The Digital Journalist
Nuts & Bolts

by Bill Pierce

May 2006

In the past year, three close friends have had books published. Before the year is out, two more will have had books published. Makes it sound simple, doesn't it?

When we were young and innocent, we all thought you showed some photographs to a publisher, and he published your book. It never was that easy. But, as of late, more and more responsibility has been falling on the shoulders of the author.

My friend Arthur Grace just published his third book, State Fair. Pictures from this book will appear in a future issue of this Web site, and it seemed logical to ask him if he could outline the basic steps that most of us would have to follow to get a book published in 2006.

In addition to the obvious: (1) research (2) setting up contacts (3) traveling (4) taking some pictures, (5) doing a rough edit and (6) getting the best images into a small dummy, and, perhaps, (7) discussing the project with a writer whose name on an intro or short essay would help sell the book - you will have to find a book packager or agent.

If you can't find a packager or agent to take the proposal to publishers and get a positive response, you are going to have to spend a lot of time taking a lot of pictures and producing something that is much closer to the final book. After all this you will still have to find a book agent, packager or publisher who wants to move on your project. Even with something close to the final book in your hand, this can take months.

You find a publisher. Now the fun begins. Hire a lawyer to check the contract. Who has artistic control? Who chooses the pictures? The layout? Who is the art director? Will you be on press to check the quality of the printing? How many copies will be printed? Hard cover? Paperback? Sign the contract.

Months have passed since you took the pictures. But at last you have OK'd the printer's proofs. Soon there is a bound book, and it's time to start the marketing and publicity. There are industry magazines whose reviews are read by bookstores and chains. Your publisher will probably contact them and also provide review copies for consumer magazines and newspapers. But more and more, the author is getting involved in promoting the book. Book parties and signings at bookstores, public speaking and media appearances that were once handled by publishers are also becoming more a split responsibility.

The photographer has one advantage: he probably knows folks in the photo press, galleries, etc. And, remember, a gallery can not only offer you a show, many of them now sell photo books too.

Of course, you and I think of them as "photo books." Regular folks think of our "photo books" as books about dogs, baseball, North Dakota, flowers, the Vietnam War and, in Arthur's case, state fairs. So Arthur will go to state fairs and see if they will let him sell his books somewhere between the cotton candy counter and the pen of the biggest hog.

By the way, the biggest individual purchaser of your book will probably be you. You will give away copies to promote the book and yourself. But you will also give it to friends and people you admire because you are proud of it. And you should be.

Truth is, all of those old newspapers, magazines and tear sheets don't age very well - physically or aesthetically.

Exhibits come and go. You are the star one week and the next week you've been replaced by someone who shoots celebrity portraits with a fish-eye.

But that book sits on someone's shelf. Every once in a while they pull it off the shelf, maybe even show it to someone else, and say, "Son of a bitch, that's good." And they're not referring to the early Elliot Erwitt book, now sadly out of print.

Which reminds me, Elliot Erwitt wrote the cover blurb on State Fair. In part, he says, "In deceptively casual black-and-white photographs, totally absent of attitude and theatrics, his instant observation quickly cuts to the chase, presenting visuals with nothing superfluous and nothing left out. Let us thank our lucky stars that Grace has taken the time and energy to examine and bring us something of our American culture that is original, unique, and essentially uncorrupted."

Erwitt and Grace share the rare ability to take pictures that are often funny, but never make fun of the subject. All of us who practice "street photography" on our days off know how easy it is make fun of some hapless innocent who's frozen at 1/1000 of a second as they pass us by. That's something that can be done by any self-centered egocentric. But compassion may be something that can not be taught to grown-ups. Whether that compassion results in gentle and amusing images or dramatic and disturbing images, it's a rare gift.

Good images are also the product of hard work. Arthur traveled to 10 states and even more fairs and motels. It was not 100 percent pleasant. In Florida, a law officer yanked his credentials when a man complained that Arthur was shooting pictures of young girls in short skirts. The fact that he was shooting a cheerleader competition seemed to escape the gentleman who also didn't notice the many amateur photographers working in back of Arthur and, perhaps, not doing stories on state fairs or cheerleaders.

Still, only one incident out of that many trips. Anyone who has spent a lot of time shooting at public gatherings knows that not only speaks well of Arthur, but well of the folks he photographed too. And that shows in the pictures.

So, if you go to a state fair and see a man selling a book titled State Fair, tell him you understand he works just as hard as the alligator wrestler to his left and the arm wrestler to the right. Arthur is my friend, so it may not mean much that I think the book is brilliant -- really brilliant. So, check it out for yourself. (ISBN 0-292-71287-1; University of Texas Press)

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer