How much money did I earn printing a photography zine?
Stacks of zines, envelopes and labels

How much money did I earn printing a photography zine?

Breaking down my gross revenue, expenses, profit, and whether those things truly matter.

Recently I printed my first photography zine about a small, mostly abandoned town in eastern California named Keeler. I had no intention of creating a zine when I went there, but felt inspired to create one after returning home and seeing all the images together. I printed one to test the waters, then felt confident enough to print more and sell them online. To my surprise, all 150 copies sold in less than 48 hours.

Now that the zines are heading out the door, I can share how much the zine cost to produce, how much revenue it generated, what my expenses were, and how much profit (if any) I earned from doing this.

Thanks to Squarespace for sponsoring this video.

Designing and printing the zine

Everything was designed using Adobe InDesign. All the images were converted from ProPhoto RGB to CMYK, then tweaked for printing with a slight lift to their blacks and shadows so they wouldn't appear to dim or muddy on paper. I also sized all of the images to their exact printed dimensions, plus a little sharpening.

Two InDesign documents were created: one for the inside pages, the other the front cover, back cover, and perfect bound spine. I purposely kept the design of the zine simple and straightforward, with a couple of full bleed spreads at the beginning and middle, plus single images on each spread to avoid complexity and "cleanse the palette" between each image.

Laying out the zine in Adobe InDesign
Laying out the zine in Adobe InDesign

From there, the cover and interior PDF documents were uploaded to Mixam, an online printer that specializes in small batch zines and books. I loved using Mixam's web app, for I could easily try out different book dimensions, finishes, page counts and paper types and instantly see how each option affected price. Mixam also provided helpful documentation, templates and videos that made building the zine straightforward. They also provide instant PDF proofs to view prior to printing.

Mixam order form
Mixam order form

I would have preferred printing the book through a local printer, for then I'd be supporting a local business and could pick up the books myself and avoid shipping fees (175 zines cost $50 to ship), but for my first zine, Mixam worked very well.

Financial breakdown

Through Mixam I ordered 175 zines and put 150 up for sale. I printed a few extras in case there were any misprints (there were a handful with dented, snagged covers), and to have a few copies leftover for myself, family etc. The zines were sold through Squarespace for $25 each with free shipping in the United States, plus a flat $10 shipping fee for international buyers. This returned...

  • Gross revenue: $4,165 ($3,775 plus $390 international shipping)

Not bad! But of course there are related expenses, including printing the zines, taxes, shipping supplies, postage, and credit card service fees.

  • Processing fees: $239.66
  • Mixam printing: $866.66
  • Mailing supplies: $196.34
  • Postage: $777.30

Which brings us to a net profit of...

  • Net profit: $2,085.04

Still not bad! But...

If we view this from a business accounting perspective, we should deduct all related expenses, including airfare, lodging, transportation, etc. (Purposely excluding food, gas, etc, for I'd be paying for those things anyway in my day to day life. Could also try and quantify time, but that's a bit much).

  • Airbnb: $1,261
  • Airfare: $547.80
  • Rental car: $344.56

Which brings us to a final net profit of...(drumroll please):

  • Net profit: -$68.32

That's right. From an accounting perspective, I actually lost money doing this. And you don't need a business degree to know that when expenses exceed revenue, you're not going to stay in business long.

Well, that's the funny thing about creative projects like this. It's hard to know where they're going or what they'll eventually turn into (if anything at all). I don't think most people in their right mind get into photography or other creative fields with the intended goal of running a high margin, profitable business. Maybe some do, but most people I imagine get into photography because it rewards them with something that can't be quantified on a balance sheet.

And photography, unfortunately, can get expensive. Very expensive. You have to spend your own money on camera bodies, lenses, software, hardware, and lord knows what else to create work. I don't know how many people think about this, but whenever you see photos from a far flung destination in a landscape photographer's portfolio (eg, Iceland, Antartica, Faroe Islands, etc), they almost certainly spent a good chunk of personal money traveling there, without financial backing, and no guaranteed outcome. Simply producing good images is hard enough, let alone concerns about monetization.

Maybe it's a capitalist, western culture thing, but in my experience, people are often baffled by the idea of investing in something without a clear, monetary reward. The value of a photograph is defined by how much it earns. Otherwise, what's the point?

I get the mentality, for lord knows I'm always thinking of ways to help offset the cost of creating images, including YouTube videos, advertising, sponsorships, affiliate marketing, prints, organizing workshops, etc. But unless a photographer is working on a cushy assignment for a company (do those gigs even exist anymore?), I think most people would consider themselves lucky breaking even. That's certainly how I feel.

So even though this zine was not a profitable venture from an accounting perspective, it was never intended to be one. I traveled there assuming I would return home with less money in my bank account, but more experience, more creative fulfillment, and more images in my portfolio of work. I produced the zine to share a unique place that captivated my attention, and more than anything I'm just thrilled that many of you showed interest as well.