How to Distribute Your Self-Published Book

By Conor Risch

© Stephen Gill
Hackney Wick, one of several books self-published by Stephen Gill.

Distributing a self-published book can be just as challenging—albeit in a different way—and time consuming as creating the book itself. (For more on self-publishing, see our "Self-Publishing Done Right" story from the March 2011 issue of PDN.) Depending on the type of book you’ve produced, there are both online and brick-and-mortar options for selling your work.

The handful of bookstores dedicated to photography, places like Dashwood Books in New York, and Photo-Eye in Santa Fe, will consider selling self-published work if it meets certain criteria for quality and if they believe their audience will respond to it, as will certain museum bookstores and other traditional booksellers. Generally bookstores want 40 percent or more of the purchase price for a book, but some stores also offer consignment agreements with different terms.

Beyond Bookstores

When photographer Richard Renaldi and his partner Seth Boyd decided to found Charles Lane Press with the publication of Renaldi’s second book, Fall River Boys, they reached out to the handful of photography bookstores in the United States about carrying the book. Though Renaldi and Boyd were publishing the book themselves, they used high-quality offset printing and binding, so the book was more akin to an artist’s monograph that a traditional publisher might produce, rather than a small artist’s book.

“They were very happy to work with us,” Boyd recalls of the bookstores. But, he adds, “One doesn’t sell a huge number of books through bookstores.” Even if each retailer sells 50 or even 100 books, a self-publisher has to go through other channels to get the books out, especially if the books are printed in an edition of 1000 or more. Charles Lane Press goes to art fairs and book fairs with their books, and they sell them through their Web site. “We love it when people buy books through our Web site because then we don’t have to split [the sales with the retailer] and it helps us make more books and recoup the investment,” Boyd explains.

Boyd adds that Charles Lane Press has also been able to sell books to art libraries. “They still have budgets,” he notes.

For photographers distributing their own books, certain Web sites and blogs have cropped up that feature self-published and independent photography books; showcasing a book on those sites can lead to sales. Some of these sites include The Independent Photobook, which will feature any book that meets a certain criteria; Self Publish, Be Happy, which presents a curated list of self-published books, and also sells a selection of books; and The Indie Photobook Library, an online and physical archive of self- and independently published photography books that accepts books meeting certain criteria. The creators of SP, BH (Bruno Ceschel) and The Indie Photobook Library (Larissa Leclair) have also curated exhibitions of self-published and independent books.

The Cost vs. Time Dilemma

Shipping books to online buyers, going to book and art fairs, and approaching bookstores and getting them books is a lot of work. After distributing his first books himself, Stephen Gill, a London-based photographer who has self-published several books under his Nobody Books imprint, was able to secure distribution through Thames & Hudson in England, and through Distributed Art Publishers (D.A.P.) in the United States.

Before approaching distributors, Gill had published two or three books himself, he says, using print sales to fund his publishing. “It was great fun,” he recalls. “We were getting calls [orders] from all over the place, me and a few friends were just surrounded by brown parcel tape and bubble wrap, and wrapping up parcels, and I thought, ‘We’re a mini Amazon.’”

Eventually, relates Gill, selling the books became “exhausting” and was “dangerously close” to interfering with his photographic work. So he decided to approach Thames & Hudson and D.A.P. about distributing his books, and they were able to reach an agreement. “Since my previous books were selling it may have given them the confidence to take on my next titles,” he says.

Contracting with a distributor can be a difficult proposition for a lot of self-publishers, however, because distributors buy the books at a discount off of the retail price, which can substantially cut into the self-publisher’s ability to earn money.

Boyd says, for instance, that he and Renaldi would have had to sell copies of Fall River Boys to a distributor for less than they paid to produce the book, eliminating their profit margins. For them it made more sense to distribute the books themselves.

Selling Print-on-Demand Books

If you are publishing your book using print-on-demand technology, selling through bookstores can be challenging. Some booksellers question the consistency and quality of the printing produced by print-on-demand services. The cost of producing a print-on-demand book is also substantial, so pricing a book so both you and the retailer can earn money is difficult to do. In evaluating whether or not to take on a self-published book, bookstores will likely ask if the digitally printed book is worth a high price to their customers, and most of the time the answer will be no.

One of the ways self-publisher Joachim Schmid distributes his self-published, print-on-demand books is through Artists’ Book Cooperative, a group of artists who showcase and sell their self-published books online. Through a process of peer evaluation, ABCoop creates what is essentially a carefully curated selection of books to sell to collectors who visit their site. Artists who want to join and sell their books through the coop submit their work, which is then evaluated by all of the members of the coop. If a majority of the artists agree, the coop will welcome the new self-publisher into their ranks. There is “no catalog of criteria,” for being accepted into the coop, says Schmid. “We look at work, and if the work convinces us then we accept [the artist].”

Related: Self-Publishing Done Right

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