On October 3, 2014, I drove to the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in Washington, DC and began making photographs of bonsai trees. I had recently finished walking the border of Washington, DC had been thinking about starting a new personal project centered on these trees, which I had initially seen nearly twenty years ago.
Two years later, I published a book of these photographs based on a successful Kickstarter. The book was featured by National Geographic, Slate, Atlas Obscura and others and I’ve been interviewed by BBC and CNN and Channel News Asia. This was my first time crowdfunding and making my own book, and I thought it might be helpful to share a few things I’ve learned along the way - about what worked and didn’t work.
Kickstarter + Finding my first supporters
Getting comfortable promoting this project (and, in essence, promoting myself) was crucial to the success of this project. As a freelance photographer, it took me a long time to really understand the constant marketing marathon you need to run in order to be successful, but I think it made it a lot easier to embark on this project. With that said, it felt a bit terrifying to put myself out there so publicly - whether I succeeded or failed, everyone was going to know about it.
Second point is persistence. Most of the people you reach out to won't respond and most of the ones who do respond won't be interested in helping you. The success of this project was largely based on keeping at it - sending hundreds of emails and pursuing every possible lead. You never know what's going to lead to a great opportunity.
There are a lot of guides out there about running successful Kickstarter campaigns, so I'm not going to go too deep in this, but the key for me was making connections with prominent people in the bonsai community, then seeking out a wider audience through various relevant sites (as linked above).
After launching the Kickstarter, I reached out to hundreds of bonsai experts I had found and sent them a quick note with some images, explaining the project.
Here’s the email I sent:
I’m a photographer based in Washington, DC and I’ve been photographing bonsai for the past year at the National Bonsai Museum & Penjing Museum here in DC.
I just launched a campaign this morning to make a book of the photographs on Kickstarter.
You can see it here:
I’d very much appreciate if you would share this within your bonsai community if you think it would be of interest.
You can also see the Facebook page for the project here: https://www.facebook.com/InTrainingBonsaiBook
If you find the project interesting, I’d love to have your support.
Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing from you,
I had some pretty good success with that, getting nice write-ups from prominent members of the worldwide bonsai community:
Harry Harrington - In Training: Photographing the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum
Michael Hagedorn - New Bonsai Book from photographer Stephen Voss
Wayne Schoech - A Post Dated Love Letter
This felt like the foundation of my supporters and once that was done, I began casting a wider net, sending notes to every photography-related site I could find as well as design blogs. This was no small task - I sent out 200+ individual, personalized e-mails, posted on some relevant forums and Facebook groups, and followed up with everyone once the book was out.
In terms of what actually led to people supporting the project, here's a little breakdown from my Kickstarter dashboard.
In the end, I has 222 supporters from 10 countries (more on that later) who pledged $20,398 to support the book. After Kickstarter took its cut, I had $18,290 to go towards printing costs for the book. I felt especially proud that over half of the supporters were new to Kickstarter, meaning they went through the registration process and signup in order to support the project.
Working with a designer
Hiring a designer to work on this project was the best decision I made. In Polygraph, I found a partner who embraced this project wholeheartedly. First-time bookmakers, I can't emphasize the value in this enough. Polygraph saw beyond just the images to create this beautiful piece of art that you could hold in your hands. At the same time, they dealt with the printer directly - managing color issues, paper choices, CMYK conversions, etc.
Colleagues of mine had worked with Edition One books and I’d always been impressed by the end results, so they were my first choice for this project. I also found their online price estimator invaluable in figuring out how much money I needed to raise to pay for the book. Based on their estimates, 500 copies of the book would come out to $46.80 per book. This felt high, but I knew I’d be working with a company that made beautiful books and it seemed worth it.
My colleagues at Polygraph had been in contact with Edition One over the course of the book design to ensure that everything they were designing into the book would be possible (multiple paper stocks, foil embossing, screen printing on the cover, etc.). At the same time, the book absolutely needed to be in my hands by May 13, 2016, when I’d have my book launch party and exhibition at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.
In the middle of March, with the design nearing completion, I received a note from Polygraph saying that Edition One’s initial 4-6 week timeline on making the book would be closer to 8+ weeks. Factoring in shipping, it no longer seemed likely that we’d be able to meet our publishing deadline with them.
At this point, Polygraph made some heroic efforts to line up a new printer and, after a tense few days, we settled on Asia Pacific Offset based in Hong Kong, but, helpfully, with an office in Washington, DC. They were excellent from the beginning, and my jaw dropped when they sent over their estimate for printing. Our initial estimate of around $46.80 per book (for a print run of 500), was now significantly less than half that per book if I printed 2000 copies. I wasn’t surprised that dealing directly with an overseas printer resulted in a less expensive book, but I was positively stunned that I’d be able to print 2000 copies for the cost originally estimated for 500 copies.
Incidentally, they still had to rush shipping and as you can see below, I ended up paying an additional $2100 to have 200 copies air-shipped to me for the book launch. They ended up arriving on May 12, 2016, one day before the book launch.
As an aside - printing 2000 copies of the book with Edition One would’ve worked out to approximately $21.30 per book, plus shipping.
Promotion + Selling
Cost: $144/year (through Squarespace)
Verdict: Sold approximately 60 books through the web site so far.
Getting out in front of people to talk about the book was one of the most valuable things I did and continue to do. After my book launch party in May, the photos were exhibited at the Japanese Information and Culture Center in Washington, DC for nearly two months. We held an exhibit opening reception where I gave a talk about the bonsai and Jack Sustic (curator of the museum) actually brought some trees to show and did a bonsai demonstration.
How did I get the photo exhibit at JICC? I sent the email below and promptly forgot about it.
I'm a photographer based in DC and am working on a book about one of Japan's great cultural exports to the United States: bonsai trees.
I've been photographing the bonsai collection at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum here in DC for the past year. This is one of the finest collection of bonsai trees outside of Japan and this museum started in 1975 when the Nippon Bonsai Association gave 53 trees. There is a Japanese Pavilion that is being constructed right now that will permanently house the trees.
Right now, I am raising funds to publish this book and you can see the campaign here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/131074671/in-training-a-book-of-bonsai-photographs
I'd love to do something in collaboration with the Japan Information and Culture Center as I think these photos celebrate Japanese culture as well as the strong relationship between the US and Japan.
I'd also very much appreciate if you could share this link with your Twitter and Facebook followers.
Thanks for your time,
A month later they reached out to me to request a meeting and, at that meeting, agreed to hold an exhibition of the work, to begin approximately seven months later. This was one of at least twenty organizations I reached out to, and the only one that responded.
After the reception, I scheduled a number of Artist Talks on weekdays at lunchtime. The exhibition space is in a very busy part of downtown DC and each Monday for the month of August, I would invite people to come in to see the work and talk about it. Each Artist Talk brought in between ten and twenty-five people and the events were a lot of fun. Talking about the book and photos in this more intimate setting allowed for a more conversational presentation and it was gratifying to receive so much positive feedback from people who attended.
Cost: approx. $2000 for exhibition prints + promotional postcards
Verdict: Great experience and notable increase in book sales.
I’ve never run a Facebook ad in my life and am generally pretty disdainful of most kinds of advertising. With that said, I was looking to maximize exposure of the book and thought I’d give it a try. The biggest thing Facebook has going for it is the ability to precisely target your ads (in terms of geography, demographics, interests, etc.), so, for instance, I could run an ad aimed at women who live in Japan, 18-50 years old, who are interested in bonsai, Japanese gardening and/or fine art photography books. Facebook’s massive audience meant that there was a sizable audience to serve ads to even as your ads became more precisely targeted.
I was able to track click-throughs on the ad that directly resulted both in backing the Kickstarter project and, later, in actual book sales that far exceeded the amount I spent on the ad campaign.
Cost: (approximately) $750 (for both Kickstarter campaign and selling the book)
Verdict: Definitely worth it.
Twitter also lets you precisely target your audience, but with an audience that is about 1/5 of Facebook in terms of MAUs (Monthly Active Users), there simply aren't enough users to serve ads to. It took almost a month to go through my $75 ad budget on Twitter and it resulted in zero sales.
Verdict: Not worth it.
Baker & Taylor and Ingram are two of the largest book distributors in the world and are challenging for independent photo book publishers to get distributed by them. It's vital to be carried by a larger distributor as it will make it easier for independent bookstores to carry your book. Having to do paperwork/payment for someone selling a single book is not cost-effective and will make it difficult for any bookstore to want to carry your book. By having your book with one of these distributors, they can buy it right alongside the new Dan Brown novel.
These folks will do it for you: http://www.bookch.com/
Verdict: As of today, 10/28/16, 21 books sold.
For a flat fee of $1500, Amazon will distribute and review as many of your books as you’d like. This was the most expensive single promotion I did for the book and I have very mixed feelings about it. On one hand, having more reviews is good and some of the Vine reviews were some of the most insightful and interesting of any that were left. Still, I'm sure I'm not the only one who tends to gloss over reviews marked as "Vine Customer Review of Free Product". See the Amazon reviews for my book here.
Cost: $1500 (!)
Verdict: Received mostly positive reviews, but I’m undecided as to whether these “bought” reviews carry much weight.
Selling through Amazon
I knew early on that I wanted to sell the book through Amazon to reach the widest possible audience. I also knew I wanted Amazon to handle fulfillment, which would allow the books to be listed as Amazon Prime, which removes a lot of the friction of buying online. The flip side is the percentage Amazon takes out. For a $65 book, I make $29.25 per copy (minus my costs for actually printing the book and shipping it to the Amazon warehouse).
Cost: 55% purchase discount by Amazon, plus a $99 annual fee, plus shipping book to Amazon (breaks down to about $2/book), pricing outlined here.
Verdict: 35 books sold to date, a minor success at best
There is no shortage of "author services" out there that are happy to take your money to ostensibly promote or review your book and feature it on their web site. The vast majority of these services seem like a waste of money at best and, sometimes, an outright scam.
Kirkus is the largest of the book review services and their reviews are automatically picked up by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others on the book's listing page, so these reviews tend to carry a bit more weight.
For an indie book publisher, you need to submit the book through "Kirkus Indie", which overwhelmingly caters to ebook writers or print-on-demand books. I wasn't sure that my book was a good fit, but decided to give it a try anyway. After paying the fee and submitting the book, I received the review about six weeks later.
The following month, I received notice that my book was selected as a Featured Review, of which less than 10% of books submitted are chosen. This meant the review would be included in the print publication sent to librarians, publishers, etc.
Verdict: TBD - no measurable sales from this and I'm undecided as to whether this resulted in actual sales.
As I row over the plain Of the sea and gaze Into the distance, the waves Merge with the bright sky. - Fujiware No Tadamichi Cedar Elm, in training since 1981. This is an out-take from my book of bonsai photos entitled In Training. This project was two years in the making and the book is now available for order. See the link in my profile. Visit the link in my profile to order the book and prints. #bonsai #japan #bonsaitrees #盆栽 #盆景 #분재 #tree #trees #nature #weetrees #acreativedc #washingtondc #washingtonian #exposeddc #igdc #dcphotography #dcfocused #dcist #dctography
Over a three month period, I posted a new out-take from the bonsai book every couple of days on my Instagram account. I accompanied each with a bit of Japanese poetry that I thought complemented the image. I can’t recommend the Later app enough for queuing up your Instagram posts. While Instagram doesn’t allow you to actually delay posting, you can use Later to write out each post in its entirety and schedule the time and date it should be posted. On that day, you’ll get an alert on your phone and with a few simple taps, you can post the image, text and appropriate tags. This seemed like the best way to keep a steady stream of new content related to the book out there.
Verdict: Great service and makes it much easier to plan your IG postings (which I posted to Twitter as well).
Bonsai Videos on Facebook
After reading so much about the value of video on Facebook, I decided to create some videos of some of my favorite trees and promote them on my Facebook page for the book. Here’s one example (https://www.facebook.com/InTrainingBonsaiBook/videos/598500716978730/). The videos got a ton of views/shares, but it was hard to quantify their effect or if they translated into actual sales.
Cost: approx. $75 for licensed music
Verdict: Great response, no idea if it meant any sales.
Independent bookstores + design shops
I knew early on that selling to bookstores would be an uphill battle given the cost and size of the book. I compiled a list of indie bookstores (starting here, then also using IndieBound). I sent a personalized note to each bookstore, about 80 in total. Here's an example I sent to the great Pegasus Books in Berkeley, CA:
Hi Pegasus Books,
I had the pleasure of visiting your book store the last time I was passing through Berkeley and wanted to share my new book with you.
For the past two years, I've been photographing bonsai trees and have just self-published a book entitled In Training (2000 copies, ISBN: 9780692585160) of these photos. Attached is the book cover and a few inside photos.
The book retails for $65 USD and is available from Ingram and Baker & Taylor.
The book has already done well at bookshops here in DC, appeal to those interested in gardening, Japanese culture and fine art photography. California has more bonsai practitioners than anywhere else in the country, so I think this book would be especially appealing to your audience.
Thanks for your time, and let me know if you think this would be a good fit at Pegasus.
Verdict: Labor-intensive and less than 10% of book stores even replied to the email, but a few bookstores (and one design shop) did agree to carry the book and ordered it through the distributor.
I sent copies of the book to a number of people prominent in the bonsai community and received a number of really nice write-ups of the book. I used one on the opening page of my book site.
Cost: Book cost + shipping
Verdict: Very valuable and tangible book sales after people in bonsai community read the reviews.
Other Random Thoughts
International postage is very expensive and I had Kickstarter supporters from all over the world. As an example, it cost $47.03 to send the book to France. It felt ridiculous to charge that much for international shipping, so I ended up charging a bit less, thereby making less profit on each book.
ISBN + Barcodes
It's important to get an ISBN (which you can apply for before the book is published) and, while you're at it, a barcode as well which is a requirement for selling at Amazon. If you can get this printed on the back of the book, that's great.
In my case, the book cover is made of linen, so I had to order bar code stickers (from this company) that had a special, removable adhesive so the sticker wouldn't damage the book if removed.
Thanks, everyone, for reading. I'd love any feedback and would be happy to answer any other questions you might have. And please feel free to share if you find this useful.
Lastly, if you liked any of the images you saw from the book, you can buy it today.