Are picture libraries an effective use of time?

More accurate targeting

Do we photographers really  use our time effectively, is our effort well targeted? As a result of falling sales and fees I have taken a long hard look at my business practice. It has not been pretty.

In the last few years the time I have spent preparing and managing images for libraries has been out of all proportion to the financial returns, even  discounting the time actually spent time taking photographs.  Most of us spend an enormous amount of time preparing images (most of which will never sell) for libraries. That speculative preparation time could easily be hundreds of hours per year – is it really an effective use of our limited time? Especially when for many of us at least, sales are infrequent and often for tiny amounts (several at £0.38p for me last year).

Would we not be better using that time to seek (more) direct sales? Those of us who mainly produce editorial images direct sales will probably generate better hourly income; might even reach minimum wage! We may well make fewer sales to start with but without agent's commission sales revenue could still be higher. In addition we build a relationship with editors and clients that may lead to repeat sales, assignments or even just useful guidance on what is needed. A bit of effort learning to write a good query letter will pay off. Combine a carefully worded query with thoughtful targeting can result in a decent conversion rate, at least from my experience.  Then one only needs to process images that are of known interest to a client, so no longer entirely speculative work. It should reduce the amount of image preparation time by 90% or perhaps more. It will give more time for photography or more selling; whichever is the individual's priority.

It would appear that chasing infringements, albeit selectively, could also be a better use of limited time than submitting to agencies. Several photographers I have spoken to in the last few months have made worthwhile additional income from compensation from infringement. Last year M-dash made five times more from a single compensation claim than we did from a major library that has 5,000 of our images. Chasing that down involved perhaps ten hours or so of my time so it was a very worthwhile hourly rate.

However there may be a small snag with relying on infringements as income. If we go direct and do not have images online with libraries and their distributors there may be fewer infringements! Seriously though, that is not likely to be a real issue and after all we are not looking to encourage infringement; it is easier all round if everybody handles copyright material properly.

There are photographers who will still benefit from using libraries. News photographers probably need to use specialist agencies to reach news desks quickly with time-sensitive material. Even so, for sales from news archives the direct approach may still be better. Similarly those photographers producing creative, released or commercial work, especially speculatively, may find a wider audience than is possible directly. There again using a direct sales channel may be expected to lead to more, higher-value, commissioned work. Those with tightly edited, specialist collections may seem to benefit as well but arguably specialists will have a better defined potential customer base which could be targeted directly with closely matched proposals.

Another big plus of the direct approach is that it forces photographers to really think about what will meet each potential client's needs. It will generate a far better understanding of the market than passively relying on libraries and other third parties.

This article came about because of my detailed review of how I have been operating and what I want from my photography business. Return on effort will be a key measure for my business planning and will drive how I maximise my income for the time I am prepared to commit to work. My approach to my business, it happens to be photography and writing, is going to much more active, I am not going to try and rely on passive income. I am going to take control; managing the sales channel and costs (time and cash) are probably the most important responsibilities for any business.

So we should not accept the status quo because it worked in the past. We complain about the way the market, indeed the world, is changing yet we expect the old ways to still work? Often misattributed to Albert Einstein the quotation "the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result" should be at the forefront of our thinking. Keep challenging the status quo and our own ideas especially when they are not producing the results we want.

All of us then should understand our rate of return on effort and take control.  We need to target our effort better. Perhaps it is time to turn the clock back to the days before stock libraries and take out the middle-man (and woman)? I am. At the end of the day each photographer has to make their own judgement, please make it an informed decision.

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