“I find it very interesting that young artists and young photographers, a new generation who are normally more into the digital world, really appreciate this analogue medium, the book, and love the fact that they can hold a book about their work in their hands.”
Bernd Detsch is a bookseller with a passion.
ARTBOOKCOLOGNE has now become something of an institution, how did it all start back in 1997?
It’s very important to point out that there was of course a time before I started my own company in 1997: I spent more than 16 years working for Walther König, a man who influenced my professional life more than almost anyone else. It was his vision of the book trade, especially the art book trade, that I adopted.
Firstly, I was able to learn and experiment an incredible amount, because König was very generous and gave me the freedom to make mistakes. Secondly, you could say that I grew smarter every day, with each book that I was fortunate enough to hold in my hands. Today, the huge number of books that have been sold there over the years and decades would form a truly excellent art library. Not only artist monographs, but important exhibition catalogues, artists’ books, photography books etc., as well. With this experience under my belt and a fair amount of naivety, I took a risk and launched ABC. Now, after almost twenty-five years, I can say that the idea worked and that it will continue to work in the future – under the supervision of my son Felix Biehler.
What is the difference between ARTBOOKCOLOGNE, ARTBOOKSONLINE and ARTBOOKSAAR?
Artbooksonline is the retail site which was originally launched by my son. It was always rather a modest sideline, but has now developed to become the perfect complement to our other business. Artbookcologne is the wholesale company, Artbooksonline is for retail customers. Artbooksaar is simply another branch: for age reasons I’m moving back to the Saarland where I was born. My parents left me a house which I’m now filling with books and art to give it a new lease of life. It’s a real mix of secondhand books, special offers and new publications. These are complemented by deluxe editions, art editions, graphic art and photographs.
What would be the right term to describe what you do?
The technical term is “modern antiquarian bookshop”. The word sounds very contemporary, but it actually dates back to the 19th century. As early as the 17th century people were already selling books at reduced prices. In Germany it was known as Preisschleuderey. It’s not exactly a publisher’s dream, but massive overproduction means that it’s almost inevitable that the trade will not be able to absorb all these books. Of course, this applies equally to illustrated books, art books, photography books and architecture books, which are often produced with little regard for the market.
I find it very interesting that young artists and young photographers, a new generation who are normally more into the digital world, really appreciate this analogue medium, the book, and love the fact that they can hold a book about their work in their hands.
But the books that are no longer selling on the market end up with you. Are you then able to then give them a new lease of life?
The idea of a second life was the euphemistic paraphrase of what I was doing. That was the business strategy: to find high-quality books that didn’t sell. By specialising exclusively in illustrated books, art and photography, architecture and design, pop culture, etc., we automatically found a market niche and created a distribution service that’s the only one of its kind in the world.
And over the years you become a specialist for specialists, and then publishers and museums contact you directly and you no longer have to go begging as you did at the beginning.
Are you still fascinated by art books or photography books, or has your passion for them worn off over the years?
No, not at all, and I’m not a collector either, I see myself as an accumulator, which means I can’t go by without wanting to buy and own books. A less than popular approach which no longer exists in that form today, of course. There are only a few exceptions and only a small percentage of my customers or our customers in the book trade want to have every book or every important book. Most people say, “I can do without those dust collectors, everything is available on the internet anyway, we don’t need books anymore”. But I’m still here, I belong to a dying breed that likes to be surrounded by books and enjoys the idea of having them at their fingertips. It’s a bit like having a kitchen shelf full of spices that you really only use once a year. But I still want to have them.
What do you tell someone who’s just starting out and wants to publish a photo book?
I tend to be very pessimistic about this as I get older. Especially since book production is a very expensive affair. And then there’s the entitlement battle between the artist, the photographer, the author and those involved in sales or production. The high production costs mean you need larger print runs to make it more or less profitable and then you have to somehow generate funds to cover the marketing costs: this makes the whole thing very, very expensive. Taking all this into account, I recommend digital printing, which may be more expensive per copy, but at least it won’t ruin you. If there are two copies left over from a print run of 50 it’s not so bad, but it’s much more serious if there are two or three hundred left over from a run of 500. And as recyclers, so to speak, even we can’t work miracles.
Mind you, this has nothing at all to do with the quality of the book, but purely with the possibilities for its commercial exploitation. So if a book by a photographer, someone like Steven Gill who’s by no means an unknown photographer, if he produces too many, even he’s going to have difficulties marketing these books. In this case, too much euphoria can lead to overproduction. It’s also tempting when the printer says ” listen, if you print four thousand copies instead of two thousand, the second two thousand will only cost two Euros” or something like that, which is true, because it’s obviously cheaper to keep on printing, but then you’re stuck with four thousand copies, whereas the market can only absorb perhaps eight hundred. And that’s rather disenchanting for everyone involved. And “second selling” is no solution, either. The market simply can’t handle any more.
And that, in turn, has to do with the fact that the photo book has experienced a kind of renaissance and anyone who can remotely handle a camera now wants to make their own book. The main problem is sales, there are no longer any professional distributors who can generate that kind of income. Once a book has been produced, it’s not the end of the story. You need a publisher who gives you the ISBN, it then needs to be listed, you need a publisher with a good distribution system, i.e. a technical infrastructure which ensures that every bookseller will be able to obtain the book quickly. You need a whole host of representatives – not only at home – simply to show the book to the booksellers. And that happens in the rarest of cases. Due to the concentration within the book trade, there are now mostly only large bookstore chains, and they filter out these kinds of publishers immediately – they don’t even get a look in. The independent, mostly smaller bookshops are not worth visiting, even if there are some really enthusiastic people out there. That means you also need a review in the FAZ or one of the other print media; even if an influential blogger reviews a book, the probability that 10-15 will be ordered is high, but it will never result in a bestseller to justify all of this. As always, there are exceptions. Reviews in the press, radio, television, social media can lead to success. But that is usually just one of those exceptions that proves the rule.
You have a very fine antiquarian bookstore here in Homburg on the Saar, but you also hold exhibitions, such as the current one on Marcel Duchamp …
My parents left me this house; what I’ve created here on several hundred square metres I could never afford in my second home, Cologne, it would be completely beyond my means. In addition to the bookshop and the specialist collections, there’s a former appartment where I organise exhibitions exclusively devoted to artists whose work has been featured in books. There’s either an incredible amount of secondary literature or the artists produced so-called artists’ books. Or photographers, too, for whom the book constitutes a significant opportunity for artistic expression.
I started with an overview of the work of LAWRENCE WEINER. I was able to pay tribute to the pioneer of conceptual art with a large number of books, posters, drawings, etc.. With DAIDO MORIYAMA, I presented a photographer who has produced an inexhaustible reservoir of books. PETER PILLER personally set up his exhibition here (to celebrate the new edition of his wonderful book “Von Erde schöner”).
And at the moment it’s MARCEL DUCHAMP, the most important and influential artist of the 20th century. Since the early 80s I’ve been collecting books and materials on his work. I’m proud to be able to present almost all the published work by and about him. This is accompanied by posters, ephemera, invitation cards, photographs…
The exhibition will run until the end of September, after which there will be an exhibition featuring the New York photographer JEFFREY LADD. He has created a wonderful series. Its title “The Awful German Language” quotes Mark Twain’s satirical essay describing the oddities, absurdities and contradictions of the German language. It’s a combination of photographic images and words that he’s encountered. It’s basically the illustrated learning process of the artist. A very, very funny combination, with very good photography and with those words that are particularly irritating for us Germans. It’s a combination where you take in the visual, the image, on the one hand, and the text on the other. It’s something I’m looking forward to immensely.
Do you have to book to see the exhibition or are there opening hours?
As I still spend part of my time in Cologne, it’s always better to arrange this by phone or e-mail.
Mobile: +49 172 1004400