Pix or No Pix?

using photos in your book…

With many of the titles that Earnshaw Books does, there is great desire, even insistence, from many authors that multiple photographs should be included. I often resist valiantly because, in my view, the most important images are those created by the words in the mind of the reader, and if the writing is effective, then 1,000 words is much better than a picture. There are some good examples that can be drawn from books in the Earnshaw Books production process currently: one title is a memoir by a former U.S. marine during the Vietnam War, probably to be titled Trail of Redemption, about the capture of a Viet Cong woman fighter he helped to capture amongst the paddy fields of South Vietnam, and he is very eager to have as many photographs as possible included. But the problem with most photographs from the past, by which i mean prior to the iPhone era, is that the quality tends to be low, they are faded and low in contract and detail, and the angles are often inappropriate. Therefore ineffective in terms of conveying an accurate feel of whatever it is was like. The person taking them was not a professional photographer, and with only 36 exposures on a roll of film, every shot was an event, none of the snap-snap-snap of digital photography, allowing for the capture of a pretty good image the 17th time round. Also the quality of cameras back then in the 1960s and 1970s, let alone in the 1920s, was far from ideal, nowhere near the quality that can be achieved with a smart phone today.

But my reluctance to use lots of pictures is also related to that widespread belief that movies almost always fail to meet the visual expectations created by a good novel. People who loved a book are usually disappointed by its representation on the screen (Lord of the Rings being for many people the exception that proves the rule), and that speaks to the power of words and the magical ability of the brain to create images and emotions from those words. Have you ever cried or laughed while reading a story? I have. It’s a much more visceral experience than laughing or crying with a movie. In summary, the impact that an image has on the brain is much less intense than that created by a series of well-chosen words describing a scene or a person or whatever.

Another book we’re currently working on is the memoir of a photographer, probably to be entitled Recycling Reality, and thankfully the author proposed himself that we use almost no images, which I thought that was very brave of him, using the words to speak for him rather than hiding behind images.

But we also have a memoir called Spring Flower covering the dramatic roller-coaster ride of 20th Century China, involving a peasant girl in Hubei adopted by American missionary doctors in the 1930s… named Jean Perkins… the civil war… teens in Yonkers… the Great Leap Forward… the Cultural Revolution… it’s in many ways a familiar historical vista, but this one is very special. It ties together so many strands: China and America, the past and the present, the countryside and the cities, ignorance and wisdom. We have already published Book 1 of the two-book set, and Book 2, under production, picks up the story in 1950, and is truly heart-rending. Some images are in this case necessary.

It’s a hard call to make, because I understand how much the images mean to the authors, but my belief is that to include too many devalues the project and reduces the impact of the words. I am sometimes willing to compromise and use a photograph at the beginning of each chapter, and there have been cases when we have done far more photographs. But in terms of the value to readers, I don’t think that we’re doing them a service by placing an image on every other page.

In a recent title The Great Wall in 50 Objects we have of course a picture of every object and, as indicated above, they are found either at the start of every chapter or in a color photo edition in the middle. The Lettuce Diaries, a fantastic exposé of a foreign businessman’s efforts to found a business in China, has no images because the author basically didn’t take any. And with some titles, such as Hokkaido, A History of Japan’s Northern Isle and its People, there are lots of artifacts and things that could be illustrated, but my thought is that that is what the internet is for. It is possible to Google these things and have instant access to hundreds of images of these objects so why bother.

This fewer-to-no-pix approach also pushes the author to obviate the need for the images by writing more and better descriptions, which is a more responsible attitude from a publishing point of view, in my opinion at least. So if you submit a manuscript, make sure that the places and the people are memorably built out in words before you attach any JPEGs. Happy writing!

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