Empty coffee tables

I’ve got a mate who works for a well-known producer of ‘coffee pods’, sealed units of powdered DIY cappuccino, latte, mocha and myriad others which cover a cocktail of coffee, milk and water. You can buy pods in all manner of sizes – venti, grande and tallgrandewithextragrande – small, medium and large to you and me. According to my mate, sales of ‘pods’ are going through the roof along with the pretentiously branded machines that gurgle and splutter out the finished product (presently appearing on our TV screens every 30 seconds or so, such is the anticipated yuletide demand). The world has apparently gone mad for over-priced, over-hyped, over-my-dead-body coffee products.

Don’t get me wrong; I like a cappuccino as much as the next man. There’s nothing better than sitting down with a frothy concoction and drooling over a lavish coffee-table photo book. It seems however that these days are numbered. It seems that only two of the trio of coffee, coffee table and coffee table book have a future.

Back in the day (I’m never quite sure when ‘the day’ actually was) the Holy Grail for most nature photographers was to produce a book. I was the same. It was a symbol that somehow you’d ‘arrived’, that you were a ‘proper’ photographer; you could even be referred to as an ‘author’. It was never a financial thing; it was a ‘feelgood’ thing and if you could at least cover your costs, it was worth doing. Not any more.

I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion – fuelled by dwindling sales, dwindling interest, dwindling employment across the publishing sector and more significantly, the stack-em-high, sell-em-cheap tactics of the likes of Amazon – that the coffee table photography book is dead. Or is at least gasping its last breath. Do you know that Amazon can sell my latest (co-authored) book (including postage and packing) cheaper than I as one of the authors, can buy it for? I’m the greengrocer on the High St. watching Tesco shut me down. The coffee table book was once a badge of honour for the author, something to be savoured by the reader. Now like most things, it’s a cheap, disposable commodity. The photographic High St. is becoming full of empty coffee tables.

And my point? Well like the High St. greengrocer or the miners under Thatcher, we can whinge and whine about unwelcome change, but rarely are our voices heard. No, we must buckle down and reinvent ourselves because our voices need to be heard; we must fill the gap on the coffee table with something different. Sad it may be, but nothing stays the same forever and change is very much the thing in photography just now. And here’s the crucial point: books are just stories. They feel nice, they smell nice, they are nice but they’re just stories. Us photographers mustn’t get disillusioned, we must continue to invent and then tell new stories. Not in a £25 book perhaps, but through different platforms. We need to keep the coffee tables of tomorrow full of inspiring, insightful and compelling stories about nature.

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16 thoughts on “Empty coffee tables

  1. This topic is very close to my heart. Thank’s Pete!
    I had the pleasure to photograph, write and contribute to 6 of these coffee table books over the past 10 years (funnily enough I just got an advance copy of the latest one this morning). I have to admit that making such a book is a very enjoyable process. From a faint idea you start putting together a narrative (over a period of months and sometimes years) which eventually becomes a full fledged story. It’s a very challenging but equally satisfying process. Artistically that is, not financially. Unless you self publish the author sees around 12%-18% of the sale price of each copy sold. To recover your costs and even make a profit you have to sell a lot of books at that rate. And with the book market like everything else in recession this is as good as impossible.
    But I agree with Pete. We need to keep telling stories, maybe not in oversized coffee table books (although for me there is nothing that rivals a good, big and nicely printed photo book) but by embracing the digital world. E-publishing is probably the way to go and opens up whole new possibilities: We can now tell our stories not only in still pictures, we can also use movie sequences and time lapse photography, spoken word and music to make our point. In a way it’s very exciting.

  2. I agree, Peter – and you write so well!!
    People are becoming less and less willing to pay £25 for a good coffee table book, in part because they would rather spend that money on something else, they don’t have the much disposable cash anymore or a war in dropping book prices to keep sales up between the sellers (like tax-dodging Amazon) and the consumer. And it’s very important that we embrace the new technological advances and keep telling our stories otherwise we get left behind because there are so many other people who are trying to get their voices heard.
    Then there’s also the important thing to remember: a great photo taken 25 years ago is still a great photo now, and the same goes for coffee table books – a compilation of excellent photographs from a long time ago is still something brilliant today and worth buying. So I think that the evolution of photo books in the future is the same as the evolution of photography and videography – we must come up with something new to stand out.
    The benefit that we have at the moment is that there seems to be a recurring interest in nature and protecting wildlife I think…

  3. I just bought PH-D and Clay Bolt’s new eBook on WAM, which demonstrates another obvious route for having our voices heard. Especially as you have to work hard (and pay plenty) to get images to look as good on the page as they do on the screen.

  4. Yeah maybe you’re loosing from the iPad. Lets face it that thing is awesome, when we got back from Svalbard from your trip we had 50 photos on it within 2 days to show to the family. The book is still not finished.
    Not that we make a book that will sell around the world. But we make our own coffee books for family and friends to have a look at when they visit. In the end I still find printed images worth it. We recently got the books from the WildWonders project and great migrations.

    So maybe the number of sales are dwindling but I still think people appreciate a good book. You will not make a real profit I reckon, but I find it worth it. Just as going to an exhibition. Facebook and such gives a big stream of images, great to flick through but you really appreciate images when printed. I already seen the BBC winners online, but I am still going to the exhibit when it comes to The Hague.

    Good coffee (black and strong Pete, not cappuccino) and flicking through a book still beats the iPad for me.

  5. The thing is… I love a good book – its presentation, layout, content and feel; the whole package.

    E-books may well be the future but ultimately I find them a shallow experience. Fire them up, click on through, go wow!, exit and never look at again. That’s not the case with my coffee table book collection. I love to pick one up occasionally and leisurely lose myself in it. So on that basis (admittedly from my own narrow perspective) I think that there may be life in the old dog yet, but not in the same way as in the past.

    I think that you were as impressed as I was looking at Jasmine’s bespoke books (jasmineswope.com) and that hints at a way forward. Not to the extent of hand-crafting perhaps, but possibly along the lines of limited edition, high quality, self published, print on demand.

    A good book does more than just tell me a story; it gives me an experience that I can treasure.

    Of course, it may be said that the current phase of digital photography belongs to the X-Factor generation, who aren’t interested in anything that can’t be viewed on an i-Thingamajig and requires an attention span of more than 15 seconds. In which case you’re right and we’re all doomed to a hell that’s presided over by Simon Powell* and powered by Opple.*

    * Names changed on the advice of my lawyer – any similarity with any extant person or business is purely coincidental.

  6. I wouldn’t write the obituary of the coffee table book just yet Pete.

    I love collecting wildlife photography books. Other than Wildlife photographer of the Year BWPA and 2020 books (all excellent), if I look at my bookshelf thw vast mJority of my collections comprises of books by Scandanavian and European wildlife photographers (in their original foreign language editions) together with National Geographic photographers such as Paul Nicklen.

    Decent coffee table books by British wildlife photographers are fewer and further between. It’s hard work combining all the necessary ingredients (superb imagery and superior printing and production values). Stephen Dalton’s books for me are the benchmark. Superb images, superbly printed. His books set the bar pretty high and since then a lot of books by British wildlife photographers have well short of this standard. There are exceptions to the rule of course. Alex Mustard’s book Reef published a few years back is seminal IMHO.

    Call me naive but I think it’s still possible to sell a decent coffee table book. To do so depends on the quality being there. Absolutely no point in selling on Amazon for the reasons you’ve already stated. It makes no economic sense.

    Self-publishing and limited editions are another matter though potentially and may be the way to go. I appreciate that to be able to do so requires a huge outlay of capital to fund the project and is not for the faint hearted. You need big balls and confidence in the strength of your work (not to mention the cash, did I mention the cash?) to even contemplate such a route. If so though then why not?

    Its a matter of personal preference of course but I’d much rather sit there with my cappuccino holding a book than browsing an e book to be honest which for me is not so different than looking at a portfolio on someone’s website.

  7. An interesting blog Pete and can understand your concerns , sure things are changing but it is up to us really to ensure there is still a place for coffee table type books in what ever form they take, published or self published. Selling it will become more specialised i.e buy the author themselves via talks website etc and perhaps not in the number they like but more as a limited edition type way. Its very very important we do not give up on real books and find a way to keep them alive. I personally think there is still a decent amount of people willing to buy a good quality picture based book, not as many in the past perhaps but still enough to keep this media going not just for us but for the future. It would be a far lesser world if we did not have books and a sad reflection on us if we let them go over to computer based viewing.

  8. Thanks for thoughts everyone – seems like there is a real soft spot for the paper-based book. Could one of you come around and support me when I mention your comments to Amanda? Either that or have any of you got a spare room?

  9. What you need is a small extension to Cairns Towers…………….call it the storage wing. Now it just so happens I know a good architect!! (cough).

  10. Hello Peter

    An interesting thought indeed…. in many ways I agree with you. However, I would also suggest that it also depends upon the market sector you are aiming the book at. Here in Spain it’s a dodo with the exception being Marbella, Sontegrande and Gibraltar where the spending power is many times greater that of the rest of Spain and UK.

    I have been working on a coffee-table book for the past couple of months and selling a “limited edition” in a luxury presentation box has appealed to many of the corporate business and 4 and 5star hotels here along the coast. Then again this is an exceptional area of wealth with only Monaco similar in Europe.

    Maybe photographers would do well to sell into other market sectors and not back into the market they have taken their image from…. maybe! who knows?

    Warm regards

  11. I don’t necessarily think the coffee table book is dead.

    What may be gasping its last feeble breath is the traditional production process. No longer will it be about a publisher commissioning you and a book being produced. It might be a ‘collaborative’ process that takes its place, Kickstarter-style where the audience, YOUR audience, pay up front for a project that you propose and which will result in ‘products’, one of which might be a book, but could be more than that. And what the consumer ultimately gets depends on the level of their ‘buy-in’. It might all depend on your/our savvy use of social media.

    Already Instagram is enabling individuals to ‘monetize’ their photography work, but not in the traditional way. Instead of selling their images to their followers they sell ‘access’ to those followers to advertisers. There is still an income stream but its coming from a different direction, and of course it does not rule out capitalising on ‘traditional’ income streams too, such as books etc.

    Many people still like to have something to hold, something with a sense of ‘craft’ to it and crucially something that you feel gives you a direct connection with the author. And thats what books deliver. So I think there will still be a place for them.

  12. I visited a high street book store today Armed with £60 worth of birthday money. Now I’m a lover of the paper product. The smell of a book shop is to me as good as a bakers or Indeed a greengrocers. (I was once that greengrocer now extinct) As I walked in to the shop to my horror I found Kindles every where, and people buying them as the must have thing. I thought myself its just not the same, but then gave my self a slap as I have an Ipad and buy the digital version of Nat Geo. (to which I also love as it includes video and many other benefits such as being cheeper)
    I picked three books from the shelf totalling £73 (I know but I can’t help it) only to get home to an email from amazon offering the same Three books for £43.
    I did have that moment where I felt a little sick as if I had just been conned, after all £30 would have got me another book.
    The reality is though the world is changing and despite my purchase I fear that the book shop has had it shelf life, and it’s only a matter of time before they too go the same way as the candlestick maker.
    Interesting that you now can only buy the Encyclopaedia Britannia as a digital version. how long before the book goes exactly the same way. I do hope its not in my lifetime.

  13. I sincerely hope the days of the coffee table book are not over. I regularly pull one off the bookcase and have a thumb through. As well as being an interesting “read” I find them a source of inspiration. Many’s the time I’ve seen something in one of them and thought, “I would like to go out and take a picture something like that!” (the reality is far removed from that statement, I might add – but it’s fired the imagination to go and try). For that reason alone, they have a meaningful purpose as far as I’m concerned; so long may they continue.
    As an aside, I’ve recently got my hands on the 2020 Vision book (took out a subscription to the BBC Wildlife magazine and received a gift copy (sorry Pete, guess that doesn’t help you much). Great book, so well done to all involved.


  14. I may be unique in being a fan of coffee table books, but not having a coffee table (due to not liking coffee) to put them on!

    I often pick up my copy of ‘Tooth and Claw’ when I’m pondering another aspect of the Hen Harrier/Pine Marten/Fox Hunting (delete as appropriate) debate. When I want to remember a great day in the mountains, I turn to my coffee table book of Scottish Munros or ‘The Cuillin’. When I simply want to be inspired, I pick up Galen Rowell’s ‘Retrospective’ or ‘Mountain Light’.

    I simply don’t get the same emotions viewing the photos on a laptop or tablet (which, incidentally, I’m resisting for as long as possible!). I can spend hours in front of a log fire with a glass of whisky and a good ‘coffee table book’. It makes me whimsical and reflective which I believe can be a good thing. And you don’t need to check the battery status on a book…!

    Pete – when you specified that ‘Caledonia’ could only be bought through Northshots, I gave a small cheer! Someone taking a stand against Amazon! You specified a price and I considered it more than fair for the quality product I knew I would be getting. Not being able to get it cheaper on Amazon didn’t put me off (and I got great personal customer service to boot!). You obviously know the facts and figures, but my naive optimistic self would like (hope) to think that there are still people prepared to pay a reasonable price for a quality product.


  15. Coffee is a brewed beverage with a distinct aroma and flavor, prepared from the roasted seeds of the Coffea plant. The seeds are found in coffee “berries”, which grow on trees cultivated in over 70 countries, primarily in equatorial Latin America, Southeast Asia, India and Africa. Green (unroasted) coffee is one of the most traded agricultural commodities in the world.-

    See ya soon

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