powerHouse Books Founder/Publisher & NY Photo Fest Co-Founder Daniel Power
Daniel Power is the CEO of powerHouse Books, POW! Kids Books, powerHouse Packaging & Supply. He is the proprietor of The POWERHOUSE Arena & POWERHOUSE on 8th. Daniel Power is also the director & co-founder The New York Photo Festival.
How did you find your way into book publishing?
I was working in a famous downtown Chicago Bookstore in the late 80s (Stuart Brent Books), and planned on becoming a tax collector, since it paid better than an evening staffer in a bookstore, and since I wasn't getting into grad school in Intellectual History. Stuart insisted I not get lost to the world of books and asked George Braziller to give me a job, which he did, and that's how I came to New York (the center of the book world). That sales manager job lasted maybe four months (George was his own sales manager), and was lucky enough to land a sales and marketing job at Aperture Foundation, then the only photography book game in town, and where I learned a lot about images and the photo book. They wouldn't give me a raise after a year-plus, even though I was doing all the work for department (the executive director had a fondness for high priced consultants), and then began freelancing for a Swiss contemporary art magazine and a short while later for a gal who left Abbeville after a long tenure, and the three of us started D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers. The super store was just launching in those days (early 90s), and in short order we were doing gangbusters. In late 1994 I left, with the encouragement of Walter Keller of Scalo (who taught Gerhard Steidl how to print photo books, and whose program became the basis of what we now know as Steidl), and started powerHouse Books in 1995, which is still going (I think).
(Exterior of powerHouse Books and POWERHOUSE Arena)
“This is the magic...and is what makes these books vibrant visual spa sessions in a sense over and over again.”
What attracts you to the area of publishing illustrated books?
I like the idea of telling stories without words, and letting images speak to the reader unfiltered. The beautiful thing about a photography book is that it can be enjoyed and appreciated front to back, back to front, or anywhere in the middle frontwards or backwards. The viewer's understanding of what she is experiencing is a collective one, non-linear, and not necessarily straightforward from point A to point B. The singular images in a book, in addition to the collection as a whole, have a different impact on the viewer during different times of the viewer's life. The impression made by a singular experience of say a Diane Arbus or Larry Clark or Nan Goldin or even Robert Adams book will make a certain type of impression when you first encounter the book and possibly a much different one at a different stage later in the viewer's life. This is the magic of a photo book, any art book really, and is what makes these books vibrant visual spa sessions in a sense over and over again.
“It was phenomenal. It was like a mini lit-world BAM approach. More than a bookstore. But books and ideas at its core.”
After founding powerHouse Books in 1995, what compelled you to open the independent bookstore, POWERHOUSE Arena in 2006? Described by powerHouse as "a laboratory for creative thought," it seems as though the bookstore you opened has become much more than just a bookstore, yes?
The Dumbo space we moved into in 2006 was massive, 10,000 square feet. The landlord gave us a fairly decent deal to "babysit" the space for a decade while they transformed bit by bit massive areas of Dumbo ground floor space (we even started a photo festival and ran that for many years to take advantage of all the empty space. Now all gone!) It was too big for just a bookstore, and we had arena seating (to connect ground floor retail to mezzanine office space), so we decided we had to mount exhibitions, hold massive book launch parties (VICE's Misshapes launch had over a thousand people in the space over the course of a night), photo and music festivals (The New Yorker's for several years) and product launches. It was crazy and massive 2006-2009. Then the recession, and the parties and launches went poof. That's when we started booking seriously literary book launches and readings, and since we were able to accommodate 400-500 people, we were a natural destination. This was before the Greenlight Bookstore domination. One memorable week, we had the acclaimed Liss Fain dance troupe from San Francisco launching a world premiere over the course of several days in our space, with otherworldly glass sculptures and elaborate lighting, and in between performance days we hosted the Al Gore An Inconvenient Truth launch with 400+ seats among the sculptures accented by the lighting. It was phenomenal. It was like a mini lit-world BAM approach. More than a bookstore. But books and ideas at its core.
“...much of mainstream publishing is necessarily formulaic...Indies are not constrained...”
What do you feel an independent book publisher can offer authors that big five publishers cannot? Where do you see independent book publishing headed?
Indies can offer breaking concepts and of-the-moment idea and story collections through their nimble and agile nature; small overhead, small decision-making base, ability to deploy assets quickly on a new course. Additionally, they have the ability to indulge authors and artists experimenting on the periphery; much of mainstream publishing is necessarily formulaic: what are the comp titles and numbers and stats on any new given intellectual endeavor; there's a large ship to be fueled and maintained. Indies are not constrained like that; they can even be contrarian, as we often are, and do things they want to without regard to comps or bottom line projections. Indies can even do loss leaders to attract content makers in a certain arena; if a publishers believes so fervently in something as to risk capital to make it happen, you as a content maker will know your publisher will go to extreme lengths to bring your story to the world and its core audiences; a mainstream publisher has to divide up many titles among a small staff of marketing people and publicists, and the spaghetti-against-the wall dynamic probably often rules what gets more attention over others. A big pro with mainstream publishers is more cash upfront, but in the visual world in particular that's not necessarily the goal, so more creative options for deal points are possible.
(Craig Cohen, powerHouse Books Associate Publisher; Actress Jessica Lange; Daniel Power, powerHouse Founder & Publisher)
“So taking a radical concept...and doing something unusual became our hallmark...”
In the powerHouse Books publisher profile it states, "We have blazed a trail through the staid book publishing industry..." May you please elaborate on why you feel the rest of the book publishing industry is "staid"?
When I first started doing photography books, the definition of photo books was Ansel Adams and National Geographic-type books. Full stop. No one besides Aperture was doing contemporary and art photography, or artists books. During my time at D.A.P. we helped broaden that definition, and Scalo, and later ourselves, helped blow it wide open. Think of it: a Nan Goldin monograph, a Robert Frank artist's book, were outselling, in units, The Great Pyramids of Egypt, The Greatest Swiss Watches of All Time, The Grand Prix Racing Collection. Taschen was still doing discounted Chagall and Modigliani books and had not yet barged into photography, but serious contemporary photography books and artists books were giving the dreary fare a run for their money. When I started my company, my first book was a collaboration with a blue chip gallery, Thea Westreich, and we did an artists' book with Jack Pierson, all of a sudden, and sold all 5,000 of that and all 500 limited editions. Not one lick of white space, not one word, just book-sized mood board with artwork, stills, and photographs. Insane stuff by today's standards. My first photo book was a picture/text collaboration with Village Voice columnist James Ridgeway and Voice photographer Sylvia Plachy, in a literary format duotone volume, designed by famed graphic designer and Alexey Brodovitch acolyte Yolanda Cuomo, Red Light: Inside the Sex Industry. Sold 12,000 units. Absolutely sick. So taking a radical concept by an artist, adding collaborations with writers and innovative designers, and doing something unusual became our hallmark, and that I think helped broaden the genre and audience expectation what a cool coffee table to look at and better yet to own could be.
What was it like working with world-renowned tattoo artist Jonathan Shaw on Vintage Tattoo Flash vol. II, a visual exploration of the history and evolution of tattooing in America, one of the world's oldest and most popular art forms?
Tricky. Some content makers/owners are tricky, but they deserve to be, as they have spent a good amount of their passion and resources dedicated to their interest. We came up with a plan for capturing digitally his amazing archive of vintage tattoo sheets, something I wasn't aware of before (another great thing about being a small indie publisher, learning so much about so many things). He was game to make a big format book, and our past experience indicated that tattoo aficionados would be into supporting a high list price. It's a damn beautiful book (both are, volumes 1 and 2).
POW! Kids Books, established in 2013, is powerHouse's latest book publishing venture. Any new and exciting developments there and what can we expect next from powerHouse Books?
Our children's book program, POW!, seems to have cornered the market with witty, engaging woke kids's books. We didn't set out to do that but as mainstream publishers were passing on them and or literary agents pre-selecting where the pitches would go (the more experimental, mold-breaking a kid's book is, the more likely the literary agent will pitch to an indie), the more we became a home for them. Lucia the Luchadora was a smash success (a young Latina becomes a superhero just like the boys when she dons her cape and lucha libre mask), and has reprinted many times over, in addition to spawning sequels and even garnering a famous children's movie studio to option it. Franny's Father is a Feminist (self-explanatory), Spectacularly Beautiful (immigrant assimilation in school), Rox's Secret Code (African American girls who code), Be Brave, Be Brave, Be Brave (a father of Native American descent ponders lessons of fatherhood, identity and legacy he swill pass to his newborn son) are just some of our new and popular titles...along with the inane (A Smiling Rock Named Ishi, also a bestseller, go figure) and out there (cheekily) titles like I Hate Everyone. There are some good ones coming up. Must sign contracts first so mum for now!
“Crazy. Probably wouldn't do it again. Or I just might, maybe. We'll see. It was exhilarating and maddening...”
What was it like helping to establish the New York Photo Festival?
Crazy. Probably wouldn't do it again. Or I just might, maybe. We'll see. It was exhilarating and maddening, the rush of mounting a pop-up city, exhibitions, programming, tickets, amenities and advertising soup to nuts, all over four days, with only about six months' lead time. There were many things we did right, quite a few we did wrong, and two of my proteges have distilled the best of that experience into a very successful program Photoville, here in New York and at other outposts around the globe. They've done a good job. I liked the curatorial focus we had with the New York Photo Festival (several curators each selecting a handful of artists to feature in their own pavilion), but it's terribly expensive. Maybe Photoville's mobile containers are way to go. The inspiration we had for the photo festival was the camaraderie and industry gathering feeling one experiences at the French festivals, Perpignan and especially Arles. The evening slide shows were a blast and I do think for the drawbacks we have in a place in New York City we came pretty close. I certainly earned my stripes helping Lou Reed create his slideshow contribution. You can see it on Vimeo, Hidden Books Hidden Stories. That weird spacey music is his.
Do you have any advice for authors looking to get published in the illustrated book space?
Have a good concept down and capture that from all angles: if you're photographing gay cabaret bars in Williamsburg or young female IDF soldiers (one I saw at a portfolio review the other we published, Serial Number 3817131, her dog tag in the IDF), get the whole picture: big picture, medium distance, tight shots. Meaning, cover the entire subject as much as is possible, in giving the viewer as complete a picture as possible. Many artists, particularly documentarians, get too close and lose the forest for the trees. Have some marketing ideas. Think of someone well-known that can help you with a preface or introduction. Be ready to deploy all of your contacts and friendships with people in valuable places to get your finished book out in front of your audiences. Be open to a publisher's perspective; they have to do the rough work of getting people to pay to own a copy.
May you also offer any advice to those looking to get their start in book publishing?
Follow through is the most important trait and the most lacking in young people starting out. In my day, most young people worked at one point in high school or college and most kids today never had to work. They have attitude to last....you wouldn't believe. Try to jettison that. Work hard. Even if it is making copies (or it's digital marketing equivalent), be the absolute best at it, listen and don't talk (unless to ask clarification), go one step beyond what is asked), and always follow up and follow through. You will be notices and you will rise. If you act as though you are owed something (for your education, your background, your skill set) you won't be at that job for long. No one has the time to deal with that.