Interview with Publisher Susan S. Bank about her Imprint Sagamore Press
Susan S. Bank founded Sagamore Press in 2008 to publish here work titled Cuba: Campo Adentro. Here Susan discusses some of the aspects of the publishing process.
MM: What made you want to self-publish? Have you had any experiences with publishers in the past?
SB: It would be misleading to say that I set out with a desire to self-publish!
My decision to self-publish was based on ‘accepting the reality’ of what I wanted to accomplish, given the circumstances of the publishing industry.
I had used up the routes of winning book prizes, entering the Leica Book Award twice, which was a long shot: it is an international award and two books on Cuba had recently been selected. The Duke/Honickman First Book Prize was attractive and I made it to the finals twice; in 2004 and in 2006 when Robert Frank was juror with just 12 finalists. Frank awarded the prize to an outstanding portfolio by Danny Wilcox Frazier titled Driftless: Photographs from Iowa. I had sent out a marquette to about half a dozen publishers, university and commercial presses, getting the same response, that while they liked the work, they did not believe it would sell. I picked myself up and decided that I did not want to flood the market with more maquettes, (how long would that take?) and in 2007 I moved forward to self-publish. Making the decision to self-publish was a huge relief! I realized that by self-publishing I would have complete control of the process and the results. This was a position that I relished. No, I had no previous experiences with publishers. A publisher did offer to jump onboard once I had nearly completed the book but I decided that I did not want to lose control at that point.
MM: Who designed and printed the books? How many did you print?
SB: The book was designed by Jorge Moya and Nestor Gonzalez of Reynardus and Moya, a graphic design firm of New York. Ricardo Viera, my mentor, recommended that I work with Moya, who in fact had never designed a photo book before. It was a ‘dream team’ collaboration along with my printing partner, Robert Asman. Bob Tursack of Brilliant Graphics printed the book. I went for the highest quality of printing, the ‘full Monty’ as I call it, ‘my Steidl book’ (self-publishers must believe in their book!) using quadtone on premium paper printed on a Heidelberg press. When the book was chosen as one of “The Best Photography Books of the Year” PHotoEspana 2009, curators in Madrid were struck by the quality of the printing. In fact, La Fabrica, which sells only their own books, Phaidon and Steidl titles, asked to carry my book as well. I decided on a small edition of 750 copies. I had heard stories from others about the strains of distributing a self-published book, (all true!) and storage. I am fortunate in that Tursack stores my books in a climate-controlled warehouse. I have been assisted in distribution by photo-eye, Tim Whelan, Leica International and now La Fabrica. It is a good idea to talk with others who have self-published and those who have worked with commercial publishers to anticipate what to expect. My friend, Boston photographer, Stella Johnson, was an invaluable resource for me. I followed a few months behind her self-publishing her own passionate monograph Al Sol, and learned a lot of the snags and stumbling blocks to anticipate.
MM: What was the budget for the book and did you come close to this number when the project was finished? Where there any unforeseen complications with the project that you did not anticipate?
SB: I did not have a ‘budget’ per se. But costs were a consideration when I decided to make it a small book with 48 images. I took Viera’s advice to approach the book as a small museum. We (self-publishers) all seem to be reluctant to talk about the ‘real cost’ unless one feels confident they got a really good book cheaply. If I had this book printed in China or Singapore it would have cost half as much and it is very possible that I would have come out with a high quality book. I felt more comfortable having it printed close to home. Tursack and Brilliant Graphics is located in Exton PA, 19 miles from my home in Philadelphia.
MM: How would you recommend a photographer get funding for his or her project aside from personal funds? Do limited edition prints help?
SB: I cannot address if limited edition prints help. You might know that from your experience at Photo-eye. I was too impatient to get going to look for outside funding sources. I wanted to have my book on my 70th birthday. I believe that if I had taken the time to do research, I might have been able to get backing from Cuban American organizations. Because my subject is tobacco farmers, it might have been a logical move to approach Cuban cigar dealers in Canada and Europe but I dropped the ball on that idea. I admire Jonathan Moller who was able to pull together funding in small amounts from many sources, to eventually get his book. Our Culture is Our Resistance with Powerhouse. That is one approach. I admire Ernesto Bazan’s creativity in funding his epic book BazanCuba with contributions from his students. If a publisher likes your book but feels it won’t sell, don’t discount the possibility of getting their imprint and distribution if one is willing to pay the costs of book production. If one can think out of the box, anything is possible.
MM: In your personal work, are you influenced by other mediums other than photography?
SB: Not that I am aware of. I work from life . . . and not from reproductions of life.
MM: What blogs do you read? magazines?
SB: I am now browsing blogs. I follow 5B4 blog on photo books, Foto8, Visura and 100 Eyes. I subscribe to a few hard copy photo magazines. Including the old standard Aperture, as well as Russell Joslin’s Shots and Nueva Luz. I am more likely to read essays on photography. David Levi Strauss’s Between the Eyes is a favorite.
MM: What is your favorite book, photo or otherwise?
SB: Often my favorite photography book is the one I most recently acquired. Currently, I am enjoying Danny Lyon’s Memories of Myself. I do read the text in a photo book. For a long time I was not literate in photography books, purposely avoiding them so as not to be influenced by another photographer’s style. Now I have given myself permission to study them and it was especially helpful to review my small collection when I was preparing my own. Koudelka published by Aperture two years ago is a magnificent book. I am partial to Scott Peterman, his poetic study of Maine ice fishing houses, and Miguel Rio Branco: An Aperture Monograph for its violent, sensual color. There are so many more!
MM: Do you have an odd or funny photography related story?
SB: One of my favorite stories that stays with me is from my book. The essay writer and art critic/curator, Juan Antonio Molina, writes in a very complicated style. I could not find any professional translators either in Mexico or in the US, who would ‘touch’ Molina’s essay. I almost did not use it. At the 11th hour I put an ad up at the University of PA looking for editor/translator. I had one response from a PHD candidate in documentary photography who wrote me that she would be happy to give it a try but she knew just one word in Spanish….’taco’! So we gave it a go, and Denise Taynol, using two Spanish dictionaries and the help of a Spanish teacher friend, produced a brilliant translation. Denise thought like Molina. However, I will think twice in future about doing a bi-lingual book.
MM: Can you think of any mistakes made on this project or anything you would have done differently if you could do it again?
SB: Publishing Cuba: Campo Adentro went smoothly. I knew what I wanted. Looking at the book, one year after publication, there is nothing I would like to change.
MM: What are some of your future projects, photographic or book-related?
SB: I am editing my work from Havana, which spans a ten-year period. I love the process of editing. However, I know I am treading on slippery terrain here as so many photographers have ‘done’ Havana. To add something new, a new iconography, is challenging. The el campo work stands on its own and is work that very few people know of. I am also exploring projects close to home . . . somewhat of a paradox, as it appears that travel to Cuba is going to get easier by the end of this year. I would like to complete the editing of my first photo essay, the “Salisbury Beach” portfolio. I am beginning to feel that one does not have to make MORE pictures but rather to dig into what one already has.
MM: What exactly was your role, other than photographer, in the book production?
SB: This was a ‘hands-on’ project for me. I was involved with every aspect of the production. I selected the pictures and the sequencing. I worked as team player with the designers. Before we went to work, I sent them a memo with what I wanted and what I did not want. I personally oversaw all the details, including researching and selecting the paper. I like ‘details’ hence this was not difficult for me. I ‘sat’ on press. Bob Tursack, the printer, commented when we were finished that he had never worked for such a demanding photographer but it was good for him to raise the bar in his own business.
MM: Finally, you originally described Campo Adentro environment as "like walking into a diorama in a natural history museum". By identifying your relationship with these people and their locale as foreign, how do you think you were able to deal with your need to create a realistic and unromanticised view of the location? Do you feel as if you achieved this goal?
SB: There is no question that the first few trips to el campo, an ‘exotic’ shadow was hovering. I was fortunate in that I was able to go to the valley two or three times a year and to live with the campesinos in their homes. Although I was not familiar with farming life (the first two years of my life I did live on a farm but have no memory), I did feel a ‘kinship’ with the campesinos as I had grown up during tough times after the Depression and during the War. I began to imagine that they were family to me. Looking at the book as a whole, I don’t believe I romanticised poverty. It is not a book about poverty in rural Cuba but a book about relationships. (I am troubled when I see so many pictures of desperate faces of African children gazing into the photographers’ lens . . . while not intended, this represents to me a way of romanticizing poverty.) However, I concede there are some ‘romantic’ pictures in the book. For example, the opening picture of the sugar cane field represents what we might imagine this rural place to look like. I struggled with whether or not to use it then decided I needed to establish a sense of place early in the book. I also struggled with using the boy swinging on the clothesline (# 47) but saw it as a metaphor of transition, between the known and unknown, the future and the past, the beginning and the end so in that context, one could see it a ‘romantic’ picture. But I believe, overall, that by working with the simple details of daily life, I was able to create a portrait, often surreal, of the human landscape in rural Cuba grounded in a raw, yet respectful beauty.