Past, Present and Future of the Photo Book | Markus Hartmann | Sunday, 14.09.2014

The Current Scene of Photo Book and Art Book Publishing, As I See It

Welcome to everyone following this blog!
I am not a theoretician, nor overly intellectual, nor an art historian, nor a regular writer – just a manic art book publisher who, after 25 years in the business of making art and photography books, has taken a break to consider the years gone by. I am taking a deep breath of freedom now, granting myself the time to indulge my curiosity about our world in general, and that of art and photography in particular, as this was the world to which I have devoted my life during the last decades. So, for a while, I will change my position of an insider to that of an outsider, to explore a different perspective and new ideas. Bound to the treadmill of a busy book-publishing house (such as Hatje Cantz, where I spent most of my professional life) there is scant time and peace of mind to focus on theories, texts, or ideas. Your mind is always focused on the books currently in the works (not to mention the artists who want to make these books), as well as the books that must be planned for the upcoming seasons. The title of this blog “Still Searching….” therefore applies perfectly to my current state of mind. My contributions to this blog will be less academic than the texts of my predecessors in this position and will consider photo books and related themes from an economic as well as from an idealistic point of view.
Making and selling books was (and still is) a commercial venture, similar to the gallery business. I mention this because a lot of people from the inner circles of the art world do not have the same understanding and see their work or other works and exhibitions from a more idealistic point of view. I was accustomed to thinking about money and budgets when publishing books, and seldom had the opportunity to make books without such constraints. This is one reason why my contributions to this blog will focus more on the business side of making photo books than contributions from historians, researchers, curators, etc.
I enjoy an ongoing love affair with printed books and with photo books in particular. Building on my past 25 years in the book world, I wonder how this affection can be guided into a new phase, now that the time of “first unconditional pure love” is over. Over the next six weeks, I will be taking a road trip through Switzerland, France, Spain, and Portugal together with my wife Angelika (who has also worked her entire life within the world of books and museums). We are using this trip as a threshold and grounding point for the start of a new venture we will undertake, which will focus not merely on books but also on exhibitions (conceiving, curating, organizing) and accompanied by books and general art market advisory services. I am trying to broaden my interests, moving away from book publishing as a standalone business. I feel that publishing must be reinvented, and a small publisher must broaden his base in order to survive in the future. As I write this, I packing for our road trip and we have the perfect car for this. It holds our bicycles, luggage, a bed, and a tent, as well as plenty of books, our computers, cameras, and more. Thanks to modern Internet roaming contracts, we can set up our office almost anywhere in Europe now, and I hope to write a lot while travelling.
During this road trip we will visit museums, festivals, and other institutions that work and deal with photography. The experiences of this trip will feed into my blog posts to an extent, but I will also write about more general issues and questions within the context of photo book publishing.
We already did a shorter trip, during which we visited the recently opened PhotoBook Museum in the Carlswerk in Cologne, and I will come back to this experience in one of my next contributions.
Looking at the current scene of photo book publishers, I can say, that, yes, there are still independent publishers (independent from the big media companies or institutions) but they usually depend (so they are not so “independent” as they appear to be) on funding (more or less) for the books they publish. As Francis Haskell explained in his lecture and book, The Painful Birth of the Art Book (London, 1988), art book publishing as such started as a vanity project and has remained so for most of the past centuries. There were and are periodic exceptions – during the 1980s and 1990s one could make money with art books. And there are publishers like Taschen, who turned art book publishing into a big business for a while. But today, most of the art book and photo book market depends on outside or “inside” funding. By “inside,” I mean monies generated from other sales and sources than the book itself, but which are still realized by the publisher, for example by selling art works, limited editions, and so on. There were publishers that have been widely successful in creating a strong identity (such as Phaidon) over the past decades but which were still not profitable (at least not from a business point of view). There are old, small publishers (like Nazraeli Press) that have managed to survive all the ups and downs of the past decades, and there are hundreds of newly founded small publishers who flock to the photo book festivals that have popped up all over the world, following the Fotobookfestival Kassel that premiered in 2008.
And not to forget: there are ever more self-publishers (helped by crowdfunding) in the photo world, who publish and market their book themselves, which must not always be the worst alternative.
Naturally every photographer wants to have a prominent publisher on the spine of his or her book, but the capacities of the bigger and better known publishers are limited. So rather than wait two, three, four years to get one’s book published, one might consider self-publishing as an alternative – and there have never been better ways of distributing and promoting a self-published book than today. The self-publishing trend is also nurtured by the awareness that one has to finance a book oneself in any case…
In the next installment I will touch on the challenges that the photo book world faces at the threshold between analogue and digital.
P.S.: Our road trip will take us from Stuttgart to Winterthur (Fotomuseum!), Zurich, Lausanne, Geneva, Grenoble, and Arles to Northern Spain, along the Atlantic Coast all the way to Cap Finistère, then to Portugal, Andalucía, and further on to Madrid, Barcelona, and back to Germany.
If you, dear reader of this blog, happen to be in the regions that we will be visiting, feel free to contact us or give us hints for special locations – especially where to see interesting photography and bookstores.