The traditional method of publishing art and photography books is risky, full of obstacles, and expensive. But by combining crowdfunding and digital printing, you can get all the benefits of the old way, with much less risk, and conceivably even make some money!
The Old Way vs. The New Way to Publish Your Art Book
The old way of publishing art books is risky because it entails selling through the book trade, which requires giving huge discounts off of the list price to distributors, wholesalers, and retailers. A publisher is lucky to get 40% of the list price for each sale after all the middlemen take their cuts. This would not be so bad in itself, if it were not for the fact that all sales are returnable, so that while a publisher may get orders for 1,000 books, only a fraction of those will actually sell to consumers. The rest will be returned for credit. On average, over 30% of books shipped are returned. Publishers still have to pay for printing those books, for shipping them, and, ultimately, disposing of them instead of paying to store them. To add insult to injury, books are normally shopworn when they are returned, and therefore cannot be sold as new. The only printing strategy that makes sense in these circumstances is to print enough copies so that the printing cost per copy is very low—low enough that you might, hypothetically, make some money. With art books, which are usually printed in color, that means printing way more books than you actually need, and, often, printing in the Far East to lower costs—at the cost of long lead times for reprints, should the book actually take off.
When Amazon entered the fray, the situation got better in the sense that audiences can now find books more readily, but much worse because of Amazon’s discounting, which makes it impossible for what were the main sales venues for art books—museum stores, chains, etc.—to carry expensive art books. This is because Amazon slashes prices on them even before the book is released, so that while people might see the book in a museum store, they will often buy it through Amazon to save money. Sounds like a win for consumers, except that you can’t actually see and handle the book before you buy it if it is not carried in stores. Go to a museum store now and you see cute notebooks and coffee mugs instead of a great selection of art books.
So enough about the traditional publishing snafu. What’s the new way?
The new way is using crowdfunding to simultaneously pre-sell, market, and raise money to publish your book, and using digital printing to only print as many copies as you actually need.
Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo enable you to reach out to your existing fans as well as promote to new fans in the process of raising money to publish your book. You figure out how much your project will cost, set a fundraising goal, and mount a campaign to reach out to existing and new fans asking them to donate to your project. Those who donate are called backers. Typically for a crowdfunded project, you promise rewards to your backers; in the case of a book project, its usually a signed copy of the book recognizing their contribution. A successful campaign raises enough money to print enough books so that you can send them to your backers as well as sell extras through other venues: your gallery, your website, online marketplaces like Etsy or Amazon (as an Amazon merchant, not selling to Amazon through regular book trade channels!). The key thing is to sell direct, so you control the selling price: if you sell through book trade channels, Amazon will likely discount your book—especially if it is successful!—so you will receive the much lower wholesale price of the book and you will not be able to sell it at a normal list price because of competition from Amazon.
Short-Run Digital Book Printing
Digital book printing has revolutionized publishing by enabling the printing of only as many copies as needed. The per copy price will be higher than that for 2,000 copies printed via the traditional offset method, but then the lower offset price was usually an illusion, because it didn’t factor in returns from the book trade and the cost of printing, shipping, and storing books that never sold.
Digital printing is a great fit for crowdfunded projects because you can print only as many books as you need to give to your backers plus the extras you will sell direct. Selling direct means getting three to five times as much per sale as selling through the book trade, which more than covers the higher unit cost, while at the same time overprinting risk is eliminated. Also, you can always do more digital print runs, usually at reduced cost, if you are wildly successful and need more copies to sell.
Step by Step
Here’s a step-by-step outline of a publishing project using this model.
1. Design Your Book
While you may be successful raising money through crowdfunding without having a book ready to print, doing so will significantly reduce your credibility to funders. Also, without having the book designed, you can’t accurately price printing and shipping costs, which are crucial for setting your funding goal. Big tip: design your book to fit within normal book printing dimensions and capabilities. It doesn’t mean that your book can’t be unbelievably cool, it just means you won’t be paying a lot extra for a page size that is 1/8″ larger than a standard size, for example. Identify and work with a good book printer early on. Picking a short-run digital book printer with good customer service can help you avoid expensive pitfalls and get the best quality book possible.
2. Plan and Execute Your Crowdfunding Campaign
A successful crowdfunding campaign requires both good planning and good execution. It’s a lot of work: writing copy, creating a video, answering questions, pitching funders. The thing is, selling through the book trade takes a lot of work too, with much more risk and much lower potential return.
3. Print Your Book and Fulfill Backer Rewards
With a successful crowdfunding campaign, most of the financial stress of ordering book printing is eliminated. Some digital book printers, like Bookmobile, can fulfill your backer’s rewards as well as print the books—and even act as an ongoing fulfillment service for selling additional copies of your books from your website, events, or as an Amazon merchant.
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Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook and distribution services for book publishers since 1982.