The Value of Self-Publishing

© Ben Huff
An image from Ben Huff’s self-published book, The Last Road North.

There are myriad reasons photographers choose to self-publish their books. Some want full creative control over their work or find it hard to convince traditional publishers to take a chance on a project. Others like the challenge of producing a book, whether it’s offset-printed or created entirely by hand in a special edition. PDN spoke with three photographers who’ve recently self-published to discuss their motivations and creative processes.  

Ben Huff ’s The Last Road North 
As a photographer living in Alaska, far removed from nearly all of the museums, galleries and cultural institutions that show photography in the United States, Ben Huff says photo books are “everything” to him. When he began his series documenting the northernmost highway in his home state, it was natural for him to think of it as a book project. 

Huff’s The Last Road North will be released later this year in a trade edition published by Kehrer Verlag, but Huff also chose to self-publish a handmade artist’s book in an edition of 12, which he is selling for $700. 

As a photographer promoting his first major project, Huff didn’t know whether a publisher would offer to release his monograph, so part of the motivation to self-publish was simply to finish the project. “Whether it was one, two or five [copies], I wanted to have this final thing that I constructed and that took some physical-ness to make,” he explains. 

He also felt that “the only way that I was going to work out the sequence and the edit and the overall feel that I wanted was to put it on the page and make this object that I always dreamed of having.” To learn to make the book, Huff studied Hand Bookbinding: A Manual of Instruction by Aldren A. Watson, watched YouTube tutorials, and examined the photography books in his collection. Looking at the construction of a favorite book rather than the images “was a completely different way of considering that object,” he says. 

After some fits and starts and experimentation, he settled on a way of making his books that he was happy with. “These, right down to the hand-drawn map, are the best objects that I can make as a photographer, as an artist. I don’t believe that they’re perfect, but they’re 100 percent unique,” he says. 

The materials alone for each book cost him more than $100, and the process of making the books takes three days, he says. 

At press time, Huff had sold a handful of copies to collectors and institutions, including the University of Fairbanks, by reaching out to them personally. He was actively promoting the book to rare book libraries as well. Money from the sales of the special edition will help cover the investment Kehrer Verlag asked him to make in the production of the trade edition of his book. 

The self-published version of The Last Road North also helped Huff secure his deal with Kehrer. He took one of his hand-made books to the Photolucida portfolio reviews in 2013, where he showed it to publishers, including Alexa Becker, Kehrer’s acquisitions editor. Having a finished book that he was completely happy with helped him approach the portfolio reviews with confidence, he says. During Photolucida, Huff and Becker connected and agreed to work together at the reviews. 

A photo book collector himself, with a great appreciation for the physical objects of books, Huff wanted to make something that would look at home among the books on his shelf. “It was exciting to believe that I could make something that I could slide in between two of my favorite books, that I put on a pedestal, and say, ‘Those, physically, look similar.’” 

Conor Risch  

Peter van Agtmael’s Disco Night Sept. 11 
Peter van Agtmael’s second book, Disco Night Sept. 11, is almost a steal for a photo book with 188 images and over 276 pages, including 19 gatefolds. The price is $45 for early-bird buyers, $55 for those buying up the middle of the print run, and $60 for those purchasing any of the last 500 copies. For a special edition with a slipcase and a signed 8 x 10 print, the cost is $250. 

The book’s size and affordability were possible only because van Agtmael self-published the book through Red Hook Editions, the imprint he started in 2012 with photographers Jason Eskenazi and Alan Chin. (Red Hook Editions has also published two of Eskanazi’s books to date.) 

“I’m guessing with [another] publisher the book would have had a significantly higher price tag, which would have made it cost-prohibitive for most people and outside the spirit of a book of journalism,” van Agtmael said in an e-mail interview. He released the book this past spring. 

“As a result of cutting out all the middlemen, I can sell the book for a reasonable price. The production was quite expensive and I worried it would be cost-prohibitive for a lot of buyers if the final price had to support a massive back end”—i.e., a publishing house with high overhead. 

Of course, more established photo book publishers have brand cachet and distribution networks that Red Hook Editions lacks, but van Agtmael, a member of Magnum Photos, says he can partly make up for that by tapping into Magnum’s sizable mailing list and fan base. And he says that his decision to self-publish wasn’t only about keeping down the final price of the book. 

“I wanted to have full decision capability over every aspect of the production,” he said. “I worked on this project for nearly eight years and ultimately wanted to have final creative control.” 

Disco Night Sept. 11 explores the disconnect between the violent realities of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the perceptions—and confusion—about those wars here at home. Van Agtmael covered the wars between 2006 and 2013, often embedded with US military units. (He won the 2009 Photolucida Critical Mass prize, which included publication of his first monograph, 2nd Tour Hope I Don’t Die.

Disco Night “is meant to be layered, but also accessible. Personally, I’ve always been angry about how simple our cultural understanding of war is. This book is meant to challenge a lot of those assumptions.” 

Although van Agtmael self-published the book, it wasn’t exactly a DIY project. Production was “a massive collaborative effort” with designer Yolanda Cuomo, photographer Bonnie Briant, “and dozens of photographers and writers whom I sought guidance from. The point wasn’t to work in a vacuum, but to have final say.” 

He met Cuomo through her work for Magnum and Aperture, and says her expertise was indispensable to the project: “She knows all the publishing houses, the papers, binding, cover textures, stamping and embossing techniques—in short, everything about the process. I didn’t know much, but I know what I like.” 

To fund production and printing, van Agtmael raised $60,000 by dipping into his own savings and borrowing from family and friends. He didn’t attempt to get a bank loan. “I thought it would be too much of a pain in the ass,” he says. He also decided not to try to raise money with a Kickstarter campaign because “I didn’t want to get bogged down with sending out a lot of different rewards.” But in retrospect, he says, a Kickstarter campaign might be worth the effort because it builds a following of people with “more of an emotional stake in the process.” 

Most of the money went toward printing the book, which had a print run of 2,000 copies. Van Agtmael says separations, printing and shipping totaled about $40,000—about $20 per copy. Although he could have saved money by having the book printed in China, where printing costs are particularly low, he decided to work with Graphicom, a Vincenza, Italy-based printer, “because of their deep experience, fast turnaround, and excellent proofs,” he says. 

“I didn’t compromise on anything, which was why the cost-per- book was so high,” he says. 

The remaining $20,000 of van Agtmael’s budget went toward building a website, storage space, travel expenses to Italy to be on press, and fees for Cuomo and for Andrea Smith, the freelance publicist hired to promote the book. 

“I hired Andrea because she did so brilliantly with Mike Kamber’s book, Photojournalists on War. She also has a network of contacts that Magnum and I don’t have,” he says. 

He notes that his non-printing expenses may not have been typical, but because of his business relationships with various providers, “I was given pretty good rates,” he says, including by the designer. 

Disco Night Sept. 11 is being sold through the Red Hook Editions website, as well as the Magnum Photos Store. At press time, the price was still at the $45 level. 

—David Walker 

Emma Phillips’s SALT 
When Melbourne, Australia-based photographer Emma Phillips was first thinking of turning her series of minimalist, salt mine landscapes into a book, she spoke to a couple of small publishers. She had a very specific idea about what she wanted the book to be, however, “so it seemed easier to work through the process on my own” and self-publish the book, she told PDN via email. She also felt it was “difficult” as a young photographer to approach publishers “who have no idea who you are and convince them that your work is worth their time and money.” 

Phillips says she didn’t think about the cachet, distribution and marketing a traditional publisher might offer her. “I just tried to make a book that reflected my vision.” She says she wasn’t even particularly concerned with whether the book would appeal to anyone beyond the photography community. “To me the important aspect of creating is to put something out in the world so that any person may experience and receive it if they wish to.” 

In November of last year, Phillips released SALT in an edition of 500 clothbound, hardcover books of 40 pages, containing 17 color images. She is selling the book for $39.95 via her website using the Big Cartel shopping cart app. The book is also stocked in select stores in Australia, Japan, France and the United States, including Printed Matter in New York.  

The challenge of self-publishing was a “logical extension” of her work, Phillips explains. “As a photographer, you’re always trying to teach yourself how to do new things … The fact that there were certain hurdles to deal with made it more interesting,” she adds. 

She had previously only made books in small editions, so part of the challenge was to figure out which printing process was best suited to her project and her goal of a larger print run. She liked books produced by Japanese publishers, so she arranged to travel to the Reminders Photography Stronghold, a gallery and residence for photographers in Tokyo, and to attend the Tokyo Art Book Fair. There, she made decisions about the production values she wanted. Phillips designed her book herself. 

The cost of printing in Australia was prohibitive, so she found a printer in Asia, which she admits was not “ideal, because my deadline and budget didn’t permit me to travel to oversee the production process.” Instead she communicated with the printer via email and Skype. 

Because the books are offset-printed, it made sense to make 500 of them. “Once the [printing] plates are complete, it’s more economical to produce larger quantities,” she notes. 

Phillips has promoted the book herself, reaching out to publications she likes, though she says most often she’s been approached by websites and blogs interested in featuring the work. It’s Nice That, Slate, Emaho Magazine, Monster Children and other sites have featured SALT

—Conor Risch

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