Writing a Book in the age of instant access.

Many of you know that I wrote a book last year on the phenomenon of small strobe lighting, as exemplified by David Hobby's blog, http://www.strobist.com .  The book is entitled, Minimalist Lighting:  Professional Techniques for Location Photography.  The book struck a nerve with two separate groups.  One group was the Strobist population which is largely self-taught and looks to various web gurus for more information and tutoring about things photographic.  Surprisingly, the other group is established photographers who have been in the game for over twenty years and who needed a push to change from the way they had done things to a new way that reflected the reduced indulgence of time and budget supplied by the new clients.

I'm glad the book has sold well and the feedback that I've gotten from readers is little short of a college education in the desires of the market.  But the real reason for this short column is to discuss how  I know what the market is thinking.....

Here's how I understood the publishing business in the past (read that to mean:  pre- internet):
The author writes a book and submits it to a publisher.  The publisher and writer come to an agreement of terms and the publisher edits the book.  The book is produced and marketed through a small web of interconnected distributors.  The book becomes available in book stores and in shops dealing with the specialty encompassed within the book.

Once a customer had purchased a book he had a very limited ability to give feedback.  His recourse was to write a letter to the editor or to the publisher.  He could also address a letter to the author, "care of" the publisher.  His address wasn't printed in the book, nor was his home telephone number listed anywhere on the printed product.  The letters were read by a secretary and passed along to the proper channel or into a circular file.

As an English major from a previous generation, this is what I understood to be standard practice and I didn't pay attention to the changes through the years until I had a personal stake in the game.  Now I have been tossed into the cold water of present day and have come fully awake to the new rules.

From the first day of publishing I started getting e-mails from places like Australia and Russia. Nearly all of them were polite and complimentary.  Most wanted to point out a typing mistake or bring my attention to a misapplied caption.  A few questioned my choice in one or another particular of gear selection.  And many wanted to know if the yellow "splotch" on the chapter pages was a printing mistake or an intentional addition.  (It was an intentional design element, honest).  Three or four people took me to task for things mundane (selection of type style) and things bizarre (why didn't I mention a certain brand of light stand).

E-mail made it easy to access me.  It made sharing opinions easy and it made sharing easy.  Then the really weird stuff started to happen.  I started getting e-mails asking for payment to write reviews about the book on Amazon.com (which I did not accept!!!!) and I started getting unsolicited ideas for incredibly impractical products, as if I had some connection to a giant photo gadget making company.  I also recieved one "hate" e-mail taking me to task for "destroying the high end photography market" by making "cheap crap" acceptable as professional tools (as if I had that much power).

But the really nice thing that happened was the extension of the original feedback loop that gave me really tremendous insight as to what most book buyers really wanted to see in a second book.  Turns out that "how well the book reads" is almost important as the content to some.  That preference by many of the reader/responders to the first book almost make me want to write a series of novels about the photography business.  The next thing they want is good, solid general instruction that they can overlay onto projects the readers are attempting.  Most said that straightforward examples that clearly show what can be done with modest gear easily trump more flashy examples that require dozens of fixtures and a crew of assistants and super models.

Finally,  I sense that they want to trust the writer and are more comfortable if the writer is an active participant of a bigger community of like-minded people.  They were proud that my book came out of my participation in the Strobist and Flickr communities.  Many were surprised and pleased to get a personal response.  But it felt so natural to do so.  I feel like I am nestled in part of a big Bell Curve in which we all give and take.  And the accessibility is all part of the organic mix.  I'm proud I was there before I wrote the book and I'm proud that I'm still there adding in my two cents worth.

When I saw how accessible my writing persona could be it triggered something in my mind.  I wanted to contact two writers who's work I really enjoy and give them both messages.  I wrote to Steven Pressfield, the wonderful novelist who gave us, The Gates of Fire and The Legend of Bagger Vance (among other great books).  I wanted to personally thank him for a little book called, The War of Art, which helped to cure my anxiety and dissolve my procrastination.  To my surprise, he e-mailed me the following morning with a wonderful message which I printed out and keep at my desk.

I also wanted to reach out to Jeff Abbott, a writer of exciting suspense novels, to let him know how much I enjoy his work.  He was also quick to personally respond which cemented my fan mentality where both of these writers are concerned.  

But more importantly these interactions convinced me that we work best in an informed feedback loop that constantly refines and corrects our messages and makes them both more rewarding to deliver and more digestible to receive.  I'm not sure why I'm sitting here writing this instead of doing the taxes, calling clients or trying to do some photographic work, but I know at some level I really want to thank everyone for the time they took to tell me where I slipped, pat me on the back for the stuff I did right/write and give me the energy to keep pursuing my writing about photography.

Thank you very much!  It's nice to be connected.


Coming to grips with the changing landscape.

Let's face it.  If you started taking photographs twenty or thirty years ago you developed a "muscle memory" for film cameras.  You learn to assess the health of your camera batteries by the sound pitch of your motor drive.  You learned that your potential for shooting a number of photographs was constrained by your supply of film and you learned that the post processing required would also limit what you "should" shoot if you were to also have a life outside the darkroom or away from the lab that processed your color film.

Beyond that you also learned what worked in marketing by the same kind of practice.  The marketing tool of the time was print.  People saw your work in print.  Whether is was in a magazine, accompanied with a byline or credit or on a postcard that you had printed and sent through the mail.  You were constrained to edit your mailing list judiciously because each card mailed represented printing costs and postage in addition to your active participation in labeling, stamping, sorting and sending.  

Few were wealthy enough to be as promiscuous as even the least financially capable beginner, e-mailing with gusto, these days.  In many, many ways digital imaging, and the web, have flattened the playing field for professional photographers.  Or so it would seem.

There are advantages to the old ways and there are advantages to the new world of existing and marketing as image makers.

The Visual Science Lab research (data free....) finds that, while e-mails work in some instances, there is still more power in a finely crafted, physical direct mailing.  In a way it's like the difference between fly fishing and net fishing.  And therein lies the dissonance for old timers.
While a fly fisher generally brings up a nicer fish, with more weight, the net fisher brings up more quantity.  The fly fisher might land a juicy trout while the net operator brings up a large bucket of sardines.

We can argue that we'd rather eat the trout, and that fly fishing is a much more enjoyable diversion but the reality is blurred.  At some point quantity will trump quality.  The net fisher will, perhaps, have more financial success.  But only if they have a ready distribution network and an efficient way to process and ship their bounty.

The net fisher looks at the fly fisher in his waders, whiling away a bright summer day, half submerged in a cool stream and wishes that were his lot while the fly fisher, does not envy the network process but lusts after the raw income.

It's the same in the business of photography.  I have one friend who does three or four big advertising assignments per year.  He doesn't want to work every day.  In his little corner of the industry that would be impractical.  He sees himself as a whaler.  He sails through the deep oceans looking for the "great white whale".  And if he lands one he's set for months at a time.

At the other end of the spectrum are photographers who need a constant stream of small sales to survive from week to week.  They are busy all the time, but not on the kinds of projects that initially attracted them to the field.  They compete against an ocean of unremarkable but "bucket cheap" stock photography.

I was complaining about this dichotomy last week to a friend who isn't a photographer.  He makes money with a traditional. professional business.  He suggested that both participants I've described above might be misguided.  He said he aims for the middle way.  Happy to go whaling, fly fishing or anchovy harvesting depending on what's biting.

Knowing that he has more money in his Christmas account than I've seen in my lifetime I quickly asked for his advice.  Here it is:

1.  Plan for the long term but be flexible enough to modify for the present.   You may want to go fly fishing but the stream might be closed right now and it's good to know how to net fish.....
2.  Don't abandon old, proven marketing techniques (he still sends targeted mailings and correspondence through the mail to his clients and select, potential clients).  Most of them still work well.  New is not always better.
3.  Don't be afraid of new marketing opportunities.  This guy has a Twitter account.  I was amazed.  Just because your current marketing is working okay doesn't mean the addition of new tools wouldn't make things better.
4.  Don't stop whaling just because there was a storm.  He likens our whaling analogy to, well, whaling.  He said most failed whalers came in from the seas because a big storm was brewing and they forgot to go back out when the storm abated.  For photographers the big jobs and sexy accounts will come back with a pent up vengence as soon as the economic mess subsides.  If you've already put all your guns into net fishing you might be loath to return to the whaling ship and you'll miss out on the next big time harvest while you work full out on small fish.
5.  When you hit big save as much as you can.  

His last piece of advice was to stop fishing and get back to work doing what you know how to do in the most profitable way.  You must beat your own inertia if you are to make it to the next higher level.

So what does this have to do with old timers and new photographers?  Not much, other than I think the most important thing you can learn is if you are even fishing in the right pool.

Take a trip to the ocean.  Look at the pond in your backyard.  Don't limit your options but don't let your selected options slow you down.  Have a twitter account and an "A" mailing list to whom you send printed materials.  You're allowed to do it both ways.