To be a photographer, one must photograph. No amount of book learning, no checklist of seminars attended, can substitute for the simple act of making pictures. Experience is the best teacher of all. And for that, there is no guarantee that one will become an artist. Only the journey matters.
I’ve become somewhat of a collector of photo books in recent years. My favorite has become Saul Leiter. He only released a few books while he was alive, and it’s my goal to get them all.
This Sunday I watched In No Great Hurry as well. It’s the perfect weekend documentary: quiet, relaxing, and yet entertaining.
I hope that, as the years go by, Saul’s estate releases more of his work in photo book form. Especially the newer stuff – he never stopped shooting. It’d be nice to see some of his modern, digital work, because (and they hint at it in the movie) his style never really changed. Saul Leiter was always Saul Leiter.
You can still get Early Color, though it isn’t the easiest to find. And Early Black and White is a double book that’s a look of fun to see.
Study the masters, gang. Find someone you like and study the hell out of them. Steal and copy. Make it your own. Maybe start with Saul.
Now that I’m a few weeks removed from launching my portrait project, Artists In Jackson, I thought it’d be helpful to share a few thoughts on the process – maybe for others thinking about tackling a self-published photo book.
I broke this down into sections, because there is a lot to think about and digest.
To Self Publish or Not To Self Publish
This one was easy for me: self publish!
It’s so easy these days to make and publish a photo book. There are vendors begging you to print with them. I get coupons all the time – 25% off, 75% off, a free book print to try out, etc.
My project was design- and text-intensive, so I needed a specific vendor to get my book finished. But if you just want to make a photo book, there are tons of options. If you have a Macintosh computer, Apple bundles Photos and a book-printing option as a default. VSCO has a super nice (and pricey) option. There’s My Publisher, MPix, Pinhole Press, and Blurb (my option).
You could go the professional publishing route, but chance are, if you’re reading this, that whole world is a mystery to you, too. And besides, who wants a box full of books gathering dust in their basement? Print on demand!
Print On Demand (Kind Of)
Speaking of which, I highly recommend print-on-demand services to keep costs and risk low. To a point.
Print-on-demand publishing means someone goes to a website or storefront and orders your book, and then it gets printed and shipped to them. This avoids the basement-book scenario. You don’t have to worry about inventory or unsold merchandise.
Now, I did it kind of half and half. I wanted an initial small press run of books delivered to me because I wanted to sign and customize them for the first batch of supporters. This involved a small bit of risk, because if I couldn’t sell that complete set of printed books, I’m stuck with the entire bill.
I had enough confidence to buy the initial batch, however, and once that runs out, I will send customers to the Blurb storefront to buy their on-demand copy.
Think of it as offering something special for your die-hard supporters, while still keeping the risk manageable. And through a service like Blurb, you can sell your book through Amazon, potential increasing your audience size.
Thinking About Your Audience
Who are you aiming for? What’s your customer base? Who would buy this thing you’re going to make? Who’s going to care?
It could be the marketing/communications professional in me, but one of the first things I thought about was my audience. I knew that if I photographed a large enough number of artists I could grow my audience base. How? Artists have friends and family, spouses, proud grandmothers, co-workers, etc. Each artist will tell their fan base, and word will spread.
Also, because my project was so community focused, the Jackson community itself became a target audience. If you care about Jackson, or you care about the arts community, you’re a potentially-interested person.
If you’re well-connected and well-known, this may not be such an issue for you. Your art may already have an audience. But if you’re a first-timer like me, this audience stuff matters. I didn’t want to make something and have it flop.
It also doesn’t decrease your artsy-ness by thinking about this kind of thing. If you make something great, and no one knows about it, and you want it to reach people, have you succeeded or failed? Or somewhere in between?
My project had a goal (increase awareness about artistic talent in our community), and so it had to have an audience that cared.
Marketing. I’ll start by saying that whether you like it or not, if you want your work to reach an audience, you have to have a bit of marketing involved. Sometimes, you have to be a megaphone.
For me, my marketing plan was comprehensive and multi-channeled. I used the website, Facebook, social media, email, and personal outreach to get the word out about Artists In Jackson. From there, the network effect kicked in. I had 15 artists who helped me reach a larger audience, and the artistic community took their message and spread it even farther.
I set it up in stages. First, I teased the project with a launch page and an email sign-up form. The artists knew what I was doing, but no one else did, so there was some mystery involved.
Then I published the About page on the website, and sent people there. “Look!” I said. “I have a project that I’m finishing up, and here are the basics!” That’s when the social media part came into play – I had something I could point to and share.
The landing page and about page helped me gather email addresses for my mailing list. These folks were the die-hards, the special ones, who bought in to the project. They got weekly updates from me, with little sneak peeks of the book’s progress.
From there, I published the Meet the Artists page to announce who was in the project. Now people could see faces attached to this project. I did this a week before the book launch to get people really talking. It helped with awareness, because this is the stage where the artists could kick their promotional messages into high gear.
And then it was a slow, steady rollout of the products: book pre-sale, book general public sale, eBook pre-sale, eBook general sale, magazine pre-sale, etc. This gave me a month of weekly promotional messages that gave people a specific way of supporting the project. The book begat the eBook begat the magazine. Boom, boom, boom.
I’ll add that groups like the local arts and cultural alliance and the chamber got word of the project and used their communication channels to talk about it. On and on it went, and the audience grew.
Why An Ebook and A Magazine
Easy: Affordability, and access. Not everyone can afford an $89 art book, so the magazine was a way for people to still enjoy a physical piece and saving some money.
It was a pain to layout the magazine. The size was different than the book, and it makes you reformat the pagination and design. But luckily the hard work – writing the stories, sizing the photos, etc. – was already done when I finished the book.
For the eBook, it was more of a way to experiment with the format. I had a chance to play with the iBook Store (and learn all its peculiarities and rules), which will help me on future projects. And I wanted a portable format for those on-the-go tablet folks.
As a multimedia professional, it just made sense to have different formats for Artists In Jackson. It increased the workload, yes, but I feel like it increased the audience size, too. Call it democratic self publishing.
Inventory and Mailing
My fear, as stated above, was that my basement would become a warehouse for these books. So while I split the difference and ordered some inventory, I kept it manageable.
The United States Postal Service (USPS) helped things by offering free mailing supplies (did you know?) and a great online service to order postage labels. It reminded me of the old days on eBay where you had to become a mailing service expert to move your merchandise.
I ordered 20 padded envelopes (free!) from USPS, and when a book order came in I’d buy a postage label, print it out, stuff the envelope with the book, and slap the label on. I’m lucky in that we have a post office here on the campus where I work, so I could just drop off the packages whenever I wanted.
USPS makes it easy to research shipping costs, too, so you know how much to charge your customers. This was vital – I had no idea what postage would be until I looked it up. Free envelopes, calculate the shipping, and send away. Really easy stuff.
Why USPS and not, say, FedEx? It’s totally political. I think our mail system should be run by the federal government, and I try to support the postage system – flawed and unfriendly as it may be – whenever I can.
This was a fun part because I had the right e-commerce site. Gumroad is great to work with, and I got their name from @bleeblu after purchasing his eBook. Their markup is very reasonable, and I love the stats and metrics they offer. It became kind of addicting to see a new email from Gumroad pop into my inbox, telling me I just sold another book. It was very helpful to see where my sales came from (website? email? social media?), too.
For the eBook, Gumroad did all the hosting and handled all the downloading. They also make sending mail tracking numbers and receipts super easy. Gumroad is really made for digital goods, but I found they handled physical goods just as well.
For individual photo prints, I use Society6. They take care of all the printing and shipping, and I get to set my profit amount for each print. I don’t make much from prints, but I wanted to offer them to family members and the artists at an affordable price.
After my initial 25 book order runs out, I’m going to switch my online store to Blurb’s version. It’s not the prettiest, but it will serve my needs for those print-on-demand orders.
And everything – the project, the stores, everything – is hosted with grace and beauty by Squarespace. I can’t recommend them enough for creative projects and professionals.
Next, I’m focusing on getting the word out about the project, either through media outlets or art blogs. This is a step-by-step, methodical process: emailing contacts, submitting press releases, knowing who to get a hold of, etc. But I enjoy the work.
I’m also chatting with folks about hosting some events in town to bring the art and artists together. This area is totally out of my comfort zone. I am not an event organizer.
So I pulled in a few of the artists from the project who are experience in events (Hi, Kaiti and Colleen) to help me think through the logistics. Where to have it? Who to invite? Sell tickets? Have food? How to promote? Etc.
I’m also thinking about some speaking engagements, through local service clubs and the museum, to give some backstory on the project.
The big rush at the end of this year is to get the book in people’s hands and get the word out. In 2016, I’ll be focusing on the social and event aspects of the project.
Finally, the project was super fun, and a ton of work. It’s not just the photographing and interviewing that takes time. It’s the writing the profiles, editing the photos, sizing them according to the media, building the website, developing the marketing plan, designing the book – on and on. It was five solid months of hard work and late nights.
But. I’m super proud of how it turned out, and the feedback and support has been great. It’s also fun for me to do this stuff.
I tend to be risk-averse, both financially and in life. I didn’t want to go into this project blind and blow a bunch of money on something that I can’t recoup. Yes, risk is a part of any artistic project, but my ability to tolerate risk is low. So at every step in the project, I made sure that there would be creative and financial payoff.
At the least, I just wanted to cover my costs. This was not a money-making scheme. Far from it. If I calculated the time put in to the payout, I’m probably in the red.
That’s what a hobby is, though. It’s a big time and money sink that’s worth all of that as long as you enjoy yourself. With Artists In Jackson, I had the satisfaction of knowing that not only was I exercising my photography muscles, but I was doing something worthwhile for the community.
In sharing my Artists In Jackson project, I reached out to some artists for feedback. What did they think? What can I do differently next time?
One artist in particular – raised in Jackson, went on to great success – gave me some really great advice. For one, he was worried about me producing a book. “Nobody buys books,” he wrote, “not even if you price them at $10 a piece.”
He, however, knew how to sell books. Case in point: a $500 book, limited to 50 editions, and he sold out of his print run in just a few weeks. This artist offered an experience, not just a book. It became a pride point to own one of his books.
“The book was only a bonus and personal brag piece to tell their friends the damn book cost $500,” he said. “It’s the experience, not the money.”
His experience was, he only printed 50 of them, and he included a personal sketch inside each one.
You can’t rely on friends and family to support your art, he told me. And people in the community who say they support the arts? They’re mostly fibbing. Few back up their support with actual dollars.
Some of this I wished I had heard before I started the project, though I doubt that would’ve dissuaded me. I wanted to make a quality book for people to buy, and I felt like I had enough of an audience to sell a decent amount.
Aside from the book, my main motivation was to brag about the artistic talent in Jackson, and to get to know some local artists. Take economics out of it, and I feel like my project was very successful.
Put economics back in, and I think the advice I received was pretty spot-on. My “experience” was a limited run of books signed by me, with a free eBook download and dibs on info like extra editions and events. I could do a lot more to up the “experience” level.
I don’t think that a high price tag would go over well in the community, however. Jackson is a pretty cheapskate kind of town.
Granted, this artist has a huge following, and sells work for thousands of dollars. He works on a totally different level than this local photographer with a super local project.
But for future projects, his advice is worthwhile.