Publisher’s Spotlight: Brown Owl Press
This past year we have been focusing on books on Lenscratch. In order to understand the contemporary photobook landscape, we are interviewing and celebrating significant photography book publishers, large and small, who are elevating photographs on the page through design and unique presentation. We are so grateful for the time and energies these publishers have extended to share their perspectives, missions, and most importantly, their books.
Brown Owl Press is an independent publisher of photo books and zines based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the United Kingdom. Founded in 2013 by Al Palmer, they focus on narrative photographic stories in printed form. Brown Owl Press was initially inspired by such publishing concerns as Antler Press, A-Jump Books and Little Brown Mushroom. Palmer drew the logo and a two year plan out in a coffee shop in Honolulu while traveling, and started Brown Owl Press when he returned to the UK later that year. 23 releases later and they’re still going strong.
Al Palmer is a photographer, publisher and book designer based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne In the United Kingdom. My work primarily focuses on world building in the built environment.
Follow Brown Owl Press on Instagram: @brownowlpress and @al.palmer
What is your mission as a publisher?
To put out good quality, well designed and affordable photobooks and zines by photographers who deserve a larger audience.
What was the first book you published and what did you learn from that experience?
Like most small press publishers, the first title that was released was by myself. I figured if there was no interest I could at least use it as a marketing tool! Luckily Brown Owl Press managed to get a small but loyal audience pretty quickly, so it turned into a useful teaching tool – there were many things regarding the design and the marketing I’d do different but feel the actual work holds up well.
What is the focus of your selections?
This is actually quite hard to articulate! Quiet little poems in photographic form, and documentary work exclusively focused on underground music scenes and fighting sports. We publish the titles I’d find interesting as a consumer. It might not be the best business model, but this is not a democracy.
What are the difficulties that you encounter as a publisher?
On a simply financial level, cash flow is always a struggle. I’d like to release more titles but the money just isn’t there. We’re based in Newcastle, which is a city in the North-East of England which just doesn’t carry the cultural cachet of London or Paris, or even a photography hotspot like Brighton or Bristol. We definitely get overlooked by not being physically present in these scenes. Marketing is also difficult, social media reach is not as good as it was, especially on Instagram.
How can an artist get their work in front of you? Any advice for photographers?
Photographers can email us if they wish, we do accept unsolicited submissions. I strongly advise photographers research publishers they approach. Publishing is not a one-size-fits-all concern, and finding the correct publishing house is much better than mass sending a general submission out. One thing I do recommend is to be relatively proactive – tell the publisher what you bring to the table aside from your photographs. Do you have any interviews, podcasts, articles lined up? Will a book coincide with an exhibition of your work?
How do the economics work become the publisher and artist? Does the artist normally contribute financially to the process? If so, to what extent?
The photographer NEVER pays to be published by Brown Owl Press. We cover the print run in full. The photographer gets a specific amount of free copies and a royalty payment which is negotiated before any other work is done. I don’t like the pay-to-play model and I won’t support it.
Is the book design process collaborative?
This depends on the photographer. Some photographers send me a folder full of images and let me work on it as I see fit, some photographers have the skeleton of a book already put together and I act more as a creative director than designer. I’m happy to work with both, however I really do enjoy the design process.
How many titles do you normally publish in a year and what new editions are on the horizon?
We have averaged around three titles a year since we started but this year has been be slightly busier. We recently released In the Basement: Punk Music Spaces by Karen Kirchhoff, Chattanooga: 24th Most Dangerous City in America by wm. johnson and Framework Vol II by Al Palmer and Hello, (Go Away) by Nathan Pearce. We have zines in the pipeline by Andreas Olesen, Luke Harby and Jacinda Russell as well as books next year by Jenny Riffle and Ivette Spradlin.
What specific support do you give artists? Do you have a distribution network and do you attend book fairs?
Brown Owl Press is so small that we can’t really support artists with regards extensive PR, we do what we can but marketing the titles is a team effort. We have a selection of stockists but luckily most of our zines are quite small so shipping is still relatively affordable, even internationally. I really enjoy that people can order direct from us. We do attend fairs, strangely I’ve found that non-photo focused fairs have been more successful for us. We’ve attended a few comic-focused fairs and had a lot of interest and sales, probably due to it being full of people who don’t engage with printed photography often.
What have you published that has been particularly meaningful?
I love every title we’ve published! That’s the joy of a small release schedule, there’s no filler. Old Domino by Jackie Roman still resonates heavily with me as it’s about the DIY punk scene and that’s a scene I’ve spent my entire adult life in.
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