Books

Publishing a photo book part one: The basics

The number of photobook publishing companies has increased over the past two decades. Before 1999, there were approximately 92 presses compared to over 480 operating in 2021. Additionally, a photographer’s desire to publish photobooks has grown — as a means of self-promotion and self-expression. The accessibility to design tools and print-on-demand services has made it so that anyone can publish their work. But should they? This series of four articles will examine the ins and outs of photobook publishing. From traditional publishing houses to independent presses and self-publishing.

Table of Contents

  • What is a Photobook?
  • The Photobook Industry
  • The Photobook Market
  • The Cost of Publishing a Photobook
  • Traditional Photobook Publishers
  • Independent Photobook Publishers
  • Self-Publishing a Photobook
  • Next Step in Publishing a Photobook

Photobooks are like contained photographic universes. They do everything that Instagram doesn’t do by providing an intimate experience, the ability to linger, and to see a beautifully printed body of work sequentially. — Andy Adams, Curator and Director, FlakPhoto Projects.

Annie Leibovitz; WonderlandPhaidon

What is a Photobook?

A photobook’s pages are filled with image pairings that create relationships and juxtapositions, resulting in unexpected dialogues between pictures. The pages not only narrate a story or theme — they are a continuous stream like a film or graphic novel. The viewing experience would have a different impact than if seen on a gallery’s walls. Also, the gallery may be far away, but you can easily order a book on Amazon. Andy believes that books are the ultimate platform for photography. He explains:

The book is a form, like a canvas to play on. A book lasts. And as the internet continues to envelop us, as culture continues to dematerialize and we drown in digital noise, there is something really meaningful and important about putting a discrete physical object in the world.

The Photobook Industry

First, let’s recognize the competitive and overly saturated marketplace of photobooks. Online vendors like Amazon have driven down book prices while photobook costs have risen, creating lower profit margins for publishers. The disappearance of traditional bookstores has given way to online retail. Thus, making it less likely someone will purchase a book spontaneously based on its aesthetic appeal. There are three ways to publish a photobook, namely traditional publishers, independent publishersand self-publishing. Self-publishing or working with an independent publisher can cost a photographer well into the tens of thousands of dollars. Yet, the number of photobooks published is at an all-time high. How can that be?

Publishing Chart, originally published by Photo District News: What to Consider Before You Pitch Your Photobook

Some people consider photobooks art objects themselves — books have materiality to them that can elevate the project by design choices in typography, papers, cover embellishments, and binding options, to name a few. Photobooks are not only conversation pieces, but they are also collected art objects. Andy explains that photographers want to make books regardless of the cost.

Photographers don’t make photobooks for money. The reward is in seeing and sharing the book and that your book will outlive you.

The Photobook Market

Although the market for photobook sales may seem limited, it’s a highly loyal niche market. It consists of collectors, artists, museums, galleries, higher learning institutions, photographers, and photo enthusiasts, among others. Many photobook collectors are passionate about photography books. They create personal libraries that feature favorite artists and the most creatively designed books by independent publishers. Also, most photobooks are not made for the mass market and rarely find their way into stores like Barnes and Noble. They are selective projects that appeal to a particular audience of admirers.

Notations by Richard Misrach, published by Radius Books

The Cost of Publishing a Photobook

Photobook publishing is rarely profitable for the photographer. Even through traditional publishing, which covers the cost of design, production, marketing, and distribution. How many books you sell will dictate the royalties you’ll be paid. You’ll need to fund your book project 100% with most indie publishers. So you will need to participate in crowdsourcing or apply for grant funding. Self-publishing is not only a time-consuming processbut it’s also costly if you have to hire help.

Still, if you want to create something that preserves your work for future generations or as a way to promote yourself, publishing a photobook can be a viable option. This is true especially if you have extra money to spend on marketing efforts. However, if you’re on a budget and think a book will bring you income or that you’ll break even, you’re mistaken. A book may help your career, but most likely, it will not catapult you to fame and fortune.

Traditional Photobook Publishers

Prominent photographers’ work has graced hardbound photography books’ covers for generations. From photography book publishing companies like Phaidon, Thames & Hudson, Steidl, and Abrams. To have your photography published by these renowned publishers, you’ll need a recognizable name that will drive marketing sales. Or you need a stunningly unique view on a subject with broad appeal and maybe even be a timely topic. You’ll need an impressive submission for your book project to catch any of these publishers’ attention.

Mapplethorpe Flora; The Complete Flowers, Phaidon

Alan Rapp, Editorial Director at Monacelli Pressexplains:

In publishing, you have to present the value of the artist. Not just in terms of the art, but how the book will do in the market.

Traditional publishers may opt for more mainstream titles than independent publishers, with Amazon being their primary outlet for book sales. Many of their titles include beautiful broad-reaching projects about generic subjects like nature. The photographs don’t challenge the viewer but are pleasing to see. Other titles will include renowned photographers who are featured in museum shows and have gallery representation — like Cindy Sherman, Sally Mann, and Stephen Shore.

Stephen Shore: Survey, Copublished by Aperture and Fundación MAPFRE

Years ago, it was a standard procedure for an artist to receive an advance when signing their monograph with a large publisher. Today, most photobook publishers offer only royalties per book sold. This makes the artist only a little profit if the book is well received. In the late 90s, traditional publishers who may have published books in production runs of 5,000+ now opt for smaller print runs. If the first edition sells out, printing another edition may as well.

Independent Photobook Publishers

With the upsurge of photobook popularity over the past twenty years, a host of small independent publishers have risen on the scene. Independent publishers print highly selective photography projects from documentary to fine art, books that wouldn’t fit in the mainstream marketplace. Andy explains:

There are blockbuster art books, but 99% of the photobook culture currently is the indie scene. This means that it’s small and not for the masses. These book imprints build reputations on the unique types of books they publish.

Puberty by Laurence Philomène, published by Yoffy Press

While a large publisher can make up a deficit on one particular book through the sales of other books, a small press bears the weight and financial risk of a book selling poorly. Hence, photographers must financially support their books when publishing with an indie press.

Independent publishers are more likely to publish little-known photographers, with most presses producing only a handful of books in a year. The chosen projects are highly unique and not dependent on the artist’s name to drive sales. Yoffy Press Founder and Publisher, Jennifer Yoffy, explains:

I look for work that is something I haven’t seen before or done in a new way. I need to get something personally out of it — like I’ve learned something. The financials have to make sense. It helps if the photographer has collectors or can get grant funding.

Independent Publisher Saint Lucy Books website catalog of photobooks

Indie presses don’t publish books for the money — they do it for the love of photography and books. They may break even on a project or turn a small profit, but many of them have full-time jobs, like Jennifer, who got into publishing to support photographers. You’ll be more likely to have an independent publisher sign your project than a traditional publisher. However, be sure you can afford to have it published.

Self-Publishing a Photobook

It’s challenging to get a book project published by a traditional or independent press. Most publish a handful of photobooks a year, and the competition is stiff, with numerous photographers vying for the same attention from publishers. Suppose you’ve invested years photographing a worthy project or want to showcase your portfolio and don’t want to jump through hoops of submitting to publishers. In that case, self-publishing may be something to consider.

Tadd Myers, The Lobstermen of Little Cranberry Island

Tad Myersa Texas-based industrial photographer, explains his primary purpose for self-publishing: to promote his brand to potential art buyers at various agencies and clients. He explains:

I view self-publishing as a significant extension of our marketing and promotion efforts. Over my twenty-two-year career, I’ve learned that the return-on-investment for these books often continues for two or three years or more.

Self-publishing can be a pricey endeavor, and you may need to ponder the personal and professional benefits. However, you can use your book as a publicity tool by sending it to clients as a gift. You can use it as a “thank you” present for your producers on your latest shoot. If you have an exhibit, a book is a necessity. This is because people will spring for a book if they can’t afford a print. Undoubtedly, whether selling it or giving it to someone else, there is a positive benefit from accomplishing something that becomes part of your legacy.

Kirsty Mitchell’s self-published book, Wonderland

The difficulty in self-publishing isn’t the production of the book. The hard part is marketing and sometimes distribution. How will you get your book into the world if you don’t have an extensive social network? Will you have a place to store your book and a method for processing orders?

It can be highly disappointing to put the time, effort, and money into self-publishing only to end up with the majority of your books in a box on the living room floor. So It is important to have a marketing plan in place before you begin.

Next Step in Publishing a Photobook

To help you better understand each publishing method and decide which one may be the best photobook publisher for you, look out for the other articles in this series. We take a deeper dive into the publishing world by examining traditional publishing, indie presses, and self-publishing. You can find out everything you need to know – from how to make a photobook and the design process to understanding the photobook market size and sales.

About the Author

Polly Gaillard is a fine art photographer, writer, and educator. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in Visual Art from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has taught photography workshops and college courses including summer study abroad programs in Prague, Czech Republic, and Cortona, Italy. She has exhibited her fine art photographs nationally and published a limited edition artist book, Pressure Points, with a foreword by actress Jamie Lee Curtis. Polly’s photographic skills traverse contemporary art, documentary, portrait, and traditional photographic practices. You can find more of Polly’s work on her website and connect with her via LinkedIn. This article was also published on Wonderful Machine and shared with permission.

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