Monday, January 14, 2013

The Cheap and Easy Way to Self-Publish (Updated)

I just released the second edition of my The Amateur’s Guide to Landscape Photography ebook and that inspired this next blog article. Even as amateurs, many of us have dreamed about our photos being someday published. Sure, you can do print-on-demand books (like from Blurb), but that’s not the same thing as seeing “your” book on the shelf at a Barnes and Noble. Well, wake up—you likely never will. OK, don’t cry yet; just reset your expectations. As Carlton the doorman on the old TV show Rhoda would say: “aim low and avoid disappointment.”

Get Real
First, a reality check and then a little introspection. The reality is landscape photography is a very tough sell. It’s a hugely crowded market by established professionals, and how does an amateur compete with the likes of an Art Wolfe or David Muench. (Short answer: for the majority of us, you don’t!). Instead, examine your reason to publish. If your ambitions are to become professional, or semi-professional, then this article isn’t for you.  If you’re a committed amateur, but still want money and glory, then good luck! But, if it’s for the pride of accomplishment to compose a book, actually see it on a bookshelf, and maybe have some buyers—even if only a few—then read on.

To publish in the big times, you have two avenues: find a publisher or self-publish. Finding a willing publisher is much like winning the lottery. By sheer serendipity, I found an internal contact at Focal Press who said (in short): “liked the book, but we’re up to our snorkel in landscape photo books so, instead, would you be willing to publish it on our blog?” I passed on the blog offer, but I was thrilled I could get a large publisher to acknowledge I even existed! I then explored the self-publishing route and realized that I have to shell out a few grand upfront, plus still deal with marketing and distribution (unless I shelled out even more). The odds of recouping even a portion of that investment would be the same as the Guggenheim begging to display my photos.

An Easier Way
The easiest, cheapest, and quickest path to fulfilling your dream is the ebook route. This may be a concession to those who really wanted a physical book; but life is full of compromises, and ebooks are the wave of the future anyway (look what happened to Borders). The advantage is anyone can get an ebook on sale in Amazon, iBookstore, Barnes and Nobel, and other ebook retailers—and you don’t need a publisher. The only work you need to do, besides creating the book, is whatever marketing you’re motivated to do. Total cost is at or near zero and the retailers handle all the finances. However, though this may be the cheap and easy way to publish, you’re still not spared the enormous effort that goes into creating a book.

The next big decision is what to write. Just a picture book alone, in my opinion, isn’t going to sell; you also need a subject, and that’s the hard part. In my case, I decided that if I was ever to create a book on landscape photography that sparked enough interest just for someone to look at the cover, I needed an “angle”. So I took inspiration from a line in an old Buck Owens song: “and all I gotta to do is act naturally.” There are already a zillion how-to landscape photo books and as many coffee table books with eye-popping images. So I decided to write a how-to book just for amateurs by an amateur. I’ve had many years of experience as an amateur, so I felt qualified! I figured there would be many budding photographers out there that would be attracted to reading about the travails of a fellow amateur rather than from hard-to-relate-with globetrotting pros. It’s still a how-to book, but from an amateur’s perspective that attempts a more practical real-world approach to the subject.

Which Book Store?
My first version was published in both Amazon and iBookstore. For my second version, I dropped Amazon for a variety of reasons. The biggest reason is 90% of my sales were in iBookstore even though Amazon has 62% of the ebook market versus iBookstore’s 10%. One reason is a good deal of Amazon’s sales are to black & white Kindles and it’s unlikely those users would buy photo-based ebooks. The bigger reason, though, is the competition in Amazon’s landscape photography category is brutal. Another downside to Amazon is I can’t control the quality of the ebook. I made the submittal with Microsoft Word, but after Amazon converted it, quality took a decided hit. [Note: see updates below.]

iBookstore, on the other hand, is tailored-made for ebooks on photography. The iPad is the perfect medium to display color photography, and the Retina display is added dazzle. You use Apple’s free iBooks Author software to create the ebook, which is a full-featured and easy to use page layout program (very similar to Pages). You have total control and the published ebook version looks exactly the same as what’s created in iBooks Author. There’s one caveat, the iPad must have iOS 5 or later and iBooks 2.0 or later to view ebooks created with iBooks Author. Even though those are free upgrades, I’m sure many iPad users haven’t upgraded and that locks them out as potential customers. Note that iBooks Author ebooks aren’t the same as Apple’s other more-widespread EPUB format. But iBooks Author ebooks are far slicker than EPUB when it comes to displaying photo-based ebooks, and has more interactive features.

If you’re on a Mac platform and content to stick only with iBookstore, then this is probably the absolute most cheapest and easiest way to self-publish. The software is free and the only expense is the ISBN number, if you choose to include it ($125, or $250 for ten numbers; go to: An ISBN was previously mandatory for iBookstore, but now is optional (Amazon likewise). You can still publish in Amazon, but you’ll have to laboriously transfer all the ebook contents over to Word and maintain two sets of files (and trust me, that’s a real pain in the neck). Apple’s submission process is longer than Amazon’s since they go through a higher quality screening level. My only complaint is, even though the entire submission process is typical Apple-friendly, there were a few convoluted steps when submitting a revision. To get started, download iBooks Author from the Apple App Store (Lion or later required). To publish on Amazon, go to to get set up. To publish on Barnes and Noble, go to:

Get Rich?
One last topic that’s everyone’s favorite subject: money. Now as I stressed before, you shouldn’t be doing this for the money. That said, don’t be surprised that after realizing all the work it took to create your book, you’ll think it’s worth $30 or $40. Well don’t—it’s worth only what someone else is willing to pay. Amazon and Apple both encourage low pricing by providing the greatest royalty percentage at under $10. If you’re thinking to write more than one book, consider offering the first one for free to build a future customer base.

Update (June 2014)
I recently released a third version of my ebook on iBooks. I also extracted from that book the subject covering HDR (High Dynamic Range) as a stand-alone book. I initially offered it free in hope that it would draw customers to my main book—in other words, I followed my own advice in the preceding paragraph. I was surprised by the number of takers, but it didn't seem to significantly translate into more sales for my other book. I then decided to charge $0.99 to see what would happen. The off-the-shelf frenzy for the free book suddenly turned to a trickle. My theory is there are a lot of people who collect only free books, even if they don't have an interest in the subject! Though it seemed logical to offer a free book to build a future customer base, my one-time experience obviously proved otherwise.

ePub and .DOC
I previously complained about controlling the quality of my ebook when publishing on Amazon. I decided to try again with my condensed HDR ebook. But this time, I didn't follow Amazon's recommended use of Microsoft Word (and export to HTML). Instead, I used Apple's Pages and exported it as an ePub file. This produced  a much better book appearance. It still wasn't as good as iBooks Author, but definitely better than using Word. Incidentally, this book now sells better on Amazon than on iBooks. I think narrowing the subject to just HDR helped improve its visibility among the plethora of other photography books on Amazon. Also, with Amazon's newer Kindle Fire ebook readers (with displays that rival the iPad), color ebooks now have a wider appeal.

A "Noble" Effort
Besides republishing on Amazon, I also decided to give Barnes and Noble's Nook a try. The results were a disaster. No matter what I did, I couldn't get my condensed HDR ebook to format correctly in their software previewer. Though I have iPads and Kindles to accurately proof my books, I don't have a Nook reader. Maybe the published version would have looked correct despite what the previewer showed, but I couldn't risk publishing it to find out. I'm sure all the books in the Nook store look just fine, but the effort to find out how to accomplish that began to exceed my motivation—so I gave up.

Update (September 2014)
The Perils of Pauline
Just when I thought I found the easy way to publish on Kindle, Snidely Whiplash tied me to the rails of frustration. The easy way was to use Apple's Pages, export to ePub, and then use Kindle Previewer to generate the MOBI file. So I decided to republish my larger ebook, The Amateur's Guide to Landscape Photography, on Kindle using the same process. Unfortunately: size does matter!

If you want to publish a photography ebook (or any book that contains a lot of graphics) on Kindle, here's a list of lessons learned that might help.

  • If you use Apple's Pages to create your ePub file, make sure to create several smaller chapters rather than fewer large ones. Pages has a limit on the amount of images you can have in each chapter. When you exceed that limit, Pages will drop some graphics when converting the file to an ePub file.
  • The latest version of Pages (version 5.2) has better ePub support, but for some reason Kindle Previewer will not create a table of contents from the Pages' ePub file. Unless you don't care about a TOC (probably not a good idea), then you can't use Kindle Previewer (or KindleGen) to create the MOBI file.
  • I tried using Sigil to edit the ePub file to add the TOC, but that severely corrupted the formatting. Instead, use Calibre (free). Just edit the metadata to remove the book cover (Kindle already adds it for you) and then export to MOBI making sure to check the box that adds the TOC to the "beginning of the book" rather than at the end. The book's formatting will change a little, so you may have to edit the original file and simplify some of the formatting. Remember, when it comes to Kindle books, keep the formatting simple (very simple!) because what you see ain't likely what you'll get! 
  • If you are creating a photography book, that means a large file. Don't overdo the resolution of your images. I kept my resolution to a maximum of 1080 pixels (width). I really don't know what the best number is, and maybe I'm not fully exploiting the high-resolution of the Kindle Fire HDX. But you will "pay" dearly for a large file (see next bullet).
  • Kindle has two royalty options: 70% and 35%. You'd think why would anyone take the 35% option? Well, here's the slap-in-the-face: Kindle charges you a download fee for each ebook sold for the 70% option (BTW, Apple does not). This wasn't an issue for my smaller ebook, but the huge file size of my second book severely ate into the profits. It turns out that I net a larger profit with the 35% option. But even then, my profit from iBookstore is still double that of Kindle! So, to repeat myself, try to keep the file small.
  • This may matter only to Mac users, but when I attempted to upload my ebook's large MOBI file to Kindle using Safari, it failed repeatedly. The fix was to switch to the Chrome browser, which worked fine (go figure!).

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