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April 21st, 2009

How to get publishers interested in political, non-profit books

Posted by Robert Glenn Ketchum

Renowned conservation and fine-art photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum has pioneered a publishing model where he receives at-cost books instead of royalties so he can distribute them free to non-profits — helping get his conservation message in the hands of people who can use it to create real change. In this post we talk about convincing publishers to get on board with this unconventional model. Don’t miss his earlier posts about developing his publishing model and the tangible results it’s achieved.
Robert Glenn Ketchum

The Red Hills, Wood-Tikchik State Park. ©Robert Glenn Ketchum

MJ: Do you think it is a good idea for other photographers to approach publishers with the publishing model you’ve developed, one that distributes books through non-profits instead of retail distributors?

RGK: If you were to go to a smaller press, such as The Mountaineers, and you bring them a book that is even remotely interesting, then you say: I have my funding and my buyers in place. I can guarantee 3,500 of the run. At $10 each, you’re coming into the meeting with $35,000, and that puts you a long way up. You might not be covering 100% of the publisher’s costs, but you’re already coming in the door with something that looks good.

If I had an advocate-directed book, I would presume that the publisher felt his market impaired by the political point of view. I would therefore compensate coming through the door with either a network of distribution or a network of sales and distribution already in place — such as a non-profit I was working with. Then you can also explain that funding of some kind is already in place, so the book doesn’t languish on bookshelves and it doesn’t have unrealistic financial expectations.

Maybe not everybody has this access, but I know on-press people, I know editors, I know book designers, and I know presses in Hong Kong and Europe. Likely with my next book I will publish it myself with my own team. I’ll write into my grant proposal for an organization, likely the Hearsts, all those books at pre-publication cost, besides whatever goes into the market. We’ll just distribute it ourselves through the internet. Then I will probably go to the book fairs and see if we can pick up some sales and get broader distribution. But it’s not worth it to me, all that stuff that gets lost and logged into the middlemen warehouse distributors. It’s not worth the energy and it doesn’t put the books in enough of the right places.

Robert Glenn Ketchum

Streams And Tree Islands in Wood-Tikchik Park. ©Robert Glenn Ketchum

MJ: Is it a hard sell to convince publications and publishers that these conservation issues are hot topics?

RGK: It has always been a hard sell and it’s still a hard sell. I’m constantly amazed at how people are fawning and apologetic about not having supported a project like the Tongass and they say, “We would never miss another opportunity like this again. The next time you have something going on, please come back to us.” Then the next time I come back to them, it’s like they’ve never talked to me before and I’m starting all over again. So it’s very frustrating.

Until recently my Bristol Bay work has been like sitting on a very steep greased board — I had no traction whatsoever. People were paying attention but only just barely. People like the Smithsonian Magazine and Audubon, who I offered Tongass to and they both turned me down. Then they came back to me years later when they were doing Tongass articles, big features, and said stuff like, “You were so far in front of the curve. That was the biggest mistake of our lives not taking that article when you offered it to us. Please bring us something like that again.”

So I bring them Bristol Bay. And you know what everyone said to me? Why aren’t you up in the Arctic Refuge taking pictures? And I said, first of all, I counseled Subhankar Banerjee, who is there, and I think he’s probably going to do a good job with it. It also happens that my friend Theo Allofs is there and Art Wolfe is there and I think there are enough photographers up there. Also, the Arctic Refuge has been used as a smokescreen, drawing a lot of public attention to the battle, while other places are being savaged and no one is looking. I’m bringing you a project you ought to be paying attention to, which I did when I brought you the Tongass, do you remember? And they all acted like I was out of my mind and Bristol Bay was a no-starter.

I submitted this collective story about the Bay to National Geographic three times in five years, and they told me it was a story of no interest. Then  they sent somebody on their own staff up to do the story and paid me a finders fee. Men’s Journal looked at the story several times over three years and said it was a no-starter — then finally four months ago they realized it’s smoking hot now that Sarah Palin ran for office, so they sent their own guy.

It is amazing to me that virtually everybody who said, “Come back to us with any new stories,” once I was introduced to them through the Tongass, basically ignored me when I brought them Bristol Bay. You’d think at 60 I’d finally have some respect, but I don’t. This story is important. I’m glad it’s now at National Geographic. I’m glad it’s at Men’s Journal. It will put more pressure on the legislators I’m visiting and will revisit this year. If there is a way I can place a set of books in Obama’s hands, I will. But not to a legislative assistant or somebody else. It has to be me to him. I want to know that he sees it. In this kind of a lobbying effort, the personal contact carries weight. John Muir lobbied Teddy Roosevelt; Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and David Brower aggressively lobbied the Congress with their Sierra Club publications; and now I am the next generation to inherit this advocacy mantel.

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