Michael Mack has published some of the most beautiful photobooks of the past two decades. But, as he tells Diane Smyth, he’s become disillusioned with how the frenzied collectors’ market has skewed the business – which is why his new venture takes the photobook into the realm of apps.
Michael Mack had a pretty good run at last month’s Rencontres d’Arles photofestival. The managing director of Steidl (BJP #7774) recently began his own publishing company, Mack Books, and at Rencontres, celebrated Taryn Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters winning the Discovery Award and Lewis Baltz’s Works winning the Historical Book Award, published by Mack and Steidl respectively over the past year.
But while he’s committed to producing more books of similarly uncompromising quality, he’s convinced there’s a future in the digital realm, especially now that the iPad and other graphics tablets have captured the public’s imagination. So Mack Books has a digital wing, titled Mapp, which launched its first successful app back in April. Figures & Fictions accompanied the V&A exhibition of the same name (BJP #7787), and combined elements of a traditional exhibition catalogue with additional photographer interviews, video clips and exhibition layouts. It was described by Wired as “an excellent example of how to do a photographic app well on a tablet”.
But the review also criticised the app for its £9.99 price tag, a complaint Mack is quick to combat. “The [printed] book, with less content, was £25,” he says. “That’s a lot. My perspective is that the arena I’m operating in is not the mainstream, it’s particularly specialised, and I don’t want to undermine the content just by making it extremely cheap. I’m not looking to be in a marketplace competing with £2 apps. It’s driven by the content and putting some value in that, and almost creating a market and saying, ‘Yes it’s more expensive than perhaps what people are used to paying, but there is a market for it.’ That’s going to be difficult, it has to be long term, but we’re working to a business plan that is long term. It’s not a quick turnaround where we have to make a huge amount of money out of each one immediately. It’s building a publishing house that has its own platform.”
So far he has attracted a handful of private investors to the project, including antiquarian book dealer Bernard Quaritch and, although he won’t be drawn into how much has been invested, says it’s “at a scale that allows us to be ambitious”. The publishing schedule for the next nine months is in place, with 12 books scheduled until next spring, including two in partnership with high-profile New York institutions, and two further “very big launches” in February he’s keeping tight-lipped about.
The business plan is mapped out for the next three-and-a-half years and, while it’s flexible enough to allow for change, the company has two clear targets – taking Mapp to “an international scale”, and becoming a market leader. “We want to create a hub that is seen as one of the leading places for this kind of work, just as we’ve done with Steidl,” says Mack. “We have a period of time to do that, to build up a list of books that proves this is a viable way to go for photography and art publishing.”
Mack is confident he offers a different service to other app- makers currently on the market – he’s impressed with Push Pop Press and its work on Al Gore’s Our Choice app, but points out he’s the only app-maker with a history of working with artists and photographers, and a deep understanding of the content they produce. He’s taken on two members of staff so far, a designer and a programmer, and is looking for another programmer to help write all the code in-house, rather than depending on existing packages or outside agencies. This is partly because he prefers working directly with individuals, but also to build his own expertise and to safeguard what he’s developed.
Currently there are four or five different operating systems for tablet computers, and the jury is still out on which one (if any) will become dominant. By writing native code, Mack and his team can ensure their apps are future-proofed and can be tailored accordingly.
“It strikes me that if you’re doing this properly, the way to do it is to build up a library of native coding that you can apply again and again, and adapt, and get to the point where you can quite easily make things simply,” he says. “I learnt at Steidl by being on press, not buying in print from China and waiting for the boat to come in, and I think that’s the way to do it. You have to understand all the layers. It’s about control, being able to
manipulate content. We now know what we need to do to convert our apps to a Google phone. The future is largely Android I think, not Apple, but it’s very messy – there’s a lot of money being bet on different things and we’re keeping a very close eye on which way the market will take it. That’s the state we’re in at the moment – there are so many people out there interested in this and trying to push forward, but a lot has yet to be told.”
The company’s “biggest excitement at the moment” is working with Epub 3 (the International Digital Publishing Forum’s early summer update to its free and open ebook standard) to create two series for New York institutions, based on conversations with artists and comprising “35,000 words each, but illustrated”. So far Mapp has done well to get catalogue commissions from well-heeled institutions, but it’s also producing two other kinds of publication – new editions of rare photobooks, and monographs or catalogues raisonnés for contemporary artists.
Mack won’t always use all the tricks in the bag, but will add to the basic photographic content in each case, including 3D Autocad designs and virtual exhibition tours in the institutional catalogues, for example, or allowing photographers to update their catalogues raisonnés when they’ve made new work.
He’s perhaps most excited about revisiting rare books, though, adding extra material to the original to make “the ultimate reference on that object as a historical piece as well as breathing new life into inaccessible content”. Mack says he dreams about the books he could do this with, and that William Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature is the ultimate because it’s so rare. “I’ve never actually seen the whole thing,” he says. “The core of that [app] would be the capacity just to see it in the most beautiful way possible aside from seeing the original, which you can’t really do anyway. Then built around the back
of it, the beauty of these apps is that you can have a huge amount of additional scholarly content as well as external links to updatable content that will allow it to be a reference too.”
Mack adds that the accessibility and (relative) affordability of apps also makes them exciting – something that may surprise anyone familiar with Steidl’s most physically ambitious publications. Works, for example, was published in a signed, 10-volume edition of 1100 copies and priced £600. He says the reality is that book publishing has become marginalised by the costs involved, making collectible books attractive from a business point of view because they are financially sustainable. “Which is great in one way, because it means that you can continue to be in business,” he says. “But it does undermine why I became interested in publishing, which was to do with accessibility and making that nexus between ideas and artists available to as wide an audience as possible.
“You look at our Steidl list and there are a huge number of items that are three volumes, 10 volumes or more, and we can’t sell enough of them to be honest. We always limit the numbers to at least 1200 and they sell out; it doesn’t really matter what price we put on them. That’s great, but then they’re in libraries or in collections, and nobody actually gets to see the bloody things. That’s not what publishing is about, it’s a form of antiquarian book dealing.”
Later, he adds, “I do fear that in this frenzied collectors’ market that we have now a lot of people buying without reference to the content. Personally, I’m not a collector, and I don’t like that idea. I have a lot of books but I have books that I like – I don’t collect things on the basis I need to have one. Collectors I think feel they have to have something without reference to it. I think that’s an important distinction.”
For Mack, tablet computer technology has opened up a new vista and a new economic model, because once an app has been made, it can be “duplicated endlessly digitally” at minimal cost. “I’m very interested in ensuring that the people I’m working with are not just pushed into the art arena alone, and that there can be more easy access,” he says. “If the price is right and it’s in the right form and works, then I think that people will buy them.”