Modes Vu’s lean approach to art photography publishing

By | March 10, 2017

Last month, N.E.O. Bernhardsson, a Hong Kong-based publisher, reached out to me after reading about Lean Media online. Independently, he and his Modes Vu team have developed a system that uses Lean Media principles and processes to develop art photography books featuring relatively unknown photographers from China and elsewhere. This post and interview will describe how the Modes Vu system works, and share some takeaways that may help other people considering Lean Media for their own projects.

Three principles analysis

When examined through the lens of Lean Media’s three principles, Modes Vu has it all:

  1. Reduce waste: The editorial team is small and relies on standard processes to keep costs down. For instance, the prototype books use templates that minimize the need to turn to design talent. Modes Vu also uses inexpensive digital printing to prototype (more on that later).
  2. Understand audiences: Sales of the prototype and online reactions help the team decide which images and book projects to pursue (details below).
  3. Focus creativity: External feedback and internal reflection are key to focusing the creative efforts of the team and the photographers.

Workflow analysis

On the Modes Vu Tumblr, the team outlined its experimental approach:

modes vu experimental process

It may look different than the standard Lean Media workflow:

Lean Media Flowchart 0.7

However, I actually think it’s quite similar. The Modes Vu stages fit into the Lean Media workflow as follows:

Idea: Talented photographers using smartphones post images to social networking sites for others to see and react to. The Modes Vu editorial team approaches them to determine if they are interested in producing a Workbook.

Prototype I: The Modes Vu Workbook is the bridge between the digital and print publishing worlds. The team chooses 48 photographs from a single photographer, and flows them into a 4.5” x 6” book template. Instead of using expensive offset printing, which would require a large order and warehousing costs, Modes Vu uses print-on-demand (POD) digital printing which allows single orders to be printed at a low cost ($15 retail) and shipped to buyers all over the world. Images of the pages are posted to Tumblr and Instagram to gauge online reaction. Sales of the Workbooks are another form of feedback. Meanwhile, the photographer and editorial team consider whether to advance the project to the next stage.

modes vu bugging out cover

Prototype II: Greens are slightly larger POD editions, based on images from the Workbooks as well as new photographs from the same artist. The cost is slightly higher ($20). The layouts and presentation of the photographs are different, but the team uses similar feedback mechanisms and reflection to determine whether or not to proceed to the final stage, and what the composition of the work should look like.


Flex launch: MODES are high-quality photography books between 80 and 100 pages long featuring the work of a single photographer. Modes Vu takes the hard launch approach; the final product is frozen and no further iteration is planned. MODES No. 1: JAM is scheduled for later this year, and will cost $30. More editions are planned, and Modes Vu has considered running it as a quarterly periodical if there are enough subscribers.

There are a few twists, however. For one, Modes Vu has no involvement in the initial ideation, when the photographer is working on his or her own. N.E.O. writes:

We come in here after seeing their photographs on tumblr or Instagram, and make an edit of 48 images out of their likely hundreds of images. In some cases, the photographer has a clear concept (idea), but more often they are shooting intuitively and capturing images of a similar type and sensibility, but have not explicitly thought to make a book or to make a “work” out of these images. As we edit the book, as well as design, layout and name the title, we help in taking the raw material (many hundreds of images) and distill and refine it into a book.

The Modes Vu team is also willing to stop development of a project at the Workbook stage, based on feedback, internal discussions, and other factors, including:

  • Sales – Naturally, sales seem like the ultimate confirmation of a work. It is not necessarily indicative of the quality, however, as sales are also the result of hype or lack of hype. (This goes back to the previous point about publishing being name-driven.)
  • Digital reactions – Likes, reblogs, page views, etc. after we release the book online. We scan the full content of the Workbook and Green alike, and each spread make up a single post that can be liked or reblogged on tumblr.
  • Editorial – After an edition has been put out, our editors reflect on the published work and use their own judgment to decide whether it is good enough to proceed to the next stage.
  • Development – It is necessary for the photographer to have produced new images in the time since the release of the previous edition. The idea is that the iterative process creates a context for the work – a story that lets the viewer understand it better. This way, the experimental publishing process, when made public, becomes its own marketing campaign.

After learning about Modes Vu, I asked N.E.O. if he would be willing to take part in an email interview. He agreed, and answered the following questions about the Modes Vu approach:

What is the inspiration for doing Modes Vu as an iterative production?

A couple of years ago I worked on an independent art/photography/fashion magazine. It was pocket sized, printed on newsprint so it was very cheap per copy. That meant a lot of freedom in giving away promotion copies, and also creatively because you’re self-funded, so I realized the advantage of low costs.

On the other hand, each issue was over 200 pages and took a year to complete. This was taxing for everyone involved because it felt like a long slog with no feedback until a year later.

Another source of inspiration is practicing photography and writing. How do you ever know if a photograph is good or not, or when a text is ready? I also found the ability to go back and take a second look at a draft, months later, is incredibly valuable.

From here comes the digital print, on-demand, no-cost production and distribution model, and the iterative process of publishing.

One final reference is the time I spent at a commercial magazine. Sometimes, complete issues of the magazine were scrapped and re-done, to the dismay of everyone who’d put in the work. I find having a controlled, explicit process helps manage expectations and reduce friction, and is really a way of management to respect individual contributors by making expectations on both sides known.

Where is Modes Vu based, and who is on the team that chooses the photos and designs the books?

We’re headquartered in Hong Kong but really location independent since only the very last step of the process is physical – the book itself – and printing and shipping is all handled by our US printers. The printers are in the US simply for the reason that they offer this integrated process of publishing, printing, and shipping.

We have editors in the US and China and collaborators all around the world.

We have a design template for the cover and a fixed format for the Workbook and Green, within which the editor works. The editor selects the cover image and works with the author to choose a title. The editor also chooses images, pairs them and does the layout. The fixed format means that a single editor, working with the author, can finish the entire title without the need for a designer. This reduces costs, increases speed, and creates a coherent series.

Besides exposing, promoting, and preserving the works of these photographers, could you describe the business goals (if any) for Modes Vu?

Modes Vu isn’t a full-time project at the moment, but I believe that this model could be successful in bringing new print publications to market. Our current goals are to get the MODES series out and to publish it quarterly. In the case that we’d turn this into a full-time thing with a few hundred subscribers, we’d be able to support our operations from that income as well as actually pay photographers based off that revenue.

Who is your audience/readership, and how do you gather feedback about the workbooks and greens?

The majority of our customers are from the U.S., possibly because the platforms we use and the ‘online circles’ we are in are U.S. dominated. The second largest customer base is in China.

As mentioned above, the feedback comes in the form of likes, reblogs, sales, and we also look at the photographer’s development of the work.

How many series books do you sell or hope to sell? (or how many do you hope to print and distribute?)

The MODES editions will be done in print runs ranging from 50 to 300 copies. We’ll do re-prints if there’s demand for it.

It looks like there is a size difference between the workbooks and series (and the greens too?). Is there also a quality difference in terms of the printing technology or paper being used? And a related question: Why are “greens” green?

Workbooks are 6×4.5” because 6” is the shortest the printer can make them, and 4.5” instead of the minimum 4” because the often square photos would be significantly smaller in a 6×4” edition and a larger percentage of the image lost in the gutter due to the glue binding.

Greens are instead 5.5×8.5” and staple bound, meaning they lay flat when open so you can layout the book across the spread without losing anything in the gutter. This together with the larger size forces a rethinking of the layout, and therefore also the selection and sequencing of images, and almost the entire concept of the book. You have much more freedom in playing around here than with a Workbook (seen especially in JAM) and this helps develop the concept.

They’re called Greens originally because we didn’t want to have a typical artist book design with a clean white background but instead chose a green color that would stand out more in shops and at book fairs. A second idea is that some of the books grow and shoot of green sprouts, and become the second edition, a Green. In Chinese, the Greens are called 小草 which means little grass.

The paper and printing is slightly better with the Green edition.

Compared to the iteration from Workbook to Green, does a similar feedback/internal discussion process guide the selection of photographs for the Modes edition?

Yes, the MODES titles are chosen from the Green editions. Not all titles pass from Workbook to Green, or from Green to MODES edition.

You mentioned they will have a print run between 50 and 300 copies. Is this using offset or digital printing? What is the expected retail cost?

If we end up doing 50, it will be digital print. If we do 200-300, it will be offset. Retail price will be $30. We are also using an external designer for the cover format and possibly for the layout of each edition too.

To learn more about Modes Vu, check out the website, tumblr, and Instagram account. It’s possible to order Workbooks and Greens and have them shipped from the U.S.-based POD service. I ordered the Workbook and Greens for JAM, and am looking forward to the full-sized MODES No. 1, which will be released later this year.

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