Invitation to the ‘Golden Age’
Publish Your Own Photography Book — Darius Himes, Mary Virginia Swanson
Book Review by Dewi Lewis
Published by: Princeton Architectural Press
It is frequently said that we live in the ‘golden age of the photobook’. More photography books are published than ever before and what once seemed the impossible dream of every photographer – to ‘have their own book’ – now appears to be an increasingly realisable ambition. And so the publication of Publish Your Photography Book would seem entirely appropriate and timely.
Both the authors, Darius Himes and Mary Virginia Swanson, have an excellent pedigree. A co-founder of the US publisher Radius Books, Darius was formerly editor of photoeye’s Booklist magazine, whilst Swannie is best known for her professional practice work with photographers, particularly in relation to marketing. This combination of production expertise and promotional awareness is a perfect mix and key to any publishing endeavour, not least a book on the subject.
As US based authors, there is, unsurprisingly, a slant towards that market, yet most of the information provided is fully transferable to a European perspective. Publishing is essentially an international business and while trade practices do vary across national boundaries, the similarities are greater than the differences.
Attractively designed and well laid out, the book covers the many practicalities of the publishing process, from project development and the submission of work through to contract considerations, production issues and marketing strategies. It is also peppered with ‘industry voices’ offering helpful insights into various aspects of a trade which can often seem mysterious to the outsider. A section of case studies provides contributions from photographers such as Alec Soth, David Maisel, John Gossage, Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb. These tend to focus less on the practical side and more on content and editorial development. Finally, there is a section of resources including two excellent, detailed timelines that indicate schedules for the design and production process, and for the marketing of the book.
For the novice, this is a book that will confirm publishing as a daunting and multifaceted business. The authors write with great enthusiasm and make a strong and welcome case for the active involvement and engagement of the photographer. No doubt the complexity of the process will put off the more faint-hearted but for those with a real determination it should prove an effective springboard and a valuable guide to getting their work into print. As a caveat though, I would say that it should not be the only source of information for anyone intent on publication. It is an excellent introduction to the world of photographic publishing but its inspirational zeal can, on occasion, feel a little overwhelming. For me, it would benefit from a few more battle-hardened perspectives such as that provided by Robert Morton’s ‘industry voices’ contribution.
As the authors suggest, publishing is not a homogenous activity. Publishers come in all shapes and sizes, their agendas differ massively. They do, however, share one common characteristic – the wish and the need to survive. This means that no matter whether a publisher is part of an international conglomerate or a small not-for-profit company both have a keen eye on the financial aspects of publication. This is perhaps an area which is the least explored in the book. As a publisher, I am only too aware of the extremely high cost of publishing to the high production values necessary and the immense difficulty of selling books. Many of today’s ‘golden age’ photobooks are produced as self-published titles with the financial risk, as well as the massive burden of production and marketing, resting firmly on the shoulders of the photographer. Even if a title is not selfpublished, photographers are increasingly expected to make significant financial contributions towards their books, either from their own resources or through sponsorship. The line between economic reality and vanity publishing has become thinly drawn.
And so, whilst there is an undoubted increase in the quantity of photobooks, the ‘golden age’ tag doesn’t totally ring true for me. Hand in hand with this growth has come a reduction in print runs and what can only be described as a major retreat by the mainstream, commercial bookshops. Chains such as Waterstones in the UK and Barnes and Noble in the US appear increasingly reluctant to offer up shelf space to visual books. Yet, worldwide there are few specialist photobook stores and most of us have little access to them. Our recourse is primarily to Amazon. At present that works, but what happens when browsing stock in a bookshop becomes a distant memory. How then will we come across those unknown treasures, those first books by previously undiscovered talents? Books are tactile objects, we need not only to see them, but also to feel them, to engage with them and be seduced by their physical form. In an increasingly virtual world, how will the printed book achieve the necessary interface between audience and author? Books by established names will, no doubt, continue to sell but will we still be able to discover the undiscovered?