Not soon coming to a bookshop near you……….

Not soon coming to a bookshop near you……avocets at Goldcliffe, Gwent

Earlier this year I wrote about a number of disappointments I had had as a photographer during the previous twelve months (see this post). At the time I wasn’t sure if I should be blogging about my failures but they are part and parcel of the life of the freelance and it felt like a reasonable response. Unfortunately there is more disappointment to recount.

Following the sudden rejection of In Search of Wild Wales by the publisher in January, Jon Gower and I discussed finding another outlet for it. After a while he suggested a little known specialist publisher from south Wales, who had put together a very high quality book on the Welsh artist John Selway.  Jon had provided the text. They were keen to go ahead with In Search of Wild Wales. Things were looking up! Jon sent the final version of his text through to me in the middle of October and I read it avidly. Most (about two-thirds) was intelligent, invigorating writing. He had written a beautiful essay – at my request – about avocets, to accompany the above photograph. But the remainder ………. hmmm…….. it just seemed rather flat, somehow, as if someone else had written it.

I think I had better just say at this point that several chapters of the book needed re-writing.  At first he agreed to do it over the winter, but then there was a second email. He had changed his mind overnight and despite profuse apologies, was now withdrawing from the project altogether. “Your very fine images”  he said, “should not be coupled to shoddy, lazy writing”.

Strangely enough I don’t feel angry. I just can’t get my head around it. I still wake up and think “Did that really happen?”

So that’s five publishers and three authors I’ve exhausted trying to get this book off the ground.  A very good friend assured me that I was good enough to write the text myself, or that he could write it for me, but working with a friend on anything can ruin a good relationship. There comes a time when you have to accept that something is just never going to happen.

As a photographer I believe that a book can be image-led but images do have their limitations, no matter how good they are. I’ve always felt that a good text can take a book way beyond the photographs that accompany it. To that end I’ve worked with different authors on five books but in almost every case it wasn’t the real collaboration that I had been hoping for. Ironically the most satisfying in that sense was Wales at Waters Edge  :  author –  Jon Gower!  With that one exception I’ve had a series of bad experiences with authors over the last decade. In some cases they seem to have such sense of superiority over the photographer that the latter is only worthy of illustrating their magnificent, all-knowing and world-shattering text.

One could argue that I should never have worked on this project without having a contract in place. However, there is no chance that the photographs could have been produced within the time frame of a normal book production schedule. Nature is seasonal for one thing. The photographer has to fit in with its rhythms. If you miss a subject one spring, for example, you just have to wait twelve months for another opportunity. And did I mention that I was a perfectionist?

There is no doubt that this has been the most difficult blog post I have ever written. I would love to recount exactly why Jon withdrew from the project, but I have taken the advice of others not to be too specific. In the meantime, I have dragged myself out of the hole that I found myself in and sent a new proposal to Gomer Press for consideration. If successful, it will use some of the images from the book which has finally now bitten the dust. Other than the publisher, no-one else will be involved.

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My annus horribilis

It is probably not the done thing to blog about one’s failures. Like the Christmas circular letter a blog will normally only contain details of the writer’s achievements. There have been successes over the last year for me to look back on, of course. My exhibition at Plas Brondanw, for example (see this post),  the “highly commended” image in the 2017 British Wildlife Photography Awards (see here), and my involvement in the Fay Godwin “revisited” exhibition at Machynlleth (see here). But more than anything else the last year has been characterised by disappointments, and I’m beginning to ask myself “is there life after photography?”

For a number of years now I have been working on a book about Welsh wild places and wildlife. There is currently no sign that it will ever see the light of day;  I have already been through four publishers and am on my third author. I wrote about the end of the first attempt (spring 2013) in this blog post. There followed another attempt with a different author where I was quite comprehensively shafted by Publisher No 2. Things were looking good with Publisher No3 and another author; this time it was Jon Gower, with whom I had successfully collaborated on “Wales at Waters Edge”. We had had several positive meetings with the publisher and they had applied for, and been offered, grant support from the Welsh Books Council for the book.

Then in February 2017, everything went pear-shaped. There were major changes at the publisher; in order to concentrate on the printing side of the business, eight staff in the publishing department had been told to apply for four posts or take redundancy; no guarantee about books “in development” was offered. All existing staff took the money and ran and Jon Gower, understandably, vowed never to work for that publisher again. He approached Publisher No4, and in May they agreed, in writing, to a October 2018 publication date. As a result of this I continued working on the project right through until late autumn by which time 95% of my work was complete. I had a meeting with them in late December at which a timetable and other details were discussed and many agreed. An application for grant funding had been submitted.

Earlier this month there was a phone call from their English-language editor. They had changed their mind and no longer had any interest in the book.

So onto other things. At the Fay Godwin exhibition I was approached by William Troughton of the National Library of Wales and asked if I would be interested in having a retrospective there. To say that I was surprised and honoured was an understatement! I didn’t think I was quite old and wrinkly enough but no matter – the Gallery at the Library is huge and he made it seem like a formality. There followed a couple of meetings and then he put in an application to the Library’s exhibitions committee.

In October I was told that this had been turned down.

In January 2017 I put in an application to the Arts Council of Wales to attend  the Open Studio Workshop in the North-west Highlands to begin to develop a new  book/exhibition project. The application was successful and the workshop took place in March. I was excited to be attending because amongst the tutors were two of my landscape photography heroes – Joe Cornish and Paul Wakefield. Despite me being quite clear about what an early stage the project was at, the latter was unreasonably and publicly critical at great length over the work that I showed. I was shocked and deflated, and have not yet been able to rebuild my confidence about the project.

During the years I worked with Gomer Press (Publisher No3) it had always been the case that a verbal offer or agreement was as good as a written contract. I built up an excellent track record for completing book projects on time (unlike some of the authors I collaborated with…..) and working successfully with designers and other print professionals.  I am sure they would agree that this was the case. I have a long history of exhibiting my work and my record there is equally well proven. But over the last few years I have unfortunately had dealings with more than one prima-donna-ish author and disreputable publisher. The requirement for mutual respect that I have been used to seems to have vanished into thin air.

Whether any of the three projects I mentioned above will ever now happen I cannot say. Jon Gower and I may still try other publishers for the “wildlife and wild places” book but between us we are running out of options. For my part, not for the first time, there is a feeling that ‘it just won’t ever happen’.

So that is story of my year. An annus horribilis indeed; but at least there hasn’t been a serious fire at one of my castles……….

 

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