A New Book Publishing Model

By Conor Risch

© Anna Mia Davidson
An image from Anna Mia Davidson's long-term project on sustainable farming, which she hopes to publish with Minor Matters.

This month Minor Matters, a new imprint founded by book publishing veteran Michelle Dunn Marsh, will begin selling its first five books, including titles by photographers Anna Mia Davidson, Larry Fink and David Hilliard. But Minor Matters won’t be selling physical copies. Instead, it will be taking preorders through an e-commerce website designed by Dunn Marsh’s business partner Steve McIntyre. If 500 people preorder the book during a six-month sales cycle, the project will be greenlit for production and printing. When the 500 initial buyers receive their copies of the book, they’ll see their names listed in the credits.
Prior to founding Minor Matters, Dunn Marsh worked as a book designer and then deputy director at Aperture, and as an editor of art and design books for Chronicle Books, among other posts.

PDN recently spoke with Dunn Marsh about the book business, the genesis of this new publishing model and why it’s more akin to traditional publishing than crowd funding.

PDN: What had you observed of the book market that led you to this new model for book publishing?
Michelle Dunn Marsh:
Two things: Quality of paper, reproduction of the physicality of the book is really important, and it’s really expensive. I trained under [Stevan Baron], the head of production at Aperture for 40 years, who was a student of Minor White’s, and with Aperture’s director Michael Hoffman, [who] set print standards that made photographers want to be published there. That beginning for me was very important. More recently, I was being approached by publishers who said, “Bring me projects that you find interesting,” but who couldn’t invest in high-quality print production. The other aspect of it [is that] in self-publishing or on sites like Kickstarter there is a lack of a professional advocate … saying, “I believe this is good. I believe from a third-party perspective that this is valuable and has meaning and should exist in book form.” I’m not so open to the idea that everybody deserves a book. I very much fall in the [publishing] tradition of being a gatekeeper and not thinking everything is great. But the things that I think are great I will champion and want to see move forward.

PDN: How did the artists you are working with react when you approached them?
Minor Matters wouldn’t have even gotten to this stage if it were not for the support of the artists. It’s risky to say, “I might have a book.” But in the end I think the people that I have worked with know the lengths that I will go to on their behalf, both to protect their interests and represent them to an audience. They know that I actually care about reaching an audience, whether that’s through public programming or through publications, and so this was an opportunity to bring all those pieces together and say, “I get to collaborate directly with you, we get to figure out how to best represent your work in the world, and in the end we get to try and find a world that agrees with us.” For me what was the most exciting was the moment that they started saying, “Yep, I’m going to sign that piece of paper and let’s move this forward.”

PDN: Why did you decide that 500 preorders would be the threshold for greenlighting the production of a book?
There are two key numbers. One is that all of the books are $50, so it’s a flat retail. That came out of knowing a bit about the art-book market; $50 is leaning low on the average these days, but I feel like it’s a reasonable number, particularly for people who aren’t collectors. Five hundred also feels like an achievable number. If we do nothing but sell 500 copies of books we will not be in business for very long. It is literally a break-even point from the production side of the book, but I think that it’s important as we’re building this [that] it feels achievable.

PDN: What differentiates this from other crowd-funding efforts?
This is not about charity. This is not a nonprofit organization. This is saying to people that if you value this product, you should buy it. And I think that is a small distinction, but it’s an important one. Many of the pitches that I receive from Kickstarter start with: “Help me do X.” And while I have a charitable nature, I am an American, I was raised in a capitalist society and I believe that we really operate by putting our money where our mouth is—and I want art to be valuable. There should be a transaction here. You’re not doing us a favor, you get to own something that you want to own, that you want to be a part of. I think that aspect of things ... borrows from old ways of thinking in this country but utilizes recent technologies to communicate with people and to facilitate those transactions in a way that literally would not have been possible a decade ago.

PDN: Once you’ve reached that 500-copy threshold and something is greenlit to print, are you going to sell the book through bookstores?
Once something has hit the greenlight moment, the book remains available for sale [through the Minor Matters site] up until we have to buy paper and commit to a print quantity. But the first 500 people are the people who are recognized in the [book]. We will reserve copies that will be made available to independent bookstores and in that case we’ll go back into a traditional retail environment where independent bookstores will have the opportunity to purchase nonreturnable [copies] at 50 percent off of the retail cost.

PDN: How quickly are you going to be able to turn around books once they hit 500 preorders?
It really depends on the project. The maximum turnaround time between the sales cycle and the production cycle is a year. Projects have to be far enough along in the conception that we know we can produce them in six months, but I am looking to do as much production in North America as possible, which will also help us in terms of timeline.

PDN: For a photographer with a great project, what is the appeal of working this way versus working with a traditional publisher?
Great question. Personal collaboration, first and foremost, and the opportunity to move something forward that might not fit a traditional publishing environment. I’ve been in competitive situations in a variety of cases where you’re making an offer from this publisher or that publisher and someone chooses to go with someone else. As always in publishing, every scenario is going to be a little bit different—that’s part of the challenge and the joy. Aperture is the right fit for some, Taschen or Chronicle are the right fits for others. I’m not looking to do books that are going to sell 10,000 copies, frankly. We’ve developed a more boutique model. It’s not about taking away from what those institutions are doing, it’s about adding to it. This is really about looking at being in a new time and taking from the benefits of the 20 years that I’ve had in this industry and trying something different.

PDN: What were the factors that you were thinking about when you were weighing which projects to roll out first?
: A lot of it had to do with feasibility of audience achievement. Larry Fink has over 5,000 fans on Facebook. But Larry also has nine to ten book projects that have been produced, and he’s certainly a name that’s out there in the world. So that’s one end of the spectrum. Anna Mia Davidson is on the other. Anna doesn’t have a gallery and has not had a great deal of information published about her work. But hers is a project on sustainable farming and it’s work that I’ve followed for seven years and really believe in and care about, so I am glad to bring her more exposure. And in the middle, David Hilliard, Elias Hansen and Joe Park have had museum/art world attention and their dealers have already expressed interest in promoting the projects (they’re excited of course to have a book produced of the work because it serves as an endorsement, which helps art sales). Having a diversity of subject matter, gender and age, and types of work was important.

PDN: How are you thinking about the marketing of each title?
I’ve developed a marketing plan and strategy, and a lot of that has to do with concentric circles. We start with the people that we know. I’m fortunate in that I’ve kept in touch with a lot of media contacts over a long period of time and I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for a long period of time.

PDN: How much are you expecting the artists to promote the books? Is that something that you’ve discussed with them?
Absolutely. I expect them to do as much as they would do in any traditional publishing environment. I’ve worked with photographers for many years. Some of them are extremely talented at self-promotion, and many of them are not, because what they really want to do first and foremost is make work.

I’ve had a couple of photographers approach me and say, “I can get 500 people, I want to work with you.” That’s not why Minor Matters came into being. This is first and foremost about projects we believe in, the same way that it is for any publisher. I have a very high bar and it’s going to stay there. And it’s a risk because some of the artists we take on may not have the audience that is going to allow us to garner that kind of attention. One of the things that has kept me motivated [is that] I had some colleagues and friends who just sent me checks when they heard that we were doing this and said, “Sign me up for the first six books.” I didn’t have any books at that moment, but they thought that the idea was interesting. And that belief and that interest and that willingness to make something happen was really exciting. It may have been a terrible false start and no one else will be interested, but that doesn’t seem to be the case thus far.

Related Articles:

Why Gerhard Steidl Is a Book Publishing Master
9 Small Book Publishers Photographers Should Know About
How (and Why) to Hand-Make Your Photo Book


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