What Makes A Photo Book A Bestseller? 2009 Edition
Nov 16, 2009 By Conor Risch
Yet there is a big difference between books published for the fine art photography market and books that are “commercial,” which can appeal to wide audiences and sell tens of thousands of copies over several years. Print runs for commercial books are often larger, and publishers choose more economical trim sizes, paper and other materials. These steps keep retail prices down so books are accessible to wider audiences. For photographers with projects that have commercial potential, book publishing can be lucrative. Just ask Andrew Zuckerman about his books Wisdom or Creature, or talk to Joyce Tenneson, whose paperback edition of Wise Women is a perennial bestseller among photography books.
For some insight into the commercial photography book market, PDN recently obtained data from Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks retail book sales, to see which new titles are among the bestselling photography books this year.
Barack Obama not only boosted newspaper and magazine sales during his historic campaign for the presidency, he also gave the photo book market a bump. Obama: The Historic Front Pages (Sterling, $24.95), which looks at Obama’s run for president through news photographs and reporting from major newspapers worldwide, was the top seller in the photography category according to Nielsen Bookscan. A book by the Washington Post, The Inauguration Of Barack Obama: A Photographic Journal (Triumph Books, $29.95), placed third. These books didn’t mean big money for individual photographers, though, since they were compilations.
Scott Schuman’s The Sartorialist (Penguin, $25), a collection of the New York street fashion photographs that made Schuman famous in the blogosphere, is the highest-ranking new publication by an individual photographer. Released in August, this 512-page paperback—a big book at a low price—is creeping up on the Obama titles at number four on the bestseller list.
Earlier this year PDN wrote about The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders (First Second, $29.95), a paperback book that tells the story of a trip the late French photographer Didier Lefevre took into Afghanistan with the NGO Doctors Without Borders during the Afghan war with the Soviet Union ( “Exposures,” June 2009). The unique format of the book, which combines Lefevre’s storytelling and photographs with illustrations by popular graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert, expanded its audience by appealing to both photography and graphic novel audiences. Before its U.S. release this year, the book had reached bestseller status in several other countries, so it’s place at number 11 on the list is no surprise.
Top-selling animal photo books published this year includeElephant Reflections (University of California Press, $40.00), a book of photographs of African elephants by wildlife photographer Karl Ammann, and Dirty Bow Wow (Ten Speed Press, $14.95), an inexpensive book of portraits of dogs with their favorite toys, created by Cheryl and Jeffrey Katz, with photographs by Rick Hornick and Sandy Rivlin.
Though it just barely broke into the top 50, Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans (Steidl/The National Gallery of Art, $45), a re-release of Frank’s famous book with new essays by several critics and curators, was a bestseller this year thanks to a traveling exhibition that generated new interest in the book. (A reprint of The Americans, published by Steidl in Summer 2008, ranks 10th on the list for this year).
Other bestsellers include Natural Fashion (Thames & Hudson, $29.95), a book of Hans Silvester’s photographs of African tribal body decorations, and Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York (Ginko, $65), James Murray and Karla Murray’s typological look at small business storefronts.
Books released in previous years that are among this year's bestsellers include Annie Leibovitz At Work; Alastair Fothergill's Planet Earth: As You've Never Seen It Before;Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs; and National Geographic: The Photographs. Two of the most important books about photography, Susan Sontag's On Photography, and Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida: Reflections On Photography, continue to sell long after their original publications.
Related: " Inside The Bestseller List," PDNOnline, September 11, 2008