Ben Zlotkin is the founder of Edition One Studios, a company that makes books for photographers (here). I wanted to ask him a few questions about publishing short-run photography books, because I feel like there’s not a lot of good information available on the subject. Also, I was curious if it really is that hard to satisfy a photographers needs when it comes to DIY books.
APE: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your business?
I completed an MFA in Photography at the San Francisco Art Institute a number of years back. I wanted to put my final project into book form as I thought the sequential presentation worked best and the intimate proximity of a book vs. a large print on the wall seemed to articulate what I wanted to say best. I looked at some online options and ended up with a local vendor. In the end, the books were a hit, but very expensive and the printing was poor at best. I shoot black and white medium format film and anyone who prints digitally can tell you that B&W is tougher than color. A year later I was teaching photography off and on and decided I could make a better book, that felt more like those I was buying from established publishers. So I did.
APE: You’ve probably read online that many photographers are not happy with the quality and consistency of the cheaper print on demand companies?
The big complaints in the digital book world come from ‘serious’ photographers. Many of the online options make excellent consumer products, and we often send clients looking for one-off family photo books, or travel books etc. to Blurb, Apple or Lulu. We think all of these companies are perfect for that.
The mistake made by these vendors is that they market to professionals whose demands are greater than the average consumer and in the end more than they can handle.
We think professionals and serious amateur photographers want the following:
Accurate and consistent color- we own our own printers and calibrate hourly. Plus, we’re photographers.
Better built books- stronger bindings, more decoration options such as true foil stamping and dust jackets.
Custom books- no preset formats, page counts and cloth color options.
Control- we need a PDF and that’s it. Most people use InDesign or something similar to get that done. We don’t offer template software, and have learned that people really like that. If they do not have the tools to layout their book, often they know someone who does.
Service – making a book is an expensive, and sometimes confusing process. We answer the phone, we know good editors, and even allow visitors.
APE: How is it possible to maintain high standards for color and printing while keeping the costs low and still make a profit?
Costs aren’t really that low for anyone involved. Our books are more expensive than some in smaller quantities and cheaper than most in larger quantities. We have spent money on a proprietary RIP for our presses and have top end calibration tools – we calibrate 6 or more times per day. More importantly, we are old-school wet lab printers, and my rule is that you cannot play with the presses unless you have worked in a wet lab with both color and silver gelatin prints. Nothing teaches you color better than burning though what little money you have wasting photo paper in the lab. We look at everything that comes off the press. If a job is 10% too magenta, we stop it and contact the client to sort things out. No one else in our industry does this that I know of.
We’re a new company, and marginally profitable with our current levels of efficiency. We think we offer solid pricing and really solid service. Most of the value we add is not ‘digital’ – the foil stamping is done by hand with a 300 degree metal plate, the custom book covers are glued by hand. There is no easy way to make nice books – perhaps this is our advantage. No everyone is as excited as we are about color, glue, and paper cuts
APE: Can you tell me on the printers side what do you do to ensure high quality?
The key thing to know is that all of the digital book makers are using the same basic tools. The printer run down is HP Indigo, Xerox Digital Presses, and Kodak’s Nexpress. All of these are really glorified laser printers with 600 dpi per color channel. What matters is the software you put in front of them, and the materials you put in them.
We use really high quality very smooth uncoated paper, and pretty cool software with lots of color control. As noted above, we look at the prints and are constantly making adjustments on our clients behalf. We make hard proofs – in fact, we offer complimentary proof prints to everyone who asks. When the book is ordered we add of a proof cost and that gets the client a complete printed unbound book for a nominal fee. We print two of them and keep one, because if changes are needed, we can then sit on the phone with the client, look at the proofs at the same time and talk about the image needs. There is no other way to do this.
APE: Can you tell me from the photographers side what do they need to do to ensure the book comes out the way they want?
Most important is to plan their book out and edit until they have a solid project. Then they should ask someone they trust to edit it again. This is the hardest part of making a book. People usually underestimate how long this will take by months, not days.
On the technical side, if you want consistent prints, make consistent files. Your target is 300 dpi, 8 bit, flattened images. Max quality jpegs work fine as do tiffs. There is no point in using 600 dpi file. All that will do is slow you down when processing the data. Once a client has a file with all of the images in the book, they need to be sure that the color profile for each image is the same. If they are from a digital camera, and all sRGB – they can leave them as is. If some are digital, some are scanned, and some are unknown, then convert (not assign) them the Adobe 1998 RGB profile in PhotoShop.
Once a potential client is this far, they should contact us and request some complimentary prints. We’ll take 5-10 images and print them out, then mail them for free.
After the images are prepared and sized as desired, then they should bring them into InDesign, Quark, Aperture or the application of their choice, and start to layout the book. In the end, they’ll make a PDF and send that to use. We’ll send them a helper file for this final and easy step.
APE: It seems like niche photography books can really serve a purpose in the market but can the photographer ever make a profit or is this entirely just a vanity project?
Making a profit is hard, but many of our clients do. I am constantly talking people into cheaper softcover books when they order a more expensive limited edition of hardcover books. The reason is that you inevitably want to give some books away, and this cuts your profits down badly. You also want to offer a product that is at a lower price point for those who cannot afford a $75+ book. If a client is a fine art photographer, then there is nothing better than releasing the book when a gallery show is up. People will buy the book who cannot afford an expensive original print, and people who can afford an original print will buy the book just to have a sampling of the wider body of work. Lastly, we encourage people to make portfolio sets. Perhaps they buy 50 books from us, and print out 25 original prints for an image that is in the book. They should sign and number those prints, then sign and number 25 of the books. Package those sets and sell them at a premium. Perhaps this set sells for $400, and the print cost them $5 , the book $45, and their time to package it al up $15. So they are out of pocket $65-70 for a $400 sale. I see this work everyday.
For the commercial photographers, and galleries, the books are really marketing tools. I’m happy to make a package price with a commercial photographer for a book set where the same contents is bound two ways, perhaps 5 cloth bound hardcover portfolio books and 45 cheaper softcover leave-behinds. The contents is the same, and we only set up for the job once. The savings can be passed on to the client easily.
APE: Now for the real test. If anyone has a book project and they’re willing to test out Edition One email Ben at: firstname.lastname@example.org and put APE as the subject of the email. Ben will pick one person out and give them a $300 credit or 25% off. After you’ve printed your book you can report back and tell us all how it went.