There is a lot written about photo books and the rise in self-publishing. Many photographers are either involved in or thinking about publishing a book of their own photography and therefore the process of becoming their own designer, typographer, publisher and distributor. Let me say that none of that is easy, although it is achievable. All of those roles require experience, knowledge and hard work to master, so do not dismiss them. I have fulfilled all of those roles at some point over the last forty years and therefore often get asked for advice by photographers as to how to resolve issues they encounter.
Unfortunately, I often find that their questions reveal a wider lack of understanding. So, to address the issues many find and I hear, this is my simple guide on how to make and self-publish a photo book, and yes it is a series of questions that you will need to ask yourself! But only you can provide the answers…
Do you have a book?
A group of photographs does not a book make! Before you even think of making a photo book consider if the work you are thinking of publishing has a reason to exist as a book. Is there a narrative? Is there a context for the work? Do the images tell a story? Are they good enough?
Do your research
What size, design, pagination and print process is your book going to adopt? Have other photographers created books with images or stories similar to yours? If so how have they approached the process of publishing that work. If not, why not? Maybe you are trying to make a book when another outcome would be more appropriate.
What is your budget?
This is something you need to consider at the very beginning of the process. Get paper samples, speak to different printers and consider if you will need to pay a designer or/and a proof reader. Get multiple print quotes. Be realistic as to your potential return on investment. How much will you charge for each book? How much will people pay for the book? How many will you realistically sell? And don’t forget to include costs for post and packaging in your costings both national and international.
Do you have an audience?
If you don’t have an existing audience for your work it will be difficult to sell your book. That audience could be a social media following, client base or connected with the subject matter of your work. Either way only a small percentage of any of these will actually buy the book. Be realistic at this point as any print run will be based on your expectations of sales. Being unrealistic will result in boxes of books you can’t shift. Few self-published photo books sell more than 1,000 copies.
Find a friend
Your passion and enthusiasm for a project may need to be tempered by a good friend or friends who will point out pitfalls that you may have not seen, or issues you have deliberately ignored! A friend that has photographic and/or design/publishing experience is also useful when it comes to editing work, choosing covers, confirming design and checking text.
Design is not a template
Book design is an art form – it is not just a knowledge of how InDesign works – and needs to be respected as such. If you are not experienced or confident as a designer then it will benefit you and your work to collaborate with an experienced editorial designer. They will understand the structure of a book, how to use typography sensitively and hopefully they will also understand how to use photographs to convey the story you want to tell. They will also know how to prepare your files and the book for print.
Production takes time
By production I mean the edit, the layout, the design, writing text, checking text, preparing files and working with the printer on paper choices, print profiles, binding choices and delivery of the finished book. Most book publishers will allow up to a year just for this, others will allow two. Don’t rush any of these stages if you won’t to avoid expensive mistakes and potential disappointment.
How will people know it exists?
This consideration connects with the idea of audience, but also relates to your ability to market your own work. Some photographers are good at this, some are not! Only you know which of these you are. If you are prominent on social media this is one of the best ways of raising awareness of your forthcoming publication, but this will take time and hard work. Taking your followers through the process of creating the work and then creating the book gives people a sense of connection with your project that is essential in marketing not only the final book, but also you as a photographer. Magazines and newspapers occasionally feature books, but if you are lucky enough to gain reviews online or in-print do not expect these to deliver big sales. Expect your press release and emails hoping for reviews to be ignored.
Direct selling from your website or social media platforms is the easiest form of selling, but you may want to also have your book in a physical bookshop. This will be on a sale or return basis and do not expect any shop to take more than a handful of books at most. Make sure you consider the time, work and cost of personally delivering these and the difficulty of keeping track of where the books are and how they are selling. You will also need to have invested in an ISBN number to ensure that the book can be sold, however you choose to sell it!
Still want to make a photo book? Then good luck!
Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2022
What do you think about do-it-yourself book creation using companies such as Shutterfly? (there are others whose names I can’t recall). I’ve heard some photographers say that they are satisfied to gather a collection of their images (for example, of a particular place or theme) into a small book for themselves and their friends/family/students to enjoy.
Fine for that as are Blurb who I use for family images but not for sale.
Zines are easier and cheaper, and I find that they more easily satisfy my need to see my stuff printed on paper. Even self published books are pretty expensive today, where zines done through a local printer are relatively cheap.
True but the same rules apply concerning intent, narrative, design, audience and distribution.
Agree, eight zines in, I have twenty or so usual subscribers, small is enough.
Then you have an audience