Digital printing has lowered the costs and other barriers to self-publishing, small publishers keep cropping up with interesting projects, and photographers are exploring new forms and formats for artist’s books. Aperture publisher Lesley A. Martin told PDN in 2018, “The beauty of where we’re at right now is that there are many different options for making a book.” At the same time, the challenges have also increased, thanks to the closing of bookstores and the pricing pressure of online retailers who expect a discount. Because the print runs for photo books are small and the production costs are high, many publishers now expect photographers to front the costs of production, especially if the photographer is seeking extra photos, special papers or other design elements that add to the cost. For a photographer seeking exhibitions or credibility in the eyes of clients, a photo book can be “the most expensive business card you’ll ever produce,” says photographer Lindsay Morris, who published her first book, You Are You (Kehrer Verlag), in 2015.
To understand what options photographers have to publish a photo book, and what kind of deals they can hope to make with book publishers, PDN has talked to editors who evaluate photographers’ pitches, and photographers who have experience pitching, publishing and marketing their photo books. Here are excerpts from articles covering multiple aspects of the publishing process. PDN subscribers can read the full versions of these stories and find information about editing and designing a book on PDNOnline.
PDN spoke with five experienced book editors and publishers, at both specialty photo book publishers and large trade publishers, to get their insights into what photographers should consider when they’re thinking about pitching a photography book idea. Compiling their comments, PDN came up with five questions every photographer should ask themselves before trying to publish a book—complete with a flow chart to help you determine whether your project is a book, and the most appropriate route to publication.
Of the five questions photographers need to ask themselves, the most important might be: Who is your audience? Researching and understanding the audience will not only help you pitch your project to publishers, it will also help you understand what form—trim size, quantity, price point—makes sense for your book. Eric Himmel, VP and Editor-in-Chief at Abrams, notes that to pitch a trade publisher, “You need to have some kind of connection with an audience, but I don’t think it has to be a super large audience. I think it has to be a super engaged audience.”
Photographers Jesse Burke and Lindsay Morris were under no illusions that they would earn much money from the books they each published in 2015. What surprised them was how hard-won every book sale would be. Both worked tirelessly for months on promotions, with only modest sales to show for it, but both said they received other benefits. Burke used his book of personal work, Wild & Precious, to take his career in a new direction. Morris, whose book You Are You looks at a camp for gender non-confirming kids and their families, used the press for the book to advocate for transgender children.
Burke worked with Daylight Books to release Wild & Precious in October 2015. “The reason it got so much exposure was because we marketed the shit out of it for a year, starting shortly before publication,” Burke says. His marketing team included Daylight publicist Andrea Smith and his studio manager. The publicity built “like a big snowball,” he says.
Burke received 500 books to sell on his own. But he wasn’t soliciting sales directly. He explains, “My overall goal was to get exposure for the project,” which he hoped would bring invitations to exhibit his work, raise environmental awareness, bring assignments, and last but not least, drive book sales. “Galleries are more inclined to give you an exhibition if there’s book,” he said. The book, made up of images he made during road trips with his daughter, attracted new types of assignment work.
Morris covered most of the publishing costs of You Are You by raising $41,665 from 437 backers on Kickstarter. That freed her
“to focus on the message” of the project, she says, “and not get hung up on profit.” Still, there were 3,000 books to move. She said, “I’ve gone aggressively after press worldwide.” A cover story in The New York Times Magazine featuring her images and an interview with the BBC seeded opportunities for a traveling exhibition. Her next goal, she said, was traveling the exhibition to regions that are most resistant to accepting gender non-conforming kids.
Jeanine Michna-Bales had spent years researching and making photos of landmarks and safe houses along the Underground Railroad, the route slaves followed from Louisiana to freedom north of the Canada border. She published her book of foreboding, nighttime photos of stops along the route, Through Darkness to Light, in 2017. In an article about the making of the book, she told PDN that before landing a contract with Princeton Architectural Press, she gleaned advice from editors and consultants she met at portfolio reviews in 2013. She used their advice to put together a packet of information about the history of the Underground Railroad, and began hitting more portfolio reviews.
At the end of each review, she would hand over a packet that gave editors time to absorb some of the information her book presented.
It included an artist statement, a synopsis of her research, thumbnail images, and examples of some of the 19th century ephemera, such as maps and newspaper advertisements, that she intended to include in the book to give her photographs historical context.
Michna-Bales says her leave-behind packet was inspired by her previous experience as an art director for agencies including TBWAChiatDay and McCann in San Francisco. To pitch campaigns to advertising clients, “You had creative briefs, so you talked about target audience, and unique selling points. I had that in the back of my mind,” she explains. “[I] thought about who the book would appeal to.”
Minor Matters Books, the publishing house created by publishing veteran Michelle Dunn Marsh and her partner Steve McIntyre, has a unique business model: Each of their projects has to pre-sell 500 copies within six months in order to go to press. If Minor Matters and the artist can’t generate those 500 pre-sales, the book isn’t published. Those who buy a book during the pre-sale are considered “co-publishers,” and they receive credit in the book if it goes to press. Three years on, PDN asked Dunn Marsh about the role that marketing and personal networks can play in helping sell a photo book—and the reasons some photo books fail to find an audience.
“It can be really tough to tell when something finds its audience and inspires people to take the action of buying, versus just a ‘like’ on Facebook,” she said. She noted that books by mid-career photographers who have built up an audience committed to their work and have “a network of support buying and promoting the book” have sold well. When it comes to publicity and sales, she said, “The artist is the best possible sales tool.” She referred to events promoting Lisa Leone’s book on hip-hop and Alice Wheeler’s Outcasts & Innocents: Photographs of the Northwest, featuring images of Seattle’s youth culture and music scene in the 1990s. “A combination of our promotion and the artist saying why a book is important to them engages people.”
Educator and consultant Mary Virginia Swanson selected resources that can be useful to anyone considering self-publishing a photo book or exhibition catalogue. Her comprehensive list includes custom digital and offset printers, a newsprint producer and several on-demand printers. She also suggests several ways you can learn about bookmaking, book design and book sales, including educational resources and workshops, book fairs and competitions.
In 2014, PDN asked photographers to explain the deals they made with book publishers. The goal was to compile a list of terms and conditions that any photographer should consider when negotiating a contract with a publishing house. Arrangements varied not only from publisher to publisher, but also within book publishing houses, depending upon variables such as the photographer’s reputation and publishing histories, the book design and specifications, the target market, and other factors.
There were photographers who contributed no production costs at all or only paid for preproduction steps such as scanning images and match prints. Some photographers chose to hire a freelance editor or a designer. Others contributed between $18,000 and $35,000 to pay for production, including special design elements they stipulated, such as foldout pages, special papers and spot varnish. Typically, photographers received 50 free copies of their book. One photographer decided to buy 500 books at 50 percent of retail, and sold them “as I knew I could move a lot of books on my own.”
Ryann Ford’s experience publishing her first book, The Last Stop, about America’s vanishing roadside rest stops, underscores the hard choices and compromises that photographers have to make to get their first book published. With the help of an agent, she sent the proposal to 20 to 30 publishers, most of whom wanted to produce it as a $24.99 paperback. Ford says, “It came down to my dreams and visions for the project. I really, really wanted the book to be a masterpiece.” Eventually, powerHouse Books said yes, “But they needed assurance it was going to be profitable for them.” They asked Ford to run a Kickstarter to gauge interest in the project, and to subsidize publication. With a lot of work, she raised $35,000. When she signed with powerHouse, she specified the designer she wanted. The publisher also paid for a publicist. The publicity helped sales, but the interviews took Ford away from paying assignments.
Based on the success of The Last Stop, Ford says she may now be in a position “to get a much better deal” with a publisher for a future book. But she’s not rushing to publish another one, because of the investment of time and money it takes. If you are set on a particular creative vision for your book, Ford says, “then sometimes you have to make compromises like I did.”
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