self publishing for artists


Self-publishing used to be expensive and time-consuming. Artists would have to Xerox black and white magazines and bind them by hand. Color publishing was even more expensive. In order to get a nice, hard cover book you had to work with a publishing house, which meant you had to answer to someone else when it came to design decisions, release dates, distribution, etc. Some independent zines are still made using Xerox machines and DIY processes, but for those who want a more polished look, self-publishing is an accessible option. Most self-publishing services are conducted exclusively online. You will be prompted to upload a cover, book pages, and any other content that will be bound together in your publication.

While publishing houses are absolutely necessary when it comes to contributing to the larger art discourse, self-publishing has definitely broadened the field, and artists everywhere can see their books realized at an affordable price with a quick turnaround. Our GYST manual is self-published. 

Preliminary Questions

If you want to create your own publication it’s best to research your options and plan far in advance of any foreseeable deadline, self-imposed or not. Here are some questions to ask before you begin designing your publication:

What is your bottom line cost per item? This means the most you are willing to spend to print each book. Deciding this ahead of time will help make some later tough decisions much easier.

Do you want your publication to be in color, or black and white? Black and white books cost much less to print, but some images simply must be in color. If you do decide to print your book in color you may have to sacrifice page count to meet your bottom line budget. Consult with your publisher to ensure that image quality will not be diminished. You can also entertain the idea of a smaller edition of your publication in color and a larger edition in black and white. This might provide you and your book buyers with options.

How many pages will be in your publication? A 24-page book obviously costs less to print than a 240-page book. Pay attention to how publishers charge for pages printed. Sometimes a publisher will charge the same amount for a book between 144 and 184 pages. Do your research. 

How good are you at designing books? A poorly designed book can create a horrible reading experience and may even make your work look bad. If you do have some design experience you are in luck. If you know the basics of a program like InDesign you can design a good-looking book. For those artists who don’t know how to use design programs, some self-publishers have great intuitive publishing software available for download from their website. They contain templates and easy drag-and-drop instructions for you to follow. Although these software alternatives can be convenient for non-tech-savvy artists, they are very limited in design options.

How do you plan to distribute your book? If you only want to send your book around to select collectors or galleries this might influence how many books you want to initially print. If you are planning to sell many books at an event, like a fair or an opening, you might need to order more books at once. While one of the joys of self-publishing is that you can print books on-demand, meaning one at a time, you need to allow for print time, which can be as long as three weeks. Plan ahead! 

Publishing Your Book

How you publish your book varies depending on which self-publishing service you go with. No matter what service you use make sure you do the following:

Some publishing companies like Blurb or Lulu put their own logo on final books and charge a small fee to have this removed from you book. It is worth paying the fee for your book to look more professional. 

Have someone responsible and skilled read and edit your publication before sending it to press. A good copyeditor will find and correct grammar and spelling mistakes. You might consider paying someone to copyedit to make sure you end up with a flawless book. No matter what, have at least two different sets of eyes look at your book before it goes to press.

If time permits, order a test copy of your book to get a feel for the printer’s paper stock and printing quality. You don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars ordering dozens of books, only to be dissatisfied with the end product. Once you get your test book, consider the weight of the paper, the vibrancy of the colors, and the quality of the printing. It’s best to get your book designed and printed correctly the first time and avoid the expense and hassle of redesigning and reordering it several times.

Other things you should research and include, if applicable, are ISBN numbers, bar codes, page layout options, binding options, and the print quality.

Pricing and Distributing Your Book

Your publication serves multiple purposes. It’s a portfolio of sorts, something that can develop your collector base. It’s an academic tool that can help you secure teaching and lecture positions.  It can even be a unique or editioned work of art. A self-published book is an art material too!  Because your book can do so much for you, it needs to be priced to sell. So, unless your book is part of a limited edition run, you want to make your book affordable so you cover production costs and make enough money to continue printing your book. 

Be realistic when pricing your book. Usually this means charging twice what it cost to print the book. Many retailers mark-up three times the wholesale price. This pricing ensures a recovery of production, overhead, and genuine profit to the business. Most artist’s monographs are priced under $60. If you try and sell your book for more than this you might find your pool of willing buyers shrinking. If you absolutely must sell your book for more than this, consider including a drawing or print with each copy. That way your book will be more appealing to a collector base that may not have enough money to buy your more expensive work, but still wants to support your practice. 

Like everything in your art world life, context is king. After printing, shop your book around to local independent bookstores to see if they might be interested in selling it to the public. For example, Ooga Booga and Skylight Books in Los Angeles routinely sell self-published artists books. Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago also sells artists’ books. New York City is filled with dozens of places, such as Printed-Matter, Inc., which stock self-published artists’ books. If you don’t live in these cities consider sending a copy to one of these stores with a great letter of introduction (see Cover Letter Section). However, be sure to check submission requirements. Many of these artist book stores receive a lot of submissions and their review process can be strict. If possible, join together with other artists and DIY publishers to sell your books at a local coffee shop, nonprofit organization, or bookstore. 

Selling your publication online can be easy as well. You can create a shopping cart on your website and sell directly to your viewers. Many of the self-publishing services also give you the option of selling your new creation on their public marketplace. Although this might cost you money due to the percentage they take from each sale, you don’t have to lift a finger. And if you are particularly tech-savvy, have the time, and the money, you can translate your publication into an ebook. These mobile electronic books can be read on atablet or smart phone. They can even be programmed to include video, animated graphics, sound, and live links.  

Market your self-published book like you would your artwork. Start a Facebook page for it, start a blog, tweet about your book. Invite others to support your publishing efforts by spreading the word. Create an online lottery, where the winner gets a signed copy of your book. No matter what, make sure to get your book out to as many interested buyers and collectors as possible. Your book can operate as an exhibition space or project, as well as a traditional book. Some artists’ books are also created as a limited edition.


Feel free to share this article with other artists.

You can also get our popular book for artists, Getting Your Sh*t Together: The Ultimate Business Manual for Every Practicing Artist, which includes all of this information and more here.