© Joshua White
How do you ensure that your photo book stands out among all the other books in the store? We asked book buyers from five independent bookstores how they choose which books to buy, how they evaluate self-published photo books, and which photo books sell well in their market—and which ones don't. The first article in our series featured Ampersand in Portland, Oregon; the following article featured Tattered Cover in Denver. Below, we speak with Lee Kaplan, co-owner and book buyer at Arcana: Books on the Arts in Culver City, California.
Located in a 4,400-square-foot space west of Los Angeles, Arcana: Books on the Arts carries a collection of photo books that Seth Boyd of Charles Lane Press calls “the most eclectic, comprehensive and well-curated we have seen anywhere.” Lee Kaplan, co-owner of the store, buys about 250 to 400 new titles from large publishers and distributors every six months. In addition, he buys books throughout the year from small publishers and photographers who don’t follow the traditional, fall-and-spring publishing seasons. “Every week we probably get ten solicitations from smaller publishers or from photographers who have self-published books wanting us to carry them,” Kaplan says.
When it comes to choosing the titles he stocks in the store, Kaplan says, he’ll buy more copies if the book is by a well-established photographer whose past books have been collected. He adds, however, “We try to carry the books that we’re interested in.” He likes to take a chance on a title by someone unknown if he thinks it might find a buyer among Arcana’s clientele.
Arcana’s customers do not only include photo-book collectors. “We do a lot of business with people who do film and commercial production [because they] are always looking for books that will inspire them,” Kaplan explains. He recalls that when he first saw Spomenik, photographer Jan Kempenaers’s 2010 study of monuments to the World War II dead in the Balkans, Kaplan thought that it could be a useful reference for production designers. “It’s full of great ideas. It also crosses over into architecture and political history,” he says. The store has sold about 40 copies of Spomenik; they typically sell five copies of most photo books.
Kaplan first saw a limited edition of photographer Mike Brodie’s book, A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, when the publishing house TBW showed it at an art fair where Arcana was also exhibiting. Kaplan says, “There was just something great about that project,” which Brodie shot as a teenager while riding the rails. When Twin Palms released a trade edition, Kaplan ordered five copies. Then Brodie showed the project at M+B Gallery in Los Angeles. After that, Kaplan says, “We ordered 15 more.”
When unknown photographers ask Kaplan to buy their books at wholesale, he usually refuses, and offers instead to sell copies on consignment. When selling on consignment, Arcana will “display it in our new releases section so that people will at least see it, we’re willing to do that,” Kaplan explains. “For a lot of first-time photographers or publishers, we have at least been able to give a book a venue for their work.”
Kaplan says that about five years ago when more photographers began publishing their own books through print-on-demand services such as Blurb, the wholesale price was so high, a bookstore was unable to make a profit without setting an exorbitant retail price. That’s changed, Kaplan says. These days, both small publishers and self-publishers have learned to “build in a wholesale price so that a retailer can purchase [them]” and at the same time “understand that you need to set a retail price low enough that someone will actually buy it.”
As an example of smart pricing, Kaplan points to The Ice Plant. The publishing house founded by photographer Mike Slack has produced the first books of many photographers: “They try to keep their books between $15 or $30 as a retail price.” One recent Ice Plant book is Slow Paparazzo by Antoine Wilson. The photos show empty places—a hotel lobby, a street corner, the front of a building. “The conceit is that James Franco or Seth Rogen was just there,” Kaplan explains. “It’s a one-note book, but at $10, you want to buy a copy, because it’s charming.” The Ice Plant also published Retrieved, fine-art photographer Charlotte Dumas’s book about the surviving search-and-rescue dogs who were used at the site of the World Trade Center. “It struck a chord on the anniversary of 9/11,” Kaplan notes. Its retail price was $29.95.
He encourages photographers to remember that no matter the size or format, a photo book has to be more than a collection of images.
“You can take Henri Cartier-Bresson’s images and make a bad book of them if it’s not properly designed,” he says. Having a well-known author or big name contribute an essay or blurb makes little difference to Arcana’s customers, he says. “Robert Frank and William Eggleston have written blurbs for books that don’t sell,” he notes.
Arcana has hosted about ten book signings in the past year, and photographers visiting the store also sign copies, which the store can then display.
When photographer Todd Hido was in town, the store had 70 copies of his new book, Excerpts from Silver Meadows, air freighted from the printer in China; they sold all 70 copies that night. “As a book project, it’s spectacular,’” Kaplan notes.
What makes a bookstore buyer like Kaplan want to carry a book, he says, is the design of the book. “That means a really good, crisp edit of images—the most beautiful images, beautifully designed. That’s the best way to make sure that bookstores that are on the fence are convinced to sell it.”
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What Bookstores Buy: Tattered Cover in Denver
What Bookstores Buy: Ampersand in Portland