The Netflix of Photobooks

I’ve been following the conversation about “the future of photobooks” initiated by Flak Photo and RESOLVE and have found it interesting, but I wasn’t really sure that I had anything to contribute.  First of all, I don’t know enough about the publishing industry to really make any sort of informed comment about it. Second, I think the pros and cons of on-demand publishing services like Blurb have been sufficiently discussed.

Perhaps this is an indication of my current mindset, but what I kept thinking about was the market for photography books.  It’s the same thought that comes into my mind when I think about the new organizations selling “affordable photography” prints.  Whose going to buy these books and prints?  It’s the same question that newspapers, magazines and blogs have been asking for the last couple of years. Whose going to pay? And why?

Lay Flat and the recently launched PUBLICATION seem to prove that if you put out a high quality product, people will buy it.  Over the last couple of months I’ve been working on Issue #1 of “Photographs on the Brain,” which will feature photographs from the group edited pool that I set up on Flickr.  It’ll feature only photographs and will be distributed through Magcloud.  I haven’t seen a proof yet, so I can’t attest to the quality at this point, but from people I’ve talked to, it’s pretty good.  I like this model because it’ll be affordable and available to anyone who wants to purchase. Of course, the market is awash in zines these days, so it’ll be the same uphill struggle that other publishers are facing.  But with very little overhead, it seems like a low risk endeavor.

Because I’m optimistic about technology, I have no doubt that the quality of on-demand services will only improve and likely will meet the highest standards in our lifetime. I do believe this. Blurb is like Atari. Very cool for its time, but really only the tip of the iceberg in terms what’s to come.  I’m also optimistic that display technology will improve dramatically in the near future and make viewing photographs on the computer much more enjoyable.

If we assume the barriers to quality on-demand publishing will fall in our lifetime (and I know many people won’t agree), anyone will be able to produce high quality books. But that goes back to my initial question, whose going to buy these books?  Even the most devote book collector wouldn’t be able to purchase everything they’d like to have on their shelves. It’s straight economics. And if you produce your own book, how are you going to market it? RJ Shaughnessy has bee mentioned in this conversation for his initiative with “Your Golden Opportunity is Coming Very Soon.” He was generous enough to send me a copy, and it was awesome to receive it in the mail. It definitely got my attention more than an email pointing to a portfolio.  It’s a good strategy if you can afford it and target the right blogs.

Now, to the idea, and source of my headline.  What I’ve been thinking about recently is how we can share content in the physical world the way we share it online.  I think everyone agrees about the importance of creating a synergy between the digital and the physical.  One such endeavor that I think is interesting is Dr. Karanka’s Print Stravaganza, which is a roaming photography show.  Contributors mail in prints and shows are organized through the web in various cities.  This box of prints continues to grow and travel all across Europe.  And it’ll eventually make it’s way to other countries as well.  The shows are DIY and underground by nature, but it’s an interesting example of using the internet to bring photography into the real world. And how cool is that these prints will take on a life of their own by traveling around the globe?

That brings me to the Netflix of photobooks.  I admit the title is a bit hyperbolic, but I wonder if some type of joint venture could be organized amongst bloggers and photography organizations to share photography books?  I’m not talking about Steidl books here, more like the the Photography.Book.Now winners and other on-demand books. I would love to look at all these books but again, there’s no way I can buy each of them.  But there maybe a few that I would buy if I could see them first.  Just think if one of these books travelled to all the various bloggers so they could review them, and really promote the ones they thought stood out or were to their taste?  This would be a great way to expose true emerging talent to those out there trying to promote, discuss and market that type of work.  And just like, the Stravaganza, these books would take on a life of their own as they travel around the world.  You could also come up with some way of documenting whose had them and where they have been.  Could this type of model work for a larger photography audience? Maybe. Of course the problem you run into is that you couldn’t do this with collectible books, and shipping costs would be an issue, but I know it’s something I’d be interested in.  It would be awesome to have 3 or 4 new photography books arrive in the mail each month.  I believe there’s already a tremendous amount of experimentation being done by creative, passionate artists, but I just don’t think much of it is reaching enough of the eyeballs that might be interested in it.

The future of photography books should be about breaking down the barriers to experiencing this great art form.  Quality and experimentation are certainly important but if the books aren’t getting in front more eyeballs, then doesn’t the future look very much like the past?

  • Garywvann

    A hand made photo-book is not merely a portfolio of images, but a work of art in its own right.  It is not done for financial reasons directed at consumers, but by artists who work for personal reasons alone.  

  • Frank Marshal

    The greatest thing about a photo book is it is a book you can touch and flip the real pages. I would never pay for a photo book on a tablet.

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  • gary w. vann

    If the simple elements of storyline and images are the goal of photo books, I see no reason to form an organization to trade pod publications. Peculiar to photographers, their portfolios are open to the public for free on the internet. Except under certain limited circumstances, there is no reason to practice in print.

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  • Sparkdog

    Interesting thoughts for sure.

    I’d hate to limit it to just photobooks that I knew wouldn’t be collectible (as collectible has at least something to do with goodness), and it’s hard to predict when something will become valuable.

    Check out for an example of a full blown model you might borrow from.

    Even if not popular with the masses, “” might work for a smaller, in-the-know type of group.


  • Jin

    None of the public libraries around here really have any selection of photobooks at all. The bookstores are better but not by much. The problem is they’re expensive to stock and there’s not that much of a market in them to begin with. I think the rise of self-publishing helps with this though. Give people the chance to make something themselves and they might become interested in the medium and purchasing books by others too.

    There’s nothing like a well stocked university library. Mine has completely ruined me for public libraries, and I’m considering buying a library card after I graduate… hopefully it’s not something like 2 grand…

  • Jin

    The problem now that self-publishing is possible is promo. For indie publishers who don’t use Magcloud or Blurb or the like, how do you keep your book or mag in the public eye at all? You put up a site and maybe some blogs will mention it for a while or every so often, but chances are a lot of potential buyers never find it at all unless they search for it. If there was a hub for fine art or documentary photo publications, even if it just linked to the original sites, I think indie publishers would make a lot more money. Enough to count or offset the percentage taken by the site? Who knows.

    One problem with the Netflix idea is that the size, esp variable size, of books would increase shipping and storage costs. Though I assume you are saying that the original producers would be mailing them out?

    Another possibility is that we gather a somewhat large pool of people interested in seeing and buying photobooks regularly and buy collectively. One person would pay more (half?) to end up with the book eventually, but others could pay a percentage of the rest of the cost (up to ten people per book to minimize wear?) for a loan period. So I guess the buyer is in effect buying used, but I assume that for a lot of people that’s acceptable given the discount and that community standards of use are maintained. A lot of patience needed though…

  • Bryan Formhals

    No, they certainly are not a necessity. And maybe luxury is the wrong term. I guess I’m talking about books as investments, where a limited number of few wealthy collectors buy them up simply because their an investment.

  • Johanna

    Hi there
    I agree but it depends what your definition of luxury is. A photo book is not one of life’s necessities.

    I’m realistic, books compete with other forms more ephemeral forms of ‘entertainment’ or gratification that you have to part with money for – whether that’s the cost of going to see a live performance, a movie, the latest DVD, a meal out or the latest fashion accessory.

  • Larissa Leclair

    I wanted to see the Photography.Book.Now winning books as well so I included them in the Publisher’s Exhibition at FotoWeek DC 2009 this past November. They were on view in Georgetown on M Street at one of FotoWeek DC’s Central locations along with over 200 new releases by such publishers as Steidl, Nazraeli, errata editions, Radius and indie publishers like J&L Books, Nobody, and The Ice Plant.

  • david wilson

    yeah, that’s an interesting discussion indeed. I’m pasting some parts of a conversation we had somewhere else a few days ago, inspired by flak’s post:

    “I thought I’d be very happy to have the pdf file for the book instead of buying it from 10.000 miles away, then go with say ten different pdf books to the shop/lab in my town, and have those in one day, for a reasonable price. you know, sometimes you’re buying books directly from the photographer’s site, and that’s not like amazon where you can buy five books at once and save on shipping costs.

    also, we surely love the superstars that you can find on amazon and such, but we’re also into some sort of underground-not really mainstream photography which most of the times is not readily available, most DIY books are printed in limited copies, so they may last for a few months, then disapper unless the photog decides to re-print it. this way the problem would be solved for sure.

    finally, let’s say you sell your pdf book for 3$, that’s the maximum you could probably make when selling through blurb, as the starting prices are quite high. surely someone might share the pdf file with someone else, AKA steal your work, but then the pdf file would be cheap enough to discourage to a certain extent a similar thing.

    some people could even enjoy the pdf file itself, as a digital book.. I won’t, but who knows…”

    “I’m aware there’s quite a number of downsides with this sort of thing:

    1. some people (a lot, I think) would rather buy the finished product, and consider printing part of the photographer’s work, if that makes any sense. the same people probably loves to find a nice package in their mailbox too, and wouldn’t bother to go out and print a pdf file themselves, no matter how much money they would be saving.

    2. standards: color profiles, different printing machines, colour correction, bindings, whatever. people wants to be sure the final product will be just like what the author had in mind. this is a huge problem at present.


    1. people gets used to everything after a while, I suspect in the past people might have been quite skeptical about buying online instead than in an actual shop. now everyone is doing it, and nobody cares anymore (if they ever did. but, again, I suspect they did)

    2. what if blurb within a few years explodes and become something like a “printing starbucks”? you could go anywhere in the world, from the smallest town to the biggest city, and expect to get the same book in all of those shops. I said blurb but it can be anyone else, and it may happen as most labs already print photography books for their customers, even though I’m not sure about the average quality and prices.

    also, dan: I don’t know whether DIY publishers are losing money or not either, but if you sell a pdf book you’re absolutely sure you’re not losing any.

    and, that thing about books getting sold out was said from a buyer’s POV, not publisher’s. it’s rather annoying to have to wait until the author decides he can manage to print another bunch of copies, and this problem wouldn’t exist at all if you weren’t selling the actual book but the pdf file.

    andy is talking about “10 years”, not “10 months”, and he may even be optimistic, but all these thing are evolving in a very interesting way, and I’m really excited to see what’s happening next. I was talking about it with luca yesterday, and we agreed that in the next years we will probably see less and less “superstars”, and at the same time more and more very good photographers, producing great work, and finally managing to earn a decent amount of money (and with “decent” I just mean they’re not completely broke, not they’re going to buy fast cars or big houses on the beach).”

    at the end of the day the only thing that matters to me is not the “who is gonna buy your book/prints?” question, but the amount of risk you have to take in order to make your work available for the biggest audience. those risks with on demand services are drastically reducing, now if you want to sell your book you have to buy just one copy instead of 200.

  • Wayne

    Agreed, that most libraries would probably not purchase a vast number of self-published books. But observing the selection of other media, which regularly dips into various niches and is often obscure and random, I think there are opportunities. At first it might only be self-published books by photographers local to the area. Having spoken with people that work at libraries, they are open-minded and receptive, if there is an audience.

  • mattrobinsonimages

    Hey Bryan,

    just a quick note on Magcloud. The quality isn’t bad, but one major issue is that they only post to the USA –

  • Bryan Formhals

    Yeah, maybe. I’m not sure a library would get involved with experimental, lo-fi, DIY type books though. The obvious, highly-regarded books have no problem getting exposure.

    I’m more interested in the hidden treasures. And really, most of the books probably aren’t worth buying, but to have an browse through for a few weeks, would be nice. And collectively, I think people would build a nice selection of books that they could share.

    And I know there have been plenty of times that the library hasn’t had a book I wanted. But that’s likely been because it’s a limited edition, collectors item, which is a whole other issue with photography books. Some of the best simply aren’t available because of the scarcity paradigm.

  • Wayne

    There’s no reason why a large city library shouldn’t have a good selection of photobooks for loan and, for the netflix-like system, inter-library loan.

    What it probably takes is somebody at each library that is knowledgeable enough to order these books. There needs to be a blog post that lists the obvious, highly-regarded, widely available, inexpensive, photo books that /every/ library should have.