Writing Revolutions: What is Involved in Authoring a Photography Book?
Writing "Revolutions" represents the greatest professional accomplishment of my career as a photographer, but it was also far more difficult than I ever expected. Today I am reflecting back on the experience to share a look behind-the-scenes at what it took to write "Revolutions".
It was important to me that "Revolutions" was done correctly. First, this was the first book I was going to write, and if I did a poor job, it would be the last book anyone would ever buy. The success of any future second book hinges on the first. Secondly, there is something very motivating about knowing you are making something with your name on the front. People can come read my blog and form an opinion about me without ever knowing my name, but that's just not the case with a book. My reputation is right there, front and center. Pride is a good reason to do something the correct way.
Beyond those motivations, I was also compelled by the desire to produce art. Each image contained in the book is artwork, and I wanted the final compilation of these images to be its own piece of artwork. This book is like a miniature gallery exhibit of my work - one that fits in a bag or sits on a coffee table. Most photo books do not feature a narrative story to accompany the images, so "Revolutions" represented two art forms - photography and writing - that needed to be combined into one perfect medley.
Finally, every accomplished photographer I know has written a book, and I believe that is one of the many ways to distinguish between photographers who really care about their craft, and those who consider this a hobby. Sure, you don't have to write a book to be a serious artist (there are many photographers who make a full-time living without writing books!), but I have always seen the time and resource committment needed to publish a book is a good measure of how serious the artist is about their tradecraft.
Wedding photographers have the benefit of paying customers, but I have never been paid by any of the trees I have photographed. Sadly, writing a book is one of the harder ways to make money as a photographer, because the financial investment required to generate the product is insanely high. In the era of free blogs, who is going to pay money to read?
Writing "Revolutions" was the easy part. During the course of the month long road trip that makes up the narrative and photographic story, I took detailed notes and transcribed records of the days. At the end of the journey, I had nearly 40 typed pages of notes and 60 pages of handwritten notes. The book is basically an edited version of those notes; I removed the "blah blah blah" and adjusted the story to articulate only the best parts of the adventure.
Originally I had structured the book into two sections: one with the photographs and one with the narrative story. The reason for this was that I did not want to have to display the photographs in chronological order, which was the logical ordering of images if they were intermixed with a story that was told in chronological order.
But when we got to editing, that plan was scrapped.
Asking someone to edit a book like this is a tricky prospect; I needed someone who would be brutally honest and unafraid of hurting my feelings. Someone who can write better than I can. Thankfully, I know someone just like that! I enlisted the help of a trusted friend and worked on preparing a manuscript that I could present for editing.
A few weeks later, Clara, my editor, was given a hard copy printed transcript of the book that was made at Office Depot. I had generated PDFs of the book from my computer, but that would be hard for her to mark up. I felt like the editor should benefit from being able to turn real pages! With $20 and a copy machine, I created a manuscript that could be viewed in "book form" and allowed Clara to write, scribble, and mark up the thing mercilessly.
Good thinking on my part, because I got a red pen (and permanent marker!) covered book back! Clara suggested some major edits to the story, including to tell it as one story with photographs and text intermixed. At first I was down on the idea - I had spent months putting the book into this format - but upon reflection, I realized Clara was right. There was too much text at one end of the story and the photographs lacked context when not paired with words.
So I rewrote the whole book.
Following my review of Clara's edits, I re-wrote the entire book. This took months longer than I expected. I would read it one day, like it, then hate it the next. I had to walk away from the project for days at a time to regain the vision needed to see the project clearly. My motivation waivered; I had exhausted months of work and had almost nothing to show for it. On several occassions, I thought about throwing in the towel and declaring the book a source of personal memories.
But I persisted.
Slowly and steadily, I wrote, deleted, wrote, re-wrote, deleted, and wrote again. After a few months, I was ready to look at a transcript again. This time, I decided to order a printed copy of the book that was actually bound and printed in color. I figured this would help me visualize those errors and improvements that still needed to be made, but that I couldn't visualize on a computer screen.
The First Final
Printing a transcript in book format turned out to be a great strategy. I found lots of content, typos, and aesthetics that I wanted to adjust. For instance, the font needed to be smaller, section titles more prominent, and more blank space on every page. These aesthetic tweaks needed to be seen to be recognized.
After a few more weeks, I had re-built the whole book for (what felt like) the millionth time. Before ordering another copy, I decided to set the whole thing aside for a month. I needed time to forget what the book looked like. To forget how each word read. To detach and come back fresh.
A month later, I returned and found that I was very happy with the text. There were a few typos that I had missed, but I didn't find any major changes. So I shelled out for another bound copy of the book.
Alas, I had nailed it. Almost nine months after the first words were typed into a Microsoft Word document, the final book had taken shape. You don't have to work hard to see the evolution in the book between the various versions! With the book done, it was time to move onto the public relations part - raising the money on Kickstarter to promote the sale of the book.
With the book finished, it was time to look at printing it. This was the part I was dreading - asking people for money. But the reality was that there is no way to make a book even quasi-affordable without raising enough money to print several hundred copies. Each individual copy, if purchased al le carte, ran upward of $120/book! My target price was $50/book, meaning I needed to raise enough money to get several hundred copies printed at once, in a process called offset printing. Having calculated all of the costs associated, I setup a Kickstarter campaign, built the videos and started the public relations part of the publication.
In the End
This was, without question, much harder than I ever anticipated. Getting a book that qualified as artwork, a book I would put my name on, and a book I could share with the world was a pain in the butt. I have learned an incredible amount about writing a book and the process, which is good - because I'm going to need all the help I can get in generating motivation to ever write another book! I hope you have found this short write up about the process of writing a book helpful and enlightening.... and I hope it gives you a new appreciation of the arts.