Pressing Business: Figure 1 Publishing
Fine art photo book lover Alan Bulley gets the scoop from photo book publishers across Canada in our new series of interviews with book publishers, including
Chris Labonté, Publisher + President of Figure 1 Publishing.
How do you choose what projects you publish? How far in advance do you work?
We want to work with artists and institutions and organizations who are working at the highest levels, and who want to produce a book that is well written, edited, designed, and packaged. Many of our partners are galleries, museums, architectural firms, and restaurants, but we also work directly with individual artists, designers, and photographers. The standard photography book takes about eighteen months to produce.
What has been the most commercially successful book you have published? (Why did it do well?)
We’ve published numerous cookbooks (each packed with remarkable food and portrait photography) that have become national and regional bestsellers, but a book we published featuring stunning cabins and cottages called Escapology by Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan is probably our biggest commercial success to date. It has sold extraordinarily well in Canada, the U.S., and the United Kingdom.
What makes an effective proposal from an artist?
A clearly written description of the project, the artist’s objectives, and their professional biography, as well as a large selection of images. It is always wise to include an overview of the artist’s connections with public and private galleries and media. Illustrated book publishers are looking for clarity of vision, quality of work, and the promise of a substantial retail and special sales market.
What sort of financial arrangements do you have with artists (dealing with up-front costs, revenues, etc.)?
We are what is known as a hybrid publisher, which means artists and organizations hire us to produce their books and sell, market, and distribute them to the wholesale and retail markets throughout North America and abroad. We pay very good royalties on every copy we sell into the wholesale and retail markets. We are unlike most hybrid publishers in that we cover the cost of printing any copies that go into the retail market, which means we share with our partners the risk of bringing their books to market. We prefer the term “partner publishing” over “hybrid publishing.” Our model is highly collaborative.
How involved is the artist in book design?
Speaking of collaborative: the artist is indeed closely involved with design. We discuss early in the process the artist’s (or curator’s) vision for their book, and then keep them involved every step of the way. We will provide the artist with sample covers for review, then make adjustments until we have a cover that the artist loves and that we feel will sell well in the market. And then we do the same with the interior design. We also have discussions with the artist (or curator) about paper stock, format, binding, and special print features.
How do you market and distribute the books you publish? Where do they go? How many copies do you print on average?
We have full national and international sales, marketing, and distribution. This means our sales representative groups in Canada, the U.S., and overseas will present our books to wholesalers and retailers such as Indigo, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, independent book retailers, college and university bookshops, gallery and museum gift shops, library wholesalers, and non-traditional retailers (like those funky shops that sell contemporary furniture and chachkas and the like). We are with two of the finest sales and distribution outfits in the world: in Canada, sales and distribution (and some marketing) is handled by Raincoast Books, and in the U.S. and overseas these are managed by Publishers Group West/Ingram Distribution.
What is your view of the publishing market in Canada?
Speaking specifically about high quality illustrated non-fiction titles—which is what Figure 1 publishes—the retail market in Canada is vibrant, diversified, and relatively strong. It would be amazing if there was a national retail chain dedicated to selling books on art, architecture, design, and photography—the sort of retailer one still finds in Europe and parts of the U.S. But Indigo, the independent book retailers, Amazon, gallery and museum gift shops, and non-traditional book retailers do a fair job of carrying and selling quality illustrated titles.
What one message would you give photographers who want to publish their work?
Get creative about financing.
Photography books remain, for the most part, a challenging category for retailers. Which means that truly excellent books by remarkable photographers will not find their way to market because traditional publishers do not see a viable financial reason to publish such books. But there are ways to raise the funds necessary to produce and distribute a quality photography book. We have these discussions with potential publishing partners all the time.
What's your dream publishing project?
Only one dream: working with remarkable, talented people to produce visually arresting books that have a positive impact on readers.
What's one thing that would surprise our readers about your work behind the scenes?
Ironically, I do far less reading than one might expect in such a job. It’s an occupational hazard, but I’ve come to terms with it. I can always read after work.
Is there anything else that our readers should know about your company or the work you do?
Our goal is to be the finest partner-publisher in all of North America, producing fine illustrated non-fiction titles for a broad market, especially in the areas of art, architecture, design, food and wine, and photography. A core component of our program is books about Indigenous art and culture, one of the most important of which is Where the Power Is, which we published in partnership with the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. The photography in this work is incredibly moving. The book has been shortlisted for a BC and Yukon book prize.
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