What to Expect After You Publish a Photo Book
August 22, 2017
Jesse Burke’s book about road trips he took with his daughter to explore the natural world resonated with parents, environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts and other audiences in addition to photo book collectors.
Burke’s daughter, Clover Burke, searching for butterflies. The photographer barely broke even on his book, but it gave his career a new direction and a big boost.
Lindsay Morris’s book about a camp for gender non-conforming kids benefitted from a wave of media interest in gender non-conformity and LGBTQ rights.
Jesse Burke and Lindsay Morris were under no illusions that they’d earn much money from the books they published 18 months ago. What they didn’t anticipate was how hard-won every book sale would be. Both worked tirelessly for months on promotions, with only modest sales to show for it. But the payoffs included a chance to advocate for issues they care about, and a significant boost to their careers.
“Books are a beautiful promotional tool,” says Burke, who used his book to take his career in a new direction. Morris, who felt exhausted by her publishing experience but grateful for opportunities she gained as a result, says a book is “the most expensive business card you’ll ever produce.” (See: “The Costly Business of Book Publishing,” available to PDN subscribers.)
Burke worked with Daylight Books to release Wild & Precious in October 2015. The project is about road trips he took with his young daughter to explore the natural world, and it is also about fatherhood. After the book was published, selected images were featured on dozens of nature, lifestyle and parenting blogs, as well as photography blogs, and it continues to show in galleries and museums.
“The reason it got so much exposure was because we marketed the shit out of it for a year, starting shortly before publication,” Burke says. His marketing team included Daylight publicist Andrea Smith and his studio manager. The publicity built “like a big snowball,” he says. “The best comment I got was, ‘I’m sick of seeing your book everywhere.’”
Despite all the exposure, Burke and Daylight have yet to sell out the print run of 1,000 copies.
Morris has done only slightly better with You Are You, a book about a camp for gender non-conforming kids and their families. The book was published by Kehrer Verlag in November, 2015. Slightly more than half of the 3,000-copy print run has sold so far, Morris says. Good timing has helped: Transgender identity and civil rights were trending topics at the time her book was released. She wanted to take full advantage of that, though less to sell books than to use her project to advocate for gender non-conforming kids, she says. So she took a three-month leave from her job as photo editor at Edible magazine to do interviews, arrange exhibitions, and give talks, as well as to fulfill promised gifts (i.e., sending signed books and prints) to her Kickstarter supporters.
Daylight and Kehrer Verlag are among the photo book publishers that charge photographers to put out their books, and Morris and Burke both paid significant sums of money. Both were also responsible for much of their own marketing, too.
Burke says he paid Daylight “upwards of $20,000” out of pocket to publish his book. “If I had to do it over, I’d do an Indie Gogo or Kickstarter pre-sale. I didn’t have enough time, and I wasn’t savvy about it,” he says.
Burke received half of the print run—500 books—to sell on his own. But he wasn’t soliciting sales directly. “I don’t want to be bothering people. I think that’s annoying,” he says. Instead, he explains, “My overall goal was to get exposure for the project,” which he hoped would bring invitations to exhibit his work, raise environmental awareness, bring assignment opportunities, and last but not least, drive book sales.
Having a book was the key to getting the blanket exposure he envisioned. He ended up giving away dozens of copies of Wild & Precious to media outlets, galleries, and curators. “Galleries are more inclined to give you an exhibition if there’s book. Museum curators take you more seriously if there’s a book. Media outlets are more likely to give you exposure if there’s a book, so [the book] is a really important piece” of the publicity push, Burke explains.
The book release coincided with the release of a short video about the project (above), and his first exhibition, held at ClampArt in New York City. He then solicited other venues for a traveling exhibition. And to fuel the media coverage, he looked beyond photo magazines and blogs to those about the environment, nature, lifestyle, parenting, and other topics that connected in any way to his project. “I was going for people who shop at Whole Foods, hip, cool nature-y people,” Burke says. “I was providing really good content—with a good press release and package of images. We were putting it out there over and over and over and we didn’t take ‘No’ for an answer.”
Among websites on his top-10 wish list that published stories about the project were National Geographic, Audubon, and T Magazine, Burke says. None of the exposure did much to drive book sales, though. Book signings didn’t help much, either. “They’re great for chit-chatting. They’re not great for selling.”
But the exposure, Burke says, changed his brand identity and attracted new types of assignment opportunities. “Before I was known as a dude photographer, now I’m known as nature dad,” he says. For a New England children’s hospital, he shot a campaign inspired by a photograph from Wild & Precious that showed his daughter with a bloody nose. He’s shot Instagram campaigns for Muck Boots and other brands, and he’s currently working on an assignment for Outside magazine.
For her part, Morris covered most of the publishing costs of You Are You by raising $41,665 from 437 backers on Kickstarter in 2014. She says she probably wouldn’t do a Kickstarter again. “I don’t feel comfortable asking for money for a book,” she says.
But the money she raised freed her “to focus on the message” of the project, she says, “and not get hung up on profit.” Still, there were 3,000 books to move, and Morris knew from talking to others photographers that selling them would be a challenge. From the start, she says, “I’ve gone aggressively after press worldwide.” Three years before her book was published, a 2012 New York Times Magazine cover story featuring images from her You Are You project “started a media snowball rolling that has been largely empathetic and non-judgmental,” she says.
After the book’s release, a BBC World News interview about the book seeded opportunities for a traveling exhibition. She continues to get requests to exhibit the work every few months, and says she’s now interested in taking the traveling exhibition to regions that are most resistant to accepting gender non-conforming kids.
Morris didn’t bother to organize book signing events because she didn’t consider them a good investment of her time and money. Besides media exposure and exhibitions, book sales have also come through the efforts of her target audience—the families and friends of gender non-conforming kids—to get their local bookstores to carry her book. Still, the book sales haven’t much exceeded a trickle.
But London’s Channel Four shot a documentary film based on her project. The film was picked up by the TLC cable network for U.S. audiences. And the accumulated exposure, she says, “put me on the map as a photographer,” leading her to assignment opportunities for The New York Times, among other publications.
Morris is looking ahead to other projects that might become books. “After completing a book, it’s hard not to imagine every project in book form,” she says. But she’s not interested in publishing a book for it’s own sake. “You Are You is deeply personal, and it’s [about] a civil rights issue. How do you top that? How do you do something that important again? That’s the weight I put on myself.”
The Costly Business of Book Publishing (for PDN subscribers)