Betsy Pinover Schiff on Getting Her Latest Book Published
September 13, 2016
An English-cottage style garden in front of a Brooklyn brownstone is filled with roses, foxgloves, iris and bellflowers. The Monacelli Press liked Betsy Pinover Schiff’s initial proposal, but sent her back to photograph more extensively in the city’s outer boroughs to widen the book’s appeal.
Cherry trees, crab apples and tulips in a Broadway traffic island in Manhattan.
6CB Botanical Garden on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which is maintained by volunteers.
Planters in front of a brownstone in the East 60s combine yellow daffodils with pink and coral tulips.
A clematis vine near DeWitt Clinton Park, part of Maria’s Perennial Garden, which features flowers of the 1800s and plants that attract birds, bees, and butterflies.
Over the past 20 years, photographer Betsy Pinover Schiff has turned variations on her favorite theme into an impressive list of photo books. This fall, The Monacelli Press will publish Sidewalk Gardens of New York, her fifth book, not counting the six others she either contributed to or published privately. She published her first trade book, Gardens in the City, with Abrams in 1999. Her other books include the acclaimed Windows on Central Park, published in 2011 by Schiffer Publishing.
Describing herself as an avid walker and “a very observant New Yorker,” Pinover Schiff says the idea for Sidewalk Gardens of New York came to her in 2014. “Suddenly there were all these little curb gardens, one more beautiful than the next. It began to feel like a competition on the Upper East Side.” Besides the flowers and ornamentals in tree beds and stoop gardens, planters overflowed with greenery in front of corporate buildings, and gardens along the New York waterfront blossomed. “I thought: The city has changed,” she says.
She started photographing, and when she pitched the project as a book last fall, she had a fresh idea at the intersection of two popular book subjects: gardening and New York City. Of course, she also had experience pitching book ideas, and connections in the publishing industry.
“I write a good proposal, once I have confidence in the idea,” says Pinover Schiff, who was a public relations professional before she became photographer. “I told myself, I’m going to call five publishers, maximum, and if I couldn’t generate interest in [Sidewalk Gardens] I was going to forget the idea.” She was also determined not to pay to have the book published. “I had given the project a lot of time already and if I couldn’t get a publisher that was not going to charge me, I wasn’t going to do it.”
Pinover Schiff first approached Abrams, her first publisher. But they turned her down, she says, because they publish few books about gardening or New York City anymore. Next, she went to Hirmer Verlag, which published her third book, New York City Gardens, in 2010. They turned her down because they’re now focused on museum catalogues and titles that are largely pre-sold, she explains.
Her third call was to Monacelli. She knew managing editor Elizabeth White, which ensured a speedy and sympathetic hearing of the photographer’s proposal, White says. She continues, “There were a lot of things about Betsy’s proposal that resonated with me, and the pictures are also timely and wonderful.” The proposal resonated with White’s interest in historic preservation, and it was a good fit for Monacelli, which publishes many books related to urban design, landscape design and architecture.
Pinover Schiff describes her proposal as “very succinct but very full,” beginning with a few paragraphs that explained and substantiated her idea. “I started with a quote from [architecture critic] Paul Goldberger, about the street being the ultimate public space that defines the urban experience,” she says. She described how that experience was changing for pedestrians in New York because of the flowerpots and planters “overflowing with color” and the curb gardens that had become magnets for creative garden designers.
“I mapped out the whole book,” she says. The map included a proposed table of contents, listing sections for townhouse plantings, gardens on the avenues, waterfront walks, hanging baskets and other topics. She submitted sample images for the various sections—about 30 images in all—and she wrote a paragraph about each image.
Pinover Schiff also discussed the potential market for the book. It included people and organizations involved in planting gardens throughout the city, such as the New York City Parks Department, Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project (which is restoring parks and gardens around the city), and the city’s rapidly growing community garden movement. “There are landscape architects, garden designers, and homeowners” who are potential buyers, Pinover Schiff says. And she adds, “There are also millions of tourists.”
The proposal covered some production details, too. Pinover Schiff envisioned a monograph, with big photographs and long captions interspersed with short essays. She suggested 15 different writers, including landscape designers. Alas, Monacelli saw it as a trade book, without the essays, and at a smaller trim size than the photographer imagined. “Monacelli was a bit more firm about their vision [than other publishers], but they bring a lot to the table, and I appreciate that,” she says. “I feel very happy about where we landed.”
“We know people don’t buy just collections of photographs,” says White. “This is a business venture. It’s not just an exercise in creating an object of beauty. We hope to do that, too. But we need to be confident there’s real world interest.”
Putting it All Together
The book will measure 8 x 8-1/2 inches, and contain 192 pages with 150 photographs. It will include a foreword written by Adrian Benepe, who was Parks Commissioner under former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Monacelli commissioned horticulturist Alicia Whitaker to write short descriptive captions for the photographs.
To ensure the widest possible local appeal, Monacelli asked Pinover Schiff to go back out and photograph in all five New York boroughs, not just Manhattan and nearby parts of Brooklyn. “We were interested in a broad sweep of different neighborhoods,” White says.
Pinover Schiff spent all of last summer and into the fall photographing sidewalk gardens all over the city. “Friends introduced me to each of the boroughs I didn’t know well, then I would start walking,” she says. She scouted on the internet, looking at websites, such as that of the New York Restoration Project, for community gardens that caught her eye.
As she walked, she says, “I was making notes all the time: Where I was, what time of day I needed to go back [to a particular location], what kind of weather conditions I wanted.” She avoided including people in the photos, which is a challenge in New York City. But the publisher wanted the focus on the plants and gardens, and the urban context, with as little distraction of passers-by as possible.
The release date is set for mid September. Monacelli doesn’t expect authors to do their own marketing. Pinover Schiff says Monacelli is providing better sales, marketing and publicity support than other publishers have given her in the past. But she says she’ll also help promote the book by spreading the word about it to her “huge contact list,” arranging some book parties, and giving talks if the publisher asks. “I’ve always felt a certain obligation to [help] publishers [with] sales and promotion. I feel it’s a joint effort,” she says.
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