Photo by Ray Potes
I get this question a lot. It is interesting that the photo book is now being prioritized over commissions or exhibitions. At least according to my emails and DMs, but also just look at all the book fairs popping up all over the world in recent years.
It is asked in many different ways like, “Can you list for me all of the publishers that will want to publish my book?” or “What are the steps on getting a book published?” or “Will you forward my work to all of the publishers and ask them to publish a book for me?” or “What is the formula to get a publisher to publish my work?..”
Here is my answer – I don’t know. I am being serious, I have no fucking clue.
I have friends who have sold prints to museums, have had multiple solo gallery exhibitions, huge commissions, speaking events, etc. and still are having a hard time trying to get a photo book published. On the other hand, we have seen people shoot a few polaroids and get multi year book deals, billboards, movies, champagne, and limo service. The truth is there is no exact formula on getting a book made. It just happens.
Reminds me of a quote, “The first thing I learned when becoming an adult is that there are no adults.” I don’t know who said it, but it applies here. Everyone is just kinda best guessing at life.
There’s 2 basic ways that I have seen books get made – firstly, you know someone who knows someone. Secondly, your photography is so wildly popular that a publisher is confident they can sell a ton of your books. It’s usually a combo of both.
Let’s start there. A big time publisher will spend $20k+ on a book and guess what, they want to make that money back and more. They have an office, a warehouse, and a bunch of employees, designers, sales people, etc. Your photo book is meant to feed all of these people. And they will eat before you do, you will get your royalties when there is a profit. I mean this both figuratively and literally, they will expense their lunch on the project’s budget (your book’s budget).
It’s an investment/risk to publish your book. These companies hedge their bets by publishing 20 titles a year. It’s not that different for smaller publishers, if they can’t publish a bunch of titles at once, your book just might make or break them. Sometimes stuff sells good, sometimes not so much. Sometimes it is because the photo quality is great, sometimes it is because the economy just sucks. Either way, it’s a huge commitment. And I think it’s a long term one.
Ok, let’s best case scenario this – let’s say someone puts out a book for you. You have a few events, you give a few talks, etc. A year or 2 goes by, now what? Time for another one, time for another body of work. Similar to the music industry, “You’re only as good as your next record.”
This leads to my main point. It’s all about the work. Make the good work. Do the good work that magnetizes. The book is a side effect of this magnetism. The real question, “How do I get better?” This is a combo of studying and crafting. It is my belief that good work will get good attention.
Besides self-publishing our regular stuff, Hamburger Eyes has had 3 different book deals from 3 different publishers. Looking back now, I am realizing that each time there was some kind of momentum that preceded the book deal. Like each time there was a good run of zines and books, shows and events, commissions and collabs for a solid year or 2, and then discussions with another publisher started happening. (This is not regular. Some of our years are very quiet.)
Also, we were already somehow connected to that publisher. Someone knew someone who knew someone that had we had met somewhere along the way. It is inevitable to meet other photographers or other ambassadors of photography if you are actually pursuing photography. It is inevitable that someone you know right now will have a nice job one day at a nice photo related place of business.
Thus, a photo book formula based off of this freestyle blog – work your ass off, hang out with other photographers. Work some more. Show the work to people, anyone. Get feedback, work some more. Be cool about it.
Notice I didn’t say anything about pitching, pdfs, portfolios, cold emails, cover letters, etc. It’s because I don’t think any of that is enough. I haven’t seen it. Again, I really don’t know, this is all just my opinion. I think their board of directors have whole networks in place scouting and recruiting new investments, both big and small, you have to end up on their radar.
Something else to think about – do you really need someone else to publish your first book? Do you really need 3000 copies? Can you sell that many? How about self-publish 100 copies and see how that goes first? (Don’t worry, I am already planning a series of blog posts about doing it yourself.)
Yes, some people are naturals, their photos are amazing with little to no effort. They talk all good and shit. They are young and good looking. Publishers and benefactors can’t wait to give them money for multiple eras of future works. This is not the norm.
“Your first 10,000 photos are your worst.” – Henri Cartier Bresson
This is the norm. There are always exceptions, no doubt, but most of of us here haven’t shot enough. I include myself. This is not meant to discourage you. This is meant to hype you to go out and shoot more all day all night.