© Jordan Baumgarten
With the rising popularity of photo books—both self-published and traditionally published—photographers are faced with a challenge: How to make their books stand out amongst the shelves of titles at both general interest and art bookstores. For insight, we asked book buyers at five independent bookstores across the country how they choose the books they 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 articles featured Tattered Cover in Denver and Arcana in Culver City, California. Below, we speak with Bob Contant, co-owner of St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City.
St. Mark’s Bookshop has been located in Manhattan’s East Village for 35 years, first on St. Mark’s Place and now on 3rd Avenue. Co-owner Bob Contant, who purchases a variety of genres for the store, including photography and art books, says their customers reflect the diversity of New York City. “We’re located in primarily an academic community, with New York University, Cooper Union and The New School [nearby], so there is a lot of faculty interest … in terms of buying the arts,” he explains. “Plus, we get a lot of tourist business and neighborhood business.”
When customers first enter the store, they come across a display table that’s just to the left of the photography section and often includes art and photo books. The books that are “featured” on the table and in the store’s window, Contant says, are usually “current, big interest books.” Only about a half-dozen photography books are featured in the store in the course of a year. Occasionally, the store will also feature books by photographers who always attract attention, such as Richard Kern, Ryan McGinley or Terry Richardson. “McGinley is a classic case of a photographer who, I think, is appealing to people for both the quality of his work and the subject matter, which is mostly young people—plus there’s a lot of nudity,” Contant notes.
Just as in any other store, the featured books have a shelf life that depends on how popular they are, among other things. “Some [books] you sell for a season or two, and then it’s sort of over. There are other books that sell and sell and sell,” he explains. An example of a photo book that always sells, according to Contant, is 2009’s Natural Fashion by Hans Silvester, which is published by Thames & Hudson, and documents the traditional dress of the Surma and Mursi people of Africa.
Contant primarily purchases books through book distributor and publishing house sales reps. The store also has a unique arrangement with D.A.P., which provides the distributor a special pop-up section called “Art Books at St. Mark’s Bookshop.” The books featured in this bookcase are mostly selected by D.A.P., but occasionally overlap with books Contant bought off the D.A.P. list. This partnership is outside of the store’s normal buying arrangement with D.A.P. because the books are taken on consignment, which means the store will carry three copies of each book and split the retail cost with the publisher when a sale is made (40 percent for the store; 60 percent for the publisher). Unsold books are returned to the publisher after three months.
Consignment is also how the store handles self-published books. One recent example of a photo book that was popular at St. Mark’s Bookshop is Time and Space on the Lower East Side by Brian Rose (The book's design, production, printing, copyright registration and ISBN registration were handled by Golden Section Publishing.) The book compares photos Rose made in 1980 and 2010 at specific locations on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The photographer himself brought it to the store to ask that they sell it. Contant notes that it’s a good example of the type of photo books that do well in the store: “It’s a combination of subject matter and the fact that it’s sort of a historical document.” Other photo books that have been popular because they capture a bygone era in New York City include Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York by James and Karla Murray (Gingko Press); New York in the 70s by Allan Tannenbaum (The Overlook Press); Max’s Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll by Steven Kasher (Abrams); and Patti Smith 1969-1976 by Judy Linn (Abrams)—though Contant admits most of the interest in Linn’s book stems from the popularity of Smith’s memoir, Just Kids.
What Contant refers to as “cult classic” photo books also do well, such as Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Larry Clark’s Tulsa, and books featuring the work of Diane Arbus or Francesca Woodman. Contant says St. Mark’s Bookshop’s “all-time best-selling photography book” is The Americans by Robert Frank. He adds that, in general, the photo books that sell are “high-quality books by photographers who … present a view of the world that exists beyond what you ordinarily can appreciate. So someone like [Sebastião] Salgado or [Gregory] Crewdson or William Eggleston— these photographers have a particular style.”
Customers are happy to flip through books of celebrity, portrait and landscape photography, but rarely purchase them, according to Contant. Books that feature a compilation of photographers’ work don’t sell well either, unless they strike that unique niche his customers are looking for of edgy, historical and interesting subject matter.
The goal of St. Mark’s Bookshop is to offer “an interesting selection of books that’s not particularly commercial,” explains Contant—partly because Strand Book Shop, a large discount bookstore, is just around the corner. So they “mostly focused on books that are sort of either below the radar [so] the Strand isn’t going to bother with [them], or that are just so compellingly popular.”