During her PhotoPlus seminar titled “To Be Published, or Self Publish,” Mary Virginia Swanson, consultant and co-author of Publish Your Photography Book,
ran through the steps involved in producing and marketing a photo book, but again and again she returned to the questions photographers need to ask themselves before they even consider publishing their work in a book. She asked, “Have you established an audience, and have you established value for your work?” She added, “I see photographers jump ahead before they’ve built an audience for their work.” She said when photographers describe their dream book to her, some mention special papers, large format, and special binding. “I think: ‘That’s a $100 book.’” She urged the audience to consider carefully what prospective buyers will pay to own a book of their images.
She said that photographers have to ask themselves why they want to publish: “Do you have a story you want to share with everyone? Is there a cause or idea you want to advance? As an artist, is it time to get your work out?” As an exercise, she recommended that photographers answer the submission guidelines available on many book publishers’ websites. She showed the lengthy guidelines on the site of Princeton Architectural Press, which ask for a “project description and audience assessment” in eight pages or less. “I feel that if you can complete the Princeton Architectural Press submission guidelines, you can talk to any publisher,” she said. Filling out answers to their questionnaire can help photographers refine their proposals, Swanson said, because “it gets you into the mind of the publisher.” Portfolio reviews, she noted, also provide opportunities to meet two or three book publishers who will “fire back questions” that can help a photographer articulate a book idea.
When shopping for a publisher, she said, “Understand there are small presses and major trade publishers.” A large trade publisher might have staff who can help with design, editing, production management and publicity. Swanson appreciates the attention many small presses will put into designing a book that fits the photographs, but notes that a small press “may be a one- or two-person office” that needs help from a photographer or author on tasks such as editing and publicity. Swanson says there are situations when a publisher, confident that a book can sell well, won’t ask a photographer to contribute towards the cost of production, “and may even pay a small advance.” Those deals are unusual, however. “Most publishers will ask you to contribute in some way,” she said. (For more on this point, see PDN’s article, “The Costly Business of Photo Book Publishing.“)
Whatever the size of the publishing house, she said, “author support is vital” to selling a book. Publishers “will want you to have a website and be active on social media.” While a book takes about a year from concept to binding (less if you self publish), the marketing plan has to begin much earlier, she says, starting with registering a domain name for the book project, planning exhibitions and book signings, and reaching out to potential buyers. Photographers may be affiliated with an association that would buy some copies at a pre-publication cost, or they may be represented by galleries that will buy copies to sell to collectors. Limited edition books have become increasingly collectible, Swanson noted. These are often printed in small quantities, include a signed, limited-edition print, and sell for a few hundred dollars. However, to sell these highly priced editions, a photographer needs to have “established value”—that is, demonstrated that their prints can fetch a high price.
Self-publishing gives photographers total control over design, production and marketing. Photographers who are used to managing photo productions or long-term projects may find self-publishing appealing. “Are you able to manage a publishing project? Are you able to keep to a production calendar?” She noted that print-on-demand companies like Blurb and others now offer a high degree of customization. Swanson showed images of the studio at Conveyor Arts, a production house in Jersey City, New Jersey, that specializes in small-run, custom-designed editions of artists books and exhibition catalogues, and has worked with photographers such as Paula McCartney.
Whether you design your book yourself, or work with a publishing house’s design team, Swanson recommended consulting the many resources available to learn about options for papers, format and binding. Her recommended resources include the Indie Photobook Library, which also organizes traveling shows of photo books; the site Thephotobook.wordpress.com; Aperture’s publication The Photo Book Review; the annual NY Art Book Fair; and the website of the online bookstore Photo-eye, which includes a showcase of self-published books. If you see a book you admire, she recommended reading the colophon in the back, where the typeface and type of paper used in the book is noted. “Learn the language of publishing so when you work with a designer on your book, you’ll know the vocabulary, and be able to talk about the elements.”