Print Pricing and Ego
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?