Making photobooks: Advice and insights from Trolley’s Hannah Watson

By Rachael Steven

Trolley Books was founded by Gigi Giannuzzi in 2001. It quickly earned a reputation for publishing beautiful publications about challenging subjects – from Jon Lee Anderson and Thomas Dworzak’s Taliban (a series of portraits of Taliban soldiers) to Dierdre O’Callaghan’s Hide That Can (a moving portrait of a Camden hostel for homeless and alcoholic men).

Giannuzzi was considered something of a maverick – he became famous for pushing his book proposals around Frankfurt Book Fair in a supermarket shopping trolley (a fact that inspired the company’s name) and invested in projects that more commercially-minded publishers might be reluctant to take on.

Hannah Watson joined Trolley in 2005 and ran the business with Giannuzzi until he died in 2013 (he was aged just 49 and had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer). She now heads up Trolley Books and Soho gallery TJ Boulting and has continued his legacy of publishing thought-provoking content from a diverse group of photographers and photojournalists.

Trolley’s latest books include Martha (a beautiful publication by Sian Davey which features images of her 16-year-old daughter on the cusp of becoming a woman) and The Ward, a poignant collection of photographs taken by Gideon Mendel at London’s first ever AIDS ward. Mendel photographed patients and their families, lovers and friends at Middlesex Hospital over several weeks in 1993, and his images present an intimate and heart-breaking portrait of life for AIDS patients in the 1990s.

As part of our photo special this week, we caught up with Watson to talk about what she looks for in a photo project

Above and lead image (top). From ‘Looking for Alice’ by Sian Davey. Davey was one of the recipients of our Zeitgeist Award in the 2017 Creative Review Photography Annual. You can read our interview with her here and see more of Davey’s work at siandavey.com. The book is published by Trolley Press and costs £35. Images © Sian Davey

Creative Review: What was the photo book scene like when you joined Trolley back in 2005? And how has it evolved?
Hannah Watson: We take for granted now that there’s all these book fairs and photo festivals but 10 years ago it didn’t exist – especially when Trolley first started and Gigi was pushing his trolley around Frankfurt. When I joined in 2005, it was very doom and gloom…. [Publishers thought] everything was going to go digital, all the bookshops were closing and we thought we were going to have to make books on Kindles. I don’t even know if the iPad existed then, but have you ever bought a book on an iPad? It’s the most depressing thing. I paid $2 for a photobook and just thought, ‘why am I looking at a PDF?’

Then [there was a recession] … and what happens in a recession is that it feeds a lot of innovation and creativity. So around 2008/2009, a lot of people – especially younger people – decided to stop waiting around for publishers and started making their own books and self-publishing instead. Bruno [Ceschel, founder of Self Publish Be Happy] noticed that … and he picked up on it and started doing giving it a platform. That kind of platform – that exciting, young, innovative area of making [self-published] photobooks – was really what kick started it all and all the big publishers have ridden that wave.

CR: So is now a good time to be a photobook publisher?
HW: It’s never a good time to be a publisher! We will always find it deeply difficult… there’s never a right time. But there’s definitely still an appetite [for photo books]. It’s evolving. We never really know where it’s going so we just have to keep blindly doing it! If it does well, it’s a bonus – and if [it doesn’t], we just have to shrink and reform and regroup and keep doing it somehow.

The downside of being a small independent publisher is [having] no security and no money, but the upside is having complete freedom and independence. You can publish what you like

CR: What kind of work are you drawn to? Is there anything in particular you look for in a photo project that makes you think, ‘this should be a book?’
HW: It’s hard to say. I think [Trolley Books] are quite unique stories, and there’s always something going on that’s more … it’s more than the art in a sense. It can be a human story, or an artistic story or a political story.

When I saw [Gideon Mendel’s images], I just thought ‘we have to make a book about that’. I don’t know why – sometimes I just know something should be a book. I think it’s the story, the images, it’s something that just needs to be presented in that kind of format.

The downside of being a small independent publisher is [having] no security and no money, but the upside is having complete freedom and independence. You can publish what you like, so it means there’s a lot of stuff out there that is born out of pure creative passion, which I think sorts the wheat from the chaff a bit.

Kickstarter campaign video for Sian Davey’s book Looking for Alice. The book raised over £15,000 – exceeding its £12,000 target (see the campaign page here)

CR: Are you also thinking about what will sell when you’re considering whether to publish a project?
HW: I think you just have to publish what you want to. Otherwise, you can publish a book because you think it’s going to sell and then it won’t sell, and then what are you left with? A book that you don’t really love?

You can’t predict [whether a book is going to sell]. With The Ward, for example, I only published 750 copies because I didn’t think anyone would buy it, I thought, ‘it’s just so sad’. But actually the opposite happened. It was [featured] on the BBC News app and it just struck a chord with people and we sold all the books and had hundreds of people visiting the exhibition in a month [Mendel’s work was displayed at the Fitzrovia Chapel – the only remaining part of Middlesex Hospital].

With [Martha], it kind of reaches out beyond the world of just photography. Anyone can pick that book up and respond to it and I guess that’s something else [about Trolley’s books]: we never really wanted to limit ourselves to just photography and just art. It was more about the bigger picture. Gigi had been doing a lot of political books and he was really interested in making a really beautiful book but about something really important … so that’s why we ended up with a reputation for these quite photojournalist books in the early days.

From ‘Martha’ by Sian Davey. Martha is published by Trolley Press and costs £40 – you can order copies here. Image © Sian Davey

CR: What kind of work do you think is best suited to the photobook format?
HW: It definitely has to hold together as a book. There has to be enough work, it has to be cohesive enough, it has to have enough going on. People always ask ‘when you’re a photographer, how do you know when [a project’s ready to become a book]?’ And I think you just know when you’ve got everything together and it deserves a book to make sense of it all. When you know something has reached a conclusion.

CR: What about Sian Davey – how did you end up working with her?
HW: When I first met Sian, she had just entered the Photographer’s Gallery’s Bar Tur Book Award [a scheme that offers an emerging photographer the chance to work with the gallery and a UK publisher to develop their first photobook]. I saw her book [Looking for Alice, which features photographs of Davey’s daughter Alice, who has Down’s Syndrome] and I just thought it was a great project. It didn’t win … but I kept thinking, ‘I would really love to make that book’.

Looking for Alice isn’t just about Alice, or about Down’s Syndrome. It’s about family love and relationships…. [Similarly], Martha is an investigation into all of us. It’s not about looking at Martha as an individual. It’s about recognising something [in Davey’s images] that we can connect with – we’ve all been that teenager, looking at a boy or getting our heart broken.

I never want to work with a designer who takes over, because that’s something that can happen and then the book becomes more about the design than the content

CR: How do you approach making books at Trolley? What’s the process like?
HW: The team at Trolley is quite small! It’s usually me and a photographer – sometimes they have an idea of what they want and sometimes they don’t know how to put it together so they need a fresh pair of eyes – and there’s a designer as well. It’s trying to get that balance of not having too many people involved and getting the right alchemy of people to work together. Usually I find the designer who I think will work best with that photographer, so if a photographer has someone they like working with, then we’ll work with them.

I never want to work with a designer who takes over, because that’s something that can happen and then the book becomes more about the design than the content and that voice begins to overpower the photographer’s, which, unless a book is a conscious collaboration, is not right…. It’s about finding the right people that work well together because when you’re small, everything’s about relationships.

From The Ward by Gideon Mendel. The Ward is published by Trolley Books and you can order copies here. © Gideon Mendel
From The Ward by Gideon Mendel. The Ward is published by Trolley Books and you can order copies here. © Gideon Mendel (gideonmendel.com)

CR: How do you fund books?
HW: I’ve done four Kickstarters but I’m not doing it again. It’s just so much work and I think it has to be for the right project. With Martha, we did pre-orders, so I’ve been packing books and going to the post office. People think we’re running an Amazon warehouse! Sian’s getting these boxes of books shipped to her in Devon and signing them and then sending them back here and then we’ve been wrapping and sending them [to customers].

Everyone thinks everything online is automatic, but they don’t realise that all these little independent publishers are sitting at their kitchen tables packing all the books up. It’s great though – we sold a few hundred copes [of Martha] in advance, so if the small price to pay for that is having to pack a few hundred books for people in a week, while they’re asking ‘where is my copy?’, I’ll take it!

We also sell copies at fairs and there’s a handful of good bookshops in London that we have a good relationship with, a couple of online stores … so it’s a mix of direct sales and through bookshops.

You can’t do [Kickstarter campaigns] for everything. It has to be a theme that people can get behind

CR: Which books did you fund through Kickstarter? And why did you decide to crowdfund these?
HW: I did a Kickstarter campaign for Dan Budnik’s book on Civil Rights Marches in the US [titled March to Freedom]. That got picked up by Kickstarter and we made £8000 overnight, mainly from people in America who’d never even heard of Trolley.

We also did a book after Gigi died [Trolleyology], bringing together all the stories of all the books he’d ever done, and then we did Looking for Alice, because we thought that would have a kind of broader appeal than just photography. But Sian found it very stressful, the whole waiting for a month and seeing the numbers creeping up, so I promised her with Martha that we wouldn’t do that again. I also did a campaign for a book by Tom Hurndall, a young photojournalist who was shot in Gaza in 2004. It was his diaries and his journals mixed with photographs.

You can’t do [Kickstarter campaigns] for everything. It has to be a theme that people can get behind and say ‘I want to support that’, so it has to have some kind of personal appeal – whether its through the photographer of the nature of the project.

Kickstarter campaign for Dan Budnik’s book, Marching to the Freedom Dream. The book raised over £15,000 on Kickstarter – £5,000 more than the initial £10,000 target (see the campaign page here)

CR: Finally, do you have any advice for photographers who’d like to make a photobook? How should photographers go about pitching their work to publishers?
HW: We’re a very small publisher and we don’t really have the capacity to look at submissions, so I think a good way to meet publishers is to go out and see things and be around [at events] and organically meet people. I guess my advice would be to get involved – get out there and go to fairs and try and meet people and have conversations.

Martha by Sian Davey and The Ward by Gideon Mendel are available to order from trolleybooks.com. TJ Boulting is hosting an exhibition of work by Juno Calypso from May 15 to June 23 – see tjboulting.com for details and opening times.

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Source:: Creativereview.co.uk