Unfortunately it's hard for me to judge these books in person because my local bookstores don't carry them. The closest store with a reasonably good selection —Powell's in Portland, the world's largest bookstore— is pretty dismal by Photo-Eye standards. By my rough count it currently has 8 books in stock out of 190 on Photo-Eye's list.
A horrible ratio, but I'm guessing most bookstores outside of New York or LA aren't much better. Let's face it, these are obscure titles. I'd speculate that most people reading the Photo-Eye list have seen less than a quarter of these books in person.
For those of us who don't live in a major city or make the circuit of European book fairs there are a few options. For some books Photo-Eye listings show a Booktease, which is sort of the book equivalent of 30-second song preview in iTunes. Sometimes this is sufficient and I can tell with Booktease whether or not I'll like the book. But many listings don't include Booktease, and even when they do it's a bit of a tease. It can be hard to judge.
Blurb goes further, previewing the entire book online. That's great but of course most books are not Blurb books.
The best previews are sites like Claxton Projects or even the occasional You Tube link which show videos of books being thumbed through. I think these are great. They give a real sense of the book, of its size and feel. But unfortunately only a small selection of books make it to video form.
So for the most part we're on our own. We may be living in the golden age of photobooks but in many ways it's just like the old days: the only way to see it is to order it. In Winogrand's terms, we need to buy a book to see how it looks bought. But that gets expensive, especially when you buy things you wind up not liking.
Short of purchase, there's always browsing. Powell's may not stock many obscure titles but they do get a steady flow of more popular new work.
Every few weeks I make a thorough circuit of their photo section. I keep a running list of interesting titles. Sometimes I add books to the list that I hear about online or through the grapevine. In December (Triple whammy: Hannukah, Christmas, Birthday) I narrow it to a wishlist of about 8 or 10 books. I hand it to Tab and she distributes it to the proper channels. From this list I usually get four or five books as gifts.
Here's how I made out this year.
Green Square = Seen in person before listing
Grey X = Didn't get it
PE = On Photo-Eye 2010 list
Paul McDonough, New York Photographs 1968-78 McDonough is the real deal, a nuts and bolts witty b/w street shooter. He doesn't hit you over head with his photos like Cartier-Bresson. The style is a little quieter, somewhere between Papageorge and Winogrand. A must have for street connoisseurs.
(PE) Joachim Brohm, Ohio Didn't get it. Darn.
(PE) New Topographics, Brit Salveson This is the Velvet Underground of photo shows, the one that sparked a thousand others. I'd seen many of the photos before but still the book is worth having. It includes every photo in the show, every page of the original catalog, and a fantastic essay by Salveson.
(PE) Larry Sultan, Katherine Avenue I don't own any other Sultan books (except Evidence) so this seemed like a good way to catch up on him all at once. It includes highlights from The Valley and Pictures from Home, plus a selection from his most recent project shooting immigrant communities in SoCal. Great photos, great production. The guy was a stud.
Martin Parr, The Last Resort An alltime classic. Didn't get it. Phooey.
Danny Lyon, Memories of Myself A collection of outtakes and B-sides from the past 40 years. As with Sultan, I don't own any other Lyon books so this one seemed like a way to cover a lot of ground in one shot. I like Lyon's writing even more than his photos. I'm still plugging through this. It's dense with material.
(PE) Alec Soth, From Here to There Looks great from what I haven't seen but it wasn't in the cards this year.
(PE) Oraien Catledge, Photographs Catledge's first and only book. The moment I saw this I knew I would own it eventually. It really hooked me. Catledge's style reminds me a bit of Mark Steinmetz. He is a master chronicler of the Southern aesthetic. Very strong portraits which have a spontaneous, honest, and open feel. Great duotone printing.
Stu Levy, Grid Portraits Didn't get it. Drat.
Bernard Plossu, So Long So long, wishlist. This one didn't come through for me.