PHOTO © PAULA MCCARTNEY/COURTESY OF KLOMPCHING GALLERY, NEW YORK
On A Perch: McCartney used the book format to build suspense about the artificial birds in her images.
Positioning Your Work Within the Complex World of Photo Book Publishing
Whether you see it as a calling card, a supplemental portfolio, a stand-alone work of art or a mirror to the photographer’s identity, publishing a book of one’s photographs can be a profound accomplishment and, if done well, is even more important as a career boost. In recent years, multiple forces have converged to help place this achievement well within reach, even for those who are just starting out. Public interest in photography books is on the rise, and simultaneously, online publishing services like Blurb.com have made designing and publishing a photography book simpler and more affordable than ever before.Yet there’s more to creating an outstanding photo book than simply uploading a bunch of photos to the Internet. Photographers must narrow their work to a conceptual focus, choose their strongest images, sequence the work with an audience-aware flow, select paper size and thickness, arrange design elements, pick font styles and finally print, market and possibly even handle book sales and distribution. Success in publishing a book of your photographs can be as complex as contemplating the question: Who am I as a photographer?
Traditional Publishing vs. Do It Yourself
By default, self-publishing offers the most likely route for a photographer’s first book. Mary Virginia Swanson, a fine art photography marketing consultant, educator and portfolio reviewer who co-wrote the 2011 reference volume Publish Your Photography Book, explains that “publishers won’t start a project unless they know they ultimately will be able to move books.”
Young photographers who do decide to seek a mainstream publisher should familiarize themselves with the catalog of each press and approach publishers whose books match their aesthetic style and subject matter. Photoeye.com’s Publisher’s Showcase allows photographers and consumers to browse photography books by publisher and discern patterns within each. An indie press that usually publishes large-format coffee-table books about urban architecture will probably pass on your pitch for a pocket portraiture pamphlet. In other words, know your press.
But the growth of print-on-demand (POD) technology has transformed self-publishing into a viable, widely used and relatively inexpensive alternative to traditional book publishers, allowing many photographers to bypass the traditional route. At online publishing services such as Blurb.com or a host of other companies, photographers can download design software and then insert, sequence and arrange images, either alongside text and decorative elements or as stand-alone pictures. Alternatively, photographers can generate PDFs from pages designed with Adobe InDesign or other software before uploading the finished product to the service’s Web site. In both cases, the publishing service then prints and ships the requested number of books to the photographer and also often opens a public sales page, which the photographer can promote via e-mail, social networking sites and word of mouth. Magcloud.com offers a similar service for self-publishing in a magazine format.Lisa M. Robinson, a fine art photographer whose photography book Snowbound was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2007, explains that the quality of POD photo books has skyrocketed. “At first, I started to use POD to replace my own hand-binding to see what the printed page would look like,” she says. “But as POD improved, I really became enamored of the format.”
While the technicalities of creating a book have become more navigable in recent years, photographers still need a tremendous amount of self-knowledge prior to beginning a book project. Early in the process, photographers must pose themselves a primary question: Why do I want a book of my photographs? “It’s important to know why you want it in a book format,” Swanson cautions.
Robinson chose the book format to expand on a series of photographs she was working on. “I realized the project I was working on was more expansive than an exhibition could really handle,” she explains. “I realized a book would be appropriate to accommodate a sequence and progress of ideas.”
Paula McCartney, a photographer and bookmaker who expanded her artist’s book Bird Watching into a trade publication for Princeton Architectural Press in 2010, explains that she started making artist’s books during graduate school. “I was making very large photographic prints,” she says, “but I wanted something more intimate and accessible, something that could be held and touched, something with which you could have a one-on-one relationship.”
With Bird Watching, McCartney also wanted to build suspense and surprise through sequencing and juxtaposing particular images. Her book plays with the contrasts and similarities between real and fake by placing artificial birds in natural landscapes. The birds’ artificiality would be immediately apparent in large exhibition prints, but by contrast, she notes, “with a book, it slowly and gradually dawns on the reader by the end that the birds are not real.” Only a book format could create the effect McCartney wanted. She explains, “I see the artist’s book as a medium itself and an art piece on its own. The pictures are part of the work, but not the whole thing.”
The Many Faces of POD
While photographers can use POD to create distinct, thematic, stylized works of art, artists’ books are not the only goal of self-publishing. Robinson, for example, first saw POD as an opportunity to show a different side of her work at portfolio review events. “I brought my portfolio of prints along with the book. I could show the reviewer a sample of the prints to show the quality of the photos, as well as the books to show the breadth of the work and how it flowed together,” she remarks.
Joyce Tenneson, a photographer, educator and author of 13 highly acclaimed books of her photographs, sees POD as the future—and increasingly the present—of photographers’ portfolios. “The days of showing a portfolio as a binder in plastic sleeves is over,” she says. Tenneson claims that a student photographer’s best use of POD is, in fact, to show potential employers and curators a polished, thematically organized and smoothly sequenced book of photographs. “A book is your best calling card,” she points out. “Imagine you’re approaching a model, a client, a gallery, whatever. If you have a good book, the summation of your portfolio, it’s impressive.”Getting It Right
Regardless of a photo book’s purpose, themes and projected audience, the ultimate goal is a nimbly executed, compelling project. As a means to that end, Tenneson recommends taking classes in graphic design and bookbinding, like those offered at the Maine Media Workshops, where Tenneson teaches. Students also have a tremendous advantage in finding collaborators, she notes. When self-publishing their work, artists ordinarily have to play the roles of not only creator but also designer, publicist, marketer, writer and Web master. In a school environment, student photographers are likely surrounded by fledgling specialists in all those fields. Consider approaching a graphic design major for advice on the book layout, an information technology major for improving the book’s Web presence, a marketing major for expanding distribution and so on. Offering other students a spot on the production team for your book will enhance their résumés as well.
Swanson adds that students should seek an education from their favorite photography books. “Be mindful of design,” she advises. “Go to your library or bookstore, look at books and ask yourself, What do I love about this?”
Lastly, practice makes perfect—and print-on-demand can help make the process of trial and error incredibly tangible. “POD allows you to buy just one copy of a book, which gives you the luxury of testing ideas and trying different layouts, edits, sequences and sizes,” Swanson explains. “I constantly see artists’ work improving because every now and then, they order a POD book and check to see how it looks.”
After the Printing … What Next?
Photographers who publish a book with a trade or university press will likely receive advice or support for marketing and book sales, which may include speaking engagements, book fairs, sending free copies to prominent reviewers and cross-promotion on photography and special-interest blogs. When self-publishing, that plan is in the hands of the photographer. Self-published authors need to consider who their audience is and how it can be reached. Start with friends, family and peers who like your work and move outward to general photography lovers and groups interested in your subject matter. Get the word out through e-mail announcements, status updates on Facebook and other social networking sites, portfolio reviews and book fairs. Swanson even recommends posting a short YouTube video of your book’s contents, page by page.
In the end, your book has to speak for itself. As Tenneson puts it, “The end result is only as good as the person who’s sending those files into Blurb, for example. If your digital files aren’t good, they won’t look good in a book. If the book design is not good, those images won’t sing to their audience.”
HOT OFF THE PRESS: For more tips on photography book publishing, pick up Publish Your Photography Book by Darius D. Himes and Mary Virginia Swanson, an invaluable resource that debuted in March 2011. Published by Princeton Architectural Press, $29.95ISBN-10: 1568988834
Used with permission. Available from booksellers or direct from this link.