How I start a colour book project
Producing a book to showcase beautiful photography or artwork relies much less on standardised formats and materials than producing a monochrome, text-led book. You have more options, but the costs are higher and practicalities more complex. However, your return can also be higher if you approach things in the right way,
Whether you are a photographer, designer, agency or brand you are essentially a self-publisher, with all the benefits of self-determination which that affords. Ultimately you get to decide what the book will be, but where to begin?
When I begin conversations with a new client they usually have ideas on the kind of book they are aiming for. Often, they are inspired by a book they own which has something about it they love. That might be the physical size, the type of paper or the design which has a ‘look and feel’ which inspires them. Whatever is their starting point I go through the same initial first phase, to develop those thoughts and feelings into a fully-costed plan.
It usually takes a handful of emails and an hour or two on the phone or over a few cups of coffee to assemble enough information to make a proper start working out what will be involved and how it can be approached. As well as your aspirations for the finished object what are the big questions to ponder?
For me, the two key things for you to work through are:
How many copies are you comfortable trying to sell?
Even if this book isn’t being sold to ordinary book-buyers you should think (unless money is no object!) about how many copies you are committing to, as ultimately it will be down to you to arrange storage for those books and to sell them on. This is the main challenge for self-publishers compared to the traditional publishing model where all of that effort and risk is taken care of.
What selling price (or at least cost-per-copy) do you have in mind?
The second question is essentially about perceived value. It’s not an easy decision to make and it certainly doesn’t need to be fixed at this early stage, but identifying a price range is important to getting an appropriate balance between your costs and your return from sales.
The quantity and the selling price have a relationship. Fewer copies of the same book specification will cost more per copy to produce. The ‘unit cost’ of the printing will be higher if you reduce the number of copies and you will have initial overheads for some or all of editorial, design, production, proofing and maybe other services too. Spreading these costs over fewer copies reduces your return from each sale. You might assist your margin by selling the book for a higher price, but the trick is to produce something which represents good value to the potential buyer compared with all the other books out there. Balancing price and value is a key strategic consideration and some work on that enables you to move on to the next level of detail.
There are many large and small details which make up a book specification. The big decisions like the page dimensions, the number of pages, binding style and paper have the largest impact on cost.
There are some tried and trusted (and therefore cost-effective) formats for colour books but you see more variety in book sizes than you do in monochrome text-led titles. Any specification task starts with some notion of preferred options but the best results come from being prepared to tailor you spec or your choice of supplier. Colour book formats tend to relate to the ratios of the photography or artwork and are therefore content or design-led, but committing to an exact page size before looking at what works well for a printer is not the way to start.
I would never be one to advocate choosing your printer based simply on price, but I am a believer that there is a crude way and a more sophisticated way of comparing printers and their pricing to arrive at the best option for your project. Developing your specification thoroughly usually has better results than trying to find or negotiate a better price for the spec you started with.
The hardware and technology needed to manufacture books is hugely expensive and to an extent all printers commit to a certain market and range of products when they purchase machinery. Even between different companies all considering themselves ‘book printers’ there will be comparative strengths and weaknesses and these will feed through into their pricing. With experience, you are more able quickly to identify printers and print processes best suited to the type of book the client has in mind.
You often don’t need to make big spec changes to make substantial gains in cost, but you do need to arrive at the production conversation with an open mind and be amenable to dialogue.
Costing and Profit & Loss
Having worked through the options and details you are able to put together your real-world costs and analyse them alongside your approximate choices concerning price and quantity. You’ll be able to see the results from a number of different price and print run options. You now have your benchmark against which you can compare any variations you want to consider before making your final choices.
If you’re thinking about crowdfunding then this type of exercise takes the guesswork out of setting your funding target.
With this approach, you do the groundwork before you get fully underway with designing the book. As I touched on above, the photography and design are integral to the decision on the dimensions, but the best results overall come from balancing those creative preferences with the practicalities of developing a specification which makes production sense. Deciding upon (just as examples) your page size and the number of pages before getting real-world costs from a printer will seriously limit your options and almost certainly cost you more money unless you are already aware of dimensions (as I sometimes am, from experience of previous projects) which are a good fit for the printer(s) you’re dealing with.
Before any project moves on from the dry project management stuff and onto the creative process of laying out the content there is one further step of practicality I think any project needs.
I see it as essential to draw up a schedule to allocate time for everyone involved to carry out their part within it, arriving at an end date of delivery of the finished copies.
Projects usually arrive with some form of deadline, whether that’s an exhibition or just a convenient date for a launch party, and if they don’t it can be useful to create one as open-ended projects tend to drift and lose focus. When you need to secure the services of other freelancers and suppliers you also need to book those things to secure the services and plot the points where you’ll need to have funding on hand to pay the invoices. Having an overview eases the pressure and helps manage the pace of work better than if you leave timescales ad-hoc. It makes it much easier to balance immersing yourself in present tasks while also looking ahead and keeping an overview of progress. Even if time is tight, if you plan things well you can get a lot done in not much time. With that approach the work needn’t feel hurried and this reduces the feeling of pressure and the likelihood of shortcomings and mistakes.
You’ll inevitably encounter obstacles on the way and adjustments will need to be made but, paradoxical as it may sound, having a simple but comprehensive roadmap on hand also makes it easier to adjust to delays and still end up delivering the book when you planned.
The elements of this approach are the same or very similar to those followed by publishing houses when working out the prospects for books they are considering. Before anyone gets too involved in working out design layouts or briefing image preparation and colour management this is the kind of work which goes in. If anything, these disciplines are even more critical for self-publishers as they inevitably have little experience of the process and expenses involved in getting their idea into physical form. Unlike publishers they don’t have a number of titles between which they can balance profit and loss, and often we’re talking about at least some of their own money. Quantifying the commitment and forecasting the return is really the only place to start.
I am a freelance Book Production Manager & Consultant, specialising in managing and producing bespoke photography books. You can see Case Studies of my previous projects here.
Please do Contact me if you have a project you would like to discuss.