Recently, FotoEvidence “published” Steven Shames’ collection of photographs called “Bronx Boys.” Priced at $20 the book features over 120 photographs taken over two decades. For many reasons, this book is special but not in the least because it is one of the first of its kind; a photography eBook.
When one reviews a beautifully bound hardcover coffee table book on, say Motherwell paintings, some might feel that it, in and of itself, is an objet d’art. Though fundamentally it is only a mere representation of the authentic paintings, the silkiness of the pages, the weight and color together give it clout and covet-ability. A photography book is one step closer to this end. A photograph inherently is an image that has already been reproduced [from a negative, transparency or digital file], so naturally a book of photographs is a close second to peeling through a stack of prints. As genuine artwork is housed in institutions and homes all over the world, books are a tactile, joyous and convenient way of sharing imagery and most artists would agree that art without an audience is a gift without a recipient.
In the current climate of mass transference of digital information, the eBook was born. Its first manifestations were how to’s (mostly computer how to’s) and literature with an expired copyright. You can find Louis Carol’s epic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” for $0 while, conversely, “The EBook Handbook – A Thoroughly Practical Guide to Formatting, Publishing, Marketing, and Selling Your E-Book” by Douglas Klostermann will run you $9.99. The audience-customer is becoming retrained in the art of perceived value as well as getting accustomed to the free download.
In this new web environment, ‘audience’ has multiplied exponentially while becoming faceless, nameless, formless and unaccountable. Traditionally, an audience was in the habit of purchasing. They went to the register in the store, put the coins in the slot, paid at the desk or will call, to see a show or read the paper. In the commercial sphere, as with signage, billboards or public television, the client had purchased the rights and the audience experienced the imagery for free. The artist was subsequently able to make a living for they were, one way or another, ultimately reimbursed.
The question today is how to reconcile the desire to grow one’s audience with tools like eBooks and apps when the audience has been, and continues to be, erroneously trained in the value of digital imagery. Further complicating the equation, is how to evaluate a book that is not a physical object per se, but desires the same perceived preciousness when it showcases a collection of art, be it photographs, woodblock prints or paintings. Finally, of course, is how to protect these volumes from being illegally distributed.
Christopher Anderson launched the first ever photo book as an iPad app, his “Capitolio,” in Feb, 2011 for $4.99. Following the published physical book’s run of 3000, Chris hopes this app will increase awareness and drive the value of the hard copy book up. George Steinmetz released “Above & Beyond,” featuring 40 images, many previously unpublished, for only $1.99. Ed Kashi is releasing his first app later this year, in conjunction with the launch of the hard copy of his new book “Photojournalisms.” Apps have a built in safe guard against redistribution whereas eBooks are far more vulnerable to being casually exchanged and copied.
We were able to catch up with Svetlana Bachevanova from FotoEvidence regarding the recent release of “Bronx Boys.”
EKS: EBook v. App – Why did FotoEvidence chose to publish an eBook over an app? Isn’t an app far more protected from illegal distribution?
SB: We opted for the digital photo monograph over the app because we wanted an object, like a book, that gave the viewer the look and feel of a book and a real viewing experience. We wanted to include high resolution images, so that people could look at the images in detail. We knew there were risks related to illegal distribution but we decided to take the risks with the hopes that the majority of people would respect the copyright and that some percentage of loss related to unethical and illegal reproduction is inevitable in the digital distribution business. We expected photographers and those with an interest in documentary photography and social justice to behave more responsibly with regard to unethical reproduction than the general public.
EKS: Is the eBook a precursor to a physical run? Some photographers are saying eBooks and apps can be a good way to raise enough support for the hard copy.
SB: Bronx Boys is not a precursor to a physical book in our plan. Though this may change. It is a new distribution model. Our first book sold in Hoboken, New Jersey and our second book in Omsk, Siberia. The book has been purchased in Australia, England, Scotland, Italy, France, Germany, Slovakia, Spain and Russia as well as Texas, Washington and California among other states. Many of these people probably would never have seen the physical book and the production and distribution cost would make the book much more expensive.
EKS: What were your considerations when pricing?
SB: The book is priced as a high quality digital product. It cost a significant amount to produce and provides a viewing experience that differentiates it from server based and low resolution photographic albums. It has the feeling of a digital object and it resides on the purchasers own computer. Our thinking was that there are two types of digital consumers: those that won’t pay and will never pay for digital content and those that will, if there is something that they value. The one’s that won’t pay, wouldn’t buy the book if it were priced for $2.95. The digital consumers who will pay for content, often pay more than our book is priced for a short academic article or some information they feel is important to them. Our book represents 20 years of work by a dedicated photographer and a significant commitment of resources to an innovative and high resolution product by us, the publisher. We didn’t want to devalue the work by pricing it as a throw away. The economics of the price require a number of sales to break even roughly equivalent to a physical book. Of course, the photographer, makes money on every book sold regardless of whether we ever make money.