Photobooks at Donlon Books in Hackney, east London, including Lorenzo Vitturi’s ‘Dalston Anatomy’
Photobooks at Donlon Books in Hackney, east London, including Lorenzo Vitturi’s ‘Dalston Anatomy’ © Andy Sewell

Self Publish, Be Happy, the online platform for self-published artists’ books, is based in a rundown building in Dalston, an area that has, over the past decade, seen a generation of young Londoners move east. Below its window is Ridley Road market, with stalls of African, Asian, Mediterranean and Caribbean fruit and veg, fabrics and clothing, spilling over the pavements.

Despite the apparent chaos, this part of the city has become expensive, and the next generation is looking south of the Thames. But since it set up in 2010, SPBH, like Donlon Books in nearby Broadway Market, has been at the heart of booming interest in photographic books — in buying them, selling them, making them, exchanging them, sharing news of them on social media, attending book-signings that promote them — on a scale that has defied all predictions of the death of the physical book in a digital future.

SPBH began as an experiment, after its Italian-born founder Bruno Ceschel, who worked as a photography editor and curator in London, visited the New York Art Book Fair in 2009. The fair, which hosts about 350 booksellers and attracts some 35,000 visitors, made a big impression. “There was a free symposium, and people were talking about these amazing publications,” he recalls, “and I thought, ‘Wow, most people in the industry don’t seem to see this material.’ So when I came back I did this call for submissions [on his blog] — really quite speculative. And I got a lot of good stuff. That prompted me to think that the books were out there. They just needed a platform.”

So Ceschel set up the site. As the books came in, he made a selection, scanned them and put them up online with an email address for the author. SPBH didn’t take money, but the network grew. Two years later he started SPBH Editions, with designer Antonio de Luca, and set up a book club to support it (members receive three titles a year for £110).

Its biggest success so far has been Lorenzo Vitturi’s 2013 book Dalston Anatomy, photographs of collages and sculptures that Vitturi made from the debris he found in the local market right under their noses. It used a variety of coloured fabrics for its covers and reflected the multicultural nature of the area, but also memorialised it, recognising that gentrification might one day mean that the market would disappear. The first edition of 1,000, at £45, sold out and its exchange value started to rise. A second edition last year, also sold out. A special collectors’ edition is available for £400.

Ceschel, who also lectures, writes, curates, runs workshops and speaks at festivals and fairs, says, “There are tons of small independent publishers now. But the business model is quite different. The publishing side is part of a broader portfolio of activities that I do.”

This is one end of an industry that has capitalised on the advances that digital technology has made to the design and production of visual publishing. Social media have also served as a free advertising network for selling books online. For any publisher, the ability to sell even a percentage of your titles direct to the customer can save on discounts to distributors and retailers that can be around 50 per cent of the retail price. For a tiny press, it can be the difference between sinking and staying afloat.

The new space in the marketplace has been colonised by hundreds of small imprints, from a lone photographer offering 50 copies of a handmade book, to small presses dealing in editions of 500 to 1,000. At the same time, photobook fairs have sprung up, among them Offprint, which runs alongside the annual Paris Photo fair, and is coming to London for the first time in May. The new audience is served by websites where books are promoted and sold, recommendations are swapped via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. New titles can sell out in weeks, helped by a growing number of collectors who might invest in two or more copies, opening one but leaving the others shrink-wrapped to trade in as prices on the secondary market rise.

George Georgiou’s self-published concertina book ‘Last Stop’
George Georgiou’s self-published concertina book ‘Last Stop’ © Andy Sewell

According to Chris Boot, a former director of Magnum Photos, who now runs the Aperture Foundation in New York, “Ten years ago there were, by my estimate, about 40 publishers around the world that a photographer needed to persuade to take on their book if they were going to get a book out on the marketplace. And that has completely changed. Now — it’s a glib truism — all photographers are publishers.”

This doesn’t mean that bookshops are missing out. At the revamped Foyles on London’s Charing Cross Road, photography books have been given pride of place on the ground floor, just inside the main entrance. Everything is targeted at the dedicated fan: new releases are presented with explanatory notes, there are shelves of ’zines, limited editions and overseas imports, and the store hosts regular photobook signings and talks.

Mohara Gill, Foyles’ art buyer, is responsible for the photography section. An art history degree at the Courtauld 15 years ago didn’t include photography, so she had to start from the ground up. “I had to learn from the customers,” she says. “When people keep asking, you see a gap in the market.”

These days, Gill identifies “a definite demographic of customer. We see a leap on publication [of a new title]. People come rushing in with a list,” she says. “There is certainly a sense of ‘We must have this item,’ and then it’s gone.”

The audience has grown, she says, and “it’s definitely more obsessive. They come straight to the section and know what they’re purchasing. It’s a herd thing as well: you see certain bloggers who are followed, you go on to YouTube and project by word of mouth.”

She has also been struck by the sense of goodwill. “Publishers who come in often recommend books by other small publishers. It’s a very generous and club­like atmosphere.” On a Saturday, Gill says, her customers treat a visit to the store like “a day out”. “There is a sense of community, they’re browsing books, chilling out in a bookshop. I think it’s beautiful.”

The current boom has had a few obvious drivers. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: A History, initially published in 2004 and now into its third volume, is usually credited with extending the interest in photobooks outside a relatively small circle of enthusiasts. But there were significant figures shaping photobook history before that: editors such as Robert Delpire in Paris, who published the first edition of Robert Frank’s The Americans in 1958, and conceived the Photo Poche series of small monographs, which have introduced successive generations to photography; or Mark Holborn, who first published the work of postwar Japanese photographers in the early 1980s and was responsible for publishing seminal photobooks such as Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, William Eggleston’s The Democratic Forest and Chris Killip’s In Flagrante. In the following decade, new European publishers entered the photography market. In Zurich in 1991, Walter Keller started Scalo, a small imprint that in its first few years published books by Robert Frank, by British photographer Paul Graham and by Malian photo­grapher Seydou Keïta. Scalo’s books were edited by Keller, designed in Berlin by Hans Werner Holzwarth and printed in Gottingen by Gerhard Steidl. What distinguished them as bookmakers is that rather than putting a collection of pictures together between boards, they produced books that reflected the spirit in which the author’s work was made.

Five years ago, when the first iPad was launched, might have been the time when photographic publishing began to migrate to the screen and leave the book behind. But so far, digital technology has acted as an enabler, making it possible for individuals to design and print their own books. The attraction lies in the physical “book-object” itself.

The week the iPad went on sale in Britain, the first person I met who owned one was publisher Michael Mack. Before setting up his own company in 2010, Mack had been managing director of Steidl, the German publisher that had come to dominate the market in specialist art and photography books and set a new standard in production quality. The iPad had brought a gleam to his eye. By 2011 he had two companies, MACK Books and MAPP editions, the second to publish visual eBooks, downloadable as apps. He thought this would be the future but, talking now, acknowledges that almost the opposite has been the case.

“You’re right. I put a lot of my working time into the digital possibilities. But what I came to realise is that where our market was expanding most, for MACK, was in the really young students, who were supposedly digital natives. They’re the ones — because their world is completely digital — who love the physical photobook, the physical art book, the art object,” he says, comparing it to the comeback of vinyl records.

His digital company is, he says, still very much a work-in-progress. “We just haven’t come to the solution on it but it’s still got a heartbeat, and we’ll continue to maintain it. Basically, I think we were a bit ahead of the wave.”

While his titles have artisan qualities in their design and production, Mack’s ambitions go far beyond limited editions. His aim is to build a self-sustaining company that delivers online and retail sales more efficiently, replacing the old business models more or less destroyed by Amazon’s massive discounting, which has left publishers and retailers unable to compete. “I’m interested in publishing a very curated list of books. In a sense it’s more like a gallery, choosing works you believe in, but also, importantly, that you think you can sell; you can build an audience out of the books you make.”

He praises the “wonderful creativity” of photobook publishing today but fears that the boom will turn out to be a bubble. “It’s self-sustaining in terms of sales — there may be 500 people around the world who all know what’s being published; they all buy a copy and that’s the print run. In practical terms, there is no way you can print a thousand copies and make a return on it unless you’re pricing it ridiculously high. So, commercially, I don’t understand what is underpinning and sustaining these projects.”

Mack has a point, says Gordon MacDonald, who co-founded the independent publisher GOST four years ago. “You make a book that costs £15,000 to make. You sell 1,000 copies at £30 each and you lose 50 per cent to distribution. You’re pretty much back to the same place if you’re lucky. ” What keeps him going, he says, is “spotting what will make a great book and working with a photographer to turn that into a book.”

Even a publisher as well-established as Gerhard Steidl gives me a very conservative estimate when it comes to making profits from his books. “A publishing house either loses money and then they go bankrupt, or they make between two and five per cent profit,” he says — adding that being a printer as well “saves a lot of money”, and enables him to print books for other houses.

For small publishers, there is no one-size-fits-all business model. Books can be funded by advance sales, grants, subscriptions, print sales or an investment from a gallery. Many photographers — usually making a living from more commercial work — put money in themselves. Rather than royalties, they are likely to receive payment in kind, usually a percentage of the print run, which they can sell via their own channels.

One pioneer in the self-publishing world is Stephen Gill, a photographer who set up his own imprint, Nobody Books, in 2005 and has gone on to publish more than 40 titles. For Gill self-publishing was more a question of control. “I wanted something made with the same frame of mind as made the work. I wanted the book to have the same spirit.” Nobody’s first book was Invisible, a series of photographs showing how the visibility jackets worn by workers in dangerous occupations made their wearers invisible to the public. Gill printed 1,000 copies — the figure was “guesswork”, he says now — and distributed them through friends. These were hardback editions, well bound and printed. “I always tried to publish the highest-quality book at the best possible prices.”

Gill admits to being worried, amid all the hype around self-publishing, that the main point of making a book is getting lost. At a photo fair he went to last year, he says, “Everybody was talking about the buzz, about Twitter, about sending [their books] to the right people. Not about the content. The hype is being created by a few people at the top of a pyramid. The future of photography should be in the hands of the authors. A great book should make itself known.”

What does all this mean for traditional illustrated book publishers, such as Thames & Hudson, which publishes around 200 illustrated titles a year? Johanna Neurath, whose grandfather Walter founded the company in 1949, is its design director. “We’re publishing more photography titles, not necessarily more monographs or artist’s books, but books like the Magnum anthologies,” she says. “Anything by a photographer who doesn’t have a big name, or lots of exhibitions, is tough. We’re not as nimble [as a small publisher].”

Despite her corporate responsibilities, Neurath is clearly enthused by what is going on around her. “I go to all those fairs and I’m like a kid in a sweetie shop. For me it’s pressing all the buttons that in 1978 [was about] doing it yourself and doing your fanzines. It’s definitely got the same energy, and I’m looking quite carefully at what they’re all doing and making sure my designers are looking at what they’re doing.”

Does she ever see a book among them that she wants to publish? “Yes. There is one book I would have loved to have published — [the photographer] George Georgiou’s London book. I watched that dummy being made and I had costings done. But I just knew we would never have been able to realise the book in the way that he wanted to, because of the production values. We would have had to publish it as a limited edition for hundreds of pounds, and that’s not fitting for the subject matter. So I persuaded him to do it himself.”

In the end, Georgiou crowd-funded Last Stop and is selling it through his website. Published in an edition of 950, at £44, it came out last month.

Liz Jobey is associate editor of FT Weekend Magazine

Photographs: Andy Sewell

Slideshow: images taken from the current top five bestselling photobooks at Donlon Books, London

Read an extended interview with Gerhard Steidl




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