PhotoNews Interview with The Velvet Cell

April 13, 2017 0 Comments

PhotoNews Interview with The Velvet Cell

Are there too many photobooks? Éanna de Fréine would definitely negate this. Nothing makes him happier than the thought of a world full of amazing photobooks, the publisher recently wrote in an article on his side. Are there too many photo book publishers? Nothing makes me happier, as if a small publisher, currently sitting in Japan, produces amazing books. I will not agree with the general lamentation over the flood of the photo book, as long as there are publishers like THE VELVET CELL offering a fine, exclusive program. I like that Éanna de Fréine is so open. This is reflected not only in the articles he publishes on his recommended website, but also in the interview, in which he describes the joys and sorrows of an ambitious small publisher.

Peter Lindhorst: Why is it not a financial suicide to found a one-man-publishing-house?

Éanna de Fréine: Who said it isn’t? It was never a conscious decision to establish a one-man publishing house, and until recently it was never an option I considered to try and live off it.

When did the idea grow  for publishing?

When I began, in London in 2011, I really had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have the first clue how to print something. But I tried, and just kept trying. I never tried to live off it in anyway, only to learn as I went along. London is a very expensive city and at the time I was just experimenting. I was always working other jobs - first as a Social Welfare Officer and then as an ESL teacher.  

When I moved to Asia, Taiwan in 2013 and Japan in 2015, I also never had the option of trying to live off TVC because to be able to live in these countries you need a visa, and to get a visa you need a job. Thus I also worked as an ESL teacher. This gave me enough to live off and, for the most part, it gave me time to experiment and try new things. This sounds like I had patience, but I really didn’t. I found progress painfully slow over the first few years.

So, I always had some form of financial security, which, looking back on now, let me experiment and learn from what I was doing without too much risk. I always took publishing very seriously and continue to put almost every minute of my day that I can into it.

Can you describe a little bit more the activities in the beginning?

I put every penny back into TVC, either for printing or to pay for other systems to help it grow. TVC started with £55 - I printed a small zine by Thomas Albdorf in an edition of 40. I sold them for £4 and then reinvested all that money to make the next one, and so on.

In this way it just grew organically thanks to the amazing support I have had. Many times I have worried about where I will find the money to do a book, but when the time to print comes the money is always just there - thanks again to the amazing people who support me by buying the books!

It might sound cliched but this doesn’t always feel like a choice I’ve made. It’s more of a mission and I am not sure where it came from. Publishing books isn’t easy, but not doing feels a lot worse than trying and failing! I often feel like it’s a sort of addiction that I can’t shake off. I love it, but I don’t know if it’s good for me. As for where it’s going, who knows.

What is your thematic topic and which  are relevant books in your programme (and why do they fit so good into it)?

Over time the reasons why I had set up TVC became clearer to myself. What I was interested in crystallised and I decided to focus on a particular theme - the built environment - rather than ‘photography’ per se.

Well, my intention is that they all fit the programme - otherwise why am I publishing it? Personally, I think projects like Jakarta: Modest Interventions and Minor Improvisations by Isidro Ramirez, Cairo Diary by Peter Bialobreski and Norilsk by Alexander Gronsky are projects that really typify the urban focus of The Velvet Cell. These are all books that have the power to reveal something new to you. They both transport you to corners of the world that you may never have even thought of and show you a world you may know almost nothing about. They show different faces and challenges of their respective cities, but at the same time there is something that links them: the view of the human habitat and the people who populate it.

How did “the built environment” come into your focus? Is it a result out of your own experience living in big metropolises?

I think it was a result of growing up in the suburbs. When I moved to London at 21 I felt suddenly thrown in at the deep end. I was now in a huge metropolis. I was unemployed and I would spend my time exploring the city with my camera.

But also I came to London having graduated with a degree in Sociology, which I found an amazing eye opener on the world. Sociology is the study of modernity, and modernity and the city go hand in hand. Studying this from without was interesting, but now that I was in London I had a chance to see it working for real from within. More than anything I found the city an alienating place - so many people in a single place, yet everything was so temporal. I found myself asking myself ‘are cities a natural home for people, or do they alienate us from ourselves?’

Living in Japan now, and my time in Taiwan, gives me a new perspective on cities. Places like Osaka, where I am currently based, are true concrete jungles. It goes on and on forever, and there is so little nature. From the minute I step outside it is clear that this is a human-created habitat. Everything, even the trees planted along the side of the road, is man-made.

I think it’s hard to strip this down today when we have all come to take city life for granted, but we, as people, lived according to the rules of the natural world for so long. Now the tables have been turned and we dominate nature. The world we live in now, as city dwellers, is one we have designed and made for ourselves. I am most interested in how these city reflect us as people. Look at how we built them - what does that say about us?

Why do you think it is necessary to create an unmistakable identity as a small publisher?

There is an old saying: if you are speaking to everybody, you are speaking to nobody. I think that being niche can help small publishers like me to survive because we speak to a certain group, rather than trying to speak to everyone.

From the very beginning I wanted TVC to be about this topic. I want people to buy our books because they are interested in the overall subject. It is not to dissimilar to a music label publishing only a certain type of music. I don’t the books we release to be disconnected with each other, or only connected by the level of success of the authors, but rather by a theme that people care about.

Which role does TVC Journal play?

One of my big goals of 2017 is to continue with the TVC Journal where we bring other aspects of the built environment and publishing to the fore. We share articles by experts that relate to the topics of our books, we interview the photographers to find out more about the project and what inspired them, and we give insights into the publishing process - stories about how we came to publish the book and why we chose it.

The point of producing some kind of journal which informs about your activities seems to be an interesting concept. To give an insight into the decision processes of a publisher, the view behind the stage, the transfer of an artist philosophy – these could be a strategy creating a long-lasting customer loyalty?

To use another expression: “be the change that you want to see” - I would love to see another Journal such as this by other publishers in the photobook world (and beyond). The why and how are always fascinating, but instead I think that some people are afraid to share or want to promote an image of strength. I know I did for the first few years. I was ashamed of how small TVC was and the mistakes that I was making. But later I came to realise that I had in fact learnt a lot and why not share that with others. If this helps to create long lasting customer loyalty then that is an added benefit, but the real question: why wouldn’t we want to share with our fans - it is for them that we make books and it is only because of them that TVC is possible. They are an integral part and I want to include them in the process where I can.

Is it also a good chance to take an identifying position in the photo book market?

Regarding getting lost in the “photobook market”, I’m not sure. I’ve never felt part of the photobook world to be honest. I have always felt that we make books about the built environment and similar subjects and that photography is our main medium, but I don’t want to reduce it down to a “photobook”. For me a book like Cairo Diary is a personal view of a city at a time of great instability, told through images. Is that the same as a “photobook”? This year we published a text book called pocket essays and this might be somewhere we lean towards in the coming years. I want TVC to be known for what its books are about, not what type of books they are.

What was your last photo book in your programme that filled you with enthusiasm?

I was really filled with enthusiasm when I released American Motel Signs by Steve Fitch. I had spent many months designing and redesigning this book and always unsure of how it will do. My hope is always that I will find people who are inspired by the same things as me who will support the book - which was definitely the case here! I even got one review on the site which said: “Besides the wonderful content, I'd say that, from the design pov, AMS is completely succeeded. I'd give it 99/100 points. I really cherish its classy approach, the colour, the typography, paper and layout. It's definitely a perfect package. And that's not just my opinion as a book lover, but also as a former designer.”

Means publishing a form of artistic expression for you?

Yes, I find it immensely satisfying to help others realise their own stories in book form. I also want to publish my own projects when the time is right, but there are more stories out there that I can possibly do alone. Also, making the books themselves is one realisation of artistic expression, so even when the work is not mine I find it satisfying to help bring the book of that body of work to life.  

How did you come to the name of your company?

You know, I’m really good at taking action...but one of my traits is to get 95% done on something and then use something small, like the name, as an excuse to procrastinate for months. This was the same with TVC - I knew what I wanted to do but I didn’t have a name. I didn’t want to call it Éanna de Fréine Publishing - because the books have never been about me - so I decided to use the name of a song. At the time I was listening to a lot of Gravenhurst and the name of this song stuck with me. I thought it was distinctive and easy to remember, but most importantly it allowed me to proceed.

The form in your answers has imperceptible changed from I into we. Are there more people employed in your company? And does it bring enough profit that you can concentrate exclusively on this task (without teaching languages) after a couple of years?

I have an part time assistant who helps me to focus on other things by handling our ordering process with shops etc. These are all small things which gobble up time when we could be focusing on growing things.

Does it bring enough profit? The answer is definitely no. But we try to keep the overhead as low as possible and obviously the fact that I have not charged myself for my own time down the years is a big help. Our sales (in terms of books sold and money coming in) have gone up every year, but then again it is usually matched by our production costs.

Usually our aim when we release a book is to break even. If anyone has a better business model in mind I’m all ears.

Do you use exclusively the own shop system on your website or do you have any professional distribution services?

We don’t use any professional distribution services. When we started I tried a lot, but got rejected everywhere. Eventually there was an about turn and we were offered distribution but by that stage I had already built up personal relationships with bookshops that supported TVC. I enjoyed this far more than letting a distribution service handle everything for me. I think it’s important to know who you are working with and and thankfully most shops are happy to work directly with publishers today.

How many proposals for a book do you receive every week by interested photographers?

Not that many really, or at least not that many that I consider. You always get people sending proposals where it’s clear that they just had a list of publishers and clicked send to everyone in the hope of a reaction. I never understand this method of doing things. It’s always clear that they haven’t even checked the content that we publish.

Did you ever realise a proposed project?

Then again, I often get many interesting projects in my mailbox that I would love to work with, but can’t because I judge, from my experiences, that the project would make a loss. I am not saying I will only choose to publish a project if I believe it will make money, or at least break even, but a book requires many months of work and a lot of money before it even goes on sale. When you do that and then the book doesn’t sell enough to break even it can be a pretty disheartening experience and makes you think twice before doing the next one.

In this sense, I would love to be able to choose what I publish based purely on the content, but I’ve come to realise that there needs to be a mixture of reputation and content for a book project to succeed most times. This is not always the case, but most of the time. This does sadden me - not because it means I publish work I don’t believe in - I never do that - but because it means there is a lot of work out there that I do believe in but can’t find a way to make it work.  

Is it an illusion that photographers do not have to bring money to pay the production? How is it in your practise?

Photographers don’t have to bring money to production - not all have - but it certainly helps. Money isn’t the deciding factor for any book. I have turned down many books with money because the content isn’t right. No book, no matter if it’s paid for or not, is worth the months of work and investment, if it isn’t something that you are really proud of at the end. I need to look at that book at the end and say “it was worth it”!

But, yes money is a big factor - it really restricts us. I haven’t paid myself for all the work I’ve done, and very rarely have I been able to pay my artists either. In this sense I feel very envious of magazines who have sponsorship which covers salaries and production costs. But even in that situation the publisher has to ask themselves who are they making the publication for: the sponsors or the audience?

I would love to be able to cover all the costs involved and to pay my artists a fair and stable royalty from all sales because that would mean things are going really well and the business can sustain itself. But it doesn’t. Therefore the option is to get money elsewhere, whether it’s from the artist or an organisation. What I always insist on, however, is giving back. If the book does well the proceeds should be shared out between artist and publisher as they both made it happen.

What is your most successful title up to now?

I think my most successful title is either Cairo Diary by Peter Bialobrzeski or Norilsk by Alexander Gronsky. I’m so proud of both these books because they showed me that I can publish books in the size and format that I want (I love to keep books small and intimate) on the content that I love (they are both about cities, and Norilsk in particular is quite dystopian) and they can sell well. Seeing Norilsk fly out the door in a matter of months and make many best of lists made me so happy. It felt like I had something worthy to share - I know the work is not my work, but I love this kind of photography and it made me overwhelmingly happy to present it to others who felt the same way about it.

How did the contact with Peter Bialobrzeski come about?

I had always been a big fan of Peter’s work. I would say that Peter’s work best reflected the values, both stylistically and content-wise, of the work that I, myself, wished to both create and publish. So it was natural, after a few years, to try my luck and email him. Thankfully he was up for working on a small project together and that turned into something more long term which I couldn’t be happier about. We have also developed a friendship that I’m very grateful for.  

Who is responsible for the design of the books? I love a series like the diaries. Small size, no bulky volume, open binding, very pure...Is this also a statement against the „pompous“ form, the overdesigned form of photo books?

The Diaries are beautifully designed by a friend and colleague of Peter - Prof. Andrea Rauschenbusch - who very graciously lends her time to our cause. I cannot take any credit for the design of these books, but for almost all other books I am the designer. My own personal preferences are for simple books that let the work do the talking. I try to underdesign if anything. I know from my own collection I like books where I can focus solely on the power of the image. Somebody once referred to it as beautiful restraint, which I think is a great way to think of it. At the same time however, I do like the books to be different from each other. That’s is one of the joys of book publishing I think - compared to running a magazine for example where there is a master design that usually runs for a few issues at least. For me, each book is a chance to try something new, and I have the chance to really think of the best format and style to present this particular body of work.

The Diaries – did you plan from the beginning to make a series of it? Are there any plans to continue the series? At the end it could be an important testimony of urbanism and urban sociology?

I really hope it will be an important testimony of urbanism and urban sociology. Not just the diaries but all the books I have been publishing under this theme. The diaries were never conceived as a plan, but when Peter came to Taipei to print Cairo Diary he showed me a dummy for Beirut Diary (coming 2017). During his trip to Taipei he also shot everyday and that naturally became Taipei Diary. So the idea for the series evolved naturally. I remember feeling so excited when he showed me the dummy for Beirut - “there is more!” I thought to myself!

Although you describe some circumstances as difficult I have the feeling that you are very clever as publisher who tries to realise different ideas. Why do you think that there is in the long run a solid position for your small publisher’s house on the photo book market? Where will you stand in one year?

I am certainly always trying to realise different ideas. I have many ideas that have occupied space in my head now for a while that I haven’t been able to realise, but hopefully at some point I will.

Well, I’ve always intended these books for a wider market than the photobook market. That is not to be disparaging to the photobook market, but it’s a very vague term for a group of individuals who all enjoy different things. The connection between them is merely the medium.

I think our only chance to survive is to build a business that is accessible and interesting. We must work with our fans to create instead of creating and presuming they will buy. I want the fans we have to know how important they are to us and how much of a role they play in keeping us going. I would like them to feel part of The Velvet Cell in some way. I take time to reply to every email I get and I try to keep the business as open and accessible today as it was 1 year ago.

Where will it be one year from now? Well, hopefully in a better place. At this point we have 5 new books on a ship to our UK warehouse and will release them in February I hope. Simultaneously I am working on the next 5 books to go to print in March with some great projects by some amazing photographers who I have followed and admired for many years. It’s a pleasure to be able to work with them. So, where we will be this time next year very much depends on how those projects do.

Which artist would be an ideal candidate to make a book with if you could choose (without thinking about economic pressure)?

I would love to work with Thomas Struth - his early work on New York, Paris and Rome is still some of my favourite work. Other than that I also a big admirer of Michael Wolf’s work. But, economics is much more of a factor when it comes to working with talented photographers with a smaller reputation. There are many young photographers out there with projects that I would love to represent even more, but the economics of photobook publishing means it’s extremely difficult to take the risk on such work without 3rd party backing. This is the dilemma that we constantly face - how to support and publish the upcoming photographers who are bringing something new and exciting to the table. I get so much joy from working with photographers in this position, but its hard to make it happen all the time. I have been contacted by photographers with amazing projects, such as Jaeuk Lee and Scott Connaroe, whose work, if economic pressures were not a thing, I would love to help bring into the world and represent.