The Importance of Having An ISBN

Back in the days when having a personal Wikipedia mention gave a photographer bragging rights, two good friends created a Wiki entry for me on my birthday.

Culling information from various sources, such as my resume, they made me an ‘important’ online personality, just because if you perform a Google search with my name, you’ll see that I have been Wiki-ed.
Big deal? Not in today’s context, when almost anyone you know has one. And come to think of it, how hard was it to create a Wiki-entry? Not hard at all, because all you needed was an account, the time, and some info.
It comparison, it is still hard for a photographer to publish his own book. But that, in the big scheme of things, is also relatively easy.
I have four self-published books in my good name, and therefore also four unique ISBNs, an international standard numeric system for cataloging published books.
For the record, I also worked on other commissioned books for established publishers, but the ISBNs are not necessarily in my name.
Noticed the underlined and bold words? Of course you must.
While self-published doesn’t always mean 100% DIY, some photographers shy from it because it can suggest that nobody else wants to publish them.
And in the photo world, that can be a real ego-buster.
Till this day, there are still people who refused to accept that I am a published author because self-publishing just doesn’t count for them.
I know they are wrong. Trust me on that.
In the ideal world, I would of course like one of the established stables to front my titles, but the truth is that the process is long, expensive, and often very political.
You need the agents, you need the emissaries, and all these substances to oil the whole machinery cost money.
I self-published Panoramic Singapore in 2007, my first book, because I was stubborn; because few people understood the little idiosyncrasies I associated with the personal project.
In the long five-year wait from making the images to realizing my first monograph, I rejected a handsome sponsorship and the chance to be ‘properly’ published because I would have to subject my works to some censorship.
In the end, I agreed to be a brand ambassador for a major printer company, in exchange for money to finance the printing of the book.
In this deal, I drafted my own agreement and dictated what my financier would get in exchange for paying for my printing.
I then pre-sold more than 150 of the 500 copies at close to full price.
Not only was the printing cost covered in this case, I kept all the profits from book sales.
So here you go, the first advantage of self-publishing: you get to decide many things. Not just that, you can actually make money.
That, I have to add, was before Facebook and before Kickstarter.
My second book, in contrast, was a small undertaking, costing a fraction of my first.
A photographic novella comprising of a short story I wrote in university and images from my archives, Becoming Capa has fewer than 60 pages, and was produced at less than 800 sterling pounds.
All 300 copies have since been sold out and I am in the process of releasing a second edition.
Facebook was just gaining in popularity and I used it extensively to promote my undertaking, drumming up publicity for myself, and the book, by releasing work-in-progress images and musings about the editing and design process.
My third book, Spooks, is much more ambitious and this time, 100% of the funding came from the sales of my limited edition prints from this series.
Strictly speaking, I didn’t even need to make a single cent from the sale of this book.
The best thing about self-publishing is that I got to learn about the book business first hand. Sure, I made my fair share of mistakes but overall, I gained more than what I had put in, and have been able to use my new knowledge to help others.
Made In Singapore, my fourth book, was released this February and it is part of a big publishing project I co-founded.
The Twentyfifteen.sg initiative, now in its eighth book, benefited from many lessons I learned working on my first three books.
Starting with three donations of close to 2000 sterling pounds from three good friend, we use a pay-forward model, where proceeds from the first book pays for second, the second for the third, etc etc.
To supplement the funds from book sales, we also offer limited edition prints. We also sold in bulk, with some discounts of course.
Seriously, we are not talking nuclear science here, but some knowledge of technology will help.
Learn how to collect money on PayPal, learn how to profit from print-on-demand, learn how to be a marketer on Facebook or Twitter. Learn Indesign.
The hardest part, you will soon realize, is not money.
Oh, it won’t be fair to end this column without talking about our friend Wikipedia.
You know what, that is a form of self-publishing too yeah?
Now ISBN away!
This column first appeared in August 2014 issue of Professional Photographer UK.