Hit the Books with Dan Milnor: Making a Book to Sell

For the past several weeks, I’ve been traveling across the United States doing photo walks, book talks, and software demos. A few nights ago, I gave a talk titled, Self-Publishing: From Books to Zines. I love giving this talk because it allows me to truly break down the full range of what Blurb has to offer. 

When I ask photographers about our platform, I often hear, “I already know everything about Blurb.” I love hearing this because it tells me that creators in the industry are wildly accepting our brand. But upon asking follow-up questions, plenty about Blurb remains a mystery. From paper types to trim sizes and book formats, Blurb offers a bevy of options that fly under the radar. 

Stack of magazines named "Essay"

Blurb’s trade book option

During this last talk, I asked how many people had already used Blurb. More than half of the audience raised their hand. Then I asked how many people wanted to sell their publications. Everyone who had already used Blurb raised their hands, and so did those who had yet to try the platform. Finally, I asked who had ever used Blurb’s trade book option. Not one person raised their hand. This is both frustrating and wonderful because the Blurb trade book is priced to sell and is arguably the most strategic product we make, so I knew when I began to unravel the full Blurb offering, the faces before me would start to light up. 

Before selling books

Making books and selling books are two separate adventures, but they are connected in more ways than you think. Selling books requires a plan, one that starts long before you hold your book in hand. 

A book is like a relationship, a marriage even, and requires planning, thoughtfulness, and an extended time frame. There is a series of questions you must ask before beginning a project you want to sell. 

  • What is my goal? 
  • Am I selling to people I already know, or am I selling to strangers? 
  • What does my audience want? 
  • What price point best fits my audience? 
  • And what combination of book ingredients fits that price point? 

From there, you begin to work backward to create something that is the answer to all these questions.

Starting with a goal

I will often start a project with a sales goal. I created my first-ever magazine intending to sell one hundred copies. This might seem like a meager goal, but I didn’t see it this way. Again, this was my first-ever magazine project, and I didn’t yet have an easily identifiable audience. 

The few audience members I did know were Leica camera enthusiasts, which helped me determine my magazine’s subject matter. If I built something with a specific audience in mind, I would have a much higher chance of selling through my print run. I was also a somewhat unknown commodity then, so asking my audience to pay eighty or one hundred dollars for a publication was too much. A magazine priced at less than twenty dollars was a perfect fit. Much to my surprise, my run of one hundred copies sold out quickly, allowing me to move on to my next project. 

Stack of magazines

Finding your audience

Nowadays, I prefer to sell books to people I know. This is far easier than selling books to strangers. Why? Because those whom I have a relationship with know my story, my ideology, and my process. This means we have more than a superficial connection. 

If I have fifteen hundred people who subscribe to my newsletter, and I announce I’m selling two hundred copies of a publication, I don’t need to even venture into the public domain to find my audience. I can also correspond with my audience to predetermine their interest. Do they want a photography book or a behind-the-scenes tell-all? Do they want a fancy coffee table book or a small, informal, how-to style publication? And I can find out what budget best fits their budget. 

My ego might tell me to make a two-hundred-dollar, archival, hardcover masterpiece, but my audience only has twenty dollars to spare. Build to fit people, build to fit. And know this, when someone buys your book, they are not only buying your printed efforts, but they are also buying a small part of you. 

In the age of sharing, share only what makes you happy but know it does make a difference in sales. Set realistic expectations, take it slow, and make the best book possible. This might mean hiring a designer or a copy editor to ensure your public offering is top-notch. And remember this, a book is often about more than just sales. A book is a testament to your efforts and a calling card of the highest pedigree. Books resonate like nothing else, even in the Digital Age. 


Blurb is a self-publishing platform that makes it easy to design, print, sell, and distribute your self-published books and magazines. Learn more about self-publishing and marketing.

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