Year in Review: 2019 Photobook Review Statistics

In 2019, we published a total of 96 photobook reviews on Collector Daily, a record number for our small photobook team. Given the quirks of short work weeks and holidays, this pencils out to an average of roughly two photobook reviews per week.

With nearly 100 reviews proudly under our belt this year, we might like to congratulate ourselves on our growth and our continued progress toward covering the photobook community with consistent quality and depth. But the truth is we continue to struggle with a pair of stubborn problems that frustrate our ability to deliver the kind of comprehensive rigor we think the photobook world needs.

The first challenge is scale. Thoughtful, well argued, art historically aware reviews of current photobooks can be found in a number of locations, but no site, including ours, comes even close to covering enough of the photobook universe to have authoritative credibility – there is no New York Times Book Review or New York Review of Books for photobooks, and our community suffers from that absence. Many sites publish a quality photobook review once a week, or perhaps a couple of reviews each month, but this is no substitute for comprehensive in-depth reporting. By our estimation, it would take roughly 250 photobook reviews on an annual basis (5 or 6 a week) to reach a minimum threshold of critical mass, where readers could reasonably conclude that the publication had considered and/or covered a plausibly large fraction of what was important. No niche photobook publication comes even close to that scale now, and so we effectively have a vacuum of credibility. (As an aside, this credibility issue also comes into play when some of the reviewers are themselves publishers or photobook sellers, who have a financial interest in giving some books a positive push. Our policy of purchasing every photobook we review, thereby directly supporting the photographers and publishers rather than looking for a handout, separates us from other sites, and in our mind, helps prevent the inherent bias of a “gift” exchange.)

The second challenge is the so-called “discovery” problem. The photoboook community is so diverse and fragmented that it is nearly impossible to understand it in its entirety. While we can attempt to follow the cyclical releases of major publishers and keep tabs on smaller publishers via their websites (which we do), scour the tables at photobook fairs around the globe (which we do), keep an eye on the discussions in active photobook groups on social media (which we do), and encourage photographers to keep us updated on their publications (which we do), we still miss a maddeningly large slice of what is going on. The end of year “best of” and award lists always confirm this – for the most part, we have reviewed (or actively decided not to review) the same obvious books that get chosen, but time and again, people we know and respect pick books that we have never seen or sometimes never even heard of. Part of this comes from “localness”, where the great photobooks published in one place don’t necessarily bubble up to the top of the global word of mouth and remain in their own regional eddy pools; another part comes from the boom in self-publishing and one artist publishing houses, where marketing and distribution don’t reach very far, even for the standouts (perhaps intentionally in some cases). These two combine to create a market that is spread extremely wide and thin, with pockets of darkness that are difficult to penetrate from afar. Intriguingly, the same pattern seems to occur with audiences, with certain books quickly finding their audience (and therefore selling out before they even reach wide distribution), while others muddle along until they find (or sadly don’t find) their tribe.

Making “discovery” easier, or more “liquid” as a finance person might characterize it, is a fundamental challenge for the photobook industry. Even if we at Collector Daily could throw scale at the problem, via doubling or tripling the size of our reviewing team and broadening it so it was more globally distributed (via “finders”, scouts, or even photobook collectors), we’re not sure we could eliminate the inherent frictions in the system to the point that our readers could reasonably conclude that we had done our job thoroughly and could trust our judgement when we assert certain books are most worthy of attention. From our perspective, while the discovery problem feels annoyingly intractable, what we can do is simply get to work – continue to incrementally grow our review numbers and work hard to make our choices even more thoughtful, so that in aggregate, we’re getting more credible each and every year.

While we have been reviewing photobooks since the site first began more than a decade ago now, in 2014, we started to track our photobook efforts much more systematically. In that year we reviewed a total of 47 photobooks, and we began logging every submission and analyzing every review in terms of book type, gender of the artist, nationality/geography of the artist, and publisher, and we have continued to measure ourselves using these metrics over the intervening years since. So we have a small bit of data that we can now use to evaluate what we’ve been doing, and the tables below and the related discussion provide some insights into what we have learned. They dig a little deeper into our statistics for 2019, teasing out some of our successes and failures, and making clear where some of the opportunities and difficulties lie in trying to cover the world of photobooks.

Photobook Reviews by Book Type
Monograph (81 reviews) 84.38%
Catalog/Retrospective (6 reviews) 6.25%
Zine (6 reviews) 6.25%
Biography (3 reviews) 3.13%

At first glance, cutting our review data by photographic book type might not seem particularly interesting, since the vast majority (84+%) of what we wrote about last year were monographs or single artist/single project photobooks. In a sense, photography seems to have followed the path of poetry, with thin single volumes of new work, which are then aggregated later into edited selections and summaries.

Given their scholarly, academic, and curatorial perspectives, retrospective summaries and museum catalogs are entirely different animals than photobook monographs, and as such, require a surprisingly different set of evaluative criteria. While we selected six of these catalogs to examine more fully this past year, with so many museum shows now being accompanied by exhaustively researched publications, it would be straightforward to multiply this number three or four fold to get a better grasp on how innovation is being applied to this type of photobook and how artist histories are being consolidated.

Photo-zines feel like a singularly under-appreciated (and under-reviewed) subgenre of photobooks. The freshness of their low-cost production choices and their guerrilla hand-to-hand spirit keeps us coming back, and while we covered just six zines this past year, we’d happily cover many more, that is, if we could reliably find them.

Photographer biographies suffer from the opposite problem – they’re usually published by larger houses with plenty of distribution and gravitas, but since they are typically word heavy and image light, they tend not to be included under the umbrella of “photobooks”. We think they’re worth sprinkling in here and there, as they challenge us to get beyond the images to the human lives that lie behind them.

Photobook Reviews by Gender
Male (54 reviews) 56.25%
Female (38 reviews) 39.58%
Multiple Artists (4 reviews) 4.17%

Back in 2014, when we first started tracking our photobook data, the gender split of our reviews was embarrassingly uneven – 68.09% men versus 21.28% women (with 10.64% in books with multiple photographers). We chalked this up to two realities – we weren’t seeing enough books, and the books we were seeing from the mainstream publishers were meaningfully weighted towards the work of male photographers. In the subsequent years, we have worked hard at trying to rebalance the scales, making the search for exciting new photobooks by women a constant drumbeat. Our split this year is our most balanced ever, and yet, the numbers don’t lie.

What we can say is that while we have made progress, we have found it quite a bit harder to even the gender split than we originally thought. As background, for the most part, each of our reviewers chooses the books that speak to him or her, and each of us has our own interests, passions, and particular areas of focus or affinity. And while we have often made gender top of mind when we are out searching, great photography (regardless of maker) always catches our eye, and so we follow what we find, even if the numbers don’t end up where we want them to go.

Of course, in total, there are enough photobooks being published by women every year to fill our entire calendar, so the fact that we still aren’t at parity must therefore mean that we aren’t trying hard enough. And perhaps between the scale and discovery issues raised above, that’s a fair criticism – we aren’t finding all the books we need to and aren’t writing enough reviews overall. But the fact remains that there are many more photobooks featuring the photography of men published each year than those featuring the photography of women, so the river of books that floats past us is still dominated by male voices. If we pull out a representative sample, the gender split will be skewed, and so to make the piles closer to equal, we must oversample from the women, which we have done, but still not enough to find balance. In the end, the power to durably and permanently fix the split lies with the publishers; in the meantime, we remain attentively aware of this issue, and are putting real ongoing effort behind trying to thoughtfully even out the mix.

Photobook Reviews by Artist Nationality
USA/Canada (37 reviews) 38.54%
Western Europe (18 reviews) 18.75%
United Kingdom/Ireland (10 reviews) 10.42%
Asia/India (9 reviews) 9.38%
Russia/Eastern Europe (7 reviews) 7.29%
Central/South America (7 reviews) 7.29%
Africa (2 reviews) 2.08%
Multiple Geographies (2 reviews) 2.08%
Australia/New Zealand (1 review) 1.04%
Middle East (1 review) 1.04%
Scandinavia (1 review) 1.04%

The geographic distribution numbers above tell another story of structural tensions in the photobook market. Back in 2014, our numbers were hopelessly weighted toward the USA and Western Europe, and while we have improved the spread some over the years and extended our reach out further to regions that have been less well covered, the raw statistics are still discouraging – international photobook discovery is still hard. How is it that we only found two books from the entirety of Africa to write about last year (and they were both from South African photographers)? Or just one book from the Middle East (from Iran)? And when we cut the data even finer, the numbers expose weaknesses all over – only two books each from China, India, and Brazil? and one book each from Germany, Spain, South Korea, and all of Scandinavia? All of these places have thriving photography scenes.

If we are claiming to be a thought leader, this report card is difficult to swallow, but is tangible evidence of how the scale (not enough reviews) and “discovery” (not finding the right books to review) problems contribute to a view of the photobook world that minimizes or wholly misses huge chunks, especially from geographies outside the most thoroughly trafficked paths of the US and Europe. Again, on the positive side, we are making slow progress toward a broader sweep of geographic diversity, but there is clearly more improvement to be made.

Photobook Reviews by Publisher
Self published (17 reviews) 17.71%
The Eriskay Connection (4 reviews) 4.17%
Fw:Books (4 reviews) 4.17%
GOST Books (3 reviews) 3.13%
MACK Books (3 reviews) 3.13%
Steidl (3 reviews) 3.13%
Yale University Press (3 reviews) 3.13%
Aperture (2 reviews) 2.08%
Art Paper Editions (2 reviews) 2.08%
Dashwood Books (2 reviews) 2.08%
Editorial RM (2 reviews) 2.08%
Light Work (2 reviews) 2.08%
Self Publish Be Happy (2 reviews) 2.08%
Skinnerboox (2 reviews) 2.08%
SUN (2 reviews) 2.08%
TIS Books (2 reviews) 2.08%
WW Norton & Company (2 reviews) 2.08%

One of the good news stories from our statistical analysis is the rise of a diverse ecosystem of international photobook publishers. In 2014, our review list was dominated by larger publishers: Steidl, Aperture, Phaidon, and MACK consumed a decent percentage of the available air. But in 2019, a total of 65 individual publishers are represented in our review list (with some doubling and overlap due to co-publishing partnerships), not including the 17 self-published photobooks books we reviewed (another record for us).

This expansion of the publishing universe we are tracking likely comes from two interconnected effects – we’re getting incrementally smarter and more aware of smaller publishers, and smaller publishers are getting better at both making great books and getting them out into the world where we can find them. Of course, this expansion comes with its own costs – as the number of publishers grows (perhaps geometrically, if not exponentially), our ability to follow them all and separate their best publications from their average ones increases by a similar factor. Volume is, in a sense, both friend and foe.

If we make the loose assumption that photobook publishers will publish work by at least some photographers from their own regions/geographies, then this implies that what is coming is an international map of publishers, one where we can quickly look for new and exciting books in any given region by tracking the activities of a handful of key local publishers (or key photographers as it may be.) Of course, many photographers select international publishers who have broader reach, in effect creating an umbrella layer across the individual local silos. While we haven’t achieved this kind of sophistication yet, it seems like one of the logical steps if we are going to try to systematically break the discovery problem.

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All of this analysis rolls up into a determination here at Collector Daily to deliver a more robust review environment to support the photobook community. While some of the problems we have wrestled with here can in theory be solved with brute force (more donor money, which leads to more reviewers, and then to more reviews, and ultimately credible scale), others will require more nuanced thinking and patient cultivation – the global photobook “discovery” problem is inherently a network issue, and likely requires a decently complex network-style solution. While we don’t yet have all the answers, we expect to push forward further in 2020 on all these fronts, moving step-wise toward the vibrant photobook review reality we hope to someday achieve.

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One comment

  1. Loring Knoblauch /

    In the spirit of openness, I want to add one more clarifying comment. To achieve the desired scale discussed above, we would need to add roughly 150 reviews on an annual basis to what we are doing already. Collector Daily pays all our reviewers $300 per photobook review. (There is a separate discussion to be had about whether this is enough given the consistently high quality of the writing/ideas and the length of the reviews, but this is what we pay today.) So the base fixed cost of such an increase in scale (beyond the cost of the books themselves) is $300 X 150 or $45000 in new donations on an annual basis.

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