Photography Book Now is Blurb's brilliant annual book competition for print-on-demand books. The following is an interview with PBN's lead judge, Darius Himes, co-founder of Radius Books, by photo-eye Director, Rixon Reed. Interspersed with the interview are images of some of last year's winners. Deadline for entry into this year's competition is 12:00 PM PDT July 16, 2009.
Rixon Reed: This is the second year in a row for Blurb's Photography Book Now (PBN) competition. It's a terrific idea and evidently quite a success. What was the genesis of this contest and how did you become part of it?
Darius Himes: The contest is something that Eileen Gittins, Blurb Founder and CEO dreamed up and then approach me about. Eileen had come to a talk of mine on photography books and publishing at Photo Plus Expo in New York, about 4 years ago. After that presentation, she introduced herself. It was during a subsequent trip to Santa Fe that we casually brainstormed about the idea of a print-on-demand book contest. She then asked me to lead the team of judges.
RR: How many submissions were there in last year's contest and were you surprised to see such a large response? And how is this year's competition shaping up?
DH: There were over 2000 submissions last year, and it was a complete surprise (and obviously a success). This year promises even more submissions!
Spread from In the Garden, by Beth Down. 2008 PBN Grand Prize Winner
RR: I see that there are three categories for submissions, fine-art, editorial and commercial. Can you give us a sense of the thinking behind the categories? Where would a classic documentary project fit?
DH: This is a great question. Creating a successful book involves editing and sequencing and design all in light and in line with an overriding concept that has to be determined ahead of time. Asking yourself ahead of time, "Who is this book for?" and "What am I trying to accomplish with this book?" is extremely important.
The three categories of this year's contest—Fine-Art, Editorial and Commercial—are designed to encourage photographers to think about books the way publishers do.
The fine-art category is extremely broad and the most subjective, in that photographers and artists using photography can do whatever they want to produce their book. Books from "art" photography publishing houses—like Nazraeli Press, Twin Palms, J&L Books, Aperture, Phaidon, or Radius Books—are often "name" driven and rely on an audience that recognizes that name, whether that's a really huge name, like Annie Leibovitz, or someone lesser-known, like Julie Blackmon. What is most important in relation to this category is that the content of the book is driven by the personal, artistic concerns of the artist/photographer, and not by "market conditions."
Editorial photography, which is the second category, is a much different animal than "fine art" photography and book making. Editorial and commercial photographers often serve patrons other than themselves, and this is a big distinction. So, an editorial photographer sent on an assignment to cover X, may find themselves with a much larger, broader, more engaging body of work than will ever get published in a magazine. And they may want to turn that project into a book, and get it out there to a wide audience. Likewise, a commercial shooter often has photographic skills that translate into a broadly accessible visual language, and can be used for a "commercial" book project. Publishers often conceive of book projects in-house and then commission commercial photographers to produce work for the book.
In either the editorial or commercial category, I would emphasize again that you need to think like a publisher. Visit websites of publishers (like this one and this other one) and read the "catalog copy" that they produce about their own books. It'll give you great insight into what type of audience they are aiming for. In many ways, creating an intelligent, successful commercial book is as hard as creating a successful fine-art project.
I'm consciously avoiding the "documentary" question as it is fraught with difficulties. If you want to see two photographers fight, ask them to define "documentary" photography. I'll leave it to the bookmaker to sort out where to submit. And remember, my clue is to think like a publisher. Is your project right for a small fine art publisher or a big commercial house?
Spread from Reading, by Talia Chetrit. 2008 PBN General Category Winner
RR: Can any self-published book be entered in the competition or is it limited to Blurb books? If so, does it have to be a book that is printed on demand or can a handmade artist book be entered?
DH: From the rules: "Contest submissions ("Submissions") must be photography books that are self-published either through the Blurb website or through another self-publishing facilitation service. Submissions may not be published by any third party publisher. The Submissions must be original works of authorship, entered by the author who holds all rights to the Submission."
RR: Most of this year's and last year's judges are important figures in the fine-art and editorial photography world. How are judges chosen? How does the judging process work?
DH: As lead judge, my main task for both years has been to identify the judges and coordinate the judging process. Both years, the judges were photography industry professionals who have a deep understanding and passion for photography, for books and printed media, or both. This year, the line-up also represents a broad sampling of professionals from across the photography spectrum. For example, two magazine editors are involved: Dana Faconti from Blind Spot and Jodi Peckman from Rolling Stone. Both picture professionals, but from wildly different magazines. The judges will be gathering on August 8 in New York to review the submissions, and they're all excited about the diversity that will be present.
RR: Why do you think "POD" (Print On Demand) books have become so popular? For most POD books, professional designers are left out of the picture. Where else do most POD books fall short?
DH: I think that print-on-demand books have become so popular for two main reasons. First, they open up a major industry to the amateur: publishing. For the average American, it's novel and fun to take your photos and lay them out in a book, push a button and a week later get something that looks pretty professional. That's fun! It's just like going to Wal-Mart and sticking your camera card in the machine and out comes a stack of photos and a cd with thumbnails. That's the same kind of fun.
For the photography "professional" or art photographer, it's also fun, but in a slightly more serious way. Most photographers dream of seeing their work in print (for a variety of reasons) and this technology opens up a whole world to them. It's the publishing world made accessible.
But what most photographers don't realize is that there are a whole host of people in the publishing world that work hard behind the scenes on different aspects of books, and when those people aren't included—designers, editors, typographers, marketers, and distributors—they often end up with an inferior product.
Spread from Forgotten, by Leigh Anderson. 2008 PBN Peoples Choice Award
RR: Your publishing company, Radius Books, has produced extraordinarily beautiful books since its launch two years ago. They are wonderfully designed with quality bindings and papers. How are POD books different from those that you publish?
DH: Printing a book with an offset printer is different than using the HP Indigo printing process that is currently the standard for print-on-demand books. It's a different technological process, just as Type-C prints and inkjets are different. They're both color "photographs" but they use completely different technologies. If you expect a print-on-demand book to look like, or have the range of materials, that an offset printed book has, you'll be disappointed. You can't make an apple into an orange. But each has their advantages and disadvantages. Photographers are now exploring the range of possibilities and we're just at the beginning of this technology.
RR: Is POD in any way a threat to mainstream publishing?
DH: Yes and no, and it mostly depends on what we're talking about. Will Borders start printing out the classics of literature "on demand?" Probably. Will Rizzoli start using print-on-demand to produce their movie tie-in books? Definitely not. It's more cost effective to print 50,000 books using offset technology. The print-on-demand technology only makes sense in small quantities and that's the major difference. If by "mainstream" publishing you mean single titles in massive quantities, then no, there's no threat. The quantity of print-on-demand titles is easy to misunderstand statistically. There may be "more titles" published, but not a larger quantity of books. There's no print-on-demand "author" that has sold 1000s of copies of their book (that I'm aware of). If they had, they would have made more money using offset printing and selling the project to a publisher. Again, it's the quantity game.
RR: Darius, thanks so much for taking time for this interview.
Please note: photo-eye will be reporting the winners of this year's contest as soon as they are announced.
Darius Himes is co-founder of Radius Books and is the former editor of the print version of photo-eye Magazine. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.