2.19.2012

Ah. The thrill of getting to market the book you worked on...

Ever patient Jana sits for a portrait under the saucy glow of an LED fixture.  

The image at the top came from some permutation of this main lighting set up.

That's me in the small studio, directing Jana, thinking about the writing and thinking far 
ahead about marketing the book.

I bet just writing books about photography is fun.  Writing the books sounds like an easy thing to do.  But now, in the 21st century, the authors of books on various aspects of photography have to do much more than "just" write.  The Syl Arenas and Kirk Tucks and Neil Van Niekirks, and a legion of other photography book impressarios, have to wear many hats.  We research and write, just as authors have done since the dawn of non-fictional literary time, but now we are on the receiving end of a whole new roster of responsibilities.  For me, illustrating the books with hundreds of photographs is the most time and resource consuming part of the project.

In total opposition to the way my brain is wired (I like chance more than planning) I must now think about what I've written and translate the verbal "score"  into a "before" and an "after" images.  I must jettison the fluidity I've acquired through decades of nearly autonomic practice and now think in terms of discreet and obvious steps so I can lead the non verbally disposed book owners through each painful step of concept.  It's like doing a picture book for the resistant to reading and a real book for the totally verbally oriented at the same time.  And it takes the two sides of the brain that are the furthest from each other to do reasonably well.

I must recruit models who are patient enough to work with me in this whole step by step miasma and quel their expectations.  We'll be turning out examples, not art.  I must make sure that the models fit a modern idiom of culturally acceptable physical beauty and yet remain accessible.  I try to keep it fun for the small crew involved.  Our advance money only covers payments to the models and to my assistant.  There's nothing left over for travel or gear or even a make-up person.  

Once the images are in the bag I need to go in and do minor retouching of things like fly-away hairs and stray threads to pre-empt the vacuous critiques of people who are obsessed with finding flaws.  If a model's face shows too much texture I am accused of not knowing how to light said model correctly.  If the model has flawless skin I am accused of massive retouching to cover some perceived lack of technical capability or, better yet, to call into  question the efficacy of the basic premise I am trying to prove in the book.

Once the words are written, the images taken and corrected and every image spread-sheeted to match some arbitrary position in the text I can begin the unfortunate process of sketching out "lighting diagrams" so that people who can't understand the copy and can't extrapolate the lighting design from the supplied "behind the scenes" shots supplied can make enlarged copies of the "lighting diagrams" and paste them on the floor to follow without regard for the vagaries of their alternate spaces and gear.  As though the exact placement somehow trumps the basic idea of the lighting.  

The final run through the Aegean stables is the writing of captions.  Captions seem to be for the people who either despise reading the body copy and are hoping for a micro "Cliff Notes" approach to book reading or for the people who are confused by the images and need yet another layer of guidance.  But then captions are also like candy and most of us crave them in spite of ourselves.

If you are a slow writer or a slow photographer or both, this process can grind on for the better part of half a year.  If you had nothing else to do and didn't need to support yourself or your family you could probably finish your book project in the better part of a month.  Then it leaves your hands and goes off to your publisher and you relinquish a certain part of control that gives you the illusion of perfectionism that's never really there.  My most recent book went through several steps of proofreading and yet there are still words that didn't get bonkled or trogmolated into the right spelling.  Spell check is to proof reading as Facebook is to real relationships....

And then there's the process of color correction.  When images make the leap from monitor to CMYK offset process printing there are things that can change.  Colors can slide from intention to obfuscation. From proof to prank.  From veracity to vexing.

I never saw color proofs for the LED book and while the large majority of images are right on the money there are a handful that are too dark and an even smaller handful (several fingers full....) that have unfortunate color casts.  I say unfortunate because I was trying, in this particular book (the one on LEDs) to prove that the lights in question had come of age.  That, with good practice, a photographer could make color rich and color accurate images with the current offerings of midrange and better LED fixtures.

Most readers will look at the majority of images contained in the book and get the message.  But I've already had one reviewer jump to the conclusion, based on a small minority of mis-printed images, that the LEDs are at fault, ergo my premise is faulty and, QED, the book is without merit.  Oh the slings and arrows of outrageous (mis)fortune...    My very integrity sacrificed by a printer's interpretation of color and density.

So, at this point the writer/photographer/production drone is done with his part of the project and the book is launched and the big dollars start pouring in.  Right?  Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha......

Here's where the modern photographer/writer hits the wall of 20th century mythos and, submerged in bathos, comes to the queasy conclusion that his book will die on the vine without Promethean efforts of marketing.  Every week dozens of printed and e-published books on photography are unleashed onto the market.  And there is both a limited demographic market, and within that demographic, a limited budget for books.  For a book to do well it must be marketed.  If I could afford to take out a full page in the New York Times Sunday Magazine to show off the book, and couple that with a few appearances on Oprah, and some live interviews on the splash page of DPReview.com  I could sell a prodigious number of books in a flash.  But reality is based on projected returns and a host of other unknowns on a  mysterious matrix.  And the reality that niches get smaller as topics get progressively more arcane.  

Publishers run press releases in all the usual places and take the book (along with dozens and dozens of others) to the trade shows.  But the real market place is Amazon.  And to move the numbers in your favor on Amazon the writer/photographer is encouraged by the publishers and, if he wants the books to return any cash at all, is self-motivated to cast off the hat of creator and don on the plaid sportcoat and winning smile of the marketer/salesman.  A role for which most creative people are profoundly unsuited.

We are encouraged, externally and "internally" to blog about our new book, to do as many book signings as we can, and to reach out to every point on our friendship/acquaintance compass and flog the book.  I'm putting together a book signing at Precision Camera for next Monday.  I hope I am perceived as smart and warm and effusive and deeply interested in the continuing education of my peers and the hosts of hobbyists that make up my implied constituency. I hope no one wants to argue (using technical info from 1990) that LEDs are incapable of even lighting up a computer screen.  Much less a portrait shoot. (Everyone does realize that LEDs are used in your new flat screen TVs and in the latest computer screens and they seem pretty accurate....right?)

And I'll do the same stand-up routine for any club, group of class that will have me.  But why?  Why do photographers feel compelled to write books in the first place?  I'll have to be honest.  Several publishers have told me the same thing and, even though it pains me a great deal to admit it, it's the same basic logic that has been espoused by Seth Godin for as long as he's been espousing.  To wit: You won't make any real money writing a physical book.  The book is a souvenir for an event (according to Seth).  People come to see you talk about something and the book is the take away.  Like buying something fun in the gift shop of a museum after you see the King Tut exhibit.  The publishers sell it like this:  "You'll gain credibility with your market so that you can better sell your workshops and seminars."  

Well, that's all well and good but what if you don't really want to do workshops and seminars? I should have thought that through sooner.  The math is simple.  You write a book for a publisher and you get a percentage of the cover price in return for that six months of your life you spent hunched over a keyboard or cajoling models.  If you were a best selling fiction writer with a large fan base you might see hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of royalties in a short amount of time.  If you are like most fiction writers your book will sell fewer volumes than it takes to pay off your advance.  Your book will be remaindered in a season or two and you'll have the opportunity to buy the surplus stock from your publisher at some sort of price that covers his cost of printing. Salvage value.  You will have worked for years on your novel for a few thousand dollars.

A photo book writer who does a great job marketing his book might sell 5,000 copies in a good year.  A book that really hits, by a star writer in our field (sounds like "Shelby"....) will make many multiples more.  But most of the books will depend on the "long tail" of photo books to return profitability to the publisher and, to a lesser extent, to the creator.  A book with a great "long tail" is LIght, Science and Magic because it's well written and the knowledge it teaches doesn't change or go in and out of style.

If I work on marketing the LED book as though it was my full time job for the rest of the year we might be lucky enough to sell 5,000 copies.  Maybe.  Figure that the royalties will equal about one full week (maybe two weeks in the current economy) of work in my "real" job as an advertising and corporate photographer.  In order to have the book make economic sense I'll have to leverage its "first to market" implied expertise to launch an aggressively marketed series of cutting edge workshops about LED lighting, complete with hot models and stops in too many second tier markets to mention.  Coupled with some sold out houses in some big metro markets.  Hello Carnegie Hall !!!!

But the fly in the ointment is this:  I'm no great orator like David Hobby.  I can't hold an audience in my hands, with them waiting for the next utterance about luminance, like he does.  I'm no Scott Kelby with his joie de vivre and his witty patter, standing in front of legions of people  who are desperate to understand the vagaries of Photoshop or the menus of their cameras.  I'm just a guy who likes to write and take pictures and who never thought he'd be held captive to the back end of the publishing process.  A self imposed voluntary, involuntary servitude of creating an informercial-esque circus around a straightforward book.

I'd rather keep writing and photographing.  It's sunny and warm here now.  I'm abandoning all marketing efforts for today and heading out with my camera and a smile on my face.  The book market can wait.

And, by the way, we are having a book signing and "meet and greet" on February 27th, from 5 to 7 pm at Precision Camera here in Austin.  I'm sure you'll want fly in for it....