FotoWeek DC 2010: “To Publish or to Self-Publish?”

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Only three years old, FotoWeek DC has blossomed into a city-wide event encompassing gallery shows, competitions, lectures, workshops, portfolio reviews and parties.

There’s a lot of great free stuff to attend. In addition to gallery shows, there are some interesting lectures and workshops going on this week.

One of them was “To Publish or to Self-Publish” held at the Corcoran over the lunch-hour today. While it was billed as a comparison of traditional photo book publishing against the new on-demand model, the discussion was much broader than this.

Darius Himes and Mary Virginia Swanson, both veterans of the industry, and authors of the upcoming Publish Your Photography Book shared their extensive knowledge of how to publish a photo book. They started at the beginning, from the germination of an idea. Here are my notes of their talk.

What do you want to accomplish? This is the first question you should ask yourself when contemplating publishing a book of your photographs. Do you want to record a special event? Share your artistic vision with the world? Tell a story? Advance your career? They’re all excellent reasons to publish a book.

Before you begin, consider:

1. Your Concept. What’s this book about? As an example, they used Bird by Andrew Zuckerman. Just a glance at the cover reveals what this book is about: birds. It’s not about the photographer. It’s not telling a story. Instead, it’s about finely detailed shots of birds against a white background.

2. Who is Your Audience? With Bird, the intended audience is obviously people who love birds. Consider who might be the audience for your book.

3. Size of the Project. Thinking about your concept and the audience, what’s the size of the project? There are a multitude of printing options these days, from pamphlets to limited edition books costing thousands of dollars. What will your book be like? How do you imagine it?

Once you have these questions answered, you can begin the search for the right publisher.

Which publisher is right for you? Look through photography books (like the many at FotoWeek Satellite Central) and see what their style is. For example, Trolley Books favors a journalistic style, with realistic subjects and serious presentation. Another good resource for photography books: photo-eye.

How do projects get published? Not through blind submissions. These slush pile offerings have almost no chance, according to Himes and Swanson. Instead, publishers find new photographers through industry events, such as portfolio reviews and going to shows. Also from referrals from other photographers. One big difference between the literary world and photography – there are almost no photo book agents, because there’s no money in it.

Should you self-publish or not? You should self-publish if you’re familiar with your audience and know how to reach them. Self-publishing is also a good bet if you’re comfortable working with technology. It’s also helpful to know a designer, to ensure that your book looks like a work of art, rather than something stamped off a printing press.

There have been self-publishing success stories, such as:

  • Loli Kantor – she published a beautiful signed, limited-edition book on Jewish life in Eastern Europe today.
  • Allison V. Smith – she creates funky photo zines, including one for the Fort Worth Opera with the great headline, “It’s opera, y’all.”
  • My Brother’s War – photographer Jessica Hines partnered with book designer Elizabeth Avedon to create this book using Blurb, the print on demand service.
  • A Year of Mornings – this is a case of a blog becoming a book, as two friends share photos of their lives.

My thoughts:

Why not self-publish? Though they didn’t say it, the traditional photography book publishing model seems just as doomed as the regular book publishing model. There’s not much money involved and, given the printing costs and low-print runs, if any photography book breaks even, I’m sure that’s considered a success.

Hire a designer. In the lecture, Swanson talked about how closely Jessica Hines worked with her book designer to create a distinctive work of art. The designer created unique layouts, font choices and other design elements to match the subject matter. I’ve worked a bit in Blurb and, while it’s easy to create a book, you need some design skills to create something that looks art.

What would you buy? I confess that most of my photography book purchases have been from the remainder pile at Borders. However, the zine model Allison V. Smith uses is really attractive to me – I would buy such works from my favorite DC photogs.

And, after all, I published a novel so of course I think more photographers should make photo books. All you have to invest is your time.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer, photographer and web person from Washington, DC. The author of several novels, Joe won the City Paper Fiction Competition in 2020. In his free time, he enjoys wandering about the city taking photos.

4 thoughts on “FotoWeek DC 2010: “To Publish or to Self-Publish?””

  1. Joe, thanks for posting a summary of the presentation. It seems a lot of what I read on photography these days follows Seth Godin’s “Purple Cow” concept. You need to be resourceful and remarkable to make it with any type of photo project. I can’t imagine doing a photo book yet, but when I take the more artistic shots, I’m thinking exhibit or book or some way to share the story.

    I agree, why NOT self-publish? All the various tools and technology out there anyone with the determination to have their work seen can tackle the photography book. In the meantime, I’ll keep shooting and looking for the story I want to tell 😉

  2. Thanks everyone for the comments! It was a really interesting and informative discussion. I also got to see a lot of photobooks during Fotoweek, including a couple that were mentioned in the talk. With Blurb and good designer you can really do a lot.

    Like Nakeva said, it’s definitely gotten me thinking about a photo project that could be turned into a book. My photographic style is editorial so something that tells a story would be of most interest to me.

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