Products: Self-Publishing Books

“I can’t find a publisher for my photography book. Can I publish the book myself? How do I do that?”

By Andrew Hudson Published: June 17, 2011 Updated: August 8, 2016

I self-publish all my books and I think it’s a great way to go. Self-publishing takes a lot of effort, time, skills, and money, but it is rewarding. You get to make the book you want, rather than the book some publisher wants.

Publish It Yourself

When I first had my idea for PhotoSecrets I approached several guidebook publishers. They were all very friendly but had the same response: “nice idea, but color is too expensive to print.” So I chose to publish the books myself. My first book, PhotoSecrets San Francisco, won the Benjamin Franklin Award for Best First Book and my second project, PhotoSecrets San Diego, won the Grand Prize in the National Self-Published Book Awards. Just tooting my own horn there!

Start With Postcards

Self-publishing is an increasingly popular way to go. It requires investment capital and a lot of work but I highly recommend it to anyone with dedication and determination. A low-cost way to start is with notecards. You can just paste prints onto cards and sell them to giftstores. This is a good way to experience the market and build relationships. Think of a subject that is undersold in your area and go and talk with suitable store owners. My bank considers publishing a “high-risk” business (and they’re probably right) so It’s a good idea to start small and minimize your risk. Turn your photos into greeting cards. You can move on to custom-printing cards, selling slides, creating posters, etc. as you learn more about your local market.

Getting Started

Self-publishing books is a real challenge but (and I’m biased) well worth it. The book that got me started was the excellent resource by Dan Poynter, The Self-Publishing Manual. This is jam-packed with hard information about printing, distributing and selling your book.

You could self-publish your own text book for about $3,000 — $10,000.

Unfortunately, your photography book is probably going to require color and this is a lot more expensive. The paper needs to be of a higher quality, the resolution is more important, and your printer needs to make four “plates” (for the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) instead of one. So both the set-up (fixed) and per-unit (variable) costs are much higher. You could be looking at $20,000 to $50,000 just for the printing, depending on page-count, page-size, quality and quantity. I typically print 6000 copies, and hope to sell that in a year or two. I get my books printed overseas by Doosan Dong-A in Korea ( email) in Korea for about $3 per book.

After printing your book, you will need to get it into the distribution system and market the book. Ingram is the main distributor and they have a small-publisher program which requires a standard 55% discount and free freight. Distributors like Ingram do not market your book, they just fulfill orders if and when they come from bookstores. It’s up to you to make the bookstores aware of, and interested in stocking, your book. That’s quite a challenge as bookstores are inundated by information on new books (which is one reason to find a very well-defined niche with an obvious marketing angle). I was fortunate to get a contract with NBN, a master distributor with a sales force. I pay a one-time fee to advertise my books with them, and roughly 25% of my gross revenue for sales, storage and fulfillment. If you are a new publisher, it’s difficult to hook up with a distributor with a sales force (besides NBN there are PGW, IPG and others) as they prefer companies with a minimum of about ten titles — a Catch 22 situation.

As you can see, self-publishing is an arduous task, and the financial rewards can be elusive. Contrary to most people’s beliefs, the average book sells only about 1,000 to 3,000 copies. Bookstores buy books at a standard 40-50% discount. Another 10-20% may be taken up with distribution costs. So if your book retails for $20 you can expect around $7 per book as revenue. Multiplied by 3000, that’s only $21,000. Compare this with the cost of printing a color book and you can see why publishers aren’t falling over themselves to publish your photography book.

To make a self-published book work, you’ve got to beat the averages somehow. The best way is to find a very tightly focused niche. A book about birds, or landscapes, or people, isn’t going to sell. You need a very specific, obvious focus, where (more importantly) there’s a very specific, obvious set of bookstores that will sell it. My regional books about San Diego, for example, don’t sell at all in Wyoming but I market them heavily to a select number of stores in San Diego.

Another requirement for books is that they must give something to the reader. Try and identify why someone will buy your book. A book entitled “Nice photographs I have taken” might look great on your bookshelf, and on your relatives’, but it won’t find its way to many other bookshelves. My PhotoSecrets books implicitly say “if you buy this book, you can take these photos.” A customer is getting something more than a dead tree for their money. These are the same points a publisher would consider if you tried to find someone else to publish your book.

That said, it is very satisfying to see your own book for sale at your local books. And you get to have your images printed the way you want them. Ansel Adams printed his own pictures — who else would have done such a great job?

Selling in General

  • Selling anything takes work. About half my time is spent selling or marketing my books. Fourty percent of my time is spent on publishing functions (presenting the work), and I only get to spend ten percent of my time actually taking photographs. If you want to make money from your photos, be prepared to spend a lot of time and energy promoting them. Call people, research publishers, visit shops where your work might be sold, give talks, write articles, get your name out there. I liken it to trying to push a freight train: it takes a lot of effort every step of the way.
  • Expect low returns. Most publishers and stock agencies have very narrow requirements, and they may not even be in the market for new work. Even the best targeted mailing typically gets a four percent return so if you want to get one sale, market to twenty prospects. If you want ten sales, You’ll need to find two-hundred prospects. It’s just a numbers game — don’t take it personally.
  • Look good. Always be professional. To sell a picture you must present a good image (of yourself). Be courteous and pleasant when talking with people; turn up to meetings on time; write letters on letterhead; have a business card; confidently advertise your business on envelope address labels; get cut-sheets of your work. Make sure everything you submit is clean, simple and well-organized.
  • Show only your best work. Publishers and most stock agencies are looking for quality not quantity. Edit, edit, edit. I throw away 95% of my slides so that I only have the cream of the crop. If you’re in any doubt about a photo, don’t show it, don’t even keep it. Present only your very best work, so that your average quality is high. Less is better than more — it makes them want to see more of your work, rather than less of you.

There’s nothing like seeing your photography in a book. A high-quality, hard-bound book gives your work an impressive finality — It’s a true accomplishment, a real achievement in your life. Fortunately, with the advent of “on-demand” printing (see below), you can do this. I can do it; you can do it; we can all do it.

Finding a traditional publisher for your first book is a real challenge. The up-front costs are so high, and the profits so elusive, that publishers are unlikely to make a big bet on a photographer who doesn’t have previous books. It’s a Catch-22 problem.


Why waste your time and ego finding someone else to publish your book? If you think your work is so great, you publish it! That’s what I did. I’ve self-published 14 color photography books, winning the Benjamin Franklin Award for Best First Book and the Grand Prize in the National Self-Published Book Awards (just had to drop that in!).

Self-publishing takes a lot of time, talents, commitment, and resources. It is also expensive, often prohibitively so, requiring lots of money up front, before you get any revenue. But if you really want to see your work in a high-end product (It’s difficult to find a publisher), or if you’re very particular about how your work should be displayed (I am), then this is the way to go.

With photography and computer-to-plate printing, it’s getting easier and cheaper to print your own projects. An excellent resource — and the book that got me started — is Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual.

Traditional “Offset” Printing

Professional coffee-table books are created with “offset” printing. Plates are made for each page, then ink is transferred (or “offset”) from the plates to the paper. Usually there are four plates per page, for four ink colors of cyan, magenta, yellow and black, together known as CMYK (where K=black — B could=blue). Offset printing produces the highest quality image (sharp and clean) and is great for high-volume printing.

The biggest issue with offset printing is the high cost of making the plates. The first book is very expensive. Just doing the “pre-press” work (preparing the book for printing) and starting the presses for a color book can cost $10,000 or more. That’s a “fixed” cost, since you pay it regardless of the quantity printed. The “variable” or per-book cost may be $4. So the first book, in this example, costs you $10,004. Unless you can sell a copy for $10,005, you’re going to make a loss on the first book.

The high cost of the first book is actually a benefit to existing publishers, as the high “barrier to entry” reduces competition and prevents the market from being flooded with books. But it is a significant hurdle for start-up publishers.

The trick then, to traditional book publishing, is volume. If you can sell 10,000 copies, then that fixed cost becomes only $1 per book, bringing your total printing cost down to $5 per book. ($10,000+($4 x 10,000)=$40,000. For 10,000 books that’s $5 per book.) Now you can make money. In general, with a color photo book, you need to be able to sell 3,000 to 5,000 copies just to break even on the printing cost. This can be quite a challenge for a new publisher/photographer. Fortunately, once again, technology rides to our help.

On-Demand Printing

The advent of color “on-demand printing", or “print on demand” (POD), allows photographers to economically publish a small quantity of photo books. Whereas, in the example above, the first book using offset printing cost $10,004, the same first book with on-demand printing may cost $20.

This technology doesn’t use plates but prints each book individually, just like your inkjet printer. The unit (variable) cost is higher (so It’s not good for high volume) but the start-up (fixed) cost is negligle, making this cheaper for quantities less than around 500 copies.

The image quality, paper sizes, and binding options are not as good as offset printing but they’re getting closer. The process, however, can be easier, as many printers have Web sites and software that enables easy layout. And several sites allow you to sell your book online — displaying the book cover on a Web page, printing the book when a copy is ordered, and giving you the markup.


Reply by Anonymous

May 26, 2016

Just tried my had at postcards, (mainly after a visitor at our library’s “Afternoon with the Authors” event commented about the photo-derived greeting cards I had with my coloring books that she had a hard time finding postcards)--VERY local images, VERY unique imagery, at a VERY local show--0 sales. Love to read you postcard article, what happened to it?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

June 7, 2016

I need to improve the organization of my site. The following postcard articles are available:

  • How to Become a Postcard Photographer
  • Postcard Tips
  • Postcard Printers
  • Postcard Publishers

Reply by Cavedigger

April 14, 2014

Thanks a tonner Andrew. This article is the light at the end of the tunnel for those who have been searching in the dark. It brings out motivation and clarity. P.S. Congratulations for the awards.

Reply by Darryl Lambert

November 16, 2011

This info very helpful. I’ve been interested in doing this for so long, I’ve just never took that extra step. How did you go about starting with postcards?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

November 16, 2011

Hi Darryl:

Thanks for your comment. I will have to add more about publishing postcards. For now, I have this article on How to sell your photos as postcards.


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