Pacific Northwest Wildlife is another interesting self-publishing success story. I met the author and photographer, Aaron Baggenstos, at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. I was there because of my son, Lorenzo is also wildlife photographer.
As I got to know Aaron, I learned he was transitioning to a new career as a photographer. Making a living as a photographer is a hard thing to do, and I was skeptical that Aaron could sell enough photography. But his vision included the idea of leading wildlife and photography tours. For that I thought, he certainly had the right personality and skills, and I knew I could help him. A beautiful coffee-table wildlife photography book would be a great marketing and promotional tool for letting people know about his skills and talents.
As time passed, we stayed in touch, and Aaron’s portfolio of wildlife photography grew in quality and size. When Aaron knew he was ready to create a book to showcase his new work, he came to me with a project idea.
Early on, we needed to discuss the budget, because one of the biggest challenges of creating a color coffee-table book is the print cost. It is a significant amount of money when you’re just starting a business. There are cost-saving strategies for both state-side and off-shore printing, but it is essential to not sacrifice quality. The book marketplace is competitive, and buyers have plenty of good choices. The book needs to be unique and immediately recognizable. Above all, it needs to be high quality. Looking at the costs, we calculated a cover retail price of $34.95. This left some room for occasional discounts and the retailer cut (usually 40–50%).
Before investing any money in printing, Aaron pitched the book to Costco, the largest American membership-only warehouse club. Generally speaking, getting a book into a store that is not bookstore is a great opportunity, because there are fewer books to compete against and the buyer rightly assumes the books are cherry-picked for the audience. To increase the book’s chances, we were careful to make it conform to important Costco criteria and use good presentation images. They agreed to take 1700–2000 copies, and he could be at locations to sign books. Even with a 50% distributor cut, that could be worth more than $30,000. This one arrangement could cover all production costs and hand Aaron a nice profit. Plus he would still have copies remaining that he could sell and use to promote his business. Most businesses have to spend money on advertising; few get to sell that advertising for a profit! Publishing is one form of content marketing that pays back.
Aaron took my advice and agreed to follow publishing best practices—professional editing and proofreading, design, a marketing strategy, and a printer who specialized in color books. As a designer, I focused on creating a product with a high perceived value that would showcase both his work and introduce him as a photographer. To achieve this, I would do a number of things, including creating custom maps and chapter icons. The maps reinforced an important concept behind the book—travel across the Pacific Northwest—the region where the wildlife habitats are located. This would help communicate the “tour” aspect of his business. The maps were both decorative and functional. The first map is designed to create a distinct and striking table of contents spread at the start of the book. It is a very simple depiction of the Pacific Northwest and shaped to suggest the contour of the globe—no labels or markers. The second map is more functional, giving names and details of the various locations for National Parks and habitats found in the book.
The chapter icons represent Aaron taking photos. It is a small touch, but it helps convey and remind the reader that Aaron is the person behind all the beautiful photographs in the book. It also helps communicate to the reader that photography is a skill and an adventure activity that they too can experience.
Rather than simply “self-publish,” Aaron set up a publisher identity, making himself an independent publisher. He could use this identity for the book and any future projects. I redesigned the logo to create one that would go with the perceived value and elegant style of the book—simpler and cleaner. The new logo was also more functional for applications on book products.
The story of Aaron’s book got interesting again when the Costco buyer changed her mind. While we were working on the book, Costco had agreed to carry a new anthology from a very well-known and famous wildlife photographer. This was not a huge problem because the book would sell. But it was an unfortunate setback. However, I was reasonably confident that if he took a copy of Pacific Northwest Wildlife and showed her how nice it had turned out, the original offer would hold together. It worked. Once they saw the book, the show was on again.
It is a lot of work promoting a book, doing the book signings, and managing the fulfillment with the stores, but Aaron did it, and it paid off. The book remains an important showcase of his photography work in the Pacific Northwest. His tour business grew and now includes amazing trips to Africa, Costa Rica, and Alaska. He has expanded his portfolio vastly and is now an Award-winning wildlife photographer, recognized by National Geographic, Nature’s Best, Outside, NANPA, and the Audubon Society. Recently, several of his images were chosen for both final rounds in the prestigious 2015 & 2016 BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year. As someone who knows Aaron personally, he’s exactly the kind of guy you would want leading your tour and helping you with your photography skills. When I met him, his goal was to earn of living selling photography. Now, he does the photography he loves, but he also makes his living doing something just as valuable—creating memorable life experiences for his tour clients.
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