Past, Present and Future of the Photo Book | Markus Hartmann | Dienstag, 23.09.2014

What Works in the Photo Book World Today and What no Longer Works?

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:
The Chinese Photobooks by Martin Parr and WassinkLundgren:
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:
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.
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: