Most photographic books are published in editions of 1,000 to 3,000. A solid seller will move 5,000 copies while it's in print, and 15,000 is a notable (and fairly rare) success. The evergreen all-time bestsellers in the category (say, Creation by Ernst Haas, the Aperture Monograph Diane Arbus, Cape Light, or Ansel Adams's most popular titles) will have approached or exceeded 100,000 copies sold.
That's to put you in context. Ready? Elliott Erwitt's DogDogs—barely seven inches tall but a thick handful of paper, published only 16 years ago by Phaidon and costing only $11 or so—the same from The Book Depository with free worldwide shipping or £9 in England—has sold more than 300,000 copies, making it one of the bestselling books of photographs in publishing history*.
*The Big Dog of photobooks in terms of sales is The Family Of Man, which I've never found very satisfying and don't own—although Bill Jay thinks he knows why and himself gives it the benefit of the doubt.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Geof Margo: "Thank you for the mention of the Family of Man exhibition and the link to Bill Jay's essay. I grew up in South Africa and as a teenager knew the show from its catalog. It had an enormous effect on me. In fact it was the experience of going through the catalog again and again that brought me to appreciate photography as a serious, artistic, meaningful endeavor. And even as I have learned more over the years I still enjoy looking back at the catalog. About the 'naive' idealism of the underlying theme: growing up in apartheid South Africa the Family of Man was a huge uplift, a view of the world that was positive and hopeful, transcending intolerance. Yes, I am as cynical and weary of this messy world as anyone, but I still value Steichen's image of the world as he wanted it to be."
Albert Macfarlane: "Bill Jay's essay on 'The Family of Man' exhibit was written in 1989, and the subsequent history of Steichen's exhibition is interesting. After enormous success among the general public in the States, eight identical exhibitions toured the world under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency, and were seen by millions of people. It appears that funding for this venture was provided to advance American culture and combat the spread of other ideologies, most notably the Red Menace of the late 1980s. Only one complete exhibition remains intact, and it has found a permanent home in Clervaux, Luxembourg, a small town of 2,000 people near where Steichen was born. The exhibit is housed appropriately in Clervaux Castle, a 12th century structure, destroyed in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, when many Americans died, and now rebuilt in its original form."
latent_image: "As far as dogs are concerned, I prefer Pentti Sammallahti's Here Far Away. My guess is that its sales figures should be fairly respectable, too."
Jim Hughes: "For those who may have missed it, here's what the late David Vestal once had to say about Steichen's Family of Man exhibit, as quoted in my TOP piece from last December, David Vestal: A Wonderful Life:
Claptrap trouble. [Edward] Steichen's most ambitious opus, the 'Family of Man' show [at MoMA], was widely promoted as the greatest thing since firmament. It was enormously popular and drew record crowds. It was lousy.
'The Family of Man' included many strong and beautiful photographs, but they were murdered in front of your eyes by a showmanship that did not suit them. Most of the commercial-lab prints were too big, many were poor in quality, and all of them were jammed into too little space in ways that were too complicatedly clever. The good pictures were diluted by the inclusion of more mediocre ones. This wasn't communication, it was an assault. The show was also too popular to see well—rush hour in the subway.
Those were the minor problems. The big mistake was to treat the photographs as raw material to illustrate a sentimental and essentially verbal (script by Carl Sandburg) idealization of our species. There is much to be said for mankind, but this was syrup pretending to have muscles. It was colossally mediocre; a still-photo counterpart of Cecil B. DeMille's Bible epic movies, and as convincing.
Moral: Show good pictures only, and hang them so they can be seen well; don't try to show ideas. Intelligent or not, ideas are not visible.'
—From 'Getting the Hang of It,' by David Vestal, 35-mm Photography, Summer 1978