Is a photography book really a book without a fancy launch party?

Is a photography book really a book without a fancy launch party?



© Covid Street

I spent a good chunk of my life working in book publishing and have occasionally been told “You must enjoy all those launch parties.” Not so long ago I was involved in a book that really deserved one but didn’t get it. So what went wrong, and why?

The book, Covid Street: Photographers United, certainly merited a fancy bash, with champagne flowing and all the contributors taking their moment of limelight. It was never to happen of course, and not just because pandemics aren’t conducive to parties. After all, it didn’t stop the British Prime Minister!

The book, the brainchild of street photographer Tanya Nagar, was to source the images she had already been collecting on Instagram of the spreading lockdowns around the world and assemble them into book form in aid of MSF. It proved a more time-consuming process than we first hoped – it’s a lot easier to persuade people to share something at low res via Instagram than to deliberately send you print-quality files. 

The main reason, though, was that parties aren’t really a part of a sensibly-funded publishing model. Like any book, I wanted to make more money for this project than we spent, so we could give proceeds to the charity Médecins Sans Frontières. 

It was also true that not every contributor would even be able to afford their own copy of the book or copies for their families so it would seem insulting to fund a venue, snacks, and so forth from the book’s budget even if travel restrictions allowed it. 

And that’s the key point. Most illustrated or photographic books don’t really make a lot of money. They sit in an awkward middle; expensive to print, occupying a niche area of interest, and very rarely of interest to the chattering classes or literary snobs. A party, even a modest one, would be a measurable part of the income of the book.

But would it have persuaded more people to buy it? Perhaps. Though you have to arrange the not inconsiderable costs of shipping copies to the event and, quite possibly, away again. Unlike a novel or monograph, signatures aren’t really desirable.

This is why, in the better part of two decades in publishing, I only once went to a launch party, and that was futile self-indulgence on the part of the author. (Or, seen differently, a generous re-distribution of their advance, back in the days when such a thing existed, to the minions.)  

Now, sure, the one percent seem gleefully able to dance from one charity ball to the next, and perhaps that was our mistake. Instead of thinking of the book as, well, a book with a proportion ring-fenced for the charity, we should have spent more time tapping up potential donors. Who knows?