Photography and eBooks: Guy Tal's Philosophy

 Guy Tal is a photographer, writer, instructor, and philosopher who splits his time between all of these things and just living.  I was particularly interested in his interest and skill with publishing his own eBooks, instead of going a traditional route by self-publishing or working with a publisher.  His style and philosophy are refreshing in world of highly competitive photography.

Pictureline:  Guy, you are well known for a combination of things you do surrounding photography…writing, teaching, speaking, publishing. What made you decide to start publishing your own eBooks rather than use traditional publishing services?

Guy Tal:  Thank you, Joel! As with many other things, it started with numbers, though I soon realized there are other great benefits to the self-published eBook over traditional publishing.

In order to publish a paper book, an author can take one of two routes: self-publish, market, and sell their own books, or go through a publisher. In the first model, the author has to make a large upfront investment to get the book printed. Editions of less than a couple of thousand copies are usually not financially feasible, so the initial cost is quite high. Once printed, the author then needs to figure out how to get the books out of their garage and into bookstores. By the time you factor in the retailerʼs share, the cost of shipping, etc. you realize that you need to sell a lot of books just to break even. If going through a publisher, you give up yet more of the revenues and, even though the initial risk is lower, the returns are fairly low. A publisher will also often want to have a say about content and push to target large audiences (read: basic information, low common denominator) rather than unique niches.

By self-publishing eBooks I can bypass almost all the middlemen. I get to retain creative and editorial control; I have a free global distribution network (the Internet) at my fingertips; I do not need to pre-pay for a given number of printed copies that I donʼt know if I can sell. Once you add it all up, it is easy to see that for given revenue, I need to sell much fewer eBooks than I would paper books. This works to the readerʼs benefit, as well. With very little overhead to worry about, I can also pass some of my savings in the form of a lower cover price and still make more per copy than I would in a printed edition.

Then there are the benefits of portability, interactivity, cross-selling opportunities, and any number of other benefits not possible with printed books.

Pictureline:  Tell us about what you are trying to accomplish in a book, any book. It seems that you have more ideas in mind than simply exhibiting the photographs. Talk about why you add so much of your philosophy and what that gives to the experience of your eBooks.

Guy Tal:  When I decided I wanted to write instructional books, one of my first thoughts was that I should write the kind of books I wish I had when I started out. While I donʼt think that there are shortcuts to creating meaningful work, just the knowledge of how to go about it can be invaluable.

Another aspect I wanted to emphasize is that photography is not all "pro" this, and "extreme" that. There is so much personal satisfaction and fulfillment that can be found in practicing it as a creative pursuit, expressing thoughts and emotions through visual elements, and exploring the world with an eye toward experiencing and sharing beauty. I was fortunate to discover these things through my own work and get great satisfaction from paying some of it forward.

In so many ways, I am grateful for being able to live the life that I do, and photography played a big role in making it possible. Especially in these times of political tension, wars, stressful economy, and seemingly endless negativity on every channel, I think it is important to foster art, peaceful explorations, and common grounds and to remind people that there is so much more to appreciate and be thankful for.

Much of it also became clear to me as a result of my interactions with students. On almost every one of my workshops and talks, I poll participants about what they perceive as their biggest hurdles. Very few ever mention simple technical topics. The overwhelming concerns seem to be of a creative nature: how to approach a scene, how to identify compositions, how to communicate emotions, how to develop a personal approach and style, how to slow down and see past the obvious, etc. These are all things I try to weave into my narrative.

Pictureline:  What does the eBook offer the viewer in terms of experience that is different than the printed page?

Guy Tal: It certainly is different, though obviously there are both pros and cons. For starters it is easier to acquire: click a few buttons and, seconds later, you have the book, without leaving your desk. With modern devices, it is also easier than ever to carry an entire library with you into the field, on a plane, or anywhere else you wish to read or need access to reference material. And the electronic format allows for the ability to search, zoom, follow links, and other conveniences not possible on paper.

There are things I miss, though. An electronic book will simply never replace the "feel" of a paper book: the scent of the pages, the aesthetics of a high-quality printed image, the personal autograph or dedication, etc. All these things make for a much more personal relationship with the book. This is why I donʼt think eBooks will replace all books. In particular, coffee-table books, inspirational texts, etc. require, at least for me, the tactile experience of holding something in your hand that has dimensions and a personality, turning pages and interacting with it as a beautiful object in its own right.

Still, for instructional books, reference material, etc., the eBook is a far better format than paper. With the exception of the reading device, you donʼt have to worry about durability, weight, lighting conditions or other aspects that may otherwise prevent you from having the book available where and when you need it.

Pictureline: Could you tell us a little bit about how you are marketing your eBooks? What services are you using and how has delivery to customers been for you? What are your readers saying?

Guy Tal:  Marketing self-published work is obviously up to the author and is by far the most daunting task. This is especially true for me, as I tend to be self-conscious and reluctant to hype my work. Still, even here, the electronic format offers an advantage. For starters, I can write for my own audience. I donʼt have to worry about what might grab someoneʼs attention on a bookshelf. I know the type of photographers who are interested in my work and can tailor my writing to them, without giving up editorial control to a publisher who is more interested in the low common denominator that will sell the most copies. What I lose in "eye candy," I gain in knowing I have a solid and loyal audience truly interested in what I have to say.

Perhaps the most powerful tool for marketing my work had been social media. These platforms (Google+, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) give audiences the freedom to "opt in" to my updates, which is a far better way to promote than trying to push something onto people who may not appreciate mass marketing tactics (as I myself donʼt). And I can reach every individual in my network directly, answer questions, and receive feedback. I always believed that an artistʼs audience should not be "engineered." In other words, art should not be created on the basis of what has the best sales potential. Instead, I believe that an artistʼs audience is made up of those who share their sensibilities and approach and relate to their way of perceiving the world. Marketing online is the perfect model for this: anyone is free to decide if they want to hear from me or not, and when I post something, I know it goes to those who will appreciate it and are likely to purchase my offerings and support my work.

Pictureline: We've read a lot about the different formats for eBooks, whether EPUB for Apple applications or PDF which can be read on a variety of tablets and, of course, laptops and desktops. It appears that you've opted for the PDF format. Can you tell us about your choice and any impact that may have on the presentation, the text, or the flow of the book?

Guy Tal: EPUB to me is a format developed by engineers looking for a "one size fits all" solution, rather than by creative individuals looking to portray their work in the most favorable way. With EPUB and similar formats, the author has no say about such things as the placement of images relative to text, where pages begin and end,and very limited control of typographic elements (fonts, spacing, etc.).

While less of an issue for text-oriented books, I found the limitations of EPUB to be onerous for books relying on arrangements of text and images. To me, the layout of the book, of each page, of the flow of text and images, etc. are crucial to the readerʼs experience and the value they get from my book.

PDF is a much richer format, allowing me to control practically all aspects in the delivery of my content.

In my mind, EPUB and similar formats have set back desktop publishing two or more decades. There are things you could do in MS-Word 1.0 that are impossible with EPUB. When you think about it, there are things you could do with a piece of chalk and a cave wall that you canʼt do with EPUB. In the age of ever-smarter and more capable reading devices, this seems like a move in the wrong direction.

Pictureline: What sort of things are you envisioning for the next five years? Do you have projects or new areas that you want to cover?

Guy Tal: To be honest, I am overwhelmed with all the things I want to write about and the lack of time to cover them all. I plan to add a couple more titles to my "Creative Series." I am already working on a B&W landscape title and considering one dedicated to composition and "speaking the visual language."

I also want to cover more creative and, if you will, philosophical topics. Operating a camera or a processing application is really not that difficult to master. On the other hand, learning how to express yourself creatively, in any medium, is the path to a lifetime of enjoyment and continued learning. If I can help someone find their way to such a fulfilling life, I will have accomplished a much greater mission than merely teaching them technical skills.

Pictureline: What else is keeping your attention these days. What are you thinking about?

Guy Tal: Iʼm teaching more than I used to. This took a mental shift on my part as I had always been a very private person and preferred to practice my work in solitude. Still, there are amazing rewards in teaching, which I am grateful for every time Iʼm standing in front of an audience or in the field with a workshop. I feel that I learn as much as I teach. I get to talk about photography and art, and I get to learn about how different people perceive the world. There is so much wisdom and inspiration that may pass unknown if we donʼt take the time to interact with others who share our passion.

I also consider teaching vital to the future of creative photography. This is particularly true for the great tradition of landscape photography in America. It is a form of art that evolved here, hand in hand with the discovery of the natural treasures of the West, the first national parks, the great American frontier, etc. People like to think of Jazz as the quintessential American art form, but landscape photography can easily make the same claim. Not only can we take pride in so many of the great masters of the genre, but also in some of its greatest teachers from Alfred Stieglitz, through Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Minor White, and Philip Hyde, just to name a few. It is a proud tradition that seems to have languished in recent years, and I want to be part of its revival. Anyone can teach you how to read a histogram, but it takes an artist to teach you to see and interpret and relay your own thoughts in your work, and to use your chosen medium as a means of enriching your life and the lives of those around you.

RELATED ARTICLES

Book Review: "Understanding Exposure" by Bryan Peterson
Focus on Photographers - Drake Busath
Timeless Principles in Black and White Photography