Photo Books

How to Pitch Your Photo Book to Trade Publishers: Susan Middleton’s Spineless

October 9, 2015

By Conor Risch

In 2006, Susan Middleton began her work photographing marine invertebrates while aboard a research vessel that was exploring the French Frigate Shoals, 500 miles west of Honolulu, Hawaii. Even then, bobbing in the Pacific with scientists from around the world, she knew she was working on a book. With several previous titles to her credit, Middleton tends to be “book-oriented,” she says.

Middleton also knew she wanted the book, which she’d eventually publish with Abrams in October 2014, to reach as many people as possible. “I really wanted to reach out to a general audience,” she remembers. “I wanted kids to be engaged by the images. I wanted to reach out to people who are passionate about photography; [to] artists, designers, fashion designers. I wanted to reach out to people who were in the sciences and were passionate about biology, and also [to] the conservation community.”

All of that is easier said than done. A number of factors helped Middleton place her book, Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, the Backbone of Life, with Abrams and create a package that could appeal to a wide range of viewers. Her esthetic approach of isolating the odd, beautiful and lesser-known animals on seamless backgrounds appealed to Eric Himmel, her editor at Abrams. “You see that [Susan is] photographing animals that are unusual, and she’s doing it in a way that’s very difficult.”

Middleton consciously “rides the line between art and science,” in her work, she explains, attracting people through esthetics and then engaging them in the content of her images. “I’m fundamentally an artist, but I attach myself to scientists to guide what I do. I think Eric has always appreciated that sweet spot between art and science.”

Himmel says the science and nature category is “a little bit underserved” by publishers. “I don’t think [they] take it as seriously as they should.” With a greater portion of the public interested in conservation and the environment, Himmel recognizes the market for books that look in a unique way at the natural world. “Work in [science and nature] is really being done on a very high level now because of interest, because of technology; I think an urgent sense that the world is going to hell plays a role,” he explains. Artists like Middleton and Tim Flach, another Abrams author, are “operating on a pretty high level of thought,” he says, and their work “[is] an attempt to do something new, an attempt to incorporate some esthetic values that are not simply from the realm of traditional nature photography.”

Middleton submitted her proposal in 2012, after six years working sporadically on the series and thinking about how to shape it. She’d co-authored a previous book with Abrams and that contract gave them first refusal rights for her next book, but she says she prepared her proposal the same way she would have for any publisher. The most important piece was a set of 50 5 x 7-inch prints “that I felt were really strong and that represented the diversity that I intended for the book to contain,” she says. “My feeling was I wanted it to be a nice little package where the prints were big enough to be able to convey the work, but small enough that they could go in somebody’s briefcase or be shuffled like a big deck of cards on a conference table.”

She also included a CV and “several pages of how I envisioned the book.” Having spent years “eavesdropping on really intensive marine invertebrate classes” on research vessels and at the University of Washington’s marine laboratory on San Juan Island, Middleton wanted to write the text herself and had ideas about how the book could be chaptered. She also envisioned a page count and trim size. “That’s not saying that’s what’s going to end up happening,” she counsels, “and in fact in my case the page count and trim size increased once we actually got down to the final production decisions, but I did have an idea of how I thought the book could be and I expressed that.”

Himmel says he’s seen proposals of all shapes and sizes in his 35 years as an editor, and he “doesn’t have a prescriptive format.” But, he adds, “a good proposal should be clear and lucid about the purpose of the book and its main focus, and convey the writer’s understanding or belief of why people would be interested.” Photographers should include “a reasonable amount of visual material.” He doesn’t want to see finished layouts unless they’re done professionally. “We work with good book designers and we have a lot of experience making books, so when faced with images and text, we can imagine what a book could look like,” he says.

The author’s name recognition, exhibition and/or publication histories, and marketing hooks are all important. “We need to get some sense not just of what the material is, but who the person presenting it is,” he says.

Middleton’s affiliations with science museums and conservation groups “that you could look to to help promote the book when it was published” factored into Himmel’s evaluation of her proposal. He also had in the back of his mind another book about deep-sea creatures that he’d passed on, which sold tens of thousands of copies for another publisher. “In an editor’s life, when you pass on something that then goes on to show that you made a big mistake, your antennae are up,” he explains.

Himmel says he doesn’t expect authors to submit comparative title research with their proposals, but “comps” are key to demonstrating “to colleagues who are not in the editorial department why you think a book will sell.” (This is part of the reason it’s difficult to publish photographic monographs, he adds: “It’s very hard to point to comps.”) “The old joke is that the perfect book is the book that’s completely original that’s really like something else that was very successful,” he laughs. Spineless can be seen as that perfect combination of unique photographs in a category that has been successful.

When PDN spoke with Middleton in late July, she was on San Juan Island for an artist’s residency. A new museum was showing her marine invertebrates work, much of which was made at the research lab nearby. Though the world of marine invertebrates is little-known, they are essential to ocean and terrestrial ecosystems, and they are also very sensitive to climate change and ocean acidification, she says, so her work “ends up having a resonance that goes beyond just pictures of a little-known realm of life.” As a longtime conservation photographer, reaching a general audience means exposing people to an essential category of animals.

“In the end, I think what really grabs people is just how bizarre they are, how interesting they are, how beautiful a lot of them are, and how unexpected they are,” she says. “One woman [at] the exhibit the other day—she didn’t know I was the artist; I was being incognito—she looked at me and she said, ‘These pictures make humans seem really boring.’ And I said, ‘I know, that’s the way I feel.’”

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