Why Does Everyone Think They Need A Photo Book?

- - Book Publishing

A few weeks back I participated in Santa Fe Center’s Portfolio Bootcamp, a workshop they created to help photographers with their portfolio and portfolio presentation. The beauty of this event for me, was the diversity of the instructors: from editorial, to book publishing to curatorial. I always come away with a better understanding of how the other parts of the industry work. There was a great talk on the artist statement given by Katherine Ware Curator of Photography, New Mexico Museum of Art and Joanna Hurley President HurleyMedia, Co-Founder of Radius Books. You can read a summary on Joanna’s blog (here) which I recommend checking out if you need to write an artist statement.

As I was leaving the portfolio review session I overheard Joanna and Maggie Blanchard, Director of Twin Palms Publishers remark to each other how incredible it was that everyone wanted a photo book published. That stuck with me when I got home, so I decided to email Joanna and ask her “why does everyone think they need a photo book” and here’s her answer:

It’s interesting that in this digital age photographers still want a printed book of their work. They believe having a book will give them credibility as artists, and will open the door to opportunities and recognition with museums, curators and the general public.

That desire for recognition and acclaim is not new; what does seem new to me, looking at this from a perspective of 35 years in the publishing business, is that desire often overtakes perspective, and the sense of where one really is in one’s career as an artist, that is, where the work is, and whether or not it is truly ready for a book. While doing a book at the right time and in the right way can jump-start or revive a career, if you do a book too soon or at the wrong time, and without any kind of creative team behind you (such as a publishing company), then it can look like vanity because there has been no one objectively vetting the work and helping you shape its presentation into a coherent, well-designed narrative.

In our age of instant gratification and immediate communication, it is only natural for people to think that recognition of their talent should be accelerated as well, which can lead to the idea that projects may be ready to publish before they are. This rush to market––or bookmaking––can become detrimental to the development of an artist’s voice, and gravitas, and distract from thinking about and making the work itself. By the same token, the ease of communication and the many venues available to artists for sharing their work online can foster a wonderful dialogue that in the end can deepen and strengthen it.

In the end it boils down to the artist’s sense of himself and his creative process and when it is truly complete for a particular body of work. I do believe that a sense of self-awareness and perspective on one’s work are among the qualities that distinguish a truly great photographer or artist of any kind. I am mindful of a quote by Georgia O’Keeffe in talking about her work painting flowers, “to see a flower takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

Photographers are definitely thinking of photo books in a different way than publishers. The large majority of photographers whom I talk with are relatively oblivious to the constraints under which publishers operate; they see it only from the vantage point of wanting a book and thinking they (and the world) are ready for it. They don’t understand that publishing is a business, so publishers are always looking for what will sell. For the large publishers, it’s generally either going to be a retrospective of a major artist, or a book on a well-known and perennially interesting subject.

The larger publishers operate much more like multi-national corporations (which most of them are), and thus have layers and layers of bureaucracy. It’s much harder for a single editor or even the publisher of a particular imprint such as Bulfinch, which is part of a larger company (Hachette), or even Abrams or Rizzoli (which are also owned by large, European conglomerates) to get permission to take a chance on a relatively unknown photographer or unusual project because of one simple fact: sales. Whereas those publishers need to sell upwards of 7,500 or 10,000 copies of a book to make it work financially for them, a smaller press can be quite happy with sales of 2-3,000––and often the decision to publish at a small press is made by one person.

That is definitely a big difference from the way the business operated when I first entered it. Now it’s the smaller presses who can be more nimble, and can take a chance on the work of an exciting, new talent who is presenting material and process in a new and very exciting way. The editors and publishers of these smaller presses basically act like curators. Their buyers are basically collectors of their books, and often so trusting of their taste, that these publishers can make someone’s career by their decision to publish them, in the same way that a curator can catapult someone to prominence by including their work in a show.

There Are 42 Comments On This Article.

  1. I got asked all the time when I’d have a book. It’s not necessarily something I’d do on my own without the prodding.

    also, even though we live in the digital age where it’s so easy to make a book, it still imparts a sense of validation that the average customer puts a lot of weight onto.

  2. Nice piece…but in addition…throughout my career, I’ve heard voices of “people who know” saying “you gotta do a book to be taken seriously.” Personally, sure I’d like to do a book. Do I think I am ready? Do I think I have a cohesive-enough vision yet to do anything than a small run at a self-publisher like Blurb?….No, not yet. So I agree with your interviewee, Joanna Blanchard, a photographer should spend more time refining their vision and less time rushing to publish.

  3. “It’s interesting that in this digital age photographers still want a printed book of their work. They believe having a book will give them credibility as artists, and will open the door to opportunities and recognition with museums, curators and the general public”

    Hmmm.. there are other reasons too: I take a lot of pictures, very few of which I actually print, so to have the opportunity to self-publish not only boosts my ego, but it also means I don’t have to waste time switching on and booting up whatever electronics holds my content. It also means that I can lend my book to someone, rather than have to hand over my laptop or iPad :-)

  4. Hey man, I need a book because all the magazines I’m published in end up in the trash eventually! (apart from the National Geographic Magazine which I’m sure will be floating around dentists and doctors waiting rooms for years to come!), so to me a book is cool as it’ll mean that my stuff will have a little bit more longevity, especially important when the work deals with documentary photography that covers issues that will change a lot in the future. So yeah! Book ‘em Danno!

      • Cheers man, that means a lot. I feel like I’m just getting started! you know, like never happy with anything. I can’t get no satisfaction.

        • Isn’t that the battle many face…. I often think of the Ansel Adams Answer to Roy Firestone’s question, which is the greatest photograph he’s made. “I haven’t made it yet and I am still searching for it.” I think each day is a new beginning where I can try to do better than the days before.
          Yes, love your work. especially the one photo of the young man, chicken on the couch with the mason jar.

    • I hear that a lot especially from photographers who have been fairly successful in the editorial and advertising realm for a while. It seems like once the excitement of actually seeing one’s work in magazines wears off photographers often want something more. I think that’s perfectly understandable and it’s a legitimate reason to pursue a book project.

  5. While I’ve never considered self publishing my work, I wouldn’t necessarily look at self-publishing as vain. As the article above says, publishing is a “business,” which is obvious. But in that “business,” sometimes work is considered more for an author’s celebrity than the actual work itself. 

    If a celebrity, no matter how bad, wants to publish a photography book, he or she would have no trouble having a book out in less than a year whereas an unknown photographer who may be much more talented would not be seen. In that, I think it’s worth risking vanity for the sake of presenting an alternative to “what sells.” I mean, in these cases, photographers are absorbing all the costs, so what’s the problem?

    Because the alternative is for photographers to wait around for a curator to decide whether or not they’re worthy of being seen based on matters  that may not be always be reflected on the actual work.

    The  visual public deserves alternatives. Like music, not everyone can stomach pop. For the system of art to work, there always has to be voices out there willing to take alternative measures to be seen or heard. Otherwise, it puts this power in the hands of a very few, which is dangerous. 

    Technology is allowing smaller voices to be heard, and that’s a great thing. In that there will certainly be work that is not ready. But given the alternative, it’s a risk worth taking

  6. Need? Or want?

    Publishing a book provides a wonderful, visceral representation of the work a photographer has produced. Self published or old-school, the book sits in the real world in a far different way than virtual images.

    I don’t think it is a matter of fame or gravitas for many (most), I think that the digital world has now allowed photographers to make their own – faster, easier and with more control.

    Maybe the answer is “because we can”.

  7. I just co-published with the University of Virginia Press, the fruits of my twenty-year labor-of-love photographing the Chesapeake Bay watershed from the air. Was it worth it? Yes.

    It was a long-term personal project of importance to me. I had a vision of what I wanted to say with the book and how to tie it together. I spent way more on helicopters and printing than I’ll make from the sale of the books. But this book – number 6 for me – is the most important and I’d much rather have this work in printed form than as a digital book or a web site.

    To me, IMO, having it printed and in hand, adds weight and significance to the work and the project.

    • 20 years is probably the right amount of time to spend on a project I think. Congratulations on putting in the time on a project that clearly was a passion of yours.

      I too am working on a very extended project on another large body of water, Utah’s Great Salt Lake. I’m about 12 years into it. I figure in about 5 years I’ll see where I am and if it’s ready to be published.

      With a record of a place that spans a significant length of time, having the published record stands as a bookmark in time of that place. You clearly did your project with the long-term audience in mind. I would like to see these photographs. I hope when I Google you, I can find some.

      Also, a personal ‘Thank-You’ to you and other photographers who are embarking on significant long-term photographic projects. I detest the ‘hit-and-run’ photographer and I steer my own students away from that way of working.

      • “Also, a personal ‘Thank-You’ to you and other photographers who are embarking on significant long-term photographic projects.”
        Michael, here’s one worthy, long-term photographic book project http://kck.st/nQUm46 which is deserving of such a thoughtful gesture.

  8. The key point here is that publishing is a business and the economic factors are essentially what influences a publisher’s decision to do a book. In addition to that, book publishing really depends on economies of scale: the more books you print the cheaper they become. That’s all well and good for the books that will sell 2000 – 3000 copies or more, but what happens for those with a potentially smaller audience?

    It’s interesting how when it comes to photography books, “self publishing” often is seen in a negative way, as suggested by the “vanity” reference. But the equivalent in the music business is typically seen in a much more positive light.
    How about we scrap the term “self publishing” and use “independent publishing” or a similar term.

    I was faced with many of the issues that this piece refers to when I finished a long-term project last year. I ended up going the independent route, but I didn’t just suddenly finish the project and publish the book. An eventual book was my intended outcome for this work pretty much from the beginning, and with that in mind, as the project developed I explored the book publishing world. I showed the work to publishers, produced a number of book dummies along the way and got feedback on them from people I trusted. I also very carefully studied books until I had a very clear idea of how I wanted my book to be.

    Keeping in mind that I have other potential book projects underway I decided to start an indie publishing company, Backroad Books, and Field Work: Photographs from East Anglia was officially launched October 1st. I decided to go the limited edition route and the book is in an edition of 100, and comes with a slipcase, a print, and all packaged in a letterpress labeled box. It is printed on demand, using a company based in London which combining HP Indigo printing with high quality cloth covers and foil printing etc.

    I have no regrets producing a book this way. I know that I would rather have the control over the book than let a publisher take that control away and end up with a book I was disappointed with. Obviously that is not always the case, but it happens often. One of the things that became clear to me when I spoke to various publishers was that they were thinking of ways to cuts costs whenever possible, such as the weight and quality of paper, where the book would be printed, type of endpapers and cover, etc etc.

    There are exceptions to the above, such as Steidl and Nazraeli, but you only have to look in a book store to see that there are a number poor quality books produced these days.

  9. Jeff Van Kleeck

    People want books because it still gives the feeling that you(and your work) will live forever.
    Plus there is that intimate and tactile thing that a book gives you, but that might be generational. I’d be curious if the photographers you(and they) talked to were under 25. Do young photographers want a physical book?

  10. Patricia Barry Levy

    I was at Center’s Portfolio Bootcamp. I believe the book hunger you refer to is partially stoked by Bootcamp and events like it.

    I think another important question to ask is – why do the forums/reviews/presentations put on by Center and others continue to put so much emphasis on publishers and publishing? The odds of making any inroads in that area with the people on a given panel/review are very low (and I did not have any illusions about that going in). Yet making connections in the publishing world is often held out as an important benefit of such gatherings, and is a big part of their marketing message.

    In my case, I said nothing about a book during my review with one of the publishers, who near the end said “So I suppose you want a book” followed by some advice on where I fell short.

    The publishers at Bootcamp impressed me, and I gained a lot from their perspective. But what I found most valuable was the opportunity to meet with professionals who have the benefit of seeing lots of high level work, and who could help me gain perspective about my work within that bigger picture.

  11. I’m in the second year of my photography career. Last year I was offered to print a book for a non-profit organization so that both could benefit from it sells. I end up rejecting the deal. The reason? some of the things already mentioned here and the whole desire of having something substantial to say or show in that print.

    I believe paper is “romantic” and the best medium to appreciate photography but for printing a book, except that is for “decoration”, then (IMO) you have to add something to the table or in another case scenario, you can delight us with the work you’ve done during several years in your career. But again this is my opinion and how I like to do things.

  12. I guest curated a show (design, not photography) that took me 5 years to put together. I only accepted to curate on the condition that a catalog of the exhibition be printed. This was a huge battle because any museum director will tell you that most exhibition catalogs (like photography and art books) lose money. As I prepared the exhibit and worked with curators at at major museums across the country, I came to realize how many incredible shows come and go and are completely forgotten because a museum board cared more about profit than preservation. The Eastman House has done impressive work but has not been able to afford publishing it. The same goes for the Cooper-Hewitt. The Strong Museum once did innovative academically minded exhibits (now forgotten, unpublished) but then it became a children’s museum because that was more profitable. It’s good for would-be published photographers (myself included) to hear about the realities of publishing, but I don’t think that should lessen their drive to publish. They just need to understand what they’re up against and adapt accordingly. Sam H’s comparison of indie music and indie publishing is apt. In fact, the unwieldy conglomerates that control major publishing houses are likely to suffer from their lack of risk taking and flexibility in the same way the big music labels have. Maybe one day the “major labels” will find themselves looking to the indies for solutions to their own eroding business.

  13. Thanks for timely article. The observation: “..sometimes desire overtakes perspective” is key. The volumes of images we see on a regular basis has blurred lines between a personal photo album and a photo book to be shared with a diverse audience.

  14. My comments on the back cover of my latest self-published ( http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/2488909) book were this,

    After a long hard day I fixed something to eat and retired to my chair. It was dusk and like sunrise, that is a beautiful time of the day anywhere, especially in a garden. The lights were on but still enough light to see the flower colors and the food that I was eating.

    Other than raise families and work, sometimes I think that we humans wonder why we do some of the things that we do, especially if they entail lots of work and time..It occurred to me that when I am really elderly it will be wonderful beyond words to look at the things that I co-created when I was younger. They are transitory, as is all life, but how wonderful it will be to sit somewhere and look at the books for this or that garden and my photography and marvel that all the things of the universe coincided long enough to allow me to co-create them.

    I hate the “life is a journey” phrase but subjugating the perception of one’s talent to the realm of outside publishers is not always healthy as they are more concerned with what will sell than the actual talent involved, as they have always been and probably will always be. Personal talent is always growing and changing.

    • Thank you for that Pam…your words and your sentiments are a clarion call for those who might follow their hearts, yet perhaps live in fear of not being accepted for it.

  15. As the ability to self publish high print quality books increases…. the line between ‘published book’ and ‘portfolio’ are becoming blurred. Everyone’s always had a portfolio, right? It reflects the best of our work and our editing to date. It may not be worthy of publishing, in the traditional sense, but it is what it is at that moment…. and you keep improving it over time. I think the Center’s publishing boot camp is a good thing, because it is teaching discipline to the artists, whether commercial or fine, in how they see their work and what place it may have in the larger universe of published work. In other words, in a world where there are few barriers to making a book, it creates a sense of responsibility on the part of the artist who desires such a book. When you combine this sense of responsibility with desire…. it makes the world of self publishing more legitimate. It’s about educating us lusty artists.

  16. because a book and the photos should be judged on the quality of the pictures and how much you and others enjoy it not just on who published it? isn’t there just as much bad crap out there by a real publisher as there is by someone self-publishing?

  17. I don’t see vanity in self publishing, unless the edit is terrible. I have done a couple of books mainly as gifts to family. Would I consider any of the photographs for public consumption? Only a very small percentage. I think it takes time, and a key is having an outsider to collaborate on what is in the edit/curated work. I don’t think I could produce a great representation of my work, nor do I think I have enough to make a book. I know the experience of producing a couple books as gifts has brought light to the truth.

    JMHO but I don’t think anyone should rush into having a book. I would love to have a couple but that is a bit in the distance for me.

  18. Andre Friedmann

    Buying opportunity is, I think, manifest in the explosive growth of small-edition photography book publishing since the mid-1990s: in a very tough economy in 2010 a bookseller specializing in photography closed his doors in Rockport, Maine after the internet squeezed his margins. Unable to eke out a livelihood after more than twenty years adjacent the Maine Photography Workshops, he pointed out that photographers published more books of their work in the last fifteen years than all the photography books combined in the previous 150 years. Alongside this boom in publishing, the photographers had – in his experience and observation – few or no customers to buy their books or their prints. Nearly all the books were headed for the remainder pile or for pulping. Sales were a bust.

    Each photographer could only hope for the thing that happened to John Szarkowski: Dave Garroway, the host of the popular NBC morning television program The Today Show, plugged Szarkowski’s new book “The Face of Minnesota” on air in June 1958, and the book’s July sales put it on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks that summer. Oprah Winfrey is Garroway’s latest incarnation, and her reading list is, for a writer, a winning lottery ticket. Shortly after writing this, my old friend Andy experienced happy news: though his book didn’t make Oprah’s reading list, it did merit a brief review at Oprah’s web site, causing a huge spike in sales at Yale University Press. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve often known a more modest version of Garroway’s referral, which is a real joy.

  19. Great read…thanks for posting!

    “Why Does Everyone Think They Need A Photo Book?”

    The simple answer is that people take print media more seriously. That doesn’t mean it is more serious, it just means that they take it more seriously. For example, if a researcher is writing a book he might add footnotes (referring to other print sources) in order to give credibility to his own writing. But he wouldn’t pay the same respect to information that he may have gotten from talking to people. In other words, printed sources are taken more seriously as reference than audio sources. The same phenomenon happens in photography. Printed photographs are taken more seriously than digital images. The printed book is similar to the “footnote” that gives credibility to the work of the photographer. Photography websites, social media marketing or digital image sharing isn’t taken as seriously by the audience and is sort of treating similar to second-hand information.

  20. Enough already with this elitist view that a photographer doing a photo book must be a vanity project. Having that opinion is vain. It maintains an old school standard of thought that unless a body of work is chosen by an ‘official’ person or company for release to the public, it isn’t valid. Bullsh*t. I agree with the previous comment above:

    ‘isn’t there just as much bad crap out there by a real publisher as there is by someone self-publishing?’

    Editors, art buyers, CD’s etc. have the luckiest jobs in the world – which they constantly whine about btw. They get to spend their time discovering NEW talent. That means actually giving artists that may not have the big names yet a look as well. Will all of it be great? No, but that doesn’t mean you discourage any artist from expressing themselves.

    • wrong. this discussion is about photography as a business. if you want to make it your hobby that’s perfectly fine just not what we like to talk about here.

      • I am not talking about photography as a hobby, I’m talking about photography as a business. Hobbyists will most likely not send their work to an established editor, but budding shooters who may have a lot of talent to be discovered might. I think as with everything, there should be a balance between the established shooters and the exciting ones coming up.

        I think the days of just choosing shooters based on the name and number of years they’ve shot are kind of done. Maybe that stings for those of us who have been in the business for a long time, because hanging on to old paradigms make life easier, but that’s not progressive or inclusive.

  21. A very funny website called The Cold Hard Football Facts has something called The Shiny Hood Ornament Theory when it comes to the wide receiver position. The basic idea is that the WR is not really that valuable when it comes to actually winning games (see New England), and that like a pair of expensive rims on a car, football teams get seduced into wasting a lot of money and or draft picks (see Atlanta) on them every year, ignoring the rest of the team.

    For me, the book is the shiny hood ornament of photography. Everyone wants one. They’re expensive. Many publishers or book agents even get us to pay for them because of all the “exposure” we’re going to get. Now even consultants like the aformentioned above are doing seminars and consults so they can “help” us make our book projects, professionals now transitioning literally from actual editor with a publisher to individual consultant. So that’s where the industry is just going. All the money is going into self-publishing versus traditional. No one actually buys a book anymore, LOL, but some photographer will still spend 20 grand to publish one. So even if photographers didnt want books (which by the way they do), there’d be plenty of people seeking to create that demand, because it seems us photogs will happily shell out 10K just to make and pitch the book, and then another 30 to publish it. This is a big business, and the hood ornaments are flying off the shelves.

    But what these books really do for your career, other than with a huge, respected publisher who actually markets it to new audiences, one wonders. Those that make the most of the book seem to already have the other contacts and success in their career that makes the book worthwhile, they already have notoriety, already have a network of personal distribution, already have new jobs to pitch, etc etc. The book is part of a much wider plan (just like the football team) and without your agent, or the gallery using that book well etc, I wonder just how worth it is. How many book pros have the guts to tell a photog to wait till they have all that other stuff in place before they shell out 30 grand? Not many, I would bet.

    I think books can be wonderful, beautiful things, and certainly as an artist of course some should want one for their work. But, as an effective business tool, and as something so crazy expensive now, I think its terribly overrated, and there is now a whole new cadre of people who make very good money to convince us just how nice and shiny it is, and how we should all want one. Not a coincidence, folks.

  22. While there may be iron in Joanna’s words on the publishing of a book…I also find (like Sam H and Justin) that her thoughts (although based in some form of accepted reality) are somewhat linear and in lock step with the establishment. We can know the established realities of any given scenario…but knowing this doesn’t mean must we fall in line with them or even feel connected to them.