Finding a publisher to take on your project and print your book may take years, and proposal rejections can feel demoralizing. Suppose you’ve invested a significant amount of time and energy into photographing a project or want to showcase your portfolio without jumping through hoops of submitting to publishers — in that case, self-publishing a photobook is a viable option.
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Consider the personal and professional benefits if you’re hesitant about paying to self-publish your book. You can use your book as a publicity tool by sending it to agency creatives as a gift. You can use it as a “thank you” present for the producers on your latest shoot. If you have an exhibit, a book is necessary — people will spring for a book if they can’t afford a print. Undoubtedly, whether selling your book or giving it to someone else, there is a positive feeling from creating something that will become part of your legacy. Before jumping on the bandwagon, you should look into the photobook market size and analyze other reasons to self-publish or not. You can read through our other Expert Advice articles on publishing a photobook, traditional publishing, and independent publishers to find out more.
Before diving into self-publishing, you may consider taking a workshop or two. They will guide you through the process and offer advice on how to self-publish a photobook. There are plenty of places to go to educate yourself — workshops and online courses like New York’s International Center for Photography (ICP) offers online STORYTELLING: Selecting, Sorting and Sequencing Your Pictures for a Book. Also be sure to check out Self Publish, Be Happy, an organization dedicated to shaping contemporary photography and visual culture through publishing, online and offline events, and education programs. With the popularity of self-publishing, most traditional workshop organizations like Anderson Ranch, Santa Fe Workshops, and Maine Media include courses in book-making.
Once you have decided to go down the path of self-publishing a photobook, you will first need to define the book’s subject and your audience. Is it a documentary project on tattoo artists that appeals to a young artsy crowd that collects zines? Maybe it’s a portfolio showcase that illustrates the highlights of your career. Write it down and describe it as fully as possible — this will help guide you through the photo editing process.
New York-based photographer Bill Bernstein spent his pandemic days sifting through images he made for the Village Voice in the late 1970s New York club culture disco scene. These include the famed Studio 54, the Mudd Club, Xenon, and Paradise Garage, to name a few. He explains:
“The first thing I did was think about the book’s concept. What is my message? Then, I was able to edit my photographs like a history book of NYC’s disco era. That helped me define my market and demographic.”
Editing and sequencing pictures for the book can be the most challenging part of self-publishing. What to leave out? What to include? Do the pictures match your written description of the book? Recognizing that you are sequencing photos to tell a story or convey a specific message is important.
For those who like to hold pictures in your hands and shuffle them around to create order, have your images printed cheaply as 4×6 glossy prints so you can lay them out and begin your editing or sequencing. Creating a book mock-up (a handmade version) is also an excellent way to envision the final product loosely, and you can share it with others who may have worthwhile opinions about your edit.
Mary Virginia Swanson, co-author of Publish Your Photography Book advises:
“I encourage every photographer to ‘test’ their edit/the sequence of their work by sending that layout to a print-on-demand (POD) service to view single copies as they are closer to final decisions.”
It’s essential to include a description of your project near the beginning of the book. Craft a compelling artist statement that explains why you made this work, how you made it, and what you want others to consider when looking at your photographs. You know your photography better than anyone else, so put it into words, then have a photobook editor or copy editor look at it.
You will also want to consider someone else to write about your work — it could be a gallerist, curator, or someone who specializes in a field related to your topic. A foreword is written by someone else of stature, fame, or expertise that can connect with the reader by explaining why your book is a valuable contribution. Also, it can help drive photobook sales.
Bill was strategic in selecting people to write for his book. His strategy was to include commentary from contemporary figures in the industry to bring his work into the 21st century. The Last Dance foreword is written by Honey Dijon, a popular DJ, producer, and electronic musician on the contemporary club scene. This collaboration with an international DJ catapulted Bill’s 1970s disco images into modern-day club culture while giving it validation.
Most of your time will be spent designing a photobook, even if you hire a designer. The design options will seem endless.
Some fundamental decisions that need to be made during this process include:
“I think the most important aspect of creating a memorable print piece is uniqueness. That can be difficult to achieve without expert outside opinions. Getting into an echo chamber is very easy when we’re too isolated. I’ve found that a good graphic designer brings many fresh and unique ideas to a project.” — Tadd Myers
The book design should inherently reflect your photography aesthetic, i.e. if your photographs are minimalistic, carry that over into the design. If your work is vibrant and colorful, you don’t want a layout that will compete with your imagery. If your project is about the environment, you may think about printing on 100% cotton or recycled paper and materials that signify your respect for the earth. Mixing up page layout by varying image sizes and including blank pages and spreads keeps the viewer visually interested and gives them a space to pause and consider the work more carefully.
“Mohawk Options Vellum was selected for this project because of its ability to capture the tonal quality and rich surfaces in Tadd Myers’ work. The Vellum finish suggests the texture of the sheep’s wool and serves as a subtle nod to the weathered skin on the backs of the farmer’s hands — second and third-generation farmers whose lives are tied to their land.” — Design: O&H Brand Design, Dallas, TX
The photobook printing process and printer you choose are as vital as any other part of self-publishing. You’ll need to do some research or get some recommendations at this point to find the right printer for you. Consider the custom aspects of the book and what kind of printer can provide the options you need. You generally have two options for printing — offset printing and digital printing (or POD), and each has its pros and cons:
You’ll need to devise a marketing plan for your book to make a profit, break even, or reach your goal of attracting more clients. Books can be a powerful publicity tool — a way of acquiring more clients, which indirectly generates income.
One way to help publicize your book is by getting quotes from prominent media outlets to legitimize your work and push sales. By sending a copy of Last Dance to publications like The New York Times, Bill secured attention-grabbing quotes for his website and social media, which helped drive sales. His overall goal of self-publishing was to promote and sell prints featured in the book. To do so, he set up an e-commerce site that featured Last Dance and limited-edition signed prints. Also, he gave artists talks about the project combined with book signings. Partnering with a British dance music label, he traveled abroad to attend an exhibition of his work that Defected Records hosted. All these publicity efforts helped Bill attain his goal of selling out this Last Dance edition while increasing print sales and expanding his base of collectors.
Tadd’s goal in self-publishing was never to make a profit from the book but to use it for publicity and to retain and gain clients. He even works with a marketing/public relations partner to help promote the books through traditional and social media platforms.
“I view books as essential marketing expenses, and I feel that marketing and promotion efforts are the most important dollars you can spend on your company. When estimating a project, we always keep in mind that the money we’re spending today may result in new clients down the road and, at the very least, increase our standing with potential future clients.”
Whether trying to cross over into the fine art world and increase print sales and collectors like Bill Bernstein or market your work to new clients like Tadd Myers, self-publishing can help you attain those goals. You may not profit substantially from your photobook, but you may generate enough interest and publicity to cover your costs and acquire new clients.
It was only a matter of time until photobook fairs and competitions came about with the rise of self-publishing. These annual events and contests have become businesses in their own right.
Mary Virginia explains:
“Collecting photography books, be they in the form of artist’s books, limited editions, or other small-run titles, is on the rise, as evidenced by the increasing presence of photobooks within traditional art fairs. Individual artists may apply to be a vendor and sell their title direct to the public.”
Suppose your book pushes the boundaries of self-publishing a photobook. In that case, you may consider entering it into a photobook contest like the prestigious annual Paris Photo and the Aperture Foundation Photobook Award with the first prize of $10,000. You can always enter your project as a mock-up in Germany’s Kassel Dummy Award for a chance to have your book published.
Have you thought about where you will sell your book or who will ship it? These kinds of details escape us when we’re excited about holding our published work! You can set up an account, sell through Amazon, and approach indie bookstores about carrying your monograph. But, how will you handle order fulfillment from your website? Will your living space be your shipping area? Bill rented a storage facility and worked with an assistant to fulfill online orders. There is also the option of allowing POD services like blurb to accept orders and ship books, but they’ll retain a percentage of the sales price for fulfilling orders. Whatever you do, be sure to build in a cost for shipping and handling if you do it yourself. After all, shipping takes time and costs money.
While it may be hard to justify the price of self-publishing, there are ways to reduce some overhead photobook costs. Bill designed Last Dance in Photoshop, eliminating the cost of a designer. Also, he decided to opt for a softcover book rather than the expensive hardbound cover. He sold the books at $45 each with a $12 charge for shipping and handling. Selling out the edition of 500 grossed him $22,500, easily covering the costs of POD production.
Tadd learned that partnering with vendors like design firms, paper suppliers, printers, etc., could help reduce production costs. These partnerships create a “win-win” situation for everyone involved. Unlike Bill, Tadd’s book included a production team of designers, an offset printer, bookbinders, and more.
“The production costs of books like these can vary widely. All total, including design, printing, and mailing, the price can run $20-40k, depending on many variables. Experience has taught me several ways to control photobook costs, and I have often “traded” our services with companies to produce these books.”
Self-publishing a photobook can be worthwhile if you enjoy having complete control over your finished product. Like all other photobook publishing, it creates an object that will become part of your legacy. If you realize that you’ll not turn a profit, it can be a rewarding experience since there is no pressure to make money. Educate yourself in what it takes to make it a successful venture, and stick to your original message of what you believe is your book’s message. After all, photobooks are great conversation pieces regardless of who publishes them.