So You Want a Photobook Deal?
Today we are constantly inundated with so many photographic images that most of them go unnoticed. Yet somehow in a world of ubiquitous photography, the photobook retains its power. It is often in the solitary act of looking at a book that we are transported to what Roland Barthes called the “blind field” beyond the frame of a photograph. For photographers, publishing a book represents an opportunity to reach the spectators that animate, and are animated by, our pictures. But as Abandoned America photographer Matthew Christopher can attest, finding a photobook publisher is not easy. While there is no foolproof strategy to landing a photobook deal, Matthew Christopher’s story is of interest to photographers everywhere who aspire to publishing their work.
A Worthy Subject
Abandoned America began as an informal research project born of Matthew Christopher’s interest in history. Working overnights as a psych assistant at an inpatient mental health facility, Christopher spent many wee hours poring over histories of the state hospital system. The more he read, the more he wanted to know about places like the infamous Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry, which had closed its doors over a decade earlier in 1990. With his interest thoroughly piqued by the hospital’s deservedly appalling reputation, he managed to find someone willing and able to show him around the building. Christopher describes the experience as an exquisite mixture of the awesome and the fearful. In short, it was sublime. He’s been chasing the dragon ever since.
Building an Audience
Matthew Christopher visited more and more abandoned spaces, documenting all that he found interesting. With no formal photography training at the outset, he turned to the medium as a way of preserving moments and sharing their beauty and terror with the world. Over the years, Christopher has developed an impressive body of work and made it available on his website. The extensive photo galleries and thoughtful articles there have attracted a sizable loyal following. Likewise, the Abandoned America Facebook page has about 140,000 followers.
Christopher has actively cultivated his online following and made a point of engaging with those who appreciate his project. By connecting with people in related lines of work (like photography and historic preservation), taking an interest in their activities, and following up on conversations, he has deliberately developed many lasting and rewarding relationships. As a result, the Abandoned America audience comprises scores of individuals who are personally invested in the project.
Pitching with Control
Although Abandoned America didn’t start as a photobook project, it seemed to progress naturally in that direction. The first books were small editions that Christopher printed using Blurb. He enjoyed the editorial control of self-publishing, but producing bigger formats and larger editions of Blurb books was not economically feasible, and distribution of self-published books posed a daunting challenge. Moreover, Christopher hoped to attract some ink and determined that he needed a publisher in order to appeal to reputable reviewers.
Having worked at a literary agency in the past, Christopher was fairly savvy when it came to approaching publishers. He knew that he stood a chance only with imprints whose particular corner of the market was likely to be interested in eerie photos of abandoned buildings. Rather than blindly pitching his book to everyone he could think of, he diligently researched each publisher and made a determination about whether Abandoned America would be a good fit. He tailored each pitch to the specific imprint, explicitly drawing connections between his work and related books the company had previously released.
Killing Your Darlings
For years, Matthew Christopher’s assiduous efforts met with a long series of polite rejections. Then, unexpectedly, a French publisher contacted him to ask if he was interested in doing a book. JonGlez, an imprint whose entire catalog consists of books about secret places, was just a bit further down Christopher’s running list of publishers to try. Although fate thwarted his plan to make a successful pitch, Christopher is not complaining. Having a publisher come to him felt pretty good.
It has been an intensely busy year for Christopher, working with the JonGlez staff on preparing the photos, text and layout for publication. Involving other people in what had hitherto been an individual project was an adjustment that took some getting used to—but Christopher knows that collaboration has strengthened the work. He’s also grateful to JonGlez for obtaining the ISBN, arranging sales through Amazon, and planning distribution to booksellers all over the world.
Matthew Christopher laid the foundation for his success by rigorously developing a stellar body of work and presenting it coherently online. Through active social networking, he cultivated a following that is chomping at the bit for an Abandoned America book. Christopher knows his audience, both as a photobook market and as individual people. He is always working on the project—not only by continuing to find and shoot abandoned spaces—but by diligently maintaining professional relationships with the people who have shown an interest in his work. Publishers rely on authors to help sell books, and JonGlez knows that Christopher will do his part to maintain the momentum he has worked so hard to build up.
This Friday Abandoned America will hit the shelves from Europe to North America, and all the way to New Zealand. Matthew Christopher will be kicking off his book tour on December 11 with a signing, slide show, Q & A and reception at the Gershman Y in Philadelphia. Visit Hidden City Philadelphia to reserve your seat!