In 2013, Robert Herman self-published The New Yorkers, a book of mostly 1970s and ‘80s street photos that is now on its third printing. In a seminar at PhotoPlus Expo last week, Herman described the steps he took to turn his archive of thousands of images into a successful photo book, from designing and printing the book to selling it himself through Amazon and bookstores nationwide.
To begin, Herman made a book dummy from an initial selection of images. He spent several years showing the book dummy to portfolio reviewers, designers and friends. Herman made his dummies with Pikto, a Toronto-based photo book printer, because he says, “Blurb’s color wasn’t as good as it is now.” By showing dummies to people for input, “all of sudden people in the photo world knew that I was making a book.” One of the reviewers he showed it to was Sean Corcoran, curator of photographs and prints at the Museum of the City of New York, who was enthusiastic about the series. When Herman eventually published The New Yorkers, Corcoran wrote an essay for it.
After trying his images in many different arrangements and revising several dummies, a friend told Herman the book would be stronger if he cut out one full signature—16 pictures—taking the book from 144 to 128 pages. Herman says the decision was painful but ultimately very helpful, leaving him with a stronger, leaner sequence of images.
To pay for scanning, a graphic designer, and the first printing of 1000 copies, Herman ran a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2011. He also raised money with help from Fractured Atlas, a fiscal sponsor. As a nonprofit, the fiscal sponsor could collect donations that were tax-deductible for every contributor who wanted to support the publication of The New Yorkers.
Herman hired a designer to make the final layout, and set out to find a printer who would be capable of printing the subtle, saturated color of the images he had made on Kodachrome. Having admired the printing of a book by Alex Webb, who also shot with Kodachrome, Herman looked up the Hong Kong printer listed on the copyright page. The company had just gone out of business, but they eventually connected him with the book’s production person, who had prepared Webb’s files for the printer.
Since color was integral to the book, hiring a production person to handle the conversion of files was important, said Herman, even though as a photographer he was familiar with color spaces and profiles. The production person translates the color work for the particular press and the particular paper. “It’s really important,” said Herman.
The production person suggested Friesens, a printer in Manitoba, where Herman found a good price. His proximity to Manitoba meant he could save on the time and cost of shipping by boat from China, and he could afford to travel to be on press while the book was printing, something he called “one of the best experience of my life” as he watched the pages come off the press and worked with the printer to make adjustments.
For The New Yorkers, Herman did his own distribution. Barnes and Noble agreed to carry the book, but as Herman learned, they only buy from distributors. So Herman worked with the book distributor Baker & Taylor to deliver books to the chain. He also found that having a distributor made it easier for libraries and other book stores to buy his book, and he marketed it to some of them using a database of emails he collected. He also sold the book on Amazon and set up meetings with book buyers at local New York bookstores, where he thought the market for his book would be strongest.
Herman continues to sell his book through the channels he developed. He says self-publishing was a daunting amount of work but allowed him the control to produce exactly the book he wanted. His second book, The Phone Book, a collection of iPhone pictures, was published by Schiffer Publishing.
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