eBooks And Photographers: A New Publishing Vehicle & How To Make It Work For You

The book publishing business is experiencing huge upheavals and transformations of late. “Physical” bookstores are closing, and for many photographers eBooks are an exciting option. While eBooks may become a preferred delivery system for creative content, with them come questions about creation, preferred content, and, perhaps most importantly, how to market your work. In this article we’ll look at how three photographers are working through this change and how it has altered the way they show their work to the world. Thanks go to Jeff Colburn, Bret Edge, and Guy Tal for their expertise and wisdom in this regard. Please check our links and contact information at the end of this article to see their work, and more.

© 2013 Jeff Colburn

Shutterbug: How did you get started self-publishing eBooks?

Jeff Colburn: I became fascinated with the town of Jerome in Arizona. It used to be a copper mining town that was called “The West’s Wickedest City,” until all mining stopped in 1953. The population dropped from 15,000 to less than 20, and it was renamed “The World’s Largest Ghost City.” Today, the town is a thriving artist’s community with about 350 residents. I soon realized that photographing Jerome could become a great self-assignment.

As my body of work grew, I felt an eBook would be the perfect vehicle to get these images into the public eye, and The Vanishing Old West - Jerome was born. As an eBook, I could keep the price reasonable. A 75-page print book, full of color photographs, would cost a fortune. An eBook also let me maintain complete control of design and layout and easily do any needed updates. My eBook shows the wonder of things big and small in Jerome, and even includes some photographs of buildings that no longer exist or have been completely refurbished to look like new. I sell my eBook as a download, on CD at my one-man shows, and as a customized version for businesses.

Bret Edge: I co-developed a series of iPhone apps and when sales of the apps plummeted, I decided to repurpose the content into an eBook. I thought that the eBook would be more successful since it wasn’t device dependent.

Guy Tal: I had one experience of working through a publisher and it was not a pleasant one. Among the many factors that pushed me toward self-publishing were the very low royalty rates offered by publishers, inconsistency in payment, loss of editorial control, demand for rights to use my content in ways not related to the sales and promotion of my book, etc. The self-published eBook format allowed me to target my niche audience, retain complete editorial control and rights to my work, and virtually all the revenues. Not having to pay the overhead of commercial publishing allows me to make the same or greater profit selling fewer copies on my own. In fact, every one of my eBook offerings was significantly more profitable than the commercially published book, despite selling fewer copies.

© 2013 Jeff Colburn

SB: What are the biggest changes you have seen in the photography book market in the last few years?

Bret Edge: The most noticeable change I’ve observed is a transition from books that cover a topic in very general terms to eBooks with a much narrower focus. Just a few years ago there were dozens of books that covered the fundamentals of nature/landscape photography, but now there are many excellent eBooks covering topics like using a tilt/shift lens and implementing flash for outdoor adventure photography. These are very specific niches that simply weren’t covered not long ago.

Guy Tal: Competition and the advent of the mega-sellers eliminated many of the smaller niche players and reduced royalties significantly, resulting in homogenization of offerings, mostly focused on low margins, high sales volume, and sacrificing depth in content. It is very difficult today to find specialized niche-market books other than those self-published by their authors.

Jeff Colburn: Self-publishing has allowed photographers to publish books that they couldn’t have done just a few years ago. Small runs, even as low as one book, can now be done with no problem.

And by self-publishing, photographers get to keep all the profits. This flood of self-published books allows niche topics to make it into print or e-versions that never would make it past a traditional publisher because there isn’t a large enough audience. This gives the buying public a much broader choice of topics to meet their interests.

There’s also more standardization in eBook formats. Kindle and other similar companies now make it pretty easy to get a book ready for their system. The key is to read their specifications before putting your book together so that it meets their requirements. It’s a real pain to put an eBook together, then find out you have to completely change the layout so it can be uploaded to a distributor.

© Bret Edge

SB: What have been the biggest problems or obstacles you have run into when shopping for your eBook or print book production services?

Bret Edge: Cost. It is not an inexpensive venture to create a well-designed eBook. There’s no shortage of companies and individual designers capable of producing very high-quality eBooks, but the associated cost is huge. I would start by finding a talented designer, but it is tough. There are a handful of large companies that specialize in eBook design and they’re generally a good place to start, although their prices are often higher. I prefer to give work to people I know and trust. Ask friends and fellow photographers who they use for design/production and then contact them. Take a look at their portfolio and compare rates. I like to do this because friends aren’t going to recommend someone with whom they’ve had a negative experience, so I think you’re more likely to find a good match.

© Bret Edge

SB: What about POD (Print On Demand) hard copy books?

Jeff Colburn: Printing a book is cheap, until you add color photographs, so it’s imperative to find a printer that has great quality and prices. Finding a reasonable priced printer requires a lot of e-mailing and calling to get prices. This is especially difficult since some of the best printers are overseas. In my search for a printer I contacted 33 companies around the world. Most didn’t respond, others were too expensive or their print quality was poor. A few had good prices, but the shipping fees offset the savings. I only found three printers that came somewhat close to my needs and prices, but never really found one that could do everything I wanted for a decent price.

Traditional publishers keep prices down by ordering at least 5000 copies of a book, or they have their own printing company. But when a photographer has five or 10, or even 100 copies printed, the cost is very high. This upfront cost can prevent many photographers from printing their books, and the high price of each copy makes them difficult to sell. I read about a photographer who printed his coffee-table book, and it cost him $75 per book, which he sells for over $100. He’s only sold a few copies.

Print On Demand (POD) companies may be an option, but they will try to upsell you until you find the initial price has doubled or tripled. Their base prices range from $500 to $2000, and that’s before a book is even printed. And you have to read their contract very carefully, and understand what you’re reading. If you are using ABC printer and decide to switch over to XYZ printer, you may have to pay ABC well over $1000 to leave them.

SB: So eBooks are a good option for you?

Jeff Colburn: For eBooks you have two options: sell the book yourself through your own website or a place like Kindle, or use an eBook publisher. Note that eBook publishers will assemble your eBook and send it out to places like Kindle, but like POD and book printers, they will try to upsell you to services that you may not need. I can’t stress enough that as a consumer you must educate yourself. If you don’t, you’ll waste time, energy, and money. When I’m deciding what services to pay for, and what to do myself, I always ask one question, “Do I have more time or money?” If I have more time than money, then I do it myself. If the opposite is true, then I send that part of the project out. As a beginning self-publisher, you will undoubtedly have more time than money. And since most eBooks won’t sell a lot of copies, you will most likely always have more time than money.

Expect to do everything yourself, from writing the book to design and layout and getting the book ready to print or upload. You will also be responsible for all marketing and promotion. It’s not easy, so you really have to love your book.

Guy Tal: The greatest problems seem to be related to marketing. With a lot of self-published offerings out there and the general lack of centralized search and review options, high-quality offerings are often difficult to find and assess. Also, most institutional critics (major newspapers, etc.) rarely, if ever, review self-published books. Another problem particular to electronic books is the standardization around formats such as ePub, which are woefully inadequate for photography books relying on careful layouts and arrangement of text relative to images. I opted to publish my eBooks in PDF format for that reason.

© Guy Tal

SB: How do you feel about using an ISBN number for your eBooks?

Bret Edge: I’ve not used any of these services. I will likely use ISBN numbers for future eBooks, though.

Jeff Colburn: The businesses that sell you an ISBN number are happy to do so, because it’s a way to upsell your project and bring them more money. But you can buy an ISBN yourself, and you should. If you use their ISBN number, they technically own that number, not you, since they are the original purchaser. I don’t use ISBN numbers, and won’t unless I start selling my eBook through retailers in CD or print format. It’s a tracking number for businesses, but if you’re not selling through businesses I don’t see a need for an ISBN. If you feel you need an ISBN, the best thing you can do is buy your own numbers from Bowker Agency. You will need a different ISBN for each form of your book. If you have a hardcover, paperback, and CD version, you need three different ISBN numbers.

Guy Tal: I handle all aspects of my electronic book publishing, from writing and editing to design and marketing, by myself, so I have not used ISBN numbers on my current titles. I could not see much value in them for the way self-published eBooks are sold and marketed, often relying on buyers already being familiar with an author and their work.

SB: What seems to work best to sell the books given the different marketing tools available?

Bret Edge: I’ve found limited success with social media marketing, specifically Facebook and Twitter. What seems to work the best is getting the eBook in the hands of other bloggers and influencers for review. Also, there’s very real value in honest to goodness objective user reviews.

Guy Tal: I write for a specific audience of landscape photographers who are interested in going beyond the iconic and documentary image, and seek to create expressive art with their cameras. Common marketing tools, such as magazine advertisements, cast too wide a net to be very effective when it comes to such narrowly focused products. Social media seems to be the most effective tool for this purpose, both in allowing interested parties to find each other, and to establish a more direct relationship than is possible in a printed advertisement. Often, readers will contact me before or after a sale with questions and observations to help in their buying decisions. This kind of personal attention is not really as effective, or even possible, in other media. My blog has been a great marketing tool as well. It allows readers to assess the quality of my writing and my approach to the subject matter, which makes them more likely to be interested in new titles.

Jeff Colburn: Every author believes, or hopes, that their book will be wildly popular and they will make thousands and thousands of dollars off of each one. But that’s usually not the case. The typical eBook will only sell a few hundred copies at best. For that reason, do everything you can that’s free to promote your eBook. The idea is to keep money, not spend it. All self-published authors take on the responsibility of promoting their own books. It takes a lot of time, effort, and creativity to do this, but it’s what you have to do. Start by reading John Kremer’s book 1001 Ways to Market Your Books. While not all of his suggestions work for eBooks, many do.

How you promote your eBook depends on your topic and your audience. Since you’re probably a one-person operation, I suggest doing just one of these things at a time. This will prevent burnout, and will keep your book’s name out there much longer. Select what will work best to reach the most people. Here’s a quick list:
• Create a blog, Facebook page, and website (or page on a website) for your eBook while you’re working on it.
• Create a list of businesses and magazines that would tie into the topic of your eBook, and then promote to them when the eBook is done. See if they will review your book.
• Create a list of media outlets that might cover your topic and get them a press release.
• Write articles for magazines (print and online) and blogs on the topic of your book.
• Make regular posts on all of your social media networks.
• Get interviewed by newspapers and magazines, like Shutterbug.
• Create an affiliate program so others can sell your eBook. You can see my affiliate program at creativecauldron.com. Receiving 70 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing. Have a list of businesses to contact, and let them know about your affiliate program.
• Use other companies affiliate programs. NatureScapes sells my eBook (link below).
• Create contests where you give something away, like copies of your eBook.
• Create one or more short talks about the subject of your book that you can give to local clubs and businesses.
• Get out in the real world any way you can. Don’t do everything online because it’s not as great a marketing tool as you think it is. People relate to people much more than they relate to a website.

© Guy Tal

SB: What recommendations can you add to help our readers be successful in this particular market?

Guy Tal: I noticed that too many offerings rely on a flashy design and bombastic titles, but offer very sparse content. In addition, having complete editorial control implies not only the freedom to make the book what you want it, but also the responsibility to write well, use proper spelling and grammar, and validate facts. When I find factual errors, egregious typos, or poor writing in a self-published book, I am not likely to purchase others from the same author. I expect the same is true for others. If you are not sufficiently confident in your writing and editing skills it may be worthwhile to have the book edited by a third party.

Jeff Colburn: Don’t write a book just because you’re interested in it. The key to success, and sales, is to find a need and fill it. Do research to see if there is interest in your book, or better yet, research to see what book people are looking for, and write that book.

Educate yourself about all aspects of eBook publishing and self-publishing before you even begin working on your book. A lot of businesses have grown up around the eBook and self-publishing industry, and they all want your money. If you go into this endeavor blind, these businesses will make a lot of money off of you, and you will wind up broke.

You have to be willing to do all the needed promotion for your book, and be happy with only a few hundred sales. If you have more sales, that’s great; don’t expect it or you may be setting yourself up for a big disappointment.

Look at self-publishing as only one of your revenue streams. And be prepared to write several books, not just one. If it suits your book, every so often release a revised edition. I’ve already started my next eBook, which will help photographers sell their photographs.

Bret Edge: Focus your energy on really good content and design with a logical, easy-to-use layout. Make it very simple for people to download and use your eBook. Develop a marketing plan BEFORE you invest in design and production. Start by doing some research to determine if there is a big enough market for the topic you want to cover.

Web Resources
Photographer Resources

Jeff Colburn:

Bret Edge Photography:

Guy Tal Photography:

Recommended Reading
Bowker Agency:
“1001 Ways to Market Your Books”:

Affiliate Programs
Creative Cauldron: