Planning Your Photo Book
By David FitzSimmons
Do you have a great idea for a photography book but are unsure how to get it published? The good news is that there are more publishing options today than ever before. Besides working with traditional publishers, doing it yourself is an often practical alternative. In part one of this three-part series, I will cover the preliminary five steps for planning your publication, getting you started down the path of publishing success.
Researching the ins-and-outs of self-publishing allowed me to find and hire industry experts to help produce "Curious Critters," which sold out its first printing in four months. The nonfiction picture book has won five national book awards.
1. Pick a Unique Subject
If everybody is writing about HDR, portrait lighting, or Photoshop techniques, find something else to focus on. Look at your own work. What do you specialize in? Postage stamps? Colorful crystals? Low key portraiture? Survey the field by going to bookstores and libraries. Do a thorough search online. If your book is already available, find a new angle or do something different. If you see nothing on the market like what you are doing, celebrate! Success in publishing often comes from finding your niche.
2. Choose your Audience
Products—yes, your book is a product—are aimed at target audiences. Try to define exactly who will be most interested in your book. Ask yourself: Who is most excited about your subject? Who would come hear you speak on your book? Who would be willing to buy it? The answers to these questions help you describe your audience. If you photograph children, for example, your book might appeal most to females, ages 25 to 45, with families. A common mistake is to believe that your book will appeal to everyone. Trying to attract everyone is most often the fastest route to attracting no one.
My picture book began as a commercial assignment. Sigma produced two print advertisements using my Curious Critters portraits of common North American critters, one featuring an Eastern box turtle.
3. Determine How Many Books You Want (and Are Able) to Sell
Once you have picked your subject and your audience, then figure out how many books you want (and will be able) to sell. Realistically, are there 500; 5,000; 50,000 people who would buy your book over a period of 3 to 5 years? While there may be thousands of people interested in your subject, can your reach them all?
4. Choose the Best Publishing Option
If you wish to sell 5,000 to 50,000 books, you have a couple options. Most people submit their work to a traditional publisher. Before you prepare a book proposal, go to libraries and bookstores and search online to see who is producing books in your field. Get current copies of Writer’s Market and Photographer’s Market (both by Writer’s Digest Books) to find out each publisher’s requirements for submitting your book proposal. The directories will help you know for which publishers you will need an agent.
The other route—the one that I used in publishing my children’s picture book Curious Critters—is to start your own publishing company. When I founded Wild Iris Publishing, I immediately hired a book shepherd (or consultant) and then a designer, editors, and a publicist, all available for short-term work. Because starting your own publishing company involves a lot of time and effort, a steep learning curve, and a sizeable investment up front, many people prefer working with a traditional publisher, but nearly complete control of the design, production, marketing, and sales may be important to you. I find that knowing many aspects of publishing, from imagining a book to marketing it, helps me craft a product that will sell.
For smaller numbers of books, say, in the hundreds, look into other self-publishing routes. Print-on-Demand (POD) services such as Lulu, Blurb, MILK or Amazon's CreateSpace allow you to design your own books, upload them, and print small numbers at a time. Some companies will sell, print, and ship single copies to buyers. While POD books tend to be simpler to produce, because profit margins are very low, hiring designers, editors, and publicists becomes hard to justify. Generally traditional distributors do not deal in POD books.
My research included reviewing the National Research Council’s science education standards. "Curious Critters" meets all K-8 national life science standards. The red flat bark beetle teaches young readers about habitats, diet, and—with a half dozen mites crawling on its back—parasitism. The black swallowtail focuses on predator/prey relationships and mimicry.
5. Do Your Publishing Research
Before you begin any of the above, start reading on the subject of publishing. Whether you go the traditional route or self-publish, I recommend reading Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual and Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Self-Publisher. Both books not only offer great insights into traditional and self-publishing but also offer copious lists of individuals and companies that can help you succeed. Also consider subscribing to Publishers Weekly, the industry standard trade publication. Reading PW regularly will help you understand the trade, keep track of current trends, and inspire you to imagine your next project.
Finally, join trade organizations. In producing Curious Critters, I found great help from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Independent Book Publishers Association. Research organizations in your field and join them. Attend their meetings, read their publications, and always ask lots of questions!
Followed by … Part III: Selling Your Photo Book
Writer and photographer David FitzSimmons (fitzsimmonsphotography.com) is one of five Sigma Pro photographers and a professor at Ashland University. Check out his award-winning children's picture book, “Curious Critters,” at curious-critters.com.