Musings on Photography

SoFoBoMo and the World of Commerce

Posted in Solo Photo Book Month by Paul Butzi on March 6, 2009


As I type this, there are 272 people registered to participate in SoFoBoMo 2009. Just a few more days, and we’ll have more than twice as many folks registered for this year as we had last year. That’s good news, I think.

Not surprisingly the commercial world has taken notice. I’ve already gotten email from one business that wants to offer some sort of deal to SoFoBoMo participants. I’ll hold off on what they want to give away and what company it is for a bit, because I’m interested in hearing from participants about what they see about the potential upside and potential pitfalls of having companies connect with, support, and profit from SoFoBoMo, and I want to have that discussion without discussing specific companies. It’s a lot easier to discuss policy when things are generalized rather than discussing a specific instance.

Right now what I have in mind is that companies that want to make special offers to SoFoBoMo might get a bit of space on a ‘special offers’ page on the website, with it made clear that it’s a space where any company can get a special deal they offer lsited, but that listings there don’t imply some sort of endorsement by SoFoBoMo.

And in fact, it’s not like there’s some formal organization that could endorse things. That’s both a strength and a weakness.

It seems likely that we’ll get more than three times as many participants this year as we had last year. If that sort of growth occurs a few years in a row, then it’s not long before it becomes a really big thing. Bernie and I have been sort of winging it on the web hosting and domain costs, but things can only grow to a certain size and still work that way, so eventually we’ll need to secure some sort of funding stream. That can come from private contributions, from fees charged to participants (an idea I don’t much like for various reasons), or from corporate supporters.

Anyway, I’d be interested in reading the thoughts you all have on this. Please take a moment to think about it, and then please post a comment and let me know what you think, both pro and con. Point out the potential gains and the potential pitfalls.

17 Responses

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  1. jerry said, on March 6, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    It’s most reasonable that you recoup expenses, and obtain the funds to expand your project, from alliances with reputable and tasteful business interest. Who knows, your might even been included in one of those earmarks.

  2. Bill said, on March 6, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Like Jerry, I think it reasonable to recoup expenses – people could follow the principle of sofobomo without being involved – if someone is offering a cheap book deal – that seems reasonable, and I wouldn’t object to a registration fee.

  3. jerry said, on March 6, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    While I would personally have no objection to paying a registration fee or donation, I prefer the project be open to all at no fee. Perhaps a donation button would be helpful in the short term.

  4. Alexandre said, on March 6, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    I agree with jerry, asking for a fee really would change a lot what SoFoBoMo is, and I suspect most people would try to do it “on their own” rather than take the chance. A donation button seems like a much better idea.

    Getting special offers wouldn’t bother me at all (as long as they are somehow related to the project, obviously), and doubly so if you managed somehow to make them help cover some of your costs.

  5. Rusty said, on March 6, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    Paul, it is clear to me that you and Bernie are putting in a lot of time and effort that is making a lot of people happy. If you find a revenue stream out of this that is reasonable to you then, I say go for it. As much as anything else it is a sustainability issue.

  6. DavidG said, on March 6, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    A couple of downsides of free offers:
    – Some people may sign up for SoFoBoMo just to access the special offer. This seems undesirable to me because it will confuse the statistics of SoFoBoMo paritipation. I think it will be intersting in future to see how the statistics play out: how many people sign up for SoFoBoMo each year, how many completed books result, maybe some sort of participants’ surverys, who knows? But the stats will be far less useful if people sign up without a sincere intention to have a go at the project. Of course stats are less important than people’s satisfaction, but knowing the numbers helps in making decisions on what to change and what to maintain in the SoFoBoMo parameters each year.
    – You or SoFoBoMo may, in spite of any warnings, become associated with some dodgy company which makes special offers to SoFoBoMo participants.

  7. DavidG said, on March 6, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Typo: “paritipation”. Rats.

  8. DavidG said, on March 6, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    A few thoughts about sponsorship of SoFoBoMo itself rather than offers to participants …

    If you are receiving requests to advertise special offers, it’s probably only a matter of time before you are offered direct sponsorships.

    Earlier comments (1-4 as I write this) address the idea of covering costs. I would think it might be hard to set up a revenue stream that exactly covers costs so if SoFoBoMo becomes large I think it would be reasonable for you to have the expectation of making some profit to justify the risk you take in covering those costs.

    Going further, if SoFoBoMo continues to grow and becomes widely known and followed, the potential profits (especially from sponsorship) might turn out to be substantial. I personally have no problem with that outcome: you took an initiative, people choose to participate; sponsorship makes sense to the sponsors; nobody is obviously worse off and you get a financial reward (which I suspect for you would be a bonus rather than a key driver) for something very worthwhile which ends up enriching some peoples’ lives.

    It’s probably worth thinking now about what happens if it turns out that there are large profits to be made. I think given the popularity of photography, and the size of the camera industry in particular, profit is quite possible.
    – Do you personally own SoFoBoMo?
    – If not, then who does?
    – To what extent would you be comfortable to generate income personally through SoFoBoMo:
    – Cover direct costs?
    – Plus your time cost?
    – Plus compensation for your risks on the direct costs?
    – Plus the rest of the profit (if any, up to an unlimited amount)?
    – What would happen to any profits you don’t want to keep for yourself?

    Answers to these questions would then influence your responses to individual requests from potential sponsors, and might make it easier to decide whether you’d be comfortable to be associated with, say, the “Adobe SoFoBoMo”. Or “The Leica SoFoBoMo”. Or “The RipoffBrothers Camera Store SoFoBoMo”.

    Or how about “The ArtBookTemplate* SoFoBoMo”?
    * ArtBookTemplate slogan: “Our book templates turn your photos into Art!”. (OK, I admit I made that up just for you.)

  9. Chris Klug said, on March 6, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    I wouldn’t object to a registration fee either. And I also wouldn’t object to a company offering a deal of some sort. I think those things are just fine.

  10. Anil said, on March 6, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    I am ok with a registration fee or a participation fee. Setup a Paypal account and post a link. I’ll drop my contribution in.

  11. Martin Doonan said, on March 7, 2009 at 3:43 am

    Several issues come to mind:

    What is the objective for SoFoBoMo as an organisation. Is it to become a large, revenue generating entity? Profit making or non-profit? Who runs the show and how is the work done – paid workers, volunteer etc?

    A lot of questions but once you’re potentially getting into the sponsorship game the sorts of things to think about.

    For now, I’ll work on the “not for profit, volunteer, cover the costs” basis.

    On the sponsorships/offers, there are things to consider. Is the support merely financial. With which sort of outfits does SoFoBoMo wish to be associated? If it’s offers to participants, how is the company going to verify true participation? (on the last, e.g. a book printing company offers a deal for SoFoBoMo – are they going to check registration and adherence to the “rules” on completion?) I’m trying to kep this general in nature, there are all sort of specifics one gets with particular financial support models.

    I don’t think I’d like to see this become a corporately tagged effort. It should just be SoFoBoMo, no sponsors name. the idea is for open and free participation by enthusiasts. For the same reason, I don’t think an entry fee is appropriate – goes against the spirit of the thing.

    I do like the idea of having offers from small numbers of related companies. That’s 2 key things.
    Small number. No point having even tens of companies as I don’t think any of the 3 parties here (company, SoFoBoMo as an organisation, participants) gains from that.
    Related. the line of business and the offer has to relate pretty directly to SoFoBoMo – that probably needs some guidelines on how a deal would be accepted.

    If a larger SoFoBoMo can be set up in such a way that costs are fairly fixed (hosting, advertising etc costs) run by volunteers, Then there is an easy target for getting sponsorship. I think you’d also need to be careful about getting into a deal that starts making this a piece-rate sponsor thing (e.g. returns to SoFoBoMo based on a percent per sale, kind of like affiliate marketing).

    That’s a lot of natter.

    the summary:

    Keep SoFoBoMo as an organisation simple – no fees, volunteers, minimal organisation. It’s an idea, with an informal community. No reason such a thing can’t expand to large sizes.
    Keep sponsorships minimal, relevant and just enough to cover costs. Hopefully costs are low from the aforementioned model so SoFoBoMo doesn’t start looking like a registered company / NFP.
    Keep offers limited and relevant. Offering company takes on responsibility. Vetting but not endorsement (i.e. need to make sure company is legitimate but doesn’t mean they are formally supported).

    With all of that I think comes a bit of expectation management for participants. SoFoBoMo isn’t so much a formal organisation from which they can expect something, it is just a label to bring like minded people together. That will be as important to achieve my views as anything.

  12. Hugh Alison said, on March 7, 2009 at 3:59 am

    Set up a paypal link for voluntary contributions for the present – if that would fund a forum it would be worth contributing just for that.

    I think this is about the right time for you to talk to David Hobby ( – that started as a blog so he could write down stuff he was using for teaching purposes to avoid having to repeat himself. He’s a genuinely nice guy, very helpful. I don’t think this is going to take off quite as fast as the Strobist website, but you can never tell – the time is right for a major change in photo book publishing and distribution, and this might be the catalyst.

    I would certainly hold fire on any major decisions until you have talked to him.

  13. Andreas Manessinger said, on March 8, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Actually I have no objections against anything that keeps your costs down or generates income, though I doubt that there is much money in it. I may be wrong though.

    I’d like to second Martin: a participation fee feels wrong, donations are OK and I would certainly donate. I know, it’s only another name, but for me it makes all the difference. Ads are OK as well. The only thing that I beg you for is: please try to keep the spirit.

    If Adobe or some other company had come up with the idea, and if they had made it a very formal contest with prizes and fees, I doubt that I’d have participated last year, I doubt that I’d do it this time. No, it was the completely crazy idea of some blogger that attracted me, it was the spirit that it had, it was seeing everybody freaking out and then relaxing when Paul Lester pulled the one-hour book out of his chicken hat. It was the pleasure of seeing Gordon overperform. It was all that: amateurish, chaotic and incredibly charming. That’s why I want to go for it again, and that’s the spirit that I would really miss if SoFoBoMo became completely organized and formal.

  14. matt said, on March 10, 2009 at 5:58 am

    So much of the amateur photography scene has a slight tinge of desperately seeking monetization. I’d like to see sofobomo stay as far away from that as possible for as long as possible, but I know that doesn’t scale past a certain point.

    * registration fees – I’d rather just send a donation. Registration fees might attract a completely different crowd.

    * donations – I’d happily contribute, and I imagine many other people would as well.

    * corporate sponsorship – If it needs to be done anyway, I like the idea of a special offers page, a ghetto for ads. Seems cleaner that way.

  15. Markus Spring said, on March 11, 2009 at 12:06 am

    Andreas is right: it’s the spirit that made last years SoFoBoMo special and the wide variety of performers and results, and I guess even with higher numbers of participants that will be the case this year.

    And whilst it is good that cost recovery through sponsorship is offered, that ‘Independent Label’ I think should be kept up – so no big banners.

    Regarding registration fees/donation I’d second Matt: I’d donate but probably not participate when there’s a registration fee. It would give the whole thing a different approach, expectancies and all that. At the moment it’s a small thing, the website a informal focal point of participants who usually maintain their own blogs/websites. Through this the liveliness of the SoFoBoMo grows further.

  16. Sam said, on March 11, 2009 at 12:53 am

    What would be the point of free ‘deals’ for participants? To get more people to join up?? It won’t cover any of your costs, and if it encourages freeloaders to sign up just for the offer, it will end up costing you more in hosting fees etc., so I would be against that myself.

    I wouldn’t have an issue with a sign up fee, but I could see that it could turn off some people who would genuinely like to be a part of it, so again probably best to steer clear of that.

    A donation box sounds like a fine idea.

    Sponsorship sounds fine with the obvious caveat that we retain all rights etc etc etc

    Please please please keep it simple! (At the end of the day it is up to you of course).

  17. Chris Klug said, on March 11, 2009 at 8:15 am

    Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon, (wait, no, I’m SURE I’m an old curmudgeon) but there seems to be a feeling amongst many of these posts that any kind of commercialism will corrupt this process. For me, I’d LOVE more people to see my work. I WANT people to read my blog. I WANT people to visit my galleries. Art to me is about communication. If partnerships mean more visibility means more people see our work, I trust Paul not to take the dough and run off to the Ozarks or something. Projects like this have costs. People should be compensated for their time. There has to be an equal exchange. I don’t know what I’m missing.

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