Creative: Be Real About Publishing and Put the Fun Back In

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I’m starting this post with a request. For any and all photographers attempting to publish and sell their books.


Selling books isn’t easy especially in today’s short attention span world. Even with everything stacked in your favor the odds of creating a best seller or book that sells in any real volume is incredibly low. I read the first two lines below to a friend and he said “Hey, make sure you aren’t scaring people away from Blurb,” and my response was “Well, being scared away until the time is right might not be such a bad thing if the overall expectation is so overblown there is no possible way for this person to be happy or achieve what they envision.”

A few things to think about.

1. If you have never sold a book, or even put one into the marketplace DO NOT expect to be able to live off the proceeds.(Yes, I get this all the time.) The “How am I going to make money?” question I get when the photographer realizes they built a book that is $80 per copy. The truth is you are NOT going to make money, and you probably won’t find local stores who will stock this book because they want books at a 40% discount and with their markup the asking price would be well over $100. Another truth, a significant proportion of illustrated books LOSE money regardless of how it’s printed, or by whom. The publisher might not lose money but you surely will as odds are the publisher asked you to pay for it upfront.(The most common deal I hear about, sadly.) That $20,000 you gave, or far more, is most likely GONE. You MIGHT trickle it back over time, but if you add in your time and energy, signings, manning booths trying to sell, shipping books, etc. you are WAY behind.(You have to be real about what your time actually costs.) Making books is about far more than revenue.

2. In my opinion the single most important piece of equipment you need to have is a mailing list. NOT social media. This most likely involves having a website, a real website, and a newsletter that is filled with content that is inspiring and original enough to get someone to not only sign up but to engage with their pocketbook. A mailing list and newsletter allow for FAR more than “likes.” These items allow for participation, dialogue and actual conversation.

3. Who buys your book is more important than how many people buy your book. Or even more specific, who receives your book is potentially far more important to your career than how many people buy your book. A great book is a tool. Placing one with the right curator, museum, gallery, etc. could be far more important than selling 500 copies to people you don’t know who have no bearing on your career. It might feel great to sell 500 copies, but doing so might not further your career. The goal, do both. Place books with strategic people and sell a realistic number based on your mailing list, promotion efforts, marketing efforts, etc. And more importantly PRINT the right number. How many calls have I received about “My garage is full of books and it’s not climate controlled.” “What do I do?”

4. Make the right book. Most of you don’t need a monograph and don’t have the work to support one. You just think you do. Trust me you don’t. You have to get outside opinions about the actual depth and quality of your photography. Be prepared to hear “This isn’t good enough,” or “You’re not quite ready yet.” These statements are not bad things. Far from it. They are saving you from yourself and also offering you a better chance for success when you get to the point when you are no longer hearing them.

5. Artist driven books, overall, don’t sell as well as story driven books. The artist driven book you are after might be more about ego than anything else. Ask yourself, “Does the world need another book like this?” If you can find a valid reason, then go for it with all your heart. If you can’t find a reason then keep working. Don’t give up, just get better. Also, think about a story driven collaborative book for your first mission. Share the cost, share the story, combine efforts so you can focus on making the absolute best work you can possibly make.

6. Blockbusters are real, even with photobooks. A few months ago I met someone who is rumored to have sold a million copies of his photobooks. After looking at his books, and his client list, and career longevity, partners, design, actual photography and publishers I’m not surprised. Incredible work at every turn. These people are incredibly rare but so damn cool and motivating. The moral here, it’s possible if you make unique work and have a complete plan for a real career of which the book is only a part. I’ve always said you can get hot on IG, or run with a trend and it might get you a solid year or two but it won’t get you a career. Careers take patience, consistency, trust and dedication beyond belief.

7. When you get rejected by the yet another publisher, and in a frustrated fit of rage you turn to self-publishing then contact me with this statement, “I couldn’t get a deal, so now I’m going to try Blurb and IT BETTER WORK,” please stop, take a tranquilizer and do not attempt to publish anything until your brain returns to normal. Not getting a publishing deal isn’t my fault and it is certainly not Blurb’s fault. Creating books out of anger or desperation never ends well. I’ve been “threatened” like this many times over the years, but I have not once seen these people create something that works. Just keep working, refine your material and stay positive. Some of the most popular books in history were rejected by dozens and dozens of publishers, who typically don’t know what sells. I know one photographer who was rejected by forty publishers, rudely mind you, but the forty first said “Not only am I publishing this work I’m also going to pay for the second book.” Both books went on to sell many thousands of copies in many languages, and that photographer has gone on to publish twelve books in fifteen years. All traditionally done. She is a beacon of what is possible. And, she doesn’t take shit off of anyone.

8.Be careful asking for money from strangers on a project that is entirely focused on YOU. Does the world need to pay for another artist driven book? And when I say “artist driven” I mean a book with a singular purpose of showing off how good you are as a photographer? The short answer across the board, “No.” Story driven books on the other hand. Okay, now we are getting interesting. Let’s say you are doing a book with a current, political angle that has a time element and international implications. You are on a clock, are working on something the mainstream media has no interest in because they are so fixated on click bait, celebrity and trolling politicians; but you feel this story will eventually have impact a hundred years from now after our species has destroyed the planet, ourselves and a few survivors are beginning to emerge from the smoldering rubble. By all means, crowdfund that sucker. Keep the backend clean, don’t give too much and stick to the timeline and promises like a military vet.

9. Do your homework. Publishers are like fingerprints. Unique. They each have a catalog, which you can access, so before you go dropping your project on their door study in great detail what they actually do and what they have done in the recent past. Would you take a war book to an architectural press? No, but I’ve seen people do it. Would you take a book of intense, black and white documentary work to a press that prints how-to books about self-improvement. No, but I’ve seen people do it. Would you take your portraits of animals book to a press that just published a book about animal portraits the week before? Maybe, but I would surely know about that other book and explain how your work adds to the conversation.

10. Be able to talk about your work and the context of your work. Hint….”context” means you have to know about other people. Put down your IG feed for a moment and go to the library. Know how and where your work fits in the great empire of photography. Also know how to speak about your work. Even if you get rejected there will be a better chance of getting a second meeting if you can verbalize your intent. Write it out first, get it edited, test it on friends then go forth.

11. High-end photobook stores are as much about curation as they are about sales. Know this, study this, visit them, talk to them AND FOR THE LOVE OF GOD BUY FROM THEM. How many photographers have I met with who are so driven to publish, and so driven to sell unrealistic volume of books who never look at anyone else’s books, never buy other people’s photobooks and never go to photobook stores? How many? A LOT. This just kills me. We live in the Age of Narcissism and there is no better way to prove your delusion than by operating this way. I’m just going to say this right now, the odds of you coming to the table with something entirely new are very, very low. The vast majority of working photographers are derivative, including me. I’ve never done ANYTHING that was truly unique. So, this doesn’t mean you quit. This means you study, yes study, what has been done before. Not just the photography but the books as well. Then you add to the dialogue by referencing these past works, or referring to them or using them as inspiration and ADMITTING you used them for inspiration. It’s okay. The worst thing you can do is show your work to a publisher who says “Oh, this reminds me of Salgado’s Workers project,” and you ask “Who?” You might think I’m joking, but I’ve met with “Pros” who didn’t know any other photographers. Not good. Embarrassing.

12. Bookmaking should leave a permanent smile on your face. DO NOT allow the “Masters in Photography” crowd to convince you that bookmaking is something you have to suffer for over “X” amount of time. This is total BS. Want to suffer? Watch the news, fake or otherwise. Go to the DMV. Watch a CSPAN session of congress. THESE are things tailor made to make you suffer. I’ve heard people say “If you don’t work on a book for “X” amount of time it’ can’t be good.” No, no, no, no. Lies. These folks could take the fun out of a piñata.

13. 800 million. There are 800 million starving people in the world and they don’t care about you, your work, your IG following or your books. And they never will. Use this in two ways. Use this information to keep things in perspective and use it to get motivated to help. Be more than a photographer. Just being a photographer now isn’t enough. You have to be human, smart, well rounded, concerned, interested, etc. Everyone has a camera, photography due to the internet and social has been devalued to a level it will never recover from and it just doesn’t have the impact it once did. So you gotta be MORE. How about an anthropologist who happens to use photography? How about a sustainability consultant who happens to use photography? I assume that 86.8% of all people I run into have a Canon 5D Mark IV and consider themselves a “professional photographer.” This doesn’t bode well for cutting through the noise.

14. Perfect sucks. I’ve never met a perfectionist who made an interesting book. NOT ONE. NEVER. NOPE. They all make boring books that look like what people were doing in 1975. I was wearing overalls and a red and white, polka dot, train conductor hat in 1975, which is a look I’m hoping returns with a vengeance. The point being, give it a rest. You aren’t perfect and neither is your work. Make a book with FEELING. Make a book with STYLE, and make a book with the best possible work you can make no matter how long it takes. And takes chances already. Geez. If I see another “urban, abstract landscape” book void of people I’m going to puke.

15. Don’t listen to me. Become your own artistic tip of the spear. Blaze a new trail. Tell me I’m wrong. Prove me wrong. BE ORIGINAL. But be prepared to work harder for it than you can possibly imagine.

16. Believe. Believe in something greater than your photobook. A sunrise, flowers, baby ducks, whatever.

17. Know going in that self-publishing is incredibly complex. For everyone. That’s okay. Learn, utilize and discard. Learn, utilize and discard. Inch your way forward and take your time. Think of a pie chart. Do I have all the pieces? The actual work at the highest level possible? The design, sequence, the right materials at the right price at the right volume, marketing, promotion, distribution, follow up? It’s a lot to consider but it’s the price of admission.

Comments 9

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  1. That was a long and detailed post, thanks Daniel. I would only add that when people look at other photographer’s books they study the layout, typeface etc. – not just look at the photographs in the book.

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      Yep. If you are a bookmaker or wannabe bookmaker than study the parts. Including the bind, cover material, paper, endsheets, etc.

  2. Point No. 13 – “…Be more than a photographer. Just being a photographer now isn’t enough. You have to be human, smart, well rounded, concerned, interested, etc. …”

    Lots of useful advice in this post but the point as noted above, stokes me as the most important. Try it folks and see where it gets ya! You will be pleasantly surprised I think.

    And point No.8 – Great point. If I never receive another email from a photog wanting me to donate to his vanity book it will be too soon. Get over yourselves and produce something beyond what YOU think is important. You aren’t changing the world, or a particular situation… However, you may be changing the world for one person, one individual… IF you follow the first quoted portion of the overall post in Point No. 13. Maybe that is enough.

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      I think back to 1992 when I got out of Uni. The different paths I had. I wish I would have taken a step back from photographer, but as we all know….that damn hindsight thing….

  3. I am increasingly running in to people who are focused on making their Magnum Opus. Their first book is THE BOOK, it’s an important summation of a body of work, if not their entire life. The story is always one of incredible toil, a year or two years, spent going back and forth and up and down and sideways.

    For every one of those you hear, there have got to be 10, 20, 100 that failed. The task is that gigantic.

    So my add-on point would be something you hammer a lot: Make books. Lots of books. Fun books, stupid books. Make a book in 1 day, livebook a book, whatever. Then, when you DO want to do your Magnum Opus, you won’t have to learn everything about book making in addition to all the Magnum Opus stuff.

    Books, for me, are a medium of expression, not a road to… anything. I make a book the same way I make a picture or a bookshelf.

    But by now, if I *do* want to do a Magnum Opus and try to sell 1000 copies of My Important Book, well, I will have already got the pictures, the book part isn’t going to kill me, so I can focus on the “how the hell am I going to sell 1000 copies” part.

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      And frankly, doing the Magnum Opus might require a team. Editor, designer at the VERY least. Then you could throw in book agent, publicist, etc. Not to mention working with the team at the publisher, or if you are self-publishing, working with the printer, paper supplier, etc.

      And yes, books for fun. “Trivial” books, which in my experience are just about the most important, are essential.

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