Publishing a photography book – looking back after a year by Benn Murhaaya
Benn has been on the site in the past, with a fantastic and detailed guide to shooting large format. This time around, Benn talks about his experience making a photo book. This is a long read, so settle down and enjoy.
Some of the regulars here might recognize my book as it been featured in zines section here on JCH. I’ve decided that I’ll share most of the insights and my experience from making the book.
So first things first – who the hell am I and why should you care? I am an amateur photographer. Amateur in the original meaning of the word – somebody who does his thing for the sheer love of it. I’ve been making photographs for about 9 or so years. I’ve spent large portion of that time shooting documentary style in body modification studio and while at university I was earning some extra money as a party photographer. Both of which taught me a lot and taught me learn quickly and improvise.
Lately I’ve turned my attention to theater. While still a stage performance, it lacks the inherent shock factor of pierced tattooed naked bloody bodies thus leaving more room for me as a photographer. Besides all that I’ve always kept some personal stuff (i.e. latex, shibari, fetishes… you know – stuff) going on and I believe that it is also reflected in the book. I’ll bore you with few paragraphs of personal thoughts before diving head on into the technical side of things, so bear with me.
Why even publish a book? Being an amateur photographer, I felt no external force to publish a book. While I did not burn any money making it I did not make the book with intent to make money on it. Actually I started with presumption that I’d like to just cover the costs with the benefit being having the published book. Since I also don’t do photography for living or for money, I didn’t consider it as an advertisement for myself. I consider it a vanity project. This also liberated me from making the book as broadly likeable as possible.
So what was the main motivation? In the mid-2014, I felt that I’ve accumulated enough good photographs that could be showcased in something other than just a small exhibition. Up until that time I only did small exhibitions usually with 10 – 20 dark room prints. There was also maybe an unconscious feeling that I am closing one chapter in my photography.
My style used to be a gritty grainy black and white pictures. Films like Ilford PAN 400 or later Kodak Tri-X 400 either pushed to 1600. This style did come long before I knew of people like Daido Moriyama, Ken Schles or Miron Zownir. It sprung from my desire to shoot film in very dark places like clubs, backstages, or at night. I also did not start to shoot like this overnight but it was preceded a number of years of just experimenting. Then during 2015, I found it to be harder and harder for me to continue in that style. I was shooting the same cameras, the same films, developing the same way and yet it was not working out. It lacked something or the exposure was off and what I used to love so much was now disappointing me on regular basis. Instead of Olympus OM-1 with Tri-X+2 I found myself using point and shoots with color film more and more. So looking back, the book came to be as a closure of that time in my photography life. I was not aware of it until much later. Looking back it all makes sense.
This was my motivation. Yours might vary. My suggestion is to publish something meaningful that is meaningful to you and preferably to others as well. Something that feels like it’s a closed chapter you could look back on rather than something that is still evolving. I almost stopped taking one kind of photographs so I could put all of those gritty shots on one heap and sort it out. I was forced to look at my old photographs, sometime even 5 years old, and think about how my seeing changed, how my approach or technical skills changed or what stayed the same. It forced me to think and reflect on why I sometimes pursued this or that and if it was worth it. Stopping and going through all of my analog photographs from few years back good ones and bad I pushed myself into evaluating my own path. This I feel should be a main motivation. To look back at some chapter, at some part of the life and create an album for yourself that is also interesting to others.
Small side note here. Writing this piece prompted me to think again about the book and I’ve decided that I am going to publish another one. With images that partly overlap with the first book but did not make it to the first one for one reason or another. I do still think of that chapter as closed and that I just want to share more given the experience I now have.
To continue with my last thought let’s focus on the content. The content is king. This is always true. You can have your book printed on newspaper and if the pictures are good it will look great and have a punk feel to it (actually when I saw a newspaper edition of hard cover coffee table book, that was when I first started thinking even about the possibility of creating my own book. It took me few years though). But vice versa, if you print the most boring and uninspired photos in Taschen style coffee table book it will suck and take space. Pictures in the book are like sound in the movie. If the sound is good, it can be shot with 80s VHS and it will be style choice but not even a sweetest shots by Roger Deakins will make a movie with crappy sound bearable. So my advice is always put content over form. Rather scale down the paper format or paper quality than scale down the content. In the end, what you decide to put in the book is your choice but some choices might be better than others.
What I seek in other people’s work is authenticity. Show me what you find interesting and not what you think that I might find interesting. Don’t try to be likeable but be yourself. Then and only then you can be original. You don’t need to reinvent photography. Everybody is now shooting either women, street or deadpan (it seems) but do it your way, that is what you can bring in. Also show me something I haven’t already seen. Or show me what I’ve seen but in a way I haven’t seen it. Show me places I cannot go to; spaces I cannot ever gain access to or cultures and subcultures that I am not a part of. (My book contains only one picture from my vacation in Japan and it is from a private shibari session as the rest are the same touristy shots as everybody has.) Show me what is unique to you.
In my book, I feature a lot of concrete panel houses – a common housing in Europe and especially in the eastern block – this was the theme that prompted most responses when talking about the book. Many people here in Czech Republic lived at one point or another in buildings like these so they find some connection on personal level. Many of them will tell me that they’ve never seen them like I do and they’ve never realized that they could be even seen that way. So houses, not bound and pierced and high heeled, naked women, was the most personal part of the book. A lot of people will enjoy a naked female body. Not that many will enjoy a communist response to housing crisis in 1970’s. At one point, I was considering leaving out the houses from the book altogether because I felt that people are more interested in the ladies in latex and boobs but left them in thinking that they are part of me. I am glad that I did that. It is probably the most personal theme. So don’t be afraid to mix in something weird but close to your heart.
Now for the themes. My suggestion would be keep it simple but not too much. Pictures in my book could be put into three main categories: fetishes, body mods and concrete houses with some portraits being more or less somewhere in between the first two categories. I think that these themes provide enough variety and can be interestingly woven together and there could be even some interesting interplay between the pictures. I believe that the reader can make a sense of it rather than if I had a book full of random shots with no underlying structure or sense.
The ordering in the book is chronological but it was not from the beginning. I was thinking about the order in which I should put the images in the book. Should I split it to multiple parts based on the theme? Latex and fetish first, then body mods then buildings? I did not know what would be the best. When I put a broader selection of pictures for the book into separate folder they were ordered chronologically because I name all my scans starting with the date of the scan, name of the camera and number of the negative. As I was going through them again and again I discovered an underlying rhythm that I could not anticipated. It is a random sequence of pictures and every now and then, when there is too much flesh a building will pop up, breaking the rhythm and changing the mood. I believe that people would get bored if the images would be grouped by a theme.
I once leafed through a large coffee table book by Suicide Girls. It was thick and heavy and full of naked girls covered with tattoos yet after a while I was bored because there was nothing new. It was still the same thing just a different girl. Therefore, make it interesting, provide the reader with some unexpected rhythm. It should play like bebop.
The chronological ordering is also probably the only one, that has some inherent logic. It is a natural ordering. You can see how I changed and grew as a photographer. I used to shoot more body mods in the beginning of the time frame the book covers than at the end and I feel the book reflects that and it provides the viewer with opportunity to watch that evolution in pictures. The reader is watching you evolve as a photographer. The pictures have common quality to them that is evolving.
On the other hand, if I am not mistaken Araki messes around with the dates in his cameras and then puts the pictures in fake chronological order creating something completely unexpected. But it still plays like a bebop and has unexpected structure. But think about the ordering and how to make it interesting and not feel flat.
First things first – pictures. Get them on one heap. If you have them printed, make a copies, if you have them in computer copy them to one folder. I suggest naming the files so that the names are unique. Don’t just name files 01 – 36.jpg. I use YYYY-MM-DD-camera-negative#-picture#.jpg because I can easily look up the folder with that picture and see pictures from the same session.
When selecting the pictures for the first time, be broad. Put everything you like in it. If you cannot decide between two or three pictures from the same session put all of them there, you will sort it out later. Just put everything you feel might be good enough in there and start with that. Do not limit yourself.
Now you have a rough estimate of the content. Do you have 20 pictures, 200 or 2000? I had around 200 pictures in the first draft selection. These 200 came from about 20 000 black and white pictures I took in that period. So me being broad in my selection meant that I deemed only 1 percent of my pictures worth even considering. When selecting, there are some easy choices, pictures that suck right away, misfocused, badly exposed, or when the model blinked… others might not be so easy to leave behind. So if you feel like they might be worth it, put it in the pot. We are not setting anything in the stone at this point.
First visit to print shop
Before going to printer’s think about the format of the book. How big it should be and how many pages? Again rough estimates. Nothing is set in stone but have a general idea. Take some of your favorite photography books and hold them. Go through them, notice if they are easy to hold in one hand or you need to lay them on the table (or even have a special stand like a Taschen sumo edition).
I knew I wanted to make the book something around the size of European A5 landscape format. Something that would be easy to hold and be comfortable to leaf through while sitting on the toilet (yes, I took that into consideration). I took my inspiration from Araki’s Dirty Pretty Things. It has very nice format to held one hand. It’s not heavy and yet pretty thick. Think also about the format of your pictures. If they are all 4×5 portraits a portrait orientation or even square might be good. Mine were mostly landscape oriented 3:2 so I chose the binding to be on the short side to give those photos their space. It’s about the photos not about how well it will fit in the bookshelf. Some of the most interesting photography books I have stick out the most.
Now at this point I went to the print shop. I am lucky that my friends work at a large company that prints tons of stuff so I had a personal approach. If you do not have this luxury try googling around, ask around, call in and ask if they even care for such business as personal photography book. Narrow it down to three shops maybe. It’s always best to have some personal experience so if other photographer you know made a book ask him. Or if the shop makes photography or poetry books on regular basis. Why poetry? Because poets don’t know much about type setting so they are used to people asking stupid questions.
A point I should clarify is that by book I don’t mean those single piece photography books that you can put together online and have it delivered in one week. Those are today’s photo albums; they are great for wedding pictures not for anything serious. Besides it usually has like ten or twenty pages and usually costs more to make than a retail price for real books. They are fine for nice personal portfolio though.
So with my first broad selection I went to the print shop but at that time I asked for the rough estimate of the price. I asked for estimate on few grades of paper, few different page counts like 50, 100, 150. I also asked for the difference in price for one sided vs double sided print and color or black and white. One sided vs. double sided print was quite significant difference. My first idea was to put the picture on one page and the text on the blank opposing page so it would not interfere with the picture. That would mean a more expensive double sided print so I chose not to pursue that idea.
Last thing is estimate for the number of books to be printed. How much would it cost to have 100, 200 or 300 pieces? The price will increase but the price per piece will go down. With this rough estimate I could see if the whole endeavor is even doable financially. But even if your budget allows for printing 2000 pictures that does not mean you should do it. The same goes for then number of books. If you are like me, with some but not massive, online following, you should be on the safe side and print something around 200 – 300 books. If they will fly of the shelves you can always make more. It’s better than to stack thousands of books in your garage as a memento of your pricy failure.
During my time in body mod studio I met a photographer who documented them for a brief period of time and then made a small book. She, together with the studio owner, decided to print a thousand or so books because they had a good deal. Stacks of that booklet were everywhere for another few years and the book would be given away with larger deals just to get rid of it. Nothing is free even if you don’t have to pay for it. From the price estimate I knew the ballpark. I figured that something around 80 pages would be the best. Not too long to start boring and not too short so all the good ones will fit. I believe that is better to leave the viewer wanting more than bore him mid through the book.
Once you have the rough estimate of the number of pages you can go back to selecting. Selecting is probably the hardest part that is not involving mechanical tasks. Other stuff is daunting but it’s mechanical. Here you need to rely on your experience.
I did the first selection in computer but I had that folder even on my phone so I could go through it anywhere when I had spare time. When selecting I coldheartedly deleted many pictures that were not good enough. My advice is that the final selection should feel like hit hit hit hit hit on every picture. No photograph should instill doubt in you as if you should keep it or not. If you doubt it, it’s not good enough – delete it and make room for another that is better. If you doubt the picture with you taking it, why it should interest somebody else? Looking back now, if I could I would change one or two pictures. I now feel that one in particular does not stand up to the rest. This first selection left me with about 150 pictures.
I went and printed all the pictures in about the final size on a normal office laser printer to make a mock up. No covers, just pictures on an office paper held together by a binder clip. Now I had something physical; I could leaf through, show it to people and friends, ask them for their opinion. I haven’t reflected all of the opinions though.
Sometimes they would just not get me and they would say things like “…besides those ugly buildings, it’s great…”. But other times they were like “…if you switch those two pictures it will be better…”. You can say wait a minute, didn’t you say that it is in chronological order? Yes, it is. The name of the file has date of the digitization so it’s not the exact date of each image. Without maybe one or two exceptions I cannot honestly tell you on which day any of those pictures were taken. Therefore, I don’t feel that I’ve bent the rules of chronologicity but the overall rhythm of the book changed to the better.
Many times people’s opinions reflected my own doubts that I had deep down but did not dare to express them. Every photographer likes the pictures because they are theirs. Sometimes this can overcome the fact that the picture is just not good but you like it anyway. It’s good for you and its great memory but only to you and this feeling does not translate to a viewer. He does not have the backstory and the backstory is what makes the picture complete. That also means that that particular photograph does not speak for itself. When somebody’s opinion resonated with me I would mark it on the page. Advice on this – listen to people and don’t dismiss it right away. If ten people can agree on one picture, then it’s worth a second thought. Some people might not like the body mod pictures as they find them gruesome. I don’t consider this a good reason to take them out.
Regarding the backstories… I have so many memories and sometimes cool backstories to almost all of the pictures. I first thought that I would include a paragraph of text on the opposite page. Like a story of that cool fetish party where this one was taken. Or how did I get to that private shibari session in the heart of Shinjuku. With the price difference between one sided and double sided print I abandoned that idea and I believe it’s for the best. It would mean a lot of text in English which is not my first language. Lot of proofreading, lot of corrections and lot of mistakes that I missed. Besides, who am I to expect that people are interested in what I have to say? With all that limitations and thoughts in mind I went with date and short descriptive title.
I am hugely against the fad of naming photographs. Usually those worst kitschy photos are named. Like calling a photograph of a girl looking in to a body of water something like “Internal struggle” or “Enduring sadness” – hate it. Being a fan of Robert Frank, Will Eugene Smith or HCB I felt that descriptive captions will be the best choice as it won’t automatically create an emotion for the viewer. The photo should create the emotion, not the name. Many of my photographs are documentary in nature so descriptive style feels natural. It helps the viewer to understand the picture and context.
Takeaway from this – simplify. Especially if it’s your first book. Create less obstacles for yourself. Don’t write a novel. It’s better to realize something smaller completely than aim for a large book full of text and fail on every page because you did not proofread it.
With that narrowed down selection of 150 pics, I made a subfolder for each and everybody who was in the photographs. Some people have just one picture in the book, some more. My friend Misha has seven. Then I started contacting models (and this includes all the people not only female models). Sometimes maybe after a longer period of silence (but there were never any hard feelings, just silence). I would say something like “Hey, how’s goin’? I am working on a book and I would love to include the following photographs of you because I simply love them that much. Are you okay with them? I don’t want to put out there anything you are not okay with and I will also need you to sign me a model release that you agree with the publication. It’s it fine with you? Once the book is done you’ll receive one as a gift.”
Most of the photographs I’ve chosen were already online so I had no problems. There are few that I would love to have in the book but the girl said no and I respect that. So there is a decision done for me on what photograph to take out. Some of you might not like it but I don’t play hardball. It may not even apply to some of you as you do street photography and do not have or don’t need model releases.
I would receive a strong no on maybe ten pictures tops. There were some maybes in a sense “Weeeeeeell, I gotta think about it and depending on how it looks I’ll decide.” I would not throw these right away. Some of them would later make into the book and others would not. My thinking was that the book does not stand or fall with one particular picture. So as long as I am juggling two or three pictures it should be okay.
The important part here is the model release. I have a friend who is a lawyer and I paid her to create a model release for me. It said basically that: I signed here am ok with this guy using following pictures (see append.) in his book and I do not and will not request any money etc. etc. Appendix contained the pictures and they would sign the model release as well as the page with the picture or the picture itself.
This might be a bit overkill. People I shoot are my friends and sometimes very close friends and we could be like “are you ok with it? Yes, I am, whatever” but if somebody would decide because of a new jealous boyfriend that they don’t want their pictures in the book or that they want some money because I am obviously making a fortune on the book I would be covered. I did not want to have boxes of books in storage indefinitely because somebody’s boyfriend has issues (these things happen sometimes). If the model him/herself is not okay with the picture, I am open to discussion but I don’t take well if somebody’s boyfriend is trying to have a say what his girl can do with her body.
Now we are finally getting to the really technical side of things. First of those is software. There are number of programs for type setting with various degrees of user comfort and prices. To those who have paid software like InDesign good for you. I haven’t used it but I suggest you stick with it. I did not want to buy anything and I opted for a free software called Scribus (in version 1.4.3). While it allows you to set many properties of pages, guidelines, paragraphs etc. it’s overall ease of use leaves a lot to be desired.
I was lucky that I did not have to mix text with images and that I had only one or two images per page and my overall design choice was very clean. Aligning in Scribus is pain in the neck and some additional plugin (together with some Python API) must be installed to make it work. I was unable to install it and make it work so I had to set guides and align the pictures to margins and guides. If I remember correctly I was unable to center the picture to page or distribute two pictures evenly (you know, like in Photoshop) or something like that.
Another thing that ground my gears was that I was unable to select all text in the project and change the font globally. Maybe I just did something wrong. Plus, every time I would change the font the underlying XML file where the project is stored added a new font tag around the text field while keeping the previous nesting them like Russian dolls. The rendering was fine and the final pdf was fine as well but the internals were awful mess. If I would be sure that the picture quality would not get compromised, I would set it in Microsoft Word and be done with it in half the time. But it did the job and it was free so I guess it’s okay but boy did it suck. My advice here is try experimenting with something else. Scribus can do it, you can always fall back on that one but the user comfort goes out of the window.
Some pointers on the physical layout before you start setting. Ask the printer about bleed. That is how much bigger the page needs to be so if you have a picture that is over the whole page you won’t get white border when the trimming machine misses the mark by a fraction of the millimeter. Usually it’s about 2 – 3 mm. Except the cover I chose to have white border everywhere so that was fine.
Also ask them on how they prefer the page layout to be. I started with page layout being left and right (the left one being blank in the end) and I was told they prefer I have the layout as one page layout. I had to go and delete the blank pages midway.
Margins – what you need to remember is that you cannot just place the picture or text in the dead center of the page. Why not? Because of the binding you need to add some space on the inner side so when the finished book is opened, the pictures will be in the optical center of the page. It is better to overestimate it than underestimate it. That is put it more towards the outer edge than too close to binding. The photo will be more visible in its entirety and not be obstructed by bent pages. So set margins and also set guides. Have different guides for different layouts ready so all the images are aligned the same way. Align them to the guides or margins by align command and not by snapping.
The final layout of the pictures did not change much from what I had in mind since the beginning. Even if I could do a double sided print I would not print over the bind. Nothing fills me with disappointment more than seeing an iconic image spread over two pages just to have ugly bent in the middle. If the one picture per page layout good enough for Robert Frank, it’s good enough for me. Looking back now, I would only make the inner margin bit bigger. So really give the photos some space. Also, my text is below the pictures aligned to the inner margin. If you’ll go with similar layout the bigger the inner margin the easier is to read the text.
Typesetting & fonts
With the fonts, I have the misfortune use language which alphabet contains 41 letters. Yes 41. So I could not just use any font but font has all the characters, many names that are not transcribed contain diacritics. Diacritics is a bitch. So I went with Bookman Old Style – one of the defaults on Windows machines. It is pretty nice font that looks good and unobtrusive. It does not have too much character to grab the reader’s attention or that would instill some emotion. It’s purely functional. I used this font for all texts except headings. The font for the main text should be easy to read. By the way many of the Woody Allen movies use plain title cards written in Garamond.
For the cover and headings I felt that a font with more character is needed but I struggled to find one. My cousin who is a graphic designer suggested Basetica instead of my first choice Helvetica. Helvetica is very nice but it also says “I want it nice but I don’t know what else to use”. Headings are shorter and bigger and here the font can have some more feel. Plus, I knew that I would not be using any diacritics in headings so my selection was much broader.
I suggest stick with two fonts at maximum. Keep it simple. It’s about the pictures and not about showcasing your font library. In any case do a test print of the text in various similar sizes to see what looks and reads best. Don’t put function over form. The less fancy the font is the less it sticks out. It should go unnoticed the same way as you don’t think about fonts when reading a newspaper or a book.
Preparing the pictures – Scanning
Let’s say that we are down to final selection. Its fixed. At this point I was faced with the most mundane, time consuming and tedious task from the whole process. The rest of the stuff could be done in about the same time as it took you to read this monster of an article. The worst part was digitizing old negatives. If you are working with pictures from digital camera, then you can skip this part pretty much. If you are like me and half the pictures were scanned years ago on a shitty flatbed well brace yourselves.
Now that I have a Nikon LS-5000 I needed to go and rescan about half the pictures. Fetching the negatives, feeding it one strip at a time and scanning one frame at a time. The results also looked nothing like my flatbed scans that I came to like (and also my darkroom prints of many of those photos matched the flatbed look). So I spent a good amount of time of matching the tonality in Camera Raw (I scan to DNG format). This involved usually crushing blacks and enhancing contrast.
(print screen of the raw scan vs. edited vs. original flatbed scan)
Another negative side effect was that the high resolution scan showed more scratches and more dust from the handling (the LS-5000 is unforgivable and will show even a tiny scratch that you won’t even notice in 20x magnification darkroom print with diffuse head). I also realized how badly I washed my older negatives. Many old strips show violet tint from the antihalation layer that I did not properly washed. Basically all rescanned negatives needed to be retouched by hand. Some of the worst took me two hours to clean. Two hours one frame. LS-5000 produces 20 MPix files and I retouched the original full size scans.
For the rest of the negatives that were not shot on 35 mm I used either flatbed Canon 8800F (for medium format) or I photographed it on a light table (polaroid negative or large format). I don’t think you can discern any difference in quality at the final size. For 35mm the flat bed is really not suitable but for the medium format it’s quite okay. But even with flatbed I used VueScan and scanned to DNG in maximal color depth.
When retouching, cloning tool and patch tool will sometimes produce weird artifacts when patching grainy image. Always use as a source an area with similar grain structure. Other times you will see a weird grain structure only to realize that it’s there since the beginning and that grain just behaves this way. I must have spent 40+ hours netto on cleaning those scans. Once you’ve done this, it’s smooth sailing from there.
Based on the size of the final picture size in cm and the dpi that the printer uses (usually 300 dpi) you can rescale the images down to 1:1 size. You don’t want some black box software to scale down the images for you. This is quite interesting step. I started with 20 MPix scans scanned at maximum resolution – 4000 dpi. When scaled down to the 300 dpi and size of 18,1 cm x 12,1 cm the resulting size in pixels was just about 2100 px x 1400 px. That seems so small, right? But remember, with 300 dpi, it is about 100 px per cm (300 px per 2,54 cm actually but 100 px/cm is nice rule of thumb). So every time anybody is blabbing about how he needs more megapixels because he is going to be printing photos, I call BS.
Text, cover, etc. …
This concludes the photography part of the book. I went through the book multiple times to make sure that everything was aligned properly and the vertical size was the same throughout the whole book and that all pictures are at 100% after resizing but at this point, there was no need to do any photo editing.
We can focus on the text. I decided to write just two pages. One introductory in the beginning and one personal at the end. If you are English native speaker good for you. I am not and even though I can put together long and somewhat comprehensible texts (like the one you are reading right now) it does not mean that it will read nicely (as you probably realized halfway through this). So for the introduction I asked my Canadian friend for proof reading and rephrasing my rough English translation. The text she sent me was astoundingly different from what I wrote while keeping the same sense. By comparison my English seemed rudimentary and unsophisticated while her phrasing made it feel smooth and natural. I also had the text translated by Czech girl who does English technical writing for a living and still the difference was striking. I cannot stress this enough, unless you are a native English speaker, and even if you are, have somebody who is help you with that. You are putting this out and you want to make the best of it. I did not let her rewrote the personal part of the text. We only proofread that for errors but I kept it as I wrote it as it should lose the feeling.
I also chose to include an index of pictures with camera and film I used for that picture. Because I keep quite extensive record it was not a problem to put it together. I first got this idea from Annie Leibowitz’s book “At work” where at the end is some technical info about all the featured pictures. I found that even non photographers find that index interesting. Analog photographers can of course geek out completely. This index and the texts below the pictures should match. I had to make sure that I did not have any typos or mistakes in these texts as well. I had quite a few and I created the index once I was sure there no mistakes.
At this point the book is almost done. We are missing the cover but that can wait. We have the final page count. Some thank you page, introduction, photographs, epilogue, maybe an index, and post scriptum. The cover is counted separately so now another visit to printer’s is due. They will most likely do a test print. I’ve selected four photos. One really grainy, one really light, one really dark and one with a face. This way I could see how the details, shadows, highlights and skintones are rendered. I did not have to change the colorspace and the photos came out looking very good. This test print is done also on different papers to see what will look best. Even though I first thought about doing it on something more punkish like a newspaper after I saw the results the plain white glossy paper gave me I changed my mind. It was also second cheapest I think. I tried some that were warmer or had a texture but the basic one looked the best. I applied the same reasoning for the paper as I did for the fonts. It should be unobtrusive and don’t draw the attention. I think that the print quality is excellent and can match your usual coffee table books.
One thing to note here, the first test prints were done using color ink. They usually print everything in color so even black and white photo is printed using color ink. I requested to change it to black only as the whole of my book is in black and white. I believe there is slight but noticeable increase in quality or at least the feel or it. With page count fixed and paper selected I got a new price that was basically the final figure and would change only slightly based on the cover.
Depending on the number of books you are going to be doing they might offer you an offset printing. Usually small number of prints will be done using digital print. From what I’ve been told the offset printing is better but it requires more prep work. So keep that in mind. It might change the price slightly though.
For the cover, I am still not sure if I should have paid more and have a hardcover but the medium hard cover was not a bad choice either. I struggled when designing the cover. I wanted to feature some interesting photo that would kind of sum up the whole book and be enticing at the same time. I am still a bit unsure if I did a good job. The placement of the text still feels to me like that it could have been better but I did not figure it out. My graphic designer cousin helped me with that and gave me a green light on this but I still think it could have been better. I tried the text in the middle over the image but then the letters would be hard to read where the photo is lighter. Adding some background under the text felt weird. I should have probably opted for some graphic approach and make it like a duotone or vectorize it. Spend a lot of time playing with the cover. Maybe abandon the idea you had at first completely. Maybe some other photo would worked better?
From the practical side of things, the cover featured picture that is over the whole page. This means that the original picture has to be 3mm larger on all but the binding side because of the bleed. The funny part is the spine. You should ask your printer about the size because you do not know how exactly thick the book will be. We figured that I would create a PDF and provide them with the font I used so their graphic designer could make the spine side narrower or wider once they have the insides ready.
As for the binding itself, few words of caution. The first version was only glued together. It looked fine but after day or two of people leafing through a show piece the pages started to fall out. Other problem that I encountered and was partly my fault was that the printer couldn’t put the glossy finish on the cover in time. You see I wanted to unveil the book around my birthday so I would have a birthday / unveiling party. It seemed that I would make the date without any problems but with some back and forth communication, some delay here and there (remember, they are printing large orders of stuff for large companies so I was not their priority number one and I am not blaming them one tiny bit) the books were ready but the paint had to dry for the gloss to stick. But I already had a date set and a venue reserved. It resulted in me unveiling a book that did not have a glossy cover (the black was darker but it would smudge easily) and that pages were falling out if you opened it too much. Next day I contacted the shop and they took all of the books back and fixed both of those problems for no extra charge.
Once the book was rebound and new glossy cover was put on, I tried to get in touch with people who bought the first one and offered them an exchange. Some of them accepted it others (usually my close friends who were amongst the first to support me) did not accept it saying that this will now be a limited edition and I better work hard on becoming famous so they could sell it on eBay when they are old.
What you should take from this is that you should always ask somebody else, somebody who knows more than you do for advice. Don’t think that you have to do it all by yourself. If there are people in your photos you’ve actually employed other people’s help so a graphic designer or native English speaker could only help. Then be kind and thank them or feature them in post scriptum. It’s the least you can do. Next big takeaway is first have the book ready and then set a date and venue. It will save you a tremendous amount of stress.
Selling and pricing
Last few things to mention is ISBN and pricing. I did not request an ISBN EAN code for my book. If you do, you are required (usually) to provide few pieces for national library. It may cost some money but it also allows you to offer the book to book stores because they can have it in the system. I made 250 in total and I gave around 50 away for those who are in the book or who helped me in some way. I planned on selling them in person, or via my webpage. One or two stores owned by my friends put them up and I sold maybe ten of them via their stores.
As with pricing, I am not going to tell you what it cost me to produce it. I am however going to tell you that it was much less than I expected. It allowed me to give 50 of them away, and break even even if I did not sell all the rest. It even allowed me to give a slightly lower price to shops if they would take 5 or more books. I thought about final retail price (300 CZK about 12.5 USD or 11 EUR) for quite some time. I wanted to at least break even, I wanted the people to actually buy it and not be like “f… this is expensive, who does he thinks he is?” but at the same time I did not want to go too low because then it feels cheap. It’s got to be a piece of s… if it’s so cheap right?
The 300CZK price point is I believe somewhere in the goldilocks’ zone of pricing. It is about the price for small Taschen books or large McMenu with Happy Meal here in Czech Republic. Still some people will tell me stuff like “it’s too expensive, if it was just 150 I’d buy it”. It’s 300 and if you don’t buy it, someone else will. I am not doing this for a living so I can have the books stacked at home waiting for somebody who is not a cheapskate. Remember that you are not selling a paper with ink. You are selling part of yourself so ask yourself, am I worth at least as much as large McMenu with Happy Meal? People who try to haggle about the price does not realize how insulting it really is. Besides if you buckle and sell it somebody for half the price then everyone will want it for half the price. Do not lower the price just because two months after the unveiling you still has some left.
Okay, so some points at the end. Select your photos broadly and then judge them strictly. Think about why should anybody else be interested in your photos or in this photo in particular. Ask all the models for approval and once you have the selection done have them sign the model release. When setting the book, don’t forget about page margins and especially the inner margin that should be bigger. Simpler is almost always better and usually also cheaper. Proofread, proofread, proofread! Be consistent in layout. If you are doing your first book don’t aim too high. It’s better to sell each and every piece and make another than have a garage full of books that nobody wants.
Be prepared that you won’t turn into Helmut Newton overnight. You will have people you thought liked your work turn your book down because they don’t think they should pay you for something you post online for free. On the other hand, you will have some amazing experience where somebody from across the globe will reach out to you and asks if there are still some available, afraid that he is to late to the party (while you still have half of them in your closet). I’ve sent more books to US, Australia, Sweden and Germany respectively than I’ve sold in one of the shops here in Prague.
You will also meet people like this in person. I am always taken away if somebody takes his time to catch me somewhere in person to get the book signed and have a chat with me. Be kind to those people because those are your hardcore fans. When sending or selling the book in person, always ask if they want the book signed, don’t just hand them out like bananas. Be prepared for criticism and for criticism in form of lack of interest by people but be open to warm words from people you don’t even know. It will also gather a lot of positive feed back. I had a great chat with students of graphic design once and we discussed the layout and typesetting in great detail.
When you set your price, stand by it. Don’t make exceptions that are not transparent. People will try to haggle but those who haggle don’t want the book, they want the discount. Those who really want the book will buy it happily if the price is alright.
http://instagram.com/murhaaya – @murhaaya
Thanks to Been for this Epic read,
Great article! Thanks for taking the time to write out your thoughts and experience.
So great work, experience, photos, and so nice to share. I really like your work. It s great. But times are hard, not easy to discover the right good ones, so thank JCH for helping to be fair in the art field.
Well written and informative article…thanks for sharing your tips and experience putting together your book.
Intersting and thorough, thanks for sharing this with us.
Yes it’s a long road to a book! But I’m sure it was electrifying.
You mention model releases. This is becoming a real issues in many countries (I live in France right now, proabbly one of the worst on this front). I shoot in the street and whilw I do not ‘steal’ images, trying to be very upfront in giving people the chance to object, there is no way I will ever collect releases from the people that I shoot, even those that expressely acknowledged their acceptance of my shooting them. Which means in theory any of them will be able to challenge me in court if I ever was to publish a book including their image. Actually, even now as I put my images on the web. I have no idea how to get around this….
Does anybody know of a printer in the U.S.A.? It has been surprisingly difficult for me to find a printer that makes books
Thanks so much for sharing this process/journey and your reflections with us Benn! As another amateur with dreams of making a book someday, your article has been so useful.
Laws in the Nordic countries are quite strict too. In Denmark you need permission to make a photo in public of a person whose identity will be discernible, and then you need permission to publish. (I think it’s the same in Germany.) The question is then if you choose to follow the law or not. I love how Siegfried Hansen has (consciously or unconsciously) made this a creative constraint in his work.