How Much Is Your Photo Worth?

A well-known publishing house phoned me last month to ask if they could license one of my images for an upcoming textbook. They did so through a picture finder—literally, a person who locates images that have fallen off the visual radar. The photo had been with a stock agency several years ago, was sold a couple of times, and then returned to me when they switched to digital.

Someone at the publisher had seen the shot in an old textbook, and now wanted it for the updated version of another. The intermediary at the finders service said they were seeking one-time rights, worldwide, for a press run up to 125,000 copies, and including usage in an accompanying e-book (a separate product, sold to users through a subscription). The image would be a quarter-page in size, and a chapter opener.

The last item listed was the client-to-be’s budget—$300.

Now, I ask you—who would turn down three hundred easy dollars for the use of a photo that was all but forgotten? (It took me several hours to locate it, and my office is small.)

Of course, the answer is “I would did.”

But first, I negotiated.

I rely on Cradoc fotoSoftware’s fotoQuote, an industry-standard pricing guide, whenever I’m selling a photo usage directly. By entering the many variables—including rights, placements, market, et cetera—into the program you get a ballpark figure to work with. After that it’s up to you to decide where a sale price is most comfortable for you. The keys in this textbook sale were the worldwide rights and the placement of the picture to lead off a chapter in their book. Both of these indicated a higher price—over three times what had been offered.

Over the next two weeks I played email badminton with the go-between. I didn’t actually ask for $1200, but simply mentioned it as a hypothetical. That got me a quick reply, and news that the picture would not be used as an opener—too bad, as the value dropped substantially. When I tossed $525 in the air, they countered at $450. I checked the cookie jar and said “Okay.”

A few days later they requested the full-resolution file (I’d already sent a small, low-res copy for their layouts) and asked me to delay the billing in case any of the rights changed later.

As I told them, “I see a potential problem here.” Do you? What happens when you send out the finished product, and later the customer decides they didn’t need everything after all, and so won’t pay the price you’ve agreed on?

At their request I didn’t send the file, until they had things figured out.

Which came in an email a day or two later—they were now using a picture as an opener, but it wouldn’t be mine. I actually smiled as I read on and learned they’d found another photo and were paying $300 for everything, their original budget.

I felt disappointed, naturally—no one likes to lose a sale. But just as I wouldn’t sell any other item for a price I believed to be too low, neither could I license that photo in those circumstances.

The average pay rates for commercial, stock, and editorial photographers have remained stagnant over many years, failing to keep pace with other occupations (and costs). (There are many ex-photographers who can tell you how glamorous the business was.) Add to this the reality of ever-shrinking markets, the arrival of royalty-free and micro-stock (i.e. cheap) photos, and a proliferation of new photographers eager to see their work in print at any price, and it’s understandable that my almost client thought they could pay me such a low price—they were accustomed to it.

My experience wasn’t so much a lesson as a reminder—when photographers ask reasonable prices for their work (it is work, though it may seem effortless) they support other photographers in kind.

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