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An Introduction to the World of Self-Publishing

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Read Time: 10 min

The iPad 2 is a wonderful device and it’s almost certainly going to affect the publishing (and photography) industry in many ways. One of the things the iPad and other tablets do is open up the business of publishing to just about anyone who can create a product, such as a ebook or magazine.

Or, more accurately, the internet, fast broadband connections and inexpensive personal computers create this opportunity. The iPad is merely another tool to read and look at content created by other people. Having said that, there’s little doubt that the iPad’s tablet form makes viewing very convenient, and seems to have persuaded many major publishers to get involved in digital publishing.

The internet has made self-publishing not only possible, but relatively simple, by reducing the cost of creating a product. This is fairly self-evident. I think we can all appreciate that it can cost a lot of money to write, design, edit, print and distribute a printed photography magazine or book. That’s why large publishing companies do this best. Until relatively recently, if you wanted to write for a magazine or a book publisher, or publish a book of your photos, you had to go through one of these publishers.

But not any more. Now any photographer can seriously think about self-publishing. But why would you want to do this? One reason is to publicize your work – perhaps you sell fine-art prints from your website and would like to get your photos in front of a wider audience. This could bring you new customers. Photographer Linde Waidhofer does something similar on her website. I do it on my website – where you can download my free ebook The Creative Image. That’s a hint! I’ve put information about my other ebooks at the back of the free one to generate more sales.

Another trend is to publish photography ebooks that people can buy (check out the ebooks of Ian Plant and Trey Ratcliffe as a couple of examples). I’m sure this is what excites most photographers because the business model is easy to understand and potentially lucrative.

If you write an ebook, and sell 1000 copies at $5 each, you’ve just made $5000. Sell 10,000 copies and you’ve made $50,000. It’s no wonder more and more photographers are doing this, and I’ll give you a few pointers you need to get started in this article.

Where it all began

Digital self-publishing started with personal websites, and developed into a more efficient form of managing and updating a website with blogging software (largely thanks to the efforts of Wordpress and its competitors). Blogging software gives anyone the opportunity to create their own photography website or magazine. Phototuts+ uses blogging software, and it’s the type of website that could be published by a single person, if they worked hard enough.

The problem with blogs, from a financial point of view, is that they are a great means of distributing free content, but not so great at generating income. There seem to be two main methods of generating income from blogs. Both require that you create high quality content to get a large amount of traffic to your website. One option is to make money from advertising and affiliate schemes. Another is to generate income from selling products.

They may be physical products that need to be shipped or digital ones that can be downloaded. Success requires a lot of hard work, and the length of time that it takes to build a successful, income generating website rightfully puts off a lot of photographers from trying to earn money this way.

The rise of the photographic ebook

Ebooks have been around for a while, I’m sure you’ve all come across grossly overpriced ebooks in the past. These ebooks always seem to be sold on a sales page accompanied by lots of copy promising wonderful things (and free gifts). While this still goes on, thankfully, in the photography sphere at least, the thinking behind producing and publishing ebooks has become more professional, and people are concentrating on creating genuinely useful products.

Self-publishing – it’s not as easy as it looks

Before we go any further I should point out that self-publishing is not as easy as it looks (if you want to do it well that is). Magazine and book publishers use professional writers, editors and graphic designers to ensure a high standard. I write ebooks for Craft & Vision and each one is copy edited and professionally designed before it’s published. This sets a high standard and it also means that the business isn’t easy to replicate.

Another consideration is software. Yes, you can use Word and convert the document to a PDF file (the most commonly used format for ebooks) but it won’t look as professional and it doesn’t have the same potential for layout and design as more advanced software. Many magazine and book publishers use Adobe inDesign. The software isn’t cheap, and takes time to learn how to use properly. Having said that, don’t let this put you off – you can always download the 30 day trial to put your first ebook together, and then buy the license out of the profits!

What to write about

A bigger question for most photographers is what should they write about? To address this question I’m going to assume that you want to create an ebook to sell, rather than promote your work. Well, this is where it helps if you’re good at a particular type of photography. It’s also another thing to think about – the most successful ebooks are written by photographers who have spent many years building up expertise in a particular area.

When I first considered approaching Craft & Vision to ask if they would be interested in publishing an ebook of mine, I had to think of a topic. I’d been playing around with black and white photography and I realized that I had the expertise on the subject to put together an interesting and useful series of ebooks, and ‘The Magic of Black & White’ was born. The questions you need to ask yourself are what are you good at and what do you know that would be useful to other people?

For many photographers, the answer will be fairly obvious. If you’re a wedding photographer, write about weddings. If you’re a portrait photographer, then write about photographing people. Joe McNally is a great example – he makes a living taking photos with portable flash units, and has a handy sideline giving workshops and writing books about the techniques he uses.

How to write well

I can’t teach you how to write well in a few sentences, but I can give you some useful tips. If you’re an accomplished writer already, then you are well on the way to self-publishing success. However, if you’re not, then a couple of good starting points are Write to Done and Copyblogger. As mentioned before, it’s worth considering getting your work professionally edited. At the very least, send it to some of your photographer friends for feedback.

Graphic design

Graphic design is important. If you’re writing about photography, then your photos are an essential part of your ebook and the graphic design needs to bring out the beauty of your work. I’m convinced that one of the reasons for the success of the Craft & Vision ebooks is that each ebook is a beautiful object in its own right. The purchaser feels as if they are getting great value for money.

I’ve seen ebooks where the design is so bad that I feel let down, and it puts me off buying more from that website. Good graphic design is hard to do, and consequently good graphic designers can be expensive. If you’ve got a good eye for design (and you are using InDesign rather than Word) you can probably get away with designing your own ebooks, at least at first. But at some point you should consider getting a professional graphic designer on board.

Photography magazines

Have you ever felt frustrated because you can’t find a photography magazine that suits your needs? Perhaps you’ve spotted a gap in the magazine market that you can fill. A digital magazine is very similar to an ebook. The main difference is that the content is sourced from several writers and overseen by an editor (that’s you).

Chris Kovacs has done just that with Adore Noir, a photography magazine aimed at the black and white fine art market. I’m sure that we will see more magazines like this in the future, as photographers create publications that reflect their own views and interests in photography. Just one thing though – I’ve seen too many magazines and magazine type publications that use contributor’s photos and articles without offering payment in return. If you make money from the publication, you should share that with your contributors, and your business model should reflect that.


The final aspect of self-publishing is distribution and payment. E-junkie makes this easy and their service has become the default for most ebook publishers. You can find full details on their website. There are obviously many other options to choose from.

In terms of accepting payment, many website providers, like Go Daddy, provide a payment delivery options. Also payment services, like PayPal, also offer advice and options for receiving money.


You’ve probably come across another ebook format called ePub. These files are different from PDFs in that the layout is fluid and the text and photos rearrange themselves to fit in with the size of the screen they are viewed on. It’s used for ebook devices like the Kindle where layout isn’t so important. For these reasons, I don’t recommend the ePub format for your photography ebooks.

iPad apps

So far we’ve looked at PDF files, but should you be looking at releasing your ebooks (or magazines) as iPad apps? The brief answer is no – iPad apps are expensive to create and PDFs are easy and convenient to view on the iPad. However, if you’re a pro photographer with some money to throw around, why not follow the example of Michael Nichols and display your work in an iPad app rather than on your website? In the future creating simple apps will probably become much easier. There is a program in our near future that will do to apps, what Dreamweaver did for websites.

On-demand physical publishing

While this isn't the main topic of this article, new digital technology has even made printing physical books easier. You're prep is the same. Using InDesign or a similar program, you'll create your book. Then you can upload it to a service like Lulu or Cafe Press. Both the services offer ebook and physical book options. Before these service came about, it was only economical to print books in mass. Therefore, publishers need to know the book would sell.

These new services store your book in electronic form until someone orders it. Then they print a single copy of it for the customer. This is called on-demand printing, and while an ebook is definitely going to be the new standard in self-publishing. It's nice to know that you can get something printed physically if you wish.


self-publishing your own book can be extremely rewarding. More than any money you'll make from it, a book is an accomplishment. Unlike a website, requiring constant update, a book is a finished product. In this world of social media and 24-hour information overload, a book is something that can actually be completed. Also, with these new technologies, you have the chance to showcase your work in a way that few photographers from earlier generations had the chance to do.

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