Missed out on our DIY Publishing Masterclass with Rob Hornstra? In this article, Joshua Turner reports back from the event and compiles Hornstra's top tips on funding and publishing photographic stories.
The International Anthony Burgess Foundation was recently host to a collection of Redeye members for Rob Hornstra’s DIY Publishing Masterclass. As the title of the event suggests, this had the scope to encompass a huge range of topics. To cover all in a single day would have allowed a mere glance at each topic. Hornstra’s approach was to have an audience-led discussion, during which he would delve into his rich experience of self-publication, exploring the ebb and flow of audience interest as the day went on, allowing for an in-depth look at subjects relevant to the audience. Hornstra’s no-nonsense approach to the whole event was a refreshing take on photography, which can be a particularly tricky medium to navigate at times; he certainly didn’t beat about the bush. This article highlights, in a whistle-stop tour, some of the most interesting and applicable aspects of self-publishing covered during the talk.
Hornstra preceded the open discussion with an introduction that focused on the importance of pitching your idea, or more accurately, pitching the idea in a confident, succinct and enticing way. It can be argued that this is the first point of contact that your concept for a photobook will have with the world; stressing the importance of a good elevator pitch. Essentially your pitch should establish that if your work does not exist in the world, then this is considered an injustice to the photobook community. This pitch, if successful, will convince people to give you money to create the work. Though sometimes considered an uncomfortable subject, externally funding work is nothing to be ashamed about. Successful crowdfunding shows that your work has an audience before it has been finished. You can afford to be subtle in your work, but it is important to be explicit in your elevator pitch. As Martin Parr put it, “if you can’t explain what you’re doing in one sentence, it’s hardly worth doing.”
Audience & Relevance
There was a significant contemplation on the photobook as a medium for presenting your work, to ensure your work is best suited for final presentation in a photobook. If you intend to create a powerful response and commentary on a social issue, for example, then the suitability of a photobook is questionable because this audience is narrow in the larger context of how media is consumed. Photobooks are not the optimal output method for social activism in photography, so consider the possibility of an online exhibition. However, if your intention is to use photography to create a narrative, not to change the world but to convey a story that is engaging and informative, then a photobook could be relevant. Is your work aimed at the photographic community or a wider community? Production of a photobook does not need to be inspired by a passion to change the world - the process of expanding your practice is a totally credible reason.
“The Jack of all trades is a Master of none”, the well-known expression comes to mind as Hornstra expresses the necessity of collaboration in the process of producing a photobook. To undergo an extensive photographic project is an intensive task in and of itself; moving from exploring initial concepts to shooting cohesive narratives through the use of images is not a simple task, not to mention all that happens in between. From this to then fund, process, edit, design, print, bind, advertise and distribute the entire photobook yourself may be something you have convinced yourself to be manageable, but consider the vast improvements that could be made to your work with fresh eyes, alternative methods and new ideas. Photography and photobooks thrive on a collaborative practice.
In 2004, Hornstra had a problem. The decision had been made that he wanted the final piece of work produced on his degree to be in the form of a book, yet the price of a professionally printed book was simply too expensive. When considering the number of books he needed, it was established that he wanted more than one copy and, after mentioning this to family members, they also wanted copies. A friend in a bar encouraged him to advertise the book for pre-sale, asking for the money now and having the book delivered at a later date. The book, Communism & Cowgirls, was successfully funded. This was 5 years before the arrival of Kickstarter (2009), yet Hornstra considers Kickstarter to complicate the process of crowdfunding. Hornstra says you will find most of your audience is local to you; as the distance from you extends, the likelihood of someone buying your photobook diminishes. Though personally, I find Kickstarter to be a great platform on which you can expand your initial audience and extend your reach.
Crowdfunding is an essential part of self-publication, without which the independent production of books would be much more difficult to fund. The most important aspect when crowdfunding a project is trust. This is especially relevant if you are funding independently on online platforms such as Kickstarter; Kickstarter introduces an aspect of insurance for backers. It is essential for your audience to trust that you are going to carry out the project as promised once they have handed over their money. If they have an inkling of doubt, it is less likely for you to receive funding in the first place. There should be total clarity with your supporters throughout the project, updating them with key information about the specific stages of the work. Yet a personal touch can also work. During The Sochi Project, Hornstra updated his supporters by sending postcards; they held no crucial information, but it would have reminded them of what they are supporting and reinforced the knowledge that there was a photographer in the field. Photography is no secretive endeavour, especially when there are many people supporting it - share your experiences and engage your audience in a personalised campaign.
Self-publishing can be highly beneficial to the photographer wanting to expand their practice into publication whilst having total control over the final outcome. An understanding of self-publication opens up a new world of possibilities as the intermediary of a publisher isn’t necessary for the production of a photobook. The photobook is a wonderful medium as it enables control over the sequencing of imagery out of the context of a gallery space, holds material qualities that can reflect the narrative it encloses, makes photography accessible to the masses and encompasses a variety of execution methods (from handmade zines in the tens to large print runs in the thousands). Self-publishing makes these methods accessible to photographers, and once you establish this medium is relevant to your practice, there are countless ways of using the medium to present your work.
Photo: Paul Herrmann, 2018