Monday, March 2, 2009

Your Future as a Photographer: Due Diligence Required

It's certainly unfortunate that the newspapers of today are struggling. Yet, it is, in large part, their own doing. This piece, by no means, has the answers, but there is a cautionary tale here, so bear with me.

Newspapers started giving away their content for free on the web, and those that tried the pay model (NYT, WSJ, etc) had no luck. The problem is, the newspapers did not set their per-eyeball-pair rates the same for the web as they did for the newspaper. That should have been an easy sell "hey local car dealer, you're paying $0.001 per subscriber, so you'll pay the same if that subscriber, or any other reader for that matter, sees your ad online...".

When we photographers had to make the transition from film to digital, I wrote a piece that appeared in the November 2002 ASMP Bulletin. I did a great deal of research in planning my own switch, and shared the results of that research in that piece.

In March of 2001, more and more of my clients were calling for digital images, beyond the one-off scans we did with the Nikon Coolscan. On a $43 roll of film charge we billed the client, with 37 proof prints, there was a charge to me of $16.39, with $26.61 in net profit. How could I establish pricing that preserved that profit center?

(Continued after the Jump)

What I did, was look back at a 6 month block of assignments (original PDF of spreadsheet here), and calculated the exact cost for each job, and then applied a "what if this job had been a digitally shot job" model to it (with 3 output options), and I quickly was able to determine that the pricing model that I had put forth would cover those profits, as well as an increase for this "new digital thing" that required an investment of capital to make available. That model, which stands today, covers my costs of having gone digital.

Take a trip in the Wayback Machine to March of 2001 and have a look at this edition of The Washington Post, and you see little to no ads. Newspapers continued to talk about how they weren't making any money online and it was costing them a boatload of money to build out and put up, and that was their excuse for not wanting to pay photographers for a secondary use on the website.

Hint - when you can't pay for the content to appear on your website, and your justification for the text being there is that it didn't cost much to put there because your staffer wrote the piece, that should be a sign that the economic model is flawed.

Understand this - The Washington Post is a publicly traded company, with bankers and accountants, and lawyers at their beck-and-call. Why they couldn't figure out a sustainable business model when I could for my small business floors me. It wasn't that hard.

I am, by no means, picking on The Washington Post, but instead using them as an example as compared to smaller papers who may not have had all the resources of the Post, but certainly could have followed their lead, if, in fact, they had chosen to be a leader!

Enter Amazon's Kindle 2.Very cool device, and I am eyeing one myself. The problem is, the Kindle has "text-to-speech" capabilities, which could, if allowed to continue unchecked, gut the $1 Billion-dollar audiobooks industry very quickly. Set aside the value in having someone who is talented at reading and can deliver the lines as the author intended them, and realize that the right to transfer the copyrighted material from one medium (print), to another medium (spoken word), is a controllable right, and the head of the Authors Guild, Roy Blount Jr, had a nice op-ed in the New York Times about how authors were not being paid for this.

Whenever there is a transitory time in the business (film to digital, print to web, text to speech) you're in, you must understand how that transition will impact your sustainability. The next business model that will impact still photographers is the video model. The video model, borne from Hollywood, is that the production is a collaborative piece, and that everyone that works on the piece is a work-for-hire contributor to the finished product, and most people that hire videographers expect to walk with the raw tapes and never pay you again. If you are a still photographer migrating to video, it is critical you understand how that model will impact your profit center for video, and if you want to try a different model.

If you're trying to grow your career as an artist, don't think that starting that career by doing work for free is a solution. There are plenty of latte-serving, broom-pushing, or lunch-special-order-taking former photographers/artists littering the landscape to serve as a grim reminder that longevity in this business is based not on talent, but on sound business practices. Penelope Trunk's Brazen Careerist website has some sound advice if you want to pursue a life as an artist.

Now, you might be wondering why I would send you to a blog post that starts off with "I do not think that people who want to create art need to get paid to do it. Do you get paid to have sex? No. Same thing." But it's message points like this "The starving artist routine is total bullshit. I know because I did it. Once you know that you are not going to make rent, you can't really make art. Because your sense of self-preservation insists that your brain focus on the possibility that you will be out on the street.", then she says something really cool - "So don't kid can live like a pauper, but that limits the range of your art."

Newspapers kidded themselves. So too so many photographers. Don't kid yourself. Establish what your Cost of Doing Business is. Don't know how? Start here - the NPPA's Cost of Doing Business Calculator. Do your own due diligence on your future. You owe it to yourself.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


bmillios said...

10th paragraph should say, "The Kindle has text-to-speech capabilities..."

Fotografo said...

We will see hard times, some photographers, here in Italy, have big problems. Commercial works are every day more difficult to get and only with an open strategy you will survive.
Working for free is the begiinnig of the end.

John Harrington said...

fixed the Kindle text - thanks!


Joost van der Borg said...

While I agree with your post in general, the kindle bit seems improbable (while possibly legally sound in the US, in the Netherlands the Author's guild wouldn't have a case). You already hint at the differences between a professionally done audiobook and a text-to-speech engine. Furthermore, Mac os X (and possibly other operating systems) has had text-to-speech available for years. I can't see how the author's guild (or anyone else) would go about claiming compensation for people using the accessibility features in OS X to read a pdf (of copyrighted material) to them.
On a more fundamental level, I'm fine with paying for another publication (e.g. print to web, print to another print publication, web to another website) but I disagree that reading an e-book you've purchased by looking at it or by listening to it would be a new publication. Would reading aloud by a human (mother to a child for instance) be considered a new publication?

Carrie Russell said...

nice advice! Gonna take it to heart!!

Pietro Bianchi said...

You are a busy great photographer but you also have time to teach and speak and review. You are a really good person and I learned so much from you, thank you.

花蓮 said...


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Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

>Would reading aloud by a human
> (mother to a child for instance)
> be considered a new publication?

That would seem like fair use to me.
If I want to employ a robot to read to me, then so be it.

Besides, one of the biggest objectives of text to speech is to assist the blind or sight impaired. This issue will get more attention as our boomer demographic ages.

花蓮民宿 said...


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