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The future of the photobook

25 February, 2010

I spent the weekend as a guest of William Ewing, Director of the Musée de l’Élysee, in Lausanne, Switzerland at a conference on the future of the photobook, called ‘Lasting Impressions or Fading Impressions?’ Actually, I like the title in French better, which was photo books ‘(sous)pression’ – a pun that means both under pressure and suppressed.

Gerhard Steidl told the group he has so far printed 80,000 copies of the new version of Robert Frank’s the Americans in English, and 30,000 in German. Some of the guests were sceptical of the exact numbers, but it’s clearly a great success – his best-selling book ever, he says.

Gerhard also explained that 70% of the books that come to him now already come in the form of a digital on-demand maquette. It made me think of the Blurb, Lulu etc. books that artists sometimes send me – how wonderful they can be, and now, how abundant! I have no idea what the future will be for most of these privately printed books. Joachim Schmidt made the point that Edgar Allen Poe, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Voltaire all self-published. But to be fair, they were the exceptions in 500 years of bookmaking, and they certainly weren’t able to upload whatever they wanted in a matter of seconds. The floodgates are open like never before.

Thomas Neurath, founder of Thames & Hudson publishers, said that of the book ideas brought to his staff’s editorial meetings every week or two (which is itself pretty pared down from all the proposals submitted) only 1 in 25 proposals is ever accepted.

Lesley Martin of Aperture explained that her company only receives 47-50% of the money a retailer gets for a book. Of that, 20-30% goes to distribution and marketing, around 10% goes as royalties to the photographer or rights holder, and nearly all of the rest goes into production costs. They are lucky if they break even on a title. She also explained that under current pressures, they have pared down their list from 20-25 titles a year, to 10 or 12.

Lady Elena Foster, who runs Ivorypress in Madrid provided some of the liveliest contributions to the discussion. She said that her magazine C Photo is currently running in two editions – an English/Spanish version, and a Chinese/Japanese. She prints 8,000 copies of each – it doesn’t make money, she says, but it doesn’t lose money either. Lady Foster is a strong advocate for limited edition photo books when appropriate. She recently commissioned Alselm Kiefer to produce a book in an edition of one. Her motto, by the way: ‘Hurry Slowly,’ from Italo Calvino. Nice.

Christoph Schaden, of Schaden.com, bookseller and occasional publisher in Köln, was asked by the group what advice he has for young people looking to make a photo book for the first time. ‘Be Free’ he said. He feels digital technologies will make old-fashioned offset printing largely obsolete in 5 years. Privately he told me later, ‘remember, limited edition is sexy.’

William Ewing made the point that before the bound book, Europeans and others used the scroll format – he thinks the iPad model of electronic photobooks, seen one page at a time, is basically bringing us back to the scroll way of seeing. It’s a really interesting idea, but for myself I wonder what the role of the still photograph will be once it is possible to animate photographs at every turn? Once we get to the point that every illustration in an online text has moving images, what will still images be used for?

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