Stories

How to Turn Your Photo Project into a Published Book

April 1, 2015 Stories

When I first saw Lucy’s book Balancing Acts: Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers I nearly swallowed my gum — a whole book of gorgeous photographs on the personal yet universal theme of juggling a creative career and motherhood…in tutus! I wrote her immediately for an interview. However at the end of the interview, I realized beyond the ballet and photography itself, there was her journey to turn her photo project into published book. I asked her to share that story with us.

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Start with an Idea

When I met Katita Waldo in the market with her son and was told later that day that she was a prima ballerina at the San Francisco Ballet, and I knew I wanted to photograph her. I thought her story of balancing career and motherhood was universal to all working mothers and any mother with time conflicts (which is probably everyone).

I thought I would have a book in two years. I had an intimacy with the dancers from the beginning because we were all moms and they were used to being photographed and yet I was going for something new, pictures about them personally.

Begin Your Paperwork Early

The woman who connected us told me to write a proposal and she would give it to Katita. That turned out to be so important.

I had to write a proposal to San Francisco Ballet to photograph there. I had to get contracts written with the dancers and I presented those to them and their husbands the first time we met. I had to get a contract with the San Francisco Ballet. It’s important to keep everything well documented and contractual from the beginning, especially if your goal is to publish later.

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Choose Your Equipment Wisely

In the beginning, I bought a Leica M6 to shoot the book because I was told that was the best dance camera. I used black and white film.

Later I bought a Canon D5 in 2005 and used it off stage with the ballerinas. However I discovered the shutter was too loud for rehearsals or performances. With this camera, the images could be color or black and white but since all my previous work was in black and white, I felt I had to stick with it.

Seek a Publisher that Shares Your Vision

The first editor I went to in 2001 in New York was responsible for publishing the most ballet books in the U.S. He was highly respected both as an editor as well a writer, and he had been on George Balanchine’s board of directors. In the ballet world of books he was a gate. I knew him, so I called him up and he said, “Women have to make a choice. They cannot work and have babies.” I hung up stunned.

I realized I would have a hard time without his help. I went to local publishers in San Francisco who said they couldn’t sell a book in black and white.

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Hear 25 Nos and Keep Going

In the early years, I had an agent who would send a book to two or three places and then gave the project back to me. I got another agent who didn’t send the book anywhere.

I got a third agent who mentored me. We had a vigorous exchange of letters and later, emails. In 2005 she sent the book to twenty-five publishers who all turned it down. She gave up.

I kept hearing thirty-five was the magic number but she wouldn’t keep trying. I was very sad. I cried for three weeks. Then I picked myself up and kept going because I believed it was an important subject and I didn’t have a choice but to keep going.

Flirt with Self-Publishing

Self publishing became fashionable and I went to seminars about it. I didn’t have the money to do it but considered Kickstarter was a way to fund it until I got a deal.

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Pitch through Portfolio Reviews

I went to portfolio reviews, particularly Fotofest in 2004, 2008, 2014 where I would meet museum curators and small book publishers. I pitched the ballerina project at every one, twenty reviewers each time. I had other projects I pitched, as well.

I took the images on an iPad. This had the advantage that the editor could imagine a book for herself — I hadn’t made my dream book which would have limited the editor who has experience and skills at making books.

Find THE ONE!

In 2012, I went to Palm Springs Portfolio review in New York at the Javits Center. I had five reviews, four with publishers. The first three said what the people had said in 2005, “The only people who would buy this book would be the three ballerina mothers in the book.” They were all so literal minded.

The fourth buyer I showed the work to, from Princeton Architectural Press, just understood the project from the moment she looked at it. She saw the mothers as I did — admirable women whose work got better after they had children and who were better mothers because they worked. She saw it as a labor story. She thought the black and white images gave it an old school documentary feel which to her was a plus.

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Have Realistic Expectations

The interested buyer asked if I saw the book as a monograph (every photographer’s dream) or as a document about the ballerinas. I saw it being about the ballerinas. This allowed her to ask how I felt about a smaller format. I was in favor. Keep the price down. Sell more books.

She asked if I had come to New York for the photo review. “No,” I told her. “Nothing ever happens at these. I was in New York anyway and had the $200 when I was offered the space and so I took it.” She told me later that that was key to taking me on. She said so many photographers are desperate for a book.

She didn’t want to get people with out-of-control egos working in their small publishing house. I had many ideas about how the book might sell and who I could call upon to help in that effort which was also key.

Be Patient…for 3 Years

I had to be patient but absolutely attentive when the editor needed me and then various other people needed my attention at the publishers down the line. She was interested in 2012. I have a book now in 2015. But that also meant I took more pictures until right up to the end that help the story.

Final Advice

Never give up. Keep pushing. Keep learning. You’re not the only person in the world who wants a book — so be aware and appreciative of others but know you’ve got competition so keep improving, keep your standard as high as you know how to make it, no one else can do that for you. That is you.

Read our featured mom interview with Lucy Gray.

Lucy Gray


Lucy Gray is an award winning photographer whose work has been featured in numerous books as well as The New York Times, the Independent, Mother Jones, Dance Magazine, Brick and Salon.com. Her projects with the homeless residents of San Francisco, tango dancers, and families facing foreclosure in central valley of California have been exhibited across the United States. She created artwork to illustrate a letterpress edition of “The Day of the Locust” by Nathanael West for Arion Press, 2013. Balancing Acts: Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers published by Princeton Architectural Press is a project she has been working on since 1999 that came out in 2015. For more information, please visit her website: lucygrayphotography.com.