Why I published my new photo book on Amazon

I experimented on several fronts publishing my new photo book on Amazon.

I published my previous photo books (Exceptional Ordinary and Textures of Ireland) on Blurb, because that service is made to create, publish, and sell beautiful photo books. The print quality is very good. Their tools for creating books are so-so, as I learned when I produced Exceptional Ordinary. The layout controls were limited, and the tool was clunky to use. I made Textures of Ireland in Microsoft Word because I am highly skilled with it. Regardless of how I produced these books, they both turned out very well.

Available now – click the image to learn more and to get your copy

My big problem with Blurb is that their price for printing a single book is pretty high. To keep printing costs down, I use their least expensive option, the magazine format. Unfortunately, that limits me to the 8½x11 form factor. I’d prefer to use a form factor that fits the way I want to tell my story through photos. But other form factors have far higher printing costs at Blurb.

My first two photo books sold modestly. I think there are several reasons why, but I think their prices ($14.99 at launch) are one of those reasons. Pricing is a black art that I’m only starting to understand. But I have a theory, and it’s this: Books like these are a casual purchase, or a purchase that someone might make simply because they enjoy and want to support my work. Such a purchase needs to be priced to strike a balance: high enough to show that the book has value, but low enough not to feel expensive.

I wanted to experiment with a price of $9.99 to see if it would strike that balance, but still let me earn a couple bucks per copy. Amazon’s lower costs let me do it.

What I didn’t know was whether Amazon could print my photographs well. My Blurb books are beautiful. The photographs have good contrast and tonality. But Amazon optimized for printing books that are mostly text. Would Amazon be able to deliver good photo quality?

No, it turns out. The images are low in contrast, showing lots of middle grays but no deep blacks. Thankfully, it’s a passably good look, and it happens to suit this book’s subject matter. If you didn’t know I wasn’t fully pleased with it, you might think I meant the photos to look that way.

To be fair, I chose the least expensive paper option to keep costs down. It’s a mid-weight paper optimized for text printing. Amazon offers better papers, but they would have nudged printing costs up, threatening that $9.99 price.

As I did with my last book on Blurb, I created Vinyl Village in Microsoft Word. It’s not as flexible as a good desktop publishing tool, but for the simple layout I used it worked fine. If I had wanted a more complicated layout, I would have had to buy and learn a desktop publishing tool. Amazon doesn’t care what tool you use to make the book as long as it can output a print-ready PDF, and Word does that easily. That PDF is what you upload to Amazon.

The simple interior layout of Vinyl Village made Word a not unreasonable layout tool.

I used Adobe Photoshop to make the cover. Amazon gives you a cover template that fits your book’s form factor and thickness, and you lay out your cover on it. Again, Amazon requires a print-ready PDF of your cover file. Photoshop can output those natively.

There you have it: why I used Amazon to publish Vinyl Village. If you’d like a copy, click here for more information.

My photo essay book, Vinyl Village, is available!
Click here to learn more and get a copy!


21 responses to “Why I published my new photo book on Amazon”

  1. Jerome Avatar

    Jim, thanks for relating your experiences. I have two books in the works (not photo) and reading of your efforts is helping me decide how to go forward.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Have a look at Leanpub.com.

      1. Jerome Avatar

        Thanks for the suggestion! LeanPub looks very interesting. What would be the reason for choosing it over Amazon?

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Leanpub isn’t a choice over Amazon — you can still sell your book on Amazon. Leanpub will create all the files for you to do that except the cover. My only complaint with the service is that it has very limited interior designs. I did A Place to Start on Leanpub.

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Jim, thanks for the reasoning behind the choices. You are not wrong that pricing is a Voodoo art, and that there are set limits on what people decide is an easy purchase vs. one they have to contemplate, altho that does change with income.

    I’m not sure about this, so you’ll have to chime in, but I think many years ago when I priced something out on Blurb, if I wanted them to actually sell it, they raised their profit participation every time you raised what you wanted to make, rapidly making the item unaffordable. I also objected to a floating scale of fees on their part, based on the income you wanted to make; like Kinko’s deciding to charge you double for something when they found out you were going to see it. Didn’t make sense as the manufacturer and not a creative content provider. You’ll have to tell me if that is still how they operate….

    1. Andy Umbo Avatar
      Andy Umbo

      Whoops, it’s supposed to be “…when they find out you wanted to sell it…”

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      I don’t remember how Blurb pricing worked – it’s been a while. I do know that it’s easy to publish an $80 book there because of their cut.

  3. Paul Hoppe Photography Avatar

    I got your book yesterday and I love the subject and selection of images. It tells an interesting story. Being black and white makes the whole suburb quite bleak and dreary. But then I am a big city boy myself being born in Berlin. Suburbs would crush my soul but I do get why many Americans would rather live there compared to a lot inner cities. Can’t wait to show it to my friend who is an architect and quite interested in urban design.

    I compared my Magcloud magazine with your Amazon book. The printing on Magcloud is definitely superior. What I dislike though is the wire-o binding on landscape and square formats which looks cheap and reduces the durability as the edges tend to fray. But the print is gorgeous and the price is alright. I think mine costs about 10$ to make…Blurb would be twice for standard paper and at least triple for anything more premium.

    I did use Scribus an Open Source tool for my magazine. After some learning it worked out quite alright. Although the UI is well terrible….but hey better than subscribing to Adobe. One thing I actually like about the Magcloud magazines with wire-o binding is that all pages share the same layout. You do not have to produce a separate cover file which makes everything quite easy in editing.

    Again…I really like your book…I feel a lot of thought went into arranging and selecting the images.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m glad to know that my story intentions are coming through. I’ve never done anything like this before and so wasn’t entirely sure if the reader would pick up what I was trying to transmit!

      I ought to give Magcloud a try, just to try it. I’ve had an idea in the back of my head to collect the best of my square photographs, photos I made with cameras that natively shoot square. I could try it on Magcloud.

      1. Paul Hoppe Photography Avatar

        Hey Jim. I hope you still read the older comments. If you want to try out Magcloud I think for photography personally I would only go with the wire-o-bindings because those come in #80 cover stock. The other magazines options are usually #80 or even #60 text stock which is considerably thinner. I really like the thick and rigid handling of cover stock.


        Check their FAQ. I was considering a square format with layflat binding but decided to utilize the the landscape magazine I used on “Departure” again. Maybe the larger size depending on the final amount of pages.

        You already have a sample you bought from me;-) That is #80 cover stock.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I’m disappointed to find that a 64-page square book, perfect bound, costs $13.80 to produce. This is my challenge with services like MagCloud — I have to charge so much for my books. I’m going to look into Amazon’s “Premium color ink and 60# (100 GSM) white paper” option next time.

          This book (by another photographer) was published using that option. I own a copy and it’s pretty good. Not quite as good as the print quality in your book, but far, far better than the print quality in mine.


  4. Peter Paar Avatar
    Peter Paar

    Because of the very poor reproduction of your photographs I found “Vinyl Village” a grave disappointment. This is one of the times when cost cutting can be false economy. I found your book on Ireland well worth the $15 while the newest book was not worth the price. I hope when you publish your next book you will put quality ahead of price. I very much enjoy your photographs and feel that they deserve decent reproduction.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m very sorry the print quality disappointed you so. I appreciate your direct feedback.

  5. brandib1977 Avatar

    Thanks for the insight, Jim. The Amazon published books I have bought have been mostly disappointing but I didn’t realize there was so much choice involved.

    Would you use Amazon again?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Maybe? I think I need to experiment with their color printing options, even if I print b/w photos. I bought this self-published (via Amazon Kindle Publishing) photo book:


      — it’s full color and I think the print quality is pretty good.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        Cool! I hope you’ll keep us updated!

  6. Khürt Williams Avatar

    Hi Jim, my copy of the Vinyl Village arrived this weekend. With the exception of the width of the streets (narrower and shorter) and the size of the homes (bigger) the photographs could easily have come from many of the newer developments in the New Jersey suburbs. The homes in the older suburbs tend to be smaller.

    I was disappointed the print quality. I had hoped for gloss or matt printing and something thicker paper. The print seemed a bit faded.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Khürt – the printing was low contrast to be sure. I’ll look at better paper/ink combinations for my next book.

      1. Khürt Williams Avatar

        All the same, the content is what I really paid for. I’m still flipping slowly through the book.

  7. DennyG Avatar

    I’ve done multiple books through Amazon and have been generally satisfied with the cost-quality balance. In my mind, three things may have contributed to that satisfaction. One is that I do tend to put more contrast in the photos than I would otherwise. The second is that I’ve made each of the B&W paperbacks also available as color ebooks. That doesn’t make the paperbacks any better but does provide a prettier alternative. The third, and possibly biggest, basis for me being more satisfied than you is that my photos are really just illustrations for a story being told in words rather than telling the story themselves. On the one occasion where the pictures were the entire point of the publication, I followed your lead and used Blurb.

    As you noted, Amazon now offers some higher quality paper and ink options and I’ll certainly look into those for the next book. This sort of thing can be evaluated with single proof copies before publication.

    Of course, questioning whether or not I should be satisfied is absolutely legitimate.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I was reasonably satisfied with the quality of the images in my new book — they’re not as contrasty as the originals, but I thought it worked for this subject matter. Several readers have complained, which tells me I need to up my game.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: