Dan Heller's Photography Business Blog Industry analysis from www.danheller.com

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Writing a Book: If, When, and How

I was recently asked (yet again) for advice on how to get a book publishing contract, which has been an increasingly more common question. And now that my third book is about to hit the stores in a few months, I suspect the trend will continue. So, I figured I'd preempt a lot of those questions with this article.

The two most common (and naive) assumptions are 1) that books make a lot of money, and/or 2) that they help you become well-known. Neither of these are true, and in fact, can do you more harm than good if not managed properly. That's not to say that publishing a book can't be helpful or profitable. You just have to do it intelligently.

Before I get into all that, let's step back and talk more about the publishing business. The first thing people assume is that I have an agent who does all this for me, so they want to know who my agent is, and if I can somehow get them an "in."

I don't have an agent, and it's rare for anyone to have one unless they are already well-established writers (or photographers, in this case). Agents are best used to negotiate (better) contracts with prospective publishers, and to get the word out to the press and others in the industry about new works in the pipeline. Agents will almost never take an author (or photographers) who've never been published, for two main reasons. First, there's nothing in it for them. Agents get paid as a percentage of the contracts they negotiate, and the likelihood of a new author getting published is too small to invest that kind of time and work. And even if they are taken, the financial terms are usually too small to make the agent's cut worthwhile. (Compensation is based on the value of the deal, which is based on the number of books sold, which is often very small for a first-time author.) Even my own books, which sell very well in the photography sector, hardly pay enough to have made it worthwhile to share it with an agent.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, agents reputations are closely tied to how successful the authors are, so if they take on these unknowns, chances are they aren't the types who have credibility with publishers.

So, for the masses of us who are not the top-tier, high-paying authors, the reason to publish a book is not for financial reasons. I realize you may already know that, but from a career perspective, the best (and only) reason is to add it to your arsenal of marketing tools: books help bolster a flowering reputation. Mind you, it's not a career-starter, nor should it be your primary marketing tool. It also won't take you to the next level of your career, nor will it open new doors for you. You still have to assert your marketing prowess for all that. The book is merely another asset you use to help legitimize who you are to prospective clients. It's your quiet wing-man standing in the back of the room that the client knows is there, and subliminally causes them to soften up a little when you quote the price you want for your services.

Conversely, without the proper background, it may actually un-impress many people if they see that you have a book, but no other solid stream of sales or business experience to justify it. This could illustrate your lack of business savvy.

I know what you're thinking: many people may hear of you *because* of your book (if you were to have one). After all, many people first heard of me through my books as well. But the catch-22 is that your book wouldn't exist if it weren't for your pre-established name, even if it were on a smaller scale. And that establishment comes as the result of your wisdom being put to the test before the book were to exist. This is a crucial character-building step in your career. (Sadly, there are many embarrassing exceptions to this, and editors have been fired for them. Let's not kid ourselves that Publishers are equally guilty of making poor decisions in who they hire, or the books they decide to publish.) Still, in the aggregate, when someone who has never heard of you sees your book, they get the benefit of what you've learned by having to go through the gauntlet.

The question then becomes, how do you know when it's the right time to attempt a book? When should you approach publishers? Or should you self-publish? I'll answer the self-publishing question by way of addressing the first question.

In the case of seeking publishers, it feels simplistic to say it, but there's truth to the notion that some people hold that you should wait for them to approach you. Publishers often seek out new authors through their pre-existing reputations, where they ask them if they'd be interested in writing a book. This may be the result of a business relationship (such as their already having licensed material for other books), or because they're familiar with what you've written for magazines, or perhaps because you have associates in common. Best of all would be due to the prolific exposure of your photography in the same market they're in. At any rate, by the time you have a discussion with a publisher about a book, it'll likely be the case that it isn't the first time you've talked. Publishers like this best for so many obvious reasons, but the foremost being that you're a lower-risk investment. There's "some" risk simply because you haven't published before, but this is less risky than dealing with someone who cold-calls them. In fact, most publishers never accept any cold-calls from photographers, although many vehemently deny this. (But, they have to claim they always entertain submitted material if for no other reason than to avoid the PR stigma if it were to be known otherwise.) While it may happen that they take on an author from a cold-call, it's too unlikely to make your effort worthwhile.

All this leaves unanswered the question on everyone's mind: YOU know you're ready, but the publisher still doesn't see it. How do you overcome this? This is very frustrating, and you are likely right in this regard. Most publishers overlook "ripe" opportunities more than they like to admit. But being right doesn't get you published. I'll come back to this, I promise. But first:

Should you self-publish? Usually, no. Most people who self-publish lose money, and they end up with a lot of unsold books in their garage. Even with "print-on-demand" publishing, you still lose a lot of money and time. So, how do make money self-publishing? This all fits into the business model associated with a phenomenon talked about in internet-business circles these days: the long tail. Simply put, it refers to the business opportunities associated with very obscure or specialized products. To explain, if you were to make a graph representing the number of people interested in the Beatles and Elvis, you'd get a lot of people, and thus, the line on the graph would go very high on the chart. As go down the list of musical choices and artists, the number of people who are interested drops progressively. When you finally get to the neighborhood garage band doing Las Vegas-style lounge renditions of 60's era heavy-metal songs, you'd see a diminishing line approaching zero. The "long tail" refers to the fact that the line on that graph never actually hits zero--it just goes on and on and on. That is, there is a market for this kind of music, albeit it small. However, using the internet as a pairing mechanism between buyers and sellers, there's still money to be paid for even the most obscure topics that lie on that "long tail." The real financial opportunity is when you are the only supplier of that product, or at least, the best of what exists.

This is where self-publishing comes in. I've known photographers who write very specific how-to books for very narrow market segments, where it doesn't make sense for a publisher because their rate of return is too small... but this same return is perfectly worthwhile for an individual. Books like how to use a very specific camera model, or how to do a very narrow and particular kind of photo technique can potentially sell quite well. Where it doesn't make sense is trying to self-publish a basic photography book, simply because the market's flooded with similar products. You can't go head to head with well-known authors and publishers because you can't get noticed in such a huge market place.

There is, however, another reason to consider self-publishing: it's not to make money (though selling on your website sure wouldn't hurt), and not even to necessarily use it as a marketing tool in the classic sense, but more as promotional tool. It could be used as a give-away at events or other activities where you want people to "remember you." If done well, it could have a much stronger impact than a traditional "photo portfolio." Along that lines is to present it as a more compelling "finished product" to a publisher, who would have otherwise overlooked you. (See? I told you I'd come back to this!) There's nothing like a good-looking book that you can claim is already selling. Here, you're transforming a typical pitch from a "book proposal," to that of their taking over the sales of an existing, finished product. Of course, the reality is that no publisher would take over an "existing' book; they'd want to reformat it to fit their style guides, or even change everything about it. but no matter, it's still going to be taken more seriously than a traditional "book proposal." Of course, this should never be regarded as a stand-alone reason to self-publish, or your only objective for doing it. After all, it's a huge investment to hang on one stroke of luck. Yes, it's good to have it, but you need to weigh the pros and cons before committing to it.

Before you even go down this road, my recommendation to anyone even considering a book is to write a lot on a blog or your own website, and contribute these ideas in public discussion forums to get feedback. Writing is a difficult and time-consuming task, not to be taken lightly. The only thing harder than writing is _editing_ what you wrote. Oh, there is one thing that's even worse than that: seeing _other people's edits_ of your writing. This is not for the faint of heart.

Still, those who write well get noticed, which is the ultimate test of your worth to a publisher, and to a greater degree, the credibility of your ideas in general. Sure, you will get push-back from hecklers and other trolls, but this is all part of what tests your character in an open environment, and which will also bolster your writing (and other professional skills). This, in turn, will directly affect your career. If your ideas are sound and people listen, your reputation will grow. If not, you'll know it by the reception you receive. And let's be honest: not everyone can do this, including, perhaps, you.

For full disclosure, the publishers of the photography books I wrote (my third is coming out this spring) approached me because of my pre-existing reputation and the copious material I already had online. And most of what I had online were articles I compiled from numerous contributions I made to forums discussing the business of photography.