What exactly is a photobook? If we take the well-regarded definition from the book Photography Between Covers, written by Mattie Boom, Curator of Photography at the Rijksmuseum, and photography lecturer at Utrecht University Rik Suermondt, a photobook is "an autonoumous art form, comparable with a piece of sculpture, a play or a film. The photographs lose their own photographic character as things 'in themselves' and become parts, translated into printing ink, of dramatic events called a book."
Dewi Lewis has been publishing photobooks for 30 years, winning awards and acclaim by working with an eclectic mix of photographers: from veterans including Martin Parr and Bruce Gilden to newer names such as Laia Abril and Makiko. He receives thousands of submissions each year from photographers keen for him to publish their work and, here, reveals how you can get his attention.
“Overall, the standard of photography has improved over the period that I’ve been working in publishing. People are more aware of what others are doing so you get less horrendously amateur work but you don’t necessarily get more really good projects. There’s an awful lot that’s repetitive.”
“If a photographer presents a finished dummy and I don’t like the way they’ve sequenced it or I don’t like the design, it’s hard for me to put those factors out of my mind, whereas if it’s just a set of prints of the images then I’m making the leaps, I’m imagining how it might work – do we do double page spreads here? What sort of font might work? If the design [that you send me] is too strong, it's likely to put me off. There are many projects that come to me looking far too slick.”
“Is there anything I won’t publish? Nudes. I’ve never seen one that I found interesting and I’ve had too many really awful ones presented to me, so it’s much easier to say we won’t do it. We’re more likely to publish a book of pornography, or something that might be considered pornographic, than a book of nudes. They lapse into clichés, they’re faux eroticism, there are very few examples that are any good. There are Bill Brandt’s – but then they’re not my favourite work by Bill Brandt...”
“Lots of photographers come with the idea that we’re going to print 50,000 copies. At the moment we’re financing probably 60-70% of the cost of our books. With some of them – Martin Parr or Dougie Wallace, say – we’re covering 100%, but there are other books where the number we’ll sell is low so we’ll only want to cover 50% of the production costs. There are others where we think it’s a great project but won’t even cover the cost of sending a press copy so we need the best part of 100%. If a photographer demands things that are financially nonsensical then a publisher has to pull out.”
“I don’t have a problem working with difficult people but I have a problem working with people who are difficult for no reason. All publishers have experience of dealing with people that break into little pieces as the pressure of the print stage comes around. If someone is clear what they want but quite demanding, you either accept that or you don't. When someone is constantly changing their mind or taking contradictory advice from different people, that’s an issue.”
“The editing process demands a lot of patience. You could be sending PDFs back and forth 20 to 30 times with minor changes – it can go on and on. A good relationship is like a constructive conversation. If you don’t have that, it can be really painful. A collaboration should be a collaboration of equals, and the minute a publisher feels they're doing a job for someone who's not considerate, they'd probably decide: this is going in the wrong direction and we need to stop. But in 30 years I think there have only been two occasions like that.”
It’s about making hard choices and not following the pack.
“Just because a photographer has the money to do a book, that doesn’t mean they have to do it. Why not spend that on developing new work? Why put £10,000 into something that doesn’t really merit a book? It’s about making hard choices and not following the pack. But if you’re absolutely convinced you have to follow it through, it’s a matter of just going for it, knocking on my door, trying to show me the work, making sure that your work is given a profile. Keep pushing.”