Publisher Q&A2: Paul Schiek of TBW Books

Last year we posted a "Publisher Q&A" series, featuring 12 short interviews with a range of publishers on their presses and sites and the state of the publishing market (see the site links page for links). It was a popular series, and we've decided to add another 12 entries to the series with more extended questions.

The posts in this second series have come from Éanna de Fréine of The Velvet CellDavid Schoerner of Hassla BooksLuca Desienna of Gomma Magazine Ltd., Hannah Watson of Trolley BooksCurt Holtz, Photography Editor of Prestel PublishingAline Smithson of LenscratchHarsha Vadlamani of Galli MagazineHeidi Romano of Unless you willConor Risch, Senior Editor of Photo District News, and Qiana Mestrich of Dodge & Burn.

Today we continue the series with Paul Schiek of TBW Books. Recent releases by TBW Books include a series of special editions releases of Mike Brodie's A Period of Juvenile Prosperity as well as Subscription Series #4. TBW's Subscription Series is a yearly four-part book project featuring individual books designed by four photographers delivered in three month intervals. This year's invited photographers creating books especially for this series are Christian Patterson, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Raymond Meeks, and Wolfgang Tillmans.

PublicationTBW Books
Location: Oakland, California
Format: print
Founded: 2005

fototazo: What is the back-story on how TBW formed? Was there a particular need that you saw and sought to fill?

Paul Schiek: It wasn't that thought out. I couldn't see that far into the future at the time. I just wanted to make books as a way to show the work I was making while I was an undergrad in art school. I was already doing zines and little things I guess you could call a book, but they were editions of like ten or twenty. I was really familiar, through watching a lot of my friends, do bands with the whole DIY culture, so it wasn't strange for me to just figure out a way to produce a book on the cheep and say, " I have a publishing company." So to me it wasn't interesting or new, it was just obvious and natural.

After I did it for a while, it grew to have its own aesthetic and clientele. So I'm not so sure it was created to fit a certain need in the publishing world, but I do like to think it is finding its place and its audience now. I never want to insinuate it wasn't serious, or that it was lackadaisical. Everything I do for better or worse I take very seriously, but in the beginning I was just reacting to what was in front of me. I was not in any way taking into consideration the rest of the publishing world, because I never felt like I was apart of that. I'm not even sure I knew it was there. I knew of Steidl and those types. It seemed like all the photo books I loved were published by Scalo and companies like that who were out of business by the time I learned of their titles. So I never felt included.

f: What separates TBW from other publishers? What are its particular strengths?

PS: I tried giving it to a friend of mine once. I doubt anyone else has done that with their company. I just couldn't handle it any longer. It was taking so much energy and money and every aspect of my life was suffering because of it. I was having coffee with a friend literally trying to get him to take it. He said no, and so I had to keep it and that was like six years ago. Its grown into this thing that is totally my own and it’s like a member of our family now.

f: What is your process for deciding what to publish?

PS: I have to love it. I look at tons and tons of work. And I don't like much of what I see. It’s the 1% rule. I find that with anything 1% it’s not only good, it’s mind-blowingly good. 99% I have no love for. But that 1% is what I'm always after. Food, human beings, cars. When was the last time you saw a car the blew you away? 99 out of 100 cars, who gives a shit? But that one car that’s the most perfectly crafted and engineered machine you have ever seen…

Since publishing books is intimate and trying, I also need to be able to enjoy the person on a human level that I am working with. I always say, none of us are making enough money at this to not at least enjoy the time together with the artists we work with. I'm turned off by a lot of artists and what comes with being an artist, truth be told. So I have to love the work and the person.

I will tell you something though in regards to your question. Going back to the DIY thing, I grew up exchanging things in the mail. You send me something I send you something. And I built my company around that basic principle. It is a direct to customer publishing house. I was trained by Jim Goldberg and it’s been ingrained in me that when you make a photo book, first you make mock ups. Lots of them. And you work them and rework them and you live with them and you show them to people and you get an understanding of how the book works.

I have a simple policy on my site that states if you want your work to be considered do not send me a website, you need to send me a mock up. Do you know the story about Van Halen demanding no yellow M&Ms in a bowl of M&Ms in their dressing room? People said it was because they were crazy, but later it was found out their manager did that as a test to the promoters of the shows, to see if they cared enough about the details as a way to keep the band safe. If they paid attention to the M&M they probably paid attention to everything else that would ensure a smooth and safe show.

It’s a bit like that in a sense. People think it’s strange that I have never published a book from unsolicited work, but the truth is I get three emails a day telling me to check out some website and consider it for a book. That’s just not how it works in my mind. I'm not a Ludite by any means, but I believe in labor and work. I believe in going through the motions. You have to put in the work to get a reward back. You can't sidestep that equation. You can't cheat that.

f: How would you describe the contemporary publishing landscape in comparison with when you started TBW?

PS: That’s a great question. And I don't exactly have a good answer because in many ways I hole up and keep to myself here in Oakland. I try to be aware of what is going on in the publishing world, but at the same time I do my best to not let it influence or affect how I run the company moving forward. I have goals that I am after, and I have no idea how that falls in line with those of other publishers.

I do have very strong opinions about peoples entitlement in regards to thinking everything should be made into a book. A lot of these technologies have been praised for allowing anyone to be able to afford publishing a book. We saw that same thing with the internet when it comes to journalism and recording records. Not everyone in the world should make a record or write a book just cause it doesn't cost them anything to do so. Not everyone should be a doctor. Not everyone should be a mechanic. This is no different in the photography world. The same thing that mattered 100 years ago still matters today: you need to be thoughtful about your craft, and have something to say and that has to ooze out of your soul. No matter what medium you work in, the cream will always rise to the top. Before the internet, amazing people were discovered because they were amazing people. Now everyone thinks they are amazing and need the internet to be discovered. It’s just not the case.

f: What have you learned through the process of developing TBW that you wish you would have known beforehand or that you would pass along to others interested in publishing?

PS: Again, good question. I have millions of horror stories about printing debacles but again, I don't think it’s unique to what I do. Any profession has its dramas. I certainly have made adjustments as I go regarding the business side of things in order to be able to continue the work I do. I have learned how to be more effective with my resources and time. I watch what customers appreciate and try to continue to deliver that to them with consistency. Again, this is not unique. If I ran a grocery store or a house painting business, I would be strategizing the same way.

f: How has working as an editor influenced your personal work and your aspirations in photography?

PS: In the past few years it has drastically changed my own work. The last body of work I made and showed, Dead Men Don’t Like Me, was largely an exercise in editing. And I have been working on a new project that is also largely about editing and presentation, but mostly it’s important to note that these books and also the management work that I do [Schiek manages all aspects of Mike Brodie's work] are now my "work". It’s what I do every hour of every day. All those things combined consume all my time and energy and really have become one thing. It’s all one job to me. I think of them uniquely, but they are all of the same tribe. They are all equally loved children or some lame metaphor like that.

f: What has been your highlight in working with TBW?

PS: Honestly, and I know this sounds trite, but every artist that I have worked with, I have been a fan of the work. So when you go from the initial phone call to a finished book, when you both are aware of how much work has gone into the process, how much frustration, excitement, and attention, and when that book is done and you ship it to both the artists and customers…that’s it. Job well done. It’s pretty incredible. There are many artists whose work I studied and admired while I was training as a photographer, and now I have worked with them and published their book. To have their trust and worked on a collaborative effort…it’s really just an incredible thing.

f: What are the next steps for the press?

PS: Right now we are promoting and shipping Subscription Series #4 (Patterson, Meeks, Sanguinetti, Tillmans) after that I have a few projects that need to get printed and out. I'm on my way now to Sante Fe to work with Jack Woody at Twin Palms to co-publish another Mike Brodie book that will come out next year. I'm also obsessed with customizing the offices and shipping area to be more efficient. I want to find a good solid week to do some renovations. I have an idea for a hidden bubble wrap dispenser. I hate the one we have now.