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How to Sell Photos to a Book Publisher

Burning Man PhotoSince I so often kick myself for doing things wrong, today I’m going to celebrate doing it right.

Today I turned a publisher’s request for a single photo—with no offer of payment—into a 5-photo sale for hundreds of dollars.  It’s a lesson for me, and maybe for you, in what to do right.

I was contacted by a Japanese travel book publisher, who wanted to use the image at left from my Burning Man Festival photos (caution, some nudity) in their “Dream Trips” guidebook, which will include a chapter on Burning Man as a tourist destination.  (Of course, the notion of busloads of Japanese tourists arriving at Burning Man is pretty damn funny. If you’re not familiar with Burning Man, it’s the annual festival of “radical self-expression” held in the Nevada desert — a photographer’s dreamland of fantastic characters, art, and spectacle — but definitely not for the faint of heart.)

Anyway, this publisher offered no payment, only credit.

First thing I did right: I asked for payment.  Too often we photographers will turn cheap tricks just to see our photos published, but I wasn’t in the mood to get down on my knees today.

Second thing I did right:  I didn’t get greedy. I asked for a reasonable amount, considering that the photo was going to be used small, as part of a collage (they had sent a mockup).  I mentally extrapolated what I thought a publisher could reasonably afford if they had to pay for every photo in the collage, in every chapter of the book, and politely asked for that amount.  Plus some copies of the book.

They agreed!

Japanese Travel Guide

Japanese "Dream Trip" Guide — Caution, some nudity

Third thing I did right: I immediately sent off the high-res image to them, showing that I was on the ball and ready to deliver fast. Publishers are always on deadlines.

Fourth thing I did right: Knowing that publishers are always on deadlines and that lots of people (including photographers) are flaky and slow to respond, I told them: “If you have trouble getting images from any of the other photographers you’ve selected, feel free to browse my website for photos to fill the gaps.  I’ll offer additional images at the same price.”

They came back with a list of images they were having hard time acquiring, and asked if I had anything similar.

Fifth thing I did right: I immediately did the research and sent them links to similar photos of mine.  I even sent links to specific photos by another photographer, my friend Scott London, when I knew he had images to fit some of their needs that I couldn’t fill.

They came back offering to buy 5 photos of mine, instead of the original one.

Sixth thing I did right: I doubled the price on two of the five images, because they had selected some nudes that had required model releases (and in one case a payment to the model.)

Again they agreed!

Bottom line:  A request for a single free photo turned into a multi-hundred-dollar sale of five images.

It’s a good reminder that we do well in life when we step up and help other people solve their problems.  I made it clear to this publisher that if they were prepared to pay a reasonable fee, then I would help locate the photos they needed, respond quickly, and deliver the goods fast, all of which reduces their workload and keeps them on deadline.

It was a great way to start the day.

Now I can’t wait to meet these Japanese tourists at Burning Man.

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  1. Ron says:

    Nicely done, Phil. I liked your referral to Scott, whose work is also excellent. Best wishes for continued success.

  2. Thank you for the practical information. The collage is great too, and gives the feeling of Burning Man. I am left with a creepy feeling though, of Japanese tourists running around looking for naked people. I hope the spirit of Burning Man will be taught (by?) to them prior to their arrival.

  3. admin says:

    Victoria, while I’m milking the idea of Japanese tourists for a laugh, I think their book presents Burning Man in a way that would only encourage readers with the true Burner spirit to actually attend. I’m not really worried we’ll see busloads of them arriving neatly dressed with cameras in hand! But it would be pretty funny. That’s a photo that I would love to stage if I could!

  4. […] Today, for example, I got a big, mysterious-looking box from Japan. I couldn’t recall ordering anything from Japan, so this seemed weird, and I started to fear I’d been drunk-shopping on Amazon again.   But I opened it to find three copies of a Japanese travel guide that had purchased some of my Burning Man photos (I wrote about that previously in a blog entry called How to Sell Photos to a Book Publisher). […]

  5. Hovering says:

    Very nice Phil. And very helpful as I am often asked for images from my collections. Sometimes credit is fine, but you were right on asking for compensation in this case. I really like how you turned this into a win-win for photographers and the client. I will follow this advice from now on when I have these requests. Thanks!

  6. Ginger says:

    Dear Phil,

    I think this theme was more “what to do when a publisher contacts you” instead of “how to sell to a publisher.”

    For instance initially how did they find or contact you? Did you have any dealings with them before they contacted you about the photo?

    And yes, I appreciate the things you did there after to make the sale happen.


  7. admin says:

    Ginger, in this case they simply found me via my website of Burning Man photos ( I guess you might say that Step 1 of How to Sell Photos to a Book Publisher is to make sure your work is visible and available online so people can find you.

  8. Scott London says:

    Thanks for your referral on this one, Phil. The publisher had already contacted me, as it happened. But I appreciated the gesture.

    I think you and I approached this situation in a similar way. I responded quickly, asked for a nominal payment, offered up a few more photos at no additional cost, and made a few suggestions about how to make the chapter on Burning Man as strong as possible. I also delivered my print-ready files within a matter of hours.

    It was a positive experience. Too often, though, these negotiations don’t turn out quite so well. In the same way that photographers can be flaky, book publishers and magazine editors can be fickle, cheap, arrogant, and generally unpleasant to work with.

    By the way, I thought your images looked great in the book.

  9. Lynne Richardson says:

    It sounds fortunate for you that you have these incredible pictures. One day I will! My question…did they the Japanese find you…or where you looking…I guess what I am trying to ask is…how do you find magazines, publishers..etc..that are looking for pictures? I do an internship for a local magazine…Arts in Alabama…of course for free..but its addicting…the opportunities and contacts you make. And thanks in advance for your time.!

  10. admin says:

    Lynne, in this case the publisher found my photos on my website and then contacted me. Having a site that showcases your work is a great sales tool. Sometimes I seek out assignments (such as local event photography, or travel photography), but more often I’ve been contacted by a publication that found my work online.

  11. donsheffler says:

    Phil – just have a nuts&bolts question. When they agreed to your terms did you provide to them a contract or agreement sheet for signatures ahead of sending images or did you send it along with them?

  12. admin says:

    Don, in this case the fee was small enough and the trust level high enough that I simply sent the images based on our email exchange as the “contract” and trusted they would pay me by PayPal as agreed. Fast and easy. I try to keep it uncomplicated when I can.

  13. Barbarar says:

    Congrats Phil, I think you did the right thing and handle the situation as a pro!
    Thanks for sharing!!!
    I hope to get discover one day and get to sell more of my Images and at a better prices! I do know I have to improve my Website for now its directed to certain people and customers. 🙂
    Keep it up, you have wonderful images
    Thanks again for sharing

  14. arsad says:

    Nice moves Phil, very pro and positive! I’m happy for you having lived this experience.

    I’m just starting my photography career, so its nice to imagine that somewhere on the path something similar awaits me… 😉

    Thank you for sharing this positive moment.

  15. Kevin Kundert says:

    Thanks for the tips Phil … keep em coming! There are sooo many photographers that barely make enough to pay for equipment (including me)… it’s nice to see practical methodsv to monetize photography.

  16. Tim says:

    Hey thanks for the tips.
    I had a Romanian writer contact me to ask if she could use one of my images for her science text book. The book would be used in college as a physics book.
    She said the publisher also in Romania wouldn’t have money to pay for my image.
    I asked for 2- copies of the book, and photo credit in the book.
    She said she loved the photo but couldn’t pay anything for it.
    She said there would be 200 copies sold at $25.00ea.
    Later, after I said I thought asking for a copy of the book would be considered within the normal bounds with no money changing hands but she turned me down even after I found out she would make 3,000 and get 10 copies herself, but she couldn’t send me one book.

    That’s how my luck went.

  17. admin says:

    Tim, I hope you said “No.”

  18. Mike says:

    Phil, great story and example, thanks. I can only hope to enjoy the same experience sometime so my hobby can pay for itself! What suggestions do you have re: pricing? Would $100 a photo be too much, too little? That bit of info was conspicuously absent from your post.

  19. admin says:

    Mike, I omitted the specifics because it varies so much from case to case and I don’t want my particular sale here to be seen as a benchmark. But $100 per photo is quite reasonable. It depends entirely on the nature of the publication, the size and location of the image, how it’s being used. I’ve sold photos for more and less than that amount. Of course if it’s a full page, or a cover, that’s worth far more than photos used in a collage like this.

  20. Nice one; fly the flag

  21. Nice blog Phil! Yes, I agree, delivering a product way ahead of what is expected is always a pleasant suprise. Now that they know they can’t count on you for speedy replies, and a reliable source, I’m sure it will be the beginning of a nice business relationship.

  22. Jay says:

    Good stuff. I like the way you presented your thought process. While not a direction I’m looking to take right now, I could see how the same could apply to other photo opportunities. Being a pro, and seeing yourself as a pro is really what it’s all about. Thanks for sharing.

  23. WOW! Congrats!!! Good lesson. I can relate I have jumped to do dummy cakes for magazines in order to get published, but after time and effort put into it you do come to a point where you want some compensation for your efforts more than just that picture out there. Good for you! AMAZING PICTURES of the burning man festival! So artistic. I’ve never seen photos of it that much before – heard of it, saw some exhibit in NODA at a gallery crawl once. But WOW your photos are fantastic! I can see why a photographer would have a great time there, even if the goings on were not up ones alley the artistic images are really something.

  24. This is right post about help another photographer need publish there work in magazine. It’s very difficult how our work in magazine. but your post is very good example. thanks the post.

  25. Phil Steele says:

    Vinod, thanks for the comment. You have some beautiful work on your website.

  26. George E. Norkus says:


    Besides great photography, I like the way you write!

    Simply put, I often don’t have the desire to read a novel just to get the writers point. You cover it in a couple paragraphs or less. I like that!

  27. Kevin says:


    I have recently started offering some of my work for sale and have had encouraging results.

    I struggled with setting the right price point for 20″ x 30″ color matte prints. I ended up selling a couple at $100.00 a piece.

    I am planning on setting up a booth to display and offer my images at the local Arts and Crafts events in 2012. Working to establish prices for various sized framed prints as well as prints only.

    This is a bit different then sending a digital image via email, but many of the same factors still apply. I am prepared to offer potential Customers something to purchase during their visit to my booth as well as my card with my website should they want to select and purchase something at a later date or refer someone.

    Thanks for the insight and details.

  28. Iris says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

  29. Bernie says:


    How do you get model releases from your subjects/models during events like this?

    Thanks a lot

  30. Phil Steele says:

    Bernie, sometimes I just get their email address and follow up later for a release. But I find it’s much more reliable to get a release on the spot, if the person has time to do it. I always carry a stack of releases in my camera bag. I also often carry a copy of a magazine with one of my photos on the cover, to show that I’m legitimate, and so that I can say, “Look, this is why I need a release from you.”

    I’ve found that 90% of the people I ask agree to sign a release. But that may be partly because I’ve become adept at finding people who seem open to being photographed in the first place. And of course you get a lot more cooperation if you are nice, sincere, and respectful with your subjects.

  31. Meagan says:

    The bus loads of Japanese tourists part is hilarious to me! I haven’t been to burning man, but very familiar. I am also from the Yellowstone region and tourists have been my biggest source of entertainment! Great article!

  32. Robyn says:

    Hello Phil, great to hear good news. Regarding the price of photos pre page, in my experience with magazines they usually have a set price per size of photo on the page, similar to the advertising blocks. I don’t know what the current rate is but 10 yrs ago I was getting around $ 200 for a quarter page I think.

    Not getting any thing at moment. Am doing art.

  33. TorontoCP says:

    Hey Phil …
    Good news ….. keep these stuff coming..
    good luck

  34. Matias says:


    sometimes we need some buisness ideas too

    thanks and greetings from chile

  35. RGHunt says:

    Great story. Love those images fro your best of.

  36. Toby says:

    What a burden, all those years at Burning Man…
    Great story; to me it is clear that it is not only your attention to detail in your photography (in my house you are now THE DoF guy!) but also in regards to your work ethic and customer service that yielded such a good result for you.
    Nice work and a good lesson to us flakes* out there 😉
    *DISCLAIMER even if not flaky I couldn’t take 90% of these photos

  37. Sandy says:

    I love the mental image of the Japanese publishers choosing that photo. Who’d have thunk it?

  38. James Berry says:

    That was a blessing…this is some good information. Its always good to be fast and on time. Helping them also worked out good for you..Thanks for the info

  39. you are my idol
    you are so so so so so so so so professional

  40. Malumbo Simwaka says:

    Thanks Phil for the tip 🙂 this gives me more work to do…

  41. Rangadang says:

    Excellent stuff and a valuable lesson. As usual, practical and interesting.

    Thanks Phil

  42. Ari says:

    I just got your e-mail How to sell photos to Japanese oh sorry to a Book Publisher.

    While sitting in front of computer (here in Japan) more than your e-mail Subject it was “Japanese travel book publisher” which attracted me more and made me read this article.

    And at the end of article I said, Phil you nicely tackled the situation. You are smart and learning from smart teacher is great.

  43. Nice success story but I guess you have the right “Karma” and I don’t! I have been contacted by three sources asking for rights to use some of my pictures but not only did they never mention money, they wanted free, unlimited rights – unrestricted use!

    Case in point: A few months ago I was contacted by a representative of the National Museum of Pacific War out of Fredericksburg, Texas asking for use of my (10) pictures of a 1/72 scale R/C model of the USS Nimitz to be shown in their museum. I had pictures of this amazing fully operational scale model in water (plus every other conceivable pictures of various details of this model). I went to far as to offer to mail their museum a CD of high resolution pictures. All I asked for in return was an honorable membership in their museum and, of course, credit as the photographer and a link to my web site. What I got was IGNORED!!!! Not even the courtesy of a reply! My opinion: “they can go to hell!”

    Maybe the Japanese would be more intelligent and polite than these damn people from Texas!!!!

  44. Great tips on how to stay in the game and turn a photo search into a Win Win for all involved.


  45. Kelly says:

    When do you need a model release. I was told in school you must have one anytime you have an identifiable person or place. I hope my instructor was being a little paranoid. I know this question is off topic but you mentioned needing a model release because some of the photos having nudes. Thanks

  46. Stephen says:

    A very interesting story with practical application for your followers. Good photographers also have to be good business people and I for one appreciated you sharing this.

  47. Lion says:

    Hi Phil,
    Thanks for sharing this great story. Congratulations as well.
    I’ve viewed, no, admired your pic of the Burning Man and have a question.
    Do you have model releases for all people on the pictures? If so, how did you get them? Seems not easy to me on a Festival like that. If not, did you sell pics of people without a model release and might that be a problem?
    I would be very greatful if you would anser these questions, because I don’t dare even publish people’s pics on my website without consent of the photographed persons.
    Love your posts anyway!

  48. Phil Steele says:

    It’s definitely a requirement to have releases for all people in photos that I sell or use commercially in any way. And yes, collecting them at a festival like Burning Man is difficult. You can read more about this in my free tutorial “Taking Better Photos at Burning Man” on my website. — Phil

  49. Babak says:

    Good work!

    Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

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