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To print or publish during Covid?

Self-publishing photo books has provided a new and accessible alternative for photographers seeking to showcase a project, circumventing the challenges of Covid-19 lockdowns.

The explosion of independent self-publishing has demolished the barriers to entry thrown up by risk-adverse book publishers, resulting in a fantastic new range of high quality and affordable photo books. It’s left many a photographer with a finished body of work asking themselves: ‘Do I print this into an exhibition, or publish a photo book?’ – The best response is obviously ‘why not both?’; however it’s most likely going to be one or the other, and each comes with a set of logistical and cost-related factors worth considering.

An exhibition is a big investment, which isn’t guaranteed to yield a satisfactory return. There is the cost of a limited edition print run; competing with other artists for a slot at a gallery, which will charge to hire the venue or take a commission on sales (or both); costs of organising an opening event; and finally the unsold prints must be stored in an appropriate location, and god forbid the storage facility floods!

Alternatively, a photo book has the ability to be accessed and enjoyed for far longer and more broadly than prints presented in an exhibition, as they can traverse the planet and remain in circulation for generations. It’s also possible to offset costs of photo books with pre-orders of print-on-demand or small volume books, and the vast majority retail for under $200 – an attractive figure that offers more ‘bang for your buck’ for customers, who may be hesitant to pay several hundred dollars for a print. But a photo book won’t necessarily have the same sales potential as prints, if it isn’t supported by a launch event and publicity. So why not combine the best of both worlds?

A launch event for Gateway, a photo book and exhibition by Simon Bernhardt. Source: Supplied.

A one-night photo book launch, complemented by a small print exhibition and an artist talk, can draw a crowd, generate publicity and provide the best platform for sales. It will also likely be more affordable, less labour and time intensive, and the self publisher can sell books at the event without needing to worry about packaging and postage – an often ill-considered part of the self publishing process.
Success however, relies on the photo book being given the same prominence as the photographic prints, placement in a central location, multiple display copies available to flick through, a highly visible stack of wrapped books ready to purchase and a no fuss on-the-spot electronic payment system. Signing copies at the event will increase the appeal and allow you to sell at a higher RRP.

Sydney photographer, Rob Annesley, discovered the benefits of combining a book launch with an exhibition with The Wild, a series of wildlife images captured at a local wetlands along the Georges River in Sydney’s south. Rob’s photos document a vibrant and thriving ecosystem contained within a tiny slice of local parkland, Webb’s Dam, so he approached the local council to fund the project and secured an $11,000 grant.

The Wild.

‘Originally what started out purely as a book project, also ended up as an exhibition that served as a vehicle to launch the book. Through the course of discussions with the Cultural Team at the Georges River Council, they suggested “do it as an exhibition at the local gallery. It will gain more opportunities for our local community to see your work, and more exposure for the book”.’

Australian photo book specialist, Momento Pro, printed 100 copies of The Wild, a 132-page book designed entirely by Rob with assistance from Lisa Ryman, Momento’s volume order manager. Bennett’s Photo and Frames printed a single edition of 32 photos for the exhibition.

‘Lisa walked me through every stage and made it so easy. Plus the software is incredibly easy to use, it makes self publishing enjoyable and without a stress, yet creates such a professional product. My friends, the Bennetts, I’ve been going there for years and they put out such a professional product. The hardest part was probably doing the artist talk.’

Rob spent three years photographing a variety of wildlife within this patch of park land, roughly 100m X 75m in size.

The Wild was set to open in May at the council’s Hurstville Museum & Gallery. Then Covid came along and locked everyone down. NSW has so far managed the pandemic much better than its southern neighbour, and it wasn’t long before Sydney venues opened up again, with Rob’s exhibition going ahead in July.

He sold almost half the books at the launch event, pulling one of the largest crowds at the venue in recent history thanks to a brilliant and sustained promo campaign. A third of the 32 prints were sold over the duration of the exhibition, and Rob has since distributed The Wild to local shops and cafes, as well as selling the remainder via his website.

‘I’ve found many people now buying the book who went to the exhibition. There have also been maybe half a dozen repeat customers, who are buying it as a gift for someone who can’t visit them right now.’

But for Rob, whose profession is motorsports photography while his passion is for wildlife, the experience was never about earning a buck. Having never published a book, or run a solo exhibition, he wanted to challenge himself, test new skills he acquired through courses at the Australian Centre for Photography, and throw himself in the deep end.

‘I’m a wildlife photographer who spends hours on my own, sitting under a hide waiting for wildlife activity to occur. This has taken me to another space. From my point of view, The Wild is a document of something I did. When I pass on, someone will say “my grandfather did this, he was a photographer”. It’s also been a humbling experience because I’ve gotten to share my passion and my work. Who knows how long these wetlands will be there for?’

Not all projects are ripe for government arts grants, but there are other options available to offset the cost of self publishing and gauge interest. Successful Australian and New Zealand photo book crowdfunding campaigns garner on average $20,000, which easily covers the majority of costs.

While Covid threw a spanner in the works for art galleries, with many now slowly opening back up, photo book publishing has never been easier or more appealing.

Sponsored by Momento Pro.

One Comment

  1. Graham Monro Graham Monro October 16, 2020

    Thanks for the great article and well done Rob ! Totally agree that an exhibition and opening night selling your self published books can work really well. The team at Momento Pro are incredible and the print quality amazing.Highly recommend them. Cheers Graham Monro

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