How I Did It
VIDEO • HOW I DID IT

How Rick Smolan Launched His A Day in the Life Photo Books
 

If not for Australia's then Prime Minister, and an open approach to sponsors, photographer Rick Smolan may not have started the $100 million photo book series.

Rick Smolan

If not for Australia's then Prime Minister, and an open approach to sponsors, photographer Rick Smolan may not have started the $100 million photo book series.

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Video Transcript

00:07 Rick Smolan: I felt like I jumped out of an airplane with about 20 friends and we were frantically trying to build the parachute on the way down, and the ground was coming up really fast.

In 1980, Rick Smolan, a professional photographers, wanted to compile A Day in the Life of Australia, a book of images shot by 100 photographers in 24 hours.

Rick pitched the idea to 35 publishers--and they all rejected it.

00:29 Smolan: So after all these publishers had rejected this idea, I was already working at the project. I already had invited a group of friends, other journalists to start putting this together because I naively somehow assumed that it was gonna come together but it wasn't coming together. I had about six people sleeping in sleeping bags on my floor in Melbourne. We were running up bills. We were mocking up books. We were actually trying to come up with sort of a little demo of what this thing would look like. And it got to the point where if I... I wanted to just call the whole thing off and just give up. But I'd run up so many bills I had no way of paying. It was sort of like somebody holding a gun to your head and saying, "Make this a bestseller or you're going to jail." Literally, I had like a 100,000 in bills. Sort of out of desperation, I was trying to think of who could I turn to?

Rick decided to contact Australia's Prime Minister who he met four years earlier while on assignment for Time.

01:21 Smolan: I said, "Look, I wanna bring a hundred of the best photographers in the world to your country. Would you pay for it? Could you find money somewhere in your government budget or something." And he kind of laughed at me and he said, "You know, nice try". He said, "We have a budget for three photographers. I can't fly a 100 of your friends." I said, "Well, they're not all my friends. They're the world's... " He said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know." He said, "But I will help you.". I remember thinking, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." And I think I had that look on my face and he goes, "Right, I am gonna help you, but listen to me for a second." He said, "I'm gonna write letters. I'm gonna introduce you to the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies". And I sort of looked at him blankly because, "Okay, I'm gonna set up meetings for you with Qantas and Kodak, and this guy, Steve Jobs, who started... "

02:02 Smolan: This was 1980. He says, "Starting a computer company." I said, "I'm trying to do a photo-book about Australia. Why do I wanna meet with business guys?" He said, "Okay. Step with me here, kid." He said, "You're gonna ask Kodak for free film. You're gonna ask Qantas for free airline tickets. You're gonna ask this guy, Jobs, for free computers.". And I said, "They're just gonna give me this stuff for free?" He said, "Okay." He said, "You're gonna put their logo at the front of your book." And I said, "I can't put logos in this book. I'm a journalist. That would be like selling out." And again, he was very patient with me. He said, "Rick, okay. It's like a PBS Special. The book is made possible by the following companies." He said, "Tell them you won't put any products of theirs in the book. Tell them you have editorial independence." And he said, "But I want something in return for helping you." I said, "Okay, what?" He goes, "I wanna be one of your 100 photographers."

With the help of sponsors, Rick self-published the book and distributed it through an Australian newspaper company.

The was released in October 1981, and by Christmas became the top-selling book in Australia.

03:04 Smolan: One of the ironies I often think about this is that, if anyone of those 35 publishers had turned me down when I first was pitching "A Day in the Life" and said yes to me, I would have gone back to being a photographer because I would have ended up basically barely breaking even on it. So, I ended up in a much, much better place just because I had all these doors shut in my face. I think part of the challenge for me this is probably true of every entrepreneur, is you somehow think, "I'm not smarter than anybody else. So, if everyone's telling me, 'This is a stupid idea', it's probably a stupid idea." And now, after all the years of doing these projects, when somebody says it's a stupid idea, it's either a stupid idea or it's a great idea. It's just that no one else has thought of it yet.

After Australia, Rick worked on A Day in the Life for Hawaii, Canada, Japan and the United States.

In 1987, Harper Collins bought the A Day in the Life series for an undisclosed amount.

To date, A Day in the Life has been published in 13 countries, and earned more than $100 million in sales.

Last updated: Nov 22, 2012