The Costly Business of Photo Book Publishing

By Kris Wilton

© Robin Schwartz/courtesy Aperture
"Deerline," 2005, will appear in Robin Schwartz's forthcoming book, Amelia and the Animals, being published this fall by Aperture. A successful Kickstarter campaign run by Aperture helped fund the publication.

The challenges of photography book publishing are well known. Print runs are low, production costs are high, and bookstores and online retailers are pressing for discounts. The rule of thumb in the book industry is that the cost of producing the book equals 20 percent of the retail price. Depending on the number of images to be reproduced, paper stock and size, type of binding, and other factors that raise the cost of production, the publisher can either charge a prohibitively high price for the book, or find another way to defray its costs.

“With the disappearance of so many independent local booksellers and the downward pressure exerted by large chains and Amazon.com, publishers can no longer afford to take chances on a new artist,” wrote photographer David Lykes Keenan on his Kickstarter page. “In response, a new model has been born: the artist-funded book.”

“That’s where Kickstarter and you come in.”

One of thousands of photographers taking to the crowdfunding site, Keenan launched a campaign this spring to raise $24,000 to bring his book of street photographs, to be titled Fair Witness, to market. “If it is successful,” he wrote, “the Italian publisher Damiani Editore will make the book part of their Spring 2015 catalogue.”

Photographers using crowdfunding to raise money for creative projects isn’t new. What’s notable is that Keenan is using the site to fund a commercial endeavor: The money would pay all of Damiani Editore’s printing and production costs.

“I am excited to have this opportunity to see the book—with the imprint of a major publisher on the spine—come to life,” wrote Keenan, who has promoted the campaign via his Twitter account and generated press on photo blogs. “If the campaign is successful, the print run will be 1,000 books.”

About crowdfunding to pay for producing books, Damiani president Andrea Albertini says via Skype from Bologna, “This is very common in the U.S.—and it works.” Four or five books published by Damiani in the past two years were funded by money the photographers raised through Kickstarter.

Albertini says, “Sometimes we’re a service for the gallery, the artist, the museum.” Damiani has published monographs by many well-known photographers but, as Albertini tells it, there are artists who need a little extra funding and “those who, like David, if they don’t make the goal, it’s not possible to produce their work.”

Albertini explains, “He’s unknown. This is someone who retired and became a photographer. Now he has a dream to have a book. I’m helping him—because the book is nice! But of course I can’t pay for it.”

“It’s a hard business to get a book off the ground,” says Lesley Martin, publisher of the book program run by the Aperture Foundation and of The PhotoBook Review. “Not every book needs funding, but for those that do, photographers should think creatively and be willing to partner with organizations or publishers to think of the best way to do it.”

At Aperture, a nonprofit, that support may come in the form of government or foundation grants, donations from the board, their limited-edition print program, or partnering with galleries or others. “What we don’t do,” Martin says, “is [let] a photographer … come to us and say, ‘I’m going to write you a check, publish my book.’”

Rather, the photographers they publish engage in what Martin calls collaborative fundraising. “It’s a shared investment and something a photographer should really be able to put their shoulder into, whether it’s just opening up their Rolodex or helping us strategize about limited-edition prints. There are lots of ways to slice and dice a project.”

One of those ways has been crowdfunding. Aperture launched its first Kickstarter campaign in 2013 with a project particularly suited to the platform, the viral success Touching Strangers, for which photographer Richard Renaldi asked strangers to pose making physical contact with one another. In a video on the project’s page, Chris Boot, executive director of Aperture, earnestly tells the viewer, “Aperture publishes about 20 books every year. We rely on the support of friends and patrons to make this possible. In Richard’s case, with this work, given it’s about the possibility of human connection, we thought, why not use Kickstarter to reach out to you, strangers, to make this book happen? Please help make this book happen.” Aperture then promoted the project through its network of members and via social media.

The project quickly soared past its $10,000 goal to earn a total of $80,943 from 885 backers. Backers received thank-you gifts ranging from acknowledgment in the book and a launch party invitation to a limited-edition print and signed copy of the book. As a result of the exposure the campaign generated, Aperture doubled their original estimated print run.

“Kickstarter started a viral campaign for Richard’s book and it showed us the possibilities for a larger audience above and beyond what we might have anticipated,” says Martin. “We’ve come to look at Kickstarter not just as a fundraising tool to fill gaps where funds are needed, but also as an important way to pre-sell the book and to expand the market outside our traditional photographic audience.”

Aperture has since launched one additional campaign, for Robin Schwartz’s Amelia and the Animals, a charming project showing Schwartz’s daughter interacting with exotic wildlife, due this fall. Going forward, Martin expects that of Aperture’s 30 annual releases, two or three will be supported by Aperture-run Kickstarter campaigns.

She also acknowledges that the move had its detractors. “I’m aware there’s a hesitancy or a bias that institutions should not use Kickstarter as a vehicle to fund projects, that it’s really intended for individuals,” she says. “We got some flak about that. But when you look at it, Kickstarter is a larger funder of cultural projects than the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts].”

Some publishers choose to pre-sell copies of books, lowering their costs and risks. Damiani’s Albertini, for example, says his house may require a photographer or his or her gallery or museum to pre-purchase a quantity of books: “The artist or the gallery … might pay us [for] a thousand copies.” At a 50 percent discount, a hundred copies of a $50 book brings the publisher $2,500. A thousand clears $25,000, enough to cover a small print run and sell half of it. “We do a quantity for them,” says Albertini, “and a quantity for us, for the market.”

Brooklyn-based powerHouse Books, whose output ranges from fine-art photography to peppy impulse buys like Metal Cats—a current smash featuring heavy-metal aficionados and their fluffy friends—also runs a trade with artists in books, in certain circumstances.

Founder and publisher Daniel Power says that as long as they believe they can sell a minimum quantity—a good portion of a 1,000- or 1,500-print run—they don’t ask the photographer to subsidize production costs.

Yet if the house sees potential in a project, “but not enough to pay for everything the artist wants—to make it really big or deluxe,” they will ask the artist to contribute to cover those costs. Power says less than 5 percent of powerHouse’s books are “photographer-subvented” (that is, subsidized by the photographer), and these are in cases where the photographer asked for a large trim size, a slipcase, more images, or other costly “bells and whistles.” The publishing house uses a formula to produce and price a book to fit within their model; if production costs would make the retail price more than the market can bear, the artist chips in to fund production. “Because sales alone are not going to cover all of it,” Power says, “and we weren’t put on this planet to promote you or bring your stuff to market. We need to share the responsibility.”

Power declines to reveal how much a photographer might contribute, but notes that in one instance, a photographer helped support a book by arranging for a large organization to buy copies of the book in advance—enough to lower the per-unit cost on each book. In return, the photographer received a royalty that was higher than the usual 10 to 15 percent of books sold.

Other publishers take different approaches. “I wouldn’t ask a photographer to fund a publication of their own work,” says Chris Pichler, owner of Nazraeli Press, which has published books in print runs ranging from 250—“which may be sold at very high prices”—to 3,000 copies. Pichler says, “If I can’t see selling a book in a standard print run to a combination of bookstores, galleries, libraries and individuals, and if it’s not the right kind of work for a small-run, more ‘collectible’ edition, then I would be ignoring common sense if I were to publish it.”

John Jenkins, publisher of DECODE Books, notes, “If you’re not making money back by traditional means, then you have to find other ways of doing it.” But in the model that requires the photographer to pay, he says, “you’re basically hiring the publisher to publish the book. You’re buying their distribution channels to get it out there.”

When DECODE launched in 2007, Jenkins, a longtime photo collector, committed to a different solution. For each of the two or three monographs the imprint publishes annually, the press’s authors make available one or two prints for sale as limited editions. These sell for up to $1,000 each and defray the cost of the book.

Without them, “I would not make my money back,” Jenkins says. “With the economics of a 1,000- or 1,500-book print run, you can’t make the money back just through sales, especially when they’re being distributed and sold through bookstores,” which take a cut of each sale.

Will he ever try Kickstarter? “I’m still struggling with it,” he says. “But when established publishers like Aperture are doing it, it makes me wonder, ‘Why am I not doing it too?’”

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