Portfolio reviews have returned to their in person form again, at least to a limited extent, as places are slowly opening up after nearly eighteen months of restrictions. So I recently found myself returning to Cortona, where the cars are reassuringly as damaged as they have ever been:
It was four years since my last visit so amongst viewing the exhibitions I attended a few portfolio reviews to show a new project, which is actually an old project - one I started shooting in 2009. I had shown this project a couple of weeks earlier at some online portfolio reviews in Arles, and going back further I had shown the works in progress at events in 2014, 2016, and 2018.
The work has changed and grown, my eye has matured, my photos have gotten better, more formal, more considered, the work is now more cohesive. Regardless the response to the project has always been positive1, no matter what stage it was at.
The work is now in a much more complete form, namely a maquette (dummy book), albeit a very early draft form. But you can flick through it to get a much better feel for the project. There is still far too much work, but the early approach in these drafts is to keep the edit loose and tighten it up.
Presenting the work in this form has given me the same positive responses - it’s an interesting project, well shot, with a good balance of the formal, detail, landscape, and some humour. There is enough work to do a really tight strong edit, and scope to do multiple parts, along with editorial pieces. There are many single images that could stand on their own. It shows us something in a way we haven’t really seen it before.
Nice. But here comes the kicker, the question I have been hearing more as I present the project as a dummy photobook: “[If you are aiming to produce a book then] who is your audience?”
Who is Your Audience?
The question is somewhat rhetorical of course, and I always answer it in the same way: photobooks are largely bought by people that buy photobooks, they are rarely bought by those who are interested in the subject of the project. When I say this the response by the reviewer is always a smile.
Because they know this to be true, whether they be a photobook publisher, editor, gallery owner, festival organiser, or whatever. The art world is small, the art photobook world is even smaller, and the numbers of art photobooks that sell is smaller still.
People don’t buy art. I’m generalising here of course, where “people” represents the public at large. I say this having been involved in a gallery and exhibition space since early 2018, one that probably sells more volume (in terms of unit, not necessarily price) than most - a gallery in an alpine ski resort. Sure we get lots of visitors, lots of positive comments, but the ratio of visitors to sales is probably, what, 25:1? And that’s people that get into the gallery, the ratio of passers-by to visitors is much larger.
And people really don’t buy photobooks either. Where do you even find photobooks? Bookshops, maybe, but only the larger ones will stock photobooks and even then only the top sellers. Photobook shops, sure they exist but not really outside of the big/arty cities? Galleries, yes but most people don’t visit those. Direct from artist and publisher websites? Yep, sure. Amazon.com? Or course, but who is going to drop $40+ on an unseen photobook?
We can probably break down the potential buyers, the audience for photobooks, into five groups being those who…
- … are interested in photobooks (regardless of the subject)
- … are interested in the artist/subject/project (and maybe buy photobooks/prints)
- … are interested in the concept (“the book as an object” type of thing)
- … buy photobooks as gifts for others (some crossover with 1)
- … buy photobooks as an investment (flippers/resellers).
Most of my purchasing is a combination of 1 and 2 - I am interested in photobooks but am informed significantly by the subject/project. There are many photobooks that find themselves as best sellers, or award winning, or praised by many, that I have no interest in.
The ideal project for a publisher is something that combines the first four groups. Get that right and you could be looking at sales figures two orders of magnitude larger than the norm. What’s the norm? Well most photobooks by established fine art photobook publishers sell in the region of hundreds of copies. If you self publish you might sell dozens. If the photographer is well established, or the publisher has a much bigger marketing effort and/or reach then a few thousand copies might be sold. Maybe, just maybe, sales might break tens of thousands if everything comes together. This is rare.
Don’t be surprised by the low numbers. As I said - photobooks are mostly bought be people that buy photobooks! And quality photobooks are expensive, which largely alienates those in groups 2, 3, and 4.
To expand on this - I recently spoke with a publisher about my project and they liked it but expressed it wasn’t commercial and might sell a 1,000 copies at a push. Which is entirely fair. They then gave an example of one of their recent releases, a book of dog photography2, and said that it had only sold about 4,000 copies despite a massive marketing push and a joint effort with a larger publisher.
But photos of dogs? The audience for this book from the above list is 2 and 4, and I would say the “gifts for others” group is significantly reduced as the book is priced at £35. So we’re left with “those who are interested in the artist/subject/project” - but all the dog owners I know would have absolutely no interest in a photobook of dogs. If they want to see photos of dogs they’ll just search for #dog using Instagram, and scroll until the heat death of the universe, they’re not going to buy a book.
That’s definitely some [dog] food for thought: the number of dog owners is massive, a quick search suggests one in four people have a dog. But the number of those who would buy a photobook? If we assume best (or worst?) case here that everyone of those had become aware of the book that means approx 0.000001%3 given the sales figure of 4,000 copies.
Who is Your Audience?
If you ever watch photography videos on YouTube you’ve probably stumbled across Jared Polin. Jared’s channel is an example of many of those you can find on YouTube, in that it’s more about technology than photography.
They’re the modern equivalent to the magazines that used to be popular in the 80s/90s/00s - full of articles on how to use your camera, reviews of new gear, post processing tips, all that kind of stuff. It’s useful, and potentially interesting stuff, and really quite popular, but it’s not really what I would class as “photographic” content.
Jared isn’t alone here - there are literally thousands of these channels on YouTube that have the same type of content. Some channels even started out more photographic but pivoted heavily towards the technology type of content as they realised that’s what most people want. “The Art of Photography” for example is one of those channels that pivoted a few years ago to this content4.
Because it sells, in terms of views. Massively so in some cases. And that’s because most people who are interested in photography are interested in content about the technology; they buy cameras and lenses and accessories and software, they don’t buy prints or photobooks or visit galleries and exhibitions.
Most photographers aren’t really interested in art either, so they don’t buy it. I mean, how many photographers do you know that have shelves full of photobooks?
Order “The Art of Photography” videos by most popular and you have to scroll a long way beyond the clickbait gear reviews before you get to the (excellent) “The Artist Series” - content that receives one fifth of the views of the technology focussed videos.
Who is Your Audience?
So what happened when Jared decided to create a photobook? That’s somewhat of a pivot in terms of content. Would his audience be the same as those who watch his videos, listen to his podcast, buy his tutorials and plugins? No, I think that’s evident from what I’ve already said. However, Jared’s channel has (as of writing) 1.3million subscribers.
Could he sell a couple of thousand copies to some of those 1.3million subscribers? A couple of thousand copies by any measure is large number for a photobook. For a self published book that figure is enormous.
I think it’s worth pointing out that this appears to be more a project about the making of a high quality photobook rather than the actual subject of the photobook itself. Jared has been drip feeding content on the making of the book for several months, which reveals some of the thought process, costs, design decisions, and goals.
I found out about this project via Hacker News5 and spent some time watching Jared’s videos and listening to the podcasts. So, immediately Jared captured at least one more viewer/listener (per video) via a comment on an entirely unrelated source - a lot of projects are discovered this way. Mission accomplished, right? Eh maybe. Let’s go over what went through my head when I watched/listened to the rationale and learned about the project. I jotted down notes here as bullet points, with my thoughts/responses in italics:
- Jared wants to tell a story via photos
- but is adamant on having QR codes from the offset (little to no text)
- so it’s telling a story via photos but largely by additional commentary?
- would rather listen to the story than read (would he get this far in this blog post?)
- perceives the book as a vehicle for the QR code/commentary/audio story
- so from the offset this is not really a photobook in the traditional sense?
- Was initially aiming more at his YouTube core audience
- wanted a book (or books) of all previous work/photo stores
- the Bernie book idea came later
- perhaps the realisation that these videos wouldn’t appeal to the audience of technologists informed that?
- and that those who might buy the book are less interested in Jared’s work?
- so something more cohesive, or less about Jared would be a better first book?
- Estimates 1% of viewers (of this series of videos) will buy a book
- 25,000 views -> 250 sales
- seems like a realistic percentage
- talks about making a profit (through sales + potentially a sponsor)
- “endgame is selling out the books in the first run”
- 25,000 views -> 250 sales
- Chose Bernie as it’s more relevant (or, time sensitive)
- other photo stories/history aren’t time sensitive
- did 3 shoots over 2 days, then
- 255 keepers (“best of the best”)
- that’s way too many keepers for 3 shoots
- down to 118 selected for the book (double page spreads), 250ish pages
- cutting out “close to similar images”
- didn’t plan on doing KickStarter initially (“I have a following”)
- knows it’s a divisive project from the offset
- that’s not necessarily a bad thing
- doesn’t want to do a “garbage” book
- doesn’t define this, but I suspect he means the cheaper self publishing options on the web
- “you don’t need a publisher anymore”
- ehhh, disagree strongly: a publisher has more marketing clout than even multi-million follower YouTubers will ever have for this niche, and they have the power to get photobooks in front of the audience that is much more likely to buy them including into dedicated stores, on stands at photo festivals, submit to awards6, into magazines, onto websites, etc.
- Thinks small books are a “cash grab” (e.g. Martin Schoeller’s recent book?)
- “it’s small, it’s not impressive”
- the form of the book is part of the message/story
- a big ass print of a mediocre photo is still mediocre
- Bernie’s character doesn’t strike me as grandiose, so why should a photobook on him be?
- goal is to sell 500 books to listeners/viewers, would be happy to sell 1,000
- again, seems reasonable
- cites the Obama photobook frequently
- that’s a massive outlier in the photobook world
- seems to think publishers give cash advances on photobooks
- maybe if you’re very well established and large sales are guaranteed
- as said, that’s rare
- most publishers will give you a percentage of the print run to sell yourself
- “it’s small, it’s not impressive”
- Heavy emphasis on profits: print 2,000 equals more profit
- yes, if and only if you sell most of them
- most photobooks struggle to break even, let alone make a profit
- many photobooks end up stacked in storage somewhere, or discounted to sell
- “I hate the gutter”
- i think most photographers do initially
- but then you learn it can be used as a compositional or design device
- hide things in the gutter, divide a photo into two parts
- refuses to crop (which is fine) but then struggles with the gutter
- if you refuse to crop you absolutely don’t have 255 “best of the best”
- “Where am i going to put 13 pallets of books? (weighing 6600kg)”
- still wants a big book
- selling for $60
- decided on ordering 2,000 books (regardless on Kickstarter)
- total (order/expenses) cost: $65,000
- “you absolutely need a designer” (yep, no question)
- Very much focusing on the book as an object, in terms of size, quality, QR codes
- not so much on the actual photo content?
- Artist’s statement (“author statement”)
- is more interested in the process than the subject
- say’s little about the subject/project (Bernie)
- it’s about the book (as an object), the documentary, the commentary, YouTube
- “it’s about the story” of making the book, not the subject of the book
- this is not a book about Bernie, it’s a book about Jared who happened to be shooting photos of Bernie
I should reserve any opinion on the actual book until I have seen it, but at $120 (being a EU purchaser) it’s not something I am willing to spend that much on given what I have seen so far - there’s enough here to form an initial set of thoughts…
In general it’s cool to see more of this content on photography channels that are usually more focused on the gear. However, as a photobook this is probably pretty weak. It’s not a compelling project or photobook, nor would the time frame yield enough variety in images to create a strong edit. You need to follow your subject for a much longer time period (months, if not years) to get enough content to make a photobook7.
The preview images we see are nothing new, nor are they strong enough to make most people want to see more. The three (?) shoots might yield enough photos to make a good six, twelve, or twenty image editorial piece, but a book? If you were going to create a book from this you might want to play with the form a little and perhaps be a bit more meta in the design.
Although the subject is divisive (just look at some of the comments on the videos), that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you can work around it. I have photobooks on political figures that I abhor8, but the books or projects/approach are done brilliantly. The problem in Jared’s project is that there’s too many images, too many of them are (probably?) too similar, and we’ve seen it all before.
Even the “bangers” aren’t that interesting - we’ve seen these types of photos thousands of times, either contextually within the type of photography we see from political rallies or otherwise. So you’re never going to appeal to those who dislike the subject of the book but might be interested in photobooks.
Other problems are that it’s big and expensive even by photobook standards. $60 + $60 to ship outside the US means $120. Jared is losing a large part of his audience that exists outside the US who might have bought the book. The book doesn’t need to be as big as it is, half to two thirds the size (dimensions and number of photos) would have made a much cheaper book to buy and ship.
The QR codes for commentary approach is an interesting one but ultimately a mistake I feel. These will be non-functioning in twenty or even ten years time; the book will be left to stand alone on its photographic content, which most photobooks should anyway, so focus on making the strongest book of photos.
All that said, Jared’s campaign was successful9, more than doubling its (financial) goal. It looks like the number of copies pre-sold will be close to the estimate of 500 and if the book is on Amazon as well it may well sell a few hundred more. It looks like Jared will be close to breaking even, perhaps a small profit.
However, the reality is that if an unknown photographer had created and self published this book they might have sold a dozen copies. Fifty copies if they were very lucky. It really is an editorial piece at most, not a book project. I suspect Jared will still have a few pallets of the book stuck in storage for a while if he has ordered 2,000 books.
This is an outlier. A photographer with an inbuilt audience large enough that the subset of “those who are interested in photobooks” and “those who are interested in the artist/subject/project” created the sales. I suspect the majority are of the latter not the former. Jared will have gained more subscribers and viewers due to the nature of the project (the “making of”) rather than the subject of the project, so I think he/we can say yes: mission accomplished.
So props to Jared for achieving that, all while creating content that is more interesting than the usual content on his channel and being transparent on the process and costs - I’m sure many viewers were shocked to realise how much producing a high quality photobook can cost. This type of content I would consider something a bit more “photographic”, let’s see more of this in future please?
So, Who is My Audience?
I think we’ve established that I don’t know, other than the aforementioned reply of “the photobook crowd”, which is pretty small. Clearly there’s crossover with the audience that follows the subject, an audience of five hundred million fans, but probably not so much. If I can capture one percent of one percent of one percent that’s an entire print run for most small independent photobook publishers. Maybe.
So I’ve put a sample of the work out there. Not just this project, but others I have been working on over the past decade as well. It’s a small sample - in the case of the Formula 1 work just thirty images out of over two thousand, of which I would say one/two hundred are strong enough to be part of a final edit.
It is a small sample, but aimed to create interest. I’ve held this back for long enough, now I need to get it out there. I hope to find my audience, but I figure it’s more likely they will find me.
Apart from one person who dismissed it as a poor Martin Parr imitation, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of both this work and also Parr’s work. But that’s fine… ↩
So about 1% of 1% of 1%. Of course, the figures here are off in terms of those who would be aware of the book and those who would have the disposable income to purchase it, but the orders of magnitude are right. It’s probably closer to 1% of 1% all things considered. ↩
A necessary evil in the art/photobook world. ↩
Or at least, will be at the time of writing this with a few days remaining on the campaign ↩