Herring Press: An Eye for Architecture
By Anne Feltus, published in Photo District News (New York), 1990
When Carlo Mariotti wanted to produce a photo book on his family's century-old stone quarrying and finishing enterprise in Italy, he approached Jerry Herring to do the job. His timing couldn't have been better. The book had a ready-made market, within the architecture and stone industries in general and among the Mariotti clan in particular. After several years of producing picture books for the upscale general public, the Houston-based publisher was more receptive to projects with quicker payoffs.
"We've had problems with distributing books for the general market," Herring says. "We're small, and don't have the ability to blanket the market like a large publisher would. We have books that are selling well in certain places, but they're not selling well enough across the board to make it worth the risk."
Since 1984, book publishing has been an extension of the graphic design business that Herring started 16 years ago. After graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute, Herring paid his dues working at the prestigious Stan Richards & Associates design firm in Dallas and at two other firms in Houston. He created his own company in 1973. Over the years, he has built an impressive client list that includes Gerald D. Hines Interests, developer of Houston's Galleria, and the Houston Grand Opera as well as Intermedics, which produces heart implants.
Herring has attracted books for several reasons. "I like the high profile nature of books," he explains. "I think at the base of every graphic designer is the nagging feeling that, even though we create good communication tools for our clients, their use and purpose is generally of a short nature. Everything we do is thrown away. Books are forever."
Herring's first major venture into publishing grew out of a design project he had undertaken in the island city southeast of Houston. "I was doing some work in Galveston and fell in love with the architectural images there," he recalls. "I realized that there wasn't any book that celebrated Galveston architecture the way I thought it should be done."
To fill the gap, he commissioned noted architecture photographer Richard Payne to capture the town's turn-of-the-century façades on film. Payne's pictures — his images of mansions, warehouses and villas, banks and churches, hotels, cottages and dance pavilions — appeared in Historic Galveston, a handsome 100-page photo essay, published in 1985, which set the standard for Herring's future projects.
"One of the hallmarks of our books is that the photos jump out and grab you," Herring says. "Often, they're displayed very large. And when they're not, they're set off in a way that gets you involved with the photos."
The book featured Galveston's buildings in full glory, and it sold well is Houston bookstores. Still, Herring was disappointed that it wasn't accepted enthusiastically in its home market.
"Galveston is a city that doesn't see itself as a tourist destination," he explains. "We could only sell the book in one or two locations there."
Another Herring Press book, published the same year, paid homage to Houston's super-skyscraper, the monolithic Transco Tower, which at 900 feet is the world's tallest structure outside a central business district. It, too, was an outgrowth of Herring's design business. "I had worked with the development company to design the leasing materials for the tower," he recalls. "As the building went up, I recognized that it was a landmark that would change the way Houstonians saw their city."
"You can tell where you are in relation to the tower, because it invades almost every neighborhood for miles around," he explains. "Wherever you were, the tower looms over you. So, I decided to do a book that celebrated this image."
Presence, the Transco Tower contains paper after 12 x 16-inch page of double-spread impressions which Herring calls photographer Steve Brady's tour de force. According to Herring, the book received a good response and was even on the local bestseller list for awhile. Still, he admits. it never broke even.
While the Transco book included work by one photographer, Houston, A Self-Portait featured 29. The photos were selected from hundreds that Herring received after he wrote members of the local American Society of Magazine Photographers chapter introducing his idea for a pictorial celebration of the city and asking them to submit suitable shots.
The book, which included some of the biggest names in Houston's photography community, hit the top of the city's best-selling nonfiction book list in 1986. "It was a nice book," Herring says. "Still, it took us almost three years just to break even."
A more recent coffeetable creation, Santa Fe, has been Herring's most successful publishing effort. Produced in 1987, it's now in its third printing and continues to sell well in and around this New Mexico tourist town. The photographer was noted travel and interiors photographer Lisl Dennis. Her husband and longtime collaborator, Landt Dennis, wrote the text.
What made Lisl's book different," Herring explains, "is that she knew the need existed and went out and photographed with that need in mind. Santa Fe has more than a million tourists a year. There were plenty of books about some aspect of Santa Fe — black-and-white history books of books on painters, for example — but no large-scale, coffeetable-type destination book had been done on the area.
"Lil saw a review of the Transco book and contacted us," he continues. "She had been talking to other publishers but was drawn to us by the way we handled photography in the book."
In this instance, the feeling was mutual. However, most photographers would have more trouble getting their foot in Herring's door. "Over the years, we have received hundreds of book proposals," he points out. "That's the opposite of the way we work. While every photographer has a book idea, not every photographer has in mind a market for that book," he explains. "They think that because it's a neat idea, someone surely would want to put up the money to publish it."
At a cost of $75,000 to $100,000 for each 7,500- to 10,000-copy press run, Herring says, that's seldom the case.
More often, he sees a need for a book and then chooses the photographer to fit it. "In most cases, it's someone who has worked with me in my design business," he explains. He rarely reviews portfolios, and, though he occasionally uses new talent, for the most part he sticks with the same stable of freelancers — including such prominent Houston photographers as Brady, Payne, Joe Aker, Joe Baraban and Ron Scott.
Some book projects, like Lisl Dennis', come with a photographer as part of the deal. Says Herring, "We might be asked to do a book for a client or have an opportunity to do a book relating to a client, and there may be an existing relationship with a photographer."
Take, for example, Mariotti, a beautiful illustrated book which shows how stones are quarried, cut and hand finished for the exteriors of such famous buildings as Lincoln Center in New York, One Shell Plaza in Houston and Sears Tower in Chicago. The photographer was Taro Yamasaki of Michigan, son of noted architect Minoru Yamasaki. Because of their relationship with his family, the Mariottis had hired him to photograph their buildings over a period of time. By the time Herring Press was brought into the project, the camera work was about 85 percent complete.
Like Lisl Dennis, the Mariottis had talked with other publishers. But they were drawn to Herring Press because of the beauty of the Transco book, a quality which Herring says sets his company apart from his competitors: "In some of the larger publishing houses," he points out, "its more of a business than an art."
The project appealed to Herring's high esthetic standards. But when the Mariottis promised to buy half the books and a direct-mail market for the remainder became apparent, it appealed as well to the new focus of his publishing enterprise. "We're doing books now that are for corporate clients first, but that can be distributed to the public," he points out. "We need to do books with specific purpose and more obvious payoff when we go in."
Perhaps the big publishing houses have a point: The business side can't be overlooked. With his eye for photography, emphasis on quality and a new marketing vision, Jerry Herring will strike a better balance. He'll find a way to produce beautiful photography books and quicker profits, too.