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......


Daniel Fealko said...

"Does anyone want to read something like that?"

No. I haven't read a fiction book in over thirty years. There have always been just too many non-fiction books I've wanted to read.

I think the eBooks put out by Craft & Vision are more to my liking. You could probably put out a few of those in less time than you're spending on the traditional book format, and I believe make more money at it.

Just my opinion.

jonno said...

I have similar issues re books although not in photography per se which fortunately is my hobby/art/etc. Books are rarely profitable (J K Rowling etc aside), but updating an earlier book is one pf the more miserable experience I can think of..my original text being around 1000 pages of pretty technical stuff. All the original creative oomph has gone.Loads of time and still no money ... I think part of the problem is self solving however. As we get older, our energy becomes more limited in quantity but deeper in quality. I have just declined a "3rd edition" contract with my publisher of a textbook that is acknowledged as a leader in its (narrow) field in order to write and (self publish) some personal essays that express what i "really" have to say, whether or not anyone is interested. . I feel really positive about that decision...so go for the novel :)

Anonymous said...

"Locked in during a time of escalating inflation"

I have this on-going argument with a couple of finance friends... The official inflation rate is basically flat.... BS as far as I am concerned and I agree with you completely (personal inflation rates can differ vastly from the official rate).

I would love for you to consider ebooks (maybe not allowed depending on your book contract) but at the right price & subject I would buy them - and you prob get more then the royalties on a $30 book :-/

As for a fiction book..... Um... I read some in high school a few decades ago (although got FAR better marks for the ones I did NOT read - took me a long time to figure out the world in high school).... and I read some aloud to the kids over the years... Um.. otherwise... Good luck with that :-)

Jim said...

I don't read novels. Well, that's not entirely true. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series but I have no interest in a photographer protagonist. Too close to home.

You should have released the LED book as an ebook. I am right now considering buying some studio lighting and there's nothing out there on LEDs.

Great literature and photo books (not the how-to kind) belong on high quality paper in nice bindings. Instructional, technology, etc. that are subject to frequent update belong in ebooks. IMHO

Jim said...

And I meant to ask... Why is the wide angle lens on the wrong camera? And if it worked, what makes it "wrong"?

Chad Thompson said...

As an aside - I just saw the new Werner Herzog movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams last friday. It's the only 3D movie I can recommend. Anyway - the majority of the cave shots were lit with 1X1 Light Panels due to fragile nature of the environment.

Frank Grygier said...

The numbers don't add up to do a re-wite. Do a three day Creative Live on LED lighting and promote your book then follow your heart and write the movie script about the escapades of that dashing photographer.

Anonymous said...

Why on earth it takes them 12 months to produce the book? After all we live, supposedly, in the most industrialized country in the world...

Jan Klier said...

Interesting and honest post.

Interesting coincidence, I was cleaning up our bookshelf earlier, and moved some old landscaping books from a set of projects 4 moves and 2 states ago. And what went to my head is that I really don't remember liking the books, because they only ever gave you a 50% answer.

There are really good non-fiction books that cover historic events, and biographies of people. But the number of how-to books that I've read and where I truly walked away and felt educated is extremely small, come to think of it I can't name a single one that I would use as an example of a really well done one.

The problem is that most topics require a lot of background knowledge and detail in order to be really explained well, and then you need to put the explanations to good use to create the muscle memory for them to work. Add to that, that many techniques are loaded with personal preferences and style, and it's never a good match. If you really covered it well, it would take 10x the pages to write, and it be even less economical and nobody would take the time to read it. It always feels like a table of facts, but the row that really applies to your situation was omitted so that the table could fit on a page.

Now it may have more to do with my personal style of consuming information, but I'm increasingly find how-to books (which seems to take up an incredible amount of the shelf space) an outdated communication mechanism. In the age of Google, the web, and blogs, you usually can find the answers within a matter of minutes and a bit of common sense filtering. And that information is usually more up to date, and doesn't collect dust or has to be constantly moved around in the space management strategy for your home.

Add on top of that the economics you describe, and it really doesn't make much sense in my mind. To me it feels a little bit more like the platinum version of the workshop - trying to sell to the amateur photographers who have lots of disposable income, but in the process really kind of getting away from the genuine practice of the art.

Back to cleaning up my book shelf. I do have my share of how-to books that in accumulated along the journey. But they occupy the shelf furthest out of sight, just one notch away from those I no longer keep. The premium shelves are covered with books about photographic bodies of work. Those that represent what we get inspired by.

The gap between what we shoot today and those bodies of work that inspires us can really only be filled by going and doing the work, and shooting 10K+ images, and looking at the difference and analyzing what's missing, and then shooting some more. No how-to book can ever provide a short-cut to that road less traveled.

Simon said...

Keep on doing what you're doing.

Write the blog for pleasure.

Write the books for the odd kicks.

Take the pictures to put bread on the table.

Live life as you see fit.

Robert said...

I don't read Fiction either, but just as your blog readers aren't your clients, we might not be the ones to read your novel. I, am assuming that Fiction has a much longer selling life(lots of old Dead guys still selling books) and they never need to be revised. I would do it if you want just like I pick up a camera, paint brush or a saw, if I know if I will be paid or not, I enjoy it.

Jan Klier said...

Also, do you want to write the books primarily for economic gain, or because you enjoy sharing the knowledge and giving back?

In the age where assisting is less and less a viable path for education and formal photo education is not economical either (just last week one of our local ASMP board members who teaches full-time said he's telling everyone interested to not take his class!), there may be a space for the established photographers to offer one-on-one education that may be timely, effective, and could be economical in relative terms. Take a combination of Don's one-on-one workshop (which I found helpful and valuable), and combine it with Selina's Clarion Call 2 pricing - let the person decide what it's worth to them and en decide to accept. It still may be less than your day rate, but not as big of a hole as writing the book, and it could be a more satisfying experience, which can be scaled up and down based on your working calendar.

William Souligny said...

Re-writes of photography books (and many others) only work for the author when people are just entering a new hobby/profession and they are seeking the "latest" information on lighting, lenses, vision, style, etc. They will take a look at the publishing date and maybe flip through the TOC and pass on anything that is 2 or more years out of date. Your first book was excellent - I bought it and prospered. I won't be buying a revised copy however - lessons learned and applied. Keep painting and growing and writing about new things and having fun -

Neil van Niekerk said...

Oh boy ... how I can relate to this process! :)
I'm still mulling this over - the whole "why are we doing this?" consideration.

Neil vN

Mitch said...

1. E books. Problem solved?

2. I'm re reading all those high school required novels, you know Grapes of Wrath, Moby Dick, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. For Fun. And I'm finding inspiration and visual cues from the way the author's "see" which relate to my vision. But heck, I find inspiration in cook books and table saws. Guess I'm a photographer to the core.

Paul Amyes said...

Tell your publisher that the book on LED lighting is THE revision.

Bill Millios said...

eBooks. Why are you writing about a technology that births a generation every 12 months using a publishing schedule that takes 18? I just helped a friend publish his eBook on the Kindle and Nook. It was up and live within a week. He's already gotten his first check, and we haven't even rolled out the big marketing push yet.

And YES, write the fiction novel. Again, publish it as an eBook. Stop looking at JK Rowling as an example, and instead look at Amanda Hocking ...

andrew oliveros said...

I say write the novel or maybe somewhere down the line write a book on photo theory or a collection of essays that explore your thoughts on the nature of photography. I know that's what your blog is at times, but in a book form I think that'd be interesting and very much worth purchasing and reading. At some point isn't it time to move beyond the technical and get to the rest of it all? (That should not be read as a criticism of your blog at all; I read and enjoy it whenever I can).

Dave Jenkins said...

Do not waste your time revising the Minimalist Lighting book unless you get a truly massive advance. No one stands to profit from from a new version except the publisher, and probably not even him.

As for writing a novel? I can't advise you about that, although I am an avid reader of novels. One of my favorite authors is the late Dick Francis, and my favorite of his books is "Reflex" so it's fair to say that I especially like books about photographers.

But should you write a novel? Do you have a natural ability to invent plots and tell stories? Writing a novel is a long process with a very uncertain payoff. Don't do it unless you absolutely feel you must, and...if you don't have anything better to do with your time.

Paul Dymond said...

I have the original version and loved it. I still reference it to this day but i don't think I'd need to buy the revised edition - unless it had a Kirk Tuck spin on it. In other words, if you could bring something to it along the lines of why we all tune in to your blog. Come to think of it, I think Kirk's musings on life, art and photography would be much more interesting than a how-to book on anything.

You tell us all to submerse ourselves in our art, I think it's time for you to do the same. I think an eBook of various short articles in the style we find on the blog would be great reading and you could be yourself without being beholden to a publisher dictating the content.

You would rather be photographing than writing how-to books but maybe you could be happy photographing and writing what you truly want to. Just an idea anyway.

kirk tuck said...

Paul, thank you for hitting it on the head. And thank you to everyone else for your generous and honest feedback. This is one of the things I love about writing this blog. Even when people disagree they do it so well and with such kindness.

Dave, the novel is already written. I just need to edit it and get it up online. Thank you for your suggestions!

Jan, thank you for filling in info for a younger generation. It keeps me from being myopic.

ed g. said...

I don't think you should revise the earlier book unless you get an advance equal to at least the total royalties you got on the first edition (and then only if that will compensate you for the lost working time while you write it).

If they want all new photos it's at least as much work as an all-new book, but because it's a "second edition" it will likely not sell any more copies than the first.

As for the novel, sure, I'd read it. But I know a fair number of published novelists, and I would say that you should not write a novel--unless you can't not write it, unless the story is clawing its way out of your chest like a baby alien. The economics of fiction writing are dismal.

Paul Dymond said...

Glad to be hitting it on the head mate! As a travel writer and photographer for more years than I care to admit I just woke up one day and I didn't really enjoy what I was writing any more.

I enjoy writing - just about different stuff. Of course I love photography more than anything but am happy now that I've figured out what I want to write and can mix the two together.

Anyway it sort of felt to me like you might be in the same boat. So glad to have been some limited help and look forward to the Kirk Tuck acerbic eBooks!

kirk tuck said...

And Paul, you just know they will be acerbic. :-)

ed g. said...

Whoops, while I was writing my comment you posted that the novel was already written.

Well, OK, then. If you don't want to put it through the mill of submitting to publishers and agents--a mill that grinds fine, and exceeding slow--you can always sell it through Lulu or something. I'll read it.

Tyson Habein said...

Before I ever thought about being a photographer, I thought I was going to be a novelist. I've found that my skill set works better in the realm of shorter fiction pieces.

I think my love of photography is the rapid fire way that I can tell a story. I think my reading of fiction informs the images I make. For craps sake, I have a series of photos called "Scenes from an unproduced film." I just can't wrap my mind around not reading fiction.

Fiction is, often, far more truthful than non-fiction ever could be.

Put the novel out, Kirk. I'll be honest, I haven't purchased any of your books despite liking your writing. (More of an art theory rather than technical craft sort of non-fiction reader) That said, I'll be first in line to buy the novel.

I've had an idea banging around for about a year now to write a novella involving a photographer on a road trip looking for a friend who's disappeared. I'd then sprinkle it with photographs done in the style of the fictional photographer from the road.

Let's create some fun stuff for ourselves... even if people don't read anything but manuals anymore. ;)

Adam Victor said...

Follow. Your. Heart.

Dave Jenkins said...

Kirk, send me the novel. I'm a better editor than I am a photographer. (But if you're like me, you'll want to do your own editing.)

A few years ago I bought "Talking Photography," a compilation of Washington Post columns by Frank van Riper, a DC-based photographer. With all respect to van Riper, I find your writings/ramblings far more interesting than his. I would buy a book of your miscellaneous ramblings about photography in a heartbeat.

Philip Greenspun, the founder of photo.net, wrote a number of books which began life as e-books, then later were published in-ink-on-paper form when many people wanted a permanent copy. So it's not an either-or thing.

Roger said...

I sell an ebook, it sells for $15, the payment processor takes $1, the rest is mine. No middle men, I sell through my own site. I sell 4 copies a day. Now if I had 4 books on the go I could be selling say 12-16 a day. I keep the book always up to date because people are more inclined to buy a book that is always current. The best topic for an ebook is anything niche. You had it with LED's, don't let the next one get away.

kirk tuck said...

Roger, that's exactly what I had in mind. And I have one burning in my brain right now. I need to figure out the process. Any tips? Send me an e-mail, let's talk.

Daryl said...

I enjoy novels and I enjoy your writing, so I'd line up to buy your novel.

Drop me a line if you need help with the gunplay stuff. I'm an instructor.

Anonymous said...

I'm always running behind so, yes, I would like to read your first book...whether updated or not.

Bernie Greene said...

I read fiction and non fiction and would love to read your novel.

The publishing industry has changed a lot in the last few years. It seems to me that where self publishing used to be "vanity publishing" going through the traditional route with a publisher now is becoming the vanity route. You might get your work and name in print and on bookshelves but you rarely make any money.

It is still worth going the print route, as opposed to just creating a 'lectronic version, if the project justifies the tangible qualities a book provides but you can do that yourself too with quite a number of very competent print on demand companies out there.