How to Self-Publish Your Photography Book

Rick Smolan, Against All Odds Productions, Copyright 2015

Valuable tips from one of the most successful photo book producers of all time.

Over the course of nearly four decades, photojournalist Rick Smolan has enjoyed tons of success (literally “tons” in as, however much five million coffee-table books in print weigh).

In collaboration with scores of photographers, editors, researchers designers and friends he has produced over eighty books of photojournalism, including several New York Time’s best-sellers. When it comes to photography books, there are few people with Rick’s insight and experience.

Rick Smolan, Against All Odds Productions, Copyright 2015

One of his first (of many) big breaks came in 1974 at the age of 24 when he was the last of 100 photographers commissioned to shoot for “One Day in the Life of America,” a special issue of Life Magazine. His latest book, Inside Tracks: Alone Across the Outback, is a smart phone-enabled coffee table book and doesn’t follow the traditional publishing model that’s worked for him in the past. Rather than relying on a big publishing company Rick decided to self-publish this book, beginning with a very successful Kickstarter campaign.

Rick’s always been a few steps ahead of the pack when it comes to embracing innovation and new technology. And as a former Time, Life and National Geographic photographer he’s adaptable and knows how to pivot, trying one approach after another to get the shot.

Rick raised over $60,000 through Kickstarter to fund the printing and fulfillment of Inside Tracks. He humbly admits he made many mistakes, while at the same time proving that an old dingo is still capable of learning new tricks. He’s a big believer in the spirit of the Internet (as in sharing ideas and learning from others) so here’s what the rest of us, young and old, can learn from his experience.

Rick Smolan, Against All Odds Productions, Copyright 2015

(Rick’s mind kind of jumps around from idea to idea … Internet-like. What follows is my attempt to distill and paraphrase what Rick shared with me in an hour-long conversation.)

  1. Choose a topic with a built-in audience, something that people will have an emotional response to. It could be adoption, the rain forest, the environment, or a woman traveling across the Australian outback alone. The traditional publishing model was to turn to a big publisher who would throw it into book stores and hope the book found an audience. Now photographers are able to market directly to the people who are already invested in your chosen subject.

2) Forget about traditional publishing models: The traditional publishing model doesn’t work for photographers anymore. Most publishers are actually asking the photographers to pay to have their books published and then charging the photographers to purchase copies of their own books at the wholesale price instead of at the cost of printing. I joke that the UPS guy gets paid more to deliver my book than we do for producing the book.

We’d conceptualize, fundraise, hire photo editors, photographers, designers, writers, make trips to the press to oversee the printing (which we always did) and the publishers would pay us $2 on a $50 book. To add insult to injury the publishers would devote a tiny budget to our book because we were just one of many projects. When you self-publish a book it has 100% of your attention and that’s what a book needs to stand out today. It has to be a true labor of love and you need to obsess about it 24/7.

Rick Smolan, Against All Odds Productions, Copyright 2015

3) PR PR PR: As individuals we are much more motivated to publicize our books ourselves. If you are doing a crowdsourced book your publicity should initially point to your Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign and when the campaign is over to Amazon or your own fulfillment site where the book is available for purchase.

4) Begin planning your crowd sourced funding campaign 6 weeks before you launch: Kickstarter is a way of engaging the online community to help you live out your dream. If I had known at the beginning of our 30 day campaign what I knew by the end we could have doubled the money we raised. Our campaign was just me and my wonderfully talented young assistant Olivia Huffman, managing all the social. I’d be up until two or three in the morning every night posting on Facebook and Twitter. If I did this again I’d arrange to subcontract most of the social media and PR and have virtual assistants focusing on Instagram, TunmblR, FlickR, Google+, LinkedIn etc

Rick Smolan, Against All Odds Productions, Copyright 2015

4) Enlist Sponsors to help defray costs: I also suggested photographers find sponsors who are related to the topic of your book but you need to be upfront that your book isn’t going to an advertisement or a series of product placements, otherwise it turns into mush. Sponsors have to be persuaded that their support of your book puts their brand in a better light simply through association. It’s tricky.

5) Enlist the help of other photographers with successful Kickstarter camaigns: I contacted the people behind the most successful Kickstarter photography book campaigns and asked them to share my campaign with their backers. About 80% did. They allowed me to tap into their supports but also their experience and influence.

Rick Smolan, Against All Odds Productions, Copyright 2015

6) Enlist your friends: At first I was really uncomfortable to ask people for support. In the past I’d always give books away to my friends. Then I realized it makes people feel connected and powerful. They want to help you. There’s a ripply effect. Three hundred friends might collectively have 15,000 friends. If you’ve got a compelling story to tell you’ll connect with them.

7) Give people something of value for a dollar: At first I was offering to print donor’s names on our website for a buck, but a wise friend told me to offer something of real value to my backers but which would cost me nothing. So for a dollar I offered entry level backers a PDF of my National Geographic cover story. I found that once someone pledged I could keep them engaged through updates and many of them increased their support to a higher reward level.

8) Set realistic funding goals: Keep your numbers real and people will respect that. They know you can’t print a book quality book on the cheap so set your funding level accordingly.

9) Start with an open mind and allow yourself to make mistakes: The Kickstarter campaign forced me to learn new things. The time limit, having thirty days to make something happen makes you focus. It good to feel out of your comfort zone, to have to stretch.

Rick Smolan, Against All Odds Productions, Copyright 2015

10) When your campaign ends the work of fulfillment is just beginning: Check out companies like BackersKit or Celery to help fulfill your Kickstarter rewards. They have discounted postage, tracking systems and online databases to help make sure the right rewards go to the right backer.

Rick Smolan, Against All Odds Productions, Copyright 2015

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