A few thoughts on self publishing photo books




The other day, someone asked me why I liked self-published or independently published photo books (photo credit: Noah Beil; see this post). It’s a pretty simple question, the only problem being that up until that moment I had never thought about it. I had thought about all the various aspects, but I had not put them together. (more)

As it turns out, there are various reasons why I like self publishing. First of all, if you can’t find a publisher for your photography, self-publishing the work will produce a book that would otherwise never see the light of day. Of course, there are many reasons why a publisher might turn down a book proposal, with business considerations being very important. I’d be the last person to ask a business to take what they consider to be a risk. The book market is tough.

Here’s the thing, though, if you produce a body of work that 200 people would love to have in book form, then that’s probably a pretty bad deal for a publisher. But it’s still 200 books you could sell. In other words, if you got 200 copies produced yourself you could sell out your edition. In reality, of course you don’t know how many copies you will sell, but having to sell 200 copies instead of 2,000 is a lot easier.

Self-publishing 200 copies of a book thus is not such a bad idea, if you think about it in terms of what your market might be like. Of course, self publishing will cost you money, often a lot of it. But first of all, getting a book published often costs you money, too (don’t assume that every publisher pays for all the production costs). And second, producing the work probably will have cost a fair amount of money (and time) already - so it’s not as if you suddenly have to face huge costs. If you think of the production costs of the book in terms of what the project cost you already, things might suddenly look not so bad.

The second big reason why I like self published books is because typically, they are more diverse and often more exciting than books by big publishing houses. I noticed this about half a year ago when I talked about how many photo books are so boring: Gallery shows on paper. If you produce your own book, you can literally do whatever you want. Of course, you’re well advised to get some help (find someone to help with the edit, maybe get someone to help with the design); but if you spend the time (and often money, since fancy stuff - such as fold-out pages, say - ends up costing a lot more) you will probably end up with a book that looks just like what you envisioned. Needless to say, you might be able to find a publisher who would produce the same book for you - but if you can’t find one, doing it yourself, exactly the way you want it, might be the way to go.

Of course, there’s the on-demand issue. See, I don’t really mind on-demand publishers. They’re simple to use, if you spend enough time and money, you can get pretty good books. For me, the main drawback is that you’re working off of some templates. I’ve just seen too many on-demand books that look like the templates, with pictures dropped in. I personally am just not too interested in that for the kinds of photo books I like to look at.

The quality issues don’t even bother me that much - many self published books don’t have the greatest quality, either. What does bother me is that it often looks, well, lazy. There, I said it. If you spend months and months on your photography, maybe lugging your 8x10 around and then scanning everything etc., why would you use a shortcut at the very last moment?

Needless to say, there are plenty of photo projects that work great with on-demand publishers. And if you just want a handful of copies, on-demand publishing is great. But here, I’m talking about producing 50 or 200 copies of a book. For me, that’s a different game.

You could argue that on-demand publishing allows you to produce a book, and it then doesn’t matter whether 5 or 50 or 500 people buy it, since each copy is produced, well, on demand. That’s true. But that’s a business aspect. I’m interested in the book itself, and at the end of the day, what matters is whether the book looks great or not. Compared with all the various truly self-published books, 95% of the on-demand books I’ve seen don’t look very good at all. And this isn’t about quality or paper choices or whatever, it’s about how people use on-demand printing services (this is something for a future post).

Which brings me to something else I like about self publishing: It’s such hard work (and it’s so expensive usually) that seeing someone do all that “just” to custom produce a book adds something to it. It shows real dedication, and I’ll admit that I have a lot of respect for that: Taking a big risk, investing a lot of time and money, to produce a book that really reflects the work.

And at the very end, that might be the most important aspect for me, that dedication, that willingness to make something unique happen.

You might disagree with some or all of this. The preceding is what I think about this topic, and your ideas might be way different. But someone asked, so I thought I’d write about why I love self published books.