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Get the Picture? Valuable Lessons Quiet Light Learned

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This photograph of the Missouri River is one among many images included in Richard Mack’s first book, The Lewis & Clark Trail: American Landscapes. In the book, it’s in color.

BUILDING THE BUSINESS

Get the Picture? Valuable Lessons Quiet Light Learned

by Linda Carlson

Richard Mack chuckles about his career path to publishing being circuitous, but it’s easy to see how the past 30-some years have prepared him to create the high-quality coffee-table books offered at QuietLightPublishing.com, among other places.

The proprietor of Quiet Light Publishing started off as a forestry major at Oregon State University, but, scared off by high unemployment in forest resources, he returned home to Illinois after a year and earned a degree in photography and advertising. Along the way, inspired by a grandfather who designed commercial buildings, he took some architectural courses. Before Mack established his own photography business, he did a stint with the Santa Fe Railway, which he describes as “mostly printing old train pictures for rail fans.”

Once on his own in Evanston, Mack specialized in location photography for architects and major corporations: photographs for annual reports, especially shots of facilities (everything from factories to luxury resorts), were his mainstay until September 11, 2001. His business took a significant nosedive that autumn, and Mack made what he considered at least a 90-degree career turn.

Fascinated by the stories of Lewis and Clark’s expedition west, and aware that the centennial of their 1804–06 trip was approaching, he decided to combine his interests in the outdoors and in history with photographs that retraced the expedition’s route.

Starting in early 2002 in wintry North Dakota, Mack documented the Lewis and Clark trail as the explorers would have seen it, taking two years to read the expedition members’ journals, journey to the right spots in the right seasons, and continue his commercial photography business.

“None of the book publishers I approached was interested,” he said, “and many of the other photographers I knew had self-published. They all said, ‘It’s the only way to make money.’”

But, Mack said, chuckling again when we talked, “no one told me the downside!”

Initial Errors

Nor did anyone mention the most common mistake that publishers make: overprinting. “How many are enough, how many are too many?” says the publisher, philosophically chalking up his large print run as “not disastrous, just a bit of an expensive lesson.”

As he warns others, “It is always tempting to say, ‘This book is so great, everyone will want it!’ Not so. New publishers can easily get caught in the ‘print more to keep the unit cost down’ mindset. Avoid that at all costs!”

Mack also made what he now recognizes as key marketing mistakes.

One was assuming that this truly American tale would sell better if he could say the book had been printed in the United States. Printing here rather than overseas increased the unit cost by at least a dollar and was apparently of no importance to reviewers or buyers.

A second mistake was underestimating the complexity of selling to the National Park Service, an important customer for this book. The 11 states along the trail all have NPS visitor centers with gift stores, and 5 additional Eastern states have federal visitor centers with material on the expedition. But buying for the centers is decentralized and slow-moving.

Four other common issues:

Missing an important tie-in date. Quiet Light published The Lewis & Clark Trail: American Landscapes in March 2005, after the celebration of the expedition centennial had been in progress for a year.

Overpricing. Mack launched the book at $90 because he knew how high wholesale discounts would be, but he quickly reduced the retail price to $60 after the original price met resistance.

Not preparing retailers and wholesalers for major publicity. In November 2005, Mack knew the book was scheduled for an NBC Nightly News story, but he didn’t know when the story would run. Without a date, it was hard to get his wholesaler and Amazon.com to order books, especially given how busy they were with holiday inventory.

The story ran the Sunday night before Thanksgiving, generating sales of 2,500 books the next week. Quiet Light’s wholesaler and Amazon.com immediately sold out, and they continued to show the book as “out of stock” until after New Year’s Day.

There was a silver lining, though. Would-be buyers had to track Mack down to get copies, which meant that he sold more than 1,000 books nonreturnable and prepaid at full retail price.

Underestimating the importance of target markets.“Figure out who you’re going to sell a book to before you start work on it,” Mack emphasizes. “Publishing a book is the easy part—the real work is the marketing of it.”

Selecting New Subjects

Despite the downside of publishing, Mack was hooked: “I love doing books: you’re your own client!” So as he was marketing the Lewis and Clark book, when people asked him “What’s next?” he looked again to his background.

Since age 19, he’d spent vacations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. He’d seen the existing photo books about the park and noticed that the text in most did little more than describe where the pictures were taken.

“I wanted to emphasize the fine art of park photographs,” he says. Mack already had many beautiful Great Smoky Mountains photos, but he saw gaps in his photographic coverage of the park, which covers more than 800 acres. That meant another two years of work, traveling to every part of the park in each season, gathering historical photos, and working with a park interpreter to create the minimal text. This scope is what distinguishes Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Thirty Years of American Landscapes, which came out in 2009 and is the park’s bestselling book, even at $60.

Today, Mack again has reached to his roots for a new book—this time on the five Great Lakes. “I’ve lived on Lake Michigan my entire life, and I’ve never circumnavigated any of the Great Lakes,” he exclaims. Besides providing nature photos, this volume will document the industries of the lakes and the challenges inherent in preserving them and their water quality.

“Did you know,” he asked when we spoke, “that the five Great Lakes comprise 20 percent of the fresh water in the world? And that it is said that a drop of water in Lake Superior will travel for 1,000 years before it reaches the ocean?”

When the Author Isn’t You

But before he can finish his travels around and on Lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, Mack will be taking delivery of his first book by another author/photographer, Steve Azzato’s Their Love of Music. It features 117 photographs of musicians of all kinds, and their comments about the commitment to music that keeps them playing night after night, even into what are usually retirement years. (The oldest, Pinetop Perkins, is 97.)

Scheduled for an October 1 launch, Their Love of Music resulted from that NBC Nightly News interview; the producer referred author/photographer Azzato to Mack. From a series of casual conversations, they moved eventually to a publishing contract.

Mack says they have a great working relationship, but he cautions self-publishers making the transition to publishing other authors: “The biggest change is that you can’t take anything for granted—from contracts to accounting to sign-offs on each step of the process.”

Nor can you overlook what you’re investing in a book created by someone else. When it’s your own work, you tend not to focus on the costs in time and money of everything you put into the project, he explains.

And marketing may be more stressful. Mack says he feels more pressure to ensure that Their Love of Music will sell than he would if it was his own book, although he adds that, in all cases, “You have to be on top of the game before you decide to publish a book; you have to know what it will take to produce this book, why it will make money, how you are going to get folks to buy it.”

Quiet Light has not had to confront one issue that often plagues authors and publishers of heavily illustrated books—quality of reproduction. That’s because of Mack’s background and his refusal to skimp on time or proofs.

He searches carefully for book manufacturers, but he also understands that quality reproduction begins with what he submits. “Once you let go of the notion that everything you captured on film can be reproduced, you can focus on what will be the best conversion of each image. Prints are always a compromise. It’s managing that compromise that is key.”

Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle.

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