Photo Books

Book Publisher Michelle Dunn Marsh On What Does and Doesn’t Sell Photo Books

September 23, 2016

By Interview Conor Risch

© Lincoln Potter/Courtesy Minor Matters

Minor Matters and their authors have to pre-sell 500 copies of a book in order to put a project into print. It's important that the artists are persistent in promoting their books, even if they don't get the immediate response they are looking for, Dunn Marsh says. "We have learned that that attitude and conviction make a difference."

Three years ago, book publishing veteran Michelle Dunn Marsh and her partner Steve McIntyre launched Minor Matters Books, a photo book publishing company with a unique business model: Each of their projects has to pre-sell 500 copies within six months in order to go to press. If Minor Matters and the artist can’t generate those 500 pre-sales, the book isn’t published. Those who buy a book during the pre-sale are considered “co-publishers,” and they receive credit in the book if it goes to press.

Since their launch, Minor Matters has published seven books, and an eighth book, All Power: Visual Legacies of the Black Panther Party, will be released next month. We asked Dunn Marsh about the role that marketing, social media and personal networks can play in helping sell a photo book—and the reasons some photo books fail to find an audience.

PDN: You went into the launch of Minor Matters with two decades of experience in book publishing. What have you learned since then that you didn’t already know?

Michelle Dunn Marsh: That there’s interest in the [Minor Matters] books internationally, which was not on our radar at all. It happened very early, with David Hilliard’s book [What Could Be] and then with Lisa Leone’s book [Here I Am, photographs of early hip-hop culture], we started immediately getting requests from people in the UK and in France and in Germany.

PDN: What have you learned about selling books?

MDM: It’s hard! And takes repetition of the same message from multiple sources. We’ve seen that certain press does a lot, and other press does almost nothing. It can be really tough to tell when something finds its audience and inspires people to take the action of buying, versus just a “like” on Facebook. That’s been something that a lot of photographers [in general] have been scratching their heads about. “I have 375,000 people who follow me on Instagram, how do I convert that into some form of a living?” It’s not obvious yet if or how that works.

PDN: Which press outlets have helped you sell books?

MDM: PDN’s initial interview from 2013 still draws us attention; Seattle’s The Stranger, for Alice Wheeler. Lisa Leone’s book was on [Rolling Stone’s] website [in 2014]—they did an interview with her, and we thought: The minute this hits Rolling Stone we’re going to sell 100 copies. And we didn’t. But the Rolling Stone piece keeps coming back up, years later, and we’ll see another [website referral] from it, so there’s a long-lead life there if we can get the book into print. The New York Times, on the other hand, those readers are book people, and they immediately buy.

PDN: The books that have found the support they needed to go to print, what have they had in common that has propelled them?

MDM: With a few exceptions, the authors are mid-career—they have some gallery experience, exhibition history, they’ve built up an audience who believe in and are interested in their work. Multiple other people and institutions believe in the work and want to see it out there, and so there’s a network of support buying and promoting the book. That’s definitely something that we’ve noticed, and that’s something that we’ll be paying attention to as we look to new titles in the future.

PDN: You’ve published different types of books, from art books to books about particular music scenes. Are there topics that are more challenging than others?

MDM: The art books tend to do better than anything that has a [social] cause or mission behind it. As much as we want to hold those records for the world, people tend not to really get behind them. A lot of people will say, “Wow, youth incarceration, that’s an important topic.” But they’re not actually buying that book.

I think portrait projects can be a tough sell. At the same time, one of the most important books I ever worked on at Aperture was Jeff Dunas’s State of the Blues, portraits of blues musicians, and that sold many thousands of copies. There’s a nice tie between music and photography that, with great photographs, does well in book form.

PDN: What have been the top-selling books? Is it important to have a crossover audience, a group of people who are interested not in photo books, but in the topic of the photographs?

MDM: David Hilliard’s book has just sold out. With Lisa Leone’s hip-hop book and Alice Wheeler’s book [about the Pacific Northwest that included photos of Kurt Cobain among other music legends], there’s photo people coming to each title, but there’s also music people. I can’t really define what the other audience is for David’s book; he is certainly respected within the gay community and maybe there’s just a bigger audience because David’s work is really impactful to a lot of people. And I think that [Charles Lindsay’s] Carbon will have a crossover audience. I think the art and science intersection is going to be something that draws interest.

PDN: What do you ask yourself when you are thinking about launching a new book project?

MDM: Why should this be a book? This could be an amazing slideshow, this could be a blog post, this could be an exhibition. Why should it take [book] form? That’s always the hardest question to answer. And, is the artist ready to work with us to make a book? Given the upfront investment of time in the concept and design of our projects, answering those questions is very important before we announce a title.

PDN: How important to selling books are the social media networks of the photographer and Minor Matters, versus actual human connections?

MDM: Alice Wheeler’s book in 2015 was really the first time that we saw a lot of direct Facebook-to-site purchases. David [Hilliard] joined Facebook because of the book, but for the most part we saw sales from an interview [with Hilliard] in The New York Times, from collectors who knew him, from curators, his galleries, and his and our networks.

It’s tough to say [how valuable social media networks are]. In the first year I had someone working on social media and she was constantly saying we need to do more there. But the sales were not coming from there; they were coming from traditional press from our newsletter, and from word of mouth. While events are not a great way to sell books they do get people engaged in spreading the word, and were sometimes an opportunity for press coverage that a book alone would not have drawn.

PDN: Other than press, what sells books?

MDM: The artist is the best possible sales tool. When Lisa Leone was doing a talk with Fab 5 Freddy, or Alice Wheeler gave a slide lecture, those inspired and motivated people to purchase. A combination of our promotion and the artist saying why a book is important to them engages people. Isaac Layman has no website, and no social media presence, but the people who have collected and exhibited his work feel very strongly about it and about him. His gallery made sure anyone who’d ever been interested in his work knew about the book. Charlie Lindsay also did a lot of personal outreach. We have found that launching with 50–100 sales already committed definitely helps.

PDN: People who buy books early are credited as “co-publisher.” Once the co-publishers have the book in their hands, do you feel like they’re going out and advocating? Does that build in a little bit of marketing for you guys as well?

MDM: Absolutely. One of my favorite examples was one of our Legacy co-publishers [who commit to buying every book Minor Matters launches], sent me a note that said: “I was just at my insurance broker’s office and they had a Minor Matters book sitting on the table and we discovered that we were both co-publishers!” When I go to industry events, I might be at Palm Springs [Photo Festival] or at PhotoPlus [Expo], people will come up and say, “Hey, I’m a co-publisher,” and I love that. It makes me so happy, because that was our goal: people understanding their role in making these books. Books literally do not happen without the people who buy them.

We were recently featured at the Seattle Art Fair in the pop-up shop by Open Editions. Though they only sold a few copies of our books, they said, “wow, you guys are really popular—people were so excited to see the books here and kept coming in to talk about them.” And I laughed, because I knew our many co-publishers in Seattle felt the same pride that I did in seeing six of our books on public display together, and were vocal about that!

PDN: How big a factor in a book’s success is the artist’s willingness to do their own marketing?

MDM: It is absolutely critical. People feel more connected if they believe that it’s important to the photographer, to the artist. And the authors who are willing to say, “This is important to me, here’s why it matters to me, here’s what I’m excited about.” That makes a huge difference. We do ask our artists to work with us in coordinating marketing, so we can support them and vice versa. Some channels prefer to hear directly from the artist; others are inundated and would rather hear a directed pitch from us as the publisher.

PDN: What have you learned from the books that haven’t been successful?

MDM: As mentioned before, projects with a social cause have been super hard to sell. We will keep trying, though, because I believe that is part of our mission, and even when we don’t succeed in making a book we’ve opened new audiences to that artist and subject. I have learned that it helps to be very transparent with artists about that, so we go in together with managed expectations. Steve Davis wrote me a nice note and sent me a very beautiful print after the fact, even though we didn’t get to publish his book. He appreciated that we tried everything we could, and he knows I still advocate for his work.

We’ve also shortened our pre-sales period to a maximum of three months, because that gives us enough time to determine if the audience is responding. If in that period we’re at less than 100 sales, the project’s probably not going to happen.

Outside of the time and brain power invested, we know now that there’s a hard [cash] cost of a minimum of $1,000–$1,500 for us to launch a title, and for a small business that’s a tangible loss to absorb when a book doesn’t go forward. With one of the books very early on we got to 400 sales. At the time the artist said, “Well, we said 500, it’s not 500, so we’re not going to move forward,” which I totally respect. But it wasn’t as easy to pick the project up later as maybe the artist thought it was going to be. Today I probably would have suggested we push the book through and aim to make up that last 100 sales during the production phase. So the many losses when a book doesn’t move forward is something that I’m very conscious of. I went in with the idea of, “Well, [the authors] get the editorial concept and layout, this thing you can potentially go elsewhere with if we don’t succeed,” which is true, but it’s still tough.

PDN: Right. If you can’t build support for it now, what is going to change?

MDM: Well, timing does matter—that coalition of book+exhibit+press=sales could occur in the future, or a topic that we and the artist thought was relevant could draw attention from a much broader base down the road.

I’d like to believe that our decision to launch an artist’s project is seen as a positive endorsement of that person’s work, even on books that don’t happen. There may later be a collector or institution who says, “I will lay down $25,000 to have your book,” because Minor Matters and the artist planted the seed. There is still room for that in certain circumstances. The project, I will name it specifically because it is one we continue to get requests about from co-publishers—including someone who asked, “What would it cost to just back it and make it happen?”—was Larry Fink’s book Kindred Spirits. Larry’s was one of our “starting five” artists, and because Larry agreed to work with us—that was huge. I think that the public assumed that the book would happen, and when it didn’t there was shock and dismay. And a visceral understanding of the reality of our model. Larry has been hugely supportive, is still hugely supportive. We have had a couple of conversations about revisiting the book and it’s not something he’s interested in right now, because the project has evolved and he wants to keep making work.

It’s tough for the artists—when you send out a couple of emails to people that you believe support you, and you don’t see a response or you don’t see the response you were hoping for, it’s exhausting. Particularly in the world we live in today, where simply changing your profile picture on a social media site can warrant hundreds of responses (if indeed someone clicking “like” constitutes a response). So no responses, or two to three people buying your book instead of the 200–300 you were hoping for, can feel pretty disheartening.

So I think that the artists who have a little bit more experience, who have applied for grants and residencies they haven’t received, applied for commissions they haven’t gotten, and have kept making work, are going to pick themselves up [when they don’t get] an immediate response and say, “That was that week, let’s try again next week, let’s have a beer together (literally or virtually) and strategize and push this out again.” We have learned that that attitude and conviction make a difference.

PDN: Is the disappointment different for you and for the artist because of your publishing model than if you were at a major publisher and you publish a book and it doesn’t do well?

MDM: Well, yes—it’s much more transparent through our model. When a project doesn’t do well at a traditional trade publisher, that debrief is happening internally. Did we miss the price point? The packaging? Were we a season too early or too late? No-one’s sending out a press release saying ‘by the way, this book we thought would sell 7,000 copies only sold nine copies.’ You might discover that because it’s on the remainder table [at a bookstore] earlier than expected. But there isn’t that immediate, “Wow, this didn’t happen.”

PDN: Can that be a good thing?

MDM: As painful as it is for the artist and for us, yes, from an environmental standpoint at least it’s good—especially for visual books. The cost of preparing files and match prints for the artist, all of the make-ready (the paper that gets wasted when we’re adjusting color on press)—and [we work with] an environmentally friendly printer—the impact of storing heavy, organic objects, the human participation in the craft from editorial through binding and packaging—so much goes into producing and distributing printed books. When I’m on press with one project I inevitably think of one of the books that didn’t move forward, and remind myself that “if we didn’t have an audience for it then we didn’t have an audience for it.” Every time I am printing, I am reminded of the importance of this model.

PDN: Has it made a difference when you are pitching a book to a bookstore or other retailer that you can point to the support of your co-publishers?

MDM: Some people are super excited by it, because it demonstrates there is an audience for the book. Some people are not, because they think you’ve already sold it to [all] the people who are going to buy it. But, and this is a huge point of distinction, bookstores are less worried about the co-publishers when we tell them that we do not sell on Amazon, because that really privileges availability. The fact that someone can’t come into your store and look at the book and then go buy it on Amazon gives the retailers confidence in buying from us.

Some of them have told me that I’m totally insane for rejecting Amazon, and I’ve had some interesting conversations with independent booksellers who admit they “put books on Amazon, at least that way we’re still selling them even with the discounts.” There’s no question that a huge audience uses Amazon, just like a huge audience uses Facebook. Neither entity guarantees that a portion of that audience will come to us. So we’ll keep forging ahead slowly with the artists and audiences who accept and appreciate how we do business, and hopefully we’ll continue the sustainability through the modest growth we’ve seen over the last two years.

2015 was the first year that I could compare retail sales to direct-to-consumer sales, and retail sales are definitely meaningful—though we get less per unit, that is often balanced out in volume.

We’ve produced our first catalogue of titles in print, and a big part of the next six months is going to be letting more people and companies know that we have these books available for sale, and that we are a viable publishing entity for galleries and museums. We’re working with about 20 retailers right now—museums, independent bookstores and other independent retail environments—but I need to see what can happen if we really focus on the sales side of things. If I can bank a little bit more cash and hire someone to continue to keep that push going that would be great, since it’s just Steve and me right now. Steve and I joke about the multiple hats we both wear for the company, when emails are sent to the “fulfillment department” or “marketing director.” But having studied the history of early printing, it’s useful to remind myself that Aldus Manutius, and more recently Eric Gill, Frederic Goudy and Bruce Rogers were printer-publisher-designer-editor-writers too—so I am in good company.

Related: Leveraging an Online Audience to Attract Book Publishers

How to Pitch Your Photo Book to Publishers

The Costly Business of Photo Book Publishing