Film Photography

Lessons learned in self-publishing

I created my book about photography with the Pentax ME as an experiment in self-publishing. (If you’d like to buy one, either paper or PDF, click here.) After all, the Internet and print-on-demand technology mean you no longer need a traditional publisher. You can do it all yourself: writing, layout, marketing. But that’s the rub: you have to do it all yourself. It sucks down large quantities of time at things you may not enjoy or be good at.

I’ll do it again. But I’ll do some things differently next time. Here are some things I learned.

A photo from the book

Choosing the photographs was the hardest part of the project. Because this project was about experiencing the bookmaking (and selling) process, I chose to use photos I already made. It was surprisingly challenging and time-consuming to pick through all the photos I shot with my Pentax ME. All of my insecurities as a photographer came out. What if this photo, which I love, isn’t actually all that good? Am I leaving out a photo that is truly good? Fortunately, a reader (who probably wishes to remain anonymous in this forum) offered to edit out the photos that shouldn’t make the cut. That advice was invaluable.

Choosing Blurb as my publisher was easy. I chose Blurb largely because Mike Connealy has published two books that way (go buy them; they’re lovely). My copies of his books are of acceptable quality for the cost. And from his experience I knew that the process for making and selling the book would be reasonable.

Blurb is a decent choice for an image-intensive book. I think there are better choices for text-intensive books. I’ve been investigating CreateSpace, for example, for a text-intensive book I have in mind.

Laying out the book was the least rewarding part of the project. I used Blurb’s BookWright software, which is a lightweight page-layout tool. It works, but it lacks much of the power I hoped I might get based on my past career experience in publishing and technical writing. As I’m still on the tool’s learning curve, I may yet find features I wished I knew about while laying out this book. Primarily, BookWright’s page templates didn’t function as I expected and offered no good way to apply a template change across the book. Blurb allows upload of PDF from other layout platforms and I may try that next time.

I had to rescan several photos because BookWright warned me they were too small for successful printing. I don’t understand that. The film lab scanned those photos at about 1500×1000 pixels, and I’ve successfully printed 8x10s from such scans before. But just to be safe I dug out the negatives and rescanned them at larger resolution on my Epson V300.

I won’t put off titling the book next time. I don’t enjoy writing titles, and when no title easily came to me I decided to figure it out later. Later came right at the end, after everything about the book was finished. I dithered for a week over the title. I don’t love the title I chose, but it is by far the best of a dreadful lot I brainstormed.

The book is priced far higher than I want. Ideally my slim volume would be priced at less than $10. But because Blurb makes its money selling books that people like me create, a book’s base price includes their profit. My book’s base price was slightly more than $10. Any profit I take has to raise that price.

I knew I wanted to make a small profit on each book sold — enough, I decided, to buy myself a roll of Tri-X. That seemed reasonable.  That’s why the book is priced at $16, and even the PDF is $8.50. That’s too much, if you ask me.

Pricing is a black art. Even people who do it all the time struggle with it. When I worked in publishing, I remember difficult discussions over whether a particular book should be $14.99 or $19.99. $14.99 might lead to greater volume at lower margin, while $19.99 brought greater margin at the likely cost of lower volume. A wrong choice could cost us big.

Eric over at Little Black Star recently self-published a delightful little book of his recent work. He charged $7. That tiny price made it so easy for me to click Buy! I assume he took on some or all of the printing and binding himself, however, and that’s a lot of work. I bet he also has to keep an inventory. I have none of that with Blurb. When you order, they print one and send it to you.

I’m not enjoying marketing the book. I don’t enjoy sales or marketing and don’t really know what I’m doing with it. I’m hawking my book here (and, by extension, on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+) and am telling friends and family as I see them, and that’s it.

The other book I have in mind would deserve, I think, a more serious marketing push. I’d want to distribute that book through I might create a Facebook page for it and pay to have posts on that page promoted.


30 thoughts on “Lessons learned in self-publishing

  1. Jim, as always a very honest account of an experience you’ve gone through. It’s got me thinking about making a photo book, but when you mention things like the layout taking ages and issues with templates, it puts me off.

    I’ve made and published (online, not in paper form) a few books myself through my own websites, but I did those in a back to basics way using OpenOffice then exporting as pdf. Whilst I was pleased with the results (inc the photos I used in largely text based books), it took ages to collate it all. The actual writing of the book was maybe 25% of the whole process, maybe even less.

    The kind of book I might want to do in the future would be almost entirely photos, so it should, in theory be less work. But I know from my experience and yours not to underestimate that work and time required!

    It’s one of those things I’m sure where once you’ve done two or three it becomes far easier and more of a fluid process. The first time is the hardest!

    • I may well do my next book in Word, export to PDF, and send it off to the self-publisher that way. I have a giant amount of Word experience from my days as a technical writer and am quite adept at forcing it to be a page-layout tool. We shall see. But yes, this first go is just meant to be how I explore this realm and learn about it. I hope to sell some books, of course, but really I’ve already gotten 75% of what I wanted to out of this project just by getting the book to market,

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. I self published my first book (On Lulu, it was a text heavy book) a few years ago. There were parts of the process I really enjoyed, and parts of it I didn’t. I found out, once again, that I’m MUCH more critical of my own work than I am of anyone else’s work.

  3. Andy Umbo says:

    Good overview for the uninitiated! Lets you know what you’re getting yourself into! As a “print” person, I really love the “direct-to-press” movement, and I love all the people with various viewpoints using the services to do completed books!

    I have a buddy that published a photo book a number of years ago, on Blurb, and he said he did one, checked it, and went back and darkened or lightened the photos in his layout to “read” more correctly in the finished piece, then reprinted another until he liked what he saw. For those in the business, there ARE print industry density numbers to hit with scans to make sure it reproduces better, otherwise it is sort of a crap shoot. I have one of Mike’s books that I bought after reading about it on here, and the black & white looks great and I can’t imagine getting a better look without spending a lot with a conventional pre-press house and printing company.

    I know a couple that published a retrospective of their photographic work using Blurb “Professional”? I guess they have an upgraded Blurb with better paper and more services. Their book was a lot more money, but still worth it. They tried designing on the Blurb software, and then gave up and the university where they work set them up with a graphic designer, who did the whole thing to print industry specs and delivered on .pdf. I’m not sure it’s “better”, as much as it’s exactly what they were expecting from the professional proofs.

    Looking forward to doing my own, and your experiences are motivating me!

    • Andy, I was very pleased that after I got my “proof,” the photos all looked good enough to me and I didn’t have to make adjustments and try again. I’m sure a print-industry veteran might have nitpicked this or that, but to me it was good enough to ship. That says a fair amount, I think, about Blurb.

      I remember when POD was new. I was a tech writing manager for a software company and the industry was just transitioning out of the printed-manuals era. We rewrote all the product documentation (it had been awful) and published a set of books that we shipped to customers. Most people in my biz who saw our books were astonished when I told them we did it all in Word. You know how Word has “that Word look?” Well, I managed to create a template that didn’t have that look. Anyway, we exported to some proprietary file format that the Xerox POD system we were using could take. I suspect that it was some flavor of PDF, which was new then. We printed enough up front to send to all customers, and after that we drop-shipped manuals from the printer to all new customers as they came on. It was great: we had to keep zero inventory, and could count manual printing as a cost of sale rather than as an up-front sunk cost.

      I’m delighted that POD is now available to common Joes like me who have a half-baked idea for a book.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        You know, I think if a person had a decent and fairly ‘corrected’ monitor, you could put all your pictures up as thumb-nails on one page and probably see the ones that look too dark or too light, and correct before you move on. That’s an old industry trick! Look at all the signatures at once! I think back in the day when my first buddy tried Blurb, the way he got the best result was because you didn’t have many options. I think today, Blurb is probably multiple software upgrades beyond what they were doing 6 years ago, and they probably look at pictures on the proof and spot correct individual images by pushing a button! Good for us!

        • Consumer-grade monitors (like mine) are better now than ever but still not good enough for scanning signatures like that. I did gain confidence in my monitor, however, when the book proof looked good enough to me. My gut check is that the Blurb people do absolutely nothing to the books that are submitted — they just print them.

  4. Jason Shafer says:

    Thank you. Having toyed with the idea of self-publishing at various times, your sharing your trailblazing is quite helpful. It’s also good to know there are sources for text-heavy vs. photo-heavy.

  5. As you know, I edited my niece’s book for her a few years ago and worked with CreateSpace. They did a good job on the print layout. They used a stock cover but it looked good. On the other hand, their ebook typography looked awful. I’ve seen the same problems in other Kindle books so it wasn’t a fluke.

    The most annoying thing about CreateSpace was that I couldn’t get anyone’s name, so there was no actual person I could call: only “my team.” CreateSpace sells its services through a named salesperson but that’s the last human being you encounter in the process. It’s like dealing with the Borg.

    For my own book this year, I still plan on a mainstream publisher simply for reasons of credibility. If I can’t do that, I’ll probably hire a publicity firm for a better chance of getting reviews, and I’ll let you know how that goes.

    • I’m unlikely to write something where credibility matters so much I’d need a traditional publisher. But I do appreciate your experience report on CreateSpace, as that’s how I’m likely to go when I get around to writing this book I have in the back of my head.

  6. Your preview display looks very nice and I’m looking forward to getting my hard copy. I have pretty much satisfied my curiosity about the book publishing process at this point, though I may attempt more on-line productions. Blurb is offering cheaper shipping options now than when I did my books. The Blurb pdf charge is way too much, however, and seems mostly aimed at pushing people to buy the hard copies. That seems short-sighted to me as it seems that a world-wide market should be able to support a profit at very small margins. You might want to look at Scribus as an alternative to the Blurb software. Srcribus is open source and allows direct, unrestricted pdf production and full control over self-marketing.

    • Yes, now that I’ve done this I would like very much to sell a PDF for $3-5, which means I’d have to control that myself. So thanks for the suggestion on Scribus, which I didn’t know about.

      I really would like to find a way to sell a quality book of <50 pages for under $10, too without having to print it myself and keep an inventory. I suppose that’s too much to ask.

  7. Very interesting to hear how you went about this. Thanks for the PDF. I have enjoyed browsing the photos. Your price of Blurb of $16 seems very reasonable to me. It is the postage cost that mostly stops me buying from them. Australia is such a long way off, unfortunately.

    I hope the PR goes well for you Jim. Have you sent a press release to you local newspapers? I have always found my locals ready to gobble up a ready made story.

  8. Nice work Jim.

    With regard to your issue of some photos being too small to print….did you check the resolution they were scanned at? 1500 x 1000 pixels at 72 pixels / inch is a very different ball game from 1500 x 1000 at 300 pixels / inch.

    • I never thought of that. I went and checked one of those photos just now and sure enough, 72 dpi. I feel like the lab cheated me on those scans!

  9. SilverFox says:

    Hmmmm… a book… now you have me thinking. You are and inspiration my friend. :) Your book looks interesting by the way, I’m curious as to what it looks like in paper form.

  10. Pingback: Writing and self publishing. | Cvt

  11. I might just get your book some day, Jim. It looks great from the glimpse you get at the preview section at Blurb.
    I went down the same line a few years back, just being curious about the print-on-demand thing going on. To make things a bit simple I went for a few of my instagram snaps, just to see how they all would look on paper inside a tiny book. Not bad, actually. You can see the whole thing over here, if you like:

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