Two of the books offered in SxSE Shop this month, Alphabet by Debbie Fleming Caffery and Visione by Mario DiGirolamo were designed by Laurie Shock. Laurie sat down with us to discuss the art of book designing, the intimate nature of the work, and what a photographer needs to know before pursuing a designer. -editor
Nancy McCrary: Laurie, you’re not only a book designer with more than 200 published books designed to date, but a published author as well. We want to know how you do it! Let’s start with the book design portion. We all know a bit about book design, but please tell us more about what goes into the process.
Laurie Shock: Book design is more complex than placing images and text on a page in an aesthetically pleasing way. With a photobook, you’re creating a visual narrative that should be unique from other photobooks and tell the story in an effortless way so that the reader doesn’t even realize they are being drawn into the story. As a designer, I want the book to be about the author, the photographs, and their message. I don’t want it to be about me, or my identity, and that’s a precarious ledge to tread. So research is number one. I listen to the photographer and what he or she wants to accomplish. I want to know everything about the photographer, the body of work they are publishing, why they want to publish it, who their audiences are, and what expectations the author has. Many times I’ll do research beyond what I can learn directly from the photographer, especially if the subject matter has a specific theme, or historic genre. The more I can learn, the better job I will do in choosing fonts that are appropriate, creating a design, and a sequence of images that will tell the story effectively.
NM: You know those moments when you think , “if I could tell photographers one thing not to do ….”, concerning putting together a series with the intention of publishing a book, what would that thing be?
LS: Do not edit your work in a vacuum. Trust the advice of your book designer and other photography professionals. As a photographer, you have a very personal connection to each of your photographs and that will hinder you in editing your images down to the strongest collection of images. You have to remember that your audience won’t have the personal connection to your images that you do. They won’t know the backstory of how you got that shot and why it means so much to you. You are emotionally biased. And many times, that shot you love really shouldn’t be in your final edit, but you can’t see that because of your connection. Your book should include only the very best images. What people need to remember is that photography is a language, just like English, only in visual form, and choosing the best images and sequencing makes the difference between a coherent statement and incomprehension. Allow people you trust to help you shape the final edit. The book will eventually begin to take on a life it’s own. It’s organic, the story will come to life, you will see what it needs to be if you let it go a little.
NM: Conversely, what are the most important things a photographer should consider when contemplating turning a series into a book? Before a photographer contacts a designer, what should he or she have in hand?
LS: A photographer should have a well-developed body of work with a unique message they want to tell. There is a lot of competition in book publishing so it’s crucial to be thoughtful about what you want to communicate and be certain you have the images to effectively support your story. Before deciding to publish, a photographer should also research the competition in the marketplace to determine what other books exist with the same theme or message. His or her book needs to stand apart from all others, otherwise it will risk being invisible and the message gets lost. Determine who the audiences are and how to reach them. It’s likely there are several target markets, a primary, secondary, and tertiary. Learn about them: who they are, what they believe, where they go, what they buy and how they buy. Finally, a photographer should be honest about what they hope to accomplish with the book. If it’s simply for money, I recommend not publishing. It’s tough out there. Most books don’t turn a profit and that’s not a good reason to publish. Do it if the work is unique and will truly resonate with people, do it because you truly believe you can connect others with your work, do it because you have an important story to share and you don’t care if it earns you $1 or $10,000. Equally important, publish the work with the same high level of craftsmanship and quality that you put into your photography. The book will outlast you and the work will be your visual voice to people you cannot imagine.
NM: What brought you to this career, and what advice would you give someone considering following your path?
LS: I’ve been an artist all of my life: drawing, painting, and writing stories since as far back as I can recall. I attended a farm school near Amish country in northeastern Ohio, kindergarten through grade twelve under one roof! I wanted to be a fine artist, but my art teacher guided me toward design believing that I would have more career options. I studied fine art, design, and advertising and really enjoyed how the design informed my fine art and visa versa. My first job out of college was working in the art department of a family-owned toy company. The product design was great fun, but there was volatility at the helm with the father as president and the daughter as CEO, each trying to get rid of the other. I quickly planned my escape and was rescued by a start-up publishing company where I was hired as a book designer. It was there that I truly fell in love with telling stories through books and learned every aspect of book publishing. When I first arrived, it was a very small company, which enabled me to participate in book development, research, book outlines, picture research, as well as design. The business grew tremendously and as art director, I helped build an art department and bring the company into the Macintosh age. After six years, I left to start my own publishing and design business in Atlanta.
My advice to anyone interested in a career of book design, is to look at the bigger picture. Learn as much as you can about every aspect of book publishing: storytelling, writing, editing, copyright guidelines, and the entire publishing process, even marketing and promotions. Maybe you don’t want to be responsible for anything more than the design, and that’s okay. But the more you understand how every aspect of a book is developed, crafted, and distributed, the better your book will be.
NM: Tell us a story. What was your most memorable experience, most unforgettable, or what project were you most proud, etc.
Okay, this will sound cliché, but so be it. I am most proud of whatever book I’m working on at the time. Seriously, I invest a tremendous amount of creativity, energy, and emotion into every person and every book I create—and that experience and collaboration with the photographer is the gift that continues to inspire me.
One memorable example is the man who came to me with a collection of photographs he had taken in Peru. While he was a bank president, he suddenly began having epileptic seizures, a lot of them. The seizures, along with other new health issues, halted his career. He couldn’t do his job, he couldn’t drive a car, and the life he knew abruptly halted. Rather than let depression cripple him, he turned to his lifelong hobby, photography. He’d been interested in traveling throughout Peru for some time and he had heard that there were masses of people in Lima striking for better working and living conditions, so he packed his camera and bought a plane ticket. Upon arrival, he connected with the people, he made portraits, documented their gatherings and clashes with authorities. He talked and learned about them, their struggles and hopes. When he finally returned home he had a huge body of work and didn’t quite know what to do with it all. He had tried to put a softcover book together that he could share back with the people of Peru, as well as with people in the United States, but it wasn’t the quality or messaging he was going for. We worked together to edit the work and create a sequence that told the story as he saw it. We contacted Hernando de Soto, an award-winning economist and the founder of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Lima, thinking perhaps he could write an Introduction to the book and help create an opportunity for the book to be presented and shared with the people of Peru. Within one week de Soto agreed readily and within another week we had his very poignant statement. We printed the book in English and Peruvian Spanish, side by side on every page. While we scheduled book signings and an exhibit here in the States, De Soto shared it with his people in Peru. It had legs, it had it’s own life. That’s what I love: the work and the story are important, and so is the experience of helping someone achieve their goal. It’s the relationship and the experience of giving birth to another visual story and watching its journey to parts unknown.