Creating a Blurb Photography Book that Sells

Photography: Matt Brandon

Books have a beginning, a middle and an end — like a movie or an installation at a gallery. It’s less about length and more about telling the story.

So Eileen Gittins, CEO of Blurb, told us in an interview for a previous post about the company that lets photographers create and market their own photobooks. We were wondering though what it takes to create a top-selling book on Blurb… so we asked a couple of photographers who had done it.

This is what they told us.

Gabriele Helfert is an amateur photographer based in Germany. Her book, Klapperfeld, features a collection of images shot in a single afternoon in a former police prison in downtown Frankfurt. Gabriele took around 200 images during her visit and uploaded about 50 of the best to Flickr where her contacts encouraged her to publish them as a book:

“[S]ince it was a manageable number of photos and a well-defined “project,” I thought: Let’s give it a go,” she said.

The sales price of a Blurb book depends on its size, so Gabriele chose to place her 50 images on 36 pages, which meant the book costs $22.95 to order. She also selected the 7×7 format as suitable for the number of pages, and because she liked its square shape.

What she might have liked less though is that because Gabriele is not an America taxpayer, she’s unable to sell the book for a profit — at least not from Blurb’s own website:

“Blurb set the price,” Gabriele explains. “You can only define a price that includes a margin when you have a US tax number. I don’t, since I am German and live in Germany. I don’t make any money with the book.”

To turn her book into a revenue-generator then, Gabriele would have to order a number of volumes, set her mark-up and market them herself. That’s certainly not impossible but it would involve a certain amount of risk. At the moment, she has little incentive to promote her book and her marketing has been restricted to mentioning it on her Flickr stream.

That alone though has been enough to land Gabriele a place on Blurb’s list of top-selling photography books — a lesson for US-based photographers: choose the right project and select the right images, and even minimal marketing through an established Flickr network can generate sales… and profits.

Matt Brandon is in a slightly more fortunate position. He can add a profit margin to his book, Catchlight, a collection of images of North India where he lived for thirteen years while running a tour company. His book also focuses on one topic — portraits of people, the environment and life in one particular region — but he chose a format that he hoped would be distinctive rather than letting the images define the type of book he wanted.

“I think had I let the images dictate the size of the book I would have gone with a portrait orientation, but instead I went with a landscape,” he said. “I might have been wrong, but I felt I wanted the book to stand out as a coffee table book.”

The price also was a factor, Matt adds. The book costs $39.95 but to encourage sales, Matt chose to keep his profits small.

“I hardly marked the book up at all. With Blurb you can mark up your book as much as you’d like, but this being the first one I wanted to make sure it will sell.”

Photography: Matt Brandon

Like Gabriele, Matt has featured on Blurb’s list of top-selling photography books although he rather coyly says that he hasn’t sold many. To market the book, he uses his website and takes a copy wherever he goes and whenever he delivers a talk about India. He has also sent copies to non-profits, and reports that some groups in India have committed to buying over 100 copies of the book and are interested in as many as 500.

Neither Matt nor Gabriele can say that they’re planning on retiring on the proceeds of their Blurb books but both seem pleased with the experience. When we asked them what they found the best part of producing a book on Blurb, they both said the same thing: “Just holding the book in my hand!”

Of course, it would be nice to hold revenue in your hand too and with the right marketing, that’s certainly possible.

Take a look at Catchlight here and Klapperfeld here and tell us about your experiences with Blurb.

[tags] photo books, blurb [/tags]

4 comments for this post.

  1. Serge Kozak Said:

    Ha! How cool. Thanks for that story. I think this can be quite exiting and great self marketing thing to try. What are the pieces like compared to getting the books printed privately upfront?

    -Serge Kozak

  2. Robert Miller Said:

    I have three books published on blurb, I have found the best market is when I carry them with me.
    One book has been a particular success for me is "Dirt Track Racing." I buy these books in groups of ten to reach the level of 10 percent discount. I take them to the race and they sell to fans almost immediately. No longer do I have to pay to go the races, and I am allowed in the pits with the drivers (an added benefit).

    Carefully picking your market, such as event photography, seems to be a winning ticket for blurb books.

    Right now, I have ten more books on order, and I am sure I will sell out in one race. I may in future plan to increase my order to next level of discount.

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful posts, I really enjoy them.

  3. Magdalena Said:

    Great blog! i published one book from blurb and i absolutely loved it. Hopefully one day i will publish one that will be a seller 🙂 take care.

  4. Dave Said:

    Not to be a downer, but i find the inability for any author outside of the united states to mark up their books somewhat of a drawback.

    There are other affiliate services out there that allow parties outside of the US to make a profit. Why can't Blurb? For that matter, why doesn't Blurb have an affiliate program? Brokers and publishers could use their service to setup books for clients and make money from the proceeds as well.

    Blurb would make a lot more money as well without having to overcharge, as I believe they do now.

    Just my opinion though. Obviously there are people happy to use the service. i don't find it to be well priced enough for an author to do very well with it, and certainly if you don't live in the US, you won't make any money with it at all.

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