A few comments to your very well-informed piece about the current state of photography book publishing…
My career, before my current segue into the tech world, was centered around the craft of creating photography books. It has been my privilege to create books for a number of leading photographers. There is great satisfaction in finding the delicate balance between words and great pictures, and helping the resultant book find its audience.
The world of photography book publishing and the independent creatives surrounding that genre ran into a buzzsaw called the Great Economic Downturn. The few big photo books being published by the “first division” publishers at that time were either by celebrity photographers, or were of actual celebrities. Otherwise, they were, as you point out, subvented in some material way by the photographer or an attached institution.
If one was representing, say, natural history photography, as I was at the time, it was a very hard sell, even though these books have a very nice market advantage, in my experience.
During that time period, post 2008 to around 2012, I turned to academic publishers. Some of the larger players in this “second division” can support titles that are turned away by the commercial NY houses, and in fact support sales well above the small scale of independent publishing. While none of my titles broke 20K, they did very well, and were supported admirably by dedicated publishing professionals. They also had some limited foreign rights pickup, which is another good source of income once the considerable work has been completed. Nobody got rich off these books, but the books were published, reviewed, and sold.
My move to the digital realm happened in one fell swoop, after a very bad experience with a printer in Hong Kong. I started looking for ways to tell the same rich stories digitally. Does it substitute for the tactile experience of ink on paper? Not really. But retina display on device is an amazing way to view great photographs, and digital publishing levels the playing field, making publishing available to all comers. I’ll continue my quest to create a better digital storytelling experience.