Musings on Photography


Posted in books, Print On Demand, Solo Photo Book Month by Paul Butzi on May 28, 2008

This morning, being reminded by both Colin Jago at photostream and Mike Johnston at TOP, I headed off to Amazon to order up a copy of the Steidl version of Robert Frank’s The Americans. While there, I noticed that ALL of the recommendations that Mike had made in his post were listed in the “people who bought this also bought these” doogus that Amazon gives you.

And, because I was operating at 6am with very little sleep, this struck me as somewhat funny, so I fired off an email to Mike, telling him of his great influence. Almost right away I got a thoughtful reply from Mike, who expressed concern that there were no equivalent books to the ones he’d recommended being done today. Now, I will be the first to admit that I’m not a big photo book collector and that I’m not up to date on who’s currently producing work that is as iconoclastic as Mikes recommendations (‘iconoclastic’ is the word Mike used). The ubiquitous ‘they’ could be cranking out such books by the super-tanker load and I could believe I was simply unaware of that fact.

In any case, I think that what’s happening is that the world of photo books is on the cusp of a big upheaval. The easy availability of POD publishing, the rapidity of improvement in the quality of reproduction in POD, and the easier availability of the software and the skills to do book layout are going to be the game changers in the photo book world.

Let me draw an analogy to the music world. Before, there were the record label companies. They controlled physical distribution and had the connections to do promotion, and if you were a musician, they pretty much had a lock on whether you could get your music recorded and distributed. And then along came the internet, and personal computers, and iPods, and all of a sudden the record labels have been left standing there wondering what hit them. They thought they were in the business of selling round pieces of plastic with holes in the middle, and someone came along and pulled the rug out from under them.

And now we have musicians like Jonathon Coulton (see, who looks like he’s built his own musical career, doing the distribution over the internet, and cutting the record label out of the deal. And he’s not the only one. In a world where anyone with a personal computer and some relatively inexpensive equipment can record their own album, and anyone who can put up a web site can distribute said music, the game is quite a bit different. There are a lot more musicians out there doing a lot more music. I think in the end that’s a good thing.

In the same way, SoFoBoMo demonstrates that it’s perfectly possible for people to put together their own books. Lots of SoFoBoMo participants are taking their finished PDF books to the next level and getting them printed through POD. I’m hoping to add some of those books to my book collection.

So I’m hoping for a renaissance in the photo book world, and it won’t come from the usual photo book publishers. Oh, I think that the super high quality publishing houses that currently do photo books will come out just fine, because they occupy a niche in the book market that will be hard to penetrate through POD for a while yet. But the edgy, iconoclastic stuff that Mike Johnston misses, as well as the quieter stuff that can’t get the attention of the publishers – that stuff is going to get done, but not by mainstream presses. It’ll get done by the photographers themselves. I think that in the end, thats a good thing, too.

Herewith the obligatory Shakespeare, relevant to the discussion:

Full fathom five thy father lies:
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

3 Responses

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  1. gordonmcgregor said, on May 29, 2008 at 8:08 am

    The trick then is finding those diamond’s in the rough. Editors used to provide the function of filtering out a lot of the junk and only letting through the ‘good stuff’. Problem is, that then uses market forces to drive the selection, when there might well be plenty of extremely great stuff that is only of interest to a small minority, but who would love, love, love it.

    That’s where all this democratization of content delivery is wonderful. PoD, blogging, releasing music on-line is magnificent for enabling us to find those great content creators who we might love, but who may not have the mass-market appeal to reach a wide audience and attract the publishing machine.

    The downside is that anyone can release any old crap. The editing function of ensuring a level of quality is gone. Some how, some way that filtering and reviewing process has to be picked up. You then start having ‘trusted voices’ who go find things for you and tell you that this is insanely great and you’ll love it. Over time, you find the people who’s taste match your own and can be useful signposts for you.

    Anyone reviewed the 43 (43!) books finished for SoFoBoMo yet ? I keep wanting to go through and do something like that – hold up the ones I find insanely great and say ‘hey, look at this one!’

  2. Martin Doonan said, on May 29, 2008 at 8:34 am

    Gordon – I’ve read at least 30 of the 43 so far. I did pick up a few that stood out for particular reasons & blogged them. Problem with reviewing something like SoFoBoMo is that part of the idea is these aren’t fully polished books and it’s clear some were using this as a mock-up process. Do you then review the idea or content? What it is or what it could be?

    I’ve also been browsing the Blurb store. What I find is not that there is a lot of rubbish (that’s what Flickr is for) but that an awful lot of it is so similar.

    I think the thing about the “iconic” books was the vast amount of work that stands behind them. Who, now, is prepared to go out shoot 20,000 frames to produce a collection of 50-80? Who’s going to sit around and wait for them to do it?

  3. Ed Richards said, on May 29, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    There are a lot of trade-offs. I have done 4 professional books over the past 20 years. (Law, not photography.) They ranged from my giving the publisher a typed manuscript which was edited by a real editor, to pretty much doing it all myself. (No difference in royalties, however.)

    You get more control doing it yourself, and you can keep more of the money, but distribution is a real pain. You also spend a lot of time doing it. Not nearly as bad for a photobook as one that is all words, but still, it is a lot of time. That is time from doing other things, including shooting/writing the next book. It also takes a different set of skills, so that it not automatic that a good photographer will be a good book designer or technical layout geek.

    The real benefit is that you can do books that would never get a publisher’s interest. The downside is that it is pretty depressing to not sell many/any copies, despite great reviews. At least a publisher can shove some into the channel.:-)

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