Maarten Schilt : "Une maison d'édition, c'est une famille"

Considéré comme l'un des meilleurs éditeurs photo au monde, le Néerlandais Maarten Schilt a travaillé avec des photographes de renom comme Jodi Bieber, Marcus Bleasdale, Stanley Greene, Yuri Kozyrev, Josef Koudelka, Kadir van Lohuizen, Heather McClintock, ou Martin Parr. Sa maison d'édition Schilt Publishing est spécialisée dans la photographie documentaire et de reportage, et publie depuis 2008 le World Press Photo Yearbook. Il s'exprime sur sa vision du livre photo, sur les difficultés du marché et sur les dangers de l'abondance en matière de livres photographiques. (Interview en anglais.)

Maarten et Maria Louise Schilt

Maarten Schilt on the future of photo books, self-publishing and the need for more collaboration

"This is not a business in which one makes loads of money. It is all about the quality and the love for the arts," says Maarten Schilt, founder and director of Schilt Publishing. He addresses the problems that publishers like himself encounter today, and explains his philosophy about photo books. : You have worked in the publishing world since 1990. How did your career in publishing first start ? 

My father was a publisher so I was born in a bookshelf more or less. I started publishing high quality, Dutch language (both original and translated) non-fiction textbooks on journalistic or history topics. I also published quite a few intriguing cooking books (from Slow Food Italy) and hand-made children’s books from India. 

In 1999 we published our first photography book:, by Kadir van Lohuizen. The title looks like a website of course but it actually wasn’t; the book addressed the Chinese forced changes taking place in Tibet and since it was about “modernity” we decided to use that title. Kadir’s studio was located in the same building as our publishing house. One day he came down the stairs and asked us if we would like to publish his book. We said yes, because it was a beautiful and interesting project and it connected well to our non-fiction textbooks. But we were also quite afraid, since publishing high quality photography books was something very different and costly. In those days though we sold about 2000 copies - only in Dutch, only in The Netherlands ! Can you imagine? Nowadays print runs are between 1000 and 2000 copies in English, with worldwide distribution! Times have changed indeed…

Then we made a couple more photography books: one by Jenny Matthews and Paul Weinberg, and two others by Kadir about life along the seven biggest rivers in the world and about the diamond industry (the tiny - size-wise - but extremely beautiful book Diamond Matters).

I started almost from the beginning to look for co-publishers, for in those days I only published in Dutch. But the superb books deserved a bigger market, so I published mostly non-Dutch photographers anyway, people like Jonas Bendiksen, Jodi Bieber and many other great photographers. That was hugely successful. I sold I don’t know how many co-productions to many esteemed publishing houses all over the world. They liked the quality we made and the originality of our books and design. Design is a big thing in The Netherlands so we do put a lot of effort and money in that.

Publishing photography became more and more my premier focus. In 2006 I went to FotoFest in Houston because I thought I had to play a bigger role in the international photography world. For one reason or the other, FotoFest meant a breakthrough for me personally. We are so happy to work with FotoFest and its creators and leaders Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin. They have guided me like they guided many many others in the photography industry. In 2008, I published their own photography work (Looking at the U.S. – 1956-1987), together with Xavier Canonne of the Musée de la Photographie à Charleroi, Belgium. From 2010 on, Schilt Publishing became the publisher of the FotoFest Biennial catalogues. End of June, we met in Bonn to discuss next year’s book Contemporary Arab Photographic Art, which will be published as a hardback book next to a separate catalogue for the Biennial. That is at least the plan. We have to see if it is financially all doable of course.

In 2008 I started working with World Press Photo, and I became the leading publisher of the Yearbook. Of course that was a hugely important development for us because we produce yearly around 40,000 books. Since 2011 we also took over the production of the World Press Joop Swart Masterclass book, which got the title Next. We are now preparing #03, for Fall 2013.

From this year on Schilt Publishing became the official publishing partner of the World Press Photo Foundation. This leads to an even much closer relationship with the focus on a WPPh/Schilt Publishing book program me, something I have always dreamt of. World Press Photo is a big brand in the photography world and their network is huge. There are people at World Press, like Kari Lundelin, whom I really admire. His knowledge about photography and his intelligence are stunning. I am very happy that we will now develop the book publishing part of World Press’s activities. Doing that together is a logical step for both parties.

Publishing the Yearbook also brought me in contact with Thames & Hudson, since they have been distributing the World Press Photo Yearbook for many years. A year later they decided to distribute Schilt Publishing. I am still very grateful to Jonathan Earl, who was then head of distributed books, and who is a very fine man. Luckily I am still working with him; he came to me with Malcolm Venville’s superb project The Women of Casa X, which we will publish in a couple of months. Jonathan told me: “I know only one publisher in the world who dares to publish this and who will make a beautiful book out of it too. So may I kindly ask you to have a look at it?” Well, he may kindly ask me anything he likes. I decided to publish it of course. 

In 2009, I created Schilt Publishing together with my wife Maria Louise, who is a barrister but who is also very involved in the publishing house. She does most of the contracts of course. I am very happy that we do this together, since you need someone with brains and taste with whom to talk about what you think should be done. It is tough for her, for her mind is constantly occupied with such different things. But she manages of course, she is the strongest person I ever met in my life. It is such a pleasure to work with the one you love deeply.

This has become such a tricky and difficult business; one cannot allow any big mistakes. I need her to keep me on the right track! : Schilt Publishing is recognized worldwide as one of the leading photography publishers. What are its core principles ?

That is quite simple: I purely follow my instinct. I publish what I want to publish but only when it is financially possible. I very much like to publish young talents, not only the established names. I look for those talents during reviewing sessions at photography festivals for instance. I really don’t look at what our competitors do. I don’t care. If one can speak of competition anyway anymore in this crazy publishing world; the small group of quality publishers all know each other, there is no such thing as stealing someone else's authors ! Sales are simply not high enough to make it worth-while !

Our signature is producing very high quality books of very good photographers. If you look at our list and you know something about publishing you immediately see that they all belong together. The fact that we have recently published our first abstract photography book (Vadim Gushchin’s wonderful Every day objects / Cultural treasures) does not change that. It is all about the quality of the work and the originality of the photographer. We also have decided not so long ago only to work with very nice people. Life is too short and must be a joy as much as possible! This is not a business in which one makes loads of money. It is all about the quality and the joy for the arts. Of course we must be able to pay our bills. But we are niche publishers, we are not Taschen. Not that I have anything against Taschen, I think it is good they exist. It's just not my cup of tea, that’s all. : What are the major steps in the production of a book ?

These days the problem is that it is all about finding money to finance a big part of the production. In earlier days I my fellow publishers could pre-finance the projects because sales per title were much better, and co-productions were more likely and they brought more money. Publishers were also able to get financial credit from the printers for a longer period of time. Nowadays all these things have changed. You need to be able to pay all the invoices from a production immediately; printers don’t get financing from the banks anymore also, certainly not in Europe. Since our projects cost between 10,000 and 200,000 euros, that is a hell of a job.

But enough about money! If I want to publish the work of a photographer, we plan a first visit to Amsterdam of about three days in which the photographer will work mainly with the designer. Usually photographers stay in our house in order to avoid hotel costs for them. Besides it is nicer also for it gives us time to talk… That is important!

After these first couple of days – during which I more or less leave the photographer and the designer free to do what they think is best – we know more or less (or sometimes almost completely) how the book will look like, what kind of binding we will use, what paper, cover… That gives me the possibility to make a budget so that the photographer knows how much money the book will cost. Then we can start looking for funding (if that is not already settled).

When we are sure the book can be financed in a healthy way, we can plan the actual production. Sometimes the photographer comes back to Amsterdam for a second or even a third time to finish things up. 

Then we plan the printing. I am always at the printing house together with the photographer. If I can’t, the designer joins the photographer. I want it this way for it automatically means that everybody is completely satisfied with the result. : You work with a team of designers, MV LevievanderMeer and Heijdens Karwei. 

Yes, I have worked a long time with these two studios. Victor Levie and Teun van der Heijden design 95% of my books. Their respective wives Marit van der Meer and Sandra van der Doelen are also designers and do often take part in the process. Marit also designs all my catalogues and my website, which will be completely changed in the coming months (we will be introducing Schilt Publishing Gallery, as well as a beautiful newsletter and a new membership program).

We are all friends, which makes things much easier and nicer ! Victor and Teun are different of course but they are both incredibly good and bright. They sometimes play a major role during the editing phase, which is crucial of course. Depending on the book, I choose Victor or Teun. Sometimes it goes the other way around : they come come up with ideas for a book because they met photographers and think their work should be published by me. We talk very often with each other. They have their own companies but the bond between us is very strong.

Of course sometimes a photographer wants to work with a specific designer or even has made a complete and beautiful layout. That was the case for instance with Cig Harvey’s book You Look At Me Like An Emergency and Chris Harrison’s book I Belong Jarrow. Those designs were very good so I had absolutely no reason to change their work. I am now talking to Eugene Richards about publishing several books in the coming years, something I really hope will happen (for I worship him and his wife Janine). He has very specific ideas though about layout and editing and wants to do that himself. This is fine by me, for it is good. But this is an exception. : You also worked for many years with Wachter GmbH, who printed most of your books. What is it that you most appreciated about his work ?

I have recently stopped working with Wachter. We are now printing at other great printing houses in Germany.

When I started printing at Wachter in 2003 the owner, Martin Wachter, was still alive. We became great friends and had quite some plans together. Unfortunately he died very suddenly, just a week after we printed the World Press Photo Yearbook for the first time (spring 2008). That was a huge shock for me. Martin was such a wonderful man. I visited his grave quite often. I miss him a lot.

Martin worked with a very good team. Frank Heltsche, his “right hand”, has always been enormously important to me too. Frank left Wachter last year and after a short while I decided to follow him. Frank now has his own company (Komeso, with a business partner also coming from Wachter) working as a go-between between people like me and printing houses in – mostly – Baden Württenberg. 

We now print mainly at Offizin Scheufele in Stuttgart, and we printed the World Press Photo Yearbook at ColorDruck in Leimen, near Heidelberg. Both printing houses are very good, just different in seize. German printers are extremely reliable, at least the ones I work with: you will never get stuck; problems will be solved without getting an extra invoice for it. (A big difference with China!) They don’t want a badly printed book to leave their printing house. 

Working with Frank is crucial for me. We don’t have a big publishing house with production departments and whatever. I do a lot myself or the designers step in when I can’t. We can rely on Frank, we know he knows the business extremely well. And Frank and I are very good friends. I know it all sounds quite “romantic” but it is true: working with friends is crucial. I need to know I can trust people and the other way around. It is just much better for everybody, the photographers included. : What is the most extraordinary book you ever did ?

Gee, that depends on how you look at that. I mean: content, design, sales… Perhaps the two most extraordinary books production-wise were Sophie Zenon’s superb book on Cambodia, Roads Over Troubled Water, and Kadir van Lohuizen’s Diamond Matters. Actually, either books – or should I say booklets – were printed in the center of Amsterdam at the fabulous printing house Calff & Meischke, which very unfortunately no longer exists. Freek Kuin, who ran the company, is a very special man: he knows everything about whatever you need to know in printing. The prices of such productions are very high and not really affordable. But if you want to make a very special book, you should go there. So I did that twice. : Most photographers yearn to publish a book. Why do you think that is so important to them ? 

A book is still incredibly important. Only one thousand copies of a superb book can influence their career way more then 10 pages in a magazine with a million subscribers. It is unbelievable but it's true. Even if the book does not sell well it can still make a huge difference. :  What kind of artists / projects do you seek to publish ?

I follow my instinct and keep my eyes open. I also want to be as flexible as possible so that when I meet somebody whom I really want to publish, we have actually a chance to do it within a reasonable period of time. Not years and years later. Photographers need to move on also, don’t they.

I like all sorts of photography. As long as it is very good and very brightly made. It should fit my list but don’t ask me how that works precisely for I don’t know! The only thing I know is that I want to be an old fashioned publisher: a publishing house should be like a family. Authors should feel at home and always welcome. : As you already said, the publishing world has suffered a lot of changes over the last five years. In what way have these changes affected your work ?

The world has changed indeed. The crisis, the Internet, the unbearable distribution costs, self-publishing (which means many more books on a non-growing market), the huge problems the printers and binders and paper factories face nowadays…

So yes, it has affected my work a lot but it made it also more clear and in a way better: I don’t gamble anymore. We only publish a book if we know we can pay the bills, which means enough funding is available. Otherwise bad luck. One cannot take risks anymore. Which is in a way quite weird, for an entrepreneur should take risks. : You've mentioned self-publishing, do you think that is a bad thing for the publishing industry as a whole ?

Please do not misunderstand me, I know why photographers self-publish their books and I respect their work enormously. I sometimes even advise photographers to do it ! : In what circumstances ? 

I need to be able to sell a book worldwide, from New York to London to Amsterdam to Paris to Moscow to Tokyo to Melbourne to Buenos Aires. That means a lot of investment in the marketing and distribution. If in my opinion a book does not have the possibility to cover all that it is better to self-publish. We cannot afford to do the marketing for a book with a print run of 300 or 500 copies. It just does not make sense.

Another reason is that sometimes photographers have a specific idea in their mind, and I think that the book would be much better if one of my designers was involved. And sometimes I just know that a book can only be sold to the direct "surrounding" of the photographer. Self-publishing is better in these circumstances. : What are according to you the main causes of the crisis that affects publishers today ?

There is too much of everything. Too many photographers of course, because of all these tens of thousands of schools that are training people who will never find any good work. Too many photo festivals: I mean, in every village with ten houses there is a photo festival, that’s nonsense! It has become a business model and it has nothing to do with quality. The photography world would be better off with not more then ten good ones. That would still mean almost one per month. And why is it that festivals and museums do not cooperate well? I don’t understand that. Almost all of them are confronted with budget cuts, but they all want to invent the wheel themselves again, such a waste of money. My fingers are itching to do something about that.

© Sophie Zenon

Roads Over Troubled Water © Sophie Zenon

Roads Over Troubled Water © Sophie Zenon

The only things that diminish are: publishing houses, bookshops, printing houses, binderies, paper factories… And thus: knowledge about making excellent books. More and more amateurism comes up. It is only about money. Customers don’t want to pay for something extremely well-made. I see great books on the market that are sold for ridiculous prices. That means that people - even those that buy photography books - do not understand the worth of a superb book product anymore. That is sad, isn’t it? It kills everything in the end. In the U.S. there are less than fifty independent bookstores left. Less than one per state. Let’s face it: people go into the last good bookshops and photograph with their smartphones the barcodes of the books they want and send the order directly through to Amazon or another Internet seller. I mean: I am not against it, that is not what I am talking about. I just say it is happening. I have heard that Amazon is thinking of opening bookshops themselves so that people can actually see the books they want to buy perhaps. There are no bookshops left, so Amazon needs to create their own shops (for otherwise their Internet business will diminish too !). What does that mean if you think well about this?

So we have to react to such a market. We have erected Schilt Publishing Gallery. We want and we need to expand in the sense that we will improve our income per title by working together with our photographers even more intensively; we will be selling prints, organize shows here in our house/offices but of course also anywhere else in the world. We work hard on that, we fly around the world to meet people everywhere.

We will be very cautious though. We are now for instance working closely together with the Mario Giacomelli archive in Sassoferrato, Italy. This started because we plan to publish a superb book about Giacomelli’s lesser known work, together with his granddaughter Katiuscia Biondi. : The fact that many more photo books are made today that anytime before could herald some kind of resurgence of the industry, don't you think ?

No, I don’t at all. Of course I do see an ocean of books. But that does not mean that they sell. They are just there, vegetating like most people on earth are doing also. That is one of the biggest mistakes in the business, which many people actually believe: when there are many books it means the market is flourishing. Well, sweet dreams everybody for the reality is exactly the opposite. The more books you see, the less are sold per title. : Do you think that digital books and iPad applications could be the answer ? 

No, I don’t, at least not in the near future and also not in our niche market. If you want an app to be successful you need to sell hundreds of thousands and that is just not happening. The best sales figures I have heard of is a couple of thousand. Well, that brings a couple of thousand dollars. But making these apps is way more expensive so a lot of money is wasted or lost. And the big Apple eats up most of the profit anyway. : What are your future projects ?

Ha! Many wonderful projects are coming up! And with many I don’t mean hundreds. I mean approximately 10-15 books per year. That is more then enough. Our marketing people Mary Bisbee-Beek and Randall Beek for North America and Yasmin Keel for the rest of the world should be able to do their jobs well. By the way: do please allow me to tell you how extremely fortunate we are to have these wonderful people working for us. Their loyalty is just unbelievable.

Anyway, one last thing: I have one of the finest and most satisfying and beautiful jobs in the world. So I am not complaining at all. I see a bright future ahead of us, I really do. As long as you keep doing what you are best in: making the best books possible. That is not wishful thinking. It is the truth.

Interview by Roxana Traista