Adventures In Collecting and Publishing with Jim Linderman From Figure Photography Magazine
Last month we reviewed ‘Camera Club Girls’ by collector and publisher Jim Linderman; in the course of our communications about that article, I felt that I wanted to learn more about his adventures in self-publishing. So Jim had been good enough to join us again for a closer look at the in’s and out’s of collecting art, curating a collection, and getting the work into print – do-it-yourself to the max!
Jim Linderman has written the Grammy-nominated ‘Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography’ published by Dust-to-Digital and has published six Blurb books on vernacular photography and photographic history, including the critical acclaimed ‘Camera Club Girls: Bettie Page, her Friends and the Work of Rudolph Rossi’ ‘The Painted Backdrop: Behind the Sitter in American Tintype Photography’ and ‘Shy Shamed Secret Shadowed Hidden: SSSSH! Vintage Vernacular Erotic Photography’.
FPM: Like you, Jim, I also have a fond enthusiasm for off-beat photographic trivia, retro kitsch, and forgotten documents. Before we begin talking about your self-publishing adventures, could you tell me about your collecting in general? Can you tell me a bit about your background, and how you began collecting the materials you eventually edited and published?
I always collected something, but increasingly as I age I realize I wasn’t
making collections as much as I was assembling. I was always putting similar things together, in groups…to get a better understanding of them rather than collecting. Even then, my schemes how to acquire things were more important to me than the physical objects themselves. I wanted to learn, but the process was most important. I guess ownership was less important than the steps required in selecting things to look for. I’ve never had much money, and always had to scrimp and suffer for things I obtained. Even early on, that shaped my eye.
One thing I do differently with my blogs and books than most folks, I think, is that I’ve always felt I had to go through the process of obtaining objects first. Nearly everything I use in my books and writings are things I have found and own. It makes me both appreciate more and learn more about the objects or images I have. If I do crib an image from somewhere, it is usually something no one would want to claim anyway…or at least not until I have put it into a context where it makes more (or less) sense than it did originally.
My childhood was normal enough, Midwestern and safe. But I gravitated to the bad neighborhoods as much as I could. Beat literature, blues music and the library made me go bad!
Yeah, those damn libraries will do that to ‘ya, all right! But I notice that your collections are mostly image-based, as opposed, say, to text-based, like collecting odd poetry, for instance. Do you have a background in the arts? Not that one has to have any special training to be drawn to 50’s pin-ups, of course!
We’re so sophisticated these days – socially and visually. One of the things I personally enjoy most about retro stuff is its sense of innocence. Is that something that attracts you, too?
Well, I do not have a background in any formal art training at all. Sociology and Library Science. I guess you would have to call me a self-taught” collector. I do, however, have the gene. I believe some folks are born with the same DNA strand which causes crows to bring shiny objects to their nests. I’ve collected just about as many things as you can imagine. Hand-Carved Slingshots from Tennessee. Painted American Indian Suitcases known as Parfleche. Privately printed books on who killed Kennedy and UFOs. Handmade Paper Dolls. Garage Pressed Punk Rock Records. As soon as I recognize an area or genre which has either been forgotten or neglected, I’m on it like glue. I immerse myself.
That’s how the ‘Take Me to the Water’ collection of baptism photographs came about. I noticed no one had collected them before, and there certainly hadn’t been a book. So, for ten years I bought every single real photo postcard or original photograph of anyone being immersed, and when I had reached well over 100, it was time for a book and music project (for which I and Dust to Digital, the publisher, were nominated for a Grammy this year). The original photographs were donated to the International Center of Photography in New York City, I believe the exhibition opens in January 2011. That is as example of collecting in depth, until I feel I have exhausted all avenues. I have never really been a “stamp” collector, where the goal was to fill in every pre-determined slot. The art world equivalent of that is the survey show. I don’t like survey shows. I like the complete picture which can only come from a good, driven collector or curator who likes to dig.
Wow! Busy guy! And a celebrity, to boot!
Given that you experience collecting and curating as creative activities, I suppose that it’s only natural that you would want to share your discoveries with others. I have always argued that art is a communal activity; that art is created to share, being a form of communication, like storytelling. Few serious artists create something and then lock it away – they (at least) hope that someone else will see their work and appreciate it, or be affected by it in some way.
It’s very interesting that a collector may have that same desire to share. I don’t think that all collectors feel that way, but you obviously do. So I can see that it’s not much of a leap from putting a collection together to publishing that collection for others to enjoy.
So, how did that part of your work begin? You currently have an intriguing collection of publications available, and I’ve reviewed one of them; how did all of this get started? Were you getting requests from folks, or did you simply feel like it was the right thing to do?
After 25 years in living two blocks from Times Square, my lungs were so shot three doctors told me to get out, so I moved back to Michigan and now live near the beach mere steps from where my parents raised me. As my energy waned, the web grew, so it is now possible to use it for exploring as much as I used to in the car. My attention has also shifted to smaller things, visual things, photographs, comics, paper ephemera. It is still consistent with my feelings about picking an area and collecting in depth, and there are endless topics and areas to pick from.
There is also more material available, it is less expensive, and easier to make a contribution. The web makes it easy to create and share images, and I use the objects I own as starting points for little essays and observations. A little Andy Rooney sneaks in, I worked with him during my years while at CBS News, but for the most part I avoid politics and opinion and such. I see both my blogs, of which I have a dozen or so, and my books (6 and counting) as art projects of my own. When done seriously, the blog is an art form, just as legitimate as painting or sculpture.
I feel the same about “sharing” as I always did. First, there is enough for everyone! I used to laugh at people who cut in line at antique shows. After all, what were the odds they would be trying to buy the same thing I was? Second, at some point in my life I decided to leave a footprint, both digital and physical. So I do a daily blog post to clear my head, and in the meantime work on long range projects and goals.
I treat my books as little art projects. Think “limited edition prints” or numbered editions. I always admired small press companies, and now with Blurb and other web-based printers, it is possible for anyone to make a book. I try to accumulate an area in depth, then package up a little product. I don’t make any money on them, the publisher takes it all…but they do provide a physical object and record of something I’ve done.
A creative act, a statement, a point of view – the same things other artists think about – ALL of the time! I have artist friends who also curate exhibitions, and they sweat over that work as much as they do over their own paintings or photographs. So I understand your motivations completely.
I think most artists look at self-publishing more as a way to expose their own vision to a wider audience than as a way to pay the rent. Like you, it’s more about sharing than anything else.
The million dollar question everyone is curious about is this: does self-publishing make sense? Is it effective? Does it help build an audience? Or is it just an expensive black hole to pour money into? Every artist thinks about it.
The fact that Blurb makes all of the dough is certainly disappointing to hear! But, assuming that one goes into such a project with the intention to ‘get their work out there’ rather than to ‘make a pile of dough’, can you offer the rest of us any advice on the process? Has your experience with Blurb and/or other on-demand publishers been positive? Any war stories you’d like to share?
The advantage of online publishing with Blurb is that it costs nothing to do. Literally nothing. You do all the work, with their software, upload the finished product, and they do the rest. All if it. Printing, binding and shipping. As no minimum order is required, you have NO investment in the finished product and NO inventory to sit in the garage if none sell. Of course, you can buy as many as you like, and if you want to purchase 500 copies, they would certainly be happy to do it and ship them to you.
With a “real” book, or at least one which goes through a major publisher, the ISBN process and with distribution channels, you have to invest in your product. With printing (likely, at this point, unfortunately, overseas) and shipping, you could easily reach ten or twenty thousand dollars without even selling one copy of your book. Then you have to figure out how to get it into the book distribution system (which at this point means Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the small organizations of independent booksellers) You CAN have an ISBN assigned to a Blurb book, it is a slightly more difficult process, but can be done.
Since my books are art projects and a hobby, I don’t need to show a profit. Anyone who creates a Blurb book sets their own price, that is, given the cost one is charged to print each copy. Blurb is expensive… the base price is much higher than a similar book printed in quantity… so, given the economy and the trend towards e-books, I don’t see it as an alternative to publishing really. I price my books five dollars more than the cost to me. Since so few sell, and trust me, they don’t… that’s not really an income.
As for selling and marketing, it’s all up to the author. Blurb provides badges one can use to link to the book, does a little indexing with search engines, but for the most part you own the book and you can do what you want. Buy twenty copies for friends. Print some to put on your shelf. But as a valid opportunity to publish to the real world, they are actually only a small step up from the “vanity” presses of old which would print, say, your uncle Charlie’s bar jokes or war memories.
Jim, I think that anyone interested in the technical details can do their own research on the quality of the various self-publishing services out there, especially since they are all evolving so rapidly; that said, my final question to you would be:
In retrospect, with the experiences you’ve had thus far, do you feel that this is still a viable avenue for artists and collectors to get their work into the world? You’ve been far down this road to date – would you do it again? Or would you consider other options? Has the trip been what you expected / hoped for? And would you recommend your route to a fellow artist?
I would absolutely recommend it. First of all, one can be remarkably creative. The software provide all sorts of options and chances to experiment… yet it is so easy to create. Just enter the project with low expectations as to sales and you’ll be happy.
I have found it useful for organizing collections… once they are documented in a book, they take on additional meaning for me and for those who can see the images. A blurb book is a wonderful way to show your work, they make simply outstanding gifts or promotional items… for the price of a piece of junk at your local mega-mall, you can give a literal work of art, and a personal one at that. Art and photography dealers might avoid yet another envelope of slides in the mail, but I guarantee they’ll look at a book sent to them.
Several drawbacks we haven’t considered. The folks at Blurb have told me they have no plans to expand into e-publishing. It would be nice to be able to sell a version of your creation for the Kindle, Nook, or other readers, but no go. You CAN, however, elect to allow the entire book to be read on the Blurb site, and the page turning function is great. Digital photos on their platform actually look far better than they do in the printed books.
Second, when creating a Blurb book, their software uploads each image, one at a time, into the file that is created for your book. Once loaded into their software and system, you can delete images, but you can not copy them out from the Blurb design interface. I’m sure they do it so no one can take the created book and use it for other products or publishing platforms. So when you create a book on Blurb, you should be sure you have retained copies of the images you used on your own hard drive or desktop as well. You can always, at any time, access your images online at Blurb, but you can not retrieve them once loaded into their program.
Third, mistakes are permanent, you have to “republish” your entire book to fix them. EACH of my books has one tiny mistake others might miss, but every time I see them I cringe a bit. I know the Amish always intentionally leave one little error in a quilt because only God is perfect, but in a book it is just annoying!
Visit Jim Linderman’s Websites:
Dull Tool Dim Bulb the Blog