Thursday, July 28, 2011

5 Tips for Photo Book Collectors

As many have commented, we live in a golden age of photobooks. All around they're blossoming like wildflowers. It seems every day another one is being popped out somewhere or other. I can hardly keep track.

Not only are these photobooks a joy to behold but, as Adam Dewar recently pointed out in The Guardian, they can be a very good investment. To take just one example from Dewar's essay, a copy of Bruce Davidson's Subway bought for £40 in 2003 is worth more than £200 today. That's a 400% return in 8 years, easily beating the S&P 500 which gained only 30% over the same period.

I've been collecting photobooks for a while. I think I have a pretty good sense of the market. I know which books have staying power and which don't, and what separates the gems from the common schlock.

What follows are a few brief tips I've compiled for the savvy book collector written from an investment perspective.

1. Follow your taste

In deciding which books to collect the most basic rule is to buy books by photographers that you like. It seems obvious, right? Yet many collectors ignore this rule or, more commonly, misapply it.

What they don't realize is that certain photographers are more advisable to like than others. As a starting point, any book mentioned in Roth or Parr/Badger (I or II) is probably suitable for liking, as are books reviewed by PhotoEye, 5b4 or The PhotoBook. As a collector's taste develops, periodic lists such as this one can help a person prescreen what they might like to like. In time you'll have a pretty good sense of what others like and thus which favorites might be most marketable.

Once your tastes have been properly calibrated to the general market you can collect away to your heart's content. Just follow your taste!

Sample spread from Andrew Roth's Book of 101 Books. Any book mentioned therein is probably suitable for liking

2. Mint Condition Only

Buy mint. These books will best hold their value if they're kept in shrinkwrap at moderate temperatures and in subdued light.

Most people realize that taking a photobook outside, e.g. to the beach or to "share with friends" is a No-No. Less commonly known is that simply holding a book open in your lap can also expose it to damage. Opening and closing a book or thumbing pages should be restricted to a minumum. If you're curious what's inside a book the contents of most publications can be found online. If for some reason you still feel compelled to open a particular book, perform this act on a library copy.

A small wall-unit shrink wrap machine can be a good investment for the beginning book collector

Ideally the best way to own a photobook is not through personal possession at all, but through a photobook call option. These work similarly to future options in the stock market. The book is kept in mint condition at a warehouse, safely out of reach from potential damage. The option owner maintains the right to buy the book at a certain value at some specified future date.

In advanced securities transactions the book needn't be published at all, and is thus kept in immaculate primordial condition while the option simply values the future idea of the book. But these advanced securities are complex and inadvisable for beginning collectors. Inexperienced collectors should just use shrinkwrap.

3. You can time the market

Photobooks are like fine wine. Their value improves with age but only to a point, after which it may retreat. To recoup maximum investment potential, timing is essential. Keep close track of the reputations of the photographers in your book stable. Generally the best time to enter a particular photographer's book market is early in their career, and the best time to exit is late middle age after the photographer's career value has maxed out.

Premier Grand Cru: Robert Frank's The Americans (First Edition)

The main exception to this rule occurs when a photographer dies or, better yet, is about to die. Photobook values often peak shortly after death for two reasons: 1. The supply chain has been irreversibly broken, and 2. There will generally be a fresh round of hype and nostalgia following a death. Knowing this you can time the market to your advantage.

Predicting the exact time of another person's death is notoriously difficult but it can be made easier with common sense rules. Notwithstanding the inherent uncertainty, two sound death-based market segments exist: Very old photographers, or very young ones who seem hellbent on killing themselves. For example, Dash Snow's Slime the Boogie immediately shot up in value following his premature death in 2009. Collectors who'd studied his lifestyle and had the foresight to invest in his books were richly rewarded.

4. Get it in writing

Since a signature is perhaps the easiest way to add instant value to a book, you should only collect signed books. If your books are unsigned your priority should be to have them signed. If a photographer is alive acquiring a signature is generally not difficult. Photographers can be stalked in a variety of places. Most will sign a book willingly. Others may take some pestering but should eventually buckle with sufficient persistence.

The addition of Man Ray's signature to one of his books can add upwards of $3000 in value. 
In per letter terms, that's an outstanding $500 per character.

The most cost effective signature location is the title page. Note, to reach this page you may have to peel back the shrink wrap slightly and actually open the book. Do so carefully! Make sure the photographer's hands are clean during the signing or, if possible, bring gloves along for them to wear. Make sure the signature is neat and legible and that the ink does not smear. Heartfelt salutations immediately above or below the signature can add value, so take whatever steps are necessary to gain those.

5. Supply and demand

The photobook market works like any other market. Price is a function of supply and demand. The most valuable books are ones which feed both ends of the curve. They are published in limited editions and craved by the masses. You should make these books your favorites and seek them out for your collection.

If a book has a very restricted print run, less than say 500, a little market muscle can significantly leverage value. For example you might want to buy up 10, 50, or even a few hundred copies to create an artificial supply vacuum. Be forewarned some smaller publishers may try to subvert this effort by adding another print run. You should let them know that you're a powerful collector and that you don't look kindly on their action. If they persist, dump the book. Flood the market. Show them who's in control.

A similar strategy applies to any first editions owned no matter what the edition size. Since a first edition can only be published once, the result is a defined and often limited of stock. This makes them very suitable instruments for restricted supply-side acquisitions, on the condition that no further editions are planned. However, if a second edition is planned it will sap your first edition's value. You should dump that book immediately.

Artificial demand can also be stimulated. Talk up the books in your collection. Get them written about in popular journals and blogs. If possible land them on as many Year-End lists as you can. Some people may forget that they like your books. It's up to you to remind them what they like. Remember, demand creates value, and vice versa.


SR said...

Is there a futures market in photo books? Then you can invest without having to protect or actually look at the book....

SR said...

oops... missed that you addressed the futures issue.... good post Blake.

K. Praslowicz said...

I'm assuming the shrink wrap machine is useful to prevent points #4 & #2 from clashing. Or should the signature be applied directly to the shrink wrap?

Christopher Paquette said...

Thanks for the link Blake!

p.s. Where can I buy one of those shrink wrap machines?

Anonymous said...

Since the prices on mint books have stalled I'm banking on the dirty, torn and dog-eared market to boom any time now. My collection will soon be worth a fortune.

Blake Andrews said...

As I pointed out in tip number 4, the shrink wrap can be peeled back slightly to make room for the signature. Or if you invest in a machine you can simple re-shrinkwrap the whole thing after signing.

K. Praslowicz said...

Now I feel like a dope. :D Need to stop skimming blog posts while at work.

Alexander James said...

I am working on my second photo book, this one will be published in a limited run of 1000 unlike my first which is going to be put out globally by a major publisher.

I would seriously freak out is a collector asked me to put gloves on to sign my book lol.

my first book is Tokyo Taxi, go see the work for yourself at DistilEnnui dot com -

Anonymous said...

surely, life is about more than money?
I like your first point - follow your taste, but what is the point if you shrink wrap the book and never look at it again for fear of devaluing it slightly! Should not the greatest value be in enjoying the book - or am I just being naive and idealistic?

Harrison Cronbi said...

Wow. I've been fingering my signed copies of 'Dream/Life' and 'All Zones Off Peak' quite regularly. Might have to rethink that. There is one book I don't take out of it's protective sleeving, though: a catalogue from 'British Photography from the Thatcher Years' signed by John Davies, Paul Graham, Chris Killip, Martin Parr, and Graham Smith.

Blake Andrews said...

@Anonymous, you are indeed being idealistic. Life is about money. Books are about money. Now go do the right thing and buy yourself a shrinkwrapping machine before you defile any more mint editions.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the process of buying large batches of shrinkwrapping machines and put options on new models to come. I am confident to get few of them signed as well.

Does anybody know if there is a way to shrinkwrap a shrinkwrapping machine ?

Paul Russell said...

@ jophilippe - the easiest way is to take your shrink wrap machine on holiday with you. Most airport customs have the facility to shrink wrap your machine. Check with the airport beforehand though.

K. Praslowicz said...

Given the new anti-terror regulations & carry-on fees that some airlines have been been charging, traveling with my Minipack Sealmatic 79 T has started to become a real hassle.

Does anyone know if a roll of grocery store cling wrap and a hair dryer works as an acceptable intermediary solution while on the road?

Blake Andrews said...

Most of the feedback I've gotten from this article is from people who've taken it seriously. I find this sort of amusing, but also distressing for what it says about contemporary attitudes.

For the sake of clarity, I want to state that this post is meant as satire. If the ideas espoused here seem even remotely plausible, please wake up!

Thomas (PD-JKT) said...

You should probably have added some more practical advice! For instance, to hit the right time for selling, it's beneficial to observe the respective photographers in videos on Youtube, paying scrupulous attention to any sign of physical or mental illness: shaky hands, time needed to answer or even off-topic replies, all could be substantial indications of a proximity of the market peak! Only newbies to the market would overlook such hints, paying actually more attention to what they say instead of focussing on what really matters.

jenniferlouice said...

Unfortunately that's give a common factor for select a nice photo books. I agree with your suggestion. It is so helpful to get a nice collection.

photo books