Andy Schön holds degrees in philosophy and computer science from Columbia University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is also a graduate of New York Film Academy, and has studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. Andy is the author of Fifteen Times Around the World: A Lion Bit me in Zimbabwe and Other Travel Adventures, and also collaborated with poet Cat Mahony on the book In Knots.
Matty Dalrymple: Hello and welcome to Episode 5 of the Indy Author podcast. Today my guest is Andy Schön. Andy holds degrees in Philosophy and Computer Science from Columbia University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He’s a graduate of the New York Film Academy and studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, all great credentials, and he’s the author of Fifteen Times Around the World: A Lion Bit Me in Zimbabwe and Other Travel Adventures, and also collaborated with poet Cat Mahony on the book In Knots.
Andy Schön: Thanks for having me.
Matty: We want to focus today on the production process for image-intensive books but I can’t really jump right into the production process without hearing a little bit of background about how you got the photographs for Fifteen Times Around the World. Fill us in a little bit about where that project came from and where the photographs came from.
Andy: Yes. A lot of people ask that, whether I set out with the idea for the book and there wasn’t a day where I decided to do this as this covers a period of 8 years in total. This is my travels and it started out with my regular personal travels.
I decided at some point, I’m going all these great places. I better get good at photography, too, so I can capture them and bring them home with me. I took some photography classes and started to practice and get better equipment. Over the course of eight years of different travels, mostly vacations, sometimes I set time aside during a leave of absence for a longer trip. After that period, there was a point where I decided to look back and compile them into the book.
Matty: So you didn’t get into it with the idea of the book?
Andy: No, not really. I mean, there were thoughts here and there. Especially once I got to so many places and I realized I have a lot of stories. But then, you have a problem of it’s not a book, it’s a series of many, many books and how do you whittle it down?
Matty: Was there a moment that triggered your thought that what you had here was the makings of the book?
Andy: Like I say, any one day can be a book in itself. It’s tough to say the amount of adventures I had but I had a lot of things happening like a lion biting me and certain kinds of significant things. But often the trigger was when I was to all seven continents, or to a certain number of countries, or when I went to all the 48 lower states.
There’s always somewhere new to go. But maybe when I hit those milestones, or had checked off a bunch, like the Seven Wonders, <or> my top ten favorite places … it’s not that I want to stop travelling, but at least I’ve seen <enough> to have a comprehensive idea to put out a book.
That’s from the perspective of somebody who’d seen that all. Because that’s actually another good point is when I was deciding where to go, I would find lots of books with people saying, “Oh, you know, India is the best.” Everybody sort of knows one thing or the other, but they haven’t been to each other’s favorites. So I would find a book from somebody who had been everywhere, and they could compare and contrast.
So that was a goal with this book, where I wanted to be that voice of having a kind of comprehensive view. Not just focusing on one place or one kind of goal. I like nature, I like history, I like architecture.
Matty: Well you certainly would not lack for material once you had been to all the places you mentioned. So at the point where you decided you had enough to create a book, how many photographs were you working through?
Andy: That’s a good question. I don’t know that number off-hand but it’s something like hundred or two hundred thousand. That’s just the ones that I kept. I whittled down, and in the book, there are about 87 or 88 pictures.
It seems like maybe it’s a lot but it covered 40-some countries and all seven continents. It’s really hard to whittle down to 88 so I did many passes. I tried to make sure there was representation of different areas and different wildlife <and different> architecture … and try to make sure the selected set was comprehensive in every dimension, which is not necessarily easy, and at the same time, to be some of my favorite pictures as well.
The last aspect is that they aligned well with stories … each <of the 88 pictures> had the pictures on the right hand side, and then a brief paragraph on the left hand side that is related. I had to also make sure to have that in mind as well.
Matty: Did you know when you were going into creating a book that that’s the format you wanted? Because with all those pictures, there are all sorts of formats you could pursue—a whole page of multiple pictures of architecture in India. There are limitless ways you could put those pictures together. Did you have the idea ahead of time that there was going to be a picture matched with text, page by page?
Andy: Yeah, that’s a great question. Like I say, because I have so much content story-wise and photograph-wise, I figured many books would come out of my travels over the years so I considered all these things like you mentioned and what kind of format. I decided that my first book should just be the high level bird’s eye in summary of the whole thing covering the whole eight years, every continent.
So the focus, I also decided, would be on the photographs. You know, there’s writing in it but I wanted to showcase my photographs first and foremost so … that’s what led me to stick with that strict format of one photograph each. The same consistent format throughout where one photograph on every other page and the text is a certain line which is very short. I do want to tell stories and that’s a big part. But I wanted the photographs to lead it. I wanted them to push you from page to page.
Matty: It sounds like you might have follow up ideas of how you’re going to take all your pictures of architecture in India, or wildlife in Africa, or penguins in Antarctica, and have follow-on books that would be focused on more particular topic?
Andy: Yeah, it’s really tough because there’s only so many hours in a day and days in a week and there’s a lot of things I’d like to do. When I made the book, that was the primary thing I was doing for a while. I was taking time off from another job but now I’m back to working with an e-commerce startup so that’s my first 60 hours of the week.
So when I think about which book to put together from my material, when I do have the time, I also think, “Well, maybe I want to just go and travel more and photograph more.” It’s a struggle to decide where to put those hours. There’s just so many options and it’s tough to commit to one—I think when I have the time, I probably will choose to travel and photograph more, rather than produce for others.
Matty: When you were sorting through all these hundreds of thousands of pictures, and you came up with 80-some, what made you pick that number? What made you willing to pare down all those pictures to that fairly small number of pictures considering what you were working with?
Andy: That’s an excellent question. I can only say, again, about the process that was behind that, it took several passes at my a hundred thousand pictures and whittled down and whittled down in different dimensions. There was a point where it just felt right. I got to that point at about 90 or 88 and the last few that I pruned out for different reasons <was> to make it representative and comprehensive from different angles. It just kind of converged on that.
I certainly had in mind the implications on the size of the book and you can pretty much double that and think if you have 90 pictures, you have a 180-page book if there’s one on every other page. I had a rough idea of how long I wanted it to be. But I didn’t set out with that in mind. Like I say, it’s just artistically and informationally what I wanted to convey. It just felt right to converge on that number.
Matty: That’s a good entrée to the whole production process. We’re doing this a little bit backwards because we’re starting with the more unusual example, and we’ll probably work in a later episode on the more usual example, the more usual circumstance.
But my own experience is working with organizations like CreateSpace to create a text-based novel. Of course, I want it to look nice. I want the print resolution to be sufficiently nice for reading but it’s a whole different world when you’re wanting to produce books that are focused on photography as yours are. So talk a little bit about what options you looked at, and then why you picked the one that you eventually picked.
Andy: When I started that process, I had seen that one of my photography professors at Rhode Island School of Design had published one of his photography books through Blurb, and I’d seen Blurb advertising a lot. A lot of people were using Blurb to produce photography books that were for themselves, for their family, and not necessarily for mass market.
I came into it thinking how Blurb might be the thing, and what I did then is I just surveyed the market and I found CreateSpace, which is owned by Amazon, so that makes a lot of things easier in the process. I’d sampled a bunch of different print on demand companies, and there were one or two that were similarly established to CreateSpace. But CreateSpace seemed like it was so much more established than the next competitors. Like I say, with the Amazon angle, it makes distribution very easy and cut out a lot of fees for middlemen.
So thinking between CreateSpace and Blurb, the question there is, “Is CreateSpace going to have good enough quality for the photographs or not?” And going into this, I really had no idea. Actually, when I was putting the book together, I didn’t really get samples until you get the real thing. It’s tough to see.
You know, the short answer is that CreateSpace, while it was sufficient, the printing facilities around the world differ a bit. If you printed a book through CreateSpace and you see other people’s copies, they will print them at different facilities depending on where they are. I had friends I met in London, and they bought the book and got it overnight because they printed it locally, and it was a slightly different quality.
The pictures look more of a matte than a glossy finish and it’s a little lower quality in the hues but it’s of better quality in the resolution. That’s a big challenge, and that’s a big concern as a photographer. I knew that places like Blurb would reproduce the photographs great, but Blurb is very expensive. That would be the reason you wouldn’t want to go with Blurb. It was very hard to get your money out of it. You have to charge a lot for the book and it’s very, very hard to get your money out of it so it’s a whole different ballpark on the pricing.
Matty: So how much would you have to charge for your book on Blurb versus how much you are in fact charging for your book produced through CreateSpace?
Andy: I don’t have the exact numbers. I think I’m charging $35 for my book on CreateSpace and I forget what the cut is. I keep half of that, very roughly.
On Blurb, to make the size that I wanted, it was more towards—this is two years ago so I don’t know—but it was more towards $70 or $80. That was the overhead. I would have to charge about $80 and I would only get $10 out of it.
Actually, I am still planning to do a follow up deluxe photo edition of my book with Blurb with larger pages, hard cover, thicker pages, better print quality. I wanted that for me as a photographer and for my inner circle of friends and colleagues. I would like to have that kind of beautiful copy as well, if I want to pay the money.
The price for that came out to about $105, <so for the> slightly larger pages and … the ideal quality that I want, the overhead is a little over a hundred.
Matty: That is a big difference.
Matty: I think it’s also tough because if you’re doing photography, it’s so easy now for people to go on the internet and finding beautiful pictures to look at. It seems as if the key is to be able to combine the beautiful photographs with something else. In your case, it was the stories, it was the whole experience of having travelled around the world many times. But it does make it harder to command a premium price in that kind of environment.
Andy: Yeah, absolutely. I think, just stepping back in general in the last 15 years with photography, it used to be that as a photographer, you have to have a good camera and the know-how to use it. But these days, digital cameras are sort of obsolete. Camera phones have taken over digital cameras.
It really separates the people who are real photographers artistically or in some other sense. But they actually had some content other than just knowing how to use the camera because now, everybody can use their camera phone. I think that’s a good point, and if you’re trying to make a living off of it as well, that’s a huge aspect because it’s a commodity now to get beautiful pictures. It’s a whole topic in itself but that’s true.
Matty: When you made the choice to go with CreateSpace, did you do that because you had the goal of selling larger numbers in certain venues like studios or bookstores versus if you have gone with Blurb, you would have been selling to a whole different group of people. Which came first? The decision to go with CreateSpace or the decision about where you wanted to be selling your books?
Andy: Well, in parallel. I just knew I needed it to be accessible to some people. Maybe some people are okay with paying a hundred dollars. But at least, if I make it with CreateSpace, it’s accessible to everybody, and I can add on the more deluxe option later.
I made some money on the book but I didn’t market it worldwide. I did sell it worldwide, but I heavily marketed it locally and did the local author side of things.
But for me, I wanted to put it together and get it out there for different people—people who are travelers and people who are photographers, and my friends and family. I just want it to be accessible to the most number of people. Not necessarily to sell to them, but to give to them.
Matty: What software did you use to create it?
Andy: Since I was a kid, or when I was a teen, it was when desktop publishing was invented, I was working with Adobe. I was working with graphics stuff. That’ll be Photoshop from the beginning, and I was working with the Adobe page layout software from the beginning.
I was the layout editor of my high school magazine, high school newspaper, and my college art magazine, so I happened to have the background in that as well, which made this whole process easier because I could do that myself. There’s this software package called Adobe Lightroom, which is a professional photo-editing software and I was able to <use it to> produce the book.
It allows you to output a simple book format from that. You have different templates, and if your book format is consistent enough and simple enough, you can do it in there and it makes it easy. It’s not flexible so what you do is you use that to output the basic format, and that’s basically a PDF. Then, you open that with a different Adobe software called Adobe InDesign.
InDesign is your typical layout software, and then from that you tweak things, and customize things from the default that Lightroom came out with.
Matty: So you have uploaded all your files, you have chosen CreateSpace, you have started creating your book. Actually, here’s another production question. Based on my experience with CreateSpace, a photographer would be able to load all of their information to CreateSpace and then order a proof copy without it ever going on sale. Then, assess the quality the way you were describing, and make a decision about whether they want to go public with it or not. Can you do the same kind of thing with the Blurb? Can you load all the information and just get one copy to do a comparison between those?
Andy: Yeah, I think so for the most part. It’s just that the copy that you refer to for CreateSpace, it’s in the order of like $10 or $20 for the really long, big book. It’s for the material cost for your book. That’s very cheap, you know, as a draft copy.
But with Blurb, if your overhead cost is $60 or $100, even if you just ordered that one copy, that’s a lot—and each tweak you do, it adds up pretty quickly if you go through three revisions and a hundred is $500 straight away. I think a lot of people use Blurb to only make one copy. They only want to print one copy or two of their books. For me at least, because I did a lot of things myself, the difference between printing it for yourself and for others is there’s not any incremental fees, for me. The cost that Amazon or CreateSpace takes out of the sales, there’s no flat fee before the sales that you need to pay.
Matty: And did you find that you did have to order a couple of proof copies from CreateSpace before you really got it to the point that you wanted it to be for public sale?
Andy: I was really pleasantly surprised. Because like I say, until I got my first proof, I didn’t know if it was even going to be of a good enough quality. If it wasn’t, it was a big thing to go to a different company. I was pleasantly surprised in their quality. Your draft copy that you get is identical to the real copies that they will sell. Maybe they’ll have one page that says “Proof,” but it is what you’re going to get. It is from the same facilities, from the same equipment.
I think I had originally three revisions and drafts that I went through, but one was a mistake of my own and one was something about the process. It was a mistake of my own that I didn’t notice, and their process interpreted it in a way that rotated the page and made the page upside down, or something like that. There was one glitch like that, but I was happy. I didn’t expect it to be that smooth, you know?
Matty: I think that’s one real value of the combination of the glory of print-on-demand and independent publishing. You had mentioned print-on-demand before, and that’s the idea that if one person orders your book, they’re going to print one copy, and if 10,000 people order your book, then they’re going to print 10,000 copies, and there’s none of these warehousing issues that used to be such a concern.
But I know another real benefit to using something like CreateSpace that I’ve experienced is that you can, more or less instantly for novels anyway, make a change. If someone says to me, “Oh, I noticed a typo on page 37,” I can go in and change the typo on page 37 and I can have a new copy with that fixed almost immediately. Whereas, if you talked to people in traditional publishing, I’ve heard stories where they’re queuing up this list of corrections they need to have made and they’re waiting to get their place in the production process in order to do that. It’s nice to be able to react more quickly when you see something that you might want to do differently.
You said you were doing the more local loop <for promotions>. I know you and I met a couple of years ago when we were at Studio B in Boyertown. I know Boyertown is your hometown. Are there any other tips that you would offer people who are pursuing a photography book or similar kind of book about how to get it out there, how to get a word out there about it? <Would you target> art galleries, or is a better option on bookstores, or cafes?
Andy: It depends what your goals are. I can speak to the local aspect in Boyertown. I grew up in Boyertown and then I spent most of my adult life in New York City for over 10 years and then came back to the area.
The little bookstore in town is owned by somebody I graduated with from high school. You know, the art studio—Studio B—is run by a very close friend. Those are two of the obvious venues there. Those are easy choices for me and easy ones to get into so I sold some copies through both of those, being in the shop, and also having signing events at both of those. I think the local aspect is really productive.
The promotional aspect of the local events is a good question, though, how do you push your signing events for your book release, or book signings which may or may not be right after release. I think I used Facebook advertising a bit for that, which is pretty recent. In the last five years, or maybe a little longer, it is a really efficient thing to do to target people locally. Actually, my other career is in e-commerce and online marketing, so I know about that kind of thing and to target precise people—within a whatever miles of Boyertown—is pretty efficient to do on Facebook because of how the tracking is done.
Because the studio or the bookstore, they’re all promoted. They have their ad in the local papers. People these days need to see it again and again. It’s really, really hard to get people to show up. I was very happy with my book signing at the bookstore, the Book Nook in Boyertown, with about two dozen of people, which is a lot of people for a little small town.
Matty: That is.
Andy: But I worked really hard to get people to come in. These are people that I didn’t know. Maybe two people of those people that I knew. This is all people that I didn’t know. I came to know that that was pretty remarkable. I found out that the person before me, the month prior, didn’t have a single person show up. Not one person.
I think as an independent author, I guess we all know this. If we have got into that point in this practice, in all our life, you think if we could just finish the book and print it, and then everything will be perfect. But that is just the beginning. You have to push the marketing. It’s such a big part of it.
Matty: Absolutely. I saw that you had a great interview with a local TV when Fifteen Times Around the World came out. How did you manage that?
Andy: You have to be in the right place at the right time. I put out a press release with some official PRweb.com. You pay a little bit and gets a certain kind of distribution and it looks very official.
Then you send it out to other local papers. I sent it out to 69 News and some Philadelphia stations and whoever’s desk it came across, they just happened to pick it up so I just got that call one night to come out and interview for them. Then I went back again and did a live interview with them on a Saturday morning as well. You’ve just got to to be optimistic and put yourself out there and you’ll be surprised what you will pick up.
Matty: That’s great. So I have one other question for you, because I think your book is only available in print. Is that correct?
Andy: No, it is actually digital. This is completely different because computer screen always looks good but it is available on Kindle. On Amazon, if you look for Fifteen Times Around the World, Andy Schön. It’s available on print but also in the Kindle version which you can see on iPhone and Android as well.
Matty: What were the formatting considerations for that? Did you have to take a whole different approach to the formatting so it would work in those formats?
Andy: That’s an excellent question. Technically, you can convert from a regular book format into something for Kindle. Technically, it’s one minute to convert it. But to make it look good, it’s a whole different thing.
You just have to try it out and see different formats if it’ll end better or worse in being converted. Like mine, because my text is so limited, the text never flows across the next page, that made mine very easy. But for people that have regular textual content, it flows from page to page, and you have to give that control over to the Kindle or the software. That can be a big nightmare so keep that in mind.
When you’re publishing with CreateSpace, at the end of the process <it says>, “Check this box if you want to also distribute <via Kindle>.” It looks that simple. In my case, it was almost that simple. I had to go in and just tweak a few things. Because I know about layout, I was able to do that quickly but I can imagine that being a big nightmare for most people.
Matty: Plus you’ll have to get used to the idea of people seeing your pictures in a tiny, tiny format on their phone when what you really want them is to see it nice and big—
Andy: Yeah, it’s true. That’s a big factor as well. Phones are only getting bigger and bigger so I figured … it looks pretty good. Phone resolution is really good so even a small version of it looks at least as good as it does in a print.
Matty: I was thinking, before I realized it was also available on eBook, that a cool add-on would be some sort of app where you could tie-in GPS information—this picture was taken at this location—and people could quickly see where that was, pull up more information. Is that anything, especially as a tech guy, that you would consider looking into?
Andy: Yes, that’s a great idea. The way you would do that is in the eBook version, I would have some place that you could ‘Click here to see it on a map’ or something, and then I would make that a link into their Google map or Apple map. That’s something you can definitely do. That’s a great idea.
Matty: It’s just finding the time for it, right?
Andy: You’re right, it is. I think for kids, it’s fun too. I have five nieces and one nephew. Kids love the pictures in my book, and for them to see where is this animal, and see it on the map, I think that’s a really cool thing for them.
Matty: That opens a whole other promotional area where you could look at a more educational spin promoting to schools to reach that younger audience.
Andy: Yes, absolutely. I released <the book> on the fall autumnal equinox in September so I ended up marketing it leading up to the holidays. My advertising engaged that angle and it’s a great gift for kids. Luckily, people reported that it was.
Matty: That’s great.
Andy: It wasn’t just marketing. It was true.
Matty: You had the backup to prove it.
Matty: That’s great. Well, I highly recommend people check out Fifteen Times Around the World and if people want to check out other things about you, Andy, where online could they go to do that?
Andy: Sure, AndyLand.com. That’s my personal website. It will link you to all the social and other links.
Matty: Great. Thank you so much.
Andy: Thank you.