Ten Books Every Year: Self-Publishing and Print on Demand

War Primer 3

For a while I’ve been meaning to sit down and pen a few thoughts on the subject of self-publishing, and specifically print on demand publishing. My hand has been forced a little by the appearance of a nice interview with the Artists Book Cooperative over on The Photographer’s Gallery blog. ABC’s members have pretty much written the book (excuse the pun) when it comes to this form of publishing and the interview does a great job of outlining many of the things that I think make print on demand books a powerful means of expression and dissemination for bibliophile photographers.

Still I have a few thoughts to add, on the practical and philosophical side, and also a few words of caution for anyone just starting to get into this, ways to maybe save a little time, money and heartache along the way. I’m by no means the most experienced self-publisher, but I am a fairly profligate book maker (you can see a few of them here) and over the past couple of years almost every book I’ve made has been done through print on demand publishers. I’m hooked on discovering all the possibilities this apparently rather restrictive form of publishing offers, and so here are a few of the things I’ve learnt so far.

The most obvious advantage of print on demand publishing is that you don’t need to find a traditional publisher. Experienced publishers can bring a huge amount of expertise and useful connections to a project, but not every project needs those resources or that scale of reach, and traditional publishers can equally be undermined by issues like their commercial considerations and slow production speeds. It’s also worth noting that some conventional publishers expect the photographer/author to invest substantially in the production of their book, which can rule this route out to many of us. While print on demand of course requires some financial investment, the amount you choose to invest is very scalable. I often just order a few copies of a book to start with until I can gauge how interested people seem to be in it. Once I think I can shift a few I scale up the order, maybe to ten, maybe to a hundred.

These low costs and this flexibility and speed of ordering has lots of advantages. For example you can order multiple drafts of a book before you settle on the final design, with no need to rely on an inaccurate dummy or an electronic version to judge your design before sending it for final printing. Equally you can feel free to experiment and rework these drafts by hand, sticking in inserts, customizing covers, even cutting out or pasting in whole sections of the book. The fast speed of print on demand production also makes it very nimble compared to other forms of publishing. For example with War Primer 3 I produced the content in a week, designed the book in a few hours and had a copy of it on my desk about a week after that. This is amazing when the book you’re making relates to a current issue that you want to respond to as quickly as possible.

One of the things that I particularly like about print on demand is that there’s not much danger of getting bogged down in the material faff of book making. I love beautiful books, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve opened a fantastically produced photo book and found the content utterly underwhelming. Print on demand books tend to be rough and ready and while many printers offer premium features they often aren’t worth the money (and in any case can never compete with the quality of a well-produced bespoke book). As far as I’m concerned content is king, and the material simplicity of print on demand books push the photographs and text to center stage and minimise the distraction and fetishisation of their container.

I hear two common criticisms of print on demand that I’d like to both partly acknowledge, and also to some extent disavow. The first is that print on demand can be pretty expensive particularly as books get bigger and more complex. This is completely true, particularly if you start including premium features. That said it can also be astoundingly cheap. One of my books The Camera Obscured, costs so little to produce that I sometimes give copies away as a sort of expanded business card. The book format I use for it is really intended for text publications, not photographs, but when used for the right project and with a bit of tweaking it works just as well as a much more expensive format aimed specifically at photographers. This reflects a truism about all print on demand, that often the most obvious book format for a project isn’t the best one, and you’ll really be rewarded for taking your time and experimenting with different options.

The second criticism is that of quality, which unsurprisingly tends to be lower than you might find in a bespoke self-published or professionally published book. Things like printing and cutting consistency can be quite variable from publisher to publisher, and from print run to print run. This is just something you have to keep an eye out for and have a slightly philosophical attitude towards. Usually you might be the only person who’s going to notice a defect, but I’ve also found that printers are usually very willing to replace books with even rather minor printing defects without quibbling. When you think of the scale these companies work at, printing ten books gratis to keep a customer happy is probably nothing to them.

These limitations just have to be kept in mind when you’re designing a book project for print on demand publication. While it’s not always ideal to have to alter your project to suit the format you’re going to be putting it into we do this more often than we might acknowledge, whether in cropping a photograph to fit a magazine page or down-scaling the quality for web display. I think it is significant that I often hear these criticism from people who seem to want to use print on demand in the same way they would hope to use a traditional book publisher. It frustrates me a little that people often see self-publishing in general as little more than a springboard to recognition from a traditional publisher, it’s less readily acknowledged that it can be a totally legitimate end point in itself (although that has certainly improved in recent years).

Make no mistake, print on demand publishing is as much a vanity project as conventional photo book publishing, but it also has the potential to be much more interesting. Freed from the pressure to be commercially appealing, print on demand books can be very funny, subversive, and reactive. Conventional wisdom often seems to be that photo books are almost like holy objects, which the photographer must sweat and slave over years, producing perhaps one book every decade. I say forget the conventional wisdom. You learn by doing, and when print on demand books are as cheap and readily accessible as they are now there’s no reason not to embrace them.

Don’t make a book every ten years, make ten books every year.

14 thoughts on “Ten Books Every Year: Self-Publishing and Print on Demand

  1. Why not consider the magazine / journal format?
    Or identifying really good printers and binders that produce ‘fine press’ work.

    • I’ve tried one or two magazine style publications through print on demand publishers but never with a great amount of success (probably more down to me than anything). I’d really like to try newsprint in the near future, perhaps that will rekindle my interest in magazines.

      Seems there are quite a lot of photographers producing great work through good printers and binders (I’ve even used a few myself) I just wanted to draw a bit of attention here to the other end of the spectrum 😉

    • I sure am! Do you mean in terms of photographers who are self-publishing interesting work, or companies who are good to self-publish through?

        • Hi Pete, I’m mainly using Blurb.com at the moment as I’ve just discovered their hard back pocket books which seem to offer quite a few possibilities. I’ve also used Lulu.com in the past, they tend to be a bit cheaper but the quality isn’t always so good (although for the right project some of their books are great, like the camera obscura book I mentioned in the post).

  2. Thanks for the insight. I will self publish for the first time this year and your article has helped me decide to go this route.

  3. The real issue I have with all this self publishing is that it is over-saturating. People are churning out their work to the public before even really gauging if it’s worth putting it out there, because after all in this time everyone should get their recognition for making something. This goes for music and movies as well. The democracy of it all is a double edged sword, where it does give everyone a fair shake to share their “voice”, but the problem is that using these higher level platforms to do this sharing removes all safeguards and is a detriment to the stuff that truly deserves to be shared. Who is anyone to say what should and shouldn’t be important enough to be published I understand that however that mentality really does drag everything else down despite the very generous idea of it all. I am speaking solely in regards to actual publishing in the sense that your intention is not to be making an artist book but a book that is just like the book one is looking to have a publisher publish but the publishers are unwilling to publish. This also not to say some of these same books I may seem to have problems with aren’t actually really good books.

    • Thanks for the comment Jordan, I think these are legitimate concerns. But you could say similar of lots of things besides self-publishing, like camera ownership, or literacy, which increase the volume of a medium without necessarily increasing the quality.

      Personally I ascribe to the photographic equivalent of the thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters theory. The more open and accessible things like photography and publishing are, and the more people that are consequentially able to use them, the higher probability of really interesting work being made. Of course there’s a possibility that work might not get the recognition it deserves, but that wouldn’t be anything new.

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