Self Publish Be Happy / Interview with Bruno Ceschel

Self Publish Be Happy / Interview with Bruno Ceschel

Bruno Ceschel’s venture ‘Self Publish Be Happy‘ (SPBH) is the first stop for anyone interested in self-published photobooks, combining workshops, book distribution, seminars and talks to help spread the word about artists’ books published outside traditional channels.

Photomonitor editor Christiane Monarchi spoke with Bruno to explore the background to SPBH and his newest venture, a photobook club.

Christiane Monarchi: You decided to create SPBH back in the dark days of 2010; what was the underlining motivation to make this interesting venture which seems to combine the best of mentoring, commerce, information dissemination and an overriding passion for photobooks?

Bruno Ceschel: I come from a background of traditional publishing – I first worked at Colors Magazine and then spent nearly 4 years with Chris Boot when he started his own imprint.  The adventure with Chris was really exciting and I learnt a lot about bookmaking, distribution and commerce, as well as the artistic process of creating photobooks.  All the while however, I couldn’t help feeling this frustration with the fact that most of the books I loved to make would not have been commercially viable, and so would not be made. I became tired of the incredibly long process of book making – some projects took three years from the first discussion to their release.  Eventually I left publishing and went to New York where I began to work on the research for an exhibition and a book.  While I was there, I got to know a lot of young artists who were publishing their own books and bit-by-bit I started to collect them.  When I returned to London to lecture at Westminster, I pitched the idea of an event around self published books to The Photographers’ Gallery.  At the time of putting out a call for submissions, I really had no idea if there would be much response, or how big the phenomenon of self-publishing was out there – I soon realized when I got 300 submissions that a lot of people were doing it, and many of them doing it well. There’s a raw energy coming from this community of young self-publishers, energy and excitement that I felt was lost in the mainstream publishing world, threatened and challenged by commercially and financially difficult times.

I soon learned that this community of new self-publishers was lacking an advocate, somebody that would offer a curatorial view to the sea of books produced. Of course I immediately jumped at the opportunity, what better job is there! 

When I imagined SPBH at the very beginning, I was very much inspired by artist-run spaces like Printed Matter in New York in the 1970s, that are somewhere between a workshop, a bookshop and a club – a hub of creativity wherein a sort of serious play takes precedence. In a very idiosyncratic manner with SPBH, I’m trying to see how those ideas of communitarian art making works in our contemporary social networking realm.

CM: The books in your impressive collection take all shapes, sizes and formats. What physical aspects of these books are you drawn to when you see a photobook submission?

BC: The most successful books tend to be the ones that manage to deliver an interesting experience in looking at the pictures.  The magic happens when the photograph finds a way to touch, enrage, excite, arouse or intrigue you within the physical embodiment of a book.  It rarely has anything to do with how expensively produced a book is, but rather, how the author understands the function of his own imagery in terms of printed matter. 

CM:  In your view, what makes a photobook commercially successful?

BC: Now commercial success is a completely different thing – a great book doesn’t always equal a commercially successful book.  It does so happen that the two things go hand in hand, however having said so, what appear to be sold out books, do not necessarily equal any real money made by the author, because the margins are still very small.  A commercially successful book is essentially one that finds its way to being distributed to, and subsequently bought by, the right audience. 

CM: What various aspects of the photobook market do you seek to explore in the curriculum within SPBH school and in your workshops? 

BC: Through travelling with SPBH mobile library, being at festivals, working with students and conducting talks and lectures throughout Europe and North America, I meet a lot of people and the thing I’m always taken by is the perpetual interest they have in experimenting collaboratively and supporting each other – in working together.  I realized how important it was to create an environment that will work with this ethos, supporting people and stimulating expression when embarking upon something as overwhelming as putting together a book.

In setting up the school, I invited artists who have a record of creating interesting books to help put together the sort of environment I envisioned.  It’s not just about learning practical skills, but about being challenged, having the chance to learn about the methodology and practice of others and, perhaps most importantly of all, having a great time with like-minded people.  From Joachim Schmidt to Broomberg & Chanarin, each artist brought with them their world, and shared it with a select group of artists each time.

CM: Within the various functions of SPBH, you have created a very visible platform for artists’ self-published photo-books, a virtual library, online gallery and shop for self-published materials of all sorts.  Your latest creation is a book club, can you tell us more about that?

BC: The core of SPBH (despite being about publications) is actually its online presence and most of the people that we have regular interaction with are spread all over the world, interacting with us through the website by way of calls for submissions, sending in pictures and so on.  Inspired by the iconic and ‘old-school’ idea of the traditional book club, I liked the idea of exploring the beauty of something that is secretive and tailor made for this community of people – how beautiful it would be, I thought, to create a set of books filled with never before seen pictures that will only ever exist in the form of that object – never seen online and only reaching a limited number of people.  Each artist that we choose to work with creates the book with their small and select audience in mind, choosing material they only want to be seen by the people of the book club – it’s like a little secret shared. 

For example, the first volume from the club is by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin who have decided to go back to the start and sift through all of the polaroids they produced in 15 years of their career – for private purposes, whilst on documentary trips and more lately for their conceptual work.  The result is an ambiguous, possibly unresolved set of images – glimpses of a journey through their practice, their work and ultimately, their relationship.  The cover of the book will feature an original Polaroid by the artists which can be removed and works as a piece in itself, and it’s these little tailor-made touches that keep the Book Club an individual and unique venture. The second book shares this interest of the archive, working from Brad Feurerhelm’s extensive collection of early 20th Century photographs. 

Ultimately, the Book Club is about trust; we ask the members – who have seen for two years now what we do and how we think about photography – to trust in us.  They won’t know what they are going to receive but our promise is that each one will be something surprising and exciting and will take them to places they may never have considered before.  We want to make objects that our members will want to cherish forever.  Alongside receiving the books, we also want to build up a community for the members – to hold meetings and discuss books and have a drink together.  In a way, the book club is also a way to explore different possibilities for distribution, you can only buy from us so they will never go directly into the traditional trade – because of that we’ll have total freedom in the content and the decision for the book.

CM:  As a global online entity, where have you seen the greatest appetite for self-published books, in terms of creation and in sales?

BC: The States, by far!  The phenomenon of DIY is rooted deep within American culture, and the idea that you simply get on and do something rather than waiting around for someone else is innate within them – this applies to bookmaking as much as anything.  Interestingly, it’s not necessarily always the best stuff that comes from the States but there’s a real sense of trying, and of not giving up which I generally applaud.  What I like about a lot of books is the sense of a photographer embarking upon a journey when making a book, it’s not about the final result so much as how a person gets there which is a process that is intrinsic within the practice of art making, and less so in traditional publishing – there are no rules to follow. 

CM: How do you see the self-publishing phenomenon changing with respect to the traditional publishing and distribution network?

BC: Self-published books are infiltrating and challenging the traditional trade in a myriad of ways; they can be found amongst many of the ‘best books of the year’ lists and they are given tables at book fairs – that sense of freedom is challenging (in a positive way) to the traditional publishers.  On the other hand, some of the self-publishers are becoming small independent publishers, publishing other artists books and in doing so are structuring themselves as traditional publishers in terms of aspects like distribution.  I believe that the new phenomenon in publishing has to do with these small independent publishers.  They see publishing as one side of a much broader process, and many of them may be making money elsewhere as well, which is a completely contemporary version of publishing – it’s hybrid, and I think that mirrors the more complex, layered marketplace we find ourselves in. Self Publish, Be Happy as an organization seeks to experiment within this complexity, it’s constantly in flux.  We’d like to think we’re here to try to define how a cultural organization operates in a contemporary un-monolithic photography field.


For more information about joining the SPBH book club (and to receive SPBH Book Club Vol. I by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin) please visit:

The next volume in the SPBH book club will be launched at Paris Photo in November 2012.