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Conversations with Creative Collaborators: Dewi Lewis, Photo Book Publisher

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This post is part of a series called Conversations With Creative Collaborators.
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In this series we look into how people in creative industries view and engage with your work. I had the pleasure of spending an hour with highly regarded book publisher Dewi Lewis at his home in Manchester. Recognised by the Royal Photographic Society for his Outstanding Contributions to Photography, Dewi's own publishing house, Dewi Lewis Publishing, has published the work of photographers such as Martin Parr, Simon Norfolk and William Klein. We sat down to discuss the role of the publisher and the processes of constructing a photobook.

Hey Dewi, could you explain the role of a book publisher within the photography industry?

It’s pretty broad, I think one of the first things to say is that most photography publishers are quite small operations, and therefore if you’re involved in publishing photography, you’re likely to be involved with everything to do with the business. I think I see my role really as trying to introduce a mix of work, new work by emerging photographers, interesting projects by established photographers and occasional explorations of archive material, so it’s really quite broad. Essentially, you’re trying to act as a portal for the work of photographers. I don’t focus on one particular type of photography, so there may well be documentary work, or, for example, work that fits within a more fine art tradition and I don’t have a problem with working across that sort of range. 

I think the role of the publisher is sometimes misunderstood. What I’m always looking to do is have an active role in the project, so it’s very much an editorial role, rather than simply taking a finished project. There are times when projects are pretty close to completion and are well put together by the photographer and there’s not much that needs doing, I might be challenging certain images, but not enormously. As a small publisher, for the majority of projects, I’ll be involved in everything from the selection and editorial process, every aspect of the design and production, through to the marketing of the book, the whole business of dealing with finance and distribution, so it’s a very varied and extensive range of work.

Unravelled by Kajsa Gullberg
'Unravelled' by Kajsa Gullberg, within which Gullberg looks at the marks that life makes on us – both the physical and the psychological

You’ve talked about being involved many aspects of the process, do you ever commission work for photographers at the earlier stages of a project?

I think the first thing to say there is that photography publishers don’t commission visual work. The only commissions would really be to do with travel guides, so photographers looking for payment in advance to undertake a project are going to find that almost impossible. We get literally thousands of approaches each year, we have a system where we have two open submission periods through the year, one in May and one in November, where everyone is free to send in whatever they want. We’re looking for photographers to submit something physical, perhaps a disc, plus a few layers of copy, some images, we don’t want full dummies at that stage, we just want to get a feel for what the project is. If we’re interested, then we’ll get back to people and ask for a full submission. 

We’re always encouraging people to send something in physically, not to email. People see that as being luddite, but it isn’t, it’s actually to do with travel, for example next week when I’m away, I’ll have my laptop with me, if I have photographers sending me large files by email and I have a slow internet connection, it’s highly likely that I’ll jump those to get to my other mail. The other thing is that in an average day, I’m getting in excess of 400 emails, so it’s entirely possible that if you send something to me in the morning, it may have disappeared way off the screen and I’ll simply miss it!

There’s then also portfolio sessions, of which we do a number at different festivals around the world. That’s really the only opportunity that photographers have to meet us or to meet other editors and publishers, places like Le Recontres d’Arles for example, Format in Derby next March, I’m in New Orleans in December, so it’s quite a variety of places. There aren’t many chances for photographers to see me because over a year I’m seeing no more than 100 people through portfolio reviews. 

So are there other ways in which you find work, or is it a case of spotting the right person at the right time? 

We usually work over several years with people, so it may be that I meet someone at a portfolio review, and maybe I don’t even like that project, but I really like the work or there’s something that I find really interesting, so we’ll keep in contact and develop a relationship and it may be that 5 or 6 years down the line we end up doing something with them, which has happened a number of times. It’s not unusual to meet someone at a very early stage of a project where they’ve perhaps done 4 or 5 images. We’re not going to make any commitment until they’ve finished it, but we’ll keep in touch with them over several years as they develop it. 

It’s worth saying that we do between 18-25 books a year, and of those through open submission we perhaps publish 2 or 3. We then probably do another 2 through portfolio sessions, the rest are because I’ve seen work in magazines or they’re photographers that we’ve worked with before, so people like Simon Norfolk or Martin Parr, who if they come up with a new project that we like then we’re going to do it! So the oppourtunities are very very limited. With most of the lesser known photographers, they have to find a significant part of the funding for the project. You can’t launch a book by an unknown photographer and take the risk of £15k, because you’re going in totally cold and the market isn’t as big as most would imagine. Most books are runs of 1000-1500 and many a lot less, so even if you sell out all 1500, making that profitable is pretty hard! It’s only with people like Martin and Simon when you might be printing 3000 when it’s worth taking a risk.

Dewi Lewis during a portfolio review session
Dewi Lewis during a portfolio review session.

How do you feel the role of book publishers is changing within the industry? 

It’s changed a lot. The first book I did was in 1987, but even 10-12 years ago, we would have been financing the majority of projects and that has changed. It’s partly because then a print run would be 2000-2500 copies, the discount taken by the shops was much less, it used to be around 30%, now it can be anything up to 60%. 

A lot of people talk about it currently being the golden age of the photobook, and certainly there are more photobooks being produced than ever before, but if you scratch the surface, you’ll find that almost all of them are being financed by someone, they’re either self published or the publishers are being financed to do these new books and sales will be of 100 copies or less, they’re just not commercial projects. So you have a situation where on the surface it appears to be a wonderful time to be making photobooks, but the reality is that shops like Waterstones in the UK have very little interest in visual books, there’s just a small corner in each store. It’s the same in the states with Barnes & Noble, it’s difficult to get photobooks in, apart from the obvious names. It’s balanced in part by the internet and Amazon, although Amazon are becoming increasingly difficult for publishers to deal with. There’s also the part where there are lots of small shops and online sellers who are specialists in photography, so where we’ve lost sales at places like Waterstones, they’ve been picked up by other outlets, so far. However, those shops and online outlets aren’t particularly commercially viable, it’s people who are enthusiasts, people who are at a stage in their life cycle where they’re not trying desperately to make large sums of money, so I’m not convinced that’s it’s a long term future. I think if you opened a small photobook shop in your late 20’s or early 30’s. If by the time you’re in your mid 40’s and you’re married with a few kids, suddenly you have to think about it and reassess it in a different way. The problem with photobooks is that there’s not enough profitability to really develop them.

Do you find yourself having to adapt to the market by releasing projects that you know will sustain you rather than projects that you might previously have taken a risk on? 

It’s a mix. Independently, I started in 1994, we survived because there’s only 2 of us, my wife and I, we both work together on it, we work from home, our offices are upstairs and we don’t employ anyone else directly, so our cost structure is very very low. If we were trying to be flash and have a London office and a number of staff, we would have gone bust a number of years ago! So it’s very do-able, but it’s always marginal. Something that photographers often don’t realise is that the profitability on a successful book might be £3000-£4000. There is a problem with photobooks for photographers in the same way as we understand CD’s and musicians. There’s an assumption that having a book is related to making money and success, a link between glamour and money. In the same way as if you had a record deal, there’s an assumption that you’ve made it, you’ll get lots of income and support, but again, the number of CD’s produced might be 1000 or less. On the surface it might look successful and people correlate that with money, but it’s important for photographers to realise that the chances of them making any money from the book directly is very minimal. The reason for doing it is, partly their vanity, but also it’s an important calling card. Advertising agencies and commercial companies are impressed by it, so it has a value there, but with very few exceptions, photographers can’t really earn a living from books.

Thinking more practically about putting a book together, how do you discern which images work in a book and begin to think about the layout and design? 

Well my starting point will always be a belief that it’s the photographers book. A lot of photographers will say, “I’ve got 3000 great images on this subject, do you want to come along and look to put a book together?”, and it’s a bit like a novelist saying they’ve got a load of sentences do you want to put them together for me. The photographer has to do some work in thinking about sequence to work out what story they’re trying to tell. If you give me a set of photographs, I’ll tell whatever story I want because I might not even know the subject or the place, but I can create a story from it because I’ve been dong it so long. One of the things I’ll often say to a photographer, who is usually struggling with selecting the first image when trying to do an edit is, think about the last image. Where are you trying to get to? What feelings and emotions do you want people to be left with at the end?  

If you know where you’re trying to get, it’s much easier to work towards it. It’s a case then of piecing together mini sequences and working how everything relates so you can construct a sort of narrative, with some books it’s a true narrative, but even with abstract work, the narrative is the visual flow, so it has to have a feeling that it’s moving and there’s a start, middle and end. So essentially, I’m always expecting the photographer to do that first stage, and then saying, ok, you’ve got 80 images, I’d like to see another 40, which are your ‘seconds’. Then it’s about seeing whether they’ve made the right choice about why is that image there, what is it saying and from those I’ll probably edit it down to 60 anyway. The point is that from the first selection and sequence, I should be able to tell what the photographer is trying to say. That gives me the starting point of working with them to try and improve it.  

One of the things you do find with photographers, and I’ve challenged many big name photographers in my time, is why a particular image has been included. After they think about it for a while, they’ll say, ‘Well, it was a great day and I really enjoyed being out there and taking that photograph’, and very emotional and personal things come into it. Or a photo is in because it’s their Egglestone, and it’s totally different to the rest of the project, but they want it in!

Dewi working on press
Dewi working on press, the final editing stage before printing.

What is your favourite aspect of the job, are there elements that you enjoy most?

It’s very strange actually, because every bit of it I love and hate. I love going through the process of editing with a photographer, but also it can be horrible, awful! It’s all about how close that relationship becomes, whether it’s a proper collaboration. On most of the projects I’ve worked on over the years it has been true collaboration, but when it isn’t, when it becomes a fight, or when whatever you say, someone doesn’t actually listen, it becomes a very difficult process. 

I’ve been a publisher since 1987 and published hundreds of books, and the bad experiences are actually very limited, probably just to two books over that whole time, and actually with both of those books in the process of starting to work with the photographer, I kept having a gut feeling of should I stop this and pull out of this now and in both instances I should have, but you feel a responsibility because you’ve agreed to do it and you like the work, but there’s something psychologically where you can separate the work and the individual, and you want to continue supporting the work.

The key thing that many publishers say is that there are so many people who want to create books, why should I deal with the awkward ones, but the vast majority are an absolute joy and many end up being very good friends for many many years actually.

The printing process, I love being on press, I’m very experienced at it, but it’s still a challenge every time and a puzzle of how to get the best from something. I would say I probably get 96% of the way there now. It’s great, but it can be horrendous, painful, extremely exhausting and you can be on press from 7am in the morning until 2am the next morning for five or six days on the run. When it’s good, it’s a real adrenaline buzz, but when it’s bad, you want to slit your throat! 

The marketing side, well, it’s all about the buzz you get from certain things. When you get a call from a magazine who want to run a feature on one of your books, then it’s a real buzz, but then there are other times when you really believe in a project and you cannot get any press or media, which is depressing. 

One of the things I enjoy is the process of meeting photographers, most of the time! However, anyone who does portfolio reviews will talk about the most awkward experiences that they’ve had as well, where, you have 20 minutes to talk to someone and within seconds you have absolutely nothing to say, but the process of looking at work and listening to a photographer talk about it is great. 

The other thing which I kind of like, it’s a strange thing, is when we do book stalls from time to time, when we’re face to face with the people who are buying the books. Again, it can be really boring, you can sit there for hours, but when you do have those conversations it can be really interesting and rewarding.

I Was Here by Ambroise Tzenas
'I Was Here' by Ambroise Tézenas, in which he explores the concept of 'Dark Tourism', the fascination we have as humans with our ability to do evil and to witness the evidence of horror.

From a publishers perspective, what sort of things should photographers be considering when presenting images to a publisher? 

The first thing would be, certainly when you talk about portfolios, is that some photographers want to show everything that they can do. There might be some fashion, work, some landscape images, portraiture, some abstract, a whole mish mash, and they’re presenting that to you and talking about themselves, and all you’re seeing is this very various work, and you have no sense of what they really believe in and who they really are, so the critical thing is that a photographer takes a decision on one project. It may be hated by the reviews, but that’s better than confusing the situation with a range of stylistically different work. 

The other thing is that they really do need two sentences to explain the project. You need to be able to talk about that project and explain it in less than two minutes. We don’t need to know that you’re interested in time and space, we want factual information, when did you take it, where and what is it about. In the process of the review, other things will come out, but if the photographer starts by launching into an artist’s statement, most reviewers will be half alseep before they’ve finished, so it’s about basic information and being able to get it across quickly. Portfolio reviews are false situations, the photographer has the chance to sit opposite someone who they’d never normally meet and have 20 minutes of their time. If for example you went to Frankfurt book fair and you were showing a book publisher your work there, you would probably have about 3 or 4 minutes and that would be it, so you’ve got to be able to get the information across quickly. Portfolio reviews are a good way of learning the process. 

In terms of submissions, it’s a case of making it easy for the person at the other end, there’s no reason you can’t send a PDF. 

Also, you’d be amazed at the amount of blank discs I get sent. Some of them arrive via special delivery, or from the US via a courier and you open it and the DVD has nothing on it! 

Do you have a favourite book or project that you’ve worked on over the years? Perhaps one that you’re most endeared to or that increased your recognition as a publisher?

There are lots of favourites that I really like. I have favourite books at particular times, currently it’s a book called ‘Epilogue’ by a Spanish photographer Laia Abril that we brought out earlier this year, it’s getting a lot of success and I still really like the project. 

Epilogue by Laia Abril
'Epilogue' by Laia Abril. This is the story of the Robinson family – and the aftermath of losing their 26 year-old daughter to bulimia. 

There’s also a book by an Oxford based photographer Paddy Summerfield which came out in September called ‘Mother and Father’, again it’s a project that I really love.

What I find with many projects is that because you’ve been working on it for perhaps a year, by the time the book comes out, you don’t want to look at it! But for both Laia’s book and Paddy’s book, they’re unusual in that I still like them now, I haven’t gone through a disinterested faze. 

If I think back through books that I really like, such as William Klein’s book ‘New York 1954.5’, which was great to bring out as a re-edition. 

Something that was very hard at the time was Ed Van Der Elsken’s ‘Love on the Left Bank’, which was originally published in 1956. In 1999 we did a facsimile edition and I think we produced 1500-200 copies which took nearly 10 years to sell. He’s one of the 20th century masters of photography, it’s a stunning book, but took forever to sell, but I don’t know what happened, it suddenly got picked up and now we do a reprint every year of around 1500. I still like the book, it’s seen as a classic.

There are more recent things, such as the ‘Black Country Stories’ that we’ve done with Martin Parr. I really like it because it’s very different work for Martin. You’ll recognise him when you look at the work, but there are a lot of portraits and Martin’s never really done much portraiture. It looks back to what he was first doing in the 1970’s when he was very much working as a community photographer, so that’s pretty cool.

Black Country Stories by Martin Parr
'Black Country Stories' by Martin Parr, within which Parr returns to the notion of being a community photographer, exploring workplaces, temples, churches, shops, clubs and societies.

What I’ll think about in 10 years time I don’t know. Whether I’ll hold it in the same esteem as something like ‘The Last Resort’ I’ve no idea. So the position changes all the time, I’ve never had one favourite book, it just depends from month to month, I’ll change my opinion.


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