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Thoughts on the Future of Photo Books (And books in general)

Thoughts on the Future of Photo Books (And books in general)

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What will Photo Books look like in 2019?

By Jack Howard

December 11, 2009

This blog posting is in response to the online blog conversation initiated by Andy Adams and Miki Johnson on the future of Photo Books and the question: What Will Photo Books look like in 2019? I don't think I have the definitive answers, but I've got some ideas of how to chart a course I'd like to see.

 

Check out the initiating post over at LiveBooks RESOLVE blog for the back-story of what got me musing on this topic.

 

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The biggest difference in self-publishing is simply a change of perception

One of the biggest innovations happening in regards to Photo books, (and books in general, for that matter) isn’t truly an innovation, per se, but simply a dramatic mindset change towards the perception of the self-published project.

Ten to fifteen years ago, self-published works via “Vanity Press” houses were seen, by many, as a self-indulgent act by a creator who simply did not have the skills (or connections) to get a project to market through big publishing. Of course, the skills here refers not necessarily to the the work itself, but more so to writing a successful pitch package to get their work noticed by an agent or an overworked and underpaid project editor in the minute or two they had to review a stack of query packages.

I was pitching a novel around this time, and my rejection letters ran the gamut from coldly impersonal form letter to pompous and arrogant form letter justifying why some editor at a small state college in the high plains deep freeze belt’s literary fiction publishing house didn’t feel the need to inform and enlighten me as to why my work didn’t make this editor’s heart “sing.” (Somewhere in the cobwebbed minutiae of memories from my past, this letter still resonates as a reminder of the sort of person I never want to become. And the physical letter itself remains in the permanent collection of scraps of paper written by, to, and about me that reside in a crate in my attic.)

But that was then. The changes to communication and information distribution that have  sprung forth in the intervening years have significantly re-architected the publishing landscape. It’s doubtful many writers and photographers would balk at a six or seven figure advance from one of the publishing giants and true, this remains the holy grail for many a project creator, but shrinking budgets and an eye towards nothing but blockbusters makes it even more challenging to go the mainstream huge-run publishing route. Today, it seems, you’ve got to be something else first in order to be the creative talent behind a book–a celebrity chef, a musician, an erstwhile (or potential) politician, or a crowdsourced crass humor blogger before landing a deal with a massive advance and huge print run. 

But in this current landscape, self-publishing and print-on-demand solutions no longer have the social stigma attached to them as they once did, in many circles. It is quite possible, though challenging, to launch a project and bring it to life without the initial help of big publishing. Witness Aaron Johnson’s What the Duck comic strip as a prime example of the new D-I-Y to mainstream workpath driving from a content type on a blog, to a self-published book on Lulu.com, to syndication of the strip via United Press syndicate and a book deal with Andrews McMeel.

Yes, self-publishing is self-promotion–all the same as it ever was–but that’s now the theme of the day. As a marketing vehicle, self-published projects–whether it is a photographic project published on archival paper through AdoramaPix, or a work of words-only fiction published by any of the print-on-demand services available, or anything in between–are a great way to build a fan base and potentially create a viable revenue stream for  the work.

It is always important to remember that with this self-publishing and self-promotion route, all the rewards–along with all the risks–reside in the creator.


The book as object

There is something so amazingly tactile about a book, in a way that words and images on-screen just isn’t.  The concept of curling up with my wireless keyboard or a Kindle-type e-reader just isn’t the same.  Yes, it was a great feeling to get an eBook BoingBoinged, but it didn’t compare to the feeling of actually flipping through the pages of my first bound book and seeing it on the shelf with all the other titles in the Photography section at the local Barnes & Noble. There just isn’t.

Books–actual books–with pages that must be flipped manually, with static content that doesn’t spring to audio-visual life with the click of a right-pointing triangle, are, perhaps, if not wholly now, at least on their way, to becoming an archaic form of content distribution.

But as art objects, books are something spectacular. And books as the central hub or a tangent of a “object/concept” collection across various modalities can be something great. I can lose time in the visuals of BirdBook.org, and the additional audio capture element on each image page in the web-based presentation adds a definite power and presence to Andrew Zuckerman’s fantastic images. But those same images reproduced in CMYK halftones on bound pages have a presence that is equally loud, in a very different sense. This is a book I want in my collection. This is an object I wish to possess, to visit and touch, to marvel over, and share and listen to the slight whoosh of air as I turn the next page.

I feel much the same way about the presence of the Slide Show book from Sports Illustrated. Although we are once or twice removed from the actual slides, the concept, layout and design of this book make the physical object itself more powerful a consumption mechanism than any digital representation of the same graphics, words and images of the marked-up slides. This is a book that must be handled to truly appreciate.

Books are limiting, and limited. I, for example, have written, illustrated and published a book on a new imaging technique, high dynamic range imaging, that cannot actually be represented in its true form on the written page, due to ever-shrinking gamut and color spaces from the 32-bit file, to traditional computer monitors, to the CMYK space of the final published product.


I personally relish all the the ironies of this, especially the physical object itself of the hard-covered German translation, HDRI in der Praxis, specifically because it takes that abstract, to me, as a non-German speaker, to yet another level: It’s a book about a photographic technique and color space that cannot truly be displayed in printed form, in a language I cannot comprehend in any meaningful or complete way. In my house, this edition is simply an art object produced in part by me, and in part by the team of translators and designers at Dpunkt, Rocky Nook’s German publishing partners.

But the book itself can also be the center of an evolving process–the brightest star in a constellation of interrelated and interconnected delivery paths that span time–as opposed to simply the bound and printed object created at a specific point in time. My fellow Rocky Nook writer, Christian Bloch, launched a companion blog, forum, and updater site for his work, the HDRI Handbook, HDRLabs. Kenneth Kobre created a Guide to Videojournalism along with the 6th Edition of his book Photojournalism: The Professionals' Approach. And as I work on updating my work for the second edition, I’ve started a Facebook fan page for updates on shipping and availability, and as a sounding board and workshop zone for me to get input on certain topics as I puzzle over how to describe, in words, concepts that are at the essence mathematical and visual in nature. All these examples fall short of the true crowdsourced concept of books, which I think has some serious potential to explode in popularity over the next decade.

 

Thoughts on the hardbound book as a product of massive online collaborations

Just a few days ago, I received an invite to join a group-work project employing Facebook status updates as the driving creative process for creating a long-form work of fiction. The core of this currently small group is dispersed widely geographically today, but a nexus is forming and expanding outwards from a group of people who took upper-level English electives at Manasquan High School between 1988 and 1991. This project is in the nascent stages, and it will be quite curious to see how this evolves. I’ve thrown my hat into the ring to participate for several reasons: I love social experiments, creative writing, new concepts and communication means, and I belong to that nexus. It is a chance, nearly 20 years on, to  converse and collaborate with old friends, and make new friends along the way, and see where it may go and what creativity it may lead to.

As anyone who has taken a book from cocktail napkins to publication knows, a book project is a lot of work. There are so many large and small tasks involved in creating a book, that it is amazing that any books ever actually get out of the rough draft stage! But the potential of harnessing the power of many working together towards a common goal of making a book as a collective project can possibly lead to some great things–if all the contributors and stakeholders work together to make it happen, with it agreed that the purpose of the project isn't personal profit.

On that subject I have a charity project concept I would love to take part in.

I would love to see someone take this idea and run with and give it wings. Simply put, I’d love to pair volunteer photographers of all stripes with chefs of all flavors and create a culture of charitable creativity: Chefs giving their recipes and creating the dishes for photographers to capture (both the chefs and the food shots, I mean), with the results uploaded into a predesigned page template for the photos and recipes. This superset of online pages could then be curated and edited into print-on-demand cookbooks–sliced and diced along different themes: regional, desserts, cocktails, vegetarian, barbecue, or what have you, with all the proceeds going to charitable organizations such as foodbanks.

No one would wind up with a six-figure advance in this model, but it would be a great way for chefs and photographers to give back, and gain some great self-promotion along the way.

What do you think the future of Photo Books looks like? Join the conversation!

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