I’m going to use this post to provide a little guide to photobook publishing. All has gone well with the production of my first photobook, and I’m eagerly awaiting my 300 copies to arrive around the 2nd November (we’re in 2015) in time for a launch in my home town of Brighton, and of course for Paris Photo 14th November at the Michael Hoppen Gallery stand (C10). It’s been a long road since I first decided to publish in May (a very quick turnaround in the scale of things), so I thought I’d share a list of the things that I’ve learned in the process (I should also mention tht Publish your Photography Book was an invaluable read before I got started – buy it!). This is by no means a comprehensive guide to photobook publishing (I’ve only made one book!) — just a few handy things that I picked up that I hope will be of use to others. So, after a gratuitous image of my cover, here we go, in some semblance of order:
1. You need a very clear concept for a book project. A catalogue/portfolio of images just doesn’t cut it with book publishers, collectors or critics anymore. Either focus on one extended project or dream up an idea that can unite separate projects (the route I took). This means working out what your practise is about. Mine is focused on 1960/70s America so teasing out a unifying theme was possible, but it still took a couple of weeks of soul-searching to really pin down what it is that I’m trying to say through my various different projects. Artists often work with intuition but creating a book concept requires a little more left-brain thinking.
2. Your concept will be articulated through all the usual means; the cover image, the title, the choice of typeface, the layout, but most importantly the introductory text. Don’t forget that while it’s very obvious to you what your work is about, people coming to it with no idea who you are or what you do will need some form of introduction. Even publishers like Mack and Morel that favour a more image-led approach still have some text on hand. Of course there are exceptions to this rule but you need to feel very confident in breaking it. Most importantly, writing this text will help you realise your concept!
DRAFTING AN EDIT
3. You can send a publisher a link to a bunch of pictures on your website, but usually better to mock up a PDF of a possible edit, with some text about the concept of your book. Don’t attempt the selection or edit until you’ve written down this concept (see previous point). You must be overtly clear what it is that you are trying to say and do with your images first, or you’re working blind. Publishers, like readers, will want to know what the book is trying to say as a whole. Your text doesn’t need to be finalised at this stage; just a loose paragraph that you have written down that you can keep in your head while arranging a sample edit. You can send the publisher this same rough paragraph along with your PDF.
4. Ideally you’ll need a copy of Indesign and some basic knowledge to create your PDF. I came at it with no knowledge at all, but it’s fairly easy to pick up with a few Youtube tutorials. You just need to be able to draw a picture box on the two master pages (selected in the Pages palette), and this picture box will be repeated on every page. Then each can be selected and the relevant image imported with File>Place. Once you’ve got your images in, you can easily swap them around with the Pages palette by dragging and dropping, as well as adding blank pages. [Shift] + [W] on the Mac brings you to full screen preview mode, and you can move through your edit with the arrow keys. Be prepared to spend some weeks working on this, shifting things around and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
5. Your edit does not need to be immaculate at this point, but it’s useful to have a number of your favourite photobooks around to note how others have gone about things. Do you envisage using just right-hand pages, or will some images be paired on spreads? Some folks place single images across a spread, but I personally feel the gutter in the centre is best left to magazines. If you’re using both right and left hand pages, be sure to work in some blanks here and there and break up obvious patterns to keep people guessing. Editing images is a skill in its own right, and some publishers and designers will try to convince you that it’s best left to others. I strongly disagree. As a photographer you should be able to edit your own work. No writer would pen a number of fantastic sentences and then let it to others to arrange them! Of course you must seek opinions at a later stage, but remember that the edit IS the concept and more importantly YOUR concept.
APPROACHING A PUBLISHER
6. Unless you are a very big name, there are few well-known photobook publishers that will bankroll your book in the traditional royalty-driven model of publishing, meaning that you are going to have to foot the bill for production. Outside of the prominent publishers like Mack that do cover costs, there are some smaller outfits that might do this for less well-known names, but you may end up with a very small print run, and little in the way of distribution, which kind of defeats the purpose of making a book really. The alternative is the pay to play model – you get so many copies of the book to sell in return for paying production costs. If you sell them all at a price competitive to your publisher, you will likely still be short. Some photographers attempt to make up this short fall by making a few special editions with a much heftier price tag. If you get some good press, this can work. But it might not. It’s an unfortunate fact of the business, but most photographers now expect to lose money, and see the book instead as a very expensive calling card to try and make headway in the photography world, and secure a gallery, which may or may not bring income down the line. Expect to spend upwards of £12,000 on a decent sized book.
7. There are stacks of publishers out there, and you’re probably already familiar with some of the names in the market like Steidl, Mack, Morel, Dewi Lewis, Kehrer Verlag, Trolley Books, and Brighton’s own GOST. Each will have their own way of working, and usually each will have a certain look in terms of design approach and choice of content. Perhaps you feel that a certain publisher will be best suited to you, but probably better just to fire off a brief email to all of them, with an attached sample PDF and brief text description of your project. You can leave it up to them to decide if you’re suitable or not. Alec Soth’s Little Brown Mushroom blog has a fantastic page listing and linking to all the publishers’ websites.
8. You may hear nothing or get rejection emails. Funnily enough, when doing a search in my Outlook folder, I found a rejection email from the very publisher who has now just made my book (Kehrer Verlag). Had totally forgotten this, but initially my idea wasn’t thought right for them. At the time I’d sent a website link only. I went back to them some months later with more work, and a better presented PDF and it was agreed. Couple of morals to that story. But anyway, the alternative is self-publishing, which I don’t know too much about. I do know that you will halve the costs, but you won’t have anyone to distribute your books in far off countries, and galleries may not treat it with the same respect if it’s used as a calling card. Unless of course you win one of the big photobook awards, which many self-published books have (see Cristina de Middel’s Afronauts, and this great Guardian article about self-publishing).
9. Design — the trickiest bit I think. Gordon MacDonald, co-owner of GOST, once said to me that no book is better than a badly designed book, and I totally agree. It’s likely to do more damage than good, which is a terrible position to be in after shelling out several thousand pounds. The cover is obviously crucial, as it has to stand out amongst the thousands of other photobooks churned out every year. I actually found an illustrator to do mine against all advice (which was to go for text or a photo) as I’m a big believer in bucking the trend. Usually the designer does the both the cover and the inside pages, so my book was a little different in this respect.
10. Now most publishers have in-house designers, who may or may not insist on your using them. Kehrer Verlag gave me the option of using theirs (with added cost) or my own. I had a friend that agreed to work with me on the book as a portfolio piece, as many designers will, considering it’s a loss-making venture to make something beautiful and essentially non-commercial. I’ve not a lot of advice to give about finding a designer other than to search the credits of the books you love, and remember that book design is a specific skill. You want a designer that has designed books — a great portfolio of websites or flyers or packaging is not enough. If you like the in-house design of your publisher, you can leave it to them. In the end the Kehrer design team did provide some very useful additional input, and at no cost, which was very nice of them indeed.
11. Now when I said leave it to them, I obviously didn’t mean leave it to them. You know exactly what you are trying to say with your images, and what you’re all about as a person and a photographer. But it’s unlikely that you have first class design skills. So you have to somehow convey to your designer what the message/feel/style of your book should be and hope that they can interpret this into good design. Design, like photography, is a unique language. Every tiny change of text leading, tracking, positioning, can provoke a different sentiment in the viewer. A good designer is obviously aware of this, and can produce something to marry or enhance the language of your imagery. But if you just leave it to them, they most likely won’t.
12. The point above is no slight on the skills of designers but an appreciation that as is the case when moving between languages, things can get lost in translation. And, as human beings, designers have their own likes and dislikes, which may differ wildly from your own. This is why it’s not enough just to provide a brief at the start. You need to be hands on. My advice is to read up on design on various blogs so at least you can hit the ground running. And study other photobooks religiously to see what works (and more importantly what doesn’t). You don’t want to tell the designer how to do their job, but you do need at least a basic knowledge so that you can monitor progress and make a call on any suggestions. At the same time it’s just as important to listen if they disagree — recognise the skill and knowledge they’ve built up over the years and put it to use for you. It’s more tricky when someone’s working for nothing, but ultimately when you’re paying several thousand pounds for book production, it’s not enough to be satisfied with the design. You should be ecstatic. Getting to this point is a slow process, and the best advice is to sleep on every decision, and sleep on it again.
13. The really fun part! Not really something separate to design, but warrants its own section, as we’re thinking more about the physicalities, or as publishers love to say, the ‘haptic’ elements. It really is the touch and feel of photobooks that makes them so special, and sets them apart from mainstream coffee table books. The guys and girls at Kehrer mentioned how important a factor it is to customers when visiting their stand at book fairs. They watch them hour after hour, running their hands over the covers. So we’ll start with the cover. Assuming you’re going for hardcover, there’s a near-inifinite range of possibilities and while your publisher can discuss a few options, their time is precious, and ultimately it’s up to you to do your research and decide which materials feel best to you (you can post them a copy of a book you like for them to try and match). They can direct you to manufacturers websites with stacks of weird and wonderful options too (leatherette anyone?). I’m in love with unvarnished matte paper after seeing David Campany’s Open Road and Gasoline so this is what I’ve gone for. Kehrer sent me a range of different red samples, and I made a call on a cherry red.
14. Then there are a whole range of other cover options with regards to embossing and numerous other external features such as tipped in images, or stickers glued into embossed areas (like Open Road). Again, you need to go to the fairs and handle as many books as you can. Embossed text is really lovely to touch and feel, which is why it’s so popular. We actually made a decision to emboss the whole of my illustration. Kehrer had never attempted anything this size, with this much detail, but an embossing test showed that it worked a treat. Cannot wait to see the finished book now! Suffice to say all these little extras cost money, but again better to spend nothing on no book than spend a few hundred less on something which doesn’t feel great to the touch.
15. Inside it’s generally de rigueur to use front and end papers that are a different paper stock to your main papers (usually offset, which feels much more like a rag paper). These double pages are glued in to the cover at front and back, and then there’s the overlap page that you handle to start the book. I am in agreement that it is nice to move from one type of paper to another. Coloured papers are also common (and cost extra) and another important design decision to make. Choosing the wrong colour here can compromise an otherwise great book. I’ve had an index printed into the endpapers, which is very unusual, so front and endpapers had to remain white. The main paper stock is also vital. I was offered BVS as standard, which is becoming very common, and have to say I really hate it. The ink sits on the surface, like an inkjet print, and it feels plasticky. It’s sharp as a tack, but makes the book feel like you’ve bound together a load of inkjet prints — doesn’t feel special at all. I paid a few hundred Euros more for a more traditional, open paper (the ink sinks in a lot more). It’s more tricky to get colour right for the processor, but by God it was worth it after seeing the test prints.
16. Couple of words about sizing, which perhaps I should have mentioned earlier. It’s a given that portrait format books are nicer to handle than landscape, and have better longevity in terms of the spines not breaking, so if your image ratios can handle it, go portrait. Some imagery (like mine at the 3×2 ratio) just won’t work well in the portrait format. You end up with very small images unless you make a giant book of the Lorca DiCorcia new edition Hustlers variety (it’s a vast tome!). But, as a compromise, far better to have a book closer to a square format, even if this means a reduction in size.
17. The difficulty is that over 30 x 24cm, with most binders, another process is needed, which adds several thousand Euros to the cost. But it’s no cheaper to go smaller unless you go much, much smaller. So those going landscape are tempted to go as big as they can for the money and often prefer a 30×24 than a squarer format at say 26×24. But it’s important to remember how things handle. Over 26cm width, you usually have to lie a book down to turn its pages. So bigger isn’t always better. My personal feeling is that even when you do lay it down, longer, thinner ratios are less pleasant to deal with. And somehow look smaller, by some magical optical illusion. A 28cm x 24cm sample book I had appeared bigger and more imposing than another at 30cm x 24cm. It was 28cm x 24cm I decided to go for in the end. It was a real toss up between this and 26cm x 24cm, which would feel easier to handle, but I was talked out of it by the publisher who felt the images needed to be seen slightly larger.
18. You’ll have sent all your images through by now to the publisher, at the exact reproduction size, with the correct amount of sharpening (I found sharpening as I would for an inkjet print came out perfect for my chosen paper stock). They should be in RGB, as you’ll need a specialist colour processor to make the CMYK separations required for offset litho printing. This is something that should only be touched by an expert (Kehrer has three of its own). The CMYK colour gamut is a lot smaller than RGB or inkjet printer gamuts as a whole, so compromises will need to be made. Very vibrant colours often suffer in the move to CMYK. I was offered the choice of keeping colour hue as precise as possible and losing saturation and brightness, or shifting the colour hues to a different value in an attempt to preserve as much saturation and brightness as possible. As my work is essentially non-realist, saturation was more important to me than precise colour tones
19. Part of the cost package at Kehrer (which I believe is pretty standard) was a single large test sheet of images with the CMYK corrections run through the actual offset machines that would be used on the final print job. This gives you a sense of how colours will come out (look at it under daylight) and allows you to make suggestions to the image processor. Unfortunately the size of the print only allows around four images at full size, and the rest only showing sections. We hit around 50 images total on the sheet, meaning there were 22 for which I wasn’t even able to see sections. I made sure to specify which images I definitely wanted in, and which sections of particular images were most important. Then I made a long list of small tweaks to colours and brightness, that my image processor Erik Clewe could implement.
20. And then the real fun part! Printing days! My book was printed over two days (if UV inks are used it can be done in one apparently because of quicker drying times). I flew out to Germany to oversee production. This is a must. In theory things should come out as per the test print, but in practise this isn’t always the case. There are many factors involved — the machine as well as the operator. Day one our guy was exceptionally speedy, and each print (containing several pages) came out pretty much bang on. Zero corrections. Day two was a bit of a nightmare. Three different operators and every sheet required some corrections. You can add or subtract cyan, yellow, magenta and black for each spread (two images at a time). So if you change one image, you’ll also affect the other. It’s a careful compromise, with skin tones ultimately proving the most important aspect for me. There was often too much yellow, or too much magenta. My man Erik was on hand to make suggestions, and to examine each sheet with a hawk eye for any imperfections on the plate that might show up as specks or lines (he caught one, and the whole machine needed attention!). Once we agreed all was good, I had to sign off that sheet and wait for the next one. You can see the final book in its pre-bound glory below, and full images of all the production in my previous blog post here.
PRESS AND SALES
21. Yep sadly it’s not enough just to make a book and wait for all the glory to come your way. You’ve got to get it out there. While your publisher will have their own PR department, remember that their contacts will only be in their region, and that they probably have about thirty other books to deal with too. So, learn to use Mailchimp, get a press list specific to photography from a PR/marketing friend who has access to Gorkana or an equivalent PR database, design a beautiful email newsletter and get it out there. Your publisher may also have reserved a number of copies for reviews, so you can request that they’re sent to the relevant people in the press who handle reviews. Find out who does if you don’t know, or it’ll end up on the wrong person’s bookshelf.
22. There are a handful of Photobook awards that you should definitely enter too. And if your ambition is to get signed by a gallery, do some research, and mail copies out to your favourites with a covering letter. If you need to claw your money back by selling your free titles, then it’s a good idea to have a bookshop section on your website set up ready with a link to Paypal express checkout. You can add the link to the bookshop on your email newsletter. Many will buy directly from the publisher, but the advantage you have is the ability to offer signed books from your site, which a lot of collectors will go looking for. Realistically though, you’re likely to sell the most titles to and through friends; both friends of the real kind and social media friends. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are all fantastic vehicles to get people to buy your book. Even better if you’ve got a lot of local friends is to organise a book launch; if people can see how beautiful your book is in the flesh, and get you to sign it in person, it will be hard for them to resist! Don’t forget to tap up your family too (even distant cousins!). Of course they’d love to have a copy of your book to boast about.< Back