts on Arthus-Bertrand are very interesting as these kinds of books are generally totally ignored by the fine art world.

    As for videos, that is an interesting point. Clearly the potential is much bigger for a video, although I think it is worth pointing out that there is also a qualitative difference in the way that we look at a photobook with the way that we look at a video. For a video with 1 million clicks how many people actually watched it or more than 30 seconds of it. How many will remember having seen it after a week or two? To me it does seem like a more ‘disposable’ vector through which to present a project. If reaching the broadest possible audience is the aim, then, as you say, photobooks are probably not the way to go.

  11. Posted 16 January 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Andrea, that is a nice way of putting it and I couldn’t agree more: the more we leave the the “safe harbour of photography” to explore the “open and mysterious sea of the Image”, the better!

  12. Posted 19 January 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    A little late into adding into this, but the whole vinyl comparison made me think. And to me it’s about subcultures, and we are all jazz cats, punks or hip hoppers in here. In a way, it’s about teaching your younger brother or sister about good music, staying in your bedroom spinning records – see Alec’s comment on your post. Word of mouth.
    The only difference between vinyl and photobooks, is that vinyl is also about nostalgia and surfing on the retro wave. It is a comparison that can also be applied to the printed book vs. the e-book, as in the vinyl record vsthe mp3. A nostalgic reaction. With all the Ipad and e-books, who knows, maybe at one point there will be” a movement that will reclaim the printed book, like it happened with the vinyl. It is actually already happening, on a subcultural level.
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/trevorbutterworth/2011/12/28/as-the-age-of-the-physical-book-retreats-the-cult-of-the-physical-book-advances/

    As for a wider availabilty, that made me think of a blogpost by Alec in 2010, about the part the classic mainstream media should or could play in bringing these photobooks to a mainstram, coffee table book liking audience.
    http://littlebrownmushroom.wordpress.com/2010/11/08/an-open-letter-to-the-new-york-times-book-review/

    Again, with the vinyl comparison. It was when mainstream media starting writing about this subcuture that was still spinning vinyl, that it eventually found it’s way to the mainstream audience (again).

  13. Semyah
    Posted 23 January 2012 at 3:55 am | Permalink

    Again I`m very late to the conversation, but I am wishing to answer Barrie`s questions. As a publisher of books. There may be practical reasons for only doing an edition that`s around 300 copies. Yes I fully know that it also makes it scarce and if lucky a sought after book. As a publisher its far easier to place and sell 300 than it is to sell 3,000 copies. It`s never the ideal situation for either Artist or Publisher but as a small operation you really cant afford to be making furiture with the books that remain unsold, hence the reason for the limited supply. An Artist especially Photographer, your medium is reliant on the printed matter. And if your are not an exhibiting Photographer then the book is your only way to show your work and 300 viewers is better than no-one seeing it. There is a whole photobook culture existing in Japan primarily because there simply was nowhere to showcase your work other than in the PhotoBook.
    I dont believe that “best of ” lists really do any harm, and hey I really think we are all smart enough here to take them with a pinch of salt. As I believe the list makers in fact do too. I also disagree that the books are on the list as favors or bribes to their fellow “in crowd”.
    Our publications have made “best of” lists and for this I am glad. These lists I was totally unaware of and those Listmakers I will add, purchased the books in question and they were certainly NOT given. And Alex is right if you can expand someones viewing and open them to something that they may never have seen then why not.

  14. Posted 7 February 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Enjoyed your blog – couple of comments –

    one response I have to the “full-bleed images broken in two by crude metal ring binding” proposition is that I hope the images are intended to incorporate that break, which could be clever. Otherwise full-bleed images are only scarcely tolerable for me if the book is large enough but still viewable at a reasonable distance, can lie flat, and really need to be seen at that size. That’s of course when the images warrant being seen for themselves and not as an “illustration” of the designer’s abilities – Cartier-Bresson’s Europeans is one.

    For “viewing” books in advance I think even a crude YouTube video can give a fairly good hint.

    “Name an obscure musical genre (e.g. post-gangsta neofolkcore) and I will be able to listen to it within minutes and own (or steal) several albums of it within hours.”

    Its not exactly obscure nor I think even close to extinct though seldom talked about but I’d appreciate knowing where you could listen in minutes to the 14th Quartet (C-sharp Minor) in – specifically – the Busch or Pascal Quartet recordings.

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