Resetting Book Publishing
July 2009

by Dirck Halstead

Photojournalist Rick Smolan has always taken the path less traveled and is known for using cutting edge technology to tell compelling stories and to feature the work of his friends and peers in the photography world.

At the age of 26 Smolan joined Contact Press Images and was given an airline ticket by fellow photojournalist David Burnett for what was supposed to be a one-week press junket to Japan. Smolan extended that week into an 11-month odyssey around Asia, ending up in Australia, smitten with Australia's unique light. While shooting a cover on aborigines for Time magazine he met a young Australian woman who was about to depart on a year-long journey by camelback across the vast treks from Alice in the outback to the Indian Ocean 1,000 miles north of Perth. Rick pitched her journey to National Geographic and was commissioned to make six trips into the outback to chronicle her journey, landing him a much talked about cover story in the magazine.

Rick became so enthralled with the quirky personalities he encountered Down Under he decided to share the country with his friends. So for over a year he badgered, pleaded and begged airlines and hotels and even Steve Jobs at Apple to find the resources to bring 100 of those friends, the top photojournalists in the world, to join him for a one-day simultaneous shoot.

ABC News piece

Turned down by 35 publishers around the world who laughed him out of their offices, he self-published a book called "A Day in the Life of Australia" which became Australia's number-one book and a worldwide success. This was the start of the remarkable "A Day in the Life" book series, which he produced with his friend and business partner David Cohen. Their team went on to publish similar books on Hawaii, Japan, Russia, Spain and the United States, among others. With his wife, Jennifer Erwitt (daughter of famed Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt), Smolan created Against All Odds Productions, and produced such books as "America At Home," "UK at Home," "Blue Planet Run: The Race to Provide Clean Drinking Water to the World," "One Digital Day: How the Microchip Is Changing Our World," "24 Hours in Cyberspace: Painting on the Walls of the Digital Cave," "The Power To Heal: Ancient Arts and Modern Medicine," "Passage To Vietnam: Through the Eyes of 70 Photographers," and "From Alice to Ocean: Alone Across the Outback." Today more than 5 million of their books adorn coffee tables around the world and many in the publishing world consider the "A Day in the Life" books as being responsible for creating a mass market for illustrated books.

Fast forward to Election Night 2008. As Obama's win was announced Rick was sitting with a group of friends and was amused as they suddenly pulled out their point-and-shoot cameras and started taking pictures of the television screen. "I asked why they were all doing this and everyone laughed and said they knew they were witnessing history and wanted to prove they were there, to remember this moment forever," Smolan recalls. "As the conversation went on I noticed that everyone had a story to share about how they personally felt a connection to the outcome of this election and to Obama. Everyone in the room felt that they had made a difference and felt that somehow they were part of Obama's story, in some small way."

The conversation on Election Night planted a seed to germinate. Later that week Smolan began hearing from photographer friends who had been on the election trail. Out of curiosity he asked if they had campaign images they were proud of, but which hadn't been published or widely seen. He invited photographers to send him their favorite images, and was amazed when he received over 40,000 photographs. He and photography editor Karen Mullarkey, designer Michael Rylander and project director Jennifer Erwitt spent weeks pouring through the fascinating images. They thought about doing a book but faced a dilemma: there were already numerous Obama books out or about to be published. To have a chance of success, they needed something unique to make their book stand out from all the rest.

Says Smolan, "I wondered if there was a way to create a book that wove these amazing images together with each individual book buyer's own stories and photos so that every single copy of the book was different and unique. We intentionally didn't want to do a trade bookstore edition because part of the goal was to have no books in warehouses, no print run, no books printed that might have to be later pulped and destroyed, no books shipped over by container ship from China or Korea (where all big coffee table books are printed). The idea was to do the book of the future 10 years ahead of time."

In addition to spectacular photography Smolan and his team reached out to writers including Arianna Huffington (The Huffington Post), Joe Klein ("Primary Colors"), General Colin Powell and even Obama's half-sister, Auma, to ask them to provide commentary to begin each chapter. They also invited famed infographic designer Nigel Holmes to distill the statistics surrounding this moment in American history into easy-to-understand diagrams and illustrations to bring the data to life.

The result is a book, "The Obama Time Capsule: History in The Making," which is printed only on demand once it has been ordered and personalized for each book buyer. There are eight unique customization features including a personalized dedication written by each book buyer, a "co-author" credit on the cover and title page, a photograph of the customer or their family on the back cover, a BlackBerry page containing a personalized message from President Obama thanking the buyer for his or her support, and a photograph by the buyer featured inside on the Key Obama Supporters page. Book buyers can even add artwork done by their children to a page of Obama-related artwork from children around the country.

The book has been receiving widespread praise from the media. USA Today put it on the cover; ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN have all featured the book and it's climbing fast on Amazon's best-seller list. Sponsors of the book include HP, whose Indigo digital presses manufacture each copy, plus Google, Facebook, AOL and Glam Media who are providing more than a million dollars in advertising and promotion.

The implications to the publishing industry are staggering. By actually involving the customer in the production of the book, books are printed on demand, avoiding the fatal "returns" that are the bane of publishing. The book is affordable, environmentally sound, and a wonderful example of collaborative publishing at its best.

"The Obama Time Capsule," available exclusively through Amazon, is being offered at an introductory price of $34.95 (the list price is $64.95). For more information, go to

You can bet that this book will be closely watched by the entire publishing world. Once again, Rick Smolan is out in front, showcasing his friends' photographs in new and imaginative ways.

© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist

Dirck Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House Photographer for 29 years. He now is the Publisher and Editor of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American History at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book, MOMENTS IN TIME, published by Harry N. Abrams, is in bookstores, and available from

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