The first step to making a successful photobook isn't what you think it is

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To mark the launch of the Bob Books Photobook Award, a new competition from Bob Books, the UK based on-demand photobook printer, BJP is publishing a three-part series featuring advice on how to make and promote a photobook. In part one, publishing experts and photographers who’ve successfully made the journey share invaluable advice on what to think about before diving in.
Producing a photobook is an important milestone in any photographer’s career, demanding a huge investment of time, energy, and resources. With so many photobooks being published every day and the bar to entry lower than it has ever been, how do you make a book that does your project justice, stands out from the rest, and most importantly sells?
Publisher Dewi Lewis, who has been in the industry for more than 30 years and has worked on books with photographers including Martin Parr, Edmund Clark, and Stuart Freedman, says the starting point has to be for every photographer to ask why he or she wants to make a book. “Not enough photographers ask themselves [this question],” says Lewis.

Joe, a scaffolder who has come to live in Southend and this is his first time at Robins. Robins Pie and Mash shop Southend-On-Sea © Stuart Freedman
“In a sense there is a lot of peer pressure – a friend has made a book and they think they should have one too. Sometimes it’s just not the right time. You can’t say it relates to the age someone is, or the stage they are at in their career, but some people aren’t ready to make a book until they have been working within photography for ten to fifteen years. Others have a book project early on.”
So, taking a step back and figuring out the reasons for making a book should be at the top of every budding photobook-maker’s list. There is a catalogue of reasons why a photographer might embark on this journey: to advance their career, to create exposure, or because it is the natural outcome for a particular body of work. In essence, it doesn’t matter what your reason is as long as you’re clear why you’re doing it.
Image © Masumi Shibata taken from Publish Your Photography Book by Darius D. Himes and Mary Virginia Swanson
“So many people follow the path of making a book without really thinking about what they want the outcome to be,” says Mary Virginia Swanson, a consultant in licensing and marketing fine-art photography who lectures widely and runs workshops. “If they’re really thinking seriously about the role of that book in their career they will be considering what will happen from it, what connections will be made…
“What I find problematic is so many people dive into the £50 photobook without really thinking,” adds Swanson, who co-authored Publish Your Photography Book, now in its second edition. “When artists ask how many images they need to have for a photobook, I say, ‘let’s step back and [ascertain] what the role of the book is for you right now’, because in fact publishing something smaller for a targeted mailing list of 100 people may be the perfect first step for you to test the waters in terms of making something in print before investing in a giant book.”  
Once a photographer has thought about and decided why they want to make a book, it’s a case of thinking about and sketching out what the book will look like – deciding what form it will take. Again there are plenty of options, from making a handmade book, to using print-on-demand technology or traditional printing and binding technology. It’s also important to think hard about the potential audience for your book as this may impact the way you produce it.
Arments Pie and Mash shop, London © Stuart Freedman
“Perhaps you’re looking at a booklet printed digitally in a small run, or [the project] might be better suited to a more mainstream audience,” says Lewis. “One photographer’s work is so different to another’s… One person may have a project where, with the best will in the world, 100 people will see it, while for others there might potentially be thousands of readers. So it’s about looking at what the audience is, and trying to be self-critical. Friends and family will always say, ‘this will make a great book’, but is there an audience for it?”
Stuart Freedman – who published his book The Palaces of Memory (about the coffee houses of Delhi) with Dewi Lewis and is working on a second The Englishman And The Eel about London’s pie and mash shops – agrees that it is crucial to know and understand your target audience. “If you don’t know that, you shouldn’t be doing a book,” he says.
“Part of the issue of making a book is you’re doing it because people [will] want to read it, and you’re going to sell this, so if you don’t appeal to an audience, it’s just pissing in the wind… I’m a photojournalist, a photographer that works in the documentary tradition, so I didn’t just want to create something that looked wonderful. I wanted to make something beautiful that would make people go, ‘wow, that’s a lovely book and it says something to me’.”
Cosmic Surgery © Alma Haser
Ultimately, the initial planning stage is about doing thorough research – finding out as much as you can about the publishing industry and where what you’re proposing would be best suited. Alma Haser, who made her project Cosmic Surgery into a book, sought advice from publishing experts including Gordon MacDonald formerly of GOST Books and recommends this approach.
“I went to see Gordon several times with my book dummy and he gave me so much advice,” she says. “He went through everything with me, and even showed me books he had made. Gordon helped me to weigh up the pros and cons of going with a publisher or doing it myself.”
In the end Haser opted to self-publish, successfully using crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to raise the necessary funds. “We [myself and a designer] decided it made more sense for this project to do it ourselves as we weren’t going to be producing thousands [of copies],” says Haser. “We wanted to have a real say over what it would look like.”
It may sound like a laborious task, but doing a bit of soul-searching early on can really pay off in the long run. Lewis sums up the initial planning process well: “It’s a case of trying to analyse why you’re doing a book, who it might be for, and what form it might take,” he says. “It’s about early research and self-awareness. Those, I think, are the starting points.”
Dewi Lewis & Dougie Wallace
And if you’re thinking about producing your own photobook, Bob Books are inviting photographers to submit projects for the chance to have your work printed as a  limited edition, bespoke photobook. The winning photobook and photographer will be featured on BJP-Online and across BJP’s social media channels. It’s free to enter, and the competition is open to photographers from all territories.
The deadline for applications is 27 June 2017. Find out how to enter here!
Stay tuned for part two of our photobooks series, where publishing experts and photographers share advice on how to curate and produce a successful photobook.
Sponsored by Bob Books: This feature was made possible with the support of Bob Books. Bob Books offers users the ability to create personally customised, beautifully presented photobooks and printed products. The Bob Books Photobook Award is a Bob Books competition, with promotion and coverage of the winners provided by BJP. The interviewees in this article do not necessarily endorse any of the brands represented. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.