3 Tips For Publishing a Photobook

I recently contributed a post to Seshu Badrinath‘s Tiffinbox blog, with a quick wrap-up of the panel I participated in at the Flash Forward Festival in Toronto. Hope you don’t mind if I share it here, too.

From left: Darius Himes, Jason Fulford, Alec Soth, me, Andy Adams, and Stephen Mayes, talking photobooks in Toronto. Thanks to Larissa Leclair of the Indie Photobook Library for the photo.

With so many photographers taking publishing into their own hands these days, there seem to be a lot of questions and more than a few misperceptions about photobook publishing floating around.

I never would have considered myself an expert in photobooks until this February when I collaborated with Andy Adams of FlakPhoto to create the Future of Photobooks project, a month-long, cross-blog discussion about how photobooks would be made, read, and sold in the future.

Over the course of the project, more than 50 photo professionals and publishers wrote posts on their own blogs about where they saw photobooks heading. I read them all, organizing them and pulling out highlights for three final discussions hosted by guest bloggers. I felt at times like the blogosphere was giving me my own private class in photobook publishing 🙂

With a project like that, my greatest reward was getting to redistribute that knowledge back to the community, connecting with so many new people, and seeing people get excited about the discussions. Personally I have also been asked to speak publicly about phtoobooks, most recently on a panel at the inaugural Flash Forward Festival in Toronto — along with highly respected colleagues Alec Soth, Stephen Mayes, Darius Himes, Jason Fulford, and Andy Adams.

A number of important questions were raised during that discussion, ones I thought it would be helpful to share with anyone thinking about publishing a book or seeking a publisher for one. I’ve listed three big ideas below, but these are only starting points. It would be great to hear what you think about these, since the future of photobooks, now more than ever, truly is ours to shape.

1. Don’t expect your photobook to make money.

Aside from the very rare exception (things with large general appeal like Full Moon and A Child is Born) photobooks rarely turn a profit — in fact, many fail to break even. Darius Himes, founder of the non-profit Radius Books, pointed this out in his post for Future of Photobooks and again in Toronto. Photographers looking to have a book published often expect the same experience of lucky novelists, who receive an advance check before the book is even written. Photobooks are a completely different model. Novels cost a tiny fraction of a photobook to produce, and they have a much wider audience. Photographers (aside from Annie Leibovitz maybe) DO NOT get advances, and even top photographers with several books in publication admit they haven’t made any money from them.

2. Decide what you want to accomplish with your book.

Once you get over the idea that your book is going to make you any money, do you still want to make it? If so, why? Do you want it to be a culmination of a specific project, essentially a hand-held exhibition? Then you might need to work with a publisher that can help you find professional designers and editors. Or you could consider working with a printer directly, and producing a small editioned run of artist books. If you want your images to achieve a specific outcome, to be seen by lots of people or a few of the right people, partnering with a non-profit organization is a good option. Or you might even set aside the idea of a physical book for a viral video that can travel much further. If you simply want to be able to share your images in a tangible way, perhaps with friends and family or editors and clients, then a self-published book is great. All of these decisions and more will depend on your ultimate goal for your book — so figure that out first.

3. Be prepared to provide your own capital and, ideally, audience.

During our discussion, several photographers expressed chagrin that they had been asked to make an initial investment in order to publish their book with a publishing house. Although that may seem unfair, Darius and Jason both said that finding funding for a book was an important first step for them as publishers — as non-profits they worked together with the photographer to do that, but it’s not uncommon for publishers to ask the photographers to do it themselves. Funding may be the area that new technology can have the most effect on, through online pledge drive software like Kickstarter, or pre-sales through social media as with Lay Flat and Publication. And even when the actual funding isn’t provided online, that can still be an important place to build support and audience for a book project. For instance, look at Phil Toledano’s Days With My Father, which drew over 1 million hits as a website and allowed Phil to approach publishers with 15,000 emails from people who said they would buy the book in hard copy. Or Simon Roberts, who enlisted his fellow Brits through his blog, asking for ideas for photos to include in his We English book, thus creating an automatic base of support: Fans who were involved in the project were more likely to buy the book and share it with friends.

What steps are you taking to publish your photography book? If you are working on a book project and want to share it, please comment below 🙂

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3 thoughts on “3 Tips For Publishing a Photobook

  1. I would have ordered the tips as 2,1,3. Like any other art, photography needs a medium and a venue of presentation. Subject matter to some extent dictates which medium and venue is right for a particular photographer. That is why tip number 2 is so important. If one feels that their work needs to be in a book then there is no other option. At which point tip 3 would become handy and tip number 1 is for much, much later. Another frustration is the bandpass nature of artist/art work selection by galleries, editor, publishers and their kin. Most of them filter out what they see as low end/unknown and the high end/risky. That is why self publishing is so important as the artist learns that being a good artist is not the only thing needed an artist needs to be a fund raiser, publicist, promoter, and “always on”. Making it as an artist is tough, staying true to yourself without selling your soul to the market place is tough very tough. May be with a book in hand and doing our best become a little easier. ( my cynical two cents)

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  2. Good honest advice… would love to have been at the conference. I never made any money from my Blurb books,, but they are great portfolios and have gained me quite a bit of work. Mark

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  3. Pingback: Best of 2010 – Our Favorite Photo Blog Posts of the Year ‹ The PhotoShelter Blog

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