There are three avenues for publishing a photobook — traditional publishers, independent publishers (also known as indie presses), and self-publishing. This article will take a deep dive into indie presses. They are known for printing highly creative, beautifully crafted books that are as unique in design as the art that comprises their pages. The book becomes an extension of the photographers’ project — an art object in its own right.
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Independent photobook publishers can take more of a risk with who they publish/what they publish compared to traditional publishers. They don’t print as many books as large presses. Rather, they have a niche photobook market size composed of collectors, fine art photography enthusiasts, and higher learning institutions. Also, their costs are generally covered up-front by the photographer.
While seeking tenure at a university, Baltimore-based fine artist and commercial photographer E. Brady Robinson submitted a proposal for her project Art Desks to Daylight Books. As an academic, getting tenure is highly dependent on research and exhibition within a fine art field. It’s possible publishing a book could help you meet that goal. Brady felt she was at a milestone in her career, having attained gallery representation and a representative. So, publishing a book seemed like the next step. Brady decided to submit her project to Daylight Books rather than self-publish because she liked the design of their books and trusted them with hers. She explains:
Publishing a book is a great way to distribute your work to a wider audience. It also serves as a way to preserve your project. A publishing house has a wider distribution than a single artist, making it easier to reach new viewers.
Collecting of artist’s books, limited editions, and small-run titles is on the rise, with more than half of all photobooks published by indie presses. There is a wealth of information about these publishers. You can find them at photobook fairs like the New York fine art photography show AIPAD or CODEX International Book Fair & Symposium. If you can’t make the fairs in person, search their list of exhibitors online.
You’ll want to find publishers with a similar aesthetic and books relating to your subject. It’s helpful to ask yourself if your project has already been published by another photographer or if it’s new and unique? Once you’ve researched lists of publishers, analyze their book lists on their websites. You can find descriptions of many indie presses, their preferences, and book lists in a series of articles on Lenscratch.
It’s amazing to participate in the process of transforming static imagery into a physical object. I think consumers feel when a book is made with integrity. I want to keep trying to try and make them right. — Yoffy Press founder and Perfect Bound podcast host, Jennifer Yoffy
Submitting a proposal to independent presses is less structured than with traditional publishers. While you still need to pull together a professional presentation, the book’s subject matter and storytelling quality can override the prominence of the photographer’s reputation. Be polished in presenting your images and consider creating a narrative that flows from one picture to the next. If you’re not skilled with Photoshop or InDesign, you may need to hire a designer for help.
Submissions to independent publishers don’t require the level of market research and readership analysis compared to submitting to a traditional publisher. Indie presses evaluate your project based on its unique, creative approach. However, it would help raise the level of your submission if you outline any publicity or marketing ideas and if you have a consistent social media presence and significant following. You’ll need to include a bio and an in-depth artist statement about the project. Your goal is to convince the publisher that your book should be on their list.
Jennifer considers her connection to the artist as a person when signing a new project. She will be working with them for a year during design and production. So the chemistry between her and the photographer is significant in her selection process. She explains:
I consider the uniqueness of the project. Is the work something I haven’t seen before? Can we do crowdfunding? Does the artist have collectors and a social media following? Before I can take on a project, I need to make sense of all these things.
Not all indie presses accept submissions — some will directly approach the artists that they want to publish. When you’ve created a list of publishers you’re interested in working with, check their websites for submission guidelines.
If your proposal to a publisher is successful and they would like to offer you a contract, be sure you understand the contract thoroughly. The costs involved in photobook publishing can be incredibly high. Publishers will raise funds for their expenses by offering online pre-orders of their books. But ultimately, you will fund the book completely. You’ll probably need to launch a Kickstarter campaign and identify grants that apply to you unless you have a budget that allows you the freedom of publishing at this price.
Since publishing a book with an indie press is expensive, you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons — will it help you get a gallery or museum exhibition? Will it help drive print sales? Will it get you more clients? These opportunities may be worth the time and money of publishing your book if they result in the potential to create income streams. However, if you’ll be taking on debt to publish, it’s probably not the best idea. After all, you won’t be able to recoup your investment.
Brady received half of her publishing costs from crowdsourcing, then the other half from print sales and donors. When the book was published, she received the Grand Prize Award in the American Life exhibition at the 2011 Lishui Photography Festival, China. Addison/Ripley Fine Art in Washington, DC featured a solo exhibition of Art Desks in November 2014 during FotoWeekDC. Washington Post, LensCulture, Feature Shoot, Slate, as well as many others, featured the project.
An independent press will expect to collaborate with you — they want the project to reflect you as an artist. You’ll have significant editing, sequencing, and design input — including typography, materials, and even marketing. Indie photobooks are like art objects and appeal to a niche market of collectors — therefore, you’ll want to be your most creative self in the collaboration and expect others to do the same. Brady explains:
Working with an independent press is a collaborative process. I pitched ideas for my book’s publicity, even scheduling book signings, and secured renowned photography critic Andy Grundberg to write the foreword. Working with a publisher is a partnership, and the photographer must be proactive.
Independent photobook publishers don’t have the depth and breadth of resources that traditional publishers do. You won’t find their books in Barnes and Noble, but you may find them in indie bookstores, online outlets, and some museum bookstores. Independent publishers attend book fairs and festivals like San Francisco’s Art Book Fair and the LA Art Book Fair, among others, where the public can peruse photobooks and purchase directly. Also, as opposed to the thousands of books a large publisher will print in an edition, an independent press may only do a print run of 500, allotting you a hundred or more copies. The distribution channels aren’t as complex with fewer books to sell.
Your publisher’s website and social media will also feature your book. Indie presses have established networks with writers, publications, festival curators, and galleries, to name a few. Their reach is broad within the industry, but they won’t be arranging book signings and interviews for you — you’ll have to look for those opportunities on your own. And, you’ll be able to sell your copies through your website, workshops, artist talks, exhibits, and on Amazon, and keep all the profit.
Publishing a book is time-consuming and costly, even with independent publishers. If your passion for the project overrides the cost of publishing, you’ve made extra income to support the project, or you need to reach that next point in your career like Brady, it may be worth it. However, assuming thousands in debt to publish a book is unreasonable. Before committing to a publisher, evaluate if the benefits outweigh the costs.
This article is a part of our Photobook series. Make sure to check out other articles in this series to learn more about the topic:
PDN Online: How Independent Photobook Publishers Work Without Charging Photographers
Aperture: Why the Photobook “Photobook Phenomenon” Is More than Just a Fad
Time Magazine: Best Photobooks of 2021
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