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009 - My First Art Book Launch - and 10 Things I Learned

by Lucius Felimus | November 14, 2020


I'm very pleased to announce that the launch of my debut art book, Cyber Manila Megalopolis, is well underway as we speak! It took months of delays due to a global pandemic and some problems with printing, yet I was finally able to reach this point. Releasing something like this is uncharted territory for me as a growing artist. I pretty much went in blind since I haven't really done anything similar to this before. But even then, I made sure to proceed as carefully as I can and treat this like a learning experience (like everything else in life). Working on this book project has opened my eyes to the reality of self-publishing and the art world that I could only have learned by experiencing it myself. I hope my fellow artists and photographers (especially fine art photographers) can learn from this, so I decided to write about it in the most digestible way I can. Here's what I've learned so far:

1. Figuring out the best configuration for a book takes time - a lot of it.

And yes, I really mean, a lot of it.

I actually had the idea to make a book as early as September of 2019 and my vision at that time was vastly different from what came out as the final product.  As a "test run", I printed a small 6" x 6" 40-page book based on this initial vision.  The progression in this book was more geographically based - I arranged the pictures as a journey from south to north across the city, but I figured that my international audience probably won't "get" this narrative. So I made a second test run of the book, but this time going from the more polished and pristine locations in the city (downtown districts and futuristic architecture) to the grungier, more unkempt parts (night markets and slums). I liked this version better and stuck with it for a while.

It was only later on that I decided to throw in some write-ups as well to guide the viewer through the whole experience. So I split the book into 6 different chapters, each one about a different "realm" of the cyberpunk city, and each one with a write-up to help explain the "story" of each realm. I think it's the best way to arrange my pictures and tell the story of a cyberpunk Metro Manila. This eventually became the final version, which I also expanded to a 8.5" x 11" book with 50+ pages so I can fit in more pictures.

And who knows - maybe in the future, I'll come up with better ways on how to go about my book!

2. People rarely buy wall prints these days.

I've been selling prints of my own work on Etsy, then on my website later on, since earlier this year. If I'll be honest, it hasn't been doing well. The reason why I opened a prints store was not only to try to have an extra source of income during the pandemic, but also because there were several people on Reddit and Instagram who have asked me if I sell prints. At first I thought that people would buy them since I already have an established following by then, but how wrong I was.

This may just be based on my limited experience as an art entrepreneur, but if you're an artist or photographer, the reality is that the prints are an oversaturated market. You're competing for the very scarce resource known as wall space. These days, it's extremely difficult (especially for small artists like myself) to sell wall art unless you're someone big like Liam Wong. That's why you have to think of alternative ways on how to present your artworks - which I will go into on the next bullet point:

3. You have to find out the best way to present your art.

When I was starting out, I thought that my photography was strictly going to be an Instagram project, until I saw this video by Jamie Windsor and my friend Luna Darkbloom suggested that I branch out into other social media platforms. That's when I had serious doubts about Instagram as an art-sharing outlet and how severely limited it is. I still use Instagram today to post regular content, but I found other and much better ways to present my work as well.

The truth is, stand-alone photos aren't the best way to experience my photography - which is likely another reason why I'm struggling to sell prints. I've always treated this project as an ever-ongoing worldbuilding experience that doesn't stop at a single picture. To me, each picture is just one page in a book - and that could also mean, literally, a book. That's why I recommend anyone who's struggling to sell wall prints to try making art books, zines, or other media in addition to wall prints. This year, I'm also planning to make calendar prints.

I also think that where individual prints of photographs fall flat is their limited storytelling potential. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes it's not enough to get my point across due to people's subjective perceptions. With a book, I can increase the word count by writing actual words to help guide the viewer across my narrative.

4. You don't have to have a publisher - just good quality printing.

The thing about niche artists like myself is the lack of mainstream and highbrow appeal, which is why I think that the chances of any serious publisher even considering my work are slim to none. That's why I opted to print the books myself by whichever means I can, even without a publisher. I first attempted creating books through my own efforts by learning bookbinding myself and even putting together a DIY bookbinder. While the quality was acceptable, it required so much work on my part. I decided to outsource it to a printing company instead to handle the heavy work and for even more professional quality.

But, hey, if you have the time and ability to hack it out on your own, then it's even better!

A very guerrilla way to publish a book, but it gets the job done.

5. Advertise, advertise, advertise.

You can't expect people to just stumble on your art by accident. You have to actively put yourself out there and get your work seen. I know this is tired advice, but it's true. You don't have to buy ads, and you don't have to limit yourself to social media either - there are plenty of other avenues to find your audience such as discussion boards, forums, and even your real-life circle of friends. Whenever I put up a post on Instagram or any subreddits that allow promotion, that's when I get waves of orders. This is where I really found out about the value of promoting my own work. It can take some time before finding out what works for you, but this is something you have to work on.

6. The demographics of your social media followers aren't necessarily the same as those who might buy your artworks.

Looking at my Instagram analytics, it's very obvious that most of my audience is from Manila. That's why I initially focused my efforts on local printing and shipping. I only realized that this is a mistake when the vast majority of customers (roughly 80%) who actually pre-ordered my book live overseas - mostly in North America and Europe. Make of that what you will.

My own interpretation, which I won't go into too much detail, is that it's a Filipino thing and our culture's unique approach to art as a whole. Or maybe I have to think of more ideas for merchandise that have the potential of selling better locally. Either way, this was an eye-opener for me - at least there's a lesson I can learn from this. Speaking of late realizations -

7. Also consider dropshipping and/or e-book options.

At first, online self-publishing platforms and dropship printing services were a big no for me because of the high delivery costs to my country. I thought I would mostly stick to local printing and delivery since most of my audience is from my own country anyway. But once I had my realizations from the previous item, I changed my mind and decided to put up my book on an online publishing platform like Blurb, which I will continue to do for future book and zine releases.

Or perhaps, e-books or printables are another great way to present your art book. Personally, I didn't opt for this because I already have a website where people can view the best bits of my gallery on-screen for free. But then again, there's a chance that I might change my mind in the future!

8. You have to account for logistics.

This is perhaps the most research-intensive part of running your art store and let alone launching a book, because there's a lot of factors you have to consider. Who will be in charge of printing and delivery? What type of packaging do you have to use? Which payment methods will you accept money from? How will you keep track of everything?

I was lucky to have most of these things figured out because I was already looking up ways on how to go about selling prints - even going as far back as 2019, even if I only actually sold anything during the latter part of 2020. But even then, there were plenty of mistakes made - such as selecting document as opposed to non-document shipping for the courier service, printing proof copies too early even when the layout wasn't final yet, failing to check if the books were printed properly with the pages in the right order, and delivering an item late because of a miscommunication about the special instructions. I've lost a considerable amount of money and had anxiety attacks because of these mistakes, but the only thing I can do is to learn from them and be better prepared in the future.

You have to come up with your own processes and systems - and this might take a while, depending on how much experience you have with books and selling.

Another crucial part of handling logistics is -

9. Jot down notes (preferably on the cloud).

It's highly recommended, no - imperative to have notes and spreadsheets somewhere so you can manage the administrative side of your art business. Cloud-based services can allow you to access your documents wirelessly on your preferred portable device. I can't count the number of times Evernote and Google Docs have saved my life - not just with my art business, but with all other aspects of my life too. If you're old-fashioned and prefer the age-old way of writing down notes using pen and paper, then do so as you please. Whichever you're comfortable with.

You should list down details and statuses of your orders, create spreadsheets to track your earnings and expenses, and other things that might be important to you - even shopping lists for items you need to purchase.

Trust me, your life will be a hell of a lot easier if you take down notes.

10. Keeping in touch with your customers is of utmost importance.

As someone who is socially impaired, I must admit that people skills aren't exactly my strong suit. But launching an art book and selling my work proved to be a great learning opportunity for me to become more well-rounded in terms of essential life skills.

If you run a business, no matter what type of business it is, the satisfaction of your customers should be at the top of your priority list. It's not just the quality of your work and your products, but your service as well and how you deal with your clients. It's important to ask for their email addresses or social media accounts to update them about any developments you may have so that they know what to expect. Plus, it's always a nice thing if they get to hear from you.

And in case things don't go so well, make sure to set yourself up for damage control. Be prepared to give refunds through the appropriate channels or order replacements at your own expense. If there's anything worth saving more than your revenue, it's your reputation.

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Finishing a book project like this has definitely been one of the highlights of my photography career and even my life as a whole. While things haven't been perfect, there were definitely a lot of new experiences that I've learned from this. But rest assured that I had a lot of fun in the entire process - from conceptualizing to printing to reading messages from customers once they have received the book.

I do look forward to coming up with more ways to go about my art and materializing them in the real world rather than merely digitally.

See you in Volume II!

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