Photo Books

Book Publishing: The Cost and Benefits of Creative Control

November 6, 2017

By David Walker

Layout © powerHouse. Photo © Ryann Ford

Ryann Ford’s book, The Last Stop, was published by powerHouse in 2016 and has since sold out. Ford is now considering a second edition. Layout © powerHouse. Photo © Ryann Ford

Fifteen months after its release, Ryann Ford’s book about America’s vanishing roadside rest stops has sold out of its first print run of 3,000 copies. Called The Last Stop, the book turned out just as Ford envisioned it, and she’s thrilled by its success. “It was and is one of the best things I’ve ever done for my career” because of all she learned from the experience, and the “street cred” it brings with clients. “They respect you more.”

But she’s in a dilemma, now that bookstores are trying to order more copies. “I would love to publish a second edition,” she says. The problem, she says, is that her publisher, powerHouse, is asking for another “subsidy”—amounting to many thousands of dollars in addition to what she paid to publish the first edition. Ford isn’t sure it is worth the investment.

“Books are so hard: the amount of work that goes into it, and the amount of expense that you put forward,” she says. “I don’t have any bad things to say about powerHouse. I knew going in they were a pay-to-play publisher, but I’m so grateful to them because I was able to get the book I dreamed of.” For its part, powerHouse denies discussing a subsidy with Ford to reprint the book.

In any case, Ford’s experience underscores the hard choices and compromises that photographers have to make to get their first book published. Ford, who specializes in interiors and architecture, began working on the project in 2008. She kept it to herself for several years. “I didn’t want anyone else to run with the idea, and I wanted to fully explore it before I showed it,” she says. “And some publishers don’t want anything that’s had any exposure,” even on a photographer’s own website.

Around 2013, she finally showed the project to legendary designer DJ Stout, whom she had met at a Pecha Kucha event in Austin. “He loved the images, and gave University of Texas Press a sneak peak,” Ford says. “UT Press was my dream for placement, but they didn’t know me from Adam. They said thanks but no thanks. I was devastated.”

She decided to publish the work other ways. Photo-Eye ended up featuring a portfolio of her images in April 2013. Editors at The New York Times Magazine saw it and published some of the images. “And that snowballed everything,” Ford says. NPR, The Atlantic, Fast Company and others picked up the project for their blogs, and Ford started getting fan mail from people sharing personal memories of the rest stops in her photographs.

A book seemed possible again. With the help of Martha Hopkins, an Austin book agent she met through a friend, Ford spent eight or nine months developing a 13-page book proposal. It explained the concept and execution, the potential market and competition, and a plan for marketing.

Hopkins sent the proposal to 20 or 30 publishers. Most declined, but two said they wanted to publish the project as a $24.99 paperback. Ford wasn’t interested. “After all the work I put into it, I didn’t want it to be a novelty gift book,” she says. “It came down to my dreams and visions for the project. I really, really wanted the book to be a masterpiece.”

© Ryann Ford

A rest stop in Galveston, Texas. © Ryann Ford

She eventually got a “maybe” from powerHouse. “They do beautiful books,” she says. “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.

To help launch her Kickstarter, Ford hired a friend who had done a successful Kickstarter of his own. Her fundraising goal was $25,000, which covered the printing and design subsidy as well as costs of the donor rewards. She launched the fundraiser in November 2014, and then spent a month “at the computer for 18 hours a day. I don’t think people are prepared for the amount of work it takes to be successful with Kickstarter,” Ford says.

She spent her days appealing to everyone she knew for donations, pitching the project to media outlets, and doing interviews with many that were hungry for blog content. She also posted to Twitter and Facebook repeatedly. “I noticed that when I walked away from the computer for a break, the pledges would stop, so I got back on there, tweeting and sharing. It was like stoking a fire. As soon as you stop, it stops.”

To her surprise and the publisher’s, she raised $35,000. PowerHouse said, “Yes, of course we want to do this project now,” Ford says. She hadn’t yet signed a contract, and says it crossed her mind that she was in a position to approach other publishers, or even self-publish the book. But she decided to sign with powerHouse.

“Looking back I’m not sure I would have made the same choice,” she says. “At that point, I was very naive. I thought that books from publishers look more legit. Obviously that’s not the case anymore. There are many award-winning self-published books. But at that point I was tired, and ready for a little help. Had I self-published, all the distribution would have been up to me. That seemed like a daunting task.”

But Ford did insist on working with DJ Stout to design the book, a condition powerHouse agreed to. “I got 100 percent creative control,” she says. Ford’s “advance” was in the form of 400 copies of her book, which she was able to sell. The publisher also paid Sara Rosen to handle publicity, and Ford says Rosen was responsible “for so much of the great press the book got.”

That publicity turned out to be a double-edged sword. Ford says she did “non-stop interviews” for the first three months following publication. It eventually interfered with her assignment work. “Finally I said, OK, I can’t be doing interviews and not getting much income. I need to get back to my normal shoots.”

Because her book sold out relatively fast, Ford thinks a second edition has the potential to continue selling over a period of years. But the cost may not be worth it, she says. Craig Cohen, powerHouse executive publisher, says the publishing house never discussed a subsidy for a second printing with Ford. “The first printing sold out but demand has dwindled so a second printing is on hold pending an uptick in demand,” he explains.

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.

Her advice to others trying to publish books is “to be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever worked before.” Early career photographers will have more limited options with publishers than established photographers, she says, adding, “I would maybe wish other photographers just a little bit more luck than I had.”

But if you are set on a particular creative vision for your book, “then sometimes you have to make compromises like I did. Sure, financially it may not have been ideal. I have some regrets, but having this book come out the way it came out? That’s all I really wanted.”

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