Past, Present and Future of the Photo Book | Markus Hartmann | Friday, 10.10.2014

Distribution and Money, the Frankfurt Book Fair and the PhotoBookMuseum, Cologne

This may be a slightly boring entry, but I thought it would be worthwhile to explain why, in most cases, artists or photographers must supply the publisher with money to produce their book.
As I write this, I am sitting in Sobrado dos Monxes, next to one of the stranger and more beautiful churches near the Camino Real (or Camino de Santiago), only 60 km away from Santiago de Compostela, and far away from the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is currently running until Sunday, October 12.
Pilgrims arriving at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Frankfurt Book Fair
In my early years in publishing, the Frankfurt Book Fair was the most exciting place I could imagine, but over the decades my fascination for it waned. It has been quite repetitive in recent years. The same people, the same themes, the same issues – but this is probably the case for any profession one has for longer than 10 years. The book fair used to be the place where publishers could sell books for up to 50–60% of their yearly turnover. I still remember how in the 1980s and 1990s, all the international booksellers came and placed huge orders for new books that they had not even seen physically. A lot of local German booksellers also came to place discounted “fair orders.” Today, in a time when everything can both be seen and ordered online, this function of the book fair is now obsolete. The fair is still important for selling and buying rights, and meeting all the international publishing people personally at least once a year. All the new and upcoming publishing trends can also be seen there – the fair has thus been increasingly dominated by everything related to digital publishing. A lot of publicity is generated during the fair as well, but as a publisher, you are no longer obliged to go there, nor do you risk your credibility and sales by not going. Last year (2013) was my final book fair after 31 years. There were many empty booths (meaning publishers who reserved a booth simply did not appear) and a lot of unused space behind the aisles in some of the halls. All of my friends whom I met at the fair agreed that there were significantly fewer professional visitors than in the years before. I actually did a small photo series on the empty booths, but do not have access to it right now. The book fair management did a good job of covering up the empty spaces, but I think they might soon have to consider shrinking the fair by a few halls – a sign of the times.
One should also mention that, of all the book fairs, Frankfurt’s is probably best organized and best publicized! It will survive the current changes, but it will be a smaller and different fair in the future.
I still recommend a visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair for those who are looking for a publisher for their book, simply because it is (on our planet) the best place to see as many and as diverse publishers as possible in a few days. It is important to see publishers’ own presentations and also the people behind the books, to get an idea of the spirit of a publishing house and determine whether it could be the right fit for one’s own book project.
Back to distribution and money…
My basic rule was always that, for a small publisher (1 to 5 people), a book that sells 1,000 copies can be profitable. For a medium-sized (5 to 10 people) publisher, it must already be 2,000 to 3,000 copies, and larger houses need to sell 5,000 to 10,000 copies to break even with a first print run.
If the print runs are smaller than the above, the books must be partly or completely funded by outside sources. There was a time when such funding was less necessary, as photo books used to sell quite well (in the years 1998 to 2007, roughly speaking). But today, funding is more necessary than in the last 30 years, as market conditions have become more challenging – to put it mildly.
Let me briefly outline the issue of distribution and the flow of money:
A publisher produces a book and puts it into his local home warehouse. All money is spent for texts, design, editing, production, possible rights, etc. on the day the book is final or at least within 60 to 90 days thereafter. Ideally, the whole marketing machinery is functioning well and the book was properly announced and advertised in the six months (or even earlier) prior to its release.
Review copies are being sent out now, first copies ship to local bookstores and European distribution partners (from a German point of view, this could mean a distributor in France, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, or England, and sales reps in all other countries). Within a month or two, books are also shipped to overseas distributors in the USA, China and/or Japan, and Australia. As far as I am aware of, there is currently no sufficient distribution network in South America.
Each time there is an additional company between the final customer and the publisher, 7% to 15% of the final book price goes to the third party (another rule of thumb).
Sample calculation:
Customer – bookstore – distributor – warehouse – printer/publisher
100% 40–50% 15% 5–8% 25–30% of the original price (or worse)
For ages, publishers have tried to take shortcuts and create a better scenario, but nothing has worked better than the above, at least since the years after the Second World War (until recently when Amazon entered the game and made online selling a possibility for publishers to reach customers directly).
The above simply explains that a publisher only gets 25% of the trade price (of which the production costs and all other costs of a publishing house must still be paid!) of a book when selling through the normal, old-fashioned distribution channels that have worked well, until recently. But this only makes sense for larger print runs and many titles a year, which can cover the overhead costs at the publisher’s head office along with all the sales and marketing costs.
So, selling 500 to 1000 copies of a book costing €40, a publisher might make as much as €5,000 to €10,000 – if all the printed copies are indeed sold (which is never really the case, unless a title becomes a success and is reprinted).
The more specialized not mainstream-oriented artistic photo books thus need “financial aid” in order to be published. Many photographers argue about the “cheap” publishers, who take their money and do nothing for their books (and there are such publishers, I must admit, but there are also a lot of honest and hard working, dedicated publishers, who simply need the money to survive). Here, the simple laws of calculation help to explain this situation. The alternative to making a book with and paying a publisher is to self-publish and pay possible collaborators directly – a model that has recently become a real alternative. Some photographers have successfully crowdfunded their books and sold a few hundred copies as well. This could be one way to get started and save up to 50% of the total costs.
So much for the boring issue today. Any questions?
The PhotoBookMuseum by Markus Schaden in Cologne
Officially, the PhotoBookMuseum should have already closed at the start of October, but due to its great success, it is now open until October 12th. I visited it during the opening days and liked the spirit of the place and the makers. (FOTOS)
It is not really a museum per se, but rather a place where one can see the current discussions and possibilities of conceiving and making photo books. A real museum should perhaps have more books visible, in presentations like the ones at the Rencontres in Arles, where books too valuable for public access were flipped through in projections. But overall, it is an enormous accomplishment by Markus Schaden and his team to have created this extraordinary space in Cologne and bring together so many exhibitions, events, and people between August 19 and now. This so called PhotoBookMuseum will go on to travel (depending on invitations and funding) internationally. If a reader of this blog has ideas, please contact Markus Schaden directly.
Last, but not least, here is a picture of our current location on our trip through Spain.
We have been following the northern coast of Spain and spent a night in “Las Medulas” in the mountains of the province of León on our way further north and west to Santiago.
I did not know this place until I made the Imperium Romanum book in 2103 with Alfred Seiland, who came here to document this largest gold mine of the Roman Empire. My humble photograph is nowhere near his great picture. You can actually see the great Imperium Romanum in Seiland’s exhibition in Luxemburg now at the Musée national d'histoire et d'art (National Museum of History and Art), running from October 10 until February 15, 2105.