2.02.2009

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.

Kirk

2 comments:

Ray K said...

Thanks Kirk for the insight on this. I am one of those that really appreciate your book on minimal lighting. I never thought of writing to an author before, guess I figured they shouldn't be disturbed as the books don't come out as fast as I read them. Great post.

Anonymous said...

The War of Art is indeed a great book. I also email Mr. Pressfield about something else (a Japanese translation) and got a reply within hours. What an honor!