So You Want to Make a Photography Book?

Part One


10/5/2022


     While photography books are nothing new, with the rise of social media and the ability to instantly share images with the world at little or no financial cost, they did fade into the darkness for a while. However, in the last few years there has been an increasing trend of younger, contemporary photographers putting in the time, money, and effort to release fine art photography books despite the digital age we live in. I feel this is overall something very positive for the photography community and I am glad the art of bookmaking has been resurrected.

     Holding your own, beautiful photography book in your hands is an extremely rewarding and satisfying experience, but getting there is a long and sometimes excruciatingly painful task. This is why it’s so important to be completely convinced that making a book is the right kind of project for you. That way, even when times get tough, you will have the conviction necessary to see it through until the end. After the experience of making my first book, Conversations With Nature, which was a financial, emotional, and logistical rollercoaster, I have learned a lot of painful lessons. I hope that in this article I can point out some things that will help you decide whether you should make a book or not and the path that will be the best one for you.

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Why Make a Book?

     Even with high resolution, backlit monitors, I feel that nothing compares to seeing an image as a physical print, especially when done well. Printing my own work has allowed me to notice more things (good and bad) in my images and refine my process both when it comes to capturing images in the field to processing them on the computer. For me the print has always been the final step in the creation of a photograph. I try to at least make an 8x12 print for myself of every image that I make, just so I can see what it looks like printed and feel some closure with the image. Whenever I receive a new batch of prints that have turned out the way I was expecting, the feeling it evokes far surpasses any kind of satisfaction I have ever felt from posting images online.

     As I have displayed my photographs in different places all over Salt Lake City, I have noticed that people enjoy them in a different way than they do online. They spend more time with them, as the enlarged details, colors, and shadows draw their attention, allowing them to notice more, which then captivates them further. So a book then, regardless of its size, is really a (much more affordable) collection of prints. It presents an opportunity for people to not only flip through your images and rub their fingers across each page, but to spend more time with each one as they look at them in a more controlled, isolated setting that you have created as the artist. They are presented in a specific order, allowing them to build upon one another, and the viewer isn’t distracted by the images of other photographers or noisy ads like they are on social media. A book is also a great opportunity to write down thoughts to accompany your images. People will be more likely to read them in the setting that a book creates than they are while scrolling on social media. This allows you to add to the overall message of your photographs and further impact the reader. If you have something to say, then a book is a great way to share it.

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Choosing Images

     When it comes to putting a book together, you obviously want to start by selecting your best images. I began this process by going through my entire portfolio and putting all the potential images together in a gallery. Once I had selected about 180 images, I looked through the gallery to see if there was any apparent way I could organize them into groups. The gallery was dominated by photographs of forests, deserts, and mountains, with just a few photographs of coastlines, jungles, and other environments. I then removed all of the misfit photographs that didn’t blend with the larger themes, and was left with about 150 images of different forests, mountains, and deserts. The desert category had the largest amount of images, so I decided to split that up into two separate groups, forming “Deserts” and “Canyons.”

     After creating these four different sections–Forests, Deserts, Mountains, and Canyons–that would make up my book, I began figuring out the order that the images should go in for each one. Since in a book you will always be viewing two pages simultaneously, I started looking for images that paired well together. First off, while I wouldn’t consider it a hard rule, I feel that images that are presented together should be roughly the same ratio. I would personally at least always avoid having a vertical image next to a horizontal image. This disrupts the visual flow and doesn’t feel as complementary and deliberate as two images of the same orientation.

     I also decided on these different pairings based on complementary colors, contrasting colors (warm and cool), similar subject matter, contrasting subject matter (bare trees next to vibrant trees) complementary feelings, strongly contrasting feelings (joy and despair), similar compositions (grand landscapes with grand landscapes or closeups with closeups) and several other factors. Once I paired up as many images as I could, I was of course left with some single images. I then decided if these outliers should be placed in the book on their own as two page spreads or if they should be left out entirely. After this process I narrowed it down to 137 images. After writing the essays for each of the chapters, the prologue, epilogue, and acknowledgements, and receiving the introduction and foreword from Alex Noriega and William Neill, the book was 170 pages.

     Since there was a nearly equal amount of horizontal images and vertical images, I decided to make the pages square (11x11in) in order to best accommodate both orientations. This is why it’s important to first start with the images before deciding on the size, dimensions or materials of your book, that way they can complement the photographs as much as possible. If your book is heavily dominated by horizontal images, then you would probably want the pages to be wider than they are tall.

     Because of the size of each page, twelve pages would fit on each printed sheet. This meant that with 170 pages I would have to pay for an entire sheet just for the two extra pages. So rather than add more images to the book for the sake of filling another sheet, the best solution was to get rid of two pages in order to bring it down to 168 pages in total. Since none of the essays would still work after taking two pages out, the easiest way for me to do this was to get rid of a two page spread, losing just one image rather than two images. The “Mountains” section had the most spreads of any chapter, so I decided to lose one of those.

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Creating a Theme

     Just like an individual photograph or gallery, every book needs a purpose, and everything you include in your book should reinforce the same idea and contribute to the overall theme. Having a theme not only makes a book more meaningful, it also helps to give you clear direction for what to include in your book and what to leave out.

     I think it’s obvious that as part of your photography book you should have some of your written thoughts and experiences in there as well as your images. Putting an essay before each chapter allows you to bring the viewer into the right mental space in order to immerse them into the imagery even more, it also helps to tie the images of each section to the overall theme more effectively. You can influence the way the viewer feels about the images following an essay by what you express in it. This is something very powerful that should be taken advantage of and done with a specific intention. When I see photography books with very little writing, I feel it is a wasted opportunity to express more about your work and influence how it is received.

     If your book doesn’t break down well into sections, you can write a description for each individual image instead, or a short essay or thought for smaller groups of images. There are many different ways you can organize your book, but the images you choose to include should always dictate its structure. Some examples of this style would be Erik Stensland’s books, Whispers in the Wilderness and The Journey Beyond, or Andrew Baruffi’s book, Heal.

     For Conversations With Nature, I waited until I had put together all the images for each section before writing anything down. Once I had all of the images sorted out, the words for the essays of each chapter flowed out of me freely, since I knew exactly what I needed to say according to the photographs that would follow. It’s much harder to write before you know which images you are writing about. After I wrote the essays for each chapter, I then had a feeling for the entire book, and was able to write the Prologue and Epilogue in order to introduce the theme of the book and then give it a conclusion.

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     Since Conversations With Nature features images of four distinct environments from all over the world and didn’t have a very obvious overall theme subject matter wise, the writing helped bring it all together. While the images portray the beauty and value of each different kind of environment, the writing helps to tell more of the story of why they all must be protected through conservation. By explaining more about what makes each of the four environments unique, how they contribute to the rest of the planet, and the threats that they face due to global warming, industry, and pollution, it gives the book a stronger message, and therefore the reason I made it becomes much more apparent.

     Now that I am working on another book, which I hope to release next year, I am trying my best to stick to the same process. The difference this time is that I did not already have the images in my portfolio. Instead, I wanted to make a book of entirely (or at least mostly) unreleased images, that way people would be seeing them for the very first time as they look through the book. Since I am still making images for this next book, I am waiting until I have all of the images selected for each section first before writing anything down.

     I feel that the writing in a photography book should support the images, and not the other way around. My fear is that if I begin writing before I know which images will be in the book, it could cause me to feel like I need to then create images that follow the writing, rather than basing the writing around the images that have naturally come about on their own. As an artist, I’ve never wanted external factors to influence me to the point where I am looking for certain photos or photographing things that I wouldn’t have photographed otherwise. I believe the best work always comes from a genuine fascination for the subject matter and being moved by the moment, instead of as the product of some predetermined plan or preconceived vision.

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Publishing Vs Self Publishing

     When it comes time to have your book produced, the first thing you need to make sure of is that all of your images are technically sound and everything is done right on your end. Closely review each one, making sure there are no flaws in their editing such as color casts (this is a big one when it comes to printing), shadows that are too dark, sensor spots, banding, etc. I would also recommend printing each of the images beforehand in order to make sure your printing adjustments are right (you need to prepare each image file separately for printing to compensate for saturation, brightness, and contrast shifts that happen when printing onto paper) and that there aren’t any details or flaws you’ve overlooked that are more apparent once you see the image printed. You need to make sure your files are spot on before you send them to be printed in the book, this way you can know with certainty that any variances or shifts in color, contrast, sharpness, or brightness were done by the printer and not on your end. This will be the case regardless of whether you decide to have your book produced through a publisher or publish it yourself (you just may or may not have the power to do anything about it).

     The main benefit of having your book published is that you don’t have to cover the cost of printing. This means that you won’t be responsible for raising the money to manufacture your book and you won’t be in debt if it doesn’t end up selling well, making it less risky overall. Publishers will usually cover all the costs and pay you a flat fee for the book, regardless of how it ends up selling (royalties usually only happen on very large print runs of 10,000 or more).

     The downside of publishing is that any personal expectations of quality that you have for the book will be set aside and it will be subject to the standards of the publisher. They will release whatever is good enough for them which may not meet a level of quality that satisfies you. Since they are covering the cost of manufacturing the book, they will also be looking at it more economically and will be less inclined to make financial sacrifices in order to ensure its quality. Working with a publisher also includes an editor and a designer which are necessary and can be quite costly if you are paying for them on your own. But this means they might also have some say in things like the text, layout, title, and cover of the book as well depending on your contract and who you decide to work with.

     Basically what the decision to either publish or self publish comes down to is how much control over your project you are willing to give to someone else. This is important to consider beforehand so you can clearly share your expectations and standards when looking to hire potential publishers.

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     Should you decide to publish the book yourself, you are fully responsible for all of the printing costs, which continue to climb each year with paper shortages, increasing shipping rates, and rising inflation. The cost will of course depend on the size you decide to make your book, the materials you use, how many pages it has, and the quantity of books you order. This can be extremely daunting, and I think this is the main barrier that most photographers face when it comes to producing their own book. If you don’t have the money to fund it yourself, you simply cannot make it. Of course you can look at crowdfunding in order to raise the money from your supporters, but this also entails a lot of work in order to build a successful campaign.

     You will also need to pay for your own designer to make the print-ready file that will be sent to the lab. Some photographers are able to make their book designs themselves but I decided to save time and hire a designer to make sure that everything was perfectly aligned and the cover and layout looked as best as possible. When it comes to printing margins and things like that, it can be quite tedious. If anything is off you will be on the hook and either have to pay for it to be reprinted or live with your mistake every time you look through your book. I felt much better leaving this all up to a skilled and experienced designer instead.

     Apart from hiring a designer you will also need to hire an editor. I cannot stress how imperative it is that you have a skilled writer review the text of your book. No matter how much you review it over and over again yourself, there will always be typos and errors that will magically elude you until you see them physically printed and they become painfully obvious. Hiring another set of eyes will help you to reword things and become aware of mistakes that you aren’t able to notice on your own.

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     The upside of having to pay for everything yourself is that you also get to keep all of the profit. So as long as the book sells well, it will be a much more lucrative endeavor than if you had gone through a publisher. Marketing and selling the book is entirely up to you then, so think about the kind of following you have first and how willing you feel they would be to support you. Luckily before I made my first book I was already selling tutorial videos, which I think is a very niche market compared to photography books. So based on the amount of sales I was getting from that, I was able to have an idea of how many books would sell to my wider audience.

     The biggest upside (at least for me) of self publishing is that, granted you have enough money for it, you have full creative control over every aspect of the project. No one can tell you what to do or not do and you can put as much money as you want into it in order to ensure its quality. Since I had already anticipated making a book, I had enough money set aside to be able to choose whatever printing process, paper thickness, finish, stitching, and materials that I wanted. For me the absolute most important part about the book was that the images looked accurate once printed and met my personal standard. I wanted to be able to look through my book afterwards and enjoy every page of it. What might have been “good enough” for everyone else wasn’t “good enough” for me. 

     Apart from printing an 8x12 of every single image in the book beforehand, to ensure they were all technically sound and would print well, I also paid $300 to print a single copy of my book before ordering the full run of 1000. This allowed me to inspect the images and get a feel for the flow of the book. As I looked through it several times I decided to move some images around, change some of the text, and make a few minor adjustments to some of the photos that didn’t quite feel as alive as the others.

     Something else you can do for a fraction of the cost is ask for the printer to send you a “signature sheet.” For this they will use the offset printing machines (that they use to print the final book) to print off a single sheet with however many pages can fit on it. You can choose potentially problematic images for this so that you can make some adjustments if necessary after seeing how they come out of the offset printing machine.

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Common Challenges

     If you are self-publishing your book, apart from trying a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for it, one thing you can do to help offset the cost is to take pre-orders before the book is actually made. Printers typically only require half of the payment in advance in order to get started and don’t collect the other half until after the book has been physically delivered. This means that you can pay the first half to get the production started and then try to raise enough money in pre-orders to pay for the second half. The only issue with collecting people’s money before the book is actually made is that the entire process becomes a lot more stressful if there are shipping delays and printing issues. Once people have already paid for the book, you are also obligated to fulfill their order and see the project through.

     One challenge of printing a book is that since the pages are not printed individually, and instead are printed with multiple pages on each sheet depending on the order they will be stitched into the book, all of the images on each sheet are calibrated together. So if one image looks too cool and you ask the printer to warm it up slightly, it will also warm up any other images on that same sheet. This is why it’s also important to have your images as technically sound as possible before sending them into the printer. A perfect image will have a certain amount of room to either go slightly warmer or cooler, slightly brighter or darker, without looking any worse.

     So it’s important to have close communication with your printer in order to make sure any necessary adjustments won’t affect other images in a detrimental way. When I needed to make a slight color temperature change before printing my final run, my printer let me know which images were on each sheet and this allowed me to make more informed decisions.

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     I feel every passionate photographer should experience making their own book at least once. If you feel you are getting ready to do something like this, I hope these things I have pointed out will help you to be more prepared and know what you are getting into. If you want to make a book, the first place to start is by asking yourself why. Knowing the answer to this question will give you the clearest sense of direction going forward.


Part Two: "What I Learned" Coming Soon...


Click Here If You'd Like To Learn More About My Book, Conversations With Nature



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