Selling Your Fine Art Photo Book:
Tips From Cutting-Edge Book Publishers

If you are a serious photographer, you’ve likely imagined publishing a fine art photo book. But publishing is more than just printing. Printing your photo book via Print-on-Demand (POD), short-run digital printing (SRDP), or offset is relatively easy; the hard part is getting your book into readers’ hands. This post discusses how the rise of online bookselling has created new ways of selling photo books.

Perhaps you’ve pictured your beautiful photo book on display at a bookstore or museum store, where it will be discovered by a discerning audience who will gladly pay a price that will cover all your publishing costs—and even provide some profit to fund future photo projects.

Unfortunately, that old model of bookselling has declined drastically because of Amazon’s willingness to lose money on book sales in order to kill competition and build up their customer base. (See Brad Stone’s The Everything Store for the gory details.) The Amazon effect has been especially hard on precisely those books that need to be seen and handled to be appreciated and sold: namely, large format, beautifully designed and printed art and photography books.

So what is a photographer to do? Often the first thought is of Blurb or other Print-on-Demand services. But POD quality is inconsistent, and the business model questionable when you add up the high per-copy cost of printing via POD.

The best option, I would argue, is to learn from the savviest new book publishing startups, who—not burdened with a dependency on the old models of book distribution—are turning the power of the web and Amazon to their advantage.

The Old Bookselling Model, aka “The Book Trade”

Under the old model of book publishing—called the “book trade” by those in the business—publishers do not sell books to readers. They sell books only to middlemen: the book wholesalers, bookstores, museum stores, and other outlets that make up the book trade. Smaller publishers hire the services of a trade distributor, who warehouses and sells the publisher’s books to the book trade. The distributor creates economies of scale by combining the publishing output of dozens of publishers. This benefits the publisher, but also benefits the trade buyers by streamlining the ordering process and reducing freight costs. Many retailers and book wholesalers won’t even buy directly from a small publisher, instead requiring that the publisher sell to them through a distributor.

All of these middlemen must be paid, and by the time the dollars trickle down to the publisher, not much is left. Here’s an example, using a hypothetical photography book, The Columbia: River of Energy. This book is pretty expensive to produce, with lots of color images and a beautiful hardcover binding. Let’s say the printing cost is $10.50 a book—a figure achievable by printing 2,000 copies at a specialized offset book printer. Here’s how the sale of a single copy shakes out, if the list price is set at $45.00:

Single Copy Sale, Traditional Book Trade

List price 45.00
Discount to bookstore, 40% -18.00
Net sale 27.00
Distributor fee, 25% – 6.75
Net after distributor fee 20.25
Less average returns, 30% – 6.08
Net after returns 14.17
Less printing cost, offset – 10.50
Less printing cost, returned books – 3.15
Final net to publisher (you)   .52

Fifty-two cents profit a book?! Yes, that’s $0.52 profit. And that’s a relatively good outcome, actually. Much more likely is that most of the 2,000 books printed won’t even sell, and writing them off will push the project into a loss.

And what are “returns”? Returns are the ugly secret of the book business. On average, about 30% of books shipped to bookstores never sell and are returned to the publisher. The resulting credits are deducted from the publisher’s payments from the store. Theoretically, returned books are in salable condition. Reality check: if you think a big hardcover picture book that has been handled in a store is returned in pristine condition, you’re living in a dream world. In a just world, the publisher (or the distributor on the publisher’s behalf) would be able to charge the book wholesaler or bookseller for damaged books. Well, if the book has been set on fire or the cover ripped, off you might actually get compensation from the reseller; from a practical standpoint, it’s impossible to get compensation for any lesser damage. That’s why the cost of printing books that are ultimately returned is charged off against sales, as I showed in the figures above.

Actually, the situation is much worse than this: besides the fact that bookstores are extremely unlikely to order your book in the first place, big chains and Amazon take more of the pie than just 40%, and the financials above don’t even include design and promotional costs, or overhead, or…

Stop with the negativity! There is another option.

The New Bookselling Model, aka “The OR Books Model”

Yes, the internet and Amazon have indeed shrunk the odds of selling your photo book profitably in the book trade to about the same as winning the Powerball. But they have also enabled a new book sales model, which an increasing number of savvy startup book publishers are taking advantage of. This model features selling in entirely different ways than the traditional book trade channels:

  • Selling on your own website direct to readers.
  • Selling on Amazon, but only as an Amazon merchant, not as a regular book supplier.
  • Selling in the back of the room at speaking engagements and other author appearances.
  • Selling in bulk to organizations with a reasonable discount, nonreturnable.
  • If selling to bookstores, doing so only at a 50% discount, non-returnable, paid with a credit card.
  • Selling any other way you can for cash on the barrelhead, not allowing returns, and discounting as little as possible.

The pioneer of this model is a tough little publishing outfit in New York called OR Books. (One of the founders, John Oakes, was interviewed in 2012 by Forbes.) OR has published just a few art books, including one by Yoko Ono, but the business model is the same no matter what kind of book you are publishing. Here’s how it works:

  1. You edit and design the book and print a short first print run at an SRDP printer. This will cost more per book than if you print 2,000 copies with an offset printer, but the odds of selling 2,000 copies of any particular new title from a small publisher are tiny. If the book does take off, you can always go back for a long run at an offset printer. If it doesn’t take off, you still have a chance to make money because of the higher profit margins of this new model, and because you didn’t waste your precious project capital on printing too many books.
  2. You pre-announce the book and collect pre-orders on your website.
  3. You promote the hell out of the book, driving as many links as possible to your website for people to order the book.
  4. You promote the hell out of the book some more.
  5. You exploit your author platform like crazy, selling books at personal appearances.
  6. You promote the book like a mad person.
  7. After a month or so, when you have likely maximized your sales through your website, you sell the book on Amazon through your Amazon merchant account. (Not through a distributor or Amazon Advantage!!!) You set the selling price. Amazon collects the money, including shipping & handling, and deducts about 15% of the sale price. Your book gets pretty much the same exposure on Amazon as any other book except for those by splashy big-name authors.
  8. You promote the book in every way you can think.
  9. You reprint your book when you get close to running out. The goal here is to never pay to print books that you can’t sell, because those books will likely be the biggest drag on your overall profit from the project. (Plus they will be a constant nagging message of failure, justified or not!)

Now, every element of this model may not work for you as an individual photographer publishing a photo book. Setting up a website to sell a single title is a pain, for instance, and works much better for a publisher that has multiple titles to spread the cost over. Self-promotion is not everybody’s cup of tea (heads up though: promotion is the key to getting books in the hands of readers). Maybe your photographic style by its nature does not have a wide audience. Regardless, by utilizing the model above you will take control of the publishing process rather than letting it be dictated by the ponderous schedules and procedures of the book trade.

And you have much better odds of making your money back. Let’s take a look at the sale of a single copy through this method of sales:

Single Copy Sale, OR Books Model

List price 45.00
Bookstore discount—none – 0.00
Shipping and handling 3.99
Total sale 48.99
Less distributor fee—none – 0.00
Less average returns—none – 0.00
Your income 48.99
Less printing cost, SRDP -25.00
Less printing cost, returns—none – 0.00
Less postage & packing – 5.00
Final net to you 18.99

Compare the $18.99 return on the direct sale with the $0.52 return on the sale through the book trade!

If you sell your book only as an Amazon merchant, you set the selling price, so Amazon won’ t undercut the selling price on your website and elsewhere. Also, you get an allowance for shipping and handling. Amazon takes a fee of $0.99 plus 15% of the sale price, which would reduce your profit on the sale by $7.74 to $11.25: still much better than a $0.52 profit!

Because you’re using SRDP instead of offset, you will pay a higher unit cost, but you have no risk of paying to print thousands of books that wind up moldering in your garage.

For another twist on selling photo books direct, see my colleague Nicole Baxter’s post on two professional photographers with a unique niche who have produced their own photo book—and sell copies like hotcakes for $250 each.

Disclaimers

First, I don’t want to give you the idea that any of this is easy. Any publishing project is a lot of work, no matter what business model you use. But if you are serious about your photo book publishing project, this business model is almost certainly a more rational way to publish than the old book trade model, or, for that matter, through a POD service. And it could be the perfect complement to a Kickstarter project.

Second, if you can definitely sell 2,000 copies, then offset printing, not SRDP, is going to be the way to go. Just don’t under-estimate how hard it is to sell 2,000 books! Here’s more info in my post about choosing the printing method for for your fine art photo books.

Third, if you are famous, the old-fashioned trade publishing model may be your best route.

Need a quote or more information?

I’d be happy to answer questions—you can contact me via email.
 You can request a printing quote here.

Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook and distribution services for book publishers since 1982. He set up his first darkroom in a basement bathroom in fifth grade and has worked as a professional photographer. He continues to satisfy his love of photography through appreciation of great images, an interest in photographic technology, and trying to improve his own photography.