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March 15th, 2009

Robert Glenn Ketchum: Books that make a difference shouldn’t have to make money

Posted by Robert Glenn Ketchum

Renowned conservation and fine-art photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum has pioneered a publishing model that treats his numerous books as instruments of change rather than instruments of profit. In this and his following posts he explains in detail how he has worked with NGOs and publishers to produce books that create tangible change — instead of sitting unseen on bookstore shelves.

One of Robert's images from the Tongass Rainforest. ©Robert Glenn Ketchum

Although there is always the fluke opportunity for a picture book to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, like Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Earth From Above, or Ernest Haas’s The Creation, the likelihood of that happening is one percent. The rest of us are pretty lucky if we sell 25,000 books — we’re actually pretty luck if we sell 10. And then if you narrow your market by trying to intellectualize anything, or in particular politicize anything, to take it anywhere other than just a pretty picture book about a popular theme, then you lose even more of the market. Your publisher’s not interested. Your bookstores don’t respond in the same way. Your readership gets smaller. And don’t forget that when you publish a book, it goes to the first tier of distribution, and that’s national, then the price usually doubles. Then it goes from there to the smaller distributors, and then the price increases again. Then from the smaller distributors it goes to the bookstores. If the bookstores take it, it’s maybe two copies, and it ends up spine-out unless the publishing company has paid for some kind of display. So now you’ve got this book you’ve put years of effort into, photographing, editing, publishing. Plus the cost. And it ends up spine-out in some bookstore. If you’re trying to change anything, especially change the world in any way, it’s not likely it’s going to happen at that pace.

I learned a lot about this with The Hudson River and the Highlands, my first book with Aperture. I met Aperture through the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund, which commissioned Stephen Shore, William Clift, and I to photograph the river. My images were pretty confrontational and political, so when I originally presented them to the Wallace Fund, I said, I recognize this is not what you gave me the commission for. You don’t have to use them, I just want to show you that I’m doing them. And they said, these are the ones we think are the most important, because they were working form a conservation perspective.

From there I was introduced to Aperture. It didn’t take me very long at Aperture to realize the frustration of publishing a book and having the limited exposure and sales. We still did well, we sold over 10,000, but only because it was Hudson River and New York. Michael Hoffman, the former president of Aperture said to me, “You take away part of your market by putting these politicized photographs in, but I understand the foundation is supporting it. It’s a kind of corruption of the coffee table book, so I guess it’s interesting that we’re doing it here at Aperture.” And that’s how it was viewed. My further frustration was that the book didn’t reach a wider audience than the Hudson River lovers. It didn’t reach the conservation audience I wanted, and it didn’t really comment on Regan’s take on the Clean Water Act, which was what I kind of implied in my essay.

©Robert Glenn Ketchum

Another, less idyllic image from the Tongass. ©Robert Glenn Ketchum

So when we came to the table with the Tongass rainforest book, again I was working with Aperture. This time I was determined to be more strident in my political content and to look at book distribution more realistically in terms of what I expected to sell and get from a royalty. First I said, I think this minimal royalty for sales, which is all projected out over years, is a joke. How much are you going to give me, if you added it all up? And usually you’re lucky if it’s between $20,000 and $50,000. I said, how about you give me that in books at cost? I do lectures and workshops for non-profit fund raising and things like that where I will sell my books, and I agreed not to poach their bookstore sales by selling at retail. And then I would just go away, and they’d never have to pay me a royalty or anything, I just get those books free. Well Aperture was happy to do that and I was happy to get free from Aperture’s bureaucracy. In particular it allowed me to hand out books when I felt like it because they only cost a couple bucks.

Having published the Tongass book, I wanted to change the way it was distributed. So I approached foundations in the conservation community. I struck an agreement between one of the foundations and Aperture to buy books at cost (about 800) so that they could be handed out in Congress, not only to members but also their legislative assistants. And Aperture agreed. That was Aperture’s first introduction to the idea. So that happened with the Tongass book, and we got it handed out in Congress and widely distributed through information networks like Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice that needed it as a visual imaging device.

An image from Robert's Overlooked In America book. ©Robert Glenn Ketchum

An image from Robert's Overlooked In America book. ©Robert Glenn Ketchum

From the time we published that book in ’86, the presence was accumulative, sort of a ball going downhill, gaining momentum. And in 1990 we passed the largest timber reform bill in history of United States. The book was not the sole element that made that happen. It was all the people working on the project. But it gave them something to carry around in their hands to say, this is what it looks like, and, more importantly, this is what’s being done to it, because the clear-cuts were in the book. And the industrial log yards and people being displaced in the fishing industry were in there. So there was challenging stuff like the images I’d integrated into the Hudson book, but more stridently so, and the essay stopped beating around the bush and came out and called a spade a spade and got a lot of people in trouble. It was a real political advocacy books. It probably had a very limited market in terms of real picture book marketing. Yet it had a huge life, and went to a third addition, 50,000 copies, but mostly by handout, request mailing, website sales, and foundations networking. The group I did all this with is the Macintosh Foundation; they also helped with the distribution in Congress and they helped underwrite the traveling exhibition that showed at the National Museum of Natural History on Earth Day. They operate some boats in Southeast Alaska for recreational use and they appreciate the eco-tourism value of the land as opposed to the log-it-to-death aspect.

That opened the door to my ensuing book with the Akron Art Museum, which resulted from a commission to photograph the newly created Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. The book, Overlooked in America, went beyond the context of Ohio and examined all federal lands in North America and the way they were being mistreated. Aperture was also the publisher on that production, and their literal words were, “This book is so bitter, we can’t imagine a readership audience.” And they didn’t want to run it. So my funders said to Aperture, if somebody paid for printing costs, would Aperture help distribute any books? And Aperture said, probably just 1,000. So we ran 10,000 and distributed the rest to the environmental networks. And those books were on the front lines of battles about mining, about parks — they even got handed out in Alaska when the battle started over the mine in Bristol Bay. I’d done a completely different set of books there, but they still found Overlooked in America useful to hand out. So these books have another kind of life. They live on the shelves, but they have another life where they serve advocates. But they don’t get out if you don’t take them out into that advocate world.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Would you be willing to take a potential income cut from your books if it meant you could get them into the right hands, and they would therefore have more impact?


  1. March 15th, 2009 at 9:20 am

    Chris Moran

    Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

  2. March 15th, 2009 at 9:53 am

    RESOLVE — Robert Glenn Ketchum: Books that make a difference shouldn’t have to make money | The Click

    […] Check it out here. […]

  3. December 30th, 2010 at 6:00 pm


    I’m curious was the retail value of The Hudson River and the Highlands was. And since Aperture paid you in books, have you been able to distribute all of those books already? Are there any direct effects you can mention where you distributed one of these books, and there was a domino effect of change?

    I know these are vague questions, but I’d love to know more.

    I don’t work as a photojournalist; but I think most photojournalists would be willing to take an income cut to get their book into the right hands.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. August 25th, 2012 at 11:22 pm


    After many years in photography, I have never heard such a clear and coincse explanation of f/stop. Many struggle with the concept and are simply left with the instruction to just remember the inverse relationship. Confusion quickly sets in. Your explanation will clear that confusion away for most people for ever.

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