When Photographers Become Self-Publishing Companies

6 minute read

When Josh Lustig started photographing the wild and grubby Hackney Marshes in London on his way to and from work, he never thought it would lead him to oversee a photobook publishing venture. Yet, a year later, there he was, at the Polycopies book fair held during the Paris Photo photography trade show, presenting the releases of Tartaruga Books. As he recounted his story, Juan Valbuena, standing in the booth next to his, nodded his head. The founder of Phree, who printed Carlos Spottorno’s award-winning 2013 photo book The Pigs, Valbuena also launched his small press as a way to give his own work more visibility.

Progressively, photographers who choose to self-publish are taking it to the next level. They’re turning one-time hits into more permanent structures that release works by other artists. Many have chosen this avenue as a way to snub the major publishers who are increasingly asking their authors to bring not only a great body of work, but also a check.

“I find it insane and unacceptable that renowned publishing houses are asking photographers to come up with half, if not all, of the funds needed to produce a book. This comes across as a lack of commitment,” says Lustig. “Investing in a project shows that you believe in it.” Earlier this year, the British photographer partnered up with Max Bondi, founder of Tartaruga records to open a photobook division. “Combining forces with a similar minded record company that has a small but dedicated fan-base meant that I was able to reach another audience. And, having a partner that’s not from the photo community adds another interesting perspective,” he says.

Juan Valbuena founded Phree, which has since published 13 photo books, including Eduardo Nave's Todas Direcciones.Eduardo Nave

His contemporaries, Alex Webb and Lewis Chaplin, co-founders of Fourteen Nineteen, also noticed the lack of risks established publishers take. They see their collaborative project as a way to promote work that could otherwise go unnoticed. “We are asking an audience, and the artists we work with, to take seriously images made by those in the early stages of their career,” they say. Through trial and error, their publishing endeavors, which began as a blog featuring single images from different photographers worldwide, has helped wunderkinds like Harry Mitchell, Sean Vegezzi, Susanna Zak, Will Adler, Nathanael Turner emerge. “The first volumes you make aren’t going to be the best. When making books, you learn most from failures,” they explain.

For these photographers-turned-publishers, the logic goes as follows: if they’re going to spend thousands of dollars to see their series turned into a book, they might as well pay for the freedom to do it the way they want. And, if they’re going to jump through the many hoops that come with publishing work independently, they might just as well do it twice.

“We created Riot books to produce Ilkin Huseynov’s opus Muhit. Once the system was in place, making the next title became easier, and the next easier still,” says Veronica Fieiras, an Argentinean photographer who met her Azerbaijani colleague Huseynov in Madrid. Due to their upbringing in politically tumultuous countries, the pair is focusing on work with a social justice agenda. “We’re growing quite organically. We follow our intuition and try not to lock ourselves into a certain intellectual framework. We try to stay free,” she says. Their most recent release, the seventh in only one year, Negatives Are Stored, had them craft a wooden box and hand-glue ‘carte de visite’ portraits from old Ukraine on it.

Setting up an official structure has the benefit of adding credence to what can come across as a wild gamble. When, in 2012, Valbuena decided to transform his 10 years of drifting around the Mediterranean Sea into a coherent volume entitled Noray he created Phree. Doing so allowed him to partner up with La Kursala, an initiative by the Cadiz University in Spain that is largely responsible for the recent boom in Spanish photobooks. “I was pleasantly surprised to see that if you go at it intelligently, are ready to put in the work and are passionate, it is easy to craft yourself a place within the market,” he says. Phree now boasts 13 publications.

A major challenge remains devising a distribution scheme that can turn a profit, or at the very least cover costs.

Last year, when Vasantha Yogananthan produced Piémanson under the Chose Commune label, which he founded with three associates, it cost him about $30 per copy. Traditionally, the publishing industry would have him multiply that by five in order to be profitable once middlemen have taken their shares. “We wanted the book to stay affordable, so we priced it at $50. We skipped the distributor to avoid their charges and built strong relationships with booksellers. Given the number of photobooks released yearly, they have become influential tastemakers. Even then, once you factor in their 40% commission, that leaves us with a profit of $1.25,” explains the French artist.

Vasantha Yogananthan self-published Piemanson
Vasantha Yogananthan self-published PiemansonVasantha Yogananthan

To finance their projects, photographers turn to other tactics: from offering higher priced limited edition that come with a print to setting up direct-purchase, print on-demand or pre-purchase options.

But, more importantly, owning your small press means that you’re allowing others to benefit from these stratagems. “When I wanted to publish Live Through This, a project I had just completed, I thought about doing a Kickstarter campaign,” says Tony Fouhse. “Upon further reflection, I decided that although crowdfunding is great, it’s also a little too selfish. You raise the funds, release your book and send it to the folks who supported you. It all seemed too much like a closed loop.” Instead, Fouhse created Straylight Press as a way to create a community of like-minded people. “I set up a website and opened for business. For me, it’s no-brainer: if you have an online store that sells photobooks, you should also help to create books by other photographers. That way you get to support the work of others.”

Today, Straylight Press, which launched two years ago, has 11 opus by seven different authors under its belt, many of which are now sold-out. “The first surprise – a good one – was that we’ve found an audience and that we actually sell books,” says Fouhse. “The other surprise – a bad one – is that we don’t always sell as many books as we’d like. If Facebook likes all turned into sales, we’d be laughing.”

Laurence Butet-Roch is a freelance writer, photo editor and photographer based in Toronto, Canada. She is a member of the Boreal Collective.

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