Independent Publishing

This page explores the increasing range of opportunities to publish books yourself - whether totally by yourself, or whether by some means other than the traditional route of submission to an existing publisher. 

The pros and cons
How do I go about it?


Just like home DIY, there is a whole range of options available to you if you decide on any kind of self- or independent publishing: you can follow the quickest, easiest and cheapest means, which might not have the best results, or you can take a professional approach.

To understand your options, you must first understand what is involved in publishing a book.

Editorial creation

This is the actual photography and/or writing. It is the part you will already be most familiar with. But think carefully about every aspect - there is a lot more than just words and images. Does it need an introduction, a contents page, an index, acknowledgements? Who will write the text that goes on the cover? You might be a great photographer, but are you a good writer? Do you have a writer who can help you?

Editorial Production

Editing:  This is the fine-tuning of images and words. As the photographer, you would probably want to do the picture editing and selection yourself. Ensure you are familiar with the technical aspects required, such as the CMYK conversion process that is usually necessary. A text editor should look at all of the words written to ensure consistency of style and correctness of grammar and punctuation.

Design: Once all the ingredients of text and images are collected, the designer is the one that cooks it up into something that will look good. These days the industry standard software is InDesign, and you will want a designer who is familiar with printing requirements, such as details of 'bleed' and margins and the correct PDF profiles. Book production requires a designer who is not only creative, but very disciplined and who has great attention to detail.

Printing and binding

There are two main types of book printing: 'digital' and 'litho'. The main difference between digital and litho is that digital prints one copy of the file at a time, like your printer at home. Litho, also known as offset printing, is where a plate is made and the prints are done in sheets and then trimmed. Litho is higher quality, although the set-up cost is more because the plate has to be made. With digital you can print as few as a single copy, but often the colour reproduction is not as good or consistent.
You will need to decide between printing few copies of the book, at digital's lower quality and total cost, versus a larger litho print quantity in which your actual unit cost is lower. These can be difficult financial decisions.

The printer you select will probably also do the binding, unless you want something special like leather-binding for Special or Collectors' Editions.

A change that has taken place that has revolutionised self-publishing is the availability of Print-on-Demand (POD). This is a print and distribution system that could only be possible in the electronic age: a person clicks to buy a book on Amazon or other online bookstores, and that book is printed, bound and couriered within 24 hours of the order. The buyer has no idea that there is not a big warehouse of copies of that book waiting to be dispatched. These printers, available in USA, UK and Australia, run non-stop and therefore have the economies of scale required for traditional litho printing, but each print they make is from a separate digital file, not unlike the way you can send a whole bunch of files to a cheap bubble jet printer and it just keeps printing. Like that cheap home printer, each POD printer is printing different files but all using the same colour profiles on the same paper. So the formats of the books are all identical, but of course their content varies.

Note, however, that this technology is only really valid right now for black-and-white books with colour covers: basically, it is aimed at text-based books with no photographs. The technology for illustrated or photographic books is there, but the quality is not really there: they do not compete with the large print-run, litho books available- yet. This will change very soon.

Lulu photo books

Figure: A print-on-demand (POD) supplier such as Luluis still primarily aimed at those wanting a text-only book. Though, as you can see on their website above, they do advertise their ability to print and sell your photo books,  they are really best used for tiny print runs such as for the printing of a portfolio of images that you might want to send to somebody internationally. The printing and postage will all be taken care of, and the design templates are very simple and user-friendly.


Somebody needs to tell the world out there about your book. This includes traditional means, such as sending sample copies to newspapers and magazines, in the hope that they will review it favourably. Today's social media provides powerful tools through which you can also access markets directly.

Take our marketing course


This is the process of convincing bookstores and other retailers to stock your book on their shelves. They can take it as either:

  • a firm sale, in which they buy the book from you in advance
  • a consignment, in which they take some copies and pay you once they sell them
  • on sale-or-return, in which they pay you for the book but can return them later and be reimbursed if the books do not sell


This is the logistical part in which you get the books from the warehouse to the individual bookstores and buyers. The actual delivery is usually handled by a courier, but an adminstrative system for ordering and tracking of payments is vital.

POD production and distribution scheme

Figure: Lightning Source, a POD service provider targeted more at small publishers than the man-on-the-street, provides a full-service package in which they will print and distribute your book. The process is less intuitive than that of Lulubut offers a greater range of professional services.

The pros and cons

The advantages of independent publishing

With all the modern technologies that we have available to us, and the fact at the Internet gives us direct access to millions of potential buyers, there are increasingly more reasons to forgo the traditional approach to publishing.

  • You earn the profits. In many cases, the author is the one behind much of the sale of a book, but then the publisher makes the profits. Do you have direct access to the potential market of your book? For example, do you have links with a university that might prescribe the book to students, or to a corporate sponsor who might want to buy large quantities of the book? Or perhaps you are a member of an association that could market the book directly to its members on your behalf? In these cases, you might want to publish independently and save the profits being shared between a whole range of 'middlemen', particularly if you can get the buyer to pay upfront.
  • You call the shots. If you are the publisher, you get to decide every detail and have it look exactly the way you want it to. This is particularly useful if your book is about a specialist subject that a mainstream publisher would not understand very well, and where you have greater expertise.
  • You determine your own timing. When you sign with a traditional publisher, they usually stipulate a deadline for delivery of your images and text. Circumstances might arise that make delivery difficult, and so you have to compromise the quality of your work to meet that deadline. When you are your own publisher, you determine your own deadlines.


The disadvantages of independent publishing

  • You must find the initial investment. Whether you already have the money, or you need to borrow from somewhere, or you get an upfront payment from a bulk buyer, you have to provide the finance that makes the production and printing possible.You take the risk. But of course, if it works out, you get the reward.
  • You do not have the market experience of a traditional publisher. This is where you should draw on the experience of others, rather than just following your gut instincts. Do as much market research as possible.
  • You do not have existing marketing, sales and distribution channels, so must find these. Whether you are going to be doing these yourself, or are going to be using third-party service providers, you need to think through each of these processes in advance and ensure you have a solid business model for the book's entire lifespan.

How do I go about it?

1. Deliver the raw ingredients to the publisher. Simply put, you will be required to deliver all that traditional publishers require, and a whole lot more. Read the page on Traditional Publishing, remembering that you are both the author and the publisher.

2. Put a production team together. Who will be the editor (of both images and text)? Who will supply the images and/or text that you cannot? Who will design? Who will proofread? And how will you print, market, sell and distribute?

Think carefully about these members of your team. Have them all ready before you begin.  Speak to others who have published independently, and see what you can learn from them - get them to tell you about their mistakes and things they wish they had known beforehand. And let them recommend team members.

3. Make a budget. Ensure you know exactly how much each part of the entire process is going to cost, and how much you will be able to charge for the books, together with a realistic assessment of how many you will sell in the first year, as well as over the book's lifetime.

4. Plan your marketing campaign and distribution. In fact, write your marketing material before you begin, and keep this clear in your head every step of the way. It is the goal you must keep heading towards. If you know who your target market is and how you are going to reach them, then decisions about picture choices, what should be on the cover, etc, will be much simpler.

Take our marketing course