Monday, March 29, 2010

The present future of photobooks

While researching the world of "print on demand" (that's POD to those of you who like acronyms or the word "pod"), I stumbled upon the massive collaborative post ("crowd-sourcing") about "the future of photobooks" at RESOLVE in which various bloggers (many of them heavy hitters) prognosticate the demise/bright future of the photobook. I read every one of the 40 or 50 (I stopped counting) posts. I decided to take notes and share them with you in a way that will either save you time or whet your appetite for the ongoing discussion.

The "I saw the future, the geeks were right" stance.
Whether they see it as a good or a bad thing, most of the bloggers addressed the print vs. digital question. Some argue that mobile books, pdf books, and multimedia projects present a chance to rethink the entire system. But that means rethinking, not producing sub-par digital equivalents of the printed page. As one blogger writes:
“The struggle is to avoid the book being reduced to a means to distribute my photographs and to think of the online book as a stand alone project."
Point taken. Why buy a digital book if it doesn't offer something new. As Larissa Leclair says:
"Just look at a photographer’s website if you are going to look at photographs on a digital platform photobook – unless, that is, if the digital format has furthered the photobook in ways that the traditional book cannot."
Alec Soth argues that we're comparing apples to oranges when we talk about books and their multimedia digital counterparts:
"I’m currently experimenting with online audio slideshows and the like. But I see this as a new medium, not a book. For me, a book is a physical object."
The multi-user utopian vision
Several bloggers are hopeful that a multi-user experience will enhance our ability to read photographs and will lead to more collaborative publishing opportunities. One proposed idea unites chefs and food photographers to create the ultimate downloadable cookbook. Green Tea Gallery points to collaborative works such as PUBLICATION as models of the future:
"There will be more and more artistic collaborations that will flood the market with hundreds, if not thousands of new publications that will feature photography related projects, interviews and articles."
Ben Huff sees the move toward innovations (such as group publications) as part of the survival instinct—necessity as the mother of invention:
"As our economy continues to stumble, i'm seeing photographers become more creative and assertive in their efforts to become a part of the machine on their own terms."
The death of the editor
While some focus on cooperatives and multi-user content, others stress the rogue nature of the self-publisher. DIY=no editor, no designer, no teamwork. Critical terrain asks:
"What’s lost here? The combination of differently specialized people bringing their expertise to bear on a project in the making."
Sadkids agrees:
"My only concern in a POD world is the loss of editors. If the whole world is DIY, where are the quality checks? Look at the abundance of garbage on YouTube. No editors = lots of bad stuff."
This concern brings us back to the need for collaboration. As Amy Stein contends:
"If we want the photobook to evolve I believe we need to bring back collaboration and, more importantly, evolve the definition of a book. Instead of a mass mentality, where the book is reduced to a means to distribute your photographs, we must return to a place where photographers work with other artists and professionals to conceive and produce unique, standalone objects."
Without professional collaboration, chaos. The Online Photographer suggests an increased need for curating, for editing the useful from the mess of the internet:
"The internet is a junk heap. It's every frame that comes back from the drugstore. It's the contact sheet, the raw material, the unsorted mass."
Johanna Tumbler also emphasizes the importance of careful editing:
"I don’t know what the physical future of the photobook is, but I hope whatever it is, it still means that someone has committed themselves to an edit, a sequence, and thinks about the best layout for those images, rather than it just being a freeform collection where each individual image is more important than the whole…"
The tenacious printed book
The great majority of bloggers (photographers, editors, collectors) professed undying love for the book as object. (see, for example, Elysium, LOZ, Craig Ferguson, Daylight Magazine, and the Blurberati blog)

Elizabeth Avedon asserts that no matter what changes occur, collectors will keep buying books. DLK collection goes into more detail on the collector's point of view and give a counter arguments to deflate the hype about new technologies:
"For photography collectors, innovation in photobooks isn't a huge issue."

Other photo book enthusiasts (street level Japan, the space-in-between) look at their own buying habits to show that the industry is alive and well, and Lesley Martin of Aperture looks at the industry's current obsession with books on books:
"To my knowledge, there are at least four major Books about Books in development (Latin American Photobooks, German Photobooks, Dutch Photobooks, among other general interest) and several related exhibitions underway for release sometime in 2010-11."

Big publishers beware, innovate or die
Fractionmag compares the publishing industry to the recording industry. The big labels are all about profit:
"Sure, the giant companies are going to whittle things down to the bare minimum and it will become like the recording industry; if you cannot sell a certain and predetermined quantity of units, you do not get published (this is probably happening already). Gone are the days of believing in the work and the artist."
The publishers that take risks will be the publishers that generate sales. Christina Seeley (of Metro Nature) notes that if her own buying habits suggest anything, it is that innovative books will survive:
"The first thing I thought to do was to figure out which books in my own collection stand out and why. The consistency in the pile that formed was in the design of each of the selected titles. Each if only in slight ways, pushed outside the traditional design of the photography monograph."
Jerry Avenaim's comparison of the book industry to the movie industry is meant to be reassuring:
"When the DVD format was introduced in the 1990’s, movie theaters were terrified they would lose there business to people that had ‘home theaters.’ We all realized how nonsensical that was because at the end of the day, when the lights go down and the curtains part, we know nothing will ever replace the movie theater experience. And in my opinion a work of art is not digital, it is tangible.
Theater owners would disagree. Go to a movie anytime other than Friday night or Saturday, and you will understand why the megaplex theaters are pushing live events, corporate parties, and anything else they can come up with to compete with the home theaters. For Hamburger eyes, the self-published book (our "home theater" equivalent) will spur on creative thinking and give the consumer a better product:
"I think photo books will always be around and get better and better, and in 10 years they will look even better than we can imagine. It’s brewing now. The perfect storm. All these self published titles will make the bigger companies step it up and take risks to survive."
POD people, the self publishing revolution
Finally, we get back to what prompted my search in the first place: the "print on demand" market. Self-publishing no longer has the "vanity press" stigma it once did. A few self-published books have received widespread recognition. Blurb's Photography Book Now contest brings self-published titles to the attention of big-name jurors—although the winners are not necessarily published through Blurb.

The book Your golden opportunity is comeing [no, that's not a typo] very soon is kind of the "Blair Witch Project" (to keep the movie comparison going) of photo books: self-published, but with international buzz. This leads to the "quality content is more important than quality presentation argument" described by Shooting Wide Open as follows:
"Good photos printed in crappy quality or boring books still trump crappy photos printed at high quality or inserted into a fancy digital interface for me. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking every photobook needs to be of the highest quality to be viable."
This doesn't mean people love Blurb. In practice, many photographers see Blurb as an inexpensive way to pursue the traditional route. Elizabeth Fleming explains:
"I’ve had many conversations with fellow photographers who have also used Blurb, and the general consensus seems to be that we’ve all employed the service as a means for creating a template. In essence, when we show the book around it’s with a bit of a disclaimer: this is what my book would look like if an actual publishing house were to produce a more high-end version."
Shane Godfrey prefers the quality of a hand-made book and encourages photographers to revive that alternative:
"I do not think not using self publishing companies means make crap for a dollar and try to pass it as art. I think, personally, that handmade is the future. We are having a revival of alternative process, why not handmade books?"
La pura vida predicts great things to come thanks to self-publishing:
“Blurb is like Atari. Very cool for its time, but really only the tip of the iceberg in terms what’s to come."
My own conclusions
The movie industry and music industry comparisons are useful parallels to photo book publishing—at least to some degree. The proliferation of self-publishing and small presses creates an "indie" vibe that will influence the major publishers. For a lucky few, indie success will be a stepping stone to a major book deal. Books won't die, but our means of accessing them could change. There is not yet a photo book equivalent of Sundance, in my opinion, but various photo shows suggest that it's coming. Stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble are the megaplex cinemas of book distribution—most of them offering predictable, boring fare. I doubt that will change. The "art house" distributors will not suddenly become mainstream. However good the content, the general public doesn't have a huge appetite for indie material that hasn't received its stamp of approval from the mainstream. I go to the Sundance Film Festival every year and cram in about 30 movies in a week. I was at the first screening of "Precious" (then called "Push"). The audience gave it a standing ovation. I predicted Oscar nominations. It succeeded, but it will never be "Avatar." And for every "Precious" there are hundreds of excellent films that never make it outside a festival setting. Each year at Sundance I marvel at the excellent movies that are passed by. Sometimes, 2 or 3 years later, they find their way to a DVD release...

But the world of the photo book is unlike both music and film in one major way: the audience. Many of the big name publishers are only big names to collectors. Ask someone off the street about Steidl, how many have even heard of it, let alone Twin Palms, Actes Sud, Nazraeli Press. In many ways, the big presses of the photo world are the struggling indies. And if that's the case, where does it leave the rest of us?

I think that is what we are still trying to figure out.

For more reading, see:
Miki Johnson's presentation at the San Francisco Apple Store and RESOLVE's follow-up on the discussion.