Publishing a Photography Book the Traditional Way


Photography: Chris Burkard

The Web might have made it easy to show your images to admirers but the appeal of the old methods of displaying pictures still hasn’t disappeared. Photographers continue to look enviously at gallery walls, and a name on the cover of a photography book still delivers the kind of warm fuzzies that no website can ever inspire, however flashy.

There’s no shortage of photographers hoping to see their images gathered together, surrounded by text and sitting on bookstore shelves or, even better, decorating coffee tables around the world.

Part of that comes from the thrill of publication itself. When persuading a publisher to bet on your book idea is so difficult, success feels like an endorsement. An expert hasn’t just complimented you on your photography; he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is. You don’t find that often in the comments on Flickr and in terms of support, encouragement and kudos there are few stronger endorsements of your talent .

Publishing a Photography Book Is Not About the Money

But part of it is also the quality. The publishing company might take a big cut of the sales price, but they also know what makes a book sell and they employ professional designers, editors amd marketers to make sure that the images are placed on the best possible platform.

“For us it wasn’t about the money,” says Chris Burkard, a 23-year-old professional photographer and co-author of The California Surf Project, “we just wanted it to be the best it possibly could be.”

Chris’s book was the result of a road trip taken with co-author Eric Soderquist along the Californian coast. Chris, who had been shooting surf pictures professionally for three years, handled the photography and image editing while Eric did the writing (and all the surfing, notes Chris). Neither had planned the trip with a book in mind, but saw the images and text as a way to share what they loved about California and inspire others to explore the state.

“We had no idea it would ever actually turn into a real deal book,” Chris recalled. “We were inspired and just did it because we wanted to, book deal or not. Needless to say when we came to Chronicle and presented the idea, it was pretty much a packaged deal. They were stoked on the idea and the motivation behind it.”

Persuading Chronicle to publish the book was perhaps a little easier than the experience encountered by most photographers. Chris’s editor at had published a book with Chronicle in the past, and gave Chris and Eric an introduction. Chronicle saw their vision, loved the photography and, importantly, allowed the authors to take part in the development process, retain creative control and ensure that the book was not over-designed. The company also supplied a publicist and marketing manager, paid for printing and distribution and even came up with an advertising budget. Chris and Eric were able to focus entirely on quality control and photo quality.

The Marketing Is Up to You

That’s unusual. According to John Fielder, a professional photographer and former owner of Westcliffe Publishers, a publishing company which he sold to Big Earth Publishing after 26 years, the support of publishers tends to stop at paying for the production and distribution.

“The rest is up to you,” he told us, “including most of the marketing.”

That suggests that book authors could find themselves faced either with high advertising bills — as they try to promote their book themselves — or low sales, as the publication withers for lack of exposure. When it came to publishing his own books, most of which focused on Colorado (his latest is about Coloradan ranches), John tended to use two strategies that enabled him to reach a large audience without having to rely on a large advertising budget.

The first was to focus on publishing books that were unique and which didn’t compete directly with other published titles. And the other was to produce books that had an environmental component. They might have related to the protection of a natural resource or benefited the goals of an environmental non-profit organization. The idea, says John, was to attract the media to report on the project it covered.

“This reduced the need for paid advertising,” he explained, “and support from the publisher… which in my case was me. And it’s easy to get a book into bookstores if there’s publicity.”

Choosing to photograph a controversial topic that can pick up media attention then might be one way to make publishing – or at least marketing – easier but what about landing that first publishing deal?

Put yourself in the publisher’s shoes, recommends John. Imagine what it would take for the book to sell then submit your proposal. Tell the publisher whether the book is  unique in the market, how well competing books have sold, who will buy it and why, as well as technical details such as format, page count, photo count, price and proportion of photos to text.

Or alternatively, you can do what John did when he produced his first calendar back in 1981: create your own publishing company, self-publish, then commission books from other photographers as well.

While that would guarantee that you get to see your images in print though, it’s still not going to guarantee that you see any money. John says that his books paid him well because they sold in relatively large quantities.

“In general,” he says, “a photographer cannot rely upon book royalties alone.”

It seems that it’s not only the appeal of photography books that hasn’t changed; the pay hasn’t improved either.

2 comments for this post.

  1. Dave Brown Said:

    It's interesting to think about publishing a photography book that also has a "green planet" kind of message. That's a creative idea. What kind of green component would you come up with for a fashion, or portraiture publishment?

  2. Aidan Minter Said:

    I found the whole self publishing aspect quite liberating,I produced a book via Blurb this year which was a compilation of the very best in Airsoft and Milsim photography because there was a gap in the market, its easier when you can identify a unique perspective or subject as a marketable idea, I updated via Twitter and created a host site and did all the PR myself which saved costs, the book will hopefully lead into a bigger publishing deal but the niche aspect of Airsoft may prevent that. My biggest hurdle was convincing other photographers to let me use their work since none of the photos are mine just the dialogue but the feelgood aspect of seeing a published title come together as you designed it is like nothing else, I'd encourage more people to try it.

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