A generation of photographers who have grown up online are finding a tangible DIY community offline
If you were beginning to fear that photography is becoming irrevocably confined to outlets accessible only through the App Store, then you’ll be thrilled to hear that the photobook is having quite the moment. Rumour has it the business has undergone nothing less than an economic and cultural revolution in the last five years, courtesy of a new wave of self-publishers.
Spearheading the movement is London-based organisation Self Publish Be Happy, founded by art publisher and photographer Bruno Ceschel in 2010 to bring a burgeoning online community back into something resembling a physical format.
“While the traditional publishing industry was sinking, an alternative DIY one was blossoming,” Ceschel says. “Self Publish, Be Happy’s primary raison d'être was to showcase, make visible and to curate within this brand new world, via a mobile library, a website, live events.”
The result has become a catalogue of over 2,000 DIY zines and photo books, a selection of which is about to be made available in a hard-copy edition of its own. Published by Aperture next month, the eponymous volume doubles as a manifesto and manual for self-publishing.
“Most of the photographers we feature have grown up on Flickr first, then Tumblr and now Instagram. They found in book and zine-making a means of making their own work tangible. Not only did this defy the ephemeral nature of online images, but it has created an offline community.”
In part a reaction to the immateriality of the internet, the SPBH movement has in turn been catalysed and become widespread through it. “Today a kid from Kyoto or Bergen can promote and sell his or her own publication online very easily,” Ceschel says. “Bookmaking has become a democratic practice, where often the book as an object is a by-product.”
Here, Ceschel shares a preview of his manual for how to become your own photo book self-publisher.
DREAM BIG AND GO AFTER IT
“The first thing you must do is demystify the idea of the photobook. As soon as you demolish every single convention about what a photobook should be, you will free yourself to dream up something new, exciting, and – most important – completely doable. Of course you love the classic, offset-printed, hardcover photo book! Who doesn’t? But this love should not prevent you from making your own book. Now more than ever, the tools you need are right in front of you. Digital tools for printing and disseminating offer easy (and cheap) means to make publications and get them out into the world. The question here should really be: how on earth could I not make a photobook?”
KILL YOUR DARLINGS
“Editing – selecting which images will go in the book – is a cruel job, especially if you’re the one who took the photographs. Sometimes it feels like a real sacrifice. Without getting too biblical about it, you have to be strong and brutal.
To get going, group the photos by subject, theme, aesthetic, colour, or composition. Group and regroup until you feel you have begun to make sense of the work. The groups will help you to see what you do or don’t have, and help you see patterns emerge within and between your photographs. Then, start selecting the good ones. Keep two things in mind while you do this: the intrinsic quality of each photograph, and its function or role in the overall project. Sometimes a good photograph will simply not fit the message or concept you are trying to portray. Be willing to kill it.
Often self-published books suffer from self-indulgent photographers who cannot be objective and keep far too many photos in the edit, compromising the final result. If you feel you are one of those, ask for help from trusted colleagues, friends, or editors.”
DON’T EXPECT BIG BUCKS
“Let me break it to you: if you are looking to make money, you are looking in the wrong place! Photobooks don’t really make much profit from sales. It is just too expensive to produce them (including their content, design, production, and printing). This means the margins are usually too low to make any serious profit, especially if you yourself are the primary means of selling your own book.
The classic publishing formula is to multiply your unit cost by five to determine the cover price. Which means that if your book costs $20 per copy to produce, a traditional publisher would charge $100 per copy – which is, of course, an extraordinarily high price, one that will make the book unsellable. Thankfully the traditional system of multiplying by five doesn’t fit the business model of most self-published books, where some of the costs a normal publisher would have to take into account, including distribution, do not exist. But you get the gist. The best way is to control costs, distribute and sell your book directly, and ideally fundraise to cover some of the costs of production.”
Self Publish, Be Happy is available from October