Self-publishing can mean many different things, especially as it pertains to photography. And if you ask five different people what the difference is between a zine and a book, you’ll likely get five different answers. Digging even deeper, I’ve been wondering lately why I do what I do with my photos… why do I share them on Instagram, why do I show my work on the walls of a gallery, why do I design and print my own photo books and zines? And by extension, why do any of us do this?
This may seem as it’s an existential crisis, and in some ways perhaps it is. It started earlier in the week as I took down the photo exhibit that I recently participated in at the Open Space Gallery. The exhibit was the result of a book project that was a couple of years in the making. The show actually dovetailed nicely with the book project, and was seen as an opportunity to sell some copies of the book (as any hopes of selling the actual photos from the show was a much further possibility… who buys photos anyway?) Long story short, over the five-week run of the show, the gallery sold exactly five copies of the book. Not that I don’t appreciate those five customers… but one would have expected more than five copies being sold. Or at least that’s what I personally expected.
Which leads me to my first issue, admitting that it’s rooted in the disappointment of the number of books sold. The real question is: who is buying photo books these days? It seems there are more and more people self-publishing their own books, which is easy thanks to affordable, on-demand printing. It has opened a door of creativity for me personally, and has brought me some attention and some sales, both of which I am grateful for. But the other side of that coin keeps gnawing at me. So many of us are printing books and zines, and I really wonder who the audience is, and how big this audience is. This is a logistical question as much as it is an existential one. How many copies of a book or zine should I plan on printing? The demand fluctuates, making it hard to rely on past experience. I had one book that sold fifty copies. I had a zine that I struggled to move ten copies of. And ultimately, WHY am I designing and producing actual hard copies of my work? The answer is: I love the process of laying out a book, I love to edit and sequence my work, and I genuinely love holding the finished product in my hands.
But I must admit, I also want other people to like my work enough to actually buy a copy of my book or zine, too. And that’s where things get complicated. Because the reality is… most people don’t care about you or your work, and certainly feel no need or desire to make a purchase. Which again makes me super appreciative of the people who’ve actually dropped their hard earned money into my pocket to support my art by making a purchase. But at the end of the day, I’m talking about maybe 10, maybe 15, maybe 20 people at most. Why should this matter? Why shouldn’t this matter? I can’t imagine giving up on this outlet for my work. I am not at the point of ending my self-publishing efforts. But why print more than one, personal copy of my next zine? It certainly isn’t a money making pursuit; in most cases, it ends up being the opposite.
This was all swimming in my brain as I attended the ABQ Zinefest today. Perhaps not the best frame of mind to go into the event with, but I’m a dark motherf*cker sometimes, so I just go with what’s in my head…otherwise I’d probably not leave the house. The Zinefest was much bigger this year than the last time I attended, two years ago. It felt inclusive, and the DIY sprit was in full effect. I am 100% supportive of this kind of event, and the platform it provides for a wide range of voices and perspectives. I did feel somewhat of an outsider as I strolled the aisles, but that’s all my own hang up, not from anyone at the fest. I saw some mediocre work, but I also saw truly beautiful work, and made a few purchases of a couple of things I was really impressed by. The techniques on display ran the gamut: from simple folded pieces, to uniquely printed and bound zines, with a variety of binding methods utilized. It made me think more about how I print and bind my own work, and gave me ideas for trying something different next time I decide to print my work.
Because I have to think about every single fucking thing from multiple sides, I had some critical thoughts about the things I saw at the show. For example, I realize that zine making is a mode of self-expression that has a very low barrier for entry. You could literally fold a single sheet of paper a few times and make a zine out of it. Or you could run off a bunch of sheets at Kinko’s and staple them together. or bid with a rubber band. Or you could silkscreen pages, trim and hand bind them. or you could output your swanky, self-designed book to an online printer and in a couple of weeks, have a 50 page, perfect bound photo book in your hands. In any of these scenarios, you have expressed yourself. You have brought something personal into the world. You may have even shared it with someone.. a friend…or a stranger… or maybe even a paying customer. But then again, I ask WHY are any of us doing this? Are we our own audience? Do we need to sell something in order to validate our work? Why sell at all? Why not trade with people doing what we are doing? Why does this matter? Isn’t it great that people struggling to find their own voice and perspective have an outlet with their reach? Am I just a jaded, old fart?
The other thing I thought about was whether or not the Zinefest would have been an appropriate place for me to show my self-published books. I think I saw two booths that had any photo specific publications at them. One was a slick series that I had already heard of, and these most resembled my own books. To be honest, these two examples stuck out (to my eyes) like sore thumbs. Most of the things on display and for sale had a very low tech, rough hewn look and feel. And considering the DIY roots of zine making, this makes sense. But it also made me realize that that’s not the kind of work I want to be making. It is no disrespect to those creators who take that approach, but I have higher expectations for my books and zines. In fact, I am less inclined to even apply the term “zine” to my publications from now on.
I’ll certainly be pondering all of this as I decide what my next project will be. Who knows, maybe it will be one copy for my own bookshelf this time around. If you have thoughts to share with me on any of this, I’d love to hear from you.