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November 23, 2015
By Ryan Joe
Self-publishing a book of photos or illustrations can be a challenge, but these tips and guidelines will help indie authors produce professional-looking art books.

Self-publishing is difficult enough without adding photos or illustrations to the mix. Still, despite the amount of work that goes into such an endeavor, numerous creators—some big names in their respective fields, others up-and-comers—are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to getting their art books published.

Ron Galella, a prolific paparazzo who had previously been published by PowerHouse, was attracted to the control that self-publishing offered and now has four self-published photo books available for purchase. Similarly, renowned surfing photographer Art Brewer also had his work collected by traditional houses—most notably Taschen’s Bunker Spreckels: Surfing’s Divine Prince of Decadence. But Brewer also decided to go indie, using Blurb to print and distribute several self-published books, including Surf Culture, two more volumes about Bunker Spreckels, and a book called Simple Vision—a collection of images Brewer shot with the everyday cameras he carries around.

Like Galella, Brewer has a tremendous amount of photographs in his files, and self-publishing is an expedient way for him to get those photos out into the world. “It’s something tangible,” Brewer says. “It makes your images so much more important, better than looking at it on a computer screen. There’s more of an emotion when you look at it in book form.”

The Early Work

From design to quality control to printing to distribution, self-publishing can be grueling work. So, when Galella self-published his first book in 2012—a huge collection of his photographs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis called Jackie: My Obsession—he paid $5,000 to have it professionally laid out. “It paid off,” he says. “It’s a beautiful book, and it’s selling well.”

When publishing a book filled with images, the final product must be beautiful. So indie authors looking to put together a book either need training, a professional to help with the project, or some combination of the two.

Brewer, a renowned surfing photographer, had worked at Surfer Magazine and Windsurf Magazine for a number of years. “I have lots of friends who are art directors,” Brewer says. “We know how to design things and put it together.”

Galella, who was educated in art, decided to design his subsequent self-published projects—Pop, Rock & Dance (2013), The Stories Behind the Pictures (2014), and Sex in Fashion (Nov.). He’d give his ideas to a graphic designer, and the designer would execute them.

For less-connected indie authors, however, the amount of work involved in getting self-published projects ready for the printers can be substantial. In early November, David Lawrence released Artists in Jackson, a portrait book featuring 15 artists who live and work in Jackson, Mich.

"A missed comma might be overlooked in the text of a novel, but a poorly printed illustration or photograph is glaringly obvious."
“It took way more time designing and laying out the book than I figured it would,” Lawrence says. That process took him about a month. “I was just doing this on nights and weekends and lunch breaks at work,” he says. It helped that Lawrence had worked in newspapers before, so he knew about layout and pagination.

For first-timers, there’s inevitably an adjustment. Emily Mintz illustrated The Medicine Plants, a children’s book about medicinal marijuana, written by Bridget Rose McKeen.

“I usually work big,” Mintz says. Her initial illustrations were 24” × 36”, though the final book was only about a third that size. Mintz’s mentor later suggested that her illustrations be the same size as the book so she wouldn’t waste time and money working on oversized drawings.

“I had to do a lot of photoshopping getting it to the size the printer wanted,” Mintz says. “That’s something different from self-publishing versus working with a regular publisher. Usually you just send in the drawings and they do all the manipulations.”

Quality Control

As always, self-published authors are exclusively responsible for the quality of their own projects. That was one of the reasons why Galella was drawn to going indie: if there was a mistake in the book, it was all on him.

And, for art or photography books, the project must be pristine. A missed comma might be overlooked in the text of a novel, but a poorly printed illustration or photograph is glaringly obvious.

“I quality-controlled myself,” Lawrence says. Like Brewer, he also used Blurb and sent a draft of his completed project to have one copy printed. “I paid for that myself,” he says. “I wanted to see it in my hands and make sure everything looked top-notch. I didn’t want people to order the book and realize something was wrong.”

Brewer also uses this approach. “We always try to build a dummy of the book in the studio,” he says. “Even if it’s printed out in black and white, we want to check the flow and see what the pages look like.”

Though Brewer has the infrastructure to mock up his own books, he still finds it helpful for more complicated projects to have an early version produced by a professional printing company. He recalled how he once put together a limited edition art book for cancer research. All of the interior images were Polaroids, assembled in a collage. Although Brewer and his staff assembled it in his studio, he wasn’t sure how the final version would look.

Brewer hired a printer to bang out a quick edition so he could scan for any flaws and problems that might arise. “It was worth the money to spend maybe $30 or $40 to print it beforehand,” he says. “To physically see if there’d be any problems with the type running into the gutter. Just little things like that. It made a huge difference.”

Choosing a Printer

Selecting a vendor to print a self-published book of art or illustrations isn’t exactly the easiest process. Wanting The Medicine Plants to be printed in her home state of Maine, McKeen worked with a local co-op called Indie Author Warehouse and selected an in-state printer.

Different printers offer different styles, of course, which can lead to different results. When Brewer is considering a printer, he requests samples that he can use to generate previews in his studio. Essentially, the printer sends him a code that he can enter into either Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. This helps Brewer get a sense of what the printed project would look like.

“We try to find out all the idiosyncrasies beforehand of what different printers do,” Brewer says. “Like if it’s too red or too blue. Most of the stuff is all printed digitally, so it runs fairly tight.”

Galella prefers a style called offset printing—in which the ink is gradually transferred onto the final printed page—over digital. “Digital is faster and less expensive, but I go for offset,” he says. “It’s sharper and has better reproduction.”

Another factor is the printer’s templates, which can be limiting. “We don’t necessarily like to follow them all the time,” Brewer says. “We try to work around them and build our own that will still fall into the space that the paper allows.”

For example, one of the reasons Lawrence opted to work with Blurb is because it offered Adobe InDesign templates, which he liked and ultimately used on his layout and typography.

And there’s a final, oft-overlooked issue when choosing a printer: can the company meet deadlines? Galella had a bit of a nightmare scenario with Jackie: My Obsession. Based on a recommendation, he hired a global printing company headquartered in Japan to produce the book. The company did an excellent job at an affordable price, but delivered the final product nearly three months late. What was supposed to be available in early October, in time for the holidays, didn’t come out until late December. By then, he’d missed a prime sales opportunity.

Galella selected a different printer—this time in Germany—to do his second self-published book, Pop, Rock & Dance, a three-volume softcover with a slipcase. That too arrived three months late.

Irritated, Galella looked just 10 miles away, to Clinton, N.J., for his third book. He’d hired GMPC Printing to print promo cards for his previous projects, but it had never printed a full book before The Stories Behind the Pictures.

“And they delivered it on time,” Galella says. He used the same company for his next self-published book, Sex in Fashion. GMPC delivered that one on time as well.

“That’s why I do self-publishing locally,” Galella says. “The foreign countries are late because of a language misunderstanding. Here, I get to be hands-on, they speak English, and even deliver the books to me without charge. And they did a very good job with printing.”