Thursday, May 15, 2008

My Tune Has Changed: Writers and Photo Research

Back when I started publishing nonfiction (about 11 years ago), things in the photo acquisitions world were a bit different for me than they are today. I would write a book and include with it a photo “wish list” for the publisher. I would then wait for the layouts to arrive and weigh in with my opinions about those photos—are they placed near enough to the text they illustrate, are there enough images to help tell the story, is this one too small or that one too big—all fairly straightforward issues. The publishing team did the rest. I didn’t question it at the time; in fact, I felt pretty lucky that I had a team available to do this. So lucky that when I heard other writers complain that they had to do all the photo research themselves, I was known to climb up on my soapbox and point them in the direction of publishers who would not make the writer do the lion’s share of the work.

I have given said soapbox away.

Extenuating circumstances notwithstanding, I now guard my right to find and secure the photos I need to help me tell stories. Why, you may ask, the change of heart? Why would you want to add the many hours, nay weeks or months, of time into an already bursting schedule to play detective and track down image after image after image? The answer is simple.

Of everyone on the team involved with putting together a fabulous book—and we all know there are many invaluable players—there is only one person who can claim having come close to becoming an expert on a topic. That person is the writer. The one who has made it her business to learn everything there is about a subject and more (as Jennifer Armstrong’s post recently pointed out—we continue to care and learn about our topics long after our books hit the shelves).

I am the one who is equipped to do the extensive digging to find a source, an obscure credit, an event in someone’s life that may have been visually documented, a mention here, a hint there—all clues that lead me to discovering the best images I can possibly find. And believe me, the best ones are often the hardest to uncover and take the most persistence.

I now cherish this part of my job as a nonfiction writer. I look forward to the time in the production process when I can focus wholeheartedly on the images and study the notes I have made along the way. I call people, find out interesting histories in the process, meet family members with new perspectives. The act of searching for the images inevitably leads me to new information I am able to add to my story. It’s a thrill. A privilege.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not walking away from photo budgets or permissions counsel in the foreseeable future. Those necessary assists are also part of the team process. But the next time someone gripes about having to do their own photo research, my own experiences have changed my soapbox platform. Be the expert. Find the photos. Your subjects will thank you in the end.


Gretchen Woelfle said...

Hear hear! No one knows your subject or your sources like you do! It's like giving a shopping list to someone in the family who doesn't do the cooking. Yes, (s)he will buy everything on the list, but (s)he won't know what you forgot to put on the list, or more importantly, what new possibilities for dinner are inspired by surprise items on the shelves.

Besides, looking at pictures is a holiday after reading all those words.

Anonymous said...

I agree... I have worked on the publishing side of things and I think authors are well suited to digging up the absolute BEST images to tell the story. A lot can get lost between an author, an editor, a photo wish list, and a photo researcher.

A question for you on logistics... when you find your own photos, does someone at the publisher still negotiate the price and buy the photo rights? Do you ever have to compromise on photo choices because of budgets?

Also, does the publisher pay you for the extra work of photo research? Or is it part of your manuscript fee/agreement?

Tanya Lee Stone said...

Re: the logistics questions. The answer for me is different for every book, except that I have never been paid for photo research--that's just part of my job. I tend to negotiate prices myself, as I can often get better prices than a publisher.

Sneed B. Collard III said...

Very interesting, Gretchen! My own experience is the same--and different. Because I am a photographer with a really smart camera, I prefer taking as many photos myself as possible for my top-end science trade books. And that makes sense since my books usually revolve around visits with researchers in the field. On the other hand, I am doing a biography series with Benchmark right now and I've been very pleased with the images they select. And to be honest, it's a huge relief not to have to track these down myself. So I guess, as always, it just depends on the situation.

Sneed B. Collard III said...

Oops, I meant Tanya! Sorry!