Today, we’re speaking to authors who have self-published different kinds of VISUAL BOOKS, including:
- Picture books for children
- Coffee table books.
There are so many more options today, thanks to ebooks, print-on-demand, and new distribution options through online bookstores. I’ve also written a previous article on how to distribute a print book worldwide – and this can include colour books and even hardcovers, printed and shipped one copy at a time.
I’ve asked five authors from different countries to spill their secrets about how they’ve gone about the process, to inspire and help other authors who want to self-publish a visual book.
Here they are (in alphabetical order by first name) to introduce their books…
Travels with My Hat: A Lifetime on the Road is a travel memoir about my experiences working as a freelance photojournalist in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. It includes 90,000 words of text with 78 photographs including colour spread, and was published November 2013.
Reflections is a photography/poetry coffee table book, containing 45% poetry & 55% images. It includes images that I have taken in Australia and New Zealand.
Waikato River Gunboats is the story of New Zealand’s first navy, the eight purpose built river gunboats deployed during the British invasion of the Waikato in 1863, when a force of 12000 British and Colonial troops invaded the Waikato region. Three of the paddle steamers were the first ironclad warships ever built in Australia.
Visit Grant’s website.
Who I Am: American Scar Stories is the first book to unite portraits and true short stories of lives interrupted by physically scarring life changing events. My excitement for the idea grew exponentially during early 2013 so by the spring, I decided to jump in and write the book. The ratio in American Scar Stories is 50 % images and 50% pages of text. I worked with a local photographer to take the photos.
Hey, Little Sister is a simple storybook for children who are expecting a younger sibling, and it is designed to be fun and encourage the child to ask questions about pregnancy and birth while still giving parents the space to answer those sometimes tricky questions on their own terms, giving answers they feel comfortable with. Each page has at least one picture, and a paragraph of text. The images were created for me from a storyboard by a pair of wonderful Turkish artists, Sinan Acar and Gozde Berkay.
The decision to self-publish
Clare: We believed it would be more cost effective, eliminating the cost involved re: publishers. The other consideration was having no contract between a publisher and ourselves.
Grant: I did not set out to write a book, but to collect information for my own interest. I have researched old ships in the past, especially the sailing ship that brought my great grandparents to New Zealand. When I realised my story might be of interest to others, I talked to a family member involved in printing and decided to self publish. It meant I could publish in small quantities, with reprints as and when required.
Jenny: Last year, a friend of mine left her role as editor at a Boston based publishing house. After speaking to her about the torture and suffering many writers go through to publish text based/non-photography books, I researched online to find out how traditional publishing and photography books mix. The situation appeared bleak. I realised unless I had an established career as a photographer, I had slim to no chance of being picked up by a publisher.
I made the right choice. Now that I have delved deeply into the world of indie publishing, I am certain this is the way to publish any genre of book. Every book I publish from now on will be published independently.
Karin: Having worked in trade publishing for more than a decade, I knew that it usually takes at least six months to a year, and often longer, to produce a children’s storybook; even then, it is tricky to keep costs low enough for the book to remain affordable for all. Publishing as an ebook was a much quicker and more cost-effective option for me.
Christine: I used professionals every step of the way: editor, designer and printer. The area that I felt could have been better was the proofreading.
Clare: We paid a professional, a Creative Director who interpreted my personality accurately which evolved into a good working relationship. We used a professional to proofread and edit. My future books will be published professionally, not self-published. Photography and writing are occupying more of my time. I need to attend to what I am called to do, writing and photography, thereby eliminating the need to consider the details involved with self-publishing. Paying professionals to publish my work, releases me to do what I am called to do.
Grant: I attended a lecture on the Waikato Land War of 1863/64 and heard about the gunboats. Looking for more information I found that while most historians refer to them, no one had written their story. Drawings or sketches of the boats were few and far between.
When researching I looked for first hand experiences – as an old detective I was looking for the best evidence. I managed to locate a midshipman’s log of events, daily events recorded as they happened and his letters home to his parents. (Courtesy Australia’s National Library in Canberra)
A close friend Harry Duncan, a professional draughtsman who has a passionate interest in the detailed design and construction of paddle steamers of yesteryear, brought the ships to life with his detailed drawings.
I located a number of old paintings of the Waikato Land War from our National Library and Dunedin’s Hocken Library and was able to use these to supplement my story. Many of them were not well known.
My wife and daughter carried out the initial proofread. Then an old navy colleague who is a professional proofreader tidied up the navy content. A local bookshop owner was able to help me find an editor and layout professional.
Jenny: I interviewed subjects and wrote the stories. I worked with a photographer for the images; he loved the idea so much he did it for free. Friends were my beta readers. I hired a friend who is a graphic designer for the layout and cover. I hired an editor for copy and developmental editing. I do all social media, marketing, and sales myself.
I made the right decision hiring a cover/layout designer and an editor. Money well spent. What I will do differently next time: 1) I will build my platform and audience through different types of social media i.e. I learned Facebook Fan pages are useless unless you want to pay to promote 2) I would create an ebook first and create a limited edition print version only after the electronic version sold well.
Karin: I hired a professional for the illustrations, because I can only draw at a third-grade level. I designed the picture book myself, creating each page as a Photoshop document with the text embedded and then inserting each as a Jpeg into Adobe InDesign. As I’m an editor, I asked a colleague to proofread for me. Several other friends also provided advice on the story at different points.
Christine: I contemplated printing in Asia which would have been roughly a third cheaper but printing locally (Sydney) was my decision. I had personal contact with the printer, it was easy to change things, and it was quick. Printing overseas attracts customs duty and there is the time lapse [for shipping].
Clare: We printed a specific number using an overseas printer.
Grant: The experience has been amazing. Once the editing and layout had been completed, the material was sent to the printer. The printing operation is quite sophisticated, pretty much putting a memory stick in one end of the machine and the book popping out the other. I choose to print 100 books at a time, and have printed 400 books to date.
Jenny: I used Ingram Spark – a subsidiary of Lightning Source – as they were the only option (to my knowledge) that provides a combination of high resolution image printing and hard covers with case laminate binding. They are a print-on-demand company that distributes through US and international Amazon sites and Barnes & Noble.
Karin: I used print-on-demand via CreateSpace. It’s so simple to use and cost-effective. Gone are the days of keeping a lot of stock on hand or in a warehouse.
Christine: It was contracted out to an ebook publisher via a local online website. The ebook was formatted in the USA. While the photos made it more difficult than straight text, I had to complain several times about simple errors. If I do another ebook, I will manage it directly with a local expert. My advice is to keep everything on-shore.
Clare: No, I have not produced an ebook as I consider photography to be appreciated on high gloss, quality paper.
Grant: I have not as yet produced an ebook, but I am keen to investigate that in the future.
Jenny: I have not produced an ebook. The reason I didn’t create an ebook is I wasn’t convinced people want to scroll through a photography book rather than flip through a coffee table book the ‘old-fashioned’ way.
However, I think having an ebook allows more sales due to reduced price and consequently more exposure. I did look into conversion at one point and there are a lot of people out there who do not know how to convert a primarily image style book into a ePub file but still require a lot of money to attempt it. If I were to convert this book, I would definitely shop around for the right person/company to convert it for me.
Karin: The biggest challenge I had with the ebook was trying to keep the file size down, because I originally created the ebook from the print version, which requires much higher resolution. I had to reduce the image size of all of the Jpegs I had created from Photoshop documents and compress them to make the ebook file smaller. Amazon provides some tips on reducing file size.
Large file sizes attract a higher delivery cost, which is taken from an author’s royalties if a book is priced over $2.99. Amazon calculates delivery cost by multiplying the number of megabytes in the file by a set rate for each country (usually around fifteen cents or so a MB).
Christine: I have sent out many free review copies of the paperback, but the response has been less than hoped for. I have achieved roughly 15 good reviews. Best response was from an ABC radio interview which sold 30 copies straight off.
The ebook version sent to various unknown Amazon reviewers has achieved fantastic reviews on Amazon.com. But it was/is a lot of work and I don’t feel by any means that it has cracked the American market.
Clare: My book is featured on my website. We have recently upgraded my website and encouraged sales by making the book more visible and attractive. We are considering upgrading our Search Engine Optimisation. I am believing in securing a magazine article featuring my book to gain exposure. I’d recommend that for finance, be sure to be committed and that you have done your homework well in advance, that you have covered every area and ensure there are no hidden costs. Have a plan from inception. Research your market.
Grant: Self marketing has been interesting. I started knowing exactly nothing, and still don’t know very much. I did produce a website using self web design Squarespace.com. I have had a number of sales from that site, including some from Europe and USA. My local bookshop has been very supportive. I have had some local newspaper coverage, and had several book reviews from New Zealand Historical groups and one national weekly magazine, North and South.
Jenny: Exposure and visibility is a challenge in such a noisy world. I regularly step back and reevaluate what’s working and what is not working. I post that list on my bulletin board.
One thing that works well for a hard copy photography book is book signings which goes against conventional wisdom in an ebook world. Online marketing: what has worked is speaking to people who know or identify with someone in the book and offering signed copies from my website. Signed copies are a benefit a reader can only get with a hard-copy book.
Karin: The biggest challenge for children’s books is that some of the big list and subscriber-based advertisers won’t advertise them if they are under 20 pages. Such sites are usually very effective for driving sales. I find that asking for reviews from smaller blogs specifically designed for mothers and children works well. I also use Twitter and Facebook to market. Kindle Direct Publishing’s Select program, which enables five free days in a three-month period to increase visibility, can also help get the word out.
Christine: Several Australian distributors liked it. I chose Dennis Jones in Melbourne. It is being reprinted using print-on-demand in Melbourne to save transport costs.
Clare: I have sold some copies to a major Christian book outlet in Australia. If you are new on the market, it takes time to gain exposure.
Grant: I had guidance from several authors of NZ history books who helped the discussion around price of the book and details of book distributors who specialise in libraries and schools.
Jenny: My book is distributed through independent brick and mortar bookstores in the area, on Amazon in the US and internationally, Barnes & Noble, and on my website. I would like to have this book stocked in hospital bookstores but the main distributor for US hospitals still only buys from traditional publishing houses. Solutions to this include contacting smaller distributors one-on-one (for example in my case, going to local hospitals) and establishing a relationship with the local buyers. This takes longer but it’s worth it if widespread distribution is your goal.
Karin: Most of the challenges are to do with the differing requirements for different distributors. For instance, as an Australian author, I can’t upload directly to Nook press to sell to Barnes & Noble. Instead, I use Draft2Digital, an aggregator that allows me to publish for Kobo, B&N, and Apple. Apple seems to consistently have different rules when it comes to file formats. For instance, it uses ePubs but doesn’t like any links to competitor’s sites in books, which means any cross-promo has to go. Sometimes it is frustrating to have to customise several different files for different platforms.
Final thoughts from the team
Christine: I found it hard to get readers and next time, I will find professional readers, even pay them a little, to get proper feedback. People lead busy lives but I felt let down by friends whom I would have liked to pass an opinion. The most important advice from my experience is to use the best editor you can find. Ditto designer. Neither comes cheap.
Travels with My Hat (ebook) was submitted to the Self Publishing Review in America and received best self-published non-fiction book award for 2014. [Congratulations, Christine!] While this was good for self esteem, it has not as yet boosted US sales. But it is still early days…
Clare: Do what you know is instinctively right for you. Be patient, be determined and be prepared to market yourself in an effective, professional manner, always having your book on you. Don’t waste invaluable opportunities. Know what you want, and how you are going to achieve it. Perhaps consider ebooks, depending on the type of book, making it more cost effective.
Karin: I think children’s books still struggle to find a large market in ebook format. Trade publishers discount print children’s books heavily, and it can be difficult for indies to discount print editions enough, even using CreateSpace, which sets a minimum price if you want to distribute to book stores to get a lot of eyes on them. Print books still seem to be more popular with children and parents, outside of long-haul flights and the like, where ebooks are more convenient. On an iPad or smartphone, a static kids’ ebook is usually competing with some sophisticated apps and games. That’s not to say that it isn’t a very rewarding experience to create ebooks for children, but more to anticipate that you need a lot of titles out there if you want a good shot at making a living from kids’ picture books alone, and if you can add bells and whistles, you probably should.
And a couple of thoughts from Belinda
- If you’re producing a visual book where the arrangement of the elements on the page is particularly important, such as a coffee table book or certain kinds of storybooks, consider producing a PDF ebook for sale via your website. The mobi (Kindle) and epub (other readers) formats will rearrange your page elements in unexpected ways on different devices. A PDF stays where you put it. Just advertise it on your site as “for tablets and computers”. I suggest you can also charge a decent amount for such an ebook – a few dollars less than your print version. On your own website, you’re not competing with all the other 99c specials, so people evaluate the price differently.
- A strong website or blog is, as always, important to a marketing strategy. But it needs to contain real Content, not just be an advertorial, if you want to start getting the attention of search engines. For more on this concept, check out my previous posts Do authors really need to blog and The one big reason authors need to blog. And to take the pressure off, try How to get 10 times as many blog readers without going nuts!
- Book trailers are also a real possibility for visual books, because you can showcase your beautiful pics via video. For more ideas, check out this article on producing book trailers for visual books.
Thank you so very much to our wonderful authors for sharing what they’ve learned! I’m sure you join me in wishing them every success for their project.
What about you? Are you working on a visual book? Please ask any questions you’d like, and feel free to direct it to a particular author. They will stop by to answer (bearing in mind of course that we are all living in different timezones).