Twelve Lessons Learned from Self-Publishing

Pair of bald eagles on the shore. © Tim Boyer
Pair of bald eagles on the shore. © Tim Boyer

An interview with Tim Boyer

Tim Boyer is an award-winning nature photographer based in the state of Washington who specializes in birds. He leads workshops, does presentations, has a YouTube channel, and his photos have been published in many magazines including several editions of NANPA’s Expressions. He also self-published two books, Learn the Art of Bird Photography : The Complete Field Guide for Beginning and Intermediate Photographers and Birders in 2018 and The Bird Photographer’s Guide to Bosque del Apache in 2020. He’s a busy guy, but he took time out of his schedule to speak with us about the lessons he’s learned from self-publishing books.

Why self-publish?

I created my first book to share my knowledge of bird photography and to build up my credibility and visibility. Having a published book burnishes your credentials as an expert in the field. More groups want you as a speaker and they’re willing to pay higher fees. Photographers looking for a bird photography workshop may be more willing to sign up for on led by a photographer author.

Most self-published books sell 200 to 500 copies. I was aiming for 5,000 sales over a period of several years and have been happily surprised by the demand. Creating a steady stream of income was not part of the plan but that’s what happened. I may not get rich from them but my book sales regularly cover half my mortgage.

What’s the shelf life of a book?

While the field techniques of bird photography are pretty much evergreen, I feel that changes in gear, technology, bird photography aesthetics, and even good locations render a book obsolete after three to five years. As if to prove the point, during the time my Field Guide has been out, I have switched from shooting with a Canon DSLR to an Olympus mirrorless camera.

Rough-legged Hawk in Flight. © Tim Boyer
Rough-legged Hawk in Flight. © Tim Boyer

Where do you get your books printed and how do you sell them?

I used Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Since something like 70 percent of all books are sold on Amazon, it’s kind of a no brainer. Plus, there is a lot of how-to information out there to help you through the process. Once an order is placed for a book, a copy is printed and shipped within two to five days. There’s no big outlay for an initial print run or a need to store hundreds of copies so I can put more of my time and scare resources into marketing.

How do you set a price?

I scouted the market for bird photography books and noted what others were selling for, how many pages they had, how many sales, and so forth. KDP has a calculator that lets you enter a price and then tells you how much you will make per book at that price. I set my price so that I earn enough to make it worthwhile yet the prices are still competitive.

What’s different about publishing or selling or marketing in a pandemic?

You might think that there are more opportunities available via Zoom to speak to camera clubs and birdwatching groups. After all, you don’t have to physically go there. However, Zoom and other web-based events, while they allow you to reach a wider audience, also have devalued what groups pay presenters. And they don’t result in as many book sales. I did a couple of Zoom presentations early on but they had technical problems as clubs were getting used to the technology but I’m not aggressively looking for more such opportunities.

How do you know where you’ll need help and where do you go to get expert assistance?

I knew he’d need help in a number of areas. I did some Google searches for editors near my home town and found someone who had done similar kinds of books. I’m now using fiver.com and upworks.com to find help. These are sites that match jobs with potential independent contractors. You put up your job specs and get bids from people all over the globe.

I first send my book to a developmental editor, who improved the structure, flow and content. Then it went to proofreading editor for spelling and grammar corrections. Next up was a layout person, as laying out a book is a very specialized field. I had graphic artist who had previously done my workshop brochures design the cover. Contracting out the things you’re not good at takes some of the workload off and allows me to continue to be a photographer.

Copies of Boyer's latest book, The Bird Photographer’s Guide to Bosque Del Apache. © Tim Boyer
Copies of Boyer’s latest book, The Bird Photographer’s Guide to Bosque Del Apache. © Tim Boyer

What are the 12 lessons learned?

Here’s a list of what I’ve learned so far:

1. It’s possible. It’s hard work, but it is doable.

2. You will have to do almost everything and it takes a lot of planning. A lot!

3. Watch YouTube videos on how to self-publish with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). There is a lot of information out there to walk you through the publishing process. And you’ll need to share some of the specs and technical things with designers, editors, and layout professionals you might hire.

4. Write the book. Get all the ideas on paper and the images selected. Then edit for flow. Then edit for grammar and punctuation.

5. Get help in the areas where you’re not good (editing, layout, map making, graphics).

6. Everything takes longer than you think it will: editors, layout, graphic design, map making, etc.

7. Learn about great cover design: It really helps sell your book.

8. The title, subtitle, and back-cover copy are all marketing tools. Be sure to use good keywords to make your book easier to find.

9. Edit, edit, edit, and edit some more. Errors will appear every time that someone touches your book during the publishing process.

10. Marketing will be the hardest part. You’ll have to include the book in your presentations, YouTube videos, social media, etc. And you’ll need to generate some initial book reviews. For introverted photographers the marketing part can be really hard, but nobody will know about book unless you’re out there talking about it.

11. If you don’t already have one, start an email list (ASAP via a lead generator or newsletter)—those are your initial buyers and reviewers.

Need help creating and sustaining that e-mail list? NANPA members can access a recording of Jaymi Heimbuch’s webinar, Email List 101: How to create & launch a successful mailing list in the Members Area. GO NOW >

12. You need to have thick skin when the reviews come in.

Self publishing isn’t easy and it may not be for the faint of heart, but it can be rewarding!

Tim Boyer Tim Boyer is an award-winning nature photographer whose images have been published in many bird and nature magazines. He is a graduate of Seattle Audubon’s Master Birder Program and enjoys sharing his knowledge of photography and birds through workshops and presentations.
Website: timboyerphotography.com
YouTube: TimBoyerPhotography
Instagram: @timboyerphoto
Facebook:
@TimBoyerPhoto

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