Paul Braverman asks: "Why do highly desired photography books remain out of print? There is an obvious demand for Winogrand's Women Are Beautiful and Heath's Dialogue With Solitude. The price for a copy can reach four figures. Why not reissue them? Seems like the estate of those photographers would make some money, collectors would still be able to brag that they have a first edition, and I would be able to buy a new copy at a reasonable price. Everybody wins. What am I missing?"
Mike replies: Many photo books are reprinted, of course, and I'll talk about that in a second. But the underlying problem is the nature of the demand. It's slow and steady. This doesn't fit the business model these days. As I understand it, the tax code was changed in the Reagan years the way inventory was accounted was changed by a 1979 Supreme Court Ruling [see JG's Featured Comment below —Ed.] such that publishers have to pay higher taxes on unsold inventory, which pushed the sales model to an all-at-once "bestseller" mode. An author friend of mine was told that if her book hadn't established good sales within seven months, the publisher would stop promoting it and it would be toast. Contrast this with the classic model, which was that publishers printed a big batch of copies and sold them out of stock for years. One legend in the book industry was that back in the '70s Oxford University Press had brand-new books on the shelves that were more than a hundred and fifty years old, and they could go whole years without selling a single copy. Yet they would stay "in print."
The new model fits books with a bestseller sales curve, but it's unsuited for any book that has low sales but consistent, continuing demand—which happens to describe most photography monographs (a monograph is a book of pictures by a single photographer). I don't generally admit ex-library books to my collection, but I have one book by Henri Cartier-Bresson that is ex-lib because I loved the irony of the "DISCARDED" stamp in the front—it says "No Longer Relevant." The irony is that while that may be true of the information in the pictures—no longer current—but of course it's not true of the photographic artistry of the pictures.
A picture book that sells 25,000 copies right away and then sees demand quickly tail off to nothing fits the way publishers need to do business now, but a book that sells 3,000 copies its first year, 2,000 the second, 1,000 annually for the next five years, and then 500 copies a year for the following twenty years just doesn't work for publishers any more...even though the eventual total sales numbers might be the same.
I might point out that this also better fits certain types of work. A romance novel that's read for entertainment and is part of an ongoing series of books fits a bestseller sales curve quite nicely. The kind of work that suffers is the "magnum opus" kind of thing whereby an expert might work for twenty years to summarize all of her knowledge in a certain field. That type of book should ideally stay in print for many years, to be readily available for the scholar or serious student who needs it. Unfortunately, many photography monographs are closer to the latter type than the former—a photographer might toil for twenty years on a body of work and then want to publish it in one grand coffee-table tome...which should sell to that photographer's fans at a slow but steady rate for many years. That kind of working model no longer fits the prevailing publishing model, unfortunately.
As I mentioned, many photography books do receive reprints, because of the phenomenon you mention, Paul—the consistent, continuing demand after the book is NLA (no longer available) new puts upward pressure on the price. That often goes on until the pent-up demand justifies another reprint. An example is Walker Evans' American Photographs. First published in 1938, it received a 25th anniversary reprinting in 1962, followed by a paperback version in 1975, another reprinting for the 50th anniversary in 1988, and finally the 75th anniversary reprint (the best reprint as it tries to exactly replicate the original book, only with better paper) in 2012. This version is still available, probably because it is such a staple of Museum in-house bookshops. (Which are excellent places to go look at photobooks, incidentally.)
Reprints vary widely in quality, and you have to be careful. Some reprints are better than the originals, and some are much worse. Although I love books, I'm more interested in the photographs than the books, so I look at content first. I prefer the Pantheon reprint of Brassai's Paris After Dark (or Paris by Night), because the first edition is very expensive, very fragile and often damaged in the first edition because of its spiral binding, and the reproduction in the Pantheon reprint is so outstanding. As an example of the opposite, Eliot Porter's In Wildness is the Preservation of the World is a remarkable book in its first edition—the color printing method used was involved, difficult, beautiful, and no longer even legal because the chemicals need for the process were so toxic. But the 2012 reprint by Ammo is so atrocious that it completely misrepresents Eliot Porter in my opinion and, I would argue, actively damages his reputation. (It's still available but I refuse to link to it.)
Probably the most famous photobook that went a very long time without a reprint was Cartier-Bresson's 1952 The Decisive Moment, which finally received its first-ever reprint by Steidl in 2015 (the reprint is apparently just going out of print now). Although Steidl didn't stint, the reproduction choices have been controversial, and not everyone loves the reprint. It's well worth owning, of course. My problem with it is that although it's H.C.-B.'s most famous book, it's not the best book of his pictures—that honor would go to Henri Cartier-Bresson: Photographer, first published by New York Graphic Society in 1979 and later reprinted by Bulfinch. That one was available for years and is still plentiful on the used market—check eBay Books or Abebooks.com. (I like Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Artless Art, too, although you have to take the dense text with a grain of salt.)
One book you mentioned, Dave Heath's Dialogue With Solitude, is a special case, because the entirety of the original book is reprinted within the pages of the epic retrospective Multitude, Solitude which is a must-have in my opinion. That book is getting expensive but of course everyone reading this blog already bought it on my strenuous recommendations three years ago at the low original price. :-)
The other book you mentioned, Garry Winogrand's Women Are Beautiful, sold extremely poorly at first issue and was remaindered for years, available for next to nothing. It's a bit pricey now but I suspect the demand for it, although ongoing, is extremely low, probably too low for a reprint to be feasible.
More recent books are reprinted too. Alec Soth's Niagara was just reprinted last month by Mack. If you're a fan of large-format color and want it but don't have it, be sure to snag it while you can.
The upshot is: many photography books are only printed once; many photo books are plentiful, maybe even too plentiful, while they're in print, but then get scarcer and scarcer once the book is discontinued and the supply dries up in the face of ongoing low-level demand; and, many famous old books follow a feast-to-famine-to-feast cycle as they receive periodic reprints and then those reprints, in turn, go out of print. To be a real photo book collector is a fascinating game, but anyone with a personal photobook library, however small or large, can play the game at any level. But no matter what level you play it at, it's always a game.
(Thanks to Paul)
Original contents copyright 2018 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Darrell Gray: "Disfarmer: The Heber Springs Portraits was a book I always wanted but could not afford—a good used copy was in the hundreds. Then a year or so ago it was offered 'new' at around a hundred bucks. I bought it, and comparing it to a library copy first addition I could not tell the difference. Same ISBN, same publisher, same dust cover, same everything. Did somebody find a box of them sitting in a corner somewhere? By the way, it was $22.50 in 1976."
Kenneth Tanaka: "There can be other factors in play besides those Mike mentioned. For example, many large-run photo books these days are produced in association with shows. Getting the rights clearances and production scheduled to reprint a second edition of such catalogs is rarely as easy as you might think. Works in a catalog are usually owned by various parties who must agree to a second edition. And top printers, such as Steidl, are generally booked years in advance. With respect to money, the only parties to make money from photo books are generally the printers. It’s usually a money-losing or, at best, a break-even marketing or commemorative initiative for everyone else. It’s frankly remarkable when we see a major photo book reprinted independently of another exhibition."
JG: "At the risk of being pedantic, it was not an 'inventory tax' per se that caused publishers to start carrying fewer books in inventory, but a change in the way they accounted for the inventory on their tax returns, which in turn affected their reported profits or losses for the tax year. For an interesting analysis of this—well, it was for me, anyway!—I recommend reading 'How Thor Power Hammered Publishing.'"
Mike replies: Thanks JG. I amended the post in accordance with the information at your link.
J D Ramsey: "After reading this post, I wanted to order the books mentioned. I was particularly intrigued by the Multitude, Solitude book by Dave Heath, who I was unfamiliar with. Sure enough, I found through the link to Amazon, but for $275, too rich for me. I was disappointed that I hadn't bought it earlier. Then I noticed the message in the upper right saying I ordered this book in December 2015! Say what? I immediately walked over to the shelves where my photography books are and there it was with a rather nondescript dark blue binding. Of course I immediately took it off the shelf and started to leaf through it. Thanks Mike for reminding me of this wonderful book and making me aware that I really need to smell the roses and sometimes just sit down with the books I've bought but haven't devoted some quiet time to."
Mike replies: That's the best delivery service I've ever heard of!