PhotoPlus Seminar: Getting Your Photography Book Published
Darius Himes, publisher of Radius Books, told the audience at the “Publishing Your Photobook” seminar at PhotoPlus Expo that having an honest assessment of the potential audience for your photo book “is almost as important as doing the work.” Knowing who would want to buy a book of your photos helps you determine whether to approach a large or small book publisher, what price you should put on the book, what its format and design should be, and how you can market it.
Himes presented the seminar along with fine art consultant Mary Virginia Swanson. They have co-authored Publish Your Photo Book, to be published this fall by Princeton Architectural Press. Like their book, their PhotoPlus seminar covered the process of publishing a book from conception to sales, explained how to approach an acquisitions editor at a traditional publishing house, and covered some of the ways that photographers are using print-on-demand publishing and other self-publishing options either to deliver books to readers or to create book proposals.
Himes said photographers who want to publish a book should consider what they hope to accomplish: You may feel a book is the best medium for telling a story or sharing a documentary project, or “maybe you want to increase your visibility,” he said. He detailed the steps to publishing a book, beginning with “evaluating and refining your concept.” He said that Andrew Zuckerman’s book Birds, a collection of images of birds shot on white seamless, was a simple idea “that opened a door to a huge audience” of bird watchers and nature enthusiasts.
Once you’ve determined the subject of your book, knowing who potential buyers are is the next and crucial step. Himes said, “If your audience is ‘anyone who loves photography,’ that’s not a specific audience. Publishers don’t want to hear that.” He had a cautionary tale for photographers who think a collection of their art can find an audience. The publishers of Aaron Siskind at 100, a collection of the influential photographer’s work, chose to print only 3,000 copies. Himes said that demonstrated the publisher’s “realistic” understanding of the limited audience for a book about “a giant of photography.”
Himes gave the audience a homework assignment: Take your three favorite photo books off the shelf, and write a description of what each book is about. Then list its elements: page count, number of illustrations, trim size, type of paper, the amount of text and captions, the design and pacing of the photos. He also suggested making a note of whether you love the photography or its subject matter. “The more time you spend dissecting [these books], the more you’ll get a sense of what you want for your own book,” whether you work with a traditional publisher or choose to publish it yourself.
In her presentation of self-published photo projects, Swanson noted that print-on-demand services like Blurb or lulu.com aren’t the only ways to deliver photo books to customers. For example, William Neill, who has an archive of images of Yosemite, has made e-books of his work available for download on his web site. Many of his readers liked the e-books so much, they have asked him to publish printed books.
Swanson said any photographer considering the self-publishing option should ask themselves if they are ready to perform all the tasks that would traditionally be performed by the content editor, designer, production manager and sales and publicity team at a publishing house. Self-publishing also requires the photographer to act as distributor and publicist, so it’s essential to know not only who your audience is, “ but how to reach them,” she said.
“Don’t underestimate the value of a blog in building an audience,” Swanson noted. She cited Phillip Toledano’s Days With My Father, in which the photographer documented caring for his senile father in the last years of his life. The web site Toledano set up for the project generated so many comments from parents, children and people who work with the elderly, Swanson said, that he could show publishers the emails of more than 30,000 people who had asked him to contact them when the work was published as a book. Published by Chronicle, the book sold 8,000 copies and is being printed in other languages at the request of customers. Himes noted that the trim size of Days With My Father is just 8 x 6 inches; it has sold far more copies than Toledano’s first book, Bankrupt, which Twin Palms printed exquisitely in a large format.
For photographers who want to approach a traditional book publisher, Himes explained how proposals are typically submitted. All publishers accept blind submissions, he said, though few of those are ever published. Many publishers and acquisition editors also meet with photographers at portfolio reviews. Himes noted that he first saw David Taylor’s images of the US-Mexican border at a portfolio review, and Radius is soon to publish the project as Working The Line. Sometimes an agent or a book packager will help a photographer develop a book proposal and bring it to a publisher. Their proposals might also include ideas for licensing ancillary products like cards and calendars. “You don’t need an agent if your work is only about you and your work,” Himes noted, adding that they won’t want to publish photographers unless their subject has a broader appeal.
Himes warned that the typical photo book, which has a print run of less than 5,000 copies, is not profitable. For example, he noted that David Taylor’s Working the Line is printed in a slip case with an accordion-folded sheet of Taylor’s images of border monuments. Despite the high production costs that went into the book, Himes said, the non-profit Radius Books chose to price it at only $50, “regardless of its cost,” because they wanted his look at the Mexican border and the work of border patrols to find a wider audience. To support its publishing projects, Radius Books often seeks grants, Himes said. The costs of the $50 trade edition of Working the Line are partly underwritten by a limited edition version of the book, which comes with a numbered print and sells for $700.
Swanson began and ended the seminar with advice on marketing. She told photographers that even if their book projects aren’t done, they should register the domain name of the book’s title now, so they can launch a dedicated web site for the book later. “Publishers will like that,” she said. Web sites help photographers attract readers, pre-sell their books, and also serve as online press kits.
She told photographers their labors cannot end when their book is published. “Be a partner with your publisher to market your book” through book signings, e-mail marketing and by contacting editors and bloggers. When she and Himes interviewed a distributor for their book Publishing Your Photo Book, Swanson noted, they were told that for a photo book to succeed, the photographer must be actively involved in its marketing and publicity.