Self-Publishing a Photography Book Using Kickstarter

Self-Publishing a Photography Book Using Kickstarter

Last year, I came up with an idea. A far fetched idea though it may have been, it was something I really wanted to do. I wanted to combine all of the things I love into one project, and make it a reality. Those things were photography, helping those less fortunate than myself, physical printing, travel, traditional cultures, and the sharing of knowledge. The culmination of these would be both a hardcover and a softcover book. The publication of the results would be self-published using funds from a Kickstarter campaign. It might seem like a crazy undertaking for one person, but it's very doable if you plan it right.

The project would take me to western Myanmar in search of the last tattoo-faced ladies of the Lai Tu Chin people. I would live with the villagers for around a month, talking with them and photographing their culture for the purpose of producing the first ever book about their people. All in all, myself and the filmmaker came back with almost 500 GB of data. That included many hours of footage and approximately 12,000 stills to sort through. Backing up this data, post-processing, and designing the final product was only part of the project. The next step would be the most difficult of all: funding the project on Kickstarter. Below I'll run you through how I did it.

Think About Why

Before you even begin preparing for a Kickstarter campaign, think about why you want to crowdfund your project. Crowdfunding is a huge process and takes up a lot of your time. There may be a better, more efficient way to fund your project. Spend a little time thinking about this beforehand. 

For me, crowdfunding made the most sense because I wanted to leverage my existing contacts, spread the word organically, and use the final product to raise more money without having to pay back any loans, etc. Also, because of the rewards system built into most crowdfunding platforms, I would be able to send copies of my book to all of my backers, further spreading the word. Kickstarter was the ideal platform for me because of its brand name and popularity. I felt that their reputation alone made them the place for me.

Prepare

Be ready. That is key to a successful crowdfunding campaign. Too many fail because of a lack of preparation, and too many take too long to fulfill because their idea isn't fully fleshed out before they start. I have backed campaigns that failed in both these ways, and by studying them, I was able to make sure mine would not fail in the same ways.

I knew I would need the deliverables to be ready, so before even beginning the campaign, we finished the design for the book, printed tests, and made sure that the printing could happen. This was key for me, because I wanted my backers to receive their books right away and I would be traveling back to Myanmar to deliver books to the villagers and my distribution networks.

The next step was to learn about promotion. I am not a marketer, and I knew that if I did it my way, I would fail. So, I searched far and wide for resources and asked everyone I knew for ideas. Some of the best resources I came across were Clay Herbert's CreativeLive course, Kickstarter's YouTube channel,  and our own Mike Kelley's article here on Fstoppers. From these, I learned a lot about self-promotion, marketing, and just getting my work in front of people.

Before launching the campaign, I over-prepared as much material as I could so that I would not be lacking during the funding process. This meant a folder on my hard drive filled with pre-prepared Instagram and Facebook posts, pre-written emails asking for support, blog posts, a Facebook page, plans for an exhibition in Seoul on the campaign launch day, videos about the journey and the process, and a bottle of The Balvenie for when I sent the Kickstarter live.

I used Hootsuite to schedule all of my Instagram posts so they would pop up on my phone at the correct time and I could post them quickly and easily. The same was done for some of the Facebook posts. I head a core set of hashtags relating to the project and Kickstarter for every post, and only needed to add a few specific ones to each image before it would be ready for posting.

I also collected every email address I had and filtered it by hand to the people I thought might support the campaign. I divided the remaining addresses up into bite-sized chunks so that I wouldn't have to send out too many emails at once. I set myself a goal of 20 people per day to receive emails and stuck to this throughout the campaign. As for content, I had the core information typed into paragraphs, and all I would need to do was add a personal message for each recipient. I also added the details for the campaign, an explanation of the project, and a set of links people could share to further spread the word.

I was lucky throughout this process to be collaborating with a filmmaker and a designer who could make everything look really good. Again, my skills with video and design are limited, so it was much better to be working with those who do it well. Another great thing about having them on board was that we could all share the burden of social media promotion. That would not only lighten the load, but significantly increase our reach. Designs were prepared for several Facebook banners, milestones in the campaign, and mail-outs. These would be used throughout the campaign, and we didn't want to have to be making them on demand as events unfolded. The same was done with video. We had as much material as we thought we would need ready beforehand so we could simply post it when needed.

Once all of this was prepared, it was time to launch. I got everything ready for my exhibition in Seoul, and invited everyone I knew to join us for a glass of sparkling and a look at the test print for the book.

Launch

Launch is the most stressful time during the campaign. Once you click that button, all your hard work hits the stage and you are ready to be judged. I sat on the rooftop of my building, flipped through the book one last time with a glass of The Balvenie, and clicked the button. I quickly poured myself another glass, and sat back to relax. I deliberately planned to do nothing that day, because I knew my nerves would be a wreck.

This wasn't the only thing I had done, though. This was actually a soft launch. I had told a few close friends and family that I would be launching at one time, but to the world, I'd stated another time. This gave me a few hours to get contributions from those I knew would support me. It would take a little of the weight off my shoulders and make the campaign look really good when others came to visit. Once a few pledges had come in, I sent out my first few email blasts, made the official Facebook and Instagram launches, and gave my close friends one last call.

Then, it was time for the exhibition. I had around 100 attendees, most of whom contributed to the project right after we finished that night. This was an excellent event for marketing. We also had exclusive prints available to raise additional funds for the campaign.

Once this was done, I had a lot of links and content I could share with media. So I got in touch with editors I had worked with in the past and asked if there was anything they could do to help. This increased my reach even further, and lent a lot of credibility for those who perhaps didn't know me. 

Throughout the campaign, we also visited our printers, made additional test copies, and checked everything about the project again and again. We filmed and photographed every step of the way, which made for great promotional material as the campaign progressed. Seeing things in the real world and not just as digital mock-ups helps people to trust you more.

Panic

There is a level of panic involved with a crowdfunding campaign. You're being judged on a public stage. Will people put their money down and support your work? I found that the best way to deal with this was to just keep promoting. I had so much material ready that every time I felt the panic rising, I would get to work. Invariably, that led to another pledge soon after, and I would feel better for a time. It's normal to be worried, so we just need to find ways of dealing with it.

Fulfill

Plenty of projects fail or disappoint at this stage. It can be difficult to anticipate setbacks before you actually face them. However, you can do a lot towards making sure you'll be able to get the final product out on time. When publishing, this means test prints and sit-down discussions with the printer to check every aspect of the process. 

This project was very dear to me, and I wanted to make each and every fulfillment myself. I really don't recommend this unless you like pain. A much better solution would be to hire an intermediary to package and deliver for you, and I would certainly do this next time. 

For this project, the other part of the fulfillment would be revisiting many of the villages to deliver books to them. Also, as the book was to be sold in Myanmar, I would have to hand deliver it to my distributors the first time and sign contracts. I have just returned from this trip, and it was extremely successful. My book is now available online, in Rangoon Tea House, Myanmar Book Centre, Yangon International Airport, various hotels in Mrauk U, and through my friend and translator Htwe Kyi. As I wrote on Fstoppers earlier this year, in order to achieve all of this, all I had to do was ask. Of course, some people do not have the capacity to support you, but I have found that if you are honest, you will gain more support than you could imagine.

In Conclusion

This is a basic outline of how I succeeded in self-publishing a book using Kickstarter, and I'd be more than happy to answer any questions you leave in the comments here. It's a complicated and lengthy process, but extremely valuable and humbling. If you're thinking of self-publishing, this may just be the way to go.

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7 Comments

Scott Stebner's picture

Good job. I bought the same CreativeLive course, but decided to go another route for my personal project. I teamed up with a local organization and we produced the project together. We didn't just combine resources, we combined our audiences for maximum reach too. It worked for me, but I might definitely try a kickstarter project at a later date. Cheers!

Another great way of doing it. Looking into this for my next project. Would love to hear more about how it went for you at some stage.

Scott Stebner's picture

Thanks! We ended up selling about 1,000 books and raised a little over $20K for scholarships for good kids.it was tough, but a great experience. Learned a ton along the way.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Where did you get your books printed?

I small backstreet print house in Seoul. The way we do things here. Haha.

Jeff McCollough's picture

I've thought of doing something similar in small batches but maybe postcards and calendars to start but the prices never justify it.

That's the hardest part. It's really difficult to make the amount of money required to make a print order larger than the required number for your backers. The key is adding value for the recipient that doesn't eat into your contributions.