Self Publish

Book : Front Cover, Ben Dolman 2012

Self Publish, Be Happy : Self Publish, Be Happy is an organisation founded by Bruno Ceschel in 2010 with the aim of celebrating, studying and promoting self-published photo books through events (such as exhibitions, displays and talks), publications and online exposureSelf Publish, Be Happy also organises workshops that help artists and photographers make and publish their own books. 

The above text and links are from the Self Publish, Be Happy Website.

A Distracted Mind

This post was going to be a simple straight forward review of using Blurb Books to create a Photo Book of the work I have done over the past couple of years looking at the technical issues of using an online book maker’s software, the different book options and page lay outs and see if they could be customised to my liking and finally which photographs made the edit and the decisions behind the sequence of images and themes. While I was pondering ‘why make and print a book’ I started to think about the context and the theme for the book and it led me to fly off at all kinds of different tangents. I decided to write down these seemly non related thoughts that may or not inform self publishing directly but they steered me to this venture. If you just want to know about making a book go to the bottom of the post but if you want to read my ramblings continue from here.

My first thought was I have no need to sell, publish or take commissions, I have a nice ‘day’ job and the photography I do does not have to earn its keep, it can remain a creative and intellectual indulgence, a hobby. That said the MA I am currently studying allows me to explore the field of photography in greater depth and develop new academic insights that I could feed back into my technical tutor’s job at Loughborough University and develop my teaching delivery, engaging with research and see if there are any commercial opportunities with the new boy on the block in higher education ‘enterprise’.

For a photographer, artist, craft artisan and designer who does not have the security of a ‘day’ job in education as in my case that affords time and support for their creative endeavour they have to make a living from their practice if they want to continue with it professionally. We are currently in one of the worst recessions in living memory and times are hard especially for the creative community, public grants and private commissions are scarce and competition is fierce compounded by Universities turning out ever more artists and designers to an ever saturated labour market place in the creative industries. Even in the ‘good’ times it was hard for an artist or designer to find work but throughout history creativity continues to flourish, why? To succeed as a ‘creative’ one has to be an entrepreneur, self determined, risk taking, self reliant but also one has to be coopertative, sharing and communal. Artists, craft artisans and more recently over the past two centuries photographers and designers had to create their own market place for their wares and services, they had not only to find an audience but actually create one.

Invention and risk taking are not only employed in the making and conceptual aspects of the artist/designer/photographer practice but are used in creating new modes of communication, business ventures and social interventions. The creative industries in the UK are now comparable to that of the financial industries but employing more people on small but sustainable incomes accounting for 6-8% of GDP that trades internationally and sometimes is referred to our countries soft power, better than gunship diplomacy. I have provided a link to a couple of PDF online files from the CBI and The Work Foundation looking at the creative industries;

The creative industries have to be smart to survive and it is their innate ability of invention, questioning, risk taking and curiosity that have led to their expansion and success, something that manufacturing in the UK could have done with that might have stopped its sad decline.

Some may say I am offering a consumerist or capitalist bent for the creative disciplines but humans have always been traders, consumers and providers since the advent of farming and our earliest communities. Trading or the exchange of goods and services is in our DNA be it for survival or social grace, in recent times the human population has grown and trading has reached a critical mass, we have moved from the land to large urban sprawls and we now we refer to trade as capitalism which gave birth to modern consumerism. In the past century some societies tried to offer an alternative to capitalism, communism and national socialism, both failed as people wanted freedom and blue jeans. Capitalism come in many forms from China’s state controlled capitalism [Deng Xiao Ping ‘It doesn’t matter whether it is a yellow cat or a black, a cat that catches mice is a good cat’ ] to the free market of America and the heavily regulated and taxed socialist orientated capitalism of Europe all support consumerism in varying degrees through free trade, multi-national corporations and global brands. The thousand dollar question is can current form consumerism and levels trading of goods and services be made sustainable and non-exploitative. Can we go beyond our base instincts of greed, lust, wanton urges, the wasteful and parasitic hunger of natural and human resources and seek to recycle, nurture, be resourceful, resow and have less of a short term mentality and think in the long term and plan of how we coexist better with one another and the earth we inhabit.  

One element of consumerism is marketing, to inform people of product and to seduce them to want it, to buy it regardless if they actually need it. This could be a can of soup, a gadget, a concept, a design, an image. Marketing uses mass media as its weapon of choice, a creative industry that uses newspapers, magazines, television for advertising consumable goods and services and now the world wide web. Traditional media outlets are either controlled by the state or by private individuals/companies, the web is open for all noting the blog I am writing which maybe used for reflecting upon my studies or just for marketing myself and my wares.

By now you might be wondering why I am going on about marketing, the creative industries, publicity and making creativity work to support an individual’s livelihood and enter the public domain when I seemly do not have to worry about such concerns at the moment in my own practice as I have a ‘nice day job’ that puts a roof over my head and food on the table.

In England the government has withdrawn direct funding for teaching with the exception of some STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects and some other specialist subjects in Higher Education link medicine and has now has placed the burden of funding university teaching directly onto students through personal loans. England is a funny and strange country, a small country that likes to think it is still a world power, a country weighed down by a burden of history and past empire. As I ponder the cuts we are experiencing post 2008 banking crisis I wonder if we spend and save wisely as a nation. The UK has the 4th largest defence budget in the world behind the biggest spenders USA, China and Russia, and just behind the UK is France in 5th place a country again burden by history, a past world power clinging onto past glory days of empire. Looking more closely at our defence spending as GDP [gross domestic product] to other counties like Germany or Sweden the UK’s GDP spend on defence is double at 2.6%. The UK defence budget is about £46 billion this year and of that budget the Trident programme is around 5.5%. Now do we need a spend 50% [by GDP] more on defence than other peaceful developed countries in western Europe and do we actually need Trident, as there are no winners in a nuclear war, just asking because if we just scrap Trident we could pay for 240,000 student places based on a £9000 fee. Perhaps wishful thinking but we need to think of the alternatives rather than being prisoners to the status quo, our history and invest in our future and not disown or worst seek to destroy it.

The reduction in central government funding for teaching in certain subjects and the total withdrawal of funding in the arts and humanities from central government has had initially two effects in higher education though these may change in the future as we enter this new uncharted funding territory. There has been a slight fall in the numbers of full time students and a massive decline in part time students going to university who maybe have been put off by the high fees and the resulting debt, this in turn has reduced the income of the University who pay me, who provide my ‘day’ job. The second effect of the change in funding for teaching is those students who decide to go to University will be saddled with massive debts and when they leave they will worry how they will get jobs and repay their debts. Studying at university in the past one could learn just for the sake for learning, the quest for knowledge for knowledge’s sake, now the learning is turning more vocational, I have no problem with this as I did my degree at a Polytechnic rather than a traditional red brick University that had a more pragmatic approach to learning that was practical and could be applied to a living, less ivory tower. For students in the Humanities and specifically Art and Design the discipline I am employed to teach walking into a job after your studies is not straight forward, there is not a local factory down the road employing artists though for designers there are better options and established employers. If you cannot find a job that directly utilises want you have studied for be it painting or sculpture you either find an associated trade or create your own job, both options require imagination and invention and you have to market yourself. You maybe humble and quiet that in your art and that maybe a personal and creative redeeming trait but to get your work seen and sold it is not. Anyone can have a good idea, ideas come by the bucket load but unless they are communicated, made or displayed they will have no extended impact or consequence and the potential audience will be limited.

So why I am looking at publishing my photography, up until this point in my practice I felt that there was no need for an external audience accepting that my creative endeavours were just a personal indulgence and a hobby. External events have turned what was a nice, quiet and safe job in a University into something more uncertain which sometimes is not a bad thing and also by undertaking a MA I have started to question what I do in my job and also in my personal creative practice wondering if it should now be on a more professional footing. Now I could worry about these changes, put my head in the sand and pretend they are not happening or I could embrace the uncertainty and bring my creativity and invention to bare to the new social and economical realities in the 21st century. At the moment I teach digital creative technologies in a range different art and design disciplines and I would like to develop this further where the teaching would be more aligned with industry. The hope it would potentially be of benefit to the students and offer them real world skills but not in a prescriptive manner but instead seek new dialogues between the realities of the real world of industry and that of the ivory towers of universities and use a more applied and practical approach to teaching students that is still rigorous and is based on the best cutting edge research coming out of universities.

Besides reviewing my teaching and creative practice the other area at work I am looking into is enterprise, something of the new boy in universities especially in the arts and humanities. Universities have in the past developed their own spin out companies under the enterprise umbrella from their STEM research activities and partnerships with industry. With a potential reduction of income from traditional university teaching and the small research funding pot in the humanities one would be a fool not to investigate this new area of income. There are areas in my job that could be well suited to enterprise but like any good idea and intention if it is never communicated those areas cannot be developed and capitalised upon. Before I seek which aspects of creative digital technologies and photography that could be best utilise and developed for enterprise activities it would be good to do some small tests on my own creative practice which I am developing through my MA.

Returning to the original title of the post Self Publish, self publishing is an act of self promotion, to communicate to a wider audience your practice in the hope of acknowledgment, commissions and sales. But why self publish rather than seek out a traditional publisher. The first reason I could offer is independence, the independence to shape and narrate how your outward presence as an artist in how that is defined and expressed, a portfolio of mind and body as you will, something that is now easier than anytime past with the advent of the digital revolution. The second reason is if your practice is still undetermined by doing your own editing, layout and design, organising and publishing it could help it become defined through the practical and reflective process  of creating a book that helps you in the understanding of your work and creative process. You could also be easily led astray by self publishing and become self indulgent as opposed to something that is externally edited and published that is open to a third party comment and criticism. If a publisher, agent or gallery dealer takes you up and promotes your work good, you can always carry on self publishing, in tandem or partnership, if not self reliance and self promotion is a good thing to learn.

So far the only form of self publishing I have done is through online publishing creating a website and blog, a handmade book and digitally produce book via Blurb Books. My self published activities have not been monetized so far, they have been done purely to develop, reflect upon and display my creative activity but they could be developed into very modest income streams. The real income from a creative practice comes from sales or commissions, the publishing side is for me just marketing and communication, a lost leader. Very few people make money off self publishing, even established publishers are struggling with the advent of eBooks and are having to redefine their business models but some do succeed, there are financial opportunities where a book reaches a critical mass or when a bespoke limited edition or handmade book becomes a unique sought after piece of art in its own right and commands a high price. Some refer to the photo book as vanity publishing due to their limited audience, specialist subject matter and small print runs, fine I have no problem with that as all forms of exhibiting, display and publishing are a mixture of communication, ego, insight, vanity, wonderment, reflection and expression. There is one element to note with self publishing and that there is no shit filter, the third party who makes the informed judgements of the content, the edit, the layout and the narrative and should it go to press. The established route of using a publisher, agent, critic and gallery is by-passed with self publishing, some have issue with this as the market is flooded with photo books with what is perceive as having little artistic merit, this may be so but I prefer the chaotic freedom and choice afforded by self publishing and the resulting good and bad publications and it may take little bit more time to find the real gems in the printed deluge but I prefer this than the established taste makers telling me what is good or not.

Oh yes the book

Blurb the online publisher is cheap, quick, and open to all, sounds perfect for me. There are plenty of other online book makers out in the market who may have a higher quality of binding and printing but Blurb offers for me the best software solution for laying out the pages, inserting images and text and colour calibration. It is not perfect by a long way as I found out in my initial tests but it is fine as a quick proof of your work which then could be printed by a traditional printer or made into a hand made book at a later date. The software option I went for was the plugin for Lightroom 4 which offered a better workflow than InDesign the other professional option offered by Blurb. InDesign had better layout options but Lightroom offered better image management and adjustments. The number one thing you need to do before creating a book on your computer it to calibrate your monitor and dim it, I use a iMac which is far from perfect and the screen brightness had to be reduced by a third. Modern inkjet printers have a very wide colour gamut, up to 10 or more colours including 3 shades of black and now orange and green inks that can render and print RGB [red, green and blue] images very closely to what you see on the monitor. Traditional printed books use just four inks CYMK [cyan, yellow, magenta and black] in a narrow colour gamut which now seems crude in compassion to the latest inkjet printers and with traditional CYMK printers certain colours can be hard to reproduce and shadows darken losing detail. I was surprised how much I had to adjust an image that printed well on my calibrated inkjet printer to that of Blurb colour spacing that was based on CMYK printer output, the colour density was 30% darker which proved an issue in the shadow areas. Another issue with Blurb’s printing is you sometimes get banding in subtle gradients found in overcast skies. When designing the page layout you need to watch out for is the gutter width, Blurb made books do not lay flat and as you increase the numbers of pages the stiffer the binder becomes, allow for plenty of gutter space at the binder if you are placing two images side by side. One final note of caution is if you reduce the size of an image the tonal range darkens and colours become richer, weird. In my first book the gutter was too small so I changed the guttering that in turn reduced the size of the images and sent the new  book layout back to Blurb to be re-printed but the images came back 10% darker and more vibrant, this is a known issue and I will reload images back into the template next time rather than just resize the images.

After dealing with the technical issues I must say it was a delight to use Blurb in Lightroom, the layout options allows for an overview of the whole book, the flow and sequence of images could be easily edited and altered. New narratives and themes revealed themselves using this workflow taking the book and work in new directions. As I was placing images adjacent to each other on the pages the process led me to look closer at their relationship with one another, should they compliment one another or offer contrast and tension, should the sequence be linear or non linear. The whole digital workflow was from me liberating and it complimented traditional form of page layout and image selection and sequencing. It was nice to get the images off the screen into my hands, to leaf through the pages, to smell the newly inked pages, to ponder a still or a sequence of images moving forwards and back through the pages of the book.

I decided to go with the most expensive options from Blurb Books, pro line paper and hardback, large landscape and maximum page count as I wanted to see how far I could push the service and see its pitfalls and benefits. Next time I will choose the best paper but a smaller book size with a soft back option rather than hard back cover for a first proof copy, it is cheaper by a large margin but the paper reproduction will be the same. Will I use an online book making service for my final publish work in the future, the answer at the moment is no, the quality of printing not good enough at the moment but this type of printing service is perfect for tests and proofs.

Book: Back Cover, Ben Dolman 2012