Jonathan Blaustein speaks with Darius Himes and Mary Virginia Swanson about their new book.
In my experience, every photographer would like a book of his or her work. It’s a given, like the misery of next month’s tax deadline. Whether we’re talking about an artist monograph proffered by an established publisher, or a 21st Century-style photo album of the family trip to Puerto Rico, everyone wants a book. Yet the process is complicated, and often opaque for the average photographer.
Mary Virginia Swanson, who’s had a long and illustrious career in the photography industry, and Darius Himes, a writer and co-founder of Radius Books, have just published Publish Your Photography Book, (Princeton Architectural Press) which I mentioned in my article about the PDN Photo Plus Expo this past fall. They allowed me to preview a pdf of the entire book earlier this winter, and agreed to answer some questions.
Suffice it to say, I think it’s a terrific resource, and well worth purchasing. The book is accessible, and laid out in an elegant manner that is easy to read. It’s a well-written, comprehensive look at the entire publishing process, from the conception of an idea through the marketing of a finished product. It also endeavors to push photographers to be honest about their desires and goals before embarking on what is obviously an arduous process. The authors have solicited expert opinions across a broad spectrum of the publishing industry, and include those other voices throughout the book. They also have a workbook section at the back, and an impressive trove of resources that will help a photographer realize their vision.
JB: The book mentions, and I would certainly agree, that all photographers would like to have their work printed in book form at some point. But I feel that many photographers, myself included, view a book as an abstraction. Publish Your Photography Book gives photographers the information necessary to move from idea to physical form. Was that one of your primary goals?
MVS: Yes, PYPB charts the path from concept through production to physical book to sales and marketing, and helps artists plan for extending the life of their title beyond its launch.
JB: Do you think that the rise in the market for photo books is actually a function of the power of the Internet? As images have become dematerialized, is it possible that photographers, long obsessed with the aging of paper, have become more invested in maintaining a connection to the history of the medium?
DH: While photobooks have had a growing collector’s market for decades, yes, I think that the Internet has played a huge role in the rise in the market. And it has played a correlative role in the interest in photography books. The publication of books like Andrew Roth’s Book of 101 Books, and the two Martin Parr and Gerry Badger volumes were extremely important in creating that interest. Market and interest are different things. The content of those books was created just ahead of the curve of the Internet marketplace.
Your suggested link between the “dematerialization” of images and the “history of the medium” as represented by photobooks is interesting, but not the full story in my opinion. What digital has done, and by digital I mean digital images and our being able to place them on, and send them around, the Internet, is to open up more possibilities for the medium. There are actually now more material ways to make a photograph, not less (as suggested by the word dematerialized). And while there is a heightened interest in some of the great photobooks of the past, there is more of a frenzy around everyone making books now, thanks to digital. So I don’t think book-making today is about a connection to the past so much as a flourishing of something very current. In many ways, the possibilities of digital print-on-demand have fed that.
JB: “Who do you want to reach, and what type of book will best access that audience?” is a direct question that you pose to your readers in the book. It’s a great point of entry to the process, and one that I think underpins the message of this book. The theme of asking difficult questions of oneself recurs throughout. So, allow me to turn it back to you. Your audience is very clear here. (Photographers.) I’m more curious about the why. Why did you want to publish this book, and why now?
DH & MVS: We wanted to publish a book that would be useful to photographers of all backgrounds and aspirations. Our column, which was written for the photo-eye Booklist (2004-2007) was successful and got people thinking about and talking about bringing their work to publication. Some of the updates include increased options for print on demand, the growing market for limited-edition books and e-marketing. We wanted to extend that conversation and expand the audience.
JB: You address your reader directly in this book. Why did you choose to adopt that format?
DH: It seemed the best way. It’s a book, essentially, about how to do something, so we addressed the people who want to do that something (ie the photographers).
MVS: And the “Industry Voices” featured in our book speak directly to our readers, sharing their area(s) of expertise and advice in a clear, direct way.
JB: I worked in the restaurant industry for many years, and it was obvious why so many restaurants don’t succeed. The balance of people management, food quality, service principles, attention to detail, graphic design, interior design, marketing, and business savvy are so rarely seen in one person. So when I read the following quote, “(Books) are also multifaceted objects requiring a range of skill sets to produce that you alone probably don’t possess,” it resonated. Do you think that photographers who go the POD route ought to consider bringing in some design or marketing experts to help ensure that the end result is worth the time and effort?
MVS: I admit to seeing many POD books by artists where the design is so bad it actually hurts the work, making a really poor first impression. I say seek professional help! A fine example is “My Brother’s War” with photographs by Jessica Hines, book design by Elizabeth Avedon (Blurb 2010)
DH: The quick answer to your question is yes.. But it’s a yes that is dependent on, again, what type of book do you want to produce, and what are your goals with that particular POD book? The bigger point you bring up is recognizing your strengths and weaknesses and learning how to build a team that can help you accomplish your goals.
JB: How big do you envision your potential audience?
MVS: All those who wish to produce an illustrated book featuring their artwork.
JB: How did the two of you divvy up the workload? Did you write collaboratively, or did each of you take responsibility for different sections of text?
DH & MVS: It was definitely a collaboration. At the beginning, before we had a clear sense of the final structure of the book, we created sections and each of us took lead on the sections that made sense. For instance, Section 4, The Marketing of Your Book was a natural for Mary Virginia. The First Section, The Photography Book Phenomenon, is an adaptation of a lecture and essay I had given over the past couple years, and therefore is mostly my words. But the whole book is written with a singular voice, which emerged in the authoring and editing process and there are not sections that can be called one or the others.
JB: Some ideas in this book do seem to transcend the subject matter. Like “Organization, organization, organization is the only way to stay on track…” Are each of you genetically pre-disposed to be organized, or is it a skill you have learned and cultivated? And if the latter, do you have any advice on how to improve one’s organizational capacity?
MVS: In my view, being organized speaks to the side of pursuing an art career—and wanting to create work such as a book—that requires you to think like a business. It’s like any business—being efficient, hard working and organized will help you achieve what you want to achieve. That is all.
DH: If you’re young, beg your parents to impose more discipline and a strong work ethic on you. You’ll thank them later. Advice on being more organized? Ask others to identify how you’re disorganized and then reflect on that, work to change it, and repeat that process. We all need help.
JB: Given that this book instructs photographers on all the aspects of the physical production, and stresses good typography and design, did you feel additional pressure to perfect the design of this book?
DH: Additional pressure? No. A natural self-imposed pressure because design is so important? Yes!
MVS: Designers David Chickey and Masumi Shibata brought an extraordinary elegance to our book, for which we are forever grateful. The fact that readers won’t be able to put it down is due in great part to their design sensibilities.
JB: This book began as a collaborative column between the two of you that was published in photo-eye Booklist. I haven’t had the opportunity to review that publication, so I was wondering if you might provide a bit of back-story about how the you came to work together?
DH: When Mary Virginia and I sat down for a break during the Society for Photographic Education (SPE) conference in Newport, Rhode Island, in 2003 to draft an outline for a series of articles titled “Publishing the Photobook” that would run in photo-eye Booklist, we knew that we had the makings of a book. We are ﬁrst and foremost grateful to Rixon Reed, the owner and director of photo-eye, for encouraging the column from the very beginning. The column ran for a total of twelve installments over three years (2004–07) and was a recurring topic of conversation among photographers wherever we went.
MVS: Like the book, the column began with the concept for your book, and continued in a logical learning path towards the final “Case Studies” from those who had brought their work to publication. It was timely then, and even more so now.
JB: Did you consider releasing this information in non-book format, like a password protected website or Ipad application? Do you have any intention to supplement the printed book with web-based materials?
DH: We’ve launched a website devoted to our book (www.publishyourphotographybook.com), which will continue to grow with some of the resources from the book as well as interviews and articles about photography books not found in the published book. There is a blog within our website, too, where we will inform our readers of upcoming events, book festivals, competitions and more. We want people to come to the website for lots of reasons.
MVS: We wanted to partner with a traditional publisher for a variety of reasons. Princeton Architectural Press (our first choice!) has a great brand, particularly for the type of book this is. They also have an amazing distribution arrangement with Chronicle Books and we felt like they would be able to get this book out into the world in a big way! The content of our book draws heavily on visuals, and we haven’t yet seen many good e-books that work for illustrated books. An iPad-specific book would be interesting, but the audience for this book is pretty specific, and again, we’re not sure enough people would purchase the book just for the iPad. (A Kindle version would do a disservice to the book, design- and content-wise. Kindles are great for text-only books.)
JB: The book makes a regular distinction between books on subject matters with wide appeal versus artist monographs based upon the reputation of the artist. Given the larger sales potential of the former, would you encourage photographers to consider ways to tailor their work to appeal to larger markets?
DH: Maybe. I would primarily encourage photographers to simply be aware of that distinction and set out to make the work and a book that best satisfies their own personal goals, whatever those may be. If you find there are subject-specific audiences likely to be interested in your book, market to them, as you would naturally want to draw them to your exhibition, your website, your public lectures and more. In my opinion, it is just as hard to make a successful subject-matter driven book as it is to make a successful artist driven book. Both have their own distinct path. In the end, if you know your audience, and how to reach them, you will stand a better chance of putting your books in their hands.
JB: How has the nascent cultural shift from paper books to ebooks influenced the process of having this book published?
DH: There is no ebook version of this book, but we welcome the e-possibilities down the road. Right now, ebooks are more or less restricted to the realm of literature, not illustrated books. If I were to be an oracle, I’d say we’ll see more and more e-book versions of illustrated books. Obviously, Phaidon and a few others are dabbling in this already. Whether they impact a broader population or are limited to the art world is yet to be seen.
JB: Given the current popularity of Print-on-Demand services, I found the following statement to be an incredibly concise piece of advice to photographers. “Successful self-publishers are those who are organized and entrepreneurial at heart, who know their audience, can effectively reach that audience, and have the financial and labor resources available to take on numerous roles.”
It seems like most photographers are using POD services to make books to market themselves and their careers, rather than making a book that might sell vigorously. Do you think, under the above circumstances, that a self-published project can produce a product with viable income stream?
DH: Quick distinction here: self-published does not strictly equate with print-on-demand (POD). Self-published only implies taking on the role of “publisher” of your project, regardless of the technical means you employ to manifest that project (which could still be offset lithography, POD, Xerox, what-have-you).
MVS: Essential elements (whether published or self-published): clarity of concept, design and production that enhances the work, and a plan to get the books to your audience. Can a self-published project produce a product with a viable income stream? Absolutely.
JB: It seems as if the advice in this book could apply to artists working in media beyond photography. Did you consider calling it Publish Your Art Book, and expanding the potential audience?
DH: That’s the title of our next book.
MVS: And the one after that: Publish Your Illustrated Book(.com). But seriously, what we offer the reader in this book could apply to creating a book featuring work created in any medium, to your point.
JB: Place and time are so crucial to the nature of photography. This book feels like a snapshot of the Publishing industry as the 21st Century begins to take shape. Did you feel like you were time-stamping a period of change?
DH: Perhaps. But the information in this book is written in a way to be useful for years to come. It is not simply an aggregate of information gathered off the Internet. What we make clear in this book is hinted at in the sub-chapter heading, Behind the Editorial Door: Understanding How Publishers Work. The fundamental issues at hand in publishing a book are the same for small and large publishing houses, they are the same whether you’re making an illustrated book or an ebook of a novel.
MVS: While it is true that production techniques and marketing tools will evolve, this book is timeless. We open a door to the industry that will help you understand how to make decisions in relation to your book.
JB: Eileen Gittins, the founder of Blurb, is quoted in the book as saying, as a result of the emerging POD market “…I think we are talking about an expansion in the book industry the likes of which we have never seen before.” Do you agree?
DH: Totally. All of these new technologies are transforming, once again, the landscape and creating new opportunities. The smart and the creative will find doors opening up to them.
JB: Again and again, the industry voices included in the book mention the value of teamwork and collaboration, as a book project is almost always a group endeavor. Would you encourage photographers to burnish their communication skills before embarking on a publishing project?
MVS: You will need to effectively pitch your project in short (soundbite), medium (one page) and long forms (publication proposal), and who better to talk and write about it than you? Our book will help you “speak” the language of publishing, from the front cover to the very last page.
DH: I’m always for “burnishing communication skills.”
JB: Rixon Reed, the founder and owner of photo-eye in Santa Fe, is quoted as saying, “…I’d recommend that photographers think realistically about how big their market is before deciding on edition numbers or print runs for their books. Too many photographers have too many of their self-published books stored in boxes gathering dust in their garages.” One message that pervades your book is that photographers should think clearly about what they want and what they can realistically expect. Do you think it’s hard for photographers to hear the truth about their prospects for a successful book project?
MVS: If you look at the monographs that stand the test of time, in nearly every case the artist had established their value in the collectible print markets or editorial market prior to the release of those titles, thus building their audience for their forthcoming book(s). You should be networking, attending portfolio reviews and submitting your work to competitions NOW. Today you can build a presence for yourself and your work on the Internet, and those interested in the subject(s) you are exploring are likely to find you as well. If you know your audience (clue to realistic press run), and how to reach them (path to distribution), AND your book falls within their price range, you have a far better chance of getting your books out of storage and into their hands of buyers.
DH: And it’s not just hard for photographers. All publishers are engaged in a gambling game. There is never a way to know precisely how many people will buy any particular book.
MVS: In summary: no matter if you are published or choose to self-publish, plan on being an active participant in the marketing and distribution of your book.
JB: Alec Soth is quoted in your book as saying, “A problem I see with print-on-demand is that it can be too easy to reach a sense of accomplishment. It’s too easy to make a book with that technology, but it doesn’t guarantee that the work is any good.” Your book makes a point of encouraging photographers who are interested in the POD route to consider hiring professionals to help them with different aspects of the process. Would you agree with Alec that the ease of the process leads to less than stellar productions?
DH: Certainly. The point to remember, in my opinion, is that a book is not just a group of photographs. It’s a very specific group of photographs that have been edited (often from hundreds of others), have been sequenced in a very particular order, and then surrounded by a design and text and typography and bindings and all of that!
With book making tools so easily accessible (in the form of POD, for instance), ALL of the aspects of making a book still need to be considered. There is a whole industry that has traditionally watched over those aspects. When you take all of that onto your shoulders without having been part of that industry, it’s natural that you’ll unwittingly overlook some of those aspects.
MVS: We do feel that POD is a great way to begin to experience the editing/sequencing of your book-to-be. “Case Study” Lisa M. Robinson speaks to the value of creating unique book dummies periodically as she continued to grow her body of work SNOWBOUND, ultimately allowing her to be more critical of her body of work and better preparing her for the bookmaking process itself.
JB: Paula McCartney and Alec Soth both mention meeting with publishers at Review Santa Fe. Among the many options for making initial contact with publishers, do you feel that Portfolio Review events give photographers a better opportunity to jumpstart the publishing process?
MVS: A 20-minute meeting is a great way to introduce yourself and your work to publishing professionals. The experience of showing your work at a Portfolio Review event is often referred to as “speed dating” It is, of course, up to you to follow up and grow those relationships; this year publishers were also at the review tables of PhotoLucida, Palm Springs Photo Festival, FotoFest, PhotoNOLA and more.
DH: At Radius Books, we’ve published at least 5 books with photographers we met at review events (Michael Lundgren, Transfigurations, Renate Aller, Oceanscapes, David Taylor, Working the Line, Janelle Lynch, Los Jardines De Mexico, Colleen Plumb, Animals Are Outside Today.
Mary Virginia Swanson and Darius Himes will be offering an all-day seminar in Santa Fe, NM, on April 9, 2011. For more information, visit www.publishyourphotographybook.com.