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PhotoBotanic.com – Self-Publishing Experiment

At launch of my new e-pub site, PhotoBotanic.comone book is ready, 3 more scheduled.

Screenshot PhotoBotanic eBooks

eBook page in the PhotoBotanic.com Bookstore

I have spent 30+ years in garden publishing, and am still standing.  I sold my first photograph 42 years ago.  Along the way I have received some nice awards and have been the sole photographer for so many books I have lost count; 21, I think?

Composite of covers by Saxon Holt

I now safely qualify as a veteran in this publishing biz and am delighted to see all the turmoil roiling through the industry.  As someone who is euphemistically called a “content creator”, I am no longer dependent on what others want to publish, I can do it myself.

Sure, anyone else with a website or blog can be a self-publisher.  But how do you make any money ?  How can the upheaval of traditional revenue streams be a positive thing ? Why would I delight in their demise and try to publish through the internet, where almost everything is free ?

First, I do not actually delight in the industry turmoil, and wish I did not have to deal with it.  I know too many of the real people who have spent their careers in publishing for me to be happy about changes to their livelihood.  Staff is down everywhere and few publications have photo editors anymore, delegating the work of a photo department to the graphic designer, or an editorial-assistant-copy-editor-intern, or even worse, to the writers.

Writers ?! I love ‘em, but aren’t they too, already feeling the pinch ?  They are struggling to keep up with writing and should not be put in the position of depending on their own photography.  Some are genuinely interested in camera work and some are even genuinely good, but almost all will admit they do it because of the pressure to publish their writing.

Economic pressures – to cut costs in all areas of publishing, have hurt photographers especially.  Photography is often seen as decoration to the other content, and while it was once on par with the writer’s budget in garden publishing, good quality stock photography is readily available from any decent amateur who knows how to use the internet.  Photography’s value has gone down, both as a line item in a publisher’s budget and in the importance it is given to editors.

Photography carries its own production cost in traditional publishing, requiring high grade paper (compared to a novel, for instance), talented designers, color separations, proofing, etc.  When pricing pressures hit hard, the part of a photography budget that gets slashed is the actual photography licensing, not so much the production department.

This pressure on photographers’ own income has been happening for a good 20 years.  When publishers realized they could save money in photo budgets by using stock photography instead of assigning a story, the value of an individual photographer’s own photojournalism talents and vision and began to wane.  Stock photography became more universal.  Big agencies such as Getty started to monopolize the channels to publishers for their own benefit instead of the photographers themselves.  Prices for photo licenses continued to plummet.

I never joined any stock photograph agency, perhaps stupidly, perhaps stubbornly protecting my own licensing, but today the market for photo sales to publisher is so meager and over-saturated it is a waste of time to pursue it.  I don’t need the credit or recognition – I publish for the money. I am lucky in my years of work, perseverance, credibility, and contacts that I still do sell stock and am grateful to every editor still calling, but it ain’t payin’ the bills.

Since I most certainly want to continue working and exploring plants and gardens, I need a new model.  I am staking it all on self-publishing at PhotoBotanic.com – my “brand”.PhotoBotanic.com home page Jan2015

I have been excited about this for many years, talking among friends and colleagues in the publishing trenches, discussing the shifts in publishing, about the potential for each of us to publish what WE want.  I am grateful for all the encouragement, and three years ago decided the only way to see if it could work was to actually do it.

Fundamental to the whole concept of self publishing is self promotion.  The work will not sell itself and needs a way to find customers, a platform for marketing.   Numerous consultants suggested “Saxon Holt” is already well recognized as a brand in my niche, but as someone pathologically adverse to promoting myself, I need some cover.  I have been using PhotoBotanic as my stock photography “brand” for many years, without really promoting it either.  So if my future income depends on self publishing and self promotion, PhotoBotanic it is.

The concept for making money on the site must begin with believing my own photography style is something viewers will pay for.  Having done so many books with enough awards I am vain enough to think my photography has an audience.  I get good feedback from my workshops and praise from peers.

I think people will pay for my work, if only I can offer it to them directly, not as a supplier to a publisher. The internet is designed to connect people.  I need to figure this out.

For a long while I read every internet guru’s blog and prowled the expert sites full of sincere and earnest advice about the future of publishing.  Then I realized all these folks are actually consultants and each one says something like “xyz idea is a super cool idea that is going to change the internet”; maybe.  Then 2-3 months later I would hear about something else.

What these experts are publishing themselves is hope, commentary, and speculation to each other for the benefit of folks standing on the sidelines.  And nothing seemed to pertain to me and heavily illustrated books of photography.  So I just put my head down, hired some consultants, and plowed forward.

What PhotoBotanic.com has become is completely new, I don’t know of anyone else creating a similar platform.  But when I stopped reading about the trend setting ideas, I may very well have missed the bulletin saying this is not going to work.  Well, onward ….

I have tried to incorporate every possible revenue stream a photographer can hope for.  I have a membership section, an eBook and iBook section, I have a store with self licensed merchandise, I sell prints and notecards, and I still keep an entire library with galleries of my stock photography for high res download.

Indeed, in my rush to expand my business, I nearly forgot to tell my web meister to incorporate my core business of stock photography into the new PhotoBotanic site map.  I sure don’t want my photo editors to arrive at the site and not know how to search for photos.

To license my stock I have been using Photoshelter as my online Archive for years as my high res library and gallery of story ideas.  Photoshelter is used by thousands of photographers to market their work directly to customers, and unlike some other digital download services it makes no grandiose claims to sell the photographers work for them.  It is really just a tool, and I put it to work as if it were application programming interface (API) – a software tool within the larger software that is the whole site.

Similarly, I use Fine Art America to fulfill framed print sales and Café Press for gifts and merchandise as API tools.  Both these sites entice artists to use their services and to set up storefronts, touting the new customers and wide exposure they bring to the artist.  Yeah, right.  I hide these services behind my own store.  I intend to bring business to them (he says with hubris…)

To sell my ebooks as direct digital downloads on site, we set up a Content Delivery Network (CDN) that facilitates the process across a wide geographic region.  I am also testing out small iBooks available from iTunes™ and Google Play™ that are the individual lessons from my garden photography workshop lessons, otherwise available to subscribers in the Learning Center section of PhotoBotanic.

Screenshot PhotoBotanic book page

PhotoBotanic.com is a membership site, with most core content only available to members.  But most of those in depth articles are in the free membership section.  Paid subscribers are students of the PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop where lessons are released to them on a drip schedule – “dripped” to them on bi-monthly depending on the day they sign up.

I think I have covered every possible way this photographer can capture income from his images.  As I add more product, track page visits, and sales I will get an idea as to what sort of images sell on what sort of products, so the work is only beginning.  However the hope is that

the eBooks become the core income to PhotoBotanic, just as traditional publishing has always been the core income for SaxonHolt.

By the way, I also redesigned SaxonHolt.com to be my portfolio and assignment site.  I intend to keep getting commissions and assignments, but will use PhotoBotanic as a brand and platform to license images (as allowed by various assignment contracts).

I certainly do hope to keep contributing to books and magazine stories with traditional, dead tree publishers, but that market has shrunk. I find myself itching to do my own stories and follow new ideas and trends, unwilling to wait for a publisher.  I will publish myself.

Putting that new content behind a membership wall forces me to write well enough to make it worthwhile.  I really don’t expect to get enough subscribers to count on as its own income stream, but if I produce enough quality content, one article a week, focused around my core story lines, I can produce 4 eBooks a year.Screenshot Plants Celebrated page

This is thrilling: four books a year on subjects I am passionate about, with photos I choose rather than publishing one book every two years and doing stories for others, on gardens I would not choose.  Seems like a perfect set-up for an inquiring veteran photojournalist.

Let’s see if it makes money.  A leap of faith.

As my favorite cowboy poet Guy Clark wrote in “the Cape”:

He’s one of those who knows that life 

Is just a leap of faith 

Spread your arms and hold you breath 

Always trust your cape 

….

He did not know he could not fly 

So he did 

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3 Comments

  1. January 15, 2015, 5:32 pm   /  Reply

    Sounds like an exciting venture. Congrats on the new site, and good luck to you, Saxon!

    • saxonholt
      January 16, 2015, 3:53 pm   /  Reply

      Thanks of dropping by Pam. It’s an exciting time.

  2. Jack Winston
    January 24, 2015, 11:02 am   /  Reply

    I will get in touch regarding reusing this blog post

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