Publishing Your Own Photo Book


I have thought about creating my own photo book for several years. Unfortunately the last time I checked the internet based publishing services, things weren’t quite “there” yet for me. The price was still a bit too high and color photos were still not available.

Well, I think now things have advanced to the point where it is possible for the average Joe to take some photos, layout a book, upload it to an on demand printing service, and get copies in any number (including  just one) all for a reasonable price and with reasonable quality.

So I decided to give it a whirl – let’s face it, the chances that some big time publishing house is going to “discover” me and my work at some local art show and hand me a big fat advance for worldwide distribution of my new book are none and none at all.

In the world of self publishing there are two routes that one can take. There is the BookSurge, Xlibris, IUniverse route. These services offer more than just printing and binding. They offer consulting on layout and design, editing, and marketing services with connections to big time book distributors like Amazon (BookSurge is actually owned by Amazon). Of course all this comes at a price. Basic packages can cost hundreds of dollars and things can quickly run into the thousands.

The other route is the Blurb, LuLu, MyPublisher route. The deal here is that you download some free software that guides you through the layout of your book, you upload your finished book, and they print and bind copies for you on demand. No fuss, no muss. The cost of a photo type book depends on the size and some options and might run you forty bucks.

Note: LuLu tries to cover both routes with an extensive ala carte pricing system.

Another Note: I have mentioned only a few of the many many publishing services available. I just don’t have the time to research and list them all. Sorry if I missed your favorite.

You know me, I work too close to the bone around here to go for anything fancy so I took the cheaper – I mean less expensive route. After reading some reviews and checking out the various web sites, I decided to go with Blurb. I signed up for a free account and downloaded their free layout software called BookSmart.

BookSmart installed no problemo on both my Windows Server 2003 machine and my Vista laptop. The software has a few quirks like when you try to open a previous book, sometimes the file sizes display as all zero KB which is scary at first, but you soon learn to ignore it. By the way I am using version at the time of this writing.

This is a great tool for someone like me with no experience laying out a book from cover to cover. Sure it is somewhat limiting to be restricted to canned layouts, but there are quite a few options to choose from and there are a few workarounds to get what you want if it isn’t available on the menu. If the restrictions really chap your hide, you may be a more advanced layout artist and should roll your own in a desktop publisher, port to PDF, and send it to one of the higher end print on demand services.

The first step to creating your best seller is to choose an overall size and orientation. There are five choices – I went with the Standard Landscape (8″ x 10″). The larger landscape (11″ x 13″) would be cool, but this is just a test so to keep costs down I went small. I did not want to go real small like the 7″ x 7″ square since I heard rumors that the smaller books are printed by an entirely different process than the larger ones so results will vary.

The software offers to lead you all the way through choosing a layout, locating your images, and even automatically inserting the images into the book in various orders (like by date). This was a little too much hand holding for me so I skipped right to the blank book.

One annoying thing was that the software defaults to a 20 page book even though the price point for printing is at 40 pages. I wasn’t paying attention and did a bunch of work before I noticed. Now I had to insert 20 more pages, rearrange everything I had done already, and grab some more images.

There are page layouts for the cover including end flaps, image pages, text pages, images and text, text over images, etc. You import your images into the BookSmart library from your hard drive or from online storage places like Flickr and then drag them from there to the book pages. Piece ‘o cake.

If you go on vacation and take some snaps, and you want a cool scrap book dealie to hand out to relatives, you can be done in no time. Just import the images from your camera, write some one liners under the pics, and upload. Blurb takes care of the rest. On the other hand some of us just can’t leave it at that.

For one thing, BookSmart can only handle JPG, PNG, and GIF files. I shoot in RAW and save as TIFF when I am done editing so I needed to convert all my images to another format. Converting to JPG reduced the file sizes, but still a book with 30 full size images from my 10MP camera gets pretty darn big and remember you have to upload all this to Blurb over whatever speed internet connection you have.

Another issue for me is that my images tend to be low key, high in contrast, have lots of black and lots of very bright highlights teetering on the edge of being blown out. Not your typical vacation snaps. I usually print my images myself so that I can control the process to a high degree and make sure I get the output I expect. Now I’m sending the files off to a black box and just hoping they will come out all right – scary.

I did some research into the Blurb printing process. There is some very good information from a guy named Sam Edge about the process and you can download a color profile for the Blurb printers here so that you can “soft proof” your images.

I was going to go through the whole deal about how I soft proofed my images and adjusted them for Blurb printing, but that might be a whole ‘nother post and this one is too long already. If you would like to hear about it, leave a comment to that effect and maybe I’ll post it.

Suffice it to say I had to do some tweaking to my images especially along the lines of toning down the very bright areas, bringing up the contrast (oddly enough), bringing up the saturation, and adjusting the white point. There were several images that just could not be “fixed” to my satisfaction and I had to abandon them.

Anyhoo, I used the theme of my last show, Nameless, for my book. Most of the images, with a couple of additions, were in the show. I sprinkled in some text from my blog and viola! I had a book. I started over three times and it took me maybe three weeks of fiddling on evenings and weekends to get it done. The major time consumers were converting the images and editing the text.

I uploaded the whole schmear and in about ten days I had my book. How did it turn out? Better than I expected. The images aren’t what I could get printing on my own printer, but they really aren’t bad. I actually don’t mind showing it to people as an example of my work and I’m pretty picky.

I went with the hardbound version with dust jacket and specified the “premium paper” option (definitely the way to go for a photo book). You read horror stories on the internet about pages bound upside down or some other person’s pages bound in with your book, but I had none of that. The binding seems sturdy and the pages are good. The only problem is that the dust jacket is printed using a different process so the cover photo colors are a little on the blue side and the quality is not as good as the same image inside the book.

Once I was satisfied that the book looked OK, I made my book “public” on the Blurb website. That means that anyone can search for the book in Blurb’s bookstore by keywords, title, and author to purchase it. If you leave it private, you need to send friends and family a link to purchase the book (Blurb even helps you send the e-mails). There is an option to tack a bit of a royalty onto the price of the book in Blurb’s bookstore so that you can finance your next book with profits from this one. If you prefer, buy in bulk and handle the marketing and shipping yourself.

One final note. Many people complain about how Blurb handles support. They don’t have a phone number – they handle it all via e-mail and forums. As a computer geek, I was cool with this. I even had to send an e-mail about some trouble with the indexing in the bookstore. I got a prompt response that said they were aware of the problem and working on it. The problem did get fixed several days later. I was happy, but I can see where some people might not be as comfortable.

You can preview my book at the Blurb bookstore by clicking here or click on the widget of the book in my blog sidebar.

Overall it was a good experience for me and I expect I’ll be doing it again in the future.



Tags: , , , ,

11 Responses to “Publishing Your Own Photo Book”

  1. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat

    Very interesting and informative… thanks for giving us some of the benefit of your experience. I for one would like to understand what your soft proofing process was… if there’s enough interest please write about it!

    The book looks very good. Congratulations! And it seems that one can order a soft cover version as well?


    • forestrat Says:

      hey fencer,

      I probably will do a blog about the soft proofing and a couple of other tricks I needed to get the book to look the way I wanted it. Stay tuned.

      There are several options for Blurb books – soft cover, hard cover with a dust jacket, and hard cover with an image wrap. I have not ordered a soft cover yet so I don’t know how it will look exactly. I purposely did not allow the image wrap option (the cover image is imprinted directly on the hard cover). For some reason I really dislike that style.


  2. openpalm Says:

    it’s lovely. congrats on a hard copy. nothing like it really. your photos are inspiring, and reconnect me with my other take-a-walk-and-listen self. thanks!

  3. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Hi Forestrat,
    I have been thinking about publishing something, similarly, but without the computer smarts, I found it all quite daunting. I’m not saying I will, yet, but if I do, you will have saved me a great deal of researching. Thank you so much for sharing your research and knowledge in this area.
    I find it very interesting to see that they will promote the book for you. That’s excellent.
    I’m thrilled to see that I could have a book of your photos. Now how do I get it signed by the author/photographer?

  4. cutthroat stalker Says:


    My copy arrived today. Excellent! Be of the angler persuasion, I’m drawn to all things watery. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of water images–superb compositions, as always.

    What I like as much as the pictures are the interludes of print. Aesthetics are of interest to me as well, although I’ve spent more of my time delving into ethics instead. You’ve reminded me of a couple of books I have tucked away I need to read. Geosmin and actinomycetes–great stuff there! Are the waterfalls in the Adirondacks somewhere? Close to your home? Beautiful places.

    The book construction seems pretty decent, especially since they print them on-the-fly. I was tempted by the paperback, but decided to splurge. Have you had a paperback in your hands? What are they like?

    Keep up the great work!

    -scott c

    • forestrat Says:

      hey cutthroat,

      Thanks a bunch for buying a copy of the book! I’m glad it turned out good – the idea of sending out something that I created but not really being involved in the final step is a little weird for me. I have a problem with letting go sometimes I guess.

      Almost all of the images in the book were taken around the Finger Lakes area within about an hour of my house. A couple are from Pennsylvania. I go to the Adirondacks often, but none of the pics in the book are from there.

      I have not seen a paperback version of the book. I really should buy one to see what it is like.


  5. Birch Bark and Books « Flandrum Hill Says:

    […] Garden Route) .  Mark has thoroughly explained the process of publishing your own photo book at while Regine has provided insights into her journey publishing a travel book at […]

  6. Joe Maskym Says:

    question, why would you use a photo book company thats not smilebooks?

  7. Bernie Kasper Says:

    The book looks fantastic Mark, hope it works out for you, great info on the soft proofing as well maybe someday I will try my hand at this !!

  8. forestrat Says:

    Thanks Bernie,

    A book of your flower photos would look pretty cool.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: