Publishing Unplugged — The Inside Story

There are many things I don’t know. Anybody who knows me knows that this is the height of understatement. The list is too long for an issue let alone an article in Outdoor Photographer. There are though a few things that I do know. I know that I can’t just turn over dirty sheets; I actually have to change them. I know having four-wheel drive means that when you get stuck your walk back will be longer. And I know that anyone who has ever taken a picture longs to have it published in a magazine or calendar.

The catch is that most people not only don’t know how to go about getting published, they go out of their way to make it much more unlikely. Any editor or publisher can recite a long list of common things photographers do that virtually ensures they will never be published. Here are the common misconceptions and pitfalls plus their remedies to getting published. Consider this the Do-Bee and Don’t Bee of publishing.

1. The hardest thing to sell is a single picture, that is unless it is a current picture of Elvis, the Loch Ness, Big Foot or Paris Hilton in a library. The reason it is so difficult to sell is that everyone is trying to get his or her single picture published as well so it becomes the most competitive (and therefore lowest paying) get-published strategy. Your chance of getting a picture in the Sierra Club calendar is .4%. That is a nice way of saying that the likelihood of not getting in the Sierra Club calendar is 99.6% and the percentages are the same for all national known calendars.

Magazines as well really don’t have much use for a single picture. In Outdoor Photographer there are just a few single pictures published each issue yet Rob Sheppard, the Editor, gets thousands of them submitted every month. Again, a single picture, all by itself and with no connection to anything else (an essay, a feature, etc.) is an abandoned orphan unlikely to find a home.

So what is the answer? All photographers take are single pictures, after all. The answer is you need to supply a reason the picture should be published. That reason can be because it is part of an article or because it is part of a photo essay or because it meets the need of a regular feature. Getting right down to the nitty-gritty, the innocent take and submit single pictures, the pros take and submit a set of related pictures, better known as a story. Professional photographers are actually storytellers. We submit stories in the form of an article, or a book or a theme calendar. If you want to get published regularly, begin to think of yourself as a storyteller and start taking pictures that tell stories.

2. If you only submit images you are cutting your chances of getting published way down. Very few books or magazines print just picture stories or what are called photo essays. Those good old days are long gone. Books and magazines, even web sites, publish packages of pictures and words. This is because pictures and words tell the best stories and the better the stories the more readers and the more readers the more money the book or magazine or web site can earn.

If you just submit a compelling set of pictures for the magazine to use what you are really doing is hoping that the editor also happens to have lying around a compelling set or words lying around that just happen to be perfect for your pictures. Not going to happen. But if you submit a complete package of words and images to a publisher than you have a much more likely chance of getting published. Struggling pros take only pictures. Successful pros take pictures and write. It is as simple as that.

I know, you are a photographer, not a writer. Well, so am I. I just find enough words to make sense of my pictures. You are not writing a novel, you are just using a few words to compliment your images. Pretend you are telling the story of your pictures to a friend and just write down everything you would say in that conversation. If I can write, you certainly can too.

3. It is commonly believed that only the very best images are ever published yet in almost every publication we ever see, no matter what it is, we see a picture that we think is really inferior or that we have a better version of. This is because publishers don’t get paid to look for and then publish the very best pictures ever taken, their job is to find pictures that are good enough to use in the publication. Good enough may mean handy at the time, it may mean at the right price, it may mean in the right format, it may mean of the right subject or it may mean having the right palette of colors.

I had a picture published in OP a few years ago of the famous Wild Goose Island scene in Glacier National Park. It was a nice picture but it was far from wonderful and it certainly wasn’t even close to the best picture I have ever seen of that scene. Many of you probably have better shots of Wild Goose Island and you probably thought that at the time when you saw my image. The reason you didn’t get a call from OP was that my picture was good enough. Why waste time and money looking for something better when what you have is good enough?

So don’t get discouraged if you have seen pictures published that are better than yours. If you can supply the need (the story) for the picture to be used and the picture is good enough it will be used. If you don’t supply the story, you have no chance.

4. You must be a student of whatever medium you are submitting to in order to improve your chances. Being a student means knowing what is usually published, what has recently been published and what is never published. If you submit poetry to OP it is unlikely it will be published, sorry. If you submit nudes to OP it is unlikely it will be published. Now I’m sorry. And if you submit pictures or a story about an article that was just run in the magazine you have no chance of getting published.

Rob Sheppard tells me that this happens all the time. I guess the thinking is, “if you liked those pictures of _______ then you should like these pictures too.” They make like your pictures too, they may even really, really like your pictures too but there is a better chance of me being named Sultan Oman than those pictures being used. If it has recently been done it is time to let it go and move on.

But you can use this to your advantage as well. Every winter OP publishes an article titled something like “Winter Photography Tips.” It is always the same article (there are only so many winter photography tips), it is always a useful article (because the OP readership is sufficiently fluid) and it appears every year, year after year. It is also not the only topic like this for OP. I will let you figure out the others.

5. Since you are all madly getting together your images right now for your version of “Winter Photography Tips” don’t bother to submit it in winter, submitted it instead in summer. This is because magazines work months ahead. You therefore must also work months ahead. If you submit an article at a time when it is not needed then no matter how good the article is it will be returned to you.

Right now you should be submitting articles on summer topics or fall topics depending on the timing of the magazine. Some magazines work 6 months ahead, some work 9 or 10 months ahead. You can find this out by checking out the web site of the magazine you intend to submit to and seeing what their publication schedule is.

But if you submit articles months ahead of time you won’t be able to go out and take the pictures you need when you are preparing the article. In winter I finished a fall foliage article for OP. I had better have the pictures already taken and ready to go last fall to be able to make a submission on fall in winter. So go out and take the pictures you will need for your “Winter Photography Tips” article in winter but don’t send everything until May. The hard part is thinking about an article about winter photography during the seductive days of spring. It is much easier to think of summer articles during winter.

6. Since we are talking about making submissions you have two choices how to do one- the right, professional way and the wrong, comically incompetent way. I, myself, would choose the right, professional way if I were you.

The professional way is to send in a neat, well organized, nicely presented package of your images and words. How do you do that? Think of the poor person receiving all the submissions. What would the easiest and simplest way to get the images that would still safeguard them? Put your images or disc in a protective sleeve, sandwich them between two pieces of cardboard and put them is a strong envelope. That’s it.

Don’t wrap the images or disc in tissue paper. Don’t use tape to hold it all together. Don’t put it all in a plastic bag and then tape it all together and don’t put it in a box full of packing peanuts. Make is easy to open and see your work. The Editor will be forever grateful.

Some magazines have specific ways they want to see images. Go to their web site and look for information on submission guidelines and follow them exactly. If you don’t play by their rules you won’t get into their magazine.

The question I have for all of you Outdoor Photographer wannabes is why do you want so dearly to submit to OP when there are oodles of other magazines that are not nearly so popular nor so competitive to submit to? Well, the answer is perfectly obvious….it is your ego speaking! We all don’t want just an article in OP we actually all want a cover shot or even several of them. It’s okay to dream but lets be baby steps first.

Here’s an idea: put your ego aside for now until your ideas and submitting skills improve and learn the craft of getting published with less competitive magazines. And the best way to do this is to work your local and regional magazines. Don’t consider this a come down. In fact, it is a great way to get published, and published repeatedly and you will be honing your craft and earning some loot all the while.

7. Submitting to your local and regional magazines has lots of advantages. First of all there will be much less competition. Am I submitting to your local magazines? Is John Shaw or George Lepp or Nevada Weir? I don’t think so. The reason we are not is not because it is beneath us or we think these magazines are inferior but it is because these magazines pay less (they have fewer subscribers) and so it is not as much worth our time as are national magazines that pay more. It is just economics.

Also local magazines like local stories. John, George, Nevada and I probably don’t have the images and we also probably don’t have the required knowledge or experience that these magazines are looking for. You local folks have the advantage.

That doesn’t mean I don’t submit to my local magazines. I have had several articles and images in Vermont Life and Yankee magazines but these are only 2 of the 16 magazines published in New England. You see, even in little old New England, there are still plenty of opportunities to get published. And if it is so in New England it is also the case wherever you live.

8. The big advantage to submitting locally is that it forces you to photograph regionally and locally because most local and regional magazines want local and regional stories. I know it is not as glamorous as going to exotic places and taking exotic shots and collecting exotic stories. But I’ve got to tell you, there is no place in the world that hasn’t been photographed, at least no place that you would want to go. It’s been done and it’s been done very well and every national magazine that you want to show them to has seen them many times.

Now you could submit your exotica to your local and regional magazines but how many stories of the exotic do these kinds of magazines usually publish? Not many, if any. But these magazines do publish a lot of stories of local interest from the everyday to the overlooked. Why shouldn’t you be the one to do these kinds of stories?

The other obvious advantage of working locally is that you can actually go and talk to the people who work at the magazine. This will give you a big advantage to fine-tune your submission and it will also allow them to get to know you. Assuming you are not some hideous gnome this will also be to your advantage. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to call up an editor and chat while you pass a few ideas past? Can’t do that with a national magazine can you?

9. The other side of the submission question is trying to figure out what to photograph. I critique about 10,000 images a year. That’s a lot of images. You would think that all those images would represent 10,000 different pictures but you would be wrong. I see the same pictures over and over again. Everybody photographs the same things because photographers are cream skimmers.

Here is an idea. Instead of photographing a little bit of everything try instead photographing a lot of a few things. In other words, pick a few areas of concentration and work on them. This way rather than staying at the surface and skimming you can go deeper into a few areas and really let your creativity blossom.

When I was first starting as a pro I decided to concentrate on flowers, forests and harbors. There wasn’t much analysis that went into this decision; it was just three things I liked to photograph that I could find almost anywhere. After a few years I had a good collection of images and more importantly I was getting to be pretty good at photographing flowers, forests and harbors. So not only was I improving my craft but I was also filling my files with images that I could sell in a variety of ways for years to come. When you allow yourself to concentrate on a few topics your images will improve as will your satisfaction.

10. So this is all fine and dandy but how do you continue to keep at it and produce great images and stories month after month and year after year? The other way that this is expressed is in the oft-heard statement “I don’t want to turn my love into my job.” I agree with this completely but it is not a concern for me or any other long-time pro because we mostly photograph that which we are passionate about. We don’t think we have a job.

It is your passion that will get you up in the morning before sunrise and keep you out in the evening after sunset. It is your passion that keeps you out even when it is cold or even worse, dinnertime. And it is our passion that sends you outside when everyone else is scurrying inside. Who else but a passionate flower photographer gets excited when it does nothing but rain on a trip? Who else but a passionate travel photographer gets excited about being stopped in traffic by a wedding procession? And who else but a landscape photographer can’t sleep at night when an ice storm is building outside?

Your passion will inform all of your pictures. Your passion will also carry you through times of frustrations and struggle. On the practical side it will also improve your pictures noticeably. Take from someone who gets cross-eyed looking at so many images every year; your best pictures will be those that reflect your passion. Why would you photograph anything else?