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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. Joan Sorolla says:

    Well done! Good tips to keep in mind!

  2. Brian Gidley says:

    Since retirement I have given copywrite to magazines of many photos but, no more, especially after reading this article. I am a bit of a ‘Greeny’ and normally only photograph endangered birds of New Zealand. On a recent trip to the UK I was asked if I would be interested in conducting wildlife tours in NZ. Hence the delay in any website that is a work in progress but depending on a little research, your article gives one a little confidence. Even though Digital has made things a little easier, it can still be a rather expensive hobby if done correctly. My wife will be rather pleased if I can cover my costs.

  3. Bwire Mark says:

    Am Heavly inspired. Webale Nyo” means “thanks very MUch

  4. Clayton says:

    Thanks for Sharing.. Very interesting read and makes me realise that I would also like to have my work published some day.. Keep up the great work and advise.


  5. Mark Lavery says:

    Haven’t messed with submitting photos for ages, but have had requests for personal prints. I just hate wasting time with publishers, and sometimes the personal requests also, because they want something for nothing, and I have stood my ground.
    But your experience is definitely an inspiration, and something for all photographers to remember….also, that their time and talent are indeed worth something. Thank You!

  6. Ray Haberman says:

    I’m often asked why I don’t sell my pictures. I cite two reasons. One, it is my hobby and I didn’t want to change it from that to a business and two, I don’t know what a fair price would be. I still don’t know what a fair price would be but, after reading this blog, I might give it a try. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Jean Wibbens says:

    I sell a number of prints through galleries and private sales. Also I teach at a local Art Center regularly-but figuring out what a fair price for my other work is where I have a difficulty. How does one determine a fair price for book publishers or magazines? I find that sometimes they already have a set budget-but otherwise it seems to be a shot in the dark.
    Thanks for this story of inspiration. One always gets requests for free work in exchange for exposure. They don’t realize that you were found because of the exposure you already have.

  8. Alex Gabriel says:

    Very good information. So out of curiosity assuming you were contracted to do a documentary photoshoot that would have the images used to develop a book.How would you go about charging such a client?

  9. Graham Payne says:

    I have just had a look at the Burning Man site. How on earth did they get some of the enormous props out into the desert? Nice Photos.

  10. Hans Preuss says:

    Interesting story, keeps me going, seems that standing your ground is the right way to go; well done

  11. Teresa says:

    Did you have to sell your copyright to the photo or does that remain yours? I am new to all of this.

  12. Phil Steele says:

    Teresa, you should never give up your copyright. You just sell the right to use your photo, for a limited time, in a particular context. The copyright is always yours.

  13. Bravo! Well done. That was a cheery (and informational) story.

  14. Tina says:

    Amazing! This gives me motivation. Very inspiring.

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