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How to: Get Published

Almost all keen freelances secretly think their work would look good published in book form. Only a small number ever accomplish this ambition however, the irony being that the failure is often more about the manner in which the attempt is made than the publishing concept or image quality. Simon James looks at how to go about getting your book published

Book publishing tips

  • Make your opening pitch short, to the point, and good enough to convince the commissioning editor that it will sell
  • The most important questions are, ‘Who will buy this book?’, and ‘Is this audience big enough to attract a publisher?’
  • Some subject areas are very much more difficult to break into than others
  • Look for a subject that is quirky, rather than arty or earth shattering
  • An idea needn’t be ditched even if it’s not original
  • There’s no real timescale: quality is the essential criterion
  • Anything addressed generically will end up in the bin
  • Pitch should be sent in hard copy form - an email is very much easier to delete than a properly laid out, individually addressed paper document
  • Never, ever, send unique original images when pitching

The simple truth is that publishing is big business, and like all businesses, its primary requirement is to turn a profit. Books are commercial products, and to stand a chance of getting your book published, it’s imperative to maintain a businesslike approach throughout the process.

Given half a chance, just about every publisher will tell you that there’s precious little profit in illustrated books. This is in fact a half-truth. What they really mean is, while there is a profit to be made from illustrated books, it’s easier, and much more profitable, to produce a quarter of a million paperback copies of the latest chick-lit bestseller, on paper of a quality close to that found on small, sometimes quilted, rolls in supermarkets.

Books that don’t contain pictures also don’t require the expense of employing skilled picture editors; sending high quality scans out to the colour correction house; top end book designers; quality paper stock; time on six colour presses, and all the other costs associated with top of the range illustrated publishing. As such, publishers are acutely wary of taking on illustrated book ideas from new authors, and you should be aware of this prior to your pitch.

Perhaps surprisingly given the above, the good news is that it can be done, and anyone can do it.

You don’t have to be a famous name to get into print. What’s needed are: a marketable idea; a realistic approach; good research skills; and the determination, commitment and ability to see it through.

The idea doesn’t have to be hugely complex, or for that matter even highly original. Some would say the simpler the better. The only absolute necessity is that it jumps off the page on the commissioning editor’s desk, because it’s going in alone, and won’t have you on the other side of the desk to back it up. The opening pitch has to be short, to the point, and good enough to convince the commissioning editor that it will both sell easily in book form, and fit comfortably within the range of books the publisher already produces. The magic step into print is of course still a long way off, but if you can achieve that with your initial pitch, the phone is more likely to ring.

The idea

From the outset, it’s absolutely crucial to be strategic. Step one is always research. This takes several forms but begins, as dispassionately as possible, with a good long look at the idea itself. Is it really good enough? Or might it perhaps be better approached or developed from a slightly different angle?

The most important questions are, ‘Who will buy this book?’, and ‘Is this audience big enough to attract a publisher?’ It’s also crucial to discover which companies produce books in your chosen specialism, and having found them, to familiarise yourself with their lists, to ensure your concept fits with their current direction.

While any original idea is worthy of consideration, some subject areas are very much more difficult to break into than others. It’s possible to produce a book of landscapes, but quite apart from the vast quantity of library pictures on this subject now heavily marketed to publishers, established UK-based photographers regularly approach them with new ideas in this genre, making it difficult for newcomers to break in. Established figures have the crucial advantage of a track record: proving that they deliver highest quality imagery, in the required form, to the required deadline.

Equally, it’s possible to get published as a photojournalist but, on account of publishers’ perceptions of how difficult photojournalism is to sell, it’s far and away the toughest arena in which to achieve book publication.

Probably the most successful route is to look for a subject that is quirky, rather than arty or earth shattering - something that will appeal to as broad an audience as possible: a metaphorical hook from which witty, ironic, amusing photographs and captions can be hung. If you get it right, and it’s launched at the right time of year, such a book might just find its way into bookshops at those times when customers rack their brains for suitable presents for their friends and relatives. Such a publication has the potential to become that rare beast: a photographic book that generates a real income.


Has it been done before?

Having found the basics of an idea, the next question is, ‘Has it been done before?’ A good way to find this out is to start with the major booksellers’ websites., often informs you when an out of print title is available from one of its used bookseller partners.

An idea needn’t necessarily be ditched even if research shows it’s not original. In my own case, standing on a London Underground platform one morning, it occurred to me that although three million people use the tube every day, very few of them ever go to the ends of the lines.

Gradually it dawned on me that three million was exactly the sort of audience size that might attract a publisher, and I began thinking about how I might produce a witty travelogue about journeys to the mysterious sounding places at the ends of the underground lines. There have of course been many books on the London Underground, but this seemed a new angle on an old story.


Having researched your idea’s potential in as detached a manner as possible, if you remain convinced it has legs, the next step is to begin planning. Similarly to the idea, the plan needn’t be vast or complex: simply a broad outline of how you see your series coming together. How will it begin? How might it end? Do you envisage an introduction or essay at the beginning, and if so by whom?

An introduction by a personality is of course likely to enhance sales, but needn’t be gone into at any depth at this stage. The plan is as much about clarifying the project in your own mind as it is about persuading a publisher you’re their next great discovery.

Picture making

It’s around this stage that the picture making starts; as a form of research to begin with, to see if the idea’s apparent potential is really there when you pick up the camera. Picture making in earnest spreads from here, working at the concept and watching it evolve as the series develops.

It’s important to emphasise that there’s no real timescale to all this: quality is the essential criterion. People work at different rates on different projects. As the series begins to grow, you’ll find it develops a momentum, and you’ll gradually begin to feel you have enough images to think about approaching publishers - which brings us to the pitch.

The pitch


The pitch should be addressed to the commissioning editor by name. Anything addressed generically, to the Commissioning Editor or some such, is unlikely ever to find the correct desk, and will in all likelihood end up in the bin. Despite our now inhabiting a world of electronic transmission, a formal pitch should still be sent in hard copy form - on a busy morning, an email is very much easier to delete and forget than a properly laid out, individually addressed paper document.

One good source of reference on the publishing industry is The Writers’ and Artists Yearbook, although with potential photographic books there’s no real substitute for legwork. The best place to begin a shortlist of editors and publishers is on the shelves of the major bookshops.

Publishers receive hundreds of submissions every year. Before preparing your formal pitch, be sure to check out the websites of publishers you are thinking of contacting, where you will often find details of how and when they like to receive editorial submissions, as is the case with Phaidon Press and Dewi Lewis Publishing.

In cases where guidelines are stipulated, it is crucial to follow them as close to the letter as possible, just as if you were applying for a job. Where no guidelines are given, begin with the briefest of letters, introducing yourself, the idea, and why you are convinced this particular editor is exactly the person to publish it.

The pitch, which should be typed, not handwritten, on headed notepaper giving contact details, and sent in an envelope large enough for it to arrive unfolded on the recipient’s desk, should take the following form: head up the sheet with a working title for the project, labelled as a ‘working title’ to indicate you anticipate and are prepared to work with editorial input.

Beneath the working title should be no more than one or two paragraphs headed ‘synopsis’. Here, you describe what the book is about, including (if it’s a well travelled subject) the unique selling point of your idea, and how it differs from previous publications, followed by a brief outline of the intended audience. In other words, the pitch should, in the shortest manner possible, describe the concept, and who will buy the finished book.

You may also wish to include a brief CV, telling the proposed editor a bit about yourself, and a stamped addressed return envelope for the editor to acknowledge receipt of your submission. Neither the pitch, nor the letter, nor the CV, should cover more than a single side of A4, and it is most unlikely that they will be returned.

Sample images

The final element of the pitch is sample images, 12-15 should be enough to provide an outline of the concept in illustrated form, and to offer the editor an inkling of how you see through the camera. No matter how they were produced, on digital, negative or transparency, the images included with the initial pitch should be of a suitable size for their quality to be appreciated, but still disposable.

The optimum is A4 sized laser copies or inkjets: large enough to create impact and assure quality for future reproduction, yet cheap enough to produce not to require return. Never, ever, send unique original images when pitching for publication. Commissioning editors are very busy, and showing the courtesy of pitching in disposable form is one of the small ways in which you announce yourself to be adopting a professional approach.

In conclusion, while comparatively few photographers make a huge income from book publication itself, a published book managed properly is one of the best PR vehicles a photographer can have.

It is not an impossible dream, and definitely can be achieved. The crucial element always remains the idea: if your concept is good enough; if you remain businesslike throughout; and if you develop it to its very best advantage, your name may indeed appear on bookshop shelves.


Signs of Life, Simon James, Cornerhouse Press, 1992. ISBN 0948797843.
Mind The Gap, an unauthorised geography of the London Underground, Simon James, HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 978-0007114474.


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