Thursday, 20 May 2010

White Crow Telescope

I have been putting together several new Blurb books. They are in the small, square 7" x 7" format, which I rather like. In recent times I've fallen out of love with the over large, sumptuous, limited edition photographic books that publishers have been producing. I own several that are simply too big for any bookshelf in our house -- preposterous items that lounge around collecting dust and dints and waiting to be damaged by the hoover (not a huge risk in our house, it's true).

A curious thing has been happening in the photo-book world, that sort of parallels the bubble in the financial world. Now, it is a fact that some photo-books published in the 1970s and 1980s have become both highly desirable and extremely scarce. This makes them valuable in the only meaningful sense, i.e. that someone, somewhere is desperate to get hold of them and will pay good money to do so. Several books that I acquired for rather less than £20 in the days before the bubble are now listed at over £500, and a couple at over £1000. Virtually none is worth less than twice what I paid for it. Compared to my savings account, that's one hell of an interest rate.

The curious thing that has happened, though, is that the "scarcity + desirability = value" equation has had the tacit "time" element in "scarcity" and "desirability" artificially removed. In other words, it can now take just weeks for a new book to become unobtainable, and its desirability will by then have been so hyped by the Web as to make the Emperor's New Clothes look positively undersold.

Take the case of Paul Graham. I have mentioned before that I used to live in the flat above Paul Graham, and bought his earliest self-published books when I came across them mainly out of a sense of amusement that the publisher's address was also mine. Only later did I realise how ground-breaking they were, and how lucky I was to have them. I think the cover price of A1: the Great North Road in 1983 was £14.95. I see that today there are 20-odd copies listed on AddALL Rare Books, ranging from £450 for an ex-library paperback copy to £7000 (yes, seven thousand pounds) for a fine signed hardback. Well, OK, it's a good and important book and quite scarce, though who would actually pay that much for a copy I simply don't know.

Paul Graham's mid-career books have been less sought-after. Copies of Empty Heaven or End of an Age -- both remarkable books -- go for £30 or less, for example, though New Europe is quite highly-priced for an edition of "only" 3000 copies. But in 2007 the publishing house Steidl put out a fancy multi-volumed slip-cased Graham publication, A Shimmer of Possibility, which was trailed by so much overexcited hype that it was almost instantly out of print in its original "limited" 1000 copy edition, and is now already only obtainable at prices over £1000. Whether these prices will be sustained (along with Paul Graham's reputation) is anybody's guess.

The Steidl / Nazraeli approach is to produce books by fashionable names with high production values yet low print runs at a price that is high enough to discourage most buyers, but low enough to attract the buyers who see these books as a form of investment. The whole run sells out quickly, and copies instantly reappear on the market at inflated prices. Don't believe me? Check out Ebay. "Buy short, sell long" is the only rule that seems to apply to these items, most of which have really not been published long enough to have established a solid reputation. Todd Hido, Michael Kenna, Pentti Sammallahti, John Gossage, Stephen Gill, Alec Soth ... There is a long list of good photographers whose new but unweighed books are being traded like dodgy financial instruments.

So... Feel like a punt? Who knows what my latest efforts will be worth ten years from now! Maybe nothing, maybe a new car... Typically, I sell fewer than 20 copies of my books -- talk about a limited edition! Here is a first public version of one, which may yet see some more revision. I wanted to make something small, interesting and inexpensive out of some of the "crow" pictures I've been accumulating. This is it (so far):

Do try the full screen view, by the way -- it makes quite a difference.


Martin H. said...

WHITE CROW TELESCOPE looks good. I'm a big fan of Blurb's preview facility. I really like the 7"x7" format too. When I first saw the hard copy of my own publication, it looked and felt right from the 'off'. Worldwide sales currently stand at 23. A certain Canadian poet tells me it's on her wish-list, so the full two dozen is a real prospect, far exceeding any expectations I might have had.

This a fun, uncompromising way to get work published.

Mike C. said...

"A certain Canadian poet tells me it's on her wish-list" -- You would think Margaret Atwood could afford a copy up front, wouldn't you?

I reckon breaking even -- paying for your own copies, any gift copies and, if you go the whole hog, copyright library deposit copies -- is a good target.

Of course, if Messrs. Steidl or Nazraeli are reading, I wouldn't mind giving the full-on publishing treatment a try...


Dave Leeke said...

Some great photos there, Mike. I particularly like the ones of the crows flying high up above branches. Mrs Dave and I were in Southwold for the weekend and I was very taken with the rookery just down the road from us. I passed it several times. Not being a photographer, I didn't have a camera with me. The noise from the Parliament was incredible - so much preferable to a single Greenfinch!

Mike C. said...

I can't get enough of rookeries... There's an extraordinary spectacle at Mottisfont Abbey on late autumn evenings when this enormous mixed flock of rooks, crows and jackdaws assembles in the sky, before dropping down to roost in the trees.

As a spectacle, though, you can't beat the pulsing, swooping ectoplasm of a zillion starlings that gathers over Temple Meads station in Bristol -- wish I'd photographed it in the 70s before it had become a Nat Hist TV cliche!


Mike C. said...

Forgot to say: I shouldn't let the twin subjects of "crows" and "rare photobooks" pass without mentioning "The Solitude of Ravens" ("Karasu" in the original Japanese) by Masahisa Fukase -- one of the great photobooks, but one which only begins to yield its secrets after long viewing.