What it Takes to Publish a Book of Photography

by Robin WhalleyMar 22, 2022Photography Blog

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What it Takes to Publish a Book of Photography

Have you ever wanted to publish a book of photography? A lot of photographers dream of this yet very few make it a reality. If you’re wondering why, it’s because it takes dedication, is demanding and takes a lot of time. But time over the past couple of years, time was something that a lot of us had in excess. Some chose to spend it binge watching Netflix whilst others invested it in their ambitions. That’s why I want to introduce you to Ed in this article. He managed to do what many people only dream of and have his photography project published as a book for the first time.

How I Came to Know Ed

It was April 2020 when Ed contacted me. At the time, most of the world was in the early stages of lockdown and for many, it felt like a lifetime had already passed. In the email, Ed introduced himself and explained his goal of publishing a book of photography, which he shot over more than a decade on the New York Subway. His problem, and why he contacted me was that he was struggling to digitise the negatives. As most of my work had vanished due to the pandemic, I decided to use my free time to help a fellow photographer with his goal.

After a few email exchanges, I managed to convince Ed that his Epson flatbed scanner would be up to the task. A few weeks later and he had the scanning process worked out and was able to start to digitise his photography.

Recently I contacted Ed to find out how his project was progressing and was delighted to learn that his book had just been published. That’s when I asked him if he would mind answering a few questions about the process so that I could share it with Lenscraft readers.

Here’s what he had to say.

Can you explain a little about the idea for your book and where it came from?

I started attending black and white photography classes at the International Center for Photography and the School of Visual Arts in NYC, which required taking photos every week.  As part of this effort, I was taking my camera on the subway while commuting to work on Wall Street. Through trial and error, I learned how to take photos without people noticing, what film to use (this was before high-quality phone cameras) and how to develop the film.  After a while, I noticed some images I really liked and then decided to travel the subways at night and on the weekends. It became an obsession, and I travelled every line on the NYC subway, through every station (thus the name of my book, “Station to Station”). Ultimately, I spent over a decade taking the photos shown in this book.

Publishing a book is a large undertaking. How did you organise the project?

After I developed the film, I would write on the back of the contact sheet where and when each photograph was taken. This turned out to be essential in selecting the photos to be selected for the book. I would store the negatives and contact sheets in acid-free notebooks and spend many nights and weekends in my darkroom printing. At one point, I photocopied some of the prints and made a rough demo book. However, as work and family life required all my time, the project remained dormant.

In 2014, my wife and I bought a brownstone in Harlem and started to renovate it. It became a much bigger job than we imagined, and I quit working to manage the renovation full time. The house was essentially finished in 2017 and we started traveling the world. In 2020, the covid lockdown occurred and I was confined to NYC.  I resurrected this project. I narrowed the potential pictures for the book to about 500 from several thousand. Then I vetted them with friends and family and narrowed them to about 125.

With your guidance I then scanned them. I narrowed the choice of photographs even further and hired a talented photographer and graphic artist, Alberto Sandoval, who lives in Venezuela, to design a book. I digitally printed a few copies and explored self-publishing. I decided not to do that for my first book, because I felt I didn’t have enough experience and the book was too important to risk rookie mistakes.  I then assembled a list of potential publishers and started contacting them, sending PDFs of a few images. I received few responses, some rejections and eventually Daylight Publishing expressed interested, as they had success with a photobook on international subways five years earlier. I was worked with their professional designers, editors, and printers. A talented photographer, Stephen Sherman from NYC, further enhanced my images for the book. I wrote essays that discussed my experiences taking the photographs for the book and I asked my friend Lawrence Weschler, an author of over twenty books, to write the Afterword.

What was the most difficult part of the project?

The most time-consuming part was taking the pictures, but it was so much fun it wasn’t work.

Figuring out how to scan the images at high enough quality, which I needed to learn a lot about but was able to do over several weeks, was also a challenge. It then took a few more months to scan them.

Finalizing the design was agonizing, as there are so many considerations, such as image order, borders for photos, cover design, type of paper and exposure / contrast for images.

Perhaps the hardest part is coming up, as I have to sell 250 books. In today’s industry, most photographers aren’t paid.  Instead, they are provided with books which they can sell.

The images in the book form a great portfolio of work. How did you go about selecting and sequencing the photography?

I selected the best images on a stand-alone basis. Then I narrowed them down further by selecting images on facing pages which were complementary but not in a simplistic way. I had to decide when there would be blank pages. This work of ordering images is subjective but important, as I want to keep the viewer’s interest as they go through the book.

I know the images were captured on black and white film. What technical issues did you face in trying to prepare them for print?

There’s no single best way to scan negatives in digital files. Each method (such as flat bed, negative scanner and drum scanning) has pros and cons. I was able to use a flatbed scanner to get the resolution that I needed in a cost-effective way. I had to learn the functionality of two scanning software packages to deal with the particulars of all the images.

Many people like the idea of publishing a book but then don’t follow through. How did you maintain your motivation?

It may be my personality. Once I start something, I feel internal pressure to complete, no matter how many months or years it takes. In any case, finishing a project such as an art or photo book is extremely rewarding.

Can you give an idea of your timescales from starting work to having the finished book in your hands?

From scanning the negatives, to publishing the book, it took two years.

How did you find a publisher to handle the work and how easy was it?

Finding a publisher is difficult for someone who has never published a book and who is not well-known. I almost gave up but found a quality publisher at the end. However, each publisher requires you to make a financial contribution to the cost of publication,  which you can recoup through book and print sales.

How pleased are you with the finished book?

I am very pleased and amazed it really happened.

How can people contact you if they are interested in purchasing your book?

They can contact me by email at [email protected].

Summary

If you dream of publishing your own book of photography, then I would encourage you to give it a go, just as Ed did. You do need to prepare yourself for hard work and have the resilience to handle setbacks along the way, but I promise you it will be worth it. I hope the questions in this article and Ed’s answers will help in some way to realise your own book project.

By the way, I’ve seen the final PDF of Ed’s book that went to the printers, and it looks amazing.

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