Posted by: tsubakuro | December 1, 2009

Selecting Photos for the Book, Part I

Just before the weekend began, I was hit by three separate ideas expressed in two separate publications. The first was a collection of images from Patagonia in a photography magazine I picked off the shelf to browse through. The photographs were very impressive and once again I felt the photos I captured when I visited, good though I still think they are, can not compete with photographs of that level. Perhaps if I saw my best images from the southern Andes enlarged and published on the printed page I might feel that I too have such high level photography. But at the time I felt challenged to try harder to shoot better.

The second idea was expressed as an opinion in the latest news letter of the All Japan Alpine Photography Association. A veteran alpinist said that he was not impressed with photographs that just anyone can make, and he encouraged members of the association to work harder at getting those rare shots that no one else will be able to capture. This will be challenging since there are typically several to dozens of photographs gathering to shoot the same view in the same mountains year after year.

On the back page of the newsletter was a mention of a new book of photographs of famous mountain peaks of the world. The book is 22cm x 22cm, 94 pages, and sells for 5,000 yen. My proposed size for Sanmyaku: Photographs from the Japan Alps is 24cm x 25cm, and about 156 pages, with a price around 3,600 yen. I came to these numbers by looking at other photo books of similar size, page quantity, and price. I realize that most photo books in Japan are of fewer than 100 pages. Only the really elite photographers like Shiro Shirahata or Toshinobu Takeuchi can get thicker books published. This got me thinking about my book, what I want the photographs to say about the Japan Alps and my photography, and what kind of book I want to make.

Ultimately, this will be a book of landscape photography. The text is meant to be the extra “meat” that I was told photo books needed in North America. Since there are no books in English (that I am aware of) about the Japan Alps, I feel it’s very important to include a lot of introductory information about the natural history, climbing history, and famous routes and mountains of the Japan Alps. The text alone so far is about 36 typed pages on my computer. I believe this is a reasonable amount of text to add to what is intended to be mostly a photo book. However, 36 pages out of 156 pages leave the book with only 120 pages for photographs. When I look through my photo books from Canada and the U.S., even the U.K. and New Zealand, 120 pages is too few. I certainly have enough photographs to make an even thicker book. And I am still planning more outings for more views and seasonal images that I haven’t covered yet.

What it comes down to is my vision for the book. I want to make a book with some really phenomenal photographs and the rest all really good photographs. As the text will introduce famous views and peaks I want to bring those views to life with the photographs. This means that even really good documentary style photography is suitable and will be supporting melody to the main chorus of the best of my photographs. I have a clear image of the layout, the design, the cover, and almost every page. My target audience is mostly foreigners living in or visiting Japan who enjoy hiking, trekking, climbing, and photographing in the Japan Alps, and also Japanese who enjoy the same things but also have an interest in reading English. Thus I feel a smaller photo book of 94 pages and little text is not really what I want.

The reality is, however, that the publishing market is in a major slump. Magazines have ceased publication or decreased pay for photographs and articles. A major book distributor has gone belly up. Book publishers are very cautious about what they agree to publish, knowing that they may be sitting on stock that has nowhere to go, and they instead offer collaborative projects where they do most of the work but the photographer pays for the bulk of the publication costs – easily over 2 million yen for bigger projects.

This leaves me facing a dilemma: Do I continue to pursue trying to get someone who will be interested in my big fat expensive project or do I rethink the book and try to do one of just fine landscapes of the Japan Alps with fewer pages, fewer photographs, and less text? If I were to have better luck finding a publisher with only 94 pages and about 80 photographs then it might be worth it to revise my proposal. A book with only 80 images would allow me to show only the best of the best photographs that I have (making me look like a better photographer).

Fewer photographs and only the really great ones would make for a more memorable book if a landscape art book was the main purpose. In that case, I would be wise to heed the words of that seasoned photographer who said he was not interested in photographs that just anyone could take. My sunny morning photos from a ridge overlooking the distant peaks would be too ordinary, something anyone could see. But would a book of only the best images give the viewer a clear view of how the Japan Alps look from the high ridges?

What it comes down to in the end is that an art book of fewer pages might have a better chance of being published because it is cheaper and perhaps more attractive to other photographers, even Japanese who can’t read English, but an book leaning a little more to the documentary side with more information both in words and images would do a better job of illustrating the beauty of the Japan Alps that we can expect to find up there.

It would be nice to propose both ideas; however, I think most publishers don’t have time to consider a Plan B option. If the first idea doesn’t look sellable from the start, the proposal is packed up and returned to the sender. If it comes down to bartering, then I’d rather have them say they want to make a 156-page book smaller and take it from there.

A glorious sunset from the ridge below the summit of Kitadake, captured in October of 2004.



  1. “A veteran alpinist said that he was not impressed with photographs that just anyone can make, and he encouraged members of the association to work harder at getting those rare shots that no one else will be able to capture ….”

    That says it all!

    As an interim measure – what about a web gallery to showcase your best choice of shots? Flickr is fine as a starting point, but lacks easy navigation. And you could link to a more substantial gallery site from Flickr, to bring in the punters…

    • Hi Project: Hyakumeizan! I really appreciate you taking the time to read through all my ramblings. Between you and Chris (his is writing something, isn’t he?) and me, I am really hoping that the market for English books about Japanese mountains will open up. By the way, I hope you don’t mind but this blog’s name was inspired by your blog’s name.

      Yes, I need to get a proper site up and running to help promote the project. For now I am trying to make use of whatever resources I have. I’ll be choosing slides for scanning next week too. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Thanks for sharing your stunning pics which I’ve been enjoying on the flickr japanese mountains group. Only now followed to the blog and see your plans…good luck! And don’t forget there’s always…

  3. Hello, James. I am sorry to be replying so late. I was busy the week before the Golden Week holidays here at the beginning of May and then I was off to the mountains for a few days and busy with photo stuff and work when I came back. I haven’t even written about my last adventure yet.

    I haven’t looked into Lulu yet but if it’s self publishing then I have already made two books that way and I am slowly selling through all my stock (down to nearly half now). It would be nice to have a ‘real’ book published this time. But Lulu may still be an option someday. I’ll have a look.

    Thanks again for stopping by. You will see a new post here by the weekend I expect.

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