Creating a Photo Book Proposal

Creating Photo Books | Creating a Photo Book Proposal


Intro Image: Book designer Phyllis Davis enjoys checking out an advance copy of Creative Night (Wiley) with Katie Rose, our daughter.

In my last column for Photo.net, Creating Photo Books, I explained some of the aspects that go into marketing and creating a photography book. In that column, I noted that pretty early in the process of selling a photography book to a trade publisher you need a book proposal, because a “book proposal is the sales collateral with which you can approach book agents and publishers.”

In other words, a book proposal is a marketing tool. Thinking more broadly, you might also consider a book proposal as a kind of blueprint, or business plan, for your book—and from this viewpoint it is worth creating a book proposal even if publishers are not involved and you are planning to release a book using one of the publication on demand (POD) services.

In any case, unless you are already world famous and a household name, a book proposal is a necessity if you want to approach an agent or a conventional book publisher. The proposal shows that you are serious, that you understand the book industry, and that you are approaching your project in a grounded, business-like way. Hopefully, it also provides a dynamic sales proposition—and makes an acquisitions editor at a publisher feel that they really want to acquire your title.

This article explains the nuts and bolts of creating a photography book proposal. While any book proposal should cover the business aspect of your project, a photography book proposal needs to add a visual element. After all, photography is essentially applied visual design. From this perspective, any photo book proposal worth its salt should provide some eye candy—and, more importantly, give a visual sense of what your book will be like.

In this article, I’ll provide some pointers—and examples of proposals that have successfully sold projects—to give you a better idea of what I mean. There’s no thrill like getting that advance author copy of your published photo book—and if it means having to take the time to master the skills involved in creating a book proposal, it is a small price to pay!

Getting Help with Your Book Proposal

Unless you are already world famous, you need a book proposal before you can hope to sell an agent or a publisher on your project. But writing a book proposal can be intimidating—particularly if you are more photographer than writer. It’s also the case that a book proposal is intended as a sales tools—in some sense it is a fairly formal piece of marketing collateral—and even people who are good writers on subjects that are passionate about are not always enthusiastic about writing for the purpose of selling.

In other words, creating a book proposal can be quite intimidating. But don’t worry! After reading this article you should understand the basic points. If you have a solid idea, experience to back it up, and quality photographs then writing a book proposal should be feasible—and it should also be possible to create a proposal that exhibits integrity, even if it is essentially a marketing document.

Nobody can do everything well. It’s a great deal to ask of one individual that they be able to write, photograph, and design an attractive book proposal. If you don’t think you are up to all three aspects, by all means collaborate with a writer or designer. Perhaps these professionals will also work with you on the ultimate book project, but that of course depends on what the publisher thinks is best. You can also simply work with a professional writer and/or a professional graphic designer on a work-for-hire basis to get your proposal out the door.

If you are still unclear about how to go about creating a photo book proposal after reading this article, there are many good resources explaining what should go into a book proposal. Search the Internet using a term like “writing book proposals”. But beware: some of the sites that come back from this search will try to steer you towards vanity publishers or some other commercial scheme.

There are many good books available about how to write book proposals; two that you might find especially helpful are How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen (this is published by Writer’s Digest Books, the company responsible for Photographer’s Marketplace) and Book Proposals That Sell: 21 Secrets to Speed Your Success by W. Terry Whalin.

You should also know that many publishers have guidelines about what they’d like to see in a book proposal. If you ask nicely, if a publisher has guidelines for proposals they’ll be happy to send them to you (if these are not already posted online).

Elements of a Book Proposal

The elements of a traditional non-fiction book proposal are by now pretty, well, traditional. This shouldn’t be surprising as publishing tends to be a fairly tradition-bound industry, and people have been writing book proposals for quite a while. Later on in this article I’m going to suggest moving beyond the conventional and traditional non-fiction book proposal in the context of photography books—but it is a truism that one should understand the conventional way to do something before attempting to move beyond it.

Traditional or not, you should bear in mind that a book proposal is a sales tool. As such, to be effective it needs to be dynamic, and to convince the target audience—agents and publishers—that your book needs to be published. In addition, there should be enough collateral information so that an editor thinking of acquiring your book can take the project to an editorial meeting for approval, with a minimum of additional homework on the editor’s part required.

Let’s look at some of the elements that should be included in the proposal. These include:

  • Title Page
  • Project Overview
  • Book Description
  • Audience
  • Completion and Delivery
  • Competition
  • Author Qualifications
  • Book Organization
  • Sample Content

Title Page

To start with, your name and contact information along with the working title for your book should be easy to find. In the case of a photography book proposal, it often works very well to place the information in the context of a mock-up of the way the actual book title page might look.

Project Overview

Next, your project should be summarized in a paragraph or so. This material should explain what the book is about, who will buy the book, and why there is a compelling need for it. Each of these topics will be expanded in its own section of the proposal, but this initial introduction should provide an overview synopsis of where you are going with it.

For example, here’s the introductory paragraph to the proposal for a series of photography books that eventually became my successful Creative series published by Wiley:

Digital photography is a new medium, combining the craft of traditional photography with software skills. Effective digital photography training needs to begin with vision and inspiration since motivation is key to learning. General principles need to be explained in a way that they can readily be grasped. These principles need to be translated pragmatically: what are the implications for the way a camera is set and used? Then, once the camera has been used to create a digital file, how is the file processed and what do you do with the results?

I propose a series of books that reflects the different creative aspects of digital photography:

  • Inspiration, vision, and motivation
  • Applicable photographic principles
  • Theory into practice: how to set and use the camera
  • Post-processing: what do you do once you’ve taken the photo?

While this scaffolding will underlie each book, readers don’t have to be concerned with it. The context is stunning image creation, which is inherently seductive, and allows learning without pain. The goal is to help each learner become a more proficient and better photographer.

A couple of comments are in order here. Within this summary you can certainly see the bones of the series of books that eventually came into existence. However, the proposal (and project) went through a number of iterations of content, form, and title before it finally found a home at Wiley. Each successive iteration of the proposal was stronger than the previous one. This process of proposal revision until it is sold is not at all unusual.

Note also that the paragraph I quoted above comes from an overall series proposal; each individual title in the series also needed a proposal, at least until things were off the ground.

As a further step—though not strictly required in a formal and traditional book proposal—I think it is a good idea to boil the project overview down into an elevator pitch: one to three sentences that summarize your project, and place it in an attractive light. You could use this elevator pitch in a cover letter accompanying your proposal, or in an email to agents who request initial contact by email only.

Book Description

The book description should make it clear what the book is about, and what kind of book it is—unless you have thoroughly covered this ground in the project overview section.

You should also give some thought to the physical book that you hope to have published. While signing a publication contract can be a long road with a book at the end of the process that varies from what you expected when you started out, having a good idea at the beginning helps the publisher visualize your project—and makes it more likely that you will get published.

Here’s the physical book description from the original proposal for the book that became Creative Night:

This is 4-color throughout with approximately 100 photos reproduced in a book of 192 pages in a 10in x10in trim size.

While the ultimate book differs a great deal from the specifications we proposed—it is 240 pages with about 200 images and (approximately) a 7×9 inch trim size—including the specifications probably made it easier to visualize the book we had in mind.

Audience

The ultimate test of a book is whether it has an audience. This is like the conundrum about the tree falling in the forest: if no one hears it fall, has it really fallen? No publisher wants to publish a book that doesn’t have an audience, no matter how wonderful the book.

You need to say who the book is for, why they will be interested in the book, and what needs the book will meet for this audience. This can be a simple statement, like the one we used in the original proposal for The Photoshop Darkroom, that the book “is intended to expand the universe of possibilities available to photographers who are already familiar with the basics of software such as Photoshop.”

It’s often a good tactic add statistics to the audience section of the proposal. For example, I could have noted in The Photoshop Darkroom proposal that there are more than 3,000,000 owners of DSLR camera in the United States, that more than 50% of them have been acquired in the past 18 months, and that many of these DSLR owners would like to learn how to work creatively with the RAW image files that their cameras can make. This kind of specific, insightful information helps make the underlying sales pitch of the book proposal more convincing.

Completion and Delivery

Just as adding specific thoughts about book dimensions and page counts helps to make your project concrete, a publisher likes to see your thoughts about when you can get the project done. This information goes in the Completion and Delivery section of the proposal.

Here’s where you also state how you plan to deliver the material, and if you want to undertake designing the book. Even if you don’t want to be part of the design process, it’s a good idea to show that you know what you are doing when it comes to delivering photos for reproduction. For example, you might state that your photographs will be delivered as TIFF files sized as required at 300ppi, converted to CMYK using the ICC profile provided by the printer.

Competition

A book proposal should have a competition section, but be aware that this is a potential landmine. Obviously, you feel that your proposed book has something to offer beyond anything that is currently on the marketplace—or you wouldn’t be taking the time to create it. But there are several problems with the statement that “there essentially no competition” to your proposed title.

First, with all the books out there in the universe, there is almost always competition. Second, agents and publishers would rightly be leery of a book without competition. They would think there is a reason that no one has tried to fill this publishing niche—and most of the time they would be right. In fact, one publisher I work with has told me that they prefer to work in areas where there is a great deal of competition—because it shows that there is real demand.

In short, stating that there is no competition, or even knocking the competition too much, is a mistake. What you want to do is use some subtlety to “distinguish” the competition from your title. Show that you know what the competition is, and show that it has had some success—so there is real interest in the area—and then show what you do better, or at least differently, and why this might have some appeal in the marketplace.

For example, here’s the competition section from the original Photoshop Darkroom proposal (which at that time we called Creative Post-Processing). The proposal starts by acknowledging the fact that there are a great many Photoshop books out there: “Of course, there are many books about Photoshop aimed at photographers.”

The next step in the competition section is to gently show how our book is different from some of the more successful Photoshop titles:

For example, Martin Evening’s Adobe Photoshop for Photographers (Focal Press) presents a good outline of the Photoshop features relevant to photographers. The Creative Digital Darkroom (Eismann & Duggan, O’Reilly) presents good workflow information for digital photographers. The first of these titles is very high-level compared to Creative Post-Processing, and the second presents the electronic darkroom as a virtual extension of the chemical darkroom (in distinction to Creative Post-Processing, which treats digital post-processing as an entirely new and vital digital medium).

Some of the information in Creative Post-Processing is available in other books, for example, LAB color is explained thoroughly in The Canyon Conundrum (Margulis, Peachpit). But Creative Post-Processing goes beyond the narrow scope of a single technique to demystify the entire gamut of concepts that converge in post-processing. This includes color spaces, channels, layers, and masking. At the same time, Creative Post-Processing is no cookbook. This book is meant to encourage experimentation and understanding, not the narrow duplication of recipes.

By the way, our working title for the book was changed by the publisher—with our whole-hearted agreement—to The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing, clearly a change for the better which has played a major role in the book’s success.

Author Qualifications

The author qualifications section is the place for you to show how you are uniquely qualified to create the book. There are a number of reasons you might be the best person to create a book, including: access to people, places, or things; reputation; vision and creative factors, and more.

But in recent years you should think about another aspect of things: more and more books are partially sold through the “platforms” related to the author. For example, it helps with my book sales that I have maintained an extensive photography blog for years, that I have a large opt-in email list, and that I give successful workshops. Make sure to use the author qualifications section of your proposal to alert the publisher to any platform-related benefits that you bring to the table!

For example, here’s a portion of my author qualification section from a recent book proposal:

Harold Davis is an award-winning professional photographer. He is the author of more than 30 best-selling books, including The Photoshop Darkroom 2: Creative Digital Transformations (Focal Press), Creative Portraits: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal Press) and Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly). Harold writes the popular Photoblog 2.0, http://www.photoblog2.com, and is a regular columnist for Photo.net.

Harold is a sought-after presenter on digital photography topics. His workshops on a wide range of photography and digital darkroom topics are often sold out well in advance.

Book Organization

Every non-fiction book proposal should provide information about how the book will be organized. This doesn’t have to be fancy—and you don’t have to feel that you are locked into the outline you’ve provided. In almost every project, the final outline differs from the one in the proposal.

But you do need to provide the publisher with a sense of how the book will be organized—at the same time you are proving that you know the subject well enough to organize an outline around it, and also that you are capable of being organized.

This section of the book proposal should be organized with major headings—for the parts of the book—and subheadings—for the chapters, or topics within the book. If it works better, instead of subheadings you can include a paragraph describing what will go into the part of the book.

I like to present my book organization in the proposal using a mock-up of an actual Table of Contents. I know that the items in my outline will likely change, but presenting this information in somewhat the form it will ultimately be seen helps to give publishers more of an idea about the book I have in mind.

Sample Content

It may seem odd to you, but it is a fact that most non-fiction books are sold long before they are finished. You can then use the advance on the book to cover some of your expenses while you are finishing the book. So if you’d like to sell a book project, consider going with this flow—and don’t wait until you have complete text and a design for your photography book project.

On the other hand, unless you have a substantial and established track record with a publisher, the publisher is likely to want to see some of the book content as part of the proposal. What this sample content consists of depends upon the nature of your book project—but it is certainly possible that with a photography book project including some photos with captions may be sufficient.

Presentation Matters

You may have had an elementary school teacher who claimed that “neatness counts” and that presentation matters. Indeed they do when it comes to book proposals!

Agents (and publishers) are looking for book creators who are capable of putting together a neat and organized set of materials for a book proposal. After all, if you can’t do it for the proposal, how are you going to do it for the book itself?

When it comes to photography book proposals, I am an advocate of professional design and of making the book proposal look as much as possible like the proposed final book. Pulling this off takes considerable design “chops”—and familiarity with page layout software such as Adobe InDesign.

In some cases it makes sense to present a hard copy book proposal—because it is a good sales tool, or because the publisher prefers something they can hold in their hands. I know one book agent who travels with a suitcase full of physical proposals. But more and more I’ve come to present my proposals to my agent and the publishers we work with, or would like to work with, electronically. PDF files are very easy to send as email attachments, and can be quite as well designed and effective as anything sent out via hard copy.

One other point to consider is that book covers help sell books. My photos and Photoshop digital art are widely used as book covers by major publishers even apart from the books that I have any personal involvement with (see Figures 2 and Figure 3).

Figure 2: My photo of the bridge over the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, New Mexico became the cover for this mystery novel published by St Martin’s Press.

Figure 3: A photo of mine was used on this Young Adult novel published by a HarperCollins division.

My point here is that you need to think carefully about the material you have available for a cover when you create your proposal. If it is strong, a good cover mockup can help convey the intentions of your project to the publisher, and provide some assurance of marketability—because many people do judge books by their covers. But do get some outside assistance on this point to make sure that your imagery is up to industry standards for use in professional book design.

Figure 4: Phyllis and Katie Rose check out the author’s advance copy of Creative Close-Ups (Wiley).

Actual Photography Book Proposals

This article would be incomplete without some sample photography book proposals. I’m not saying that you should slavishly imitate either the form or the content of these proposals, but I am giving you three that worked (as well as one that hasn’t sold yet). The following are all PDF downloads:

Conclusion

Creating a book proposal is a craft and an art that has as much to do with marketing as it does with book creation. Essentially, you want to create sales collateral aimed at publishers and agents that has a personal and artisan feeling to it. This is particularly the case with photo book proposals, which need to work effectively on visual and design levels—and provide worthwhile written content.

However difficult it may be to create successful photo book proposals, they are necessary if you want to place a photo book with an agent or publisher. In addition, creating a photography book proposal can help give you the framework and structure you need to successfully bring a book project to completion.

The best of luck with photography book proposals and projects of your own! I look forward to seeing you in print.

In this column I’ve explained:

  • Why you need a book proposal to sell a photo book to an agent or publisher
  • How to get information about what should go in your proposal
  • The elements of the traditional book proposal and how best to organize them
  • How to design a photography book proposal

I’ve also provided links to four actual photography book proposals that you can download in PDF format to study at your leisure.

More

Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase.

Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.

Text and photos ©2010 Harold Davis.

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    • Very well done article. Thank you for writing it.

      I have myself successfully book proposals, 3 of them at mainstream publisher (Springer), but not in photography. I think what you describe apply for every kind of books. Well, one of my books is on photography, but on archive photography.

      I would like to do photography books as well. A topic I have in mind is "Seeing the world through science", photography of conference locations. Another one would be on interwar architecture.

      Unfortunately, in photography doesn't count just the talent, it is also important what camera you have.

      However, I started writing articles about photography, hope to have one published in February.

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    • Seems like it would be very difficult to seek corporate support for book proposals these days. Any additional tips or advice?

      Thanks,

      Eric

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