306 SELF PUBLISHING BOOKS
May 9, 2000
In my continuing effort to suggest alternative ways for stock photographers to earn income
I am reprinting a story by Blain Seitz that first appeared in the ASMP Philadelphia newsletter.
Blair has had great success in self-publishing picture books. In this article he goes into
unusual detail about the business aspects of his experience.
Blair started his career as a social worker in 1969 and in 1972 he and his wife, Ruth, moved
to Nairobi, Kenya where they did work for UNICEF, WHO, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services and
other organizations producing information pieces and magazine articles about relief effoarts
and development programs in Africa.
After five years they moved to the Philippines where they spent four years before returning
to Harrisburg in 1982. Blair shoots corporate work, but in 1991 he and Ruth founded RB Books
to publish books about Pennnsylvania.
Blair will release a new book the Poconos and Endless Mountains--Pennsylavnia's Northeast:
Poconos, Endless Mountains and Urban Centers this month. He is working with a writer on
two new books that will go to design and press this fall.
Debunking Photography Self-publishing Myths
©2000 Blair Seitz
In the spring of 1991 when the tractor-trailer rolled back into the loading
dock where I stood giving directions, my heart raced with excitement. There
before me were 15,000 Amish Ways , the first RB Book written, photographed and
published with our own skills and effort. Fait accompli!
My exhilaration continued, after reloading books onto a Ryder truck, as I
drove into the sunset south on I-81 toward our Virginia-based distributor who
had purchased 10,000 copies.
I had learned, after disappointments in my first two books published by London
and local publishers, that independent (self) publishing is dramatically more
satisfying. Working independently, I controlled the schedule, chose the
photos, did a layout and had oversight of the design and printing. From A to
Z the result was the creation of my writing partner, Ruth Hoover Seitz and
myself. And, upon delivery, the joy I felt was very fulfilling.
After nine years and the sale of over 130,000 books (12 titles) the efforts, I
have made can dispel three myths: 1) photographers cannot profit from photo
books; 2) self-publishing is not an honorable endeavor; 3) and one needs to
be rich to self-publish.
While my salary is modest and much of the financial rewards are in anticipated
residuals sales and corporate equity, my experience certainly indicates that
photo book publishing stands as an alternative livelihood for photographers.
At the end of 1998 I did an analysis to compare making stock photos and
shooting for books. What I learned was rather astonishing.
After deducting out 57 percent of the income for research/writing and
prepress/printing, each photograph reproduced in my books had earned an
average of $503. By comparison, over the same 8 year period, prime stock
photos had grossed $146 per picture (before agency commissions and advertising
Furthermore, if the books had been published by another publisher, I would
have collected $101 per photo (assuming a 10% royalty on gross sales).
So my book pictures earned three and one-half times more than my stock and
five times more than I would have earned from a typical royalty contract from
another publisher. The facts did not cause me to shut down my stock business
but they gave a huge affirmation to my publishing efforts.
In recent years the number of high quality independent (self) publishers has
dramatically increased. Each quarter R.R. Bowker (industry statistic keepers)
adds 1,200 new publishers to their list, many of them small (self) publishers.
Self publishing is an attractive alternative to sending a manuscript to an
editor who doesn't open many of the 100 unsolicited queries received each day.
Notables such as Mark Twain, Zane Grey, James Joyce, Walt Whitman and Carl
Sandburg were all self-publishers. Current top sellers such as What Color is
Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles and You Can Heal Your Life by Louise
Hay were first self-published.
The Small Publishers Association of North America (SPAN) is a strong
organization which includes many of us self-publishers. The Self-Publishing
Manual by Dan Poynter or The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing by Tom and
Marilyn Ross are two of the 'bibles' we self-publishers use. I have attended
conferences featuring both Poynter and the Rosses. They take you step by step
through the technical aspects of the publishing process. Guidance is required
because independent publishers are jumping into a market that is overwhelmed
with new product. In 1997 there were 63,000 new books published in the U.S.
and there is no reason to believe there will be less in 2000.
Granted, it would be much easier if I were independently wealthy; but, alas,
all the dollars invested in RB Books have come from bank loans. It takes
good credit, good business plans and some luck. Our break came when a
distributor contracted with us for Amish Ways . The bank accepted the contract
as collateral (along with everything else we owned!) and extended a line of
credit (LOC) of $60,000 for the unusually high print run.
Making good on that LOC set us up for the next book, Susquehanna Heartland ,
which cost about $28,000 to print on Hong Kong presses which are 40% less than
US printers. All photography, writing and design is investment paid for
through cash flow from the sale of the previous book.
About 500 on-time payments later and with acceptable profits and improving
balance sheets, our banking relationship is now much easier.
The Business Plan And Budget
Bankers don't take unnecessary risks.
Without realistic figures and
strategies to back up my vision, my best laid plan would have evaporated in
the bank meeting. While I have always enjoyed planning ahead and strategizing
my photography business, publishing forced me to write a business plan which
would meet banking requirements. With assistance from my consultant, I wrote
a 20-page plan which included a market analysis, sales goals and strategies
for meeting them as well as time-lines and charts showing the growth of Seitz
and Seitz, Inc. Personal and business financial statements prepared by a
Certified Public Accountant accompanied the plan.
The business plan sought to confirm the reliability of our three-legged
business which also had a track record of income from stock and assignment
photography. Nonetheless, no matter how much paperwork I could produce I knew
that in the end the bankers were sizing up the character factor. Would Ruth
and I be reliable partners with the bank?
Before my current bank relationship using the business plan started, I had a
few days of panic. Suddenly, my small rural family bank said, "Oops. We'd
like to help you, but we have a problem. We can't handle the International
Letter of Credit." I needed the letter of credit, an official international
banking instrument, to show the printer that the money was guaranteed. From
that high stress point when the book was ready to go to press, we had to
build a new relationship. It started with a lunch with a bank president
seeking new business and grew from there.
For eight years, the four of us staff members have met in December for several
days of planning from which I develop the upcoming year's business plan and
From Concept to Consumer Sales
Publishing a photographic book with text is a step by step process that begins
with brainstorming a concept, and goes on to research, developing outlines
and shoot lists then, about one year later launching a publicity campaign to
entice buyers to go into the bookstore to purchase the book. In between, the
book has to be shot and written as well as designed and produced.
Until now I have had a writing and marketing partner in my wife, Ruth, which
enabled us to handle A to Z with the help of two staff members. However,
since Ruth wishes to change the nature of her work, I have contracted with
another Pennsylvania-line publisher which has an aggressive sales team to
market and distribute for us. Our books will double their Pennsylvania line
and RB Books will add two books per year.
Partnership with a writer and/or marketing professional is essential if I want
to continue making photographs. Otherwise, the publishing and marketing would
overwhelm me so I wouldnœt be able to shoot. My greater reward is in making
the photographs. Books are the means of presenting them.
Production and marketing overlap
In January 2000 as I write this article, we have just completed launching
Harrisburg: Renaissance of a Capital City . Over the same time, I finished and
chose the photographs for our spring 2000 book on the Poconos and Endless
Mountains of NE PA ; and concurrently was doing some of the shooting for our
spring 2001 book and planning with a writer for a smaller book to be released in
the fall of 2000.
When the Northeast PA book goes to press this month (January), the publicity
and advertising plans already prepared for the book will go into high gear.
The Harrisburg book just launched included a party with the Mayor as guest of
honor at the Art Association of Harrisburg and a Harrisburg 2000 slide show at
Historic Harrisburg Association.
As a photographer, selecting, arranging and overseeing the printing of my own
photographs is "Nirvana". I am currently laying out the photos on two page
spreads which I pencil out and hand over to the Quark Express expert at
prepress who sets up the digital pages as the separations are being made and
imported into the design. Doing the layout myself, selecting among subjects,
compositions and nuances of color, is the "beauty of it all". I love this
stage of the work. I am choosing the final 185 photos from 500 selects.
Tough decisions are dictated by "must" content and what "works" on the page.
Fortunately, I am not perfectionist. Making some "imperfect" decisions moves
the project along to meet deadlines.
Digital proofs are made at prepress. This process, used instead of sending
the photos to a design house, has saved $5,000 on our design and production
costs. The book is then sent to the printer on 7 or 8 CD's with the hard
copy proofs to guide the press person.
Book marketing is a fine art of pushing books into the bookstores through
sales contacts with a network of distributors, wholesalers and regional chain
store buyers and, at the same time, pulling the books out of the bookstores
through publicity to consumers who must get interested in walking into the
bookstore and buying the book. It takes up to six exposures before a sale; and
a book is not sold until the consumer buys it from the bookstore. Since news
stories about the book secure the desired response, garnering press
relationships is essential.
Due to the capital investment needed for book publishing and as one who
worries a lot, usually unnecessarily, about money and cash flow, my anxiety
is rewarded with the "big sale". Corporate sales for gifts and premiums put
us "over the top" and stabilize the bookstore sales. Banks, real estate
firms, among others, buy books as gifts. A special insert is printed for the
books. We ended 1996 with a single sale of 3,000 copies of Philadelphia and
its Countryside to a financial institution. We serviced the account with a
special jacket, inserts, packaging and mailing for a total sale of $100,000.
I had never made a corporate photo sale of that amount so I felt quite
rewarded for my investment in book publishing. Philadelphia and its
Countryside has been reprinted four times.
I still personally rent a Ryder truck (my secret love is trucking) to
transport shipments of books from Philadelphia to our distributor in New
Jersey and back to Harrisburg. My trip saves $500 dollars over having the
books shipped to our warehouse.
I no longer get a "high" from seeing the shipment of books, but I am
enormously rewarded by the process of launching the book and the positive
feedback received in press reviews and the pleasure of those who are
represented in the book. We give free copies of the book to many who are
included in the book and who have assisted us.
A year after a book was released, Ruth received a phone call from an artist
whose work was in the background of a portrait I made for the book. He
threatened a $50,000 lawsuit for using his work without permission.
While I had received permission at the location and identified the artist in
the caption, I did not have a written release from the artist. This threat,
followed up by a call from his attorney, shook me. I have conscientiously
obtained model and property releases so I felt upset with my omission.
I called ASMP's Bruce Blank. Thanks to Bruce, he put my feet back on the
ground reminding me that, assuming the copyright of the artwork had not been
registered, we would owe the artist only the profits earned on that single
picture in the book. Max might be $150.
The copyright was not registered; after interchange over several weeks, my
attorney wrote a release which the artist signed and we settled for $2,000,
still too much, but I wanted the artist to be happy and it ended a nasty
Where From Here
Under the banner "Celebrate Pennsylvania!", publishing has led me away from
corporate photography to producing more books and stock photography of PA
historic and natural as well as outdoor recreation themes. With many requests
for photo wall decor, I am preparing to open a sales gallery in May 2000.
We will move our publishing and stock photography offices to the new location
in Harrisburg's Midtown Market District.
The gallery presents the challenge of taking my photography to a higher
level. To achieve that goal requires that I spend more time shooting in PA
wilds, which achieves another goal: "retreats" to shooting with longer
reprieves from business details.
It's been a long journey from receiving that first trailer load of Amish Ways ,
in 1991; but a road I do not regret taking. Despite some bumps along the
way, it has settled some myths about self-publishing in my own mind with