Musings on Photography

Print Pricing and Ego

Posted in business, print pricing, the art world by Paul Butzi on December 18, 2007

5D-071209-4881-2
Ken Smith wrote eloquently, expressing the idea that

Suppose you had no income other than your prints, and it was your business…just for a moment imagine. Yes, you committed to that business, because you love working for yourself, and you think you can make a living doing the fine art style of photography that you love. Then, you have no other way to live your life than to figure ALL the costs into your pricing. Remember, you have no other income coming in, but what you sell in your prints. That is simply business. How can you have expenses, without a way to pay for them?

I understand that professionals must cover all their expenses, including post-it notes and rubber bands and the electric bill.

My point, though, is this: the buyer does not care about your heat bill, or the cost of rubber bands, or even the cost of your printer. The buyer is buying an object, and what the buyer is willing to pay for it has a everything to do with demand for that object and the supply of it. We can alter the buyer’s demand (by advertising, or by giving a convincing story about the object), and we can alter the buyer’s perception of supply (by using limited editions and other gimmicks). I’d argue, though, that those alterations are minor.

Let’s engage in a little thought experiment. Suppose we have an image, and we’re going to sell prints of it. We can set the price of the prints however we please. The higher we set the price, the fewer prints we sell. We make more profit per print, but eventually we reach a point where an increase in price results in so many fewer sales that we get less profit. On the other hand, if we reduce the price, we will sell more prints but make a smaller profit on each one. As we reduce the price, we eventually reach a point where the fall-off in profits more than offsets the increase in sales. There’s some range of prices, usually fairly narrow, where we can think of the price as ”optimum” – raising the price more results in less overall profit, and cutting the price also results in lower profits. I’m not articulating some weird arcane theory I’ve just invented, here. The laws of supply and demand are the most widely accepted part of modern economic theory, and have gone hundreds of years without significant revision. In the world of economics this is settled stuff.

So if we are being a business and must pay all our bills (as Ken suggests) then the sensible thing to do is to price our product as close to this optimum pricing as possible. I believe this optimum price is lower than the price at which virtually all fine art photography is currently being sold. My question, then, is “Why is so much photography priced well above this optimum?”

I believe there are a lot of reasons. One reason prices are set so high has to do with the pragmatics of the gallery system – galleries can only connect with a small number of customers, and thus they have to try to eke out the maximum profit from every sale. And so they want the prices high. (Note that this comment on a previous post specifically tells a story of a gallery raising a photographer’s prices because “I can’t make money on you at these prices”). Why is the gallery’s optimum different from the photographer’s optimum price? Because the photographer can increase the supply of the print as she pleases, but the gallery cannot increase the number of customers. This mismatch between the optimized economics of running a gallery and the optimized economics of being a photographer is much of why I think the gallery system of selling art is such a bad match for selling photography.

Another reason is photographer’s ego. Every photographer has had drummed into his head the idea that high print prices are good, and low print are bad. Note that we’re talking prices, here, and not profit! Why isn’t this generalization in the minds of photographers ‘high profits are good, low profits are bad’. Why is it that the test of a photographer’s (or, to be more general, an artist’s) merit is the price that can be commanded for a single print? That makes sense if everything you do is one off, but a photographer, especially today, can just as easily produce a hundred prints or a thousand prints as he can produce one. When the effort to make another good print was the same regardless of how many prints had already been made, the economics of photographer were a much better match with those of galleries. But today, for most photographers, the effort to make the first print is still high, but the effort to make the second (and hundredth) print is literally pushing a few buttons.

Somewhere along the line, we got distracted from what’s important to a business (which is increasing profits), and started fixating on price. All I’m suggesting is that photographers for whom the bottom line is all about money should orient their pricing, sales, and distribution around profits (which is what they should care about) and not price.

And because of this, a lot of a photographer’s ego is tied up in his pricing. To use David Ray Carson’s terminology, photographers want to be in the business of selling Ferraris not Fords, Lexuses not Toyotas, Porsches not Yugos. Furthermore, it seems to me that they are so invested in wanting to be seen as selling Lamborghinis and not Chevys that they will happily settle for lower profits.

Anyway, I just want to make it clear that when I advocate for lowering print prices, I’m doing so because I believe that the optimum price is well below the current pricing for most art photographers. I’m not arguing those photographers should settle for making less money; I’m arguing that they should lower their prices, buy into new distribution systems, and make MORE MONEY.

Because wouldn’t that be a good thing? More prints sold, more happy customers, a whole lot of people who currently can’t afford to buy prints suddenly able to buy them, and photographers with more money in their pockets?

20 Responses

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  1. Jeremy said, on December 18, 2007 at 11:00 am

    I’ve been intrigued by this whole discussion, probably because my interest is purely theoretical, as in, I take pictures that I might one day want to sell, so how much should I charge?

    Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. All I wanted to do was to pint you to this article by Joel Spolsky, which is really rather good. And the parallels between software and print are not all that far-fetched. http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/CamelsandRubberDuckies.html

    Thanks.

  2. David Ray Carson said, on December 18, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    Paul, I’m not saying what one should do, I’m saying how you choose to market your work has a direct bearing on how art buyers, whether rich or poor, think of you as an artist, not as a businessman.

    If you want to sell 500 prints at $20, vs one at $10,000 to a weathly collector, you’ll spend your days mailing and (maybe not even signing?) prints. Per print, per hour worked, your profit is much higher on the latter, not even counting lost opportunity cost on the former. Opportunity cost as in: Do you want to make more art, or make/ship prints? Maybe your time is worth nothing, and it feels good to give people a deal, people who would never own your work if it was expensive. Who am I to argue with altruism?

    But, for the rest of us, should a photographer see themselves as the Johnny Appleseed of art, sprinkling their good works across the country for a pittance? Or is your print worth something more than the sum of it’s parts? Baldly, how can you foster a reputation as an artist, not a businessman, and build upon previous sales to keep making your price (i.e. your stock?) go up. It’s not a profit-per-print matrix, it’s a career-based-over-time problem. An artist has something to say through his/her work; a businessman usually has little.

    Check out http://www.mvswanson.com/ for a fine-art photography consultants view. She has a book, workshops, and a blog. I’ve attended the lecture. It’s good. And I don’t know her.

    Also, check this out for breaking into the art market. http://h20325.www2.hp.com/blogs/graphicarts/archive/2006/12/18/2094.html

    By all means, if you can make money at $500/ea and sell an edition of 10, do it. But if you cross a line, let’s say, oh, $70 in the midwest USA, you will start being perceived by that fact alone as a hobbyist.

    Making art, like art-for-myself, is a noble thing to do, and can be ego-less. Selling art invariably involves ego. You sell at what the market will bear, or more/less if you cannot bear the market (ha ha).

    Interesting things here:

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F06E0DC1F3BF93BA35750C0A9679C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all

    and here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/magazine/02wwln-medium-t.html?pagewanted=all

    I’m sure you’ll find fodder for and against my opinion.

    I propose if you approach art purely in economic terms, you are lost. You are then in the decor business, my friend.

  3. Paul Butzi said, on December 18, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    Paul, I’m not saying what one should do, I’m saying how you choose to market your work has a direct bearing on how art buyers, whether rich or poor, think of you as an artist, not as a businessman.

    Right. As I said, the primary reason why artists price their work higher than the optimum is ego. Hey, if you want to overprice your work, earn less money, and have everyone think that you’re pretty good as an artist but a frickin’ idiot as a businessman, it’s no skin off my nose. Do yourself proud.

    If you want to sell 500 prints at $20, vs one at $10,000 to a weathly collector, you’ll spend your days mailing and (maybe not even signing?) prints. Per print, per hour worked, your profit is much higher on the latter, not even counting lost opportunity cost on the former. Opportunity cost as in: Do you want to make more art, or make/ship prints?

    It seems to me that you’re making two mistakes with this analysis.

    1. Rather than worrying about price, worry about profit. If you include the costs of production, handling, and shipping when you calculate the profit, you don’t get caught in this bind. Then it becomes “You can sell 50 prints at $50 profit apiece, or 1 print at $1000 profit apiece. ”

    2. Don’t for a moment make the mistake of thinking that the $10,000 sale you posit happens without lots of time/moeny spent on it. There’s schmoozing the buyer directly. There’s time spent going to boring parties with boring people standing around posturing so that they can build their ‘art reputation’. There’s time spent making hundreds of prints and sending them around to galleries where they get put in the closet and sit in the dark. There the cost of those prints. There are, as Ken pointed out, prints donated to charity auctions to get a little visibility with the wealthy crowd. It goes on and on, and I’ll bet in the end you’re making a lot less profit on that $10k sale than you’d think.

    But if you cross a line, let’s say, oh, $70 in the midwest USA, you will start being perceived by that fact alone as a hobbyist.

    Exactly. So the question is this: do you want to be perceived as an artist, or do you want to make the most money possible?

  4. David Ray Carson said, on December 18, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    Exactly.

    Artist
    - something to say to the art world & the world at large,
    - profit is not a major focus,
    - low volume = good,
    - concerned with reputation in art world, or

    Decorator
    - makes “pretty” things,
    - focused on profit,
    - high volume = good,
    - not concerned with reputation in art world,
    - usually richer than the artist

    Neither is inherently better. Just don’t call a business product art, in my view, because business products are created to be sold, and mainly reflect the buyer’s tastes. Art, at it’s purest, tends to be mainly about art history/processes or about a personal feeling. (Uh oh, here comes a discussion on what is art…)

  5. David Ray Carson said, on December 18, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    1. Rather than worrying about price, worry about profit. If you include the costs of production, handling, and shipping when you calculate the profit, you don’t get caught in this bind. Then it becomes “You can sell 50 prints at $50 profit apiece, or 1 print at $1000 profit apiece.

    The problem with #1 is if you do this, as Ken Smith pointed out, you quicky get way beyond the average person’s budget of $25 bucks. Earlier you mentioned about selling below true cost, and that’s what I’m addressing.

    2. There’s schmoozing the buyer directly. There’s time spent going to boring parties with boring people standing around posturing so that they can build their ‘art reputation’. There’s time spent making hundreds of prints and sending them around to galleries where they get put in the closet and sit in the dark.

    Schmoozing the buyer is probably unavoidable at some point, hopefully near the end of the sale. But that’s why you have gallery representation. Also, you don’t make hundreds of prints; you make 10 if you’re smart, and they go to the 2-3 galleries that represent you.

  6. Ed Richards said, on December 18, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    I see this discussion a little differently. No matter how hard you work and promote your fine art photography, no matter how good you are, getting to where you can sell prints for $10K is a long odds crapshoot. You do not elect between the two models – the odds are that you either go for the cheap on the WWW model or you do not sell prints at all.

    The question as a business plan is how much time and effort and money you want to spend on the $10K print model before you either quit entirely or go to plan 2.

    Fortunately for the MFA world, the 1 in 1000 or so who get to the $10K print level are enough to keep the schools in business.:-)

  7. StephaneB said, on December 18, 2007 at 5:25 pm

    “Just don’t call a business product art, in my view, because business products are created to be sold, and mainly reflect the buyer’s tastes.”

    Therefore, it follows:

    - the Beatles were not making art

    - heck, Ray Charles wasn’t either, he sold way too many records to call that art. Besides, they weren’t $1000 a piece, so definitely not art.

    - Folon was not making art

    - a Van Gogh painting has stopped being art, too many reproductions sold too cheap to call that art, too many people like it now, it is reprinted to reflect buyers tastes

    Don’t you see you forget that art is a verb, it is in the process, in what one says or shows or sings or writes or builds. It has nothing to do with a number of samples sold or gathering dust. And art does not stop being art when many people can have a piece of it.

  8. Bryan Willman said, on December 18, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    ART is Not Special w.r.t. economics – but people in the ART world like to think it is.

    Doing/making art is Very Special to a small group (the artist, the people who happen to like the work) and has little to do with the ART world.

    In fact, if what you want is to have very high prestige by making very low volume, with dubious profit, and make a statement, don’t make “art” as in objects of visual or audio expression. Make ultra-custom luxury goods. Custom sports cars. Gold plated cameras. Exotic leather furniture. All of these can make statements about something (more money than brains?), can cost a lot and have a great reputation, and may or may not make their creators a profit.

    We cannot really say what the definition of ART or Art are or should be, but inherently useless except as a way to waste or lose money wouldn’t be it. So so, “low volume” is a-priori not a very good indiciator of ART or Art.

  9. David Ray Carson said, on December 18, 2007 at 8:01 pm

    Hmmmm. I am talking about the visual art world’s current perception of a person’s decision to market themselves in one of two ways; as the artist or as the businessman. These perceptions change over time.

    I am not talking about the actual reality of the situation (if there is one), or if what one does is art or not. Maybe someone who is perceived as an artist is actually a huckster, etc.

    Wrt (gotta love that one) the comment about music: obviously it follows it’s own unique rules. High volume is not looked down upon, nowadays. Music is separated from media. Someone more perceptive than me can expose the rules of the music game.

    Other media have other properties for a person to seem like an artist. All different in some way.

    But, some things are constant in the West. Again, perceptions:
    - being unique
    - having something to say (not just entertainment, not just pretty)
    - created for other than mainly financial reasons

    Hopefully this clarifies my comments. If you don’t care how others perceive you, you are free, in a fashion.

  10. Rosie Perera said, on December 18, 2007 at 11:31 pm

    Some quotes from Robert Adams from his book Why People Photograph (which I happen to be reading now), from the chapter titled “Money,” which are relevant to the discussion here and in previous related posts:

    “Part of the difficulty in trying to be both an artist and a businessperson is this: You make a picture because you have seen something beyond price; then you are to turn and assign to your record of it a cash value. If the selling is not necessarily a contradiction of the truth in the picture, it is so close to being a contradiction–and the truth is always in shades of gray–that you are worn down by the threat.”

    “Of all the cuts in funding for photography by the National Endowment for the Arts, by far the worst was to stop support for the publication of photographers’ monographs. Such books rarely pay for themselves, but they are absolutely necessary to the health of the medium. They allow work to be seen in quantity, to reach a geographically diverse audience, and to be encountered over a period of time. I know of no first-rate photographer who has come of age in the past twenty-five years who has found the audience that he or she deserves without publishing such a book.” [It is unclear when this was written; the footnote for that whole chapter says "From notes, 1967-1992. I'm sure that the age of the Internet and web portfolios has changed the economics and necessity of publishing a coffee table book for photographers to have their work more widely known. On the other hand, the number of photographers who can now make their work thus known has multiplied to much that it has diluted the visibility of any one photographer in particular. So it is probably harder in this climate to become known as an "ARTist" who can charge $10,000 per photograph.]

    “Auctions held to benefit photographic institutions rely substantially on work solicited as gifts from photographers, many of whom cannot themselves earn a living wage from their pictures. The health of some of the organizations contributes to that of photography in general, and thus to that of the photographers individually, but one cannot help thinking how much more charitable it would be if those who could afford to do so would first buy the prints from the photographers, perhaps at wholesale, and then themselves donate the work for auction. Isn’t it a little questionable to beg the prints for nothing, attract people to the auction by listing estimated bids below gallery prices, and then relish bargains? Because afterwards the cut-rate prices are a matter of public record, and erode the photographers’ attempts to maintain regular prices–so much so that it would probably be more in the photographers’ interests sometimes just to contribute money rather than pictures.”

  11. David Ray Carson said, on December 19, 2007 at 6:26 am

    Nice quotes, Rosie.

    Maybe the art market is structured the way it is in part because when it was formed, many artists only had one piece of art to sell. And parting with that one piece (a painting, a sculpture) is like selling a piece of yourself.

  12. Mark said, on December 19, 2007 at 11:11 am

    “But today, for most photographers, the effort to make the first print is still high, but the effort to make the second (and hundredth) print is literally pushing a few buttons.”

    I don’t agree with this whatsoever, because it only considers the simple mechanics of hitting a print button. Perhaps if customers are simply walking up to your doorstep and picking them up out of a pile it might apply. But try packaging, paperwork, and shipping (ignoring mat or framing at this point) to one person versus 100 and tell me it is the same amount of work. There is a lot more that goes into making and selling prints than the simple mechanics of getting it out of the printer – and that time is also money that should be factored into any business model. This is also part of the gallery model as they have other expenses they need to cover that a sole photographer might not.

  13. Paul Butzi said, on December 19, 2007 at 11:20 am

    “But today, for most photographers, the effort to make the first print is still high, but the effort to make the second (and hundredth) print is literally pushing a few buttons.”

    I don’t agree with this whatsoever, because it only considers the simple mechanics of hitting a print button. Perhaps if customers are simply walking up to your doorstep and picking them up out of a pile it might apply. But try packaging, paperwork, and shipping (ignoring mat or framing at this point) to one person versus 100 and tell me it is the same amount of work.

    You are not responding to what I wrote, you are responding to what you thought I wrote.

    Did I write “But today, for most photographers, the effort to sell the first print is still high, but the effort to sell the seccond (and hundredth print is literally pushing a few buttons?”

    No, I did not.

    Did I write “But today, for most photographers, the effort to make the first print is still high, but the effort to make the second (and hundredth) print is literally pushing a few buttons?”

    Yes, I did.

    That said, if you cannot contrive to streamline your workflow so that you can prepare the shipping label, prepare the shipping container, do the bookkeeping, etc. while the print is printing, and then finish the job in a couple of minutes when the print falls off the printer, you’re not trying very hard.

  14. Doug Stockdale said, on December 19, 2007 at 11:45 am

    The point above from Rosie is great, as ‘internet artists’ we do wear two hats, but in fact we are both the artist and we are the GALLERY, just a virtural on-line gallery. So hopefully you are not having a boring time in your ‘galley’, as I rather enjoy my ‘gallery’ time.

    And sorry, (re: galleries can only connect with a small number of customers) galleries do not have a limited amount of buyers, as they are on the internet as well. Just like us. Same economic model and their prices have not changed that much, have they??

    So we can continue this discussion, but in the meantime, the current economics continue unabated, the galleries still continue to sell prints at the prices they ask and those who want to make a little bit on each one, still do.

    But in the mean time, I still don’t think many folks see what I see, feel what I feel and think what I think. I beleive that makes me a little unique, but maybe not many people agree yet;- )

    So start your price somewhere and occasionaly increase the price until the sales slow down. You will eventually find your economic niche.

  15. David Ray Carson said, on December 19, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    By the way, here is an interesting, if faintly irritating book on collecting art, called, “Collecting Contemporary.” I haven’t read it, just paged through it at the bookstore, but it gives you a window into the byzantine gallery world.

    http://www.photoeye.com/templates/mShowDetailsbycatAmazon.cfm?Catalog=TD167&i2=9783822849392

  16. dave beckerman said, on December 19, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    “That said, if you cannot contrive to streamline your workflow so that you can prepare the shipping label, prepare the shipping container, do the bookkeeping, etc. while the print is printing, and then finish the job in a couple of minutes when the print falls off the printer, you’re not trying very hard.”

    Hi Paul –

    Wow, what a thread.

    Well, I for one can’t do it. As you probably know, my business is 99% web based. I am doing all inkjets with the 4800.

    I sell 4 different sizes.

    Workflow – first off – I find that I need to do a nozzle check before a print run. Sometimes okay, sometimes, the things need cleaning.

    I don’t just press a button. As I’m looking at the print on the screen, about half the time I find some little thing, or maybe big, that I want to tweak. What if the cigar that this characters was carrying was a bit lighter – just a bit. What if…? I was the same way in the darkroom – I ask questions about the prints even after they’ve been done a hundred times.

    But forget that. Say I get perfection every time.

    The prints need to get the curl taken out, and dry, and I place them in a little contraption that helps straighten them, let them cure a bit over night etc.

    The following materials are involved:

    Window mat is cut for me and shipped. I try to keep what I need in stock, though sometimes the customer wants a different size and I cut the mat myself.

    Backings for the mats. Linen tape to attach the bevel mat to the back.

    I use mounting strips. They have to be cut in half, and the adhesive paper has to be pulled off. For a 16 x 20, about 16 of these half strips are set in place.

    Clear bags.

    Little card for each print with date, signature etc.

    Packaging: corrugated cardboard for each size mat.

    Various outer packaging.

    Tons of sealing tape.

    Corners for packaging.

    Fedex shipping labels. Fedex online used. Address and info needs to be copied from paypal into the Fedex form.

    Tons of customer questions.

    Calls to suppliers – why was this missing so-and-so.

    Anyway – what happens when the business is going – is that there is a lot to look after – not all that different from selling any manufactured goods.

    At the same time – whether you can afford to pay someone to do all the grunt work – whether they’ll do it as carefully as you do — who knows.

    At any rate – you are right that there is a an optimum selling point – though this changes over time – and oddly enough is related to the pricing of your other sized prints.

    I don’t know how much of this applies to galleries as from the very beginning I was out to make this a web business. Which brings up other labor involved: constant tweaking of site. Working on your search engine placement.

    I don’t want to list costs, I just want to emphasize that a lot is based on the scale of the operation and how many items are offered.

    Phew – I’m tired just writing this (yes, while a print is printing).

    The main point I’d like to get through is that for me:

    1) it’s not just pushing a button. Ever. (Maybe it should be, but it isn’t).

    2) all the “other stuff” that goes into running the business is more time-consuming (by far) than doing the printing.

    3) what you’re (maybe) looking for (at least I am) is the price point that brings in the most amount of profit over a given period of time.

    However – at least for the last few years – when I click the shutter – it’s because I want to – not because I think – oh here’s something that will sell. The selling part comes later. Sometimes years later.

    Happy holidays — Dave

  17. Ed Richards said, on December 19, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    Dave and others – why do you mat prints you are selling? Seems like a lot of work and overhead, but I know a lot of people do it and I am probably missing something.

  18. Ed Richards said, on December 19, 2007 at 6:05 pm

    One more question – for smaller sizes, since as those that you sell Dave, cut sheets are not much more expensive, and can be the same price if have any waste on the roll, at least on a 4800. Is it faster to deroll and flatten than to feed the cut sheets?

  19. Dave Beckerman said, on December 20, 2007 at 6:01 am

    Why mat?

    The print goes through different stages of appreciation – and matting is one of them. When a customer receives a matted & signed & dated print from the artist – they are getting the total package, and matting (my opinion of course) is part of the fine art experience.

    I generally do the small prints, with sheet paper, and I can fit two on a letter size sheet.

    Sometimes I’ll do them on roll paper if I have more roll paper around then boxes of Crane/Museo Silver Rag.

    I’ve been experimenting with the WHCC photo lab recently – and frankly — they have such a good turnaround time that I’m contemplating switching from inkjet to having them do the prints on Kodak Endura Glossy with a UV spray coating but maybe that idea is off topic — though maybe not.

    Again – I’m always looking for ways to streamline the business – but keep the quality.

  20. Mark said, on December 20, 2007 at 6:26 am

    The whole context of the post was on pricing prints which is part of what I was addressing when you tempted to minimize the work involved in producing one versus 100. If you are going to produce 100 prints, certainly the implication is that you have a purpose for them. It is not too far off in assuming you are selling them. It is a perfectly reasonable association.


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