Book Marketing

What Jenny Sampson Learned About Photo Book Promotion and Marketing from Publishing Skaters – PDN Online

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The cover of Sampson’s book. © Jenny Sampson

When Daylight Books offered in 2016 to publish Jenny Sampson’s tintype portraits of West Coast skateboarders, she was thrilled. “That was validation,” and a chance for exposure, the photographer says. But the experience turned out to be an education as well as a career milestone. 

“I didn’t really know how to plan for [promotion] once the book was published,” Sampson says of her book called Skaters, which Daylight released in October 2017. Despite her promotional missteps, Sampson is proud of the book and considers it a success. About two-thirds of the print run has sold within 18 months, she says, adding: “It’s still helping me promote my work and open doors.”

After talking to other photographers about their experience working with Daylight, Sampson signed a book contract with the publisher for a print run of 1100 copies. Daylight required her to pay half the production costs. Sampson declines to specify the amount, but says it was a big investment. “I used savings and borrowed [money] to make it happen.” When Daylight released the book, it held 800 copies, and gave Sampson 300. Both parties retain all revenues from sales of their respective allotments.

Daylight provided promotion for Skaters early on, featuring the book on its website and at book fairs. Daylight also hired publicist Andrea Smith to promote Skaters to her extensive list of media contacts. “I got really good press,” Sampson says, naming several online publications that featured her work. “The Guardian did a write-up. I couldn’t believe it!”

But Sampson was slow to realize that promotion was her responsibility, too. “I was surprised I had to do so much, but I didn’t know what the norm was.”

Sampson had created an Instagram for her book leading up to its release. That helped attract attention in the skater community. But beyond that, she didn’t have a clear idea of what she could or should do.

“izzy, santa rosa, 2017.” © Jenny Sampson

Sampson struggled to figure it out. “Part of it was asking Daylight: What are you going to do? What’s next? And they would be like: You have to do this, you have to do that,” the photographer says. For instance, Sampson didn’t realize she was supposed to arrange talks and book signings at bookstores. “I asked Andrea [Smith] about the bookstore stuff, and she said, ‘That’s something you have to do on your own, because you know where you can draw [an audience].’”

Part of Samson’s mistake, she explains, was thinking she had to have her book in hand before she started contacting bookstores.  “Had I started in maybe September, that might have been better,” Sampson says. “I could have covered a lot more ground. In hindsight, it seems so obvious, but this was the first time [I had published a book].”

Daylight publisher Michael Itkoff says he makes it clear to artists at the outset of the publishing process what “optional activities artists can do to drum up promotion on their end.” He says he recommends to artists that they use their own contacts to get press coverage, and arrange talks, book signings and exhibitions. Artists aren’t required to do any of that, he emphasizes, but those who do often have more successful books. “It’s their opportunity to take the book and leverage it into the next stage of their careers,” he adds. 

“You have to be really good at selling yourself and putting yourself out there. You’ve got to fake it a lot of times.”

— Jenny Sampson

Sampson hustled to make up for lost time once her book came out. She made in-person visits to bookstores in the Bay Area and Seattle, where she used to live. Sampson met some book buyers and store event organizers in person, and reached others by email. She succeeded in getting some stores that weren’t carrying her book to stock it, and she was able to organize a handful of talks. 

Green Apple [Books in San Francisco] said yes immediately,” Samspson says. “And at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, fortunately the [events] person I talked to was into skating. She loved the book, so she said yes.” Sampson also arranged talks at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle and SF Camerawork.

But some popular bookstores turned Sampson down because she is not well-known enough to draw large crowds. Others declined because of the photographer’s timing. “Once the book was out for over six months, bookstores were like, ‘It’s too old. We’re just doing book talks with books just coming out,’” Sampson explains.

Daylight has offered to publish a second book featuring Sampson’s portraits of female skaters. But she says, “I can’t afford it, honestly.” 

Sampson’s Eastman View Camera No. 2-D and portable darkroom tent, set up at the Berkeley Skatepark, March 2019. © Jenny Sampson

If she manages to raise the money to publish another book, Sampson says she’ll not only start her promotion effort sooner, but go about it more assertively. For instance, she will send more than just one email blast to her contact list. “To my detriment, I didn’t send out enough” to promote Skaters, she says.

Sampson says she will also be less reluctant to ask for help with everything from production (eg, finding someone to write an introduction) to promoting and selling. Asking friends, acquaintances and even strangers for help is an essential part of the publishing process, she says.

“You have to be really good at selling yourself and putting yourself out there. You’ve got to fake it a lot of times,” Sampson says. “I think I was overwhelmed and afraid of rejection.” 

That prevented her from trying to organize an East Coast book tour, for instance. “In hindsight, all these people I’ve met with [at portfolio reviews], I could say, ‘Hi, I want to do a tour out on the East Coast. Do you have any ideas? Do you have any spaces that you think would host me?’ It seems so easy now, but at the time, it was so overwhelming.”

Sampson encourages other photographers who want to publish books to attend portfolio reviews to get their work noticed and to build relationships in the photo industry. That was one of the most important steps she took toward making her book a success, she says. The people you meet at reviews “are most often exceedingly supportive, and even if they don’t want to show your work, they’re available [to help] in other ways. Remember that, and be kind.”   

Related Links:
What to Consider Before You Pitch Your Photo Book

Want to Publish a Photo Book? Here’s What You Need to Know

How to Pitch Your Photo Book to Publishers

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