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Creating Photo Books

Book Publishing Column by Harold Davis, November 2010

Intro Image: With my tripod poised on the railing of a spiral staircase of a rundown but formerly elegant tenement in central Havana, Cuba I had no idea that this image would become the cover of one of my books.

My esteemed editrix at Photo.net, Hannah Thiem, asked me to write a special column about the creative and business aspects of making photography books. Since I am very passionate about book creation, I decided to take Hannah up on her suggestion for this month’s column.

We produced four photography books published by mainstream publishers in 2009, three books this year (2010), and expect to publish four books in 2011. These books all feature my photography and writing. My wife, Phyllis Davis, collaborated as author on some of these books—and designed all of them.

This brings me to the point that any book worth its salt is the product of team work. No one person could possibly do everything—because, as I’ll explain in more detail later in this column, creating a sophisticated book is an incredibly complex process; one that involves creativity, writing, photography, editing, designing, production, and business and marketing concerns.

This column explains the different kinds of photography books—and there are huge differences. It doesn’t make much sense to discuss one-off self-published books in the same breath with mainstream, distributed titles.

Next, I’ll explain more about the team necessary to create a book, and how to effectively work with that team. I’ll tell you how I get organized when I tackle a new book, and how I stay interested and creative.

Design is extremely important to photography books, and I’ll explain some of the issues that go into producing and designing one.

Want to do a book of your own? I’ll tackle some of the business and marketing questions around successfully selling a photography book project. What are the characteristics you need for success, and how might you go about your own book project?

Figure 2: We made a number of cover mockups, and the publisher chose this image from among the possibilities that we offered for the cover of The Photoshop Darkroom 2. I was surprised to find an image of a staircase from Havana, Cuba (see Intro Image) on the cover of my new Photoshop book.

Different Kinds of Books

Books, books, books! Every book is different, and in some sense there are as many kinds of books as there are books themselves—this huge variety is part of the bibliophile’s pleasure.

However, there are some significant generalizations can be made about the different types of books, and it is important to understand the distinctions between these types if you are interested in creating a book yourself.

Almost every kind of book that is loaded with photos needs a reason—or an excuse—for its existence. No matter how visual the book, its raison d’être is usually supplied via words (more on this topic later).

As a general matter, I think of photo books as either being technique books (about the craft of photography), informational books (about a specific subject or place), or coffee table books (primarily about the gorgeous imagery). Of course there is some overlap between these categories. It’s vital to understand which category a book project falls into, because this information will shape all aspects of the project including design, choice of publisher, and the photos that will go into the book.

Of course, electronic books (e-books) are a whole other field, with many possible roads to successful publication in today’s environment. Still, there’s nothing like holding a physical book in one’s hand, and with photography there seems to be a significant ongoing desire for the physical book objects. Electronic publication will be the subject of a future column.

My biggest successes have been with technique books, although I’ve also created other kinds of books (see Figure 3 for an example).

The table shows the different categories of photo books, with some further breakdowns of categories.

Technique Subject Coffee Table
Professional-level photo Travel Guides Almost any topic suitable for display and/or gifting
Consumer-level photo Insect, Plant or Bird Guides
Software such as Photoshop Etc

By the way, it is important to understand that I am writing this column about mainstream, published books that are produced in quantity and distributed to the book trade. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with one-off, published on demand (POD) books from vendors such as Lulu or Blurb, but they are not comparable to books produced by commercial printers and distributed into mainstream channels.

Creating a POD book can be satisfying, and make business sense as a portfolio piece. However, the economics of the process preclude substantial distribution of POD photo books into the book trade—and you’ll find limitations regarding how you can design a POD book as well.

Figure 3: 100 Views of the Golden Gate is a coffee table book of my photos—taken over a number of years—of the Golden Gate Bridge. This hardcover book is primarily intended to sell as a souvenir of the San Francisco Bay area. The publisher has spun-off a postcard edition in addition to the hardcover version of this book.

Team Work

Figure 4: The Photoshop Darkroom is a uniquely designed book that has been very successful for us.

Every book is created and marketed by a team, and no book is the work of one person—even if there is only one name on the cover. It’s important not to forget this truism. The success or failure of any book project is likely to depend upon how well you work with this team, and how well the team works together.

In some cases multiple roles are filled by a single person—but, in any case, these roles need to be accomplished professionally. For a photography book title in mainstream book distribution, you can expect to have the following team members involved:

  • Photographer: Creates photos and prepares them for reproduction
  • Writer: Provides the text; almost all books, even those that are mostly photos, require some text
  • Book designer: Creates an overall design template for the book
  • Cover designer: Designs the front and back book covers
  • Compositor: Lays the pages out according to the design template
  • Acquisitions editor: Pinpoints the right book idea; gets editorial board approval to go ahead with a book; negotiates the original contract on behalf of the publisher; maintains executive control of the project
  • Developmental editor: Makes sure that the project is staying on track in terms of content development
  • Technical editor: When the content is technical, this editor makes sure it is accurate
  • Copy editor: Helps the writer with grammar and prose style
  • Book agent: Refines an original book proposal, helps find a publisher, negotiates a contract, helps with blips along the way, and lends marketing expertise
  • Marketing and Business Development team at the publisher: this may include publishing and marketing executives, and the team that sells subsidiary rights

This list is not exhaustive; sometimes there are others who are important to a book. In my case, also, we work a little unusually since we almost always deliver finished files to the publisher—so we are largely responsible for the creative aspects of our book projects.

Figure 5: A book such as my original Photoshop Darkroom (Figure 4), published by Focal Press, will get translated into a number of languages (the cover of the French translation is shown here). The rights department at the publisher is responsible for making these sales—the people who help sell the rights to your book should be considered part of your team.

Effective Design and Production

I turned to my design department—my wife, co-conspirator, and partner Phyllis Davis—and asked her to provide me a few pithy thoughts about photography book design. By the way, it’s worth noting that Phyllis freelances as well as collaborating with me, and has a number of photo book design projects under her belt that have nothing to do with me, including the design of an entire series for a major publisher.

Phyllis says that it is really important today for anyone pitching a photo book design to be flexible. “A while back,” she says, “you might have told the publisher what trim size to use for a book based on the graphic design needs of the content. Today you have to be willing to work on whatever design specs the publisher gives you—due to the changing economic times and changes in the book publishing industry.”

Phyllis also tells me that it is extremely important for both book design and book designer to be organized. An overall design theme should specify elements and how they relate. “At the same time,” she opines, “the best book designs allow some room for flexibility around element placement on specific pages.”

Internally, there can be room with page layout software include notes and guidelines, as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Within InDesign, notes and guidelines help the book designer keep track of the many elements that go into an illustrated book.

However, by the time a design is finished, page spreads should look relatively neat and organized, even if some of the design elements appear to be hand drawn (as in Figure 7).

Figure 7: The finished spread from The Photoshop Darkroom 2 doesn’t show the work-in-progress organizational notes that you see in Figure 6.

Once a design is completed, there’s the challenge of proofing, pre-flighting, and producing printer-ready files. Note that all photographs need to be prepared to the specifications provided by the printer, using the ICC profile provided by the printer. Phyllis comments, “Nominally, preparing the photos is the job of the photographer, but I always like to check to make sure it has been done right. You’d be amazed at how many professionals don’t get this important step right.”

Organizing a Book

Creating a book may seem like a glamorous thing to do, but it is actually a job that follows Thomas Edison’s quip about genius: it is “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Sometimes at parties when I tell people that I am a professional photographer and writer, and that I have written many published books, I am told stories about how hard it was to write college term papers. These people wonder aloud, “If it was that hard to write a term paper, how could I possibly tackle a book?”

The answer is to break down creating the book in an organized way. With any book project, my first step is to create an outline. Each chapter in this outline is about like a college term paper in length, so if you graduated from college and wrote your own term papers, then you can create a book-length manuscript—doing it one piece at a time. By the way, remember what I previously mentioned: even if your book is mostly photos, it will probably need text as well. If this task seems too daunting, you should collaborate with a writer.

I take the outlining process even further—before I get to work I have an organized spread-by-spread list of topics. In other words, I know what subject matter or photo will go on every single page before I write a single word—or find a single photo from my library.

Organization is extremely important; but your book needs to have something to say as well. Without passion, there is nothing. For example, in my book Creative Black & White (the cover is shown in Figure 8) it was very important to me to showcase my ideas about how to see monochromatically in a digital world—as well as to explain how to process black & white photos using various software packages.

Figure 8: The cover of Creative Black & White: Digital Tips & Techniques, published by Wiley in 2010.

Keeping it Fun

Fortunately, for me writing is a great deal of fun—almost as much fun as photography! Almost any book project that involves writing and photography is fun for me, provided the book covers some new ground. I don’t enjoy repeating myself, and I do get bored easily. Attention deficit generation, anyone?

Since most photo books are labors of love, it is important that you enjoy yourself when you are creating one. Have a message to convey, as well as a sense of passion! The question “Why this book, now?” is one you should easily be able to answer.

You also should be enthusiastic about the tasks involved—as I am about writing and photography, and Phyllis is about design—or at least be interested in learning them.

What Do Publishers Look for Most?

At a writer’s conference I went to years ago, I was in the audience when a prominent publisher got up on the podium and asked the crowd, “What do we look for first in a writer?”

Hands shot up, and the answers came back about as you might expect: great project ideas, inspirational content, and so on.

“No, no, no,” said the publishing executive, “the most important thing we look for is someone who makes their deadlines and hands their work in on time. We can fix the other stuff, but there’s no forgiveness in a marketing campaign calendar.”

I’ve taken this advice to heart, and I always try to make my deadlines. On the rare occasion that I can’t—and this would take a major domestic crisis combined with my Internet access shutting down plus I don’t know what—I let the publisher know with as much advance warning as I can, avoid the dog-ate-my-homework routines, and suggest a revised schedule.

Oh, yeah, I think the vision thing is important, too…

A Photo Book of Your Own

If you’ve read this far, perhaps it is because you are interested in placing a photo book of your own for publication. I encourage you to go ahead.

The first thing you need is an interesting idea and some compelling images. Next, you’ll need a book proposal. A book proposal is the sales collateral with which you can approach book agents and publishers. I hope to cover the nuts and bolts of book proposals in a future column.

Armed with a book proposal, you can get down to finding an agent or a publisher. Several of the books available from Writer’s Digest (including Photographer’s Marketplace and Writer’s Marketplace) have extensive listings of both agents and publishers. You can also find this information in Literary Marketplace (LMP), either in print at a library or on the Internet.

Be sure to research your prospects before blindly sending out proposals. You want to make sure that your idea is within the scope of books that the publisher produces or the agent handles. Sending a photography book proposal to an agent who only handles bodice rippers is futile. You should also follow the submission process requested without exception.

Some publishers will only look at book proposals that come from an agent, and I think your chances are better if you look for an agent before approaching publishers. The days of publishers picking the next bestseller from the “slush pile” of over-the-transom submissions are long gone—if they ever existed.

You’ll find an extensive listing of agents on the LMP site, although relatively few of them will admit that they handle photography books. One who does is Matt Wagner, of Fresh Books: fresh-books.com. Matt has represented Phyllis and myself for many years, and is definitely part of our team. On his website, he requests plain text email submissions with no attachments; if he’s interested he’ll ask you to send a complete proposal.


This column has touched on my personal experiences in many of the creative and business aspects of photography book creation. There are many aspects—because, even leaving aside questions of business and marketing—book creation is a field in which different disciplines and personality traits must work together in harmony.

There’s probably a lot more to be said about each of the topics I’ve covered in this column. But if you are interested in using your photography as the basis for a book, don’t let the complexity of the process daunt you. There’s tremendous satisfaction in having a book of one’s work, a book is an incredible marketing tool, and—despite the naysayers—there is money to be made in photography books. For example, a number of my books have been among the bestselling art and photography titles on Amazon.com.

Rome, as they say, wasn’t built in a day. A project as complex as creating a book will be overwhelming indeed if looked at in its entirety. So break your challenge down into bite-sized tasks, and proceed onward one task at a time. For example, you might want to begin by creating a sample book proposal.

In this column I’ve explained:

  • The different kinds of photography books, and how a mainstream title differs from a POD title
  • The team that is involved in book creation, and what each team member is likely to be responsible for
  • Some aspects of designing and producing photography books
  • The importance of organization and timeliness to a book project
  • How you might go about placing a photo book project of your own


About the Author

Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase. Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. More »

Text and photos ©2010 Harold Davis.

Article created November 2010

Readers' Comments

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Michael Marcus , November 04, 2010; 07:54 P.M.

This is a question about where or how to get definitive information regarding need for "model releases" for photos that show people's faces in public places or at public events. I have many great photos, but not a single model release. Thanks for any response.

Bruce Martin , November 05, 2010; 04:06 P.M.

Model releases are not needed at all in most cases, especially when the photos are of people in public places. Mikael Karlsson wrote an excellent article in August all about stock photography, and discusses the release in detail. Check his website, look for Learn About Photography - Editorial Stock Photography.

Cathy Krizik , February 01, 2011; 11:37 A.M.

Thank you so much. This was illuminating. I published a short, simple photo book the easy way....by using blurb.com...and found it to be a total blast. When (and if) I want to do it the "right" way, I will refer back to this article. Thanks!

Lolita Cabilis , February 27, 2011; 10:24 A.M.

Congratulations Mr. Davis.  This blog is just what I am looking for. It's an all-in-one  guideline on photo book publishing.  I am in the process of drafting my very first photobook, I categorize it between subject and coffee table type.  Thank you very much for the inspiration. I wish I can see some articles on the financial aspect of photo book publishing. Or maybe I've just not navigated the site enough as I've just log in for the first time. Again congratulations,  thank you so much  and more powers.

joe corben , March 27, 2013; 11:13 A.M.

In my opinion if anyone needs photobooks made, use thephotobookstore. they are really helpful and their photobooks are one of the best quality ive had, like other people have said, some other companys photobook software crashes on my mac too but, this is not the case here, also they have a buy one get one free on all products at the moment which is very useful !

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