Interview: Al Palmer of Brown Owl Press

Al Palmer, Flood of Sunshine

Between 2011 and 2013 we featured a series called "Publisher Q&A," 24 short form interviews with publishers who run small presses, magazines and websites. The series included conversations with Alec Soth, Jason Fulford, Jeffrey Ladd and many others. Links to all of the posts can be found here.

Al Palmer of Brown Owl Press read a number of those interviews at a coffee shop in Seattle when he was first planning his step into publishing and we publish an interview with him today as a kind of bookend to the original series.

fototazo: What is the backstory on how Brown Owl Press formed?

Al Palmer: I'm a photographer, I graduated in 2006. I became aware of several small-press publishers – Little Brown Mushroom, Cafe Royal (I had some work published in an early Cafe Royal release actually) and that got me thinking about the place of books within photography.

I've spent more than half of my life in the punk/hardcore music scene and the DIY ethos of fanzines, indie labels, etc. has heavily coloured my worldview. I guess Brown Owl Press is the photobook version of an indie record label.

Ameena Rojee, Hard Work

f: You focus on narrative photographic stories in printed form. Talk a little about how you decided to orient the press in this way.

AP: It's just where my interest in photography lies. The idea of the thread that holds the essay or project is what really interests me and I think is probably why I'm more drawn to photography in book and zine form than in a gallery.

f: What are some of the ways Brown Owl separates what it offers from other publishers?

AP: Without wanting to push for positive discrimination I'm very aware that the photography world is predominantly white, straight and male. I'm also aware that describes me. There are so many voices out there that I was determined to publish work by people who don't live the same life as me, in the same place as me. Roughly half (actually, by the end of 2016 it'll be more than half) of the books released are by female photographers, several books are by people of colour. It's not a box ticking exercise, all this work is published on merit.

I'm not saying Brown Owl Press is perfect (nor am I personally) but I'm at least aware of the problems, even if I don't have all the answers. I just try not to be the problem.

Also, something I do like is the accessibility of small books. Our cheapest book is £5 and our most expensive is £18. We aren't pricing anyone out of buying one. Being inclusive is important – I want people to see this work.

Jackie Roman, Old Domino

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

AP: Early on I accepted submissions. Now I mostly approach photographers I'd like to work with. The photo scene is a relatively small place, so it's rare any photographer and I don't have at least one mutual friend.

I trust my gut. Work either clicks with me or it doesn't, for better or worse. It doesn't make work I turn down bad, just not quite right for Brown Owl Press. We haven't published anything I don't love.

And, of course, some of it just comes down to money and time. It's all funded by me and I have a job, have a social life, I train Muay Thai and have a photographic practice to juggle!

f: What are common mistakes photographers make as they look to pitch their work to a press for publishing?

AP: The biggest mistake is definitely sending a copy-and-pasted submission without the research needed. Publishing is a relationship between the publisher and the artist, too many photographers are so determined to put a book out that they don't consider the relationship they'll have to build. The best books are always made by a photographer, a publisher and/or a designer working together.

Jennifer Haley, Junrei

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

AP: In retrospect I wish I'd had more of a long-term plan. The second release (Jeune & Poli by Juliette Gaudino and Michel Nguie) wasn't thought about until a few months after Flood of Sunshine was released. There wasn't a website with stock-handling reports and analytics until last year and I'm still not great at social media and marketing.

I didn't contact many other publishers for advice. I wish I had the advice I received from Éanna a few months into Brown Owl Press as it was very useful.

Brown Owl Press office © Al Palmer

f: How would you describe the contemporary publishing landscape in terms of the market today?

AP: It's healthy. Since starting Brown Owl Press I've noticed a few publishers by friends of mine start up – Another Place, Divebar, Kniven to name three. I'm not sure there's been a real break-out book since The Afronauts by Cristina de Middel. That's not to say there hasn't been some excellent books - BLEU by Alex F Webb blew me away (pardon the pun) last year – but nothing that seems like it's capturing the zeitgeist. Perhaps that's a sign that it's now post-golden age.

f: How do you reach buyers and keep the press financially stable in an era of many small presses?

AP: This is the difficult bit. Growing the audience is difficult. Social media is saturated and I'm quite geographically isolated up here as Newcastle's in the North-East of England, near the border with Scotland, so I don't attend as many book fairs as I'd like. A regular fan-base, a solid mailing list and the photographers helping with marketing are all essential. We're lucky that all stockists have been awesome and pay their bills!

Cash flow is often an issue. If something needs to be bought or paid for and there's just been a new book paid for, the shortfall comes out of my pocket. I don't begrudge it – if I wanted to get rich I'd certainly not be doing this! - but sometimes that can be difficult. Balancing paying royalties (and we do on every book sold) against publishing new work is the hardest thing. It's a tight-rope that I think we walk well.

Trevor Powers, Life Is Full of Possibilities

f: People have talked about photobooks today as a Golden Age in terms of the quality and breadth of offerings as you just mentioned. Do you agree with that idea? Why or why not?

AP: There are definitely a lot of positives: people being aware of photobooks as a medium rather than just as support documents for an exhibition. Lots of quiet, thoughtful work that lends itself well to the book format. The lowering cost/rising quality of digital printing has made publishing a lot more affordable than it was five years ago.

The cynic in me suggests the bubble has slightly burst. It might not be a bad thing, hype and (financial) speculation will only go so far. People will keep making work, people will keep putting it out and from that hopefully a sustainable framework can be built.

I've got a suspicion when people look back at arts publishing in 2016, it'll be seen as a golden age of magazines rather than books.

Hans Nøstdahl, The Thirsting Flowers

f: What are some of the particularities of the photobook scene in the UK compared with other countries?

AP: From seeing reports of zine and book fairs in the US, there's a solid divide between the photobook world and the artist-book world. The few events I've been to here where both have attended, there's been very little cross over. In fact, almost no browsing between the two camps. I don't know why – you'd assume photobooks and comics and bookarts would have lots of mutual engagements. I can't explain it.

It also seems quite heavily weighted towards the south. But then most things are, art-wise.

f: What has been your highlight in working with Brown Owl?

AP: It's probably a cliché, but every single new release reminds me exactly why I do this. We've released twelve books I would have purchased (and loved) myself. It's given some exposure (and money!) to photographers who deserve it.

And I've met some fantastic people in the past three years while doing it. Some people whose work I respect and enjoy, some have become genuine friends.

Nic McInturff, This Decadence Is My Home Vol I

f: What are the next steps for the press?

AP: In the next few weeks our next book, How to Hear Your Heartbeat by Lauren Zallo, will be released. After that, a book by Seattle-based photographer Jenny Riffle, a couple of experimental handbound books by Brian David Stevens and Zdravko Dimitrov, the follow-up to The Thirsting Flowers by Hans Nøstdahl and hopefully our first photobook/record collaboration. Possibly some workshops/seminars. Might eventually get the Brown Owl Press Presents... exhibitions I've had in mind done. Who needs sleep?