Want to Self-Publish Your Photo Book? How 3 Photographers Made it Happen

by Jessica Gordon

June 13, 2014

Does the desire for a tangible record of your photographs have you up at night, reaching for your phone and Googling "How to Publish a Photo Book?" If you want complete control over your book and a big publishing house is not your scene, self-publishing could be the way to go. With online publishing companies like Blurb adding a bevy of new features and partnerships, the time has never been better to harness the resources of the self-publishing realm. Whether you’re looking to create a self-promotion piece to distribute to clients or simply wish to compile a personal project for your coffee table, check out the experiences and processes of three photographers who’ve created (or are in the process of creating) a proper photo book in the past year.

Get Personal Attention—Michael Wilson, Northbound

Photographer Michael Wilson had spent six years assisting photo legend Martin Schoeller in New York City when he decided to move to Maine and strike out on his own in 2013 with mwphotographic.com. Wilson—who had shot weddings on the side during his time with Schoeller—decided his first project as a freelancer would be capturing portraits of hikers on the Appalachian Trail, where he was trekking for six months while on honeymoon with his new wife. “About a year leading up to it, I decided it would be a great project,” Wilson says. “There are so many photography books about the nature [of the Appalachian Trail]; the one thing I had never seen and thought was missing was portraits of the people. With millions of people setting foot on the trail every year, it’s kind of like a social experiment in the woods. I have heard it referred to as ‘The People’s Trail.’”

Wilson knew pretty early on that he would make the project into a book: “I had a professor in college who used to rant about how bad students’ books were—I really want to make a book that tells a story,” he says. But, “I didn’t think too much about the book itself when I was shooting; I was just trying to take as many diverse pictures as possible.”

So Wilson set out with a Canon 6D and his 40mm and 85mm lenses, and shot more than half of his portraits within the first six weeks, setting up a portable studio at a Damascus, Virginia, festival called “Trail Days” that attracts 30,000 past and present hikers. “I rented someone’s carport and set up a tablecloth in the background,” Wilson says. “I used ambient light and borrowed additional lights from another photographer-hiker. I made the most makeshift of makeshift studios.”


Portraits of hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Photos © Michael Wilson

When Wilson and his wife finished the thru-hike in September 2013, he spent about a month preparing to create a book that he wanted to be more hefty than a typical, uploadable softcover. “Originally I thought I would do a ‘print-on-demand’ book, and I had a test book made,” Wilson says. “I wasn’t unhappy with the print quality, I just wasn’t satisfied. The biggest thing was the size restrictions that the print-on-demand houses have; I really wanted a book that felt serious in your hands.”

So after reading numerous blogs on the topic of self-publishing and getting crowdfunding through IndieGoGo.com, Wilson reached out to Berkeley, California-based Edition One to create a portrait-orientated hardcover that measures 12.5 x 9.25 inches. “It’s a small production company, they don’t mass produce books, and in talking to them, they’re so easy-going and easy to communicate with,” Wilson says. “I got the first test prints back and I was floored with the quality. There was no doubt in my mind what I was going to do.” One of the reasons for Wilson’s enthusiasm is Edition One’s paper quality—the company uses super smooth, uncoated paper; for photobooks, its standard is 162gsm (equivalent to 60-pound cover stock).

Edition One founder and owner Ben Zlotkin describes the production company as a “short-to-medium-run” publisher that will print as few as five books per run for a photographer, but an average of 100 to 200 copies. “Working with us is personal because you have to interact with someone here to do it—we don’t have any shopping cart on our site or online ordering,” explains Zlotkin. 

“We actually look at your files, make sure we understand your job, proof the book for you and discuss the proof. We can do that because we’re small and we focus on the professional designers, fine-art photographers, galleries, etc. These customers have high standards; there is no way to automate things and get them what they need and deserve.”

Wilson had originally intended to produce 100 copies of Northbound, but after being 207 percent over-funded (he raised $15,000 with the promise to give donors copies of the book and limited-edition prints), he printed 225 copies in February 2014. Between printing, packaging and shipping, Wilson estimates it was a break-even project, but like most book producers, he didn’t do it for the money. “I wanted to end up with a piece that I could send around and use as promotional materials for editors or ad agencies,” the photographer says. “I also printed softcovers, which saved a substantial amount of money and are lighter, easier to ship and good to use as promotional materials.”

While a book about the Appalachian Trail doesn’t so obviously translate to wedding clients, as Wilson explains, it serves a very specific purpose in proving his photographic capabilities. “For wedding clients, what I’ve always pushed is the ability to tell a story in a day,” the photographer says. “So this [book] is to show that this is what I do. All I do is photography all day, every day. I want to make sure people understand that it’s not a hobby, it’s important to me and [on a wedding day] I wouldn’t let anything slip through the cracks.” 

Collaborate with Your Crowd—Michelle Gardella, River Story


Portraits from River Story. Photo © Michelle Gardella

For the past five years, Michelle Gardella’s bread and butter has been wedding photography at michellegardella.com (see “30 Rising Stars of Wedding Photography,” Rangefinder, November 2013), but while she loves the stories she gets to tell from nuptials, three years ago, she says, “I got this feeling that there was another story I was inclined to share.”

The seeds of that story were planted during an editorial shoot Gardella was doing on the Salmon River in Connecticut. “It was 100 degrees out, the model was miserable, everyone [on the shoot] was really cranky,” Gardella explains. Upon going to the next location, the crew realized there wasn’t room for everyone in the truck, so Gardella decided to stay with the model and walk to the next location together. “I happened to be wearing a white sundress and she was wearing this beautiful bridal gown,” Gardella says. “I felt so bad for her, so I took off my sundress and told her to put it on and go jump in the water and cool herself off. She did, I took photos and fell in love.”

From that image of a woman in a sundress, quietly bathing in a river—and the significance of the Salmon River (“I’ve always had an upstream life,” Gardella says)—the photographer got the idea to create a book featuring women photographed in rivers across the U.S. And like any free-thinking idealist, she would do it while traveling around in her 25-foot Airstream trailer, husband and two children in tow.

Though Gardella is a dreamer, she’s also social media savvy, and in order to fund the project on her own, she took to Kickstarter. “I chose Kickstarter rather than seeking out a publisher and agent because I wanted it to be a collective process; I wanted it to be other people holding up the book all together rather than on my own,” she says. “The first person who pledged was Julie Comfort, who owns a photography studio in Costa Rica, and I fell down on the floor of the Airstream because [her donation] made it real. [To have people sharing and participating] was a feeling of affirmation, to have people saying ‘I believe in you.’”


Photo © Michelle Gardella

As it stands, Gardella’s project has raised $20,751 with backers receiving various levels of thank-yous, from signed hardcover copies of the book (which she promises to have delivered in 2015), to their names listed in the pages. Gardella will finish the project this summer, shooting with her Nikon D3S and 35mm lens, and will then publish the hardcover River Story exclusively with online self-publishing company Artifact Uprising. “I love that they are owned and run by women, have sustainable practices [the company features 100 percent recycled pages], and they were the first business to step forward and say, ‘We believe in what you are doing, and what you have to say is important,’” says Gardella, who previously used the company for fine-art prints and personal projects. “I trust them completely.”

Artifact Uprising’s model and user-friendly online interface allow photographers to customize and upload just one book (a square, 8.5 x 8.5 hardcover, for instance, goes for $69) or go through the company’s Enterprise program for bulk discounts on 100 or more books.

“People approach us for this kind of book when they know they have an audience that is deeply invested in the work they’re doing,” says Katie Thurmes, Artifact Uprising co-founder. “Kickstarter is a great way to test the waters of interest. Publishing is such a beautiful way to share your art, but the burden of the cost can be great, so if there’s a way to gauge interest or use a pre-order system with your audience, you know you’re not biting off more than you chew.”


Photo © Michelle Gardella

Thurmes also suggests smaller runs for photographers who want to test the waters of printing. “With wedding photographers—for instance Reg Campbell—we see people printing lookbooks or softcover books to distribute to wedding planners and vendors that include pricing and details,” she says. “The softcover is a great way to market your business.”

Once the first run of River Story is printed in hardcover, Gardella isn’t necessarily looking to gain greater fame or more business—part of what resonates with her is keeping things special and thoughtful. However, she says, “It’s important for my kids to have something tangible to see that all those hours Mommy was working were not for nothing.”

Keep it High-End and DIY—Luis Delgado, Le canto por un pan


Photo © Luis Delgado

For those photographers who want to create something truly unique—and maybe get their hands dirty—fine-art photographer Luis Delgado has the practice down. With an Epson inkjet printer and a custom binder on speed dial, Delgado specializes in handmade, one-of-a-kind, small-edition bookmaking for himself and other photographers with his imprint Malulu Editions.

He most recently published his own work in Le canto por un pan (I sing for bread), featuring black-and-white portraits of street musicians in Mexico, Spain, Malasia and the U.S. The book is unconventional in the sense that it has more than one cover and different folds that open to illustrate photos in landscape formats. The audience for this type of book, he says, is very particular, mostly fine art, and segmented into special collections and large institutions.

“The runs are small—25 max for a specialized high-end market,” Delgado explains. For cost, Delgado estimates that the inkjet is $10 to $20 per square foot to print, plus design time (if you’re doing it yourself or working with a designer) and binding, which is $200 per book depending on materials and size. “The cost is high, but there’s definitely a particular market for it,” Delgado says.


Photo © Luis Delgado

The photographer says his bookmaking learning process has been long, beginning with collaborations with designers like Tolleson Design and Bob Aufuldish (of Aufuldish & Warinner), and by observing other fine bookmakers. For creative ways to bind, Delgado looks to Alabama-based Vamp & Tramp booksellers, Datz Press in Korea and book-art programs at universities.

Although hand-making a book is much more tedious than going online and clicking through a few options, Delgado says the appeal of the finished project—from materials to binding—is that it’s “my concepts and my ideas.”  “I enjoy the process of making them, telling a story and having them held in major institutions and museum collections,” Delgado says. “It’s good company to be in, and I just got a commission to design and produce a book based on a Brazilian collector’s diaries after he saw 47 Diaries, a 20 x 24 book using the diaries of Ruth Troeller. Handcrafted things come with funky little defects, but you have to understand it’s part of their charm; it’s special.” 

WHAT’S NEW?—Features from various self-publishing resources.

  • Blurb Expands.
    In April, Blurb announced its users will be able to sell and distribute their books globally through Amazon.com, even if they only sell one copy. The popular online publishing site also acquired MagCloud in May, a self-publishing platform for magazines formerly owned by HP. Blurb has also added design software BookWright to its arsenal, allowing authors to design, publish and print ebooks all from the same file. 
  • Funding Opportunities.
    If budget is holding you back, try crowdfunding your book project through IndieGoGo, which has two different funding models, or the behemoth Kickstarter, which successfully facilitated funding of 5,528 publishing projects (at time of writing) since its 2009 inception. 
  • Insta Books.
    You know and we know that some of your ‘grams are too good to simply live in the app. Many of the self-publishing services mentioned here (Blurb, Artifact Uprising, Shutterfly) offer photo books for your Instagram images, but Prinstagram, in particular, specializes in Instagram prints and offers some lovely, 38-page hardcover books for $25.
  • Online Resources.
    Sites like Self Publish, Be Happy and the Indie Photo Book Library celebrate self publishing and provide great resources and creative examples to get your book off the ground. 

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