5.15.2011

It's the twenty-first century and I'm working with a bad set of assumptions.

Just have to get this out of the way and clear the air (and apparently the majority of my readers....) but I was stunned at the responses, both in the comments and in my personal e-mails, from readers of this blog who confess to never reading fiction.  Silly me.  I'm dragging around academic constructs of art photography from the 1960's and 1970's.  They go something like this:  Art is important.  Art moves cultures forward.  Art enriches lives.  Art enriches whole demographics.  All forms of art are interlinked.  Music is intertwined with visual art which is intertwined with literature, which is sleeping with dance and theater.  In other words, all art is art.

The idea that one picks and chooses from one category or another like a Chinese menu is so foreign to me.  I can't conceive of having lived a life as a university student and not have relished reading the works of Nabokov and Pope and Hemmingway and Wallace Stevens.  Or the poems of Billy Collins.  Can't imagine getting thru a tough month of work without having a novel on the bedside.  Maybe a detective novel by Ian Rankin or short stories from J.D. Salinger.  It's like getting a free ticket to other worlds and other universes.  Getting to temporarily borrow another person's mind and point of view.  I read Atlas Shrugged and was appalled.....but fascinated.  Now I know where some of my acquaintances came up with some of the ideas that move them and scare me.  But at least I understand them.

To cut one's self off from literary fiction is either some remarkable act of penance or folly.  Like saying you only eat meat.  No fruits, no vegetables.

So I marvel that  we can even see making images in the same way.  And maybe that's another construct that's in my head.  Maybe while I'm walking around just letting images come to me by some sort of inefficient osmosis all those left brain people out there have drawn up matrixes and ven diagrams, plotted their "creative development" out on graphs and have measured their "artistic" productivity on a scale I can't imagine, all the while chilling out with a glass of chardonnay and a good book on The History of Iron or Understanding C++ Compilers or Nuclear Remediation for Dummies.  But I may have it even more incorrect than I first supposed.  Perhaps people who don't read fiction don't drink wine either.  If they did, how would they converse about it?   Would it be like, "I analyzed the chemical constituents of several Pinot Noirs, did a regression analysis taking into account weather, average soil acidity and the trade winds as reported by the Economist and decided I would be best suited to drinking only wines that start with the letter "S" and "L" and then only if I could find them within 6 miles of my home.  That's the only way it makes scientific and economic sense....."


Maybe the need to do photography,  take workshops, and to try and get in touch with the artistic side of your technical art is really your soul screaming out for you to pick up a damn fiction book and lose yourself in another way of thinking.  Maybe it's the horribly repressed right side of your brain making a last gasping attempt to save itself (and a whole half of your own brain) from entropy and atrophy.

I end this column with a sense of despair.  If my readers, who have come across to me as worldly and educated and socially sophisticated have given up on fictional literature,  I fear that the Barbarians are already past the front door and heading for the library.  Bent on destroying anything that can't be measured.

What does this have to do with photography?  Apparently, everything.....and nothing.



Writing books or doing the work? The quandry.

My favorite front doors with the wide angle zoom on the wrong camera.

When I wrote my first book I predicted (to myself only) that we'd sell several thousand copies over several years and then I'd have a book on my resume, a mild dose of quasi-success and I'd get back to work.  It was never a dream of mine to write a non-fiction book in the first place.  The whole process more or less fell in my lap because of the confluence of my work experience, my writing for a few magazines and the topical coincidence of my subject matter.

In spite of my pessimistic predictions the first book did quite well and was, in the first year of publication, reprinted.   Another reprint happened a year later.  And now I'm sitting down with the task in front of me of revising and re-writing that first book.

As a reader of the Visual Science Lab blog you are probably aware that I've subsequently written four more books about various parts of photography.  In each case I wrote about things that were of interest to me.  And that interest fueled my work ethic and provided my motivation because, truth be told, very few people are making big money writing books for publishing companies.  And good sales of a book might translate into 10,000 total sales.  If you do a book, no matter how fast you write and no matter how quickly you can do the 200 to 300 "proof of concept" photograph that readers and book marketers now require for these industry specific tomes, the best you can hope to do (if you want to turn out something that isn't pure crap) is to take six months to produce the project.

So that's half a year.  If you have multiple degrees and decades of experience you probably expect to make over $100,000 in a year.  If you spend half a year writing and photographing for a book you've just invested about $50,000.  The great idea you wrote about will probably take your publisher the better part of a year to get to the shelves.  That means the investment generates no income for a calendar year following your six months of work with no income.  Suppose, theoretically, that your book has a cover price of $30 and you get a (very generous) 10% of the cover price as your royalty.  That comes out to $3 per book for every book sold.  The average photo industry book has a short life because the technology changes so quickly (witness my publisher's request for a revision after a short three years of sales.....) and the average photo industry book tends to die after the first 5,000 copies.  At this point you've probably gone three years and accumulated royalties of $15,000.  That's IF your publisher sold all 5,000 copies.  Now, based on the time you invested, you are only $35,000 in the hole.

But, of course having the book conveys prestige and authority to its author.....

Well, here's the real story:  Unless you are selling something ( a lighitng dingus for a popular flash?)  or speaking about something the book conveys very little  prestige or "oomph!"  to your market.  If you spend time telling art directors about this "great book" you wrote about small flashes they don't leap from their seats to pat you on the back and find a new stack of purchase orders. No, they think you're angling to become a copywriter.  Or that you're making out financially ( like a bandit ) and you don't really need the money from their little jobs (but I do.  I really do!!!).  If you have a retail clientele it's because they are NOT photographers, budding photographers or related to photographers.  That's why they are considering you for the job of taking wonderful photos of their chubby children in the patch of wildflowers in matching outfits in the first place, instead of uncle steve or aunt judy.  The chances that they've seen or heard of your book in the first place are tiny.  Like "needle in a football field of haystacks" tiny.  And generally, be they art directors, marketing directors or Westlake moms, they are going to hire you for your "value proposition" (see book #3:  Commercial Photography Handbook), meaning the weird calculus of the quality of your work, it's difficulty being copied by less talented hacks, and the dollar amount you are willing to accept.

So, you invest $50,000 to get $15,000 over a three or four or five year payout schedule.  Locked in during a time of escalating inflation.  And it doesn't do much, if anything, for your present or future business.

So what does a book really buy you?  Well, if you are a photographer you can always peddle workshops to other photographers.  The kind you want are the ones who are well enough off to buy your books and to attend your workshops.  That rules out most working photographers so your real market becomes amateur photographers.  And that can be a really nice group of people.  But did you really get into the business of taking pictures and then throwing away $35,000 just to buy entry into the business of spending Saturdays telling people stuff you already know when you know you should be out doing your work? Or learning new stuff?  Or practicing your art?  Well, the honest answer is that we never thought it would come to this in the first place.  If we did, some twenty or thirty years ago, we'd have all become rock stars instead.  I mean really, how hard can that be?

So I just finished writing a book about LED lights and it was fun because I think that LED lighting is going to be the most important lighting trend of the next ten years in film, video and digital photography.  I love the book and the thoughts in it but someone at the publisher's office took a big ass pin and stuck it in my balloon.  I turned my manuscript in early but even so the book won't make it down the chute, thru the rendering factory and thru the printing presses and into the inventory at Amazon until next Spring.  A virtual lifetime when measured against the progress of digital photography.  A big sigh.  I had the depressed realization that I once again allowed my fragile ego to goad me into doing a project in a traditional media when an ebook might have been a cobra strike quicker and perhaps more profitable.  And who knows how many hungry authors are pitching their own LED books right now....

Now I'm supposed to re-write the first book.  And shoot ALL NEW images.  But I've already vacationed there,  I've already been down that road less traveled.  I've already shared the ideas that I had at the time, on that subject.  And now the landscape is as littered as a dog park with similar books.  And some really great writer/photographers have used my shoulders to  stand on a write more nuanced or polished or encyclopedic versions of that same book.  Where, in 2008, my book stood relatively alone, now there are a dozen version from different authors in my publisher's camp alone.  And two dozen more from other publishers.  Am I the only one in our camp who sees a tremendous dilution in potential going forward with a revised book on little flashes?  Wouldn't all you photographers like to see what's going to happen next instead of hearing once again how to master something we all figured out a couple of years ago?

What's the book I really want to write now?  To be honest it's a novel about photography.  With an anxious commercial photographer as the protagonist.  There's action and drama and behind the scenes vignettes and gunplay and spies and cameras.  Does anyone want to read something like that?  Should I finish up the first in the series and put it on the Kindle list?  Does anyone care?  Or is my publisher right?  Are people hungry for an updated and revised version of my 2008 edition of Minimalist Lighting:  Professional Techniques for Lighting on Location?

In the grand scheme of things, if photography had not taken a five year hiatus ("thank you" world bankers....)  to discover its own mustache wax industry dark side,  I wouldn't be having this conversation because we'd all be too busy criss crossing the globe, shooting for art and commerce and not depending on a hodge-podge of like careers, cobbled together, to make a living.  We can't be all things.  I think it's tough enough just to take good, interesting photographs; adding in speaking, writing, teaching, copy writing (a much different animal than books) and whatever else we need to do to keep the doors open and the AC humming makes it so difficult I can barely imagine why, beyond the paralyzing fear of the unknown career path, any of us go on this way.

And all this is just my rambling way of clearing the rocks out of the yard before I decide whether or not to mow down another book.

You may think of this blog as being rhetorical exercise but nothing could be further from the truth.  If you have an opinion about what I really should be doing in this whole book thing I'd love to hear it.  If you are really brilliant and thoughtful I'm REALLY glad of the feedback.  There's a whole comment section below, use it to give me some honest feedback.

More after the walk......