Musings on Photography

Print Pricing Redux

Posted in business, print pricing, the art world by Paul Butzi on December 13, 2007


Thanks to all for the interesting comments on my Print Pricing post. There’s a lot of food for thought there.

Ed Richards writes:

Are you coming around to Brooks Jenson’s views on this?

One rationale for pricing big prints (>16×20 image size) is that the folks who room to hang a print that big probably have money as well, unless they are thumb tacking it up in the barn.

I’ve agreed with Brooks Jensen on printing pricing for a long time, actually – namely, I’ve thought for years that the reason people don’t sell more prints is that print prices are too high.

And I certainly understand pricing larger prints higher under the ‘all the market will bear’ principle. I suspect, though, that the motivation for charging extreme prices for large prints is more a effect of a near universal ‘eat the rich’ attitude than any reasoned argument from sound economic principles. There’s an price point that produces optimum profit, and I’m pretty confident (as is Jensen) that the optimum prices are well below current ‘art’ prices for all sizes of prints.

Rosie Perera writes:

Finally one year I decided to take a risk and raise my price to something which said “this is good art, and it’s worth paying for” and charged $250. I sold my first photo ever. Makes you wonder.

and Dave Beckerman writes:

As time went on, I experimented with different prices, and was surprised to find that I sold more prints when the prices were higher (to a certain point).

I’ve heard this mentioned several times. To a large degree, such stories suggest that art in general (and photographic prints specifically) are, in the vernacular of economists, Veblen goods. One difficulty is that the geographic region where I’d most like to have a lot of sales is not a community where conspicuous consumption is the primary activity of the populace. Art selling in a hoity-toity gallery in New York City may well be Veblen goods. Art selling in the rural Snoqualmie Valley is not. And since I’m not really concerned with sales of my prints in hoity-toity art galleries on the other side of the continent, and I am concerned that the people who actually live where I photograph might buy my prints, that suggests that the Veblen effect might be something I should (for now) ignore.

And finally, Andy Frazer sums up the thoughts of several writers by suggesting

Offer something for $20 (low margin, high volume), and also offer something else for the high end (low volume, high margin). Maybe sell 8×10’s or 4×6’s (matted) for $20, and also sell 12×18’s for $200.

I’ve considered this: have one line of prints which sells at a low price, and have another line (‘Collector’s edition’ or some such blather) which hits the high price market.

But here’s the thing. The cheapest I can crank out a print (on cheap non-archival paper, smaller size, etc.) is only a very small increment away from the cost to crank out a more expensive print (printed at a size where it can actually be appreciated, on first rate paper, etc.). So what’s the justification for having two lines of prints? It’s just an artificial distinction that I’ve imposed in an attempt to jack up my profit margin, and it complicates my life needlessly. And it means that the people I am most interested in selling to must buy the inferior product, and the people I care about the least end up buying the nicer one.

Simpler, I think, to find ways to generate the prints I want to sell at an extremely affordable price, and then sell them at a price everyone can afford.

One of the things that has me pondering this is that I’m thinking hard about doing a book. And I know about where I’d like to price such a book. Now, this book would be a collection of prints. And it’s hard (as Brooks Jensen has pointed out) to charge a lot for an inkjet print and then charge very little (on a per print basis) for print that comes off a press, when the cheaper one is actually nicer.

13 Responses

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  1. Doug Stockdale said, on December 13, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    Okay, as a follow up, for my consulting business as a metaphor, I followed the wisdom of “think global, but act local”. You may not be in NYCity, but those who live there (and a lot further beyond as you already know) look at your blog and web gallery nevertheless.

    The internet is a global economy, so for me, it would be vert nice to sell my best prints to the those in my neighborhood, or a gallery in town, it just may not be practical or even neccessary anymore in order to make a nice living doing what I enjoy.

  2. Doug Stockdale said, on December 13, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    And my wife and I had a custom picture framing store for six years in a small town

  3. Ed Richards said, on December 13, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    While you really only need to break even on the prints, do not discount your time. What I am thinking about is cutting those mats. You could sell 10×15 images, matted, for $25 each, and if you used images that fit into precut mats, you could put them together with very little investment of time. Or charge a little more so you could give local merchants a piece of the price to sell them for you.

  4. Doug Stockdale said, on December 13, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    darn, hit the wrong key…

    So, the point I was trying to make; we had a custom picture framing store for many years and we would watch in amazement about a decision to spend either $15 or $20 on a poster print, but then think absolutely nothing about spending $150 to $200 to frame it with the right color double mattes and wood frame to match their interior decorating.

    So one rule of thumb that I have is that my prints will sell for equal to or more than the price of a really nice double/triple matte and a stained wood frame that would go around it. Last check, that would put a 8-1/2″ x 11″ print with a healthy sized matte, regular glass and wood frame in the $100 to $150 range. I know you can spend less, but again, it depends on your market.

  5. Lumière d’Argent » Print Pricing said, on December 14, 2007 at 2:26 am

    […] Interesting discussion at Paul Butzi’s blog. […]

  6. lumieredargent said, on December 14, 2007 at 3:28 am

    I am in the same thoughts process…

  7. prashanteju said, on December 14, 2007 at 3:47 am

    So what have you finally decided?

  8. Frank Armstrong said, on December 14, 2007 at 7:47 am

    None of the discussion, so far, takes into account the gallery owner who is putting together a show of Letinsky, Soth, DiRado, and Armstrong says to me, “Your prices are too low and I can’t make any money on you. Your prices are now ____.” And she did sell a print for 30% higher than I’d ever sold a print for before. So, now what?

  9. Ed Richards said, on December 14, 2007 at 9:47 am

    I think Paul’s discussion is about selling prints outside the gallery world. If you are lucky enough to be represented by a gallery, the game has to be different. Your pricing has to include a reasonable return for the gallery, as well as fit with the gallery’s customer’s expectations. Prints have to sell for much more in that world.

    One point is whether the two worlds can co-exist – I suspect galleries would not want to find that you are selling your prints online for 20% or less of the gallery price.

  10. K Smith said, on December 14, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    It is obvious that the pricing discussion is outside the gallery world. If you have several galleries, even in different financial demographics one has to charge the same for retail price, and the commercial galleries I’m with all take a 50% commission. When you sell a print yourself in any venue, it is considered bad business to discount hugely from the set retail price, because any gallery would say you are undercutting them. All a client needs to do is come to you directly and get a reduced price. There goes your gallery representation.

    Even outside a gallery environment, even for a hobbiest, to only charge for paper, ink, frameing is absurd. What about the mat cutter, the Rototrim paper cutter, the studio and it’s furniture, the camera equipment, the printer purchase. How about the skills gathered all those years to even be able to come up with a print. Are a few cents all it takes to satisfy vanity?

    A full time artist trying to make a living with his work, having committed to the work for the long term, is now competing with those that don’t look at the print sale as a business, but a fun sideline to their day job. A full time artist is attempting to grow in his reputation and so must keep trying to find places to show his work where it will be seen by a wider and wider audience, potentially to reach a museum curator, etc.

    So the price he gets after the gallery takes 50%, and he then deducts his framing cost, transportation or shipping cost, is only the beginning. He has to pay for all the structure that allowed him to make that print, including health insurance costs, work that never sells or is damaged, promotion, freebies to benefit auctions that are requested often. There is the website building software, the webhosting fees, the domain registration. Office supplies, and materials for experimentation. Glass of different sizes stacked in the garage, and the skills to cut that glass. All materials for framing have to be archival, and unless you live next to a supply outlet, you better have extra on-hand. All that is absorbed, before even a print is sold. Maybe 20 pieces sit framed in each gallery’s store room, waiting for a customer, but the artist is holding all the costs of making those products, until someone decides to take one home. What other business operates so speculatively?

    A client who buys work then is buying into the commitment of the artist, with his own commitment that costs a bit more. He will share in seeing that artist grow over time, for it is a commitment for the long term. That is what the collector is getting for the extra cost – something that is within and behind the print on the wall. It may be difficult to value, but it is real.

    With now an easy online presence where any amateur with a real job can sell work without the all-or-nothing commitment idea, those that have a long term promise have been end-runned. The struggle to sell in a diluted market now is even tougher. I am not saying it’s not great to see lots of photography out there, but it may be worthwhile to consider that the photographers of the past that we look up to, had the commitment, stuck it out and built a reputation and a body of work. Who will we have to look back on if no artist can make a living in this market, and folds to go work at Boeing. Prices should represent the TOTAL cost of getting to that point of making that print. And one should consider, if one is respectful of the medium, that pricing is relative to what is within and behind the print. Otherwise, someone in the future will be asked ‘Who influenced your work?’ All that is come up with is ‘Flickr’?!

    If it is only about the pretty picture, then why not find a magazine with nice shots, cut out a page and go to walmart and buy a plastic wood-grained frame? Hang it on the wall. From two feet away, it is a nice picture, and serves the wall and owner well for a time. Still, it is an weak approximation of aesthetics or art. Nothing has been ‘given up’ by the buyer or the print. So there is nothing inside, it has no heart and reflects its worth in the collaboration made. But when one buys a print by someone who has climbed the ladder, lasted over the long term, has a reputation and a future, then the pretty picture has a foundation, a dream, and is part of the much larger story of photography and art.

    Add these thoughts to the mix when thinking about how to price your work, then do what you think is best.

  11. […] PaulButzi’s musings on print pricing […]

  12. […] to price prints? Paul Butzi considers this question, and again. I’ve been asked by two people about prints from as Christmas presents so this […]

  13. […] 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 […]

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