Large traditional photobook publishers are highly selective in their choices of what photography books they publish. They must carefully consider the artist’s reputation and the project’s marketability while also examining profit margins before publishing a photobook. From the design process to the book’s production, distribution, and marketing, their investment is enormous, involving many people to bring the book to fruition. Publishers like Phaidon, Chronicle Books, Damiani, and Steidl publish successful fine art photographers who have a base of collectors, gallery representation, and museum exhibitions. Traditional publishers assume the financial burden of the book — from design and production to marketing and distribution, with the photographer earning a percentage of royalties on each book sold, thus separating them from other publishing avenues.
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Elinor Carucci is an Israeli-American Fine Art Photographer based in New York City. She is a Guggenheim fellow with four monographs — her most recent book Midlife was published by Monacelli Press in 2019. She explains:
I feel that a book is the perfect medium for my work. Many exhibitions are compromised by space, my books include the whole story from A to Z . A book is also a perfect promotional tool, especially when having an exhibit — collectors and visitors will buy the books when they can’t afford prints.
Not all traditional publishers are large presses printing world-renowned photography artists. Some of them are small to midsize like Germany’s Nazraeli Press or non-profit organizations like the Aperture Foundation. Aperture was founded in 1952 by Ansel Adams, Minor White, Barbara Morgan, Dorothea Lange, and others. It has been a premier photobook publishing company since its first book in 1958 — Edward Weston, Photographer: The Flame of Recognition. Also, university presses are considered traditional publishers and many publish both art and photography books, i.e. Uelsmann Untitled: A Retrospective, The University of Florida Press and Dawoud Bey: Two American Projects, Yale University Press.
To find the right publisher, you’ll need to analyze the photobook market. Do research into which publishers have lists of photobooks with an aesthetic or topic similar to yours. You can peruse publishers’ online catalogs or locate books on the same topic or by artists you admire online. Also, Barnes and Nobles still stock photobooks if you prefer a tactile experience.
In the late 1990s, Elinor submitted her project, Closer, to Alan Rapp, an editor for Chronicle Books. After getting his contact information from a colleague, she mailed a box of 11″ x 14″ prints and her bio to his San Francisco office. At the time, Elinor was not a well-known artist. But, Alan saw something in her work that set her apart from the scores of other submissions he received.
When Alan presented her project to the editorial team, it was considered bold and not immediately accepted. Meanwhile, Elinor was getting interesting commercial projects and had gallery representation — more evidence that she had a promising career ahead of her. Finally, her accomplishments and her unique expression as an artist were enough to get Closer published by Chronicle. In a podcast interview on Perfect Bound, Alan explains:
I return to work that is a representation of real-life and that feels honest. Elinor’s work helped me articulate those philosophical ideas in a way I could personally interpret them through the book.
Closer was published in 2001 with all 7,500 copies selling out. The second edition of 5,500 was published in 2007, also selling out. Now, the hardbound editions are collectible books ranging in price from $195 to $300 online.
Elinor and Alan (now Editorial Director of Monacelli Press, an imprint of Phaidon) teamed up again for her book Midlife. Although they had built a trusting friendship collaborating on Closer, Midlife felt different to Elinor.
My book Closer was about a woman in her 20s, a coming of age story — more marketable. Some of the images in Midlife are more difficult and challenging, and images of a middle-aged woman are not promising for sales. Initially, I doubted the viability of this seven-year project.
Suppose Elinor hadn’t built a reputation as a respected artist, including gallery representation, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and sold-out editions edited by a prominent photobook editor — Midlife may not have come to fruition. Unfortunately, Elinor’s story isn’t typical — you must work hard to prove that you and your project are marketable to traditional photobook publishers.
You’ll need to get into the nitty-gritty business of writing the proposal in as much detail as possible. First, describe the project, why the publisher should print it, and why it’s the right book for them. You may even think of drawing on examples of books they’ve previously published. You’ll need to include all your accolades in a bio — convincing the publisher that you have the background, experience, and success they need to promote you and your book.
Next, you’ll need to describe your demographic and market. Who will buy your book? Make a list of photobooks like yours, including publishers, publication date, and how your book is different from theirs. You may even include the book’s ranking information found on websites like Amazon.
It may also boost your proposal to add your marketing efforts. Do you have an exhibit planned where people can buy your book? Do you have influencer friends or know people in the media that will post about your book or write a compelling foreword? All of your efforts are worth mentioning. Publishers want to know that you have an audience and will push the book sales.
Lastly, create a pdf of your images for the book and consider using your best photos in the proposal. Sequence them in a way that follows a narrative, and tells a compelling story. Add titles or captions for clarity. Your pictures will be the most crucial part of your proposal, so make sure you’ve presented them professionally and creatively. Hire a designer to create a mock-up if necessary. You only have one chance to catch an editor’s eye.
Adapted from Chronicle Books website:
If a large publishing company signs your book, you’ll probably not have tremendous input in the overall design process. Still, you’ll more than likely have a collaboration partner in the editing and sequencing process. Elinor and Alan spent days sorting through images for Midlife on her living room floor. There’s a tactile quality to sorting out printed images rather than moving files on a screen. It’s easier to imagine the prints as pages in a book and to order them in a way that flows naturally. An editor will have their interpretation of how the photos should be presented, but you, the artist, know the intention and narrative of the work more than anyone else.
Traditional publishing companies have developed marketing and distribution strategies based on years of experience. Some have dedicated professionals to accomplish these tasks, i.e. an in-house marketing director who would send your book out to publications for reviews, set up book signings, and live interviews. Traditional publishing houses typically source full-service distributors that provide warehousing, external sales representation, order fulfillment, and royalty payments, among other things. Although publishers will look to you to help push book sales, you’ll not be solely responsible for the success of its marketing efforts or its distribution.
While it may be a tremendous honor to have a traditional publisher sign your book, the odds of attracting editors at this level are challenging. This is because they publish very select titles with either broad appeal or by artists that have proven themselves in the marketplace. Also, it’s a very timely process from submission and acceptance to publication. If you’re lucky enough to find a publisher to take an interest in you, as Alan did with Elinor, you won’t have to worry about production costs, marketing plans, or who will fulfill your orders. You may even make some royalties here and there. While you won’t get rich, you’ll have the honor of knowing that people believe in your work enough to publish it in a book.
This article is a part of our Photobook series. Make sure to check out other articles in this series to learn more about the topic:
Lithhub: Where Intimacy Meets Tactility: Artists and Publishers on the Nature of the Photobook
Fotoroom: The Huge List of International Photobook Publishers
The Printing Report: Why are Photobook Sales Booming in the Digital Age?