Alan Rapp works with authors, visual artists, photographers, and designers developing books and other projects. As the editor overseeing the art, architecture, design, and photography lists of the San Francisco publisher Chronicle Books, Alan Rapp acquired and developed more than 100 titles over the course of ten years, collaborating with such artists as David Maisel, legendary music photographer Jim Marshall, Elinor Carucci, and Justin Guariglia. Based in Brooklyn, Rapp is a frequent panelist, portfolio reviewer, workshop leader, and lecturer. He discusses the appeal of photography books and offers advice on what you need to do.
Reuel Golden: Why do you think so many photographers want to see their work published in book format?
Alan Rapp: Almost all photographers have favorite books that are hugely influential in how they think about photography and maybe even their practice. As much as the state of book publishing seems to be in flux, books are still probably the most faithful and convenient way to present and absorb photography. What’s more, even people unfamiliar with the history and conventions recognize that the book is a unique form with vast potential unto itself, and can maximize the possibilities of photography in a way that makes a photo book a real art object.
AR: The production quality and reproduction control of such services as Lulu and Blurb have improved over the past few years, and a number of photographers use these services to experiment with the book design and formats. They are also publishing in the sense that anyone can buy these books on the sites themselves, which host marketplaces. Still, this scale of printing makes for pretty expensive books, and even with good previews doesn’t quite square with the experience of physical book browsing, which has a much higher impact than online looking.
RG: What kinds of photography books sell?
AR: Hard to answer without making a circular argument–the perception of popularity helps books sell more. Popular and prolific artists can sell even their most experimental projects, because the book buyer wants to be in that cultural stream and is already predisposed to it. Books with quirky and timely subject matter can break category distinctions. I think pictures of naked people still sell as well.
RG: Is the photographer usually expected to pay for some of the production costs?
AR: Increasingly so, I believe. There are some publishers who have long expected that — some are nonprofits, but many are not. So this means serious photographers who want a traditionally published book need to solicit patronage, which in these times is also increasingly scarce. But there are still publishers who do not expect contributions from the photographer and some of those even pay an advance.
RG: If a photographer has an idea for a book, how should they best present the concept? How important is a written brief?
AR: I’ll answer the above two questions in one. In book parlance the brief is a proposal. Without a book proposal a photographer’s work can merely seem like a portfolio. The proposal is there to describe the work in book form. This involves an overview of the work, but also describing the audience, laying out sales and marketing ideas, thinking through the format, and comparing the proposed book to its competition. A good book proposal has all those components.
RG: Tell us a bit about what you do? How do you help photographers get their work published?
AR: Right now I am working as a consultant to some photographers to help them with book proposals, and in other cases I am packaging their book–that is, putting a proposal together, then assembling their work into a sample design direction, and approaching publishers so they can acquire it. I then project manage the book for the publisher. Feel free to email me at alan[at]alanrappstudio.com or http://alanrappstudio.com/contact
RG: What are the most common mistakes photographers make when they are looking to get a book published?
AR: First, not knowing where his or her work fits into the contemporary photography book spectrum. This is basic research and anyone can do it. Also, assuming that finishing the photographic aspect of the project is the end of the work and that the project then essentially sells itself–or that even placing the book with the publisher is the end. There is still a lot more work to do! The photographer/author has to do more than ever now, and the more literacy you can gain ahead of engaging with the process, the better off you will be once you’re in it.