Musings on Photography

SoFoBoMo Q&A

Posted in Solo Photo Book Month by Paul Butzi on February 8, 2008

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I’ve been resolutely trying to resist ‘defending’ the idea of SoFoBoMo. To my mind, there’s not a lot of point to evangelism with something like this; either it appeals to someone, or it doesn’t, and no amount of persuasion is likely to get someone to change positions. It’s not that there’s a wrong position – some people will think it sounds like fun, and others won’t. If it doesn’t appeal, the good news is that it isn’t compulsory. I guarantee that no one is going to think less of you because you didn’t participate.

I do, though, think it’s worth articulating some things, in the hopes that it might solidify some thoughts for people who have already jumped in, and might help some fence-sitters get off the fence (in either direction).

If SoFoBoMo is Photo-A-Day plus making a book, it doesn’t make sense to have the number of photos be 35.

it’s unfortunate that the natural minimum size of the book (35 photos) is so close to the number days (31), because it needlessly confuses SoFoBoMo with Photo-A-Day. There’s no link, here. The number 35 was chosen simply because it was the number of photos in the smallest photo book I had close to hand when I wrote the rules. 35 photos just seemed like a sensible minimum.

There’s no ‘photo a day’ expectation, expressed or implied. For SoFoBoMo, you can make all 35 photos in a week. You can do them in one marathon photo session. You can do them however you please, *including* doing a photo a day for 31 days and adding in four more for good measure to tot up to 35.

I’ve got a lot of photos, and I’ve been meaning to take them, edit them down to a reasonably sized set, and make a book. That would produce a better book than SoFoBoMo.

Yes, it probably would. And yet, if you’re raising this issue, you’ve had these photos sitting around for a while now, with some vague intention of doing a book, and yet you haven’t done it. Why is that? What’s the hurdle that’s keeping you from sitting down, editing the photos down to the right strong set, and putting together the photos with front matter, back matter, laying out the pages, writing the copy, and getting it all set to go off to the POD publisher?

In a lot of cases, the hurdle is that there are too many unknowns to getting it all done. You sit down to lay out a book, and you’re struck by the realization that you don’t actually know what stuff goes on a title page, or on a copyright page. You realize that you never really thought through page layout before, or the implications of the fact that some pages face other pages. And when you sit down, and you hit the first of those problems, you stop.

And then you never get started again.

The point behind SoFoBoMo is not to make the book that will catapult you into the ethereal reaches of the photo world. The point of SoFoBoMo is to get a book done. Because it all has to be done in a very aggressive 31 days, you’re forced to make decisions, now, and move on. They might not be the best decisions, and at the end, you might look at those decisions and say “Next time I’ll do it the other way”.

And that’s the real point. After doing a book for SoFoBoMo, you’ve just raised the probability of taking those photos that you’ve had for years and turning them into a quality book from the current state (near zero) to something much more like 100%.

The trick is to set aside the baggage of the past – those strong photos that you’ll need to edit and sequence and write compelling copy for. And in doing that, it frees you to explore what the real options are. Later you can come back, edit those strong photos and make that book.

But taking the body of work that I’ve got and making a book is a BIGGER challenge that taking a month, knocking out 35 new photos, slapping together a book, and proclaiming victory!

Yes, it is. That’s probably part of why you haven’t taken that existing body of serious work and turned it into a book – It’s too big a challenge to go from where you are to cranking out the book you envision when you look at your serious work, all in one step. The trick is to break that challenge down into parts, and part of breaking it down is divorcing the ‘how do I make a book’ part from the ‘turn this existing body of work, complete with its history and emotional importance to me, into a book I can be proud of”.

And the point to SoFoBoMo is to have fun tackling a challenge that will give you the skills, knowledge, and motivation to take that significant body of work and turn it into a significant book. But right now, you lack what you need to make that significant book. SoFoBoMo can be the way you get those skills, and it can make acquiring those skills fun, because there’s so little at stake. A bad decision on the book of your dreams will haunt you forever. A bad decision on your SoFoBoMo book will be something you’ll laugh about over a beer at the end of the month.

And then after you have that beer, you can roll up your sleeves and get to work on turning that serious body of meaningful work that you’ve accumulated over your photo career into a book that will impress us all.

But the rules mean that the book will be restrictive and not very satisfying!

Yes. The rules are restrictive. It’s probably not possible to make a significant book this way. That’s the point: because it’s not possible to make a book that will take the world by storm, the stakes are lowered. No one is expecting you to make a book that will win the Pulitzer. We’re just expecting you to tackle the tasks of cranking out photos, editing them down to a set that’s at least 35 photos, lay out a book including the photos, and produce a PDF that represents the book. There’s no standard of quality you have to meet, and so the stakes are very low.

And because the stakes are so low, it suddenly becomes OK to risk failing or making a bad decision. It’s like playing speed chess instead of tournament chess – no one thinks less of you if you make a blunder playing speed chess. Even grandmasters make goofy blunders playing speed chess. Let me state this right up front – I think everyone expects that some blunders are going to get made during SoFoBoMo. So if you make one, you’ll just be in good company, and we can all laugh at our own blunders when we’re done.

But about the satisfying part – which is more satisfying – a very high quality book of photos drawn from your significant existing body of work that shows that work in the best possible light but which you HAVEN’T STARTED LET ALONE FINISHED, or a lesser book that taught you the skills you need to get that book of your existing work done, and which you HAVE FINISHED?

We feel satisfaction when we actually achieve something, not when we contemplate things we might do someday in the indefinite future.

Some people are seeing the requirement that at least 35 photos be made in the month as the big challenge, and other people are seeing doing the book part as the big challenge. Isn’t there something wrong there? Different people are focusing on different things!

Yes, it’s true. Some people see cranking out 35 book-worthy photos in a month as the big hurdle, and others see the book part as the big hurdle. Different people will take the different challenges with different intensity.

Look at it like a marathon. Some folks are running to finish first. Some folks are running to beat their personal best time. Some people are running to just finish the race without walking. And some people are in the race just to be able to say they’ve run in a marathon and finished. Different goals, one event. And it all works out fine, from the runner who crosses the line first to the one who staggers across as the staff are taking down the gear at the finish line.

We don’t all have to be doing the same thing for the same reasons to learn something, but we CAN all do it more or less together, support one another, and have fun while learning something new.

So SoFoBoMo is just a sneaky way to learn how to make a photo book?

No and yes. If you succeed at SoFoBoMo, you’ll certainly have learned the skills you need to make a book. And for a lot of us, that’s a major reason to participate. But that’s not all that’s there.

SoFoBoMo takes place in a very compressed period. There’s a lot to get done, and almost no time to do it. To make progress, you’re going to have to turn off the part in your head that looks at everything you do and says “Cripes! That sucks. You suck. This is no good. Do it different. Do it over. Don’t bother doing it.”

And when you turn that off, different things happen. You learn unexpected things, not just about photography but about yourself.

And then, of course, to some of us, it just looks like a fun thing to do, so we’re going to give it a whirl. Why not? What’s the worst that can happen?

I still think the entire idea is foolish and I’d rather be painted crimson and parade naked down Main St. than participate.

In that case, I strongly encourage you to not participate.

6 Responses

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  1. Mark Hespenheide said, on February 8, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    To follow up on points #2 and #3, I recently put together a book in the space of a weekend. Composed of photographs taken over a one-year period, I had (of course) already taken the photos, imported them into Bridge, tagged the ones that looked interesting, edited a bunch for web publication, developed some ideas of what to do next, and then…

    Nothing. The project languished until I found out about a promotion from one of the online print agencies for a 10×8″ book, with a expiration of “Tuesday”.

    In two ten-hour sessions, I cut my possible pool of photos from thousands down to about a hundred (using the web page and Bridge’s rankings), organized them chronologically (brainless and fast and not jarringly anti-design), and laid them out with one image per spread on the right hand side, caption on the left hand side. Almost all adjustments were made “globally” in the raw processing, with relatively few local adjustments.
    Put together a simple title page and acknowledgements page, upload it, done.

    Could I make a better book, taking more time to work on each photograph? Undoubtedly. There were also film originals that pained me to leave out, without the time for the drum scans they deserved. But without that external deadline, I wouldn’t have done it at all. I haven’t been more excited about a photo project since I put my first few solo shows up.

  2. John Driscoll said, on February 8, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    Well I think the person parading down main street naked and painted crimson would make a good photo opportunity.

  3. Lisa said, on February 8, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    I’ve been reading the sofowhatever posts with interest. I’m not a photographer but I started a book for my artwork a few years back, even hired a graphic designer, and it’s pretty much done. Except not quite, the last 5% is killer (okay that and shelling out the $ to print it).

    My goal – to have my book done (and to the printer) by the time sofowhatever is over.

    So thanks for the inspiration – even if none of your rules apply to me. It made me realize I need to just get back to work on it and stop wasting time talking and thinking about it.

  4. John Setzler said, on February 8, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    “I still think the entire idea is foolish and I’d rather be painted crimson and parade naked down Main St. than participate.”

    A 35-photo montage of that would be a great topic for this project.

    I don’t understand why anyone is defending the idea of ‘not’ participating in the project. Like you said, it’s not compulsory. I’m just hoping that the idea is not addictive. I don’t have time to sit down and get a bunch of book ideas published 🙂

  5. Arizona church « Red Skies at Night said, on February 10, 2008 at 12:50 am

    […] Paul Butzi’s all but got me convinced to join up for SoFoBoMo. […]

  6. […] a month. Paul Butzi started it all and discusses the project in length on his website, including a SoFoBoMo Q&A. And I think a SoFoBoMo-dedicated website is in the works. Colin Jago has a running list of […]


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