Circumstance and good fortune: some experiences in the world of publishing.

Given the depressed state of the publishing industry at present (appropriately summarised by the headline in last week’s Observer‘Publishing in crisis as book sales plunge’) we do not, I regret to say, share your optimism regarding the sales potential of such a venture 

Rejection letters like this – from the Welsh publisher Gomer Press –  will probably be familiar to many ambitious photographers today, but this was dated 2nd July 1992! I had proposed a  book of Welsh landscapes in the style of those already being produced elsewhere in the British Isles, notably in Scotland by Colin Baxter. Coffee-table? Yes, I suppose so. 

Yet a very short time later I was beginning discussions with Cornerhouse Publications about a  similar book project. In those days, Cornerhouse published work by some of the most respected  photographers in the world.  A catalogue from that era features names like Richard Misrach,  Paul Graham, John Davies and Robert Frank. They described themselves as “Britain’s leading photography publisher with an international reputation for the quality of (our) books.” In 1993, Cornerhouse produced  a dummy and a publication date for my book of summer 1994 was mooted. And then things went quiet. I have letters from Dewi Lewis at Cornerhouse and carbon copies (remember them?) of my letters to him but the sequence comes to an end in November 1993. I have no memory at all of why the project came to a halt. It must have been a shattering blow –  for me anyway….. 

The next letter in my collection, dated November 1994,  once more comes from Gomer Press. There had been a change of staff and a change in attitude. Mairwen Prys Jones had become the English-language editor and was enthusiastic about working with me on a book. ‘Wales – the Lie of the Land’, published in May 1996, was the result; roughly what I had envisaged the Cornerhouse book would be. It was the first in a series of books I have done for Gomer Press, each time working with a different author. ‘Wales at Waters Edge’, which appeared in May 2012, was the most recent, and, I think it is fair to say, probably the most successful. I have never shied away from including some more challenging images amongst the sumptuous landscapes in these books so I have been enormously grateful to Gomer Press, and Mairwen in particular, for their faith in my work. 

Collaborating with an author can be rather hit-and-miss affair. Each of the half-dozen I have worked with has been a different experience, but nothing can compare with the most recent. Late in 2012 I was approached by an author to see if I would be interested in working with him on a new book for a different publisher.  He came from a journalistic background, and his name is not particularly well-known. Nevertheless he showed me an excellent, well thought-out proposal and it was subject matter that I was very keen on moving into myself. At a very productive meeting we agreed how fruitful and enjoyable a true collaboration between the two of us could be. A small amount of funding was obtained for me from the Welsh Books Council by the publisher.  It would realistically only cover my travelling expenses but I was still keen to go ahead. I began work on the photographs. 

Then, completely out of the blue, it all came shuddering to a halt. It really was a car-crash. In the spirit of collaboration I had made a list of constructive suggestions and ideas on how to progress the book from the photographers point of view. We discussed it over the phone. The conversation ended like this: 

Him: “Well if we’re going to have an argument, we might as well do it now”. The criticism begins…..

Me: “I’m finding this conversation very difficult.”

Him: ……..criticism continues…..

Me: “I’m finding this conversation very difficult.”

Him: ……’s a rant, really……..

Me: “I’m going to have to ring off now.”

Him: …….the rant continues.…..

Me: “Please……”

Him: …….there’s no end to the rant……

Me: “Please…….”

Him: …….he carries on…… 

At this point I put down the phone. 

This was, in effect, the end of the project for me. I was in a state of shock for a while, but it would have been impossible to work with such a domineering individual who had so little understanding of how photographers produce great pictures. I have not heard from him again, and the publisher pulled the plug on my involvement. Despite massive disappointment on my behalf, it was probably a good thing that I had not yet signed the contract for the book. 

So what might I conclude from all this? Having one’s work published in book form would probably be the fulfilment of a dream for most photographers. Progress towards that goal is, however, often dependent on circumstance and good fortune. The change of heart by Gomer Press between July 1992 and November 1994 was partly the result of a new member of staff being appointed and partly to a recommendation by a writer friend. It worked in my favour that time but these things can equally well work to one’s disadvantage. I have been lucky enough to see my work in print a number of times – some would say very lucky. But even so the state of the economy, the development of new technology and other unpredictable factors mean that good fortune can never be guaranteed, no matter how good one’s work is. It is a bit of a lottery.


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