The Premise: A Crowd Sourced Blog Posting About Photography Book Publishing
Andy Adams, the creative juice behind the online magazine Flak Photo recently contacted me about a “crowd-sourced” blog posting relating to photobooks, in conjunction with Resolve, the Livebooks blog. Was I game in posting something on my own blog? Sure. I’m always game for a discussion about photobooks.
Miki Johnson, an editor and contributor to Resolve kick started the discussion with a smattering of provocative questions: “What do you think photobooks will look like in 10 years? Will they be digital or physical? Open-source or proprietary? Will they be read on a Kindle or an iPhone? And what aesthetic innovations will have transformed them?”
Language and Books
What these questions assume is a common understanding and definition about how the term “book” is being used and in my opinion, so many of the discussions around photography books are sloppy because of a lack of precise language. Language and books are intimately connected—clay, stone, leather, vellum, wood, and paper all share the distinction of being used to carry words and symbols and ideograms which refer back to a spoken vocabulary, to a spoken language.
The desire and ability to create written languages is uniquely human and whole civilizations have been built around and because of them. (cf. Steven Pinker’s books, particularly The Language Instinct). The very notion of a “written language” implies a material upon which the language is written or recorded, and a brief survey reveals all sorts of variations on a theme—tablets, stellae, scrolls, screens, accordion-folded papers, bags of inscribed bones, hinged wood panels, and of course sheets of paper bound with thread all dot the history of humankind’s desire to record and convey the written word. It was Gutenberg‘s invention of movable type that moved humanity into a new era, one of ever-increasing facility with reproducing the written word.
So, shoot forward to the 21st century and we have all sorts of ways that written language is conveyed to us, beyond vellum, stone tablets and sheets of paper bound with thread—the primary advancement is that we have now added electronic media, both audio and visual. But as to the act and the effect of reading the Psalms, a sheet of vellum with calligraphy from the 12th century is essentially no different than a Kindle. They are physical objects upon which one can read the written word.
The Future of Books
Over on eyecurious, Marc Feustel, who maintains the blog from Paris, adds his two-cents to this crowd-sourced blog posting and points out that the current discussion among publishers is “that the e-book revolution is primarily going to affect non-illustrated books.” This is how he approaches the questions: “Firstly, there is the question of technology. This debate should be placed into the larger context of the debate on the future of books, period.”
I would beg to clarify this, though. Publishers are not really debating the future of “books,” if by books we mean the future of “recorded human language.” They are debating the future of the sales of printed books in the quantities they are used to. Think for a moment about this same discussion, which we’ve witnessed over the past decade, in relation to the music industry. It would be meaningless to say, “The music industry is debating the future of music.” People aren’t listening to less music nor are less people listening to music. Our global population is growing at unprecedented rates and I guarantee you they are listening to music and looking for entertainment. What publishers—big publishers—are fretting about and debating is how the digital medium has affected their sales of written language on sheets of paper bound between two covers and sold as books. Make sense?
Before we go on, I’d still like to emphasize that the future of “books” is secure. And by that I mean that the future of human language written on sheets of paper bound between two covers will exist with us for millenia into the future. I’m betting on history. With a printed book, there is no need for electricity to access it—a lap and a pool of sunlight or a single candle are all that’s required. The fleeting nature of access to electricity and utilities that huge portions of the world’s population has to deal with will necessitate printed books for centuries still, if not perpetually into the future. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In my mind, there simply is no replacement for a physical object. Think about the Torah, the Bible, the Qur’an, the Upanishads, the Hidden Words, the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Bhagavad Gita—all of these sacred works, which have shaped societies and will continue to shape societies, are books that are used daily by 100s of millions of people. Having to rely on electricity (which we’ve only had societally for less than 200 years) seems particularly ridiculous.
Photography and Books
Photography has also existed for less than 200 years. But when it comes to the reproduction of images, the discussion revolves around the same concerns as with the written word. It’s just as easy to carve an image as it is to carve a letter (which, after all is an “image” itself, a symbol that indicates a sound which, when combined with other sounds creates a word, which in turn is a symbol for an idea or an object that exists in the world).
An “image” of a man on a tablet-sized sheet of vellum, drawn by a 10th century monk and an image of a man seen through a browser window on a tiny white “tablet” computer made by a 21st century photographer, are both more or less the same, when seen from a certain vantagepoint.
So, is a pdf a “book”? Or is a pdf a book in potentia? It is definitely a conveyor of both written language and images, whichever you like. And as an electronic artifact, it has it’s own pretense to existence. However, to me, a pdf or a website or an “ebook” are not books in the same way that a stone tablet or a scroll or a sheet of papyrus are also not examples of books. They are vehicles of recorded human language, true. But a pdf is a pdf. A website is a website. A stone tablet is a stone tablet. A set of pages with either written language or images on them (reproduced in any manner of methods), gathered and bound together in some fashion = a book. It is a thing I hold in my hands. It is material and concrete.
Back to the Questions
“What do you think photobooks will look like in 10 years? Will they be digital or physical? Open-source or proprietary? Will they be read on a Kindle or an iPhone? And what aesthetic innovations will have transformed them?”
Out of the 5 questions posed by the instigators of this crowd-sourced blog posting, the first and the last, if taken from a creative standpoint, are impossible to answer. “What will new music composed for the piano sound like in 10 years?” Who knows.
But when it comes to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th questions, they all revolve around electronic technology. And I am suggesting that this is simply another query about the materiality, about the physical vehicles that will be used for disseminating language or images. Will they be read on a Kindle or an iPhone? Yes, sure. They already are. Will they also be printed? Some will, no doubt, and some won’t. Will some of the larger traditional publishing houses incorporate more and more ebooks into their inventory? Yes. Will some small, new companies deal *only* in electronic media? Of course. Will some photographers choose to release their images only through an electronic platform, and will that platform be open-source or proprietary? Sure, probably some will, and probably some won’t. Are there still guys (and girls) that use letterpress out in their garages in Brooklyn? Yes. Are there some photographers who only shoot digitally? Yes, of course. Will technologies continue to change and advance and will humans adapt to those changes? Yes.
As I think more about these questions, it may be more useful to ask, “What will book publishing look like in 10 years?” Again, I come back to the music industry as an example. The word that pops to mind is “fracture”. 50 years ago—even just 20 years ago—there were really only a handful of large music conglomerates that controlled most of what we, the consumers, were able to access. But it has fractured so much so that no matter where you live, I guarantee you there are at least a half dozen “record labels” in your town. In Santa Fe,too, there are at least half a dozen “publishers”—one or two person operations that curate small lists of books and publish them under a company name in very small quantities.
The photography world is now filled with scores, if not hundreds, of “photography book” publishers. Shane Lavalette, with his brilliant Lay Flat photography magazine, is a “publisher.” Companies like Hassla Books, Rathole Books, Errata Editions, Radius Books, Nazraeli Press, Twin Palms, J&L Books, Fraenkel Gallery are all “publishers” and they are *all* one or two or three person collectives; hardly “traditional” publishing and hardly the ones that are making a fuss about the “future” of books. It’s the bigger houses that are lamenting the future of the only thing they’ve known—large offices in Manhattan with just as large company rosters and overhead, putting out titles that used to appeal to 10s and 100s of thousands of customers, customers who are now a little more selective and might just buy a book from those kids from Brooklyn than from the big house in the City.
Photography book “production” and photography book “publishing” may also be a useful distinction to make. Any artist or photographer that makes a book, whether using a Xerox machine or using a platen press and a litho stone is producing a book. And if they made 10 of them and sold them, can they rightly be called a publisher? Generally, no. But small art book publishers often aren’t making too many more copies of something than that. 250, 500, 1000 copies of a book can hardly be called “mass production”. However, producing someone else’s words and images in book form in any quantity and then distributing and selling that to the general public is probably the best practical definition of “book publisher” that I can come up with.
Over on Conscientious—Jorg Colberg’s photography based blog—he laments that there are not more “experimental” books being produced. He implies that it’s the big ones—the big publishers—that are not willing to take a risk. By big, I would assume he means publishers like Abrams or Rizzoli or Chronicle. But when it comes to smaller presses, there is a ton of experimentation going on—experimentation in terms of artists published, experimentation in terms of sizes and formats and bindings and materials, and experimentation in terms of engagement with the (history of the) medium.
A Word About Print-on-Demand
For the past two years, I’ve been involved with the judging of the Photography.Book.Now contest sponsored by Blurb. Eileen Gittins, Blurb’s founder and CEO, needs to be commended for so passionately pursuing this new technology and for placing it in the hands of everyday and professional photographers alike.
Print-on-demand is a powerful new tool in the toolbox of photographers, but because it is so new, many photographers are still using it straight “out-of-the-box” so to speak. Not a single photographer that submitted to the contest took the print-on-demand book and altered it from the way it comes from Blurb, which, when dealing with a creative community, was surprising to say the least.
Here are some ideas for “experimentation” with print-on-demand: have the book block created using print-on-demand technology and then take that block and have it bound in a cloth of your choosing at a local bindery; produce a hard cover print-on-demand book and produce a letterpress dustjacket on paper of your choice; design the book for a different trim size, print it in the larger size from Blurb and then have it professionally trimmed to your designed size—you’ll be sidestepping the limits on possible trim sizes; print two slim volumes—one print-on-demand and one using some other method—and have a slipcase or box produced to house the set; use the paper or trim sizes intended for non-photo print-on-demand books and make a photography book. These are just a few general ideas, but I genuinely hope to see more creative innovation with the book form in this next set of contest submissions for 2010 (the contest will launch sometime in the early Spring of 2010, so stay tuned).
With all of the interest in photography books and the history of photography as seen through publishing, there can only be more and more innovation ahead, which is truly exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing the fruits of these discussions over the months ahead…
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