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Photobooks make a pretty picture for Christmas – Print21 Magazine feature

Tuesday, 18 December 2012
By Print21
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‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the land, photobook printers were frantically fulfilling the last minute rush of orders from their customers. Well, that’s not exactly true but there’s no doubt this is the busy season for photobook purchases as everybody searches for that special, one-off gift. It comes at the end of an amazing year for this burgeoning print market, one in which it has garnered some impressive accolades. Simon Enticknap reports on a unique print product.

It’s not exactly Santa and his elves in the Christmas grotto but, you know, it’s probably the closest the printing industry gets to it. At the Momento production facility in Sydney, it is all hands on deck in the lead-up to Christmas as last-minute photobookers submit their orders as eagerly as children sending wishlists to the North Pole. This is traditionally the busy season for photobook purchases, certainly in the retail market, and that means that, for one section of the printing industry at least, the presses will be running flat-out until the cut-off date for guaranteed deliveries (I’d like to say that’s the night before Christmas but, realistically, that’s not possible even with today’s turnaround times).

The first eye-opener on visiting the Momento offices is that it really is a hands-on operation. In an age of computerised inline spectrophotometric colour quality control, it might come as a surprise to learn that every single print produced by Momento is individually checked by a real, living, breathing human being wearing soft, white cotton gloves, painstakingly poring over the pages. If any page doesn’t come up to scratch, it gets re-done. That in itself is a measure of just how seriously quality is regarded at the company, which is certainly reassuring given what they are handling – nothing less than people’s memories.

Much of the finishing process too – the hard cover binding in a range of materials – is also done by hand, not just for quality purposes but also because the variety of finishing options offered by Momento doesn’t easily lend itself to automation. Again, it’s an odd sight in an industry where the dominant modus operandi in recent years has been to eliminate people from the production process; too many hands make for slow work, inefficient work, expensive work. Real people are not as ‘lean’ as the current manufacturing dictum requires.

Do you see the irony here? In this instance, digital print output which, for so long, has been accused of causing the ongoing de-skilling of the industry is in fact re-inventing the ‘craft’ of print. OK I can hear the grinding of teeth from certain offset print sections of the industry but the fact is that the modern photobook, digitally-produced, is a work of great skill and ranks among the finest examples of print available today.

The break-through winner at this year’s Galley Club awards produced by Momento, Postcards from Home by photographer Sam Harris (© Sam Harris).

Seismic shifts

In the case of Momento, the results speak for themselves. For the past couple of years, the company has been consistently winning awards for the quality of its work and not just because it is one of the country’s fast-growing companies. It has steadily accumulated a wall-full of golds in the NSW PICAs as well as consecutive golds and sponsor awards at the last two National Print Awards.

It’s a similar story in Victoria where Michael Warshall of fellow photobook printer, Picpress, has worn a groove in the carpet on his way to collecting a swag of awards at the Victorian PICAs in recent years, as well as winning a top gong at the last three National Print Awards. These two friendly rivals are set to renew their battle for top honours at the next year’s NPA ceremony having both picked up gold awards at their recent respective state-based PICAs. Between the two of them, they have helped to redefine how digital print and short-run books are produced and perceived.

Two recent wins for Momento are especially significant – the Australian Book of the Year and the overall Book of the Year awards at the recent Galley Club Awards. This was the first time that the company had entered the awards, going up against the big guys of book publishing, the people who have been doing it for eons, and so to win both the top awards was certainly pretty spectacular. It was also the first time an Australian-made book had won the Book of the Year award and, just as remarkably, the first digitally-printed book to do so. These are ‘momento-us’ shifts indeed.

Results such as these must be especially satisfying for those people in the industry who, over the past decade or so, have been advocating how short-run digital print can enable local printers to compete with and out-do competition from overseas. At times like these, it is possible to see how the market is changing, not just in terms of the technology used but also the means by which content is generated; the intersection between the digital environment and niche, self-funded publishing is a new dynamic for print producers.

Not for all printers

The photobook market is one that has been identified for a number of years now as a growth sector for printers. At any printing trade show these days, it is possible to see photobook samples produced on a range of digital presses and, increasingly, a variety of automated equipment for gluing and binding the finished books. There are opportunities to be had, we are told, for those prepared to have a go.

What’s interesting though is the number of current photobook companies that come from a non-printing environment. Geoff Hunt and Libby Jeffery, co-founders of Momento, have a background in digital media and publishing; in the early days of the business, the print component was actually out-sourced before the company moved production in-house when it acquired its own Indigo press. Michael Warshall is a portrait photographer (or, as he puts it, “I document people’s existence in life”) and Picpress itself is an off-shoot of Nulab, an well-known professional photolab service (Warshall recalls collecting his first PICA award and not knowing anyone in the room; “What are you doing here?” he was asked, to which he replied, “Diversifying”). Similarly, Photo Create, the photo-gifting wholesale supplier based in Glen Innes in NSW and one of the biggest digital printers in the country, is part of the Eastmon Group that pioneered digital photo-processing in Australia with the development of retail kiosks.

Photobooks may be a growth print market but it’s not necessarily the print industry that is driving this growth. Rather its emergence derives from a convergence of different digital technologies in photography, digital media, imaging software – as well as print.

The photobook market is different in other ways too. For instance, unless you are printing and supplying wholesale product to other retailers, it is primarily a retail market that involves selling print to people who would otherwise probably never buy it directly. Unlike the business of selling print to other businesses, large and small, this creates its own customer service demands.

Geoff Hunt highlights customer service as a key area in which Momento works hard to differentiate itself from other suppliers. It employs dedicated staff whose task it is to liaise directly with customers, both retail and professional, to help them through the ticklish task of managing files and layouts and image quality. Even with professional photographers – perhaps more so – there is an expectation of a high level of attention to detail. Picpress, for instance, offers three levels of customer support – one for professionals and agencies, another for prosumers/consumers, and then there’s the ‘grandmother’ level where the purchaser knows nothing and it has to be very, very simple.

In the main, photobook printers are dealing with customers with a print run of one. They may only order print once or twice a year and it has to be perfect every time. If you’re not set up to manage that type of market expectation – and many printers are not – then it might be a hard row to hoe. Customer service is the reason Hunt gives as to why some printers enter the photobook market and quickly discover that it’s not to their taste, not realising how much time they have to spend with customers in order to make it work.

Software is the key

Another characteristic of this market is that the print component is, to some extent, the least important. What really matters is the software that drives the whole process.

For instance, while the post-print production at Momento is largely manual-based, it’s the total opposite at the start of the process. From the moment that the customer uploads their files for printing to when the sheets are fed into the HP Indigo 7500 press, it is a completely automated process. There is no prepress to speak of and no proofing – the files go straight to the press – and so the first time that anybody gets to see the jobs being done is when they are actually printed (for retail customers anyway, professional photographers get more guidance).

This is mainly due to the sophistication of the Momento software which is downloaded and installed on the customers’ computers. I’ve used this software a couple of times to make photobooks and it is certainly a very flexible, intuitive layout tool. For anybody thinking about implementing a web-to-print solution, it is well-worth checking out as an example of how easy a client layout tool should be, and not just for photobooks. Michael Warshall agrees that the key is the software. “It all starts with how the customer delivers the work to you. It has to be simple and intuitive, drag-and-drop, otherwise they can get frustrated.”

This applies just as much to professional photographers, particularly the new generation who have the latest DSLR cameras capable of taking great photos but who don’t want to learn the complexities of an editing program. Hence the need to be constantly working to improve the front-end interface. The latest version from the Picpress consumer site called NuShots <www.nushots.com.au> is all web-based so consumers don’t have to download large files to install but can do everything online. Apps and tablet versions are the next stage in the wake of the shift away from PC-based computing.

Geoff Hunt talks about the “Holy Grail” of photobook software whereby it should be possible to just “throw a whole bunch of photographs” at the software and have it automatically create a beautiful, high quality, professional-looking photobook. There are some people who will always want to do that themselves and for whom the creative process of putting together a photobook is as important as the final result. Equally though, there are many other potential customers who would prefer to have it all done for them seamlessly and quickly. Most photobook packages already include design templates and themes to help users quickly create finished book but Hunt envisages this could go a lot further.

Further education

The easier it becomes for customers to make their photobook then the more likely they will be to do it and, by all accounts, there are plenty of people out there who are yet to do so. Warshall cites figures from the Photo Marketing Association which suggest that currently only about 7 per cent of local consumers know what a photobook is. That compares to Germany, for instance, where 25 per cent of consumers buy photobooks. That’s a lot of upside to the local market, but it also suggests that there is a lot to do in order to build public awareness.

Certainly, Momento has worked hard over the past few years to encourage this awareness. It sponsors a number of awards and promotes its own competition, and it has a Momento shop were customers can sell their self-published work, much in the same way as Blurb or Lulu except with a local inflection and a focus on photography. These are all great ways of building a community and helping to foster a visual culture.

Michael Warshall makes the point that there has been fundamental shift in photography whereby, today, most pictures are no longer printed. People don’t realise though that their digital files are not permanent – they can be erased, file formats change, disks get corrupted. Even printed photographs can quickly fade. Hence the need to educate people about the need to preserve their images not just on disk but also in high quality printed books.

“People don’t understand. Nothing digital is permanent. Nothing,” he says.

There are many photobook customers who will always shop around for the best price, as in any market, and there are plenty of outlets prepared to court them, offering big discounts and low prices. The quality is fine although there is probably less choice in terms of different formats and finishes. The likes of Momento and Picpress though offer a different service with an emphasis on high quality and a range of formats, stocks and bindings. They acknowledge they are more expensive than the mass market products but their customers are prepared to pay extra for a premium product.

Photobooks at this end of the market are not cheap and they are not for everyday consumption but, for those special occasions, nothing beats getting a beautiful, permanent, one-off print item hand-made and delivered to your door. Not quite made by elves and brought by Santa but perhaps the next best thing.

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