There was a time years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter covering Washington, that the prospect of doing even one book seemed an unattainable dream. To a writer, and especially to a journalist, books are the ultimate clipping: the thing that bestows seriousness gravitas on what otherwise would be the proverbial lining of the birdcage.
Photography books can be even more impressive. Done well (and that always is the problem, no matter who the publisher may be) photography books can convey the height of the printer's art. Whether black and white or color, there is a look to high-end photo books that screams quality even, it must be said, if the photographs inside are not as good as the print job that reproduces them.
Whenever I am asked how I started as an author, I first have to admit that it surprises me to have four books behind me and to find that, in some circles anyway, I am viewed as a publishing veteran. There are any number of ways to go from original concept to wine-and-cheese reception. In the field of photography books, some of the ways literally are contradictory and my experience has been that anyone who claims one approach is always better than another is simply wrong.
This month, for example, I attended Book Expo America, the annual book fair sponsored by the American Booksellers Association and the Association of American Publishers. It filled virtually every corner of the huge Javits Center in Manhattan and even so I was told this was a mere fraction of the space taken up by the grandmother of book fairs the international version held every year in Frankfurt, Germany.
I will concede that not everything I saw in New York was wonderful. There were a lot of books on display that I thought were marginal, frivolous and just plain dumb. This accounts for the argument that such superficial, often "point-of-sale," volumes have diluted the market for more "serious" tomes and have effectively glutted the book-buying market, at least for the near future.
Still, wandering through three floors of publisher's booths, past long lines of the public paying a buck apiece to have their books signed by prominent authors, through costumed bears, princesses, Harry Potter characters and one inflatable Captain Underpants, I came to these conclusions:
We remain a nation of readers.
The book: that is, the paper and cardboard object we can hold in our hands; the thing that beguiles, informs, seduces, enrages or comforts us through its pages, is now and always will be preferable to its electronic, virtual equivalent. It is the unfair comparison of the ethereal with the corporeal. Flesh and blood humans, I am convinced, always will prefer flesh and blood books.
[And before you send me e-mails themselves the etherish equivalent of letters I concede that you are reading this piece online and not in a newspaper. Different cases, I submit. Reading the news, online or in print, is about getting current events, sports, comics, opinion you name it fast. Reading a book is not about ingesting facts in a hurry; it is about absorbing thoughts, and pictures, at leisure.]
Still, the two conclusions I came to at the Book Fair can't hold a candle to the starkest impression I gained. Namely: that if you have a book idea, with enough effort, with enough time, with enough nerve and maybe even with enough talent, somewhere, somehow you can find someone to publish it.
But I have to admit, even I didn't get into this field directly. I more or less backed into it.
My first book the biography of John Glenn: senator, former astronaut and then-presidential candidate began with a phone call nearly two decades ago. In 1983, Martin Gross, then publisher of Empire Books, a small imprint of Harper & Row, had seen a profile of Glenn that I had written in the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine in my capacity as the News' chief Washington political writer and persuaded me to expand that article into a full-blown political biography.
But not before I told him I was not interested, that I was too busy.
From that inauspicious beginning came Glenn: The Astronaut Who Would be President, the end product of a marathon of research, interviews and travel in which I did a full year's work in five months. The book got raves; Glenn's campaign did not. His effort tanked just as Martin was about to sign a six-figure, three-country, deal for the foreign rights.
But I'd been bitten by the bug. Nothing in all my years as a writer could compare to the thrill of holding a thick, beautifully produced volume of my work and to seeing my name on the cover.
A key lesson I learned from the experience was that book publishing is anything but an exact science. Martin, a savvy veteran of the business who had done very well in other publishing ventures, was continually asking my advice on everything from how to title the book [He liked Mission White House; I thought that sucked] to whom we should target for promotion, to what color I liked for the cover. [He maintained that orange is death for a book cover. "Nobody will buy an orange book."]
"Martin," I told him, "I'm just the writer; I don't know anything about this stuff."
But the lesson here is that nobody knows this stuff; you go by your gut. In large measure, you are the master of your fate. It's a high-wire act, sure, but it's great when you make it to the other side.
With Glenn, a key thing I had going for me was a track record as a political writer for the nation's largest daily. But years later, having left daily journalism for photography and seeking to do photo books, nobody knew me as a photographer, much less as a photographer/author.
How would I get anyone's attention?
There are three basic ways, I came to find out.
The first method is to present a publisher or agent with a portfolio of images and a brief verbal or written proposal. This is fine if you are Richard Avedon or Sheila Metzner, but the rest of us need a lot more to get in the door to make a pitch.
The other extreme and one that a number of my colleagues have used with success is to put together a complete dummy of a book, from start to finish, and shop it around, either through an agent or in person.
The problems I have with this approach are twofold. First, it's damned expensive with no guarantee of success. [If you are smart you will hire a designer to make the dummy, who will, in turn, contract out the typesetting and high-end photo reproduction necessary to make a first-rate mockup not something that looks like the end-result of an all-nighter at the local Copy World. Remember: this is your first impression; make it a good one.]
My second problem with full dummies of photo books is that publishers tend not to like being handed a fait accompli unless, of course, you are willing to pay for the print run and thereby "hire" a willing publishing house to be your distributor at no-risk-to-them. And this, in effect, is what I did a decade ago with Faces of the Eastern Shore, my first book of photographs. That book, which featured a foreword by James Michener, got glowing reviews and sold well. But, with no financial stake in how the book did, my publisher/distributor did comparatively little to promote it. Still, I had achieved my goal: to be taken seriously as a photographer/author, which made things that much easier a few years later when I set out to find a publisher for what now would be my third book, Down East Maine/A World Apart.
This time around, I got an agent a referral from a colleague who thought, correctly, that Paul and I would hit it off famously. Second, though I had one of the best designers in Washington [the same person who had designed Eastern Shore] I did not want Pat to put together a complete dummy, only a drop-dead gorgeous full-size, full color book cover and some beautifully designed sample chapters to show off, not only some of my best Maine photographs, but my ability as a writer as well.
From my own experience anyway, this is the best way to go when pitching a photography book. It lets you stake a claim on how the final book will look, while giving the publisher (who, after all, will be paying for the printing) an equal say as well. Maybe more than equal. My designer and I came up with what we thought was a great cover for the Maine book, featuring an atmospheric shot of a huge beached whale in the fog. I'll always remember the response of my publisher, Tom Fernald, then Vice President of Down East Books, when he saw the cover for the first time:
"It's a dead whale, Frank."
We agreed on a more "accessible" cover of septuagenarian Ruth Farris rowing her boat in Cutler, Maine's gorgeous harbor. Tom got the picture he wanted and, after a little more wrangling, the rest of the book design was mine.
Compromise. Sweet reason. And the book flew off the shelves.
Book Publishing Workshop
For an informative and, most important, hands-on tutorial on how to prepare a photography book presentatioin, consider Philip and Ina Trager's always-popular week-long book publishing master class at the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport, Me..
Philip, author of several simply gorgeous books and his wife Ina, who has assisted him on all his projects, go through literally everything it takes to make a book project go. Several years ago, I guest-lectured the class and can attest firsthand that this is a must for any first-time author. "The Photographic Book Publishing Workshop" will be held this summer from Aug. 11-17. For more information, go to www.TheWorkshops.com
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.