An Interview with Colin Wilkinson of Bluecoat Press

Colin Wilkinson

“I simply go with my gut feeling and hope that my intuition is shared by a wider public. I can only publish what I am enthused about.”


What motivated you to set yourself up as a publisher? What aspects of your previous experience took you in this direction?

In 1973, I founded the Open Eye project (that directly led to Open Eye Gallery opening in 1977). I based the project on the Canadian Challenge for Change programme – which was established to give a voice to minority communities particularly through film and the emerging portable video technology. I pulled together a largely inexperienced small group and we made a couple of 16mm films about community festivals. At the same time I got hold of a portable video kit (weighing about 10kg – so not that portable) and started engaging community groups in making short videos. (Sadly the archival life of the tapes was appalling – after 20 years the tapes were like watching a blizzard).

Small Town Inertia by JA Mortram

The project expanded and I acquired a derelict ex-public house right in the centre of Liverpool on the basis of a six month lease which became 10 years. This gave me space for the first time to expand my vision of a community facility offering film, video, photography and sound recording (we had an 8-track studio built). The ground floor bar area became the gallery (occasionally doubling up as a cinema) with a cafe attached. During the late 1970s, the place became a key meeting place for bands (Echo & the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes practised in the basement below), photographers and other creatives. We changed the gallery exhibitions every month (there were two running concurrently) with no funding for the first two years.

Like You’ve Never Been Away by Paul Trevor

In 1982, I left the project. I had finished up handling all the administration: PAYE/VAT/grant applications etc. and had lost me own creative freedom.

I left and, with Peter Hagerty who was the then Director of Open Eye, set up a commercial photographic company. A disaster – Liverpool was witnessing economic meltdown and people and companies were fleeing the city (in 20 years it lost 250,000 people). The only salvation was the International Garden Festival in 1984. I pitched for the postcard contract and won it – beginning my career in publishing.

In 1992 I founded Bluecoat Press, specialising in local history books with a high photographic content. I created a buoyant market and published over 200 books in the next 13+ years – until the 2008 financial crisis changed everything overnight. The book market was already under threat from Amazon and I had lost some important outlets, particularly Borders who went into receivership in 2007. The market for local books, in particular, vanished as independent bookshops closed and the chains WH Smith and Waterstones changed their focus.

I assessed my situation and decided that I would have to concentrate on a niche market I had the greatest interest in – and so became a photobook specialist.

Birdmen by Zak Waters

As your website says, “Bluecoat Press specialises in books about photojournalism and documentary photography, with a particular emphasis on British identity.” This is a very well defined niche compared with other British independent publishers we deal with. How did this evolve?

I have chosen the photography I am interested in. There was so much great work out there to choose from so I knew I would never be short of material. I am also particularly interested in the dynamics between photojournalism and documentary practice. (It is 80 years this autumn from the launch of Picture Post – the magazine that changed the way photography was presented in the media). My output swings from photojournalists such as John Bulmer, Bert Hardy, Kurt Hutton, Patrick Ward and Guardian photographers David Levene and Denis Thorpe and documentary photographers including Tish Murtha, Jim Mortram, Peter Dench, Rob Bremner and Chris Hunt.

The Quiet Pioneer by Kurt Hutton

You’re very different from other independent publishers in another way. They tend to have a fine art focus and have limited print runs. You, however, come across as being very keen to compete in the mass market. I imagine that’s quite challenging when your budget for both production and promotion must be much more modest than the bigger players. How do you make that work?

I am not interested in fine art or conceptual photography. Other publishers understand that market and clearly see the financial benefit of the short run book as an art object as an investment. My aim is to sell as many copies as I can at an affordable price. It is very challenging and not all books achieve the sales I wish for. I make it work because I take very little out of the business. There is only me working from home (although I do rent storage space). If the money isn’t there – I don’t pay myself. It is as simple as that.

Bert Hardy’s Britain

Some of your titles, such as Bert Hardy’s Britain and more recently the books of Tish Murtha and Kurt Hutton, are presumably based on the archives of photographers who are no longer with us. How are these generated? Do you take the initiative or does it tend to start from the estates of those photographers? Are the selection of images and the overall editing just your responsibility or is there a collaborative element?

I always work with the photographer (if alive!). They make the image choices. It is their book and must represent what they see as important. Of course there are restrictions to the number of images in a book. (I have to keep the book weight below 2kg otherwise you hit a much higher postage rate – which is not advisable). The Bert Hardy/Kurt Hutton selection I made with advice from Matt Butson at Getty and, for Kurt Hutton, ex-Picture Post photographer John Chilingworth – who wrote the biographical details.

The North by John Bulmer

When it comes to contemporary photographers, what are you looking for in a possible publication? How much is it a matter of your taste/enthusiasm and how much does it depend on the marketplace?

I simply go with my gut feeling and hope that my intuition is shared by a wider public. I can only publish what I am enthused about. I have turned down projects I know would have a wide appeal – life is too short to spend months working on a book I have no feeling for. I am in a great position. I have no editorial board and can publish what I want. If it all comes to grief, I am the only one carrying the can.

Do you go to the photographers or do they come to you?

Both. I have about a dozen photographers who have approached me queued up on a tentative list. I will only make promises when I see a way forward. I hate promising when there is no real prospect of publishing. Other photographers I approach directly. I knew John Bulmer’s work from the 1960s and I could not believe he had not been published. I am delighted that his book The North has been a critical success and has placed John back to his rightful position as a pioneer of the use of colour in photojournalism.

Similarly with Jim Mortram. I found it difficult to believe he had not been published apart from by Cafe Royal. David Levene and Denis Thorpe were two more I wanted to publish/

I do have a small number of photographers on my ultimate hit list. One I have approached but is too ill to progress the book. The others I am waiting for the right time to make an approach.

From Small Town Inertia by JA Mortram

What do you know now that you most wish you’d known before you started?

It is not what I know now. You pick up publishing as you go along – make mistakes and determine not to repeat them and go and make a different mistake. Over 30 years I have made numerous bad calls through lack of knowledge/ lack of care but that is no different from any other activity. What I have understood is how quickly the market changes and the need to understand where it is going. Ten years ago, nearly all my business was through bookshops and other outlets. Now it is 60% mail order. That is a profound change and has meant learning a whole range of social networking and marketing skills.

The most significant change – and I wish it had been around 10 years ago – is crowdfunding. Until five years ago, I funded all my books personally. I was heading for disaster after a particularly bad Christmas trading left me with £30k of printers’ bills. I dug in, borrowed money and paid the invoices off – but I realised my model was broken. Fortunately, Kickstarter caught my attention – and I have not looked back since, with 12 successful projects in a row. It really has been a game-changer, not only in raising the funds but also in connecting to a worldwide community interested in the work I am doing.

Which other publishers do you follow with most interest?

I buy a lot of books. It is heartening to see NW England is at the forefront of photobook publishing with Dewi Lewis, Cafe Royal (and Bluecoat). I have a great respect for them both.

Merrie Albion
From Merrie Albion by Simon Roberts and published by Dewi Lewis

Which photobooks from the last couple of years have impressed you most? Looking further back, which earlier photobooks do you find yourself going back to for continuing inspiration?

Too many – my shelves are lined with great books. Some I buy because the printing is so good (take a bow Staedl), others because they are the work of photographers I admire (Dewi Lewis’s reworking of Homer Syke’s Once a Year is splendid). Quite a few are self-published by the photographer – like Nick Hedges. If I was to single out just one influential photographer, it would be Walker Evans.

Walker Evans

What new titles or initiatives can we look forward to from you over the next year or two?

My next three titles will be Rob Bremner’s The Dash Between, Tish Murtha’s Elswick Kids and a yet untitled book by Glaswegian photographer Hugh Hood.

More generally, what are your hopes and fears for the future of photobooks?

No fears – with self-publishing/crowdfunding and online specialist sellers like Beyond Words, photobook publishing has a great future. As for me, I am over 70 now so my hope is I have a few more good years left.

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