When I researching how to publish my first photography book, I repeatedly read that offset printing was the way to go. Indeed, the quality of my book, Tattle Tales: Tattoo Stories and Portraits, is very good because I was able to pick out the paper and take my time to guarantee color accuracy. However, every option has pros and cons. As a fairly new self-published author, I now had an inventory of my book, but I didn't have a lot of avenues for selling it. When I started the publishing process for my second book, COVID-19 caused a lot of uncertainty in the publishing industry. I wasn't confident about adding hundreds of books to my inventory. Therefore, I decided rethink my strategy for my second book, Mannequins: Stories of the First Supermodel.
After much research, I found that there's more than one option for printing photography books. A lot of the decision making will depend on the type of photography book you're publishing and the goals that you want to set for that book.
Printing Options: Offset versus POD
Most photography books, especially the more expensive ones, are printed offset because those printers offer the highest quality for the lowest cost. The downside to offset is that it requires a lot of money upfront because those printers require a minimum order of usually 1,000 books. The reason the minimum is so high is that there is a lot of preparation before the actual printing. When I was getting my book ready to print, I spent two weeks on color accuracy. It was time well spent, and I learned a lot about how colors change slightly from viewing on the computer monitor versus printed in a book.
A few other factors that you need to consider are storage and distribution. You need an air-conditioned place to store the books, which is an added expense if you don't have room in your house for storage. Also, unless you have a distributor or you already have an account with Amazon Advantage, you have to use Fulfillment by Amazon and be your own distributor by reaching out to bookshops. Some stores only deal with well-established distributors, which will narrow your options. Since Amazon Advantage was closed when I published Tattle Tales, I had to use Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA), which doesn't allow for book ads. I was also pursuing book fairs and shops, but unfortunately much of that research has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While I have made it work on FBA, I have struggled to get adequate exposure for the book.
Print on Demand is very popular. Someone orders a book on Amazon, and it's immediately printed and shipped to the customer. Many novels and nonfiction books are POD. It's cost effective and it relieves publishers from having to commit to printing thousands of books. While the quality is pretty good for text-based books, the same cannot necessarily be said for photography books.
POD will never be the same quality as offset printing. POD printers are printing thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of books every month. These printers aren't bad, but you can't expect the same quality from a completely different system. However, POD comes with some advantages. First, you're not committed to printing large quantities. Second, many of these POD companies, such as IngramSpark and BookBaby, offer marketing and distribution opportunities that you can't get elsewhere.
As the author you have to decide on the threshold of quality you're willing to accept. Everything is a give and take. Below, I've given two very different example of books with photographs, and I explain why POD can work for certain types of projects.
1.) High End Coffee Table Book: Let's say that you want to publish a very high-end photography book, like those hard cover coffee table books that weigh a ton. The point of those books is the photography. Maybe there's writing, but the focus of the book is the images. In this case, offset printing is your best bet because you can determine the paper, special binding, and other effects that will set your book apart from the competition. Much of your marketing will involve reaching out to bookstores and other places that would be appropriate for selling your book. You don't just have to solely focus on book stores. Keep an open mind and get creative.
2.) Books with photography: There are many types of books that involve a lot of imagery. Makeup and cook books are a couple of examples. In these instances, the images are important, but they aren't the focus of the book. I ordered a makeup tutorial book that was printed on demand, and the quality was acceptable for that type of book. The paper was not what we typically see in photography books. The pages were matte and not glossy like most coffee table books. However, the colors looked good and the images were crisp. IngramSpark offers a premium color printing option, but unfortunately it doesn't include photography paper.
BookBaby also offers POD for photography books, and, after printing a sample, I felt that they were definitely an option for my second book. Granted, the quality was not the same as offset, but overall I was satisfied with the results. The two things I noticed most were the thinner pages and card stock for the book cover, and the images were slightly more saturated. However, if no one saw the offset printed version, readers would think the printing quality was fine.
The downside to using POD is that your profit margin is much slimmer than with offset. The printing of each book is more expensive than offset printing. The advantage of using POD is that it gives new authors a chance to put their work out there without having to commit to a large inventory and all the expenses that go with it. I ultimately chose POD for Mannequins because I wanted to test the market for my book. Also, I wasn't sure how much COVID-19 would affect my life and finances. I used BookBaby to print Mannequins, and so far I've been very satisfied with their quality. This doesn't mean I won't go back to offset printing, but, for now, this has been the best option for me.
Before you choose your printer, make sure you get a sample. Your reaction to the sample will tell you whether it's the best option for you. Most of all, you want to be proud of the work you put out into the public. Self-publishing is challenging because there are so many options and there generally isn't one right answer. Much of this business is about figuring out where you are and where you want to go. Just make sure you do your research.