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How to Design and Edit a Strong Photo Book: Interview with Keith Wilson

Marianne Stenger
13th May 2019

London-based writer, journalist and award-winning photo editor Keith Wilson is best known for his interviews and collaborations with some of the biggest names in documentary and nature photography today, including Steve McCurry, Frans Lanting, Joe McNally, and Jillian Edelstein.

As a former editor of Amateur Photographer Magazine and the founder of Outdoor Photography, Black + White Photography, and the digital magazine Wild Planet, Keith has also made a name for himself as an editor of fine art nature photography books.

In fact, he edited the first two books in the acclaimed Remembering Wildlife series, which we highlighted in our interview with British wildlife photographer Margot Raggett last year.  

In addition to all this, Keith is also a highly regarded competition judge and sought-after speaker at international nature photography festivals and workshops.

Given his wealth of experience, both as an editor and competition judge, we were excited to find out more about his work and the steps involved in transforming a collection of photographs into a compelling photo book. Here are his insights on everything from his background in journalism to what it’s like to tackle a major editing project.

How did you get started as a photo editor?

I began my career as a newspaper journalist in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. I joined The Herald, a daily evening newspaper, straight from school. I was all set to do a degree in Arts and Law at Melbourne University, but it had been my dream to write for a living. So when the offer of a four-year apprenticeship from The Herald came up, it wasn't a difficult decision to make.

The newspaper introduced me very quickly to the art of editing, because writing and editing are not mutually exclusive. It also introduced me to professional photography, as I went on stories with photographers and soon learnt how a press photographer works, the importance of getting 'the shot', and then the rush to get the film developed and prints ready for conference. This was in the early 1980s, so it was long before the days of mobile phones, the internet and digital imaging.  

I got into magazine publishing when I came to the UK. I joined the famous weekly photo magazine, Amateur Photographer (AP) as news editor and sub-editor. I'm not sure how, but I rose up the ladder pretty quickly and barely four years later the publishers made me launch editor of a new monthly photo magazine called What Camera? A year later, I was called back to take over as editor of AP, which I then edited for the next nine years.

After that, as a freelance, I launched Outdoor Photography, Black + White Photography and other titles. Wild Planet was my last launch and editorship, and during this time I began working more closely with photographers on their book projects. I have worked as a specialist photography writer and book editor ever since.

What do you enjoy about working as an editor?

Editing a book is a very intense yet exciting experience. Because you're working closely with just a handful of people – often just one photographer and a designer – it is a very pure form of creativity because you are sharing a vision and trusting in each other's skills and judgement to achieve that.

I have always loved working with designers. The editor-designer relationship is as critical to the quality of the result as the work of the photographer. Of course, there are difficulties, usually as a result of technical and mechanical specifications that can have a huge influence on the impact of the pictures. I'm talking about the size, format and feel of the book.

In some ways, choosing the images and deciding the running order is easier than deciding which paper to use, what type of cover, or how many copies to print. I've done quite a few 'first' books with photographers and it has been fascinating to see how they respond to these aspects which, frankly, they have given little attention to when they first get in touch with me.

But that’s another reason why an editor is so important: you have to keep a view on the bigger picture even when the photographer's most important consideration at a given moment might be whether or not to crop a picture.

Do you have any favourites among the photo books you’ve worked on over the years?

That's like asking to choose your favourite child. Fortunately, I'm very proud of each book I've edited so far and, thankfully, the photographers are too. Looking beyond favouritism, I like working on books that have a global ambition as I think editors, photographers and writers have a greater responsibility than ever to use their creative skills and insight to communicate their message to an audience greater than those buying the book.

For example, I have just finished formatting the text of the bilingual edition of PHOTOGRAPHERS AGAINST WILDLIFE CRIME, which will be going to print in a few weeks. The English edition of the book published last year and sold out, which is very satisfying.

Obviously, selling the entire print run is an important test of any book, but when you’re producing books like PHOTOGRAPHERS AGAINST WILDLIFE CRIME or Remembering Elephants, which are designed to alert the public to major environmental and wildlife issues, media coverage is also a vital measure of success. In both cases, these books aren't just raising awareness; they are also effecting real change far beyond the size of their print runs.  

As an award winning editor and competition judge, what would you say are the most important things a photo book should have?

The more I do this, the more I realise that there is no magical formula or definitive list of do's and don'ts. I've seen some extraordinary photo books about subjects that I never knew and with styles of photography beyond my experience.

I believe the photo books that leave an indelible impression in the memory are those that have a strong visual narrative. The best photo books, ultimately, are story books too.

Working closely with press photographers in my formative years gave me huge respect for an image that tells a story within its frame. If a photo is making you ask questions about what's happening and firing your curiosity and sense of wonder then it's clearly a photo that deserves attention.

Now, if you can assemble a whole portfolio of images that have this impact and are linked thematically, aesthetically and with the episodic flow of a strong story, then you have the ingredients of a great photo book.

How do you go about narrowing down and selecting the right images?

When it gets to the point of working from a 'shortlist' for inclusion in a book, I like to work with prints. This might sound very unhip and technologically low grade, but in my opinion there is nothing better than laying out a whole bunch of 4x6in prints to work out which pictures to keep.

It's imperative that you look at the prints in relation to each other; they have to make sense to each other, whether as part of the whole story or within a self-contained chapter. You may have four or five photos which are in effect illustrating the same point, but there's only room for one. So you have to be ruthless, even if it means casting aside a picture that is a personal favourite.

Photographers hate dropping favourites, which is understandable because photography is a very singular pursuit: one eye, one viewfinder, one lens, one click. But a photo book will make no sense for the reader if all the images are wonderful singles yet remain disconnected from each other.

So, by looking at one hundred or more small prints on the floor at once, you can pick and choose, rearrange the order, find the gaps that need to be filled, and decide on the start and finish, all in a very efficient way.

Are there any editing and organisational tools you rely on when tackling big projects?

Not really. My eyes and gut instinct remain my most important tools. It is also important to listen as good photographs provoke discussion that can reveal other interpretations that may not be immediately apparent.

I also do a lot of research about the subject so that I am better informed when actual work starts on editing images for the book. I will also find out more about the photographer's background and perspective, their motivation and what they hope to achieve.

After all, I am working with photographers who have immersed themselves in a topic for years and committed much of their lives to getting to this point. For them, a book is like the big reveal, an unveiling, where they expose themselves to a wider audience, and there is no going back from that.

So you need to be able to engage with the photographer on the same level about the issues to fully appreciate what they have already done just to get this far.

Trust requires respect, and if a photographer trusts me to go this far with them, it means I have earned their respect already, so I can't possibly let them down. This is why a book is a huge commitment. You can't have any doubts. Doubt is fatal.

Do you have any final advice for photographers looking to turn a concept into a strong photo book?

You have to be doing it for a greater reason than ego, particularly if you haven't done a book before. Of course, ego is an important and necessary source of motivation to do this, but you also need to know how your book idea is going to serve you in advancing your work as a photographer.

From my perspective as an editor, I need to be convinced that a photographer's idea for a book is part of a strategy, an important step, that can't be fulfilled in any other way.

Lastly, don't print too many books. Too many photographers overestimate how many people will actually buy their book. Unsold books are heavy, take up a lot of space and depreciate fast. Far better to print too few and sell out at full price than print too many and give away half.

Social media is very useful for building your potential audience and sharing the progress of your idea along the way. You can get a fair idea then of how many followers are genuinely interested in your concept and who they are.

You can even get pre-publication orders and offer incentives such as a pre-launch discount or signed and numbered copies. Seeing those advance orders come in is a real boost when you're checking the 17th version of the cover design at 2am.

Want to learn more about Keith’s work? You can visit his website Keith Wilson Media, find him on Facebook and LinkedIn, or check out his latest project Photographers Against Wildlife Crimes