My experience with getting a book published started in the mid 1980s. A rock-climber friend of mine, George Myers was living in his pickup truck cab over camper in a parking lot next to Yosemite Valley’s Camp 4. The campsite for generations of hard-core climbers. George was meticulously drawing pen and ink climbing route descriptions for Yosemite rock climbs. These topos, as they were called, have since become the standard way climbs have been described for the past 50 years. George turned his topos into a well selling guidebook and that turned into the publishing business, Chockstone Press.
When a friend who was an occasional climber approached me about writing a guide to the best rock climbs in the High Sierra, I straight away said yes. Chockstone Press was an eager publisher. What followed were days of in person meetings to sort through photos and come up with written climbing route descriptions. Editing and coordination with George happened mostly by fax machine. The guidebook was not polished or slick but what it did was describe the spirit and history of climbing in the Sierra Nevada and what was the state of climbing art at the time. Book sales were good to great and for many years I could look forward to a yearly Christmas royalty check.
The photo book back in the day was the calling card of artistic arrival in the fine art photo world. The Sierra Club large format exhibit books published under the guidance of executive Dave Brower were the hall mark of fine photographic expression. The New York Graphic Society, Aperture, University of New Mexico Press, Boston Museum of Fine Art, added to a group of prestigious titles. I was particularly taken with the books by Ansel Adams’, Eliot Porter, Joel Meyerowitz and Richard Misrach.
In 1993 I had been photographing in the High Sierra with a large format camera for 10 years. I had what I felt was a survey of the range from Mount Whitney in the south to Tower Peak in the north. Some of the photos were spectacular while others, looking back on the work, were not much beyond pretty pictures of a place, or representations of the geography. Still, I felt I had a body of work from the Sierra that was a strong, but I knew that my photographs alone were not going to be a compelling story. I raked through the coals of my brain for an inspiration. And then on a backpack trip where I had climbed a Sierra peak that contained a summit register with a group of original Sierra Club mountaineers that the idea to marry words from the Sierra pioneers with my photos dropped into my thinking.
I got excited by the prospect and knew that I had a solid idea. Now what I needed to do was to figure out the publishing end of my idea. I made a few cold calls and found out about making proposals. I did not get very far down any of the hallways leading to a publisher’s office. The doors into the publishing houses and entities like universities was well guarded by established writers and artists and curators. I needed an ally. A foot in the door.
I asked around the climbing community for a contact for Steve Roper. I knew Roper as the founder and co-editor of the prestigious mountaineering journal, Ascent. I also knew Roper as the author of two prominent climbing guidebooks. All Roper’s books were published by the Sierra Club. I cold-called Steve. He listened to my idea and agreed to meet. I was about to burst with excitement at getting an audience with an established author with close ties to an established publisher.
The day to meet Steve arrived. I had 12 Cibachrome prints that I had made. And nothing else. No written proposal, no first chapter, no table of contents. My wife Nancy and I met Steve at his home in Oakland, California. I walked into the living room and set the portfolio box down on the dining room table. Steve was and is not someone to beat around the bush, so I opened the box and handheld each 16×20 inch print. Roper looked at the prints and then at me. Steve being Steve he said, “Holy shit man, these are the most beautiful color Sierra photos I’ve seen!” Steve also liked the idea of marrying the words of Sierra pioneers with the photos. A plan was made to have Steve write a proposal and pitch this to the Sierra Club as soon as possible.
I drove home in a state of high excitement.
It didn’t take Roper but a few days to put together the proposal and set up a meeting with the publisher at Sierra Club Books. I understood I had skipped many steps and tons of work to get to a direct meeting with the publisher. The next week we were in San Francisco walking into the publishing offices. I let Steve direct the conversation and I showed my prints. I could tell the prints had a positive impact. As we walked out of the meeting Steve was convinced, they would publish the book. But he soon received a fax saying that although the Club felt we had an excellent idea, and the prints were outstanding, I just did not have enough of a photo name to carry the idea into a book.
I was crushed. For the moment. I turned my disappointment into resolve and went to work setting up meetings with the Nature Company and Chronicle Books. With Roper’s proposal and his reputation, I was at least going to get an audience with the persons who could make decisions. Another round of meetings was set up and within a couple weeks Roper and I were headed to the offices for the Nature Company and Chronicle Books. The Nature Company had published two outstanding photo books: Joe Holmes, Natural Light and John Wawrzonek’s, Walking. I couldn’t get a read on how the meeting went at the Nature Company, but the meeting at Chronicle Books seemed to hold promise. The editor we met with, Sarah Malarkey, held onto my box of prints and said she wanted to show them around. Sure.
Better than taking them back home to get stored away. I thanked Roper for all his help and made the long drive home in a flat emotional state.
Seven hours of winter driving and the intensity of the effort and I was ready to crash when I got home. As I was walking to the front door Nancy came out and said: “You got the book.” Steve had just called, and Chronicle wanted to publish the book. Wow! Of course, I was elated.
The nuts and bolts of book production after that were straightforward. Roper lobbied for and got a bigger royalty percentage for me. I put together a photographer’s note and duplicate 4×5 transparencies and Roper put the writing and an historical introduction together. Chronicle handled copy edit and design. The process happened within six to seven months. The book was published right before Christmas 1995 and 2,000 hard bound copies sold out in six weeks.
Now what, I asked myself. Yes, the book was an excellent calling card and led to print sales and galleries at least looking at my work. But my vague aspiration of making a living as a photographer did not materialize. I had bumped up against the where and when do the resources of time and money show up so that I can make prints, submit article proposals, teach workshops, try art shows, approach galleries.
The world at the time was only just beginning to enter the internet world. I still needed to make a reliable living. I had a child on the way. It was easier to continue my career as a general contractor than go out onto a narrow and breakable photography limb.
So, I kept making pictures and prints and making a good living as a home builder. My ability to concentrate on photography where and when I wanted without any pressure to make a living allowed me to make photos when I wanted and only photos, I was interested in making. I could think clearly about composition. I could easily let go of photographs. I could stay disciplined in my approach.
Since the publication of The High Sierra: Wilderness of Light I have had two monographs published. A Vast and Ancient Wilderness: Images of the Great Basin and Yosemite Once Removed: Portraits of the Backcountry. Roper and I collaborated on the three monographs, and it was a worthwhile and rewarding partnership.
Yosemite Once Removed was published in 2003. From that time to the present, I’ve kept making many long backpack trips into the High Sierra. I now use a medium format digital camera instead of a 4×5-inch large format camera, but my photographic process hasn’t changed. What has changed is my ability to compose pictures that are more deliberate. I make fewer and fewer pictures even as my explorations go deeper into wilderness.
So, what does that have to do with book publishing? Well, it has taken me 35 years to come up with the photos for a new book that I feel is worthy of publishing. My new book titled Inside the High Sierra was inspired when I felt I have fewer than six photographs that I would like to make in the Sierra high country. More like two. The photos for Inside the High Sierra are what I refer to as mature work. All the photographs well thought out. Each photo the best composition possible, locations mostly well off the beaten path, and light that feels eloquent at least, and extraordinary if I was lucky.
Also, there is a group of Sierra artists well into their 70s and 80s still involved with lives in the Sierra mountains. We’ve reconnected at two recent memorials and that recognition of mortality is poignant.That these friends of mine and I connected back to the pioneers of Sierra Nevada mountaineering and photography including Ansel Adams and prior Sierra photographers made this point in time feel fleeting and about to be lost. A strong inspiration for the book was to record a link to the past and present that will be gone soon enough.
I asked Chronicle if they were interested in publishing. No, the book was “too regional”. Other publishing possibilities exist but since the book represented the majority chunk of my life, I wasunwilling to have anyone else control the look and feel of the book. So, I thought about a Kickstarter campaign. A friend had just made a campaign work for a music album, and his template seemed like it might work in my case. Then I hit on the idea of book pre-sales. I asked several past patrons if they would be willing and able to make the book happen, and the answer was yes.
In tandem with patron follow-up, I did preliminary talks with two printers. Io color in Seattle and Jerry Greer. Both were easy to talk to, straightforward and helpful. I came away trusting both to do an excellent job. I picked io color as they had printed a friend’s last book and the results were excellent.
Next. With financing for the book in hand the process had the parallel tracks of book design, engaging with essayists, lining up editors, pen, and ink drawings to accompany the essays, and photo editing with Michael Wilder. He printed Ansel Adams’ color images.
Luckily the book designer lived nearby, and I had a strong idea of what the look and feel of the book would be. The essayists ranged from first time published to well-known writers. The thing I knew was that everyone needs editing. Everyone. I also had to write descriptions for 55 photos. Four friends with editing expertise took on the task honing the essays and photo descriptions. The back and forth between editors at times involved a dozen iterations. There were two well-known writers whose essays I had to turn down. The lesson learned there is to have a definite word count, have writing ideas submitted prior to starting the writing/editing process, and have impeccable editors whose expertise goes unquestioned.
One of the thrills in my expanding journey was to have Tom Hornbein the author of the famed Everest: The West Ridge agree to write the foreword. In addition to Tom, Joe Holmes the preeminent landscape photographer, contributed a mini essay for the Photographer’s Note.
In addition to the writers, I asked the artist Valerie Cohen if she would let me use her pen and ink drawings to accompany the essays. I felt the drawings gave the essay pages graphic and artistic interest. Sounds simple enough but there still needed to be an exchange with Valerie to get tiff files to me in the correct size and file type.
Two other parts of the project were happening at the same time. I was writing descriptions that described the circumstances around each photo and I was having Zoom meetings with Michael Wilder rendering the photos. I had a basic idea and direction of where I wanted the photos to go. But I did not have the post processing skills or time to get the photos to look perfect. Michael did and does. I’ve known Michael since his days as one of the best Cibachrome printers in the world. He still does Cibachromes, and he has extended his expertise to digital work. He’s also an accomplished artist himself. The process went like this. Michael would work up two to five files and we would do a Zoom meeting where I would make comments and tell Michael what was right or wrong with the file. If we thought, we were close he’d make a print and send that to me. We’d work on more files and when the test prints arrived, we would do another round of corrections. Most files went back and forth four to six times until a final eight by ten-inch print was made.
The collaboration and confirmation of excellent files made with Michael made this a fantastic experience. In the end, there was no wondering if the files were not excellent if not perfect. Also, to have match prints to send to io color was invaluable. No guesswork. Match the match print was the mantra. Even then, I went back and forth with the technicians at io color at least three to five times before I approved press files. And even with that! I just did a press check and two files did not match the proofs and had to be corrected.
And in the end, the press run will never match exactly the proofs Michael and I made.
With basic essay word counts, photo titles, and first round of photo edits, the book design and page count could happen. I’d made a deposit with io color that bought the archival paper for the book. The paper delivery to the printer, along with everything else in the world, was delayed.
Essay and photo edits kept going back and forth for months. The edits did not include the table of contents, title page, acknowledgements. These all had to be done before a final design could get done.
When a final design was in hand, I had the PDF of the book printed out in black and white. Then I took a red colored pen and circled each misplaced comma, double period, word change, sentence change, caption correction, text alignment problem, text addition, text subtraction, consistent word usage. First round was 100 plus corrections. I typed the list of corrections that corresponded with my red ink correction circles and sat down with Mackenzie Long, the book designer to go over the corrections.
Multiple two-to-three-hour meetings.
I went through the entire book in print form at least eight times. During this time, I sent essays back to the writers and editors for their final corrections. With final corrections in hand, I handed off the final book to Jeff Achey at Wolverine Publishing. Jeff went through the book with a fine-tooth comb, making sure that punctuation was correct, facts correct, consistency with word use, and minor edits were made.
Back to Mackenzie Long for a final collate of photos and text into a PDF to send to io color.
Then a press run where I checked spot varnish options. I picked glossy.
At this press check point, as previously mentioned, I had two photos that needed to be corrected, some text that had chinks in the lettering, some possible specks of dust in the printer files, and something I missed for sure.
Add to all this, a website, direct mail campaign, thank you notecards, plans to sign all books, and more to come.
Has this been a rewarding experience? I can say emphatically, yes. The book represents 35 years of making art in a particular landscape. It represents an intense involvement with a place and with a photographic practice. The book production process has been intense as well. It’s not over. I’ll let you know how the phase of marketing and distribution goes.
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