Self Publishing: No longer a vanity affair

  • CARRY ME OHIO

By Heather Graulich

There was a time – not so very long ago – when the words “photo book” conjured images of a weighty coffee table tome, with a name like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Annie Leibovitz on the cover.

 Say those words now and most people probably think of uploading the family vacation snaps to a mass-market print-on-demand website, tapping a few keys and in about a week receiving a cute little book of memories.

 Indeed, the world of photo books has changed dramatically in a matter of just a few decades, from a rarified realm run by powerhouse publishers to a marketplace where literally anyone with a camera and computer can put images to paper.

 But for the majority of professional photographers today, publishing books of their work is no longer a lifelong career dream most won’t reach – it’s a very real, active part of how they publicize their brand; yet another important tool in marketing themselves in an increasingly freelance-based industry.

 And as professionals, they seek not the often cheaply-produced (and, similarly-crafted) photo books from mass-market sites, but rather, smaller runs of high-quality books from boutique print shops that showcase their vision while still being affordable.

 Pushing this change along is the companion trend of crowdsourcing, where photographers are turning to donor sites such as Kickstarter and Emphas.is to fund projects before a book is ever made. (see Crowdsourcing article ...)

“When I first started the company,  (making books) was mostly about just getting the work out in front of people,” says photographer and former Kodak executive Eileen Gittins, who founded the self-publishing web site Blurb in 2005 to offer higher-quality print-on-demand (POD) books. “Originally, a lot of photographers came to Blurb to create their portfolios, to get their work out there for marketing, to show to a gallery. 

 “Then the next wave was the ‘leave behind.’ People realized they could make nice, softcover books really inexpensively to just be able to give them away. And now, through crowdsourcing, a lot of photographers are using those platforms to raise money for the project, and they want to produce a book out of it. And then the win for donors is, they get a copy of the book. It’s a way to fund projects that used to be funded editorially, and now as we know, there aren’t a lot of editorial dollars out there.”

Matt EichOne of Blurb’s success stories is the book Carry Me Ohio by Matt Eich, which won several awards after its publication in 2010, including a people’s choice award in Blurb’s Photography Book Now competition.

 Eich, based in Norfolk, Va., is 26 and still launching his career after internships with National Geographic, The Oregonian and The Orange County Register. But he’s been self-publishing since the beginning, shortly after graduating from Ohio University. He published Carry Me Ohio with Blurb and with small print shop Edition One Books in Berkeley, Calif., before his first solo show at the Houston Center for Photography.

“I wanted some sort of exhibition catalog so people could purchase that at the show,” says Eich. He turned to former National Geographic editor Mike Davis and his wife Deborah Pang Davis, a designer, for help in fine tuning his portfolio and layout. The Davises consult with photographers on editing and design when not teaching. Mike Davis, a two-time Picture Editor of the Year, is an adjunct professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University, where Deborah Pang Davis, is an Assistant Professor, in the Multimedia, Photography and Design department.

“Working with Mike and Deb was an amazing experience,” he says. 

 Eich spent $5,000 on editing and printing costs for a 100-book digital press run with Edition One – a cost of $50 per book. He decided to price the book at $85 in order to recoup his costs and be able to keep a few of his books. He listed the books for sale on his blog – and sold 75 of them literally overnight. 

 Eich is now working on a 10,000-plus image edit in order to curate a three- or four-book collection of his work, which he also hopes to publish, perhaps this time with a traditional publisher. But he knows it may still be easier for him to publish on his own.

“I have no illusion that they’re going to say, ‘Yeah, that 26-year-old dude, we’re going to publish his boxed set,’” says Eich. “Most publishers expect you to bring fifteen-to-twenty thousand to the table to diffuse their risk of printing, making proofs, et cetera.” 

 That’s a lot of upfront money for a young shooter just starting out, but even established photographers are finding it more cost-effective and creatively freeing to self-publish.

 New York-based photographer Martin Adolfsson has traveled the world for commercial projects in portraiture, architecture and travel, but turned to small Icelandic printer Oddi (which also has offices in Brooklyn) for his book, Suburbia Gone Wild

 The project is Adolfsson’s personal work, born of an observation he made while flying into Bangkok in 2006 – cookie-cutter subdivisions springing up outside the city, as are so common in the United States. He began photographing similar communities popping up around the world, a visual documentation of the globalization of an aspiring middle class.

 Adolfsson first raised over $20,000 through two different crowdsourcing campaigns on Kickstarter to fund the photography and later, the book. He met with several large publishing houses, but was turned off by the high upfront costs and lack of creative control. Then there was the issue of timeliness.

 “The ones I spoke to couldn’t publish it within the next three to four years,” he says. “And I feel this work is pretty current. It’s very much a time-sensitive thing, and if that got delayed four years it wouldn’t be as fresh.” 

 Contracting with Oddi gave him more options, he says. And after shepherding the project himself for six years, he couldn’t see turning so much control over to someone else. The book is now in the final layout and proofing phase, and the first print run will be 750 books. Of that, Adolfsson has already sold 200 copies through pre-orders on his own website and other social media.

 “When people order from the website, it shows up on my PayPal account immediately,” he says. “And (because of crowdsourcing and social media) I can better connect to my buyers. These were people who said at the beginning that they believe in you, and that’s an amazing environment, instead of the traditional way of printing the book and then you sit on two thousand copies and you don’t know who your buyers are.”

What to do

 Those who’ve been down the self-publishing road say there are a few key tips to keep in mind:

 Start with a vision: What’s the point of your book? The days of simply creating a bound portfolio featuring random assignments are over, says editor Mike Davis.

 “You as the photographer have to distinguish yourself,” Davis says. “It has to be a clear voice, a distinctive voice, to set it apart. The most common thing happening now is photographers initiate a body of work that is significant.” Such as Eich’s work on the economic and social challenges in Ohio’s rust belt.

 For many photographers, the book is the point – even in the digital age, there’s still something about experiencing images on paper that captures people’s imagination.

 “I’ve found that people really respond to the book format as opposed to looking on a laptop,” says Eich. “Books are how we’re exposed to photography in the beginning. It’s an integral part of the language of photography.”

 But the book’s purpose, Davis points out, doesn’t have to be purely artistic. He gives the example of a photographer laid off from a newspaper in a city with 12 hospitals. Why not work on a portfolio of images specific to health care, then print a book to market to that niche?

 Make a book before you make a book: Photographers have always been picky about every detail in printing: color density, the feel of the paper, the stitching, the layout. Even if you plan to use a commercial printer to self-publish, POD websites such as Blurb allow you to print a few copies of your book to better see the “whole.”

 “What I say to people now is, you can make a book tonight,” says Gittins. “For less than the cost of a pizza, just make a book and get it back and see what you think. Do you like the paper? The printing? Don’t think of it as, “The Book,” think of it as a maquette. You can send that out to publishers, too.  It may not be the be-all, end-all design, but it shows the work curated in a way that makes sense.”

 It takes more time than you think: “Multiply your time frame by four,” says photographer Kramer O’Neill, who has published two books, Till Human Voices Wake Us and Pictures of People and Things 1 with two different independent print shops. “With an industrial printer you’re fitting into their schedule. You can spend a lot of time obsessing about color calibration, (but) realize that their job is to make images look as smooth and perfect as possible. I was pushing 35mm film and they were intentionally grainy. So there was a lot of weird back and forth over that.” Not to mention that he was dealing with printers in Slovenia and Italy while living in Brooklyn.

 Adolfsson makes the same point, but for other reasons. If self-publishing your book also involves crowdsourcing, social media and other methods of marketing (which it probably will) then you need to allow time for all of that to work. He spent nearly two months just shooting and editing the video for his Kickstarter campaign.

 Forget the idea that “self-publishing” means going it alone: Eich credits the Davises with helping him realize his vision, (“I am not a designer,” he says.) O’Neill was helped by a sister-in-law connected to boutique publishing and small bookstores in Paris, and Adolfsson teamed with designer Larry Mayorga to pull his book together. Beyond that, you need to reach out: via social media, photo bloggers and publishing events such as book fairs and portfolio review festivals. Think beyond photography. Adolfsson’s book, with its global themes, has been embraced by anthropologists and others; he’ll be the guest speaker at a lecture hosted by the architecture faculty of the American University in Beirut, among other speaking engagements.

 Don’t overprint:  With the flexibility of smaller print shops, limited jobs, such as Eich’s 100-book run, are now possible and affordable. So don’t think you need to sell 1,000 books to break even. 

 Think about a smaller book or magazine: Gittins suggests considering a small format book (such as 7x7, or A5) or even POD magazines, which cost less to produce and can double as leave-behinds. O’Neill made Pictures of People and Things 1 in A5 thinking it would work as a good leave-behind, but to his surprise, it sold like crazy. While Blurb offers these products, numerous photographers, designers and others in the visual arts have launched print shops and are making names for themselves in the online/POD magazine arena, as well, including Magnum’s David Alan Harvey of burn magazine and Alex Soth of Little Brown Mushroom’s The LBM Dispatch

 Not ready to take the self-publishing leap? Consider an e-book: Soon, “I bet nine in ten of these projects will be e-books, largely because of the cost,” says Davis. “You can pay a designer/developer $5,000 to do a great e-book and that wouldn’t even touch what it costs to publish a paper book. Also, it’s much easier to distribute and has a wider reach.” 

 Photographers are beginning to turn to Apple’s iBooks, Lulu, and other e-book generators to quickly create portable portfolios that can be shared on iPads and other e-readers. Most of these sites also offer to sell your e-book (or printed version) directly from the site, eliminating much of the sales and distribution hassle for photographers.

 So many new ways for photographers to publish can only be good for the industry as a whole, says Gittins.

 “The more we can enable people to capture what they need to say in images and the more that work can be distributed, it’s going to advance, in my opinion, the function of journalism in the world,” she says. “This is fantastic news for the photography industry, because the demand for high quality images is greater than it’s ever been, so the more ways we can give photojournalists platforms for getting out there, the better.”

PROJECT LINKS

RESOURCE LINKS

 

 Part 1: Crowd-sourcing: Ask and You Shall Receive