When writer and photographer, Michelle Yee, took a last minute trip to South Africa, little did she know the impact it would have on her, personally and professionally. We caught up with her to talk about how the distilling of one trip in to a gorgeous travel book sparked a whole new kind of adventure.
Tell us a bit about the inspiration for your project. Where did the idea come from?
Last August, I went on a last-minute, month-long, bucket-list trip to South Africa with a man I was in a relationship with. In many ways, it was a dream trip. So of course, when I came home, I made a book right away — the kind of book that my mom would like. Pretty pictures with everyone smiling.
But I also knew that something shifted significantly on that trip. And in my mind, there was this lingering question that I couldn’t quite shut away. I kept wondering: If I was ever going to tell this story, with my own voice, how would I do it? I didn’t quite know what to do with that question since I was already 4 years deep into a whole other book project — but I could feel something was there.
Meanwhile, I was getting ready for a workshop that I was going to be teaching at the Brooklyn Art Library about a month or so later. When we were working out the details, they suggested I bring something to sell, like prints or a zine.
Working on a book for so long had made me ripe pickings for a project with a quick deadline and a low bar. In my mind, zines could be anything, even stapled photocopies! So I thought: sure I can make a zine! The timing was perfect.
What made you choose to publish a book? How did you decide that a book was the best format for this project?
I’ve always loved books. And ever since it’s become incredibly easy to make books online, for the last several years, I’ve been experimenting with making books. As an artist who is also a photographer and a writer, I was especially interested in how words and pictures could work together in the telling of a single narrative.
As I thought about this story and how I would tell it, the question was never about the format. I always knew it was going to be a printed-on-paper thing — something physical that could tell a story through text and imagery.
As for why I chose the book format for this project in particular, the answer really comes down to ease of accessibility: making a quality book online is now easier for me to do than it would be for me to access a photocopier so that’s why I decided to make a book. It was the easiest and most accessible option.
What was it like to make your original book with Blurb? Which tools did you use?
It was SO EASY. BookWright was a dream to use.
I’ve tried once or twice to use InDesign before but, as I was one of those stubborn types who thinks I should be able to muscle my way through and intuitively learn how to use something without ever reading or watching anything about it at all, I never managed to learn how to use it. (Surprise!)
Meanwhile, I kept meeting other photographers who’d made books through Blurb and they all insisted it was easy. Eventually I gave it a shot. I went to Blurb’s site, downloaded BookWright and, as promised, it really was easy. As that person who, as aforementioned, likes to jump headfirst into things and bang around as if I already know everything, I was able to jump right into BookWright and make my book (thus reinforcing the idea that I can continue on in life without reading any instructions, for better or worse).
In fact, the book was practically written in BookWright. I had only a loose plan going in. I had a draft written in a word processing document but I hadn’t yet figured out how the photos would weave into the narrative so the sequencing and ordering of words with photos happened very organically and all in BookWright.
Your Kickstarter campaign is running from 4/30-5/30 how will the funds raised through this support your project?
I wanted to see my story printed in a book that was designed to be a reflection of that particular story. If my book was ever going to be on a table with a hundred other books made by independent authors like myself, I wanted my book to be different. I wanted to make a book that would stand out. I wanted to create art in the form of a book.
Making small batches of books of this calibre and with this level of detail, is an artisanal craft that requires skill and expertise.
That said, most of the funds raised will go directly towards the production of the books, which will be printed in Canada. I also worked with graphic designer Alexia Lim on the design and typesetting of the book and I commissioned motion designer Alex Kurina to edit the book’s trailer. Kickstarter takes 5% and then there’s processing fees of another 3-5%. Plus there’s less-exciting costs that quickly add up, like shipping and freight, licensing, and bubble wrap.
If all goes swimmingly well, I’d also love to be able to buy donuts to give to the USPS office workers who will be working on the days I roll up with several hundred books to ship.
How did you approach the design and layout of your book? Were you led by your images, text, or a combination of both?
From my experience, people tend to quick-flip through photo books. If they unexpectedly encounter a page fully covered with text after flipping through so many photos, the experience could be a bit jarring. So finding the right balance between words and visuals was something I had been thinking about.
My overall goal was to craft a good story so I let that be my starting point and then just allowed for the process itself to be very organic. I let myself do whatever that I felt needed to be done. Though I guess because I did write a draft of the narrative as the very first step, perhaps it’s fair to say then that I was lead by the written part of the story.
What do you hope people take away from your book? How or what do you want them to think or feel?
I hope that my story connects with people and that it leaves an impact. I’m a divorcee who never thought I would ever become a divorcee. So much of how I live now would be virtually unrecognizable to a past version of myself. Sometimes I still feel like I’m catching up with myself. For me, divorce was a shattering experience with many aftershocks.
I would love for this book to reach people who have had or are going through a similar experience and for those people to find comfort or hope in the story I’ve shared.
How do you plan to market and promote your book?
I am going to use a multi-prong approach, also known as the “use everything I’ve got” method. Alas, I am new to the whole world of publishing books so while I am painfully aware that I don’t even know what I don’t know, I figure it can’t hurt to make my goal to put this book in front of as many eyes as possible. So, that means:
- Design an amazing Kickstarter campaign page that tells the compelling story about me, my book, the story, the journey, this project, the plan — the whole 9 — and doing it with my “copywriter” hat on.
- Reach out to absolutely everyone I know and let them know about it. Ask that they help spread the word and encourage them to pass it along if they happy to have a friend who might want to experience a story like this.
- Go out. Coincidentally I’m planning on attending lots of events during the campaign, so hopefully I’ll have plenty of opportunities to meet new people. If my book seems like something they might be interested in, I’ll make sure to mention it. Ask if they’d like to exchange contact info and I’ll give them my card. I’ll make sure to follow-up with an email the next day with a link to the Kickstarter page.
- I’m going to post updates and write blog posts for the duration of the campaign, for the people who really want to know and follow along on this journey.
- Announce my launch and post intermittent updates on social media. Get all my profile pages dialed in with links to Kickstarter.
- Post-Kickstarter, I’m going to assemble a press kit for myself (with long and short bios, plus a 1-page synopsis of the book) and reach out to booksellers, bookstores, publishers, gallerists, conference organizers, podcasters, etc. Attend photo fairs and art book fairs. Carry at least two copies with me at all times. And bring my Square card reader with me everywhere. I want to be prepared — book sales can happen anywhere!
- Also Post-Kickstarter: I’m going to reach out to people of influence whom I respect and admire. Ask if I could send them a copy. And then I’ll send it off with gratitude and crossed fingers.
How do you decide what to photograph? What ideas or emotions guide your approach to photography?
I am a very intuitive photographer. More emotional than technical. And I let myself take photos of everything. If the impulse is there, I indulge it. Of course, not every photo is worth keeping after the fact but in general, I embrace and try to act upon my instincts as much as I can. I leave the editing for later.
It’s always a challenge for me to create images that express something deeper. They really have to mean something. I want for my images to be something more than just pretty for pretty’s sake.
Things that I once thought were so simple have become so much more complex and layered. As an artist who seeks to somehow communicate life’s complexity through photography, I’ve become more interested in layers and how to create or add them to a photograph. In a way, I’m looking to use photography as a way to communicate the things that I can’t find the words for.
What role do you think printed books have to play in a world geared for digital media?
In this increasingly instantaneous digital world, I feel that the need for each of us to connect with the physical — with nature, with each other — is more prescient than ever. We crave experiences. We want to reach out and touch things. We want things to be special and meaningful. We want what feels real. But also, we want what’s beautiful and we want to be uplifted. We want things that can make us feel better about the world, even if for just a little while.
Luckily, printed books are just the thing! Books have the power to connect with us on multiple planes: physical, intellectual and spiritual. We touch them with our hands and they transport us to other worlds. Just being in the physical presence of books is a source of pleasure for many.
I think physical books are seeing a resurgence is because we’re remembering our enduring connection with them. I feel there’s also been a shift in our cultural values. Perhaps because of how digital and commodified so many things in our everyday lives have become, in reaction to this, we’ve begun to seek out more of the analog, the handmade, the physical, the things that perhaps can connect us to simpler times.
So until there’s an app that can believably simulate the physical experience of holding a book, thumbing through its pages and reading it, I think there will continue to be a great interest in, and perhaps even a growing reverence, for printed books for some time to come.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to turn a creative passion into a professional creative career?
In rapid-fire point form: Do your research. Decide on what you want. Be clear on your goal. Make a plan. Know your numbers and your money. Take consistent action and do something that gets you closer to your goal everyday. Think on your feet. Think long-game. Adapt as necessary and persist. Keep going.
There is a reason why many people do not have creative careers. And the reason for that is because it’s not easy. Being a creative professional means being a creative problem solver. On this path, there is no one who will tell you what to do. You are only accountable to yourself. You are wholly responsible for yourself. (And if you’re married and have children, then you are likely responsible for others as well.)
Indeed, it is wonderful to be able to make your living doing work that you thoroughly enjoy doing. But there are real differences between being an amateur and a professional. Being a creative professional means that you must take your creativity seriously because now your life literally depends on it. It’s not just for fun anymore — you can still have fun but you have to also recognize that this is now how your bills get paid too!
There were times when I had to work on my birthday and times when I missed out on celebrations with friends and family because I was booked for job that I couldn’t afford to turn down. Sometimes entire months would pass in-between jobs and sometimes I had clients who were grossly late in paying. I even had a couple clients who even didn’t pay me at all.
Yes, these were some of the lowest points of my career and luckily, there weren’t many low points and I’ve been a creative professional for over 15 years. However, I share this because there’s a reality as a freelancer that the Instagram stories don’t often focus on. It’s for you to decide what you’re willing to give up in order to get what you want. How willing and able are you to trade the security and stability of a steady job with a pay check for a lifestyle in which you have both ultimate freedom and responsibility? There are no wrong answers. But only you can make the decision for yourself. It can be a fulfilling way to live but it also requires commitment, discipline, determination, and persistence. It’s a competitive game so you’ve got to be ready to compete!
You can check out Michelle’s Kickstarter campaign here.
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