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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How to get publishers interested in political, non-profit books

Renowned conservation and fine-art photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum has pioneered a publishing model where he receives at-cost books instead of royalties so he can distribute them free to non-profits — helping get his conservation message in the hands of people who can use it to create real change. In this post we talk about convincing publishers to get on board with this unconventional model.

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MJ: Do you think it is a good idea for other photographers to approach publishers with the publishing model you’ve developed, one that distributes books through non-profits instead of retail distributors?

RGK: If you were to go to a smaller press, such as The Mountaineers, and you bring them a book that is even remotely interesting, then you say: I have my funding and my buyers in place. I can guarantee 3,500 of the run. At $10 each, you’re coming into the meeting with $35,000, and that puts you a long way up. You might not be covering 100% of the publisher’s costs, but you’re already coming in the door with something that looks good.

If I had an advocate-directed book, I would presume that the publisher felt his market impaired by the political point of view. I would therefore compensate coming through the door with either a network of distribution or a network of sales and distribution already in place — such as a non-profit I was working with. Then you can also explain that funding of some kind is already in place, so the book doesn’t languish on bookshelves and it doesn’t have unrealistic financial expectations.

Maybe not everybody has this access, but I know on-press people, I know editors, I know book designers, and I know presses in Hong Kong and Europe. Likely with my next book I will publish it myself with my own team. I’ll write into my grant proposal for an organization, likely the Hearsts, all those books at pre-publication cost, besides whatever goes into the market. We’ll just distribute it ourselves through the internet. Then I will probably go to the book fairs and see if we can pick up some sales and get broader distribution. But it’s not worth it to me, all that stuff that gets lost and logged into the middlemen warehouse distributors. It’s not worth the energy and it doesn’t put the books in enough of the right places.
MJ: Is it a hard sell to convince publications and publishers that these conservation issues are hot topics?

RGK: It has always been a hard sell and it’s still a hard sell. I’m constantly amazed at how people are fawning and apologetic about not having supported a project like the Tongass and they say, “We would never miss another opportunity like this again. The next time you have something going on, please come back to us.” Then the next time I come back to them, it’s like they’ve never talked to me before and I’m starting all over again. So it’s very frustrating.

Until recently my Bristol Bay work has been like sitting on a very steep greased board — I had no traction whatsoever. People were paying attention but only just barely. People like the Smithsonian Magazine and Audubon, who I offered Tongass to and they both turned me down. Then they came back to me years later when they were doing Tongass articles, big features, and said stuff like, “You were so far in front of the curve. That was the biggest mistake of our lives not taking that article when you offered it to us. Please bring us something like that again.”

So I bring them Bristol Bay. And you know what everyone said to me? Why aren’t you up in the Arctic Refuge taking pictures? And I said, first of all, I counseled Subhankar Banerjee, who is there, and I think he’s probably going to do a good job with it. It also happens that my friend Theo Allofs is there and Art Wolfe is there and I think there are enough photographers up there. Also, the Arctic Refuge has been used as a smokescreen, drawing a lot of public attention to the battle, while other places are being savaged and no one is looking. I’m bringing you a project you ought to be paying attention to, which I did when I brought you the Tongass, do you remember? And they all acted like I was out of my mind and Bristol Bay was a no-starter.

I submitted this collective story about the Bay to National Geographic three times in five years, and they told me it was a story of no interest. Then they sent somebody on their own staff up to do the story and paid me a finders fee. Men’s Journal looked at the story several times over three years and said it was a no-starter — then finally four months ago they realized it’s smoking hot now that Sarah Palin ran for office, so they sent their own guy.

It is amazing to me that virtually everybody who said, “Come back to us with any new stories,” once I was introduced to them through the Tongass, basically ignored me when I brought them Bristol Bay. You’d think at 60 I’d finally have some respect, but I don’t. This story is important. I’m glad it’s now at National Geographic. I’m glad it’s at Men’s Journal. It will put more pressure on the legislators I’m visiting and will revisit this year. If there is a way I can place a set of books in Obama’s hands, I will. But not to a legislative assistant or somebody else. It has to be me to him. I want to know that he sees it. In this kind of a lobbying effort, the personal contact carries weight. John Muir lobbied Teddy Roosevelt; Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and David Brower aggressively lobbied the Congress with their Sierra Club publications; and now I am the next generation to inherit this advocacy mantel.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Books with lives beyond the shelf

Renowned conservation and fine-art photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum has pioneered a publishing model that treats his numerous books as instruments of change rather than instruments of profit. In this post he describes how his work with NGOs and publishers came to fruition with the dual publication of Rivers of Life and Wood-Tikchik, which addressed Pebble Mine and an inholdings sell-off, which both threatened an untouched expansive of land in Southwest Alaska.

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The next place this special publishing model I’d developed came into play, and really the place it came into full force, was Bristol Bay in Southwest Alaska. In 1998 there was no mine proposed, no oil proposed, just this huge wild area called Southwest Alaska that is larger than the state of Washington. And it’s the habitat for the richest, most productive salmon fishery in the history of the world, Bristol Bay. And I’m on the board of the Alaska Conservation Foundation (ACF). I’ve been there for seven years. We’re making a big difference. Having a lot of victories. I’m working as a board member, I’m not pushing myself as a photographer, but I’m offering my advice about media.

And the retiring board director says to me, have you ever been out to Southwest Alaska? And I haven’t, so he and his friend, who’s a writer from Wyoming and also an expert fly fisherman, take me out there for a 7-day fly around. And his position as a fisherman is, this is a goldmine for fishermen and conservation, and he thinks I should bring it to ACF, the group I’m on the board of. He is leaving ACF but thinks the Bristol Bay area is going to become an issue in terms of developers wanting it. And I think it sounds like a great idea, and I’m not working on a project, and I’m about to retire from the board.

So I start writing my grants. And I write in the grant that I’ll do a book and it will be about this fishery and its protection, and in funding the grant they can guarantee that 5,000 at-cost copies will be available for the ACF to use in direct mail campaigns to bring more money in. I weave in the grassroots, the foundation strategy, my book strategy, and this advocacy work you can do with direct mail. It was the maturity of all my previous projects coming together. And we went out with that grant, and everyone we showed it to was in. We brought in several smaller family foundations and we brought in one very large foundation, the Turner Foundation. Then, when I was nearly on press with the first book, Rivers of Life, I also noticed I had this extraordinary amount of material specifically about Wood Tikchik Park, which is more than one-third of the water shed. It is the largest state park in Alaska — it’s huge at over a million and a half acres. Just one fishing lodge and everything else wild park.
I talked to one of my friends who was head of department of natural resources for the state, and he said, please do a book on this park and talk about all the inholdings that are at risk. An inholding is an amount of land that was given to a Native American tribal holder as part of his native claims stake when the lands transferred between natives and park. And every person got to extract a certain amount of acreage, I think in 60-acre squares. So they’re all patchworked through these wild lands. And the presumption was the natives would continue to treat them as they had for 3,000 years. But the reality was that parents would be saving them for their kids who would grow up, go to college, and never want to come back to the village, so the traditional values of that land would erode. The parents would look at it and think, well we can sell this to a white guy who wants to build a fishing lodge and we will become millionaires. Among the rest of us there was this feeling of, oh my god, don’t let this happen to these habitats. So with the first book already on press, I began working on a second book with another author, and we wrote the second book directed at these issues of inholdings. So one book was, don’t let this resource be developed by offshore oil and gas or on-shore anything. And the second was, don’t let this land be fragmented by inholdings. Please work with the conservancies and the tribes to see that it all goes into parkland protection.

We took those two books as a set and we did a very substantial mailing and a traveling exhibit. Talk about all these things happening blindly but at the right moment. At the time that we did the mailing, Canada announced plans for Pebble Mine, the largest open-pit gold and copper cyanide-leach mine in the history of the world right in the middle of the biggest part of the fishery. And of course the state leased it. So here’s the two books sitting there and just being mailed and the show’s just going up and they announce the proposal for the Pebble Mine. And then Bush gets Ted Stevens, the Alaska senator now indicted for felony, to pull Bristol Bay off of the no-drill oil moratorium, which it had been on for 18 years, and announced leasing through the Department of the Interior. So immediately the books had more weight.

Among many things that happened because of the momentum the mailing created was a $10 million, three-year grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation flowing to the conservancies in southwest Alaska to purchase and buy into the inholdings when the native villages were willing to strike deals over conservation easements. A 21,000-parcel deal was struck recently with eight or ten very significant tribal elders, which sent out shockwaves in the native community because they don’t really embrace white legal systems. So by those native elders signing on, it has a huge impact at other levels in other tribes. What they did was sell the rights to commercially develop the land. They do not give up their right to own the land. The land is put into an easement that is managed by a conservancy, and the natives can go and use the land any time they want to fish or hunt, but not for commercial development. Even if they sell it, it remains in easement. So it’s a way of putting land into wild status in perpetuity.
This project was where everything came together in its most mature form, with the Bristol Bay and Wood Tikchik books, the show, and the pre-deemed funding to buy out a portion of the run. The picture books themselves were commercially viable; Aperture sold them in the market. But I would say we got rid of just as many of them in the community by doing direct mail and target-specific sales at lectures and exhibitions. The exhibition has triggered a lot … we took it to all the major cities in Alaska. We triggered discussions between the communities and the mining representatives from Pebble Mine. We’ve had the exhibition go to Washington D.C. as a bi-partisan request from Newt Gingrich and Mark Udall.

In my opinion, the reason some of the projects were so much more successful is, first of all, I enjoy the theater of the advocate role. I’ll go to Washington and lobby directly and use personality. This is an age where cult of personality plays well. You know, James Audubon was an American sophisticate. An intellectual, a researcher. But when he went to England with his drawings of the America birds, he had this fabulous fringe leather suit made for himself and he walked around with his musket. So it’s been theater for a long time. And I’m perfectly happy to play the “outdoor adventurer” Robert Ketchum and show up at Barbara Boxer’s office, especially now that she’s head of the Environment Committee, and ask her to please consider being a co-sponsor to John Kerry’s Bristol Bay Marine Reserve Act. And of course she’s seen the book and all that.

I think if I have had an impact in the book market, it has been to find a way to make the book more useful from an advocate point of view. Perhaps that is a corruption of the coffee table tradition, but so be it, it makes for a much more useful and purposeful publication. I feel like, if these concepts were somehow a secret of mine all these years, they shouldn’t have been, and I didn’t intend it that way. I’m happy to have other photographers think about how to use it. Because a lot of them get frustrated. They get nice books published, they get nice conservation groups all lined up. But then they have a subtle subject like, say, a book on grass prairie, and it doesn’t have a national audience, and it doesn’t really get out there. So it sits and languishes on bookshelves and it gets remaindered. That won’t change anything!

Orvis Supports No Pebble Mine

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