This is a guest blog by Miki Johnson, a former editor of the RESOLVE Photo Blog and social media strategist for liveBooks. Before that she was a senior editor at American Photo magazine. She currently lives in San Francisco where she continues to support photographers and journalists through writing, promotion, programming, and consulting.
With so many photographers taking publishing into their own hands these days, there seem to be a lot of questions and more than a few misperceptions about photobook publishing floating around.
I never would have considered myself an expert in photobooks until this February when I collaborated with Andy Adams of FlakPhoto to create the Future of Photobooks project, a month-long, cross-blog discussion about how photobooks would be made, read, and sold in the future.
Over the course of the project, more than 50 photo professionals and publishers wrote posts on their own blogs about where they saw photobooks heading. I read them all, organizing them and pulling out highlights for three final discussions hosted by guest bloggers. I felt at times like the blogosphere was giving me my own private class in photobook publishing :)
With any project like that, my greatest reward was getting to redistribute that knowledge back to the community, connecting with so many new people, and seeing people get excited about the discussions. Personally I have also been asked to speak publicly about phtoobooks, most recently on a panel at the inaugural Flash Forward Festival in Toronto — along with highly respected colleagues, Alec Soth, Stephen Mayes, Darius Himes, Jason Fulford, and Andy Adams.
A number of important questions were raised during that discussion, ones I thought it would be helpful to share with anyone thinking about publishing a book or seeking a publisher for one. I’ve listed three big ideas below, but these are only starting points. It would be great to hear what you think about these, since the future of photobooks, now more than ever, truly is ours to shape.
1. Don’t expect your photobook to make money.
Aside from the very rare exception (things with large general appeal like Full Moon and A Child is Born) photobooks rarely turn a profit — in fact, many fail to break even. Darius Himes, founder of the non-profit Radius Books, pointed this out in his post for Future of Photobooks and again in Toronto. Photographers looking to have a book published often expect the same experience of lucky novelists, who receive an advance check before the book is even written. Photobooks are a completely different model. Novels cost a tiny fraction of a photobook to produce, and they have a much wider audience. Photographers (aside from Annie Leibovitz maybe) DO NOT get advances, and even top photographers with several books in publication admit they haven’t made any money from them.
2. Decide what you want to accomplish with your book.
Once you get over the idea that your book is going to make you any money, do you still want to make it? If so, why? Do you want it to be a culmination of a specific project, essentially a hand-held exhibition? Then you might need to work with a publisher that can help you find professional designers and editors. Or you could consider working with a printer directly, and producing a small editioned run of artists books. If you want your images to achieve a specific outcome, to be seen by lots of people or a few of the right people, partnering with a non-profit organization is a good option. Or you might even set aside the idea of a physical book for a viral video that can travel much further. If you simply want to be able to share your images in a tangible way, perhaps with friends and family or editors and clients, then a self-published book is great. All of these decisions and more will depend on your ultimate goal for your book — so figure that out first.
3. Be prepared to provide your own capital and, ideally, audience.
During our discussion, several photographers expressed chagrin that they had been asked to make an initial investment in order to publish their book with a publishing house. Although that may seem unfair, Darius and Jason both said that finding funding for a book was an important first step for them as publishers — as non-profits they worked together with the photographer to do that, but it’s not uncommon for publishers to ask the photographers to do it themselves. Funding may be the area that new technology can have the most effect on, through online pledge drive software like Kickstarter, or pre-sales through social media as with Lay Flat and Publication. And even when the actual funding isn’t provided online, that can still be an important place to build support and audience for a book project. For instance, look at Phil Toledano’s Days With My Father, which drew over 1 million hits as a website and allowed Phil to approach publishers with 15,000 emails from people who said they would buy the book in hard copy. Or Simon Roberts, who enlisted his fellow Brits through his blog, asking for ideas for photos to include in his We English book, thus creating an automatic base of support: Fans who were involved in the project were more likely to buy the book and share it with friends.
What steps are you taking to publish your photography book? If you are working on a book project and want to share it with us, please comment below! Thank you.