Dewi Lewis - Founder of Dewi Lewis Publishing
The right advice and inside track on how to get published
How did you get involved with photographic book publishing?
I began publishing photography in 1987 whilst I was Director of Cornerhouse in Manchester - a major arts centre in Manchester, England which I had set up and opened in 1985. It focused primarily on Visual Arts and Film.
Partly through my work at Cornerhouse I had become increasingly aware that there was a real need in the UK to find a way to publish photographic books. Whilst exhibitions presented certain opportunities, most photographers wanted to get the broader exposure for their work that a publication could offer. And so I set up Cornerhouse Publications and we published our first title, 'A Green and Pleasant Land' by John Davies.
Over the next six years or so I developed the publishing, and book distribution. This was alongside my other duties as Director of Cornerhouse and there came a point when I decided that I really wanted to focus exclusively on publishing and that the best way to do so was by setting up my own company. And so in 1994 Dewi Lewis
Publishing was established.
Was the William Klein 'New York' re-issue your first commercial success?
The first book I did as an independent publisher was "Children of Bombay' by Dario Mitidieri and that was a reasonable success, but the William Klein book was really the first that involved an established international name.
But I had also published several Martin Parr books very early on when I was at Cornerhouse and I continued to do that when I went independent.
The most annoying thing about the Klein book is that if I had kept say 50 copies back and sold them once the book went out of print we would probably have made more money than we did from selling 5000 copies. We kept only 2 copies.
Since then you've published books by Simon Norfolk, Frank Horvat, Martin Parr and Bruce Gilden amongst others, have you been able to achieve similar success with their work?
I think that the success of publishing photography books can't really be judged in simply financial terms.
The books that I am still happy with a few years after publication are the ones that I judge as being the successes.
Having said that though I have yet to publish a book that I am absolutely 100% happy with - it's simply not a perfect world.
What do you think makes a book of photography sell?
There are two things really - the strength of the subject or the name of the photographer. You have to have one or the other. But most photobooks do sell in small numbers - anything over 1500 sales is seen as a reasonable success these days and 3000 sales is a triumph.
Do you feel that winning awards makes a big difference to a books success?
It helps draw attention to a book or to a photographer. However, in the harsh commercial world of the mainstream bookshop the various photography awards give very little added profile.
Are you constantly being approached by photographers with projects to publish? And if so how do you decide who you want to work with?
We see the work of well over a thousand photographers each year - through submissions, at portfolio reviews, through the European Publishers Award etc.
From work submitted to us on this sort of speculative basis, I would say that we do perhaps 4 projects a year.
The other projects we do are by photographers who we have been following or we have published before. So the odds are heavily stacked against a photographer.
When we decide to go with a photographer who we don't know then it is generally because of the subject. And by that I mean that it is something that we believe we will be able to put across to the trade buyers in the shops. A concept or an idea that they will easily and quickly understand.
What do you think is the most common mistake photographers make when they begin a book project?
We frequently get submissions where the timing doesn't work. For example if you have a project that links to the 2010 World Cup or a similar major anniversary or event, then you need to approach the photographers around 3 years before and not 3 months.
It's the same principle if you are having a major exhibition and want to try to get a book for it. Production can be handled quickly but for every title there has to be a lead time for the distributors and that is anything from 6 months to 9 months. To meet that we need to be approached close to a year before the intended publication date.
Are there any subjects that they should avoid?
Different publishers favour different things. We haven't published any nudes for example. Other publishers aren't interested in landscape. It really is a matter of getting to know the publisher before you make the submission. Find out about their books and look properly at their list.
Should they expect to make any money?
Making a profit is hard for anyone (It's certainly never an easy task for a publisher!). I would say that 99% of book projects cost the photographer money in the short term but make money in the longer term by raising their profile.
What's your feeling on photographers self-publishing their work if they can't get a publisher to support them?
Publishing is an expensive and very difficult business. Whilst I wouldn't necessarily try to put someone off self publishing I would hope that they would really examine all the pitfalls.
They would really need to start from the basis of being able to afford to lose every single penny that they put in. Getting proper distribution is extremely hard and the financial return is very low - I would expect to get an average of about 35% back from the retail price of a book.
The rest goes in discounts, sales repping costs, shipping etc. And book sales are sale or return - so you could get all the books out into shops and for up to a year those shops would have a right of return for full credit.
The physical space that books take up is also something that the self- publisher should remember. 2000 copies is probably around 200 boxes and that is a lot of spare bedrooms.
Is distribution a big problem for an independent?
Distribution is a problem for everyone and it's getting worse. Quite a few of the larger chains now do most of their buying centrally which can make access for the independents difficult if they are trying to do the sales themselves. This is one of the reasons that you need really to work through a good distributor who represents a number of
You are one of the founder members of the European Publishers Award for Photography, is this an annual event?
Yes it's currently entering in its 16th year. The first competition was held in 1994. It's an open competition for an unpublished book project. There are currently six publishers involved from six different European countries.
Each year the Jury is hosted by one of these publishers and they take responsibility as project leader and undertake the production of the winning book that year.
What do you feel that the future is for photography in publishing?
I think photographic publishing will continue reasonably well for the foreseeable future, though I do think that the future of the mainstream bookshop is in some doubt. I think that we'll see a move to smaller, specialist shops with more limited stock.
Increasing numbers of books will be produced using digital presses but the traditional offset printing process still has quite a future.
Whilst digital printing has moved on massively in the last ten years there are still limitations in terms of page size and in the reproduction quality particularly in the blacks. And the unit cost is too high for them to be properly viable commercially at present. It's probably going to take another decade before the situation changes dramatically.
Finally, what advice would you give a photography hoping to get his work published?
If you really believe that you have a solid book project then I think that all you can do is to keep trying. Check out good photography bookshops such as the one at The Photographers Gallery, London – make sure you know what
is being published and by whom.
Check out publishers at trade shows such as London Book Fair or Frankfurt Book Fair. Also make sure that
you're getting to the various portfolio review sessions such as Rhubarb in Birmingham. You'll meet publishers and gallerists face to face - people that otherwise you'd never manage to set up an meeting
Getting to a stage where you are publishable can be about building your name and reputation and it can take years.
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