Dan Heller's Photography Business Blog Industry analysis from www.danheller.com

The photography world -- the business, the culture, the art, the politics, the technology.

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Friday, July 07, 2006

When is the best time to approach a stock agency?

Here's a typical message I get on the subject of submitting images to a stock photo agency.

I probably shouldn't have submitted my photos to an agency until I get my business going, but I thought that would be a way to get my stuff looked while I was learning.

First, the stock photo agency of today is not like it was even just a few years ago. There are so many, that it becomes a catch-22: those that are easy to get into are probably taking everyone, and will not yield much money at all. The few remaining larger agencies with credibility are so hard to get into, that it's unlikely you'll get in unless and until you're ready. (You for them, and them for you.) But, knowing when that time is, well, that's the hard part. Thing is, you could well be ready, but if you don't go about it right, you still won't get in.

In my chapter on business marketing, http://www.danheller.com/biz-marketing, I cite several examples where I have submitted images to photo editors, art directors, and others of various positions for consideration, all of whom dismissed my work using phrases like, "does not suite our needs at this time." I even had an experience where a different representative from a major agency would contact me on a regular basis, telling me that my images were fantastic, and that I should submit them for consideration. Yet, each time I did, I'd get the same old form letter about how my images did not have enough commercial quality to meet their demanding clients.

In the chapter, I go into great detail on the "psychology of choosing," especially when it comes to evaluating photography by agencies or marketing directors. Most of the time, when you submit images, whoever looks at them is in the "browse" mindset, and do not nearly make the same decisions (thus, "value judgments") as they would if they were looking at your images as part of a search for a particular image to fill a specific client's need. It's easy to overlook images if you see them on a regular basis everyday. But, if you are lucky enough to have a specific image that happens to be the kind needed by one of the agency's clients, your lottery number might come up.

That's why image submission in a head-to-head market like we have today is futile, costly, and...no better than playing the lottery. Put another way, the exact same investment of time and money can be better spent building your business in other ways that will yield better results in the end.

The point is, agencies get thousands of photographers a week who send in ten- to hundreds-of-thousands of images, and it's too easy to overlook everyone. It's like what Groucho Marx said, "You wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have someone like you as a member."

And then there's the fact that getting into the agency may not be all that great, even if you do get in. You could be one of the thousands that make very little money, or no money at all. Some of you may think, "that's fine by me," but if it were just a matter of your submitting images now and then and waiting for pennies to trickle in, think again. You are going to invest a lot of time and resources to get them material on an ongoing basis, or they may drop you, even if you aren't making any money yet.

If you really want to get into an agency, you're going to have to do a lot of work that, hey, you might as well be doing for yourself first. And here's the major benefit of doing that: by building your own business first and demonstrating a proven track record of sales, it's much easier to establish credibility with a potential agency, since the "risk/reward" ratio has already been established: your images make money. Consider what would happen if your submission didn't include any images at all, but instead, a spreadsheet of sales figures from your own stock sales over the past three years. Who would turn that down? What's more, you have a pretty strong negotiating position to establish terms in your favor. For example, your offer letter can state, "I'm doing at least $30K a year on my own; if you want to represent my images, you need to guarantee me at least that much."

I have created a database of photo buyers from the Photographer's market. I am going to start marketing to them.

Oh yeah? How? :-) Again, the catch-22 applies: anyone that tries to go in through the front door along with thousands of others, isn't going to be savvy enough to stand out from the crowd. Agencies, marketing managers, and even photo editors have pre-written forms used solely for one purpose: to send to everyone that sends them unsolicited portfolios or other marketing materials. My marketing chapter gets into the details of that, too, so I won't regurgitate the points here. But, the point I'm trying to get you to see is that taking a one-step-at-a-time approach to this business is guaranteed to result in a lot of wasted time and resources.

Can you give me marketing tips? I am not asking for any of your secrets

ANYONE that claims to have secrets is full of !@#$%. Moreover, anyone that refuses to discuss something because they feel it's "secretive" is worse. There are no secrets at all to anything about photography or business--it's all a matter of how one puts together their own special skills, creative talents, and social/psycho aptitudes in a way that yields positive results. This isn't the same for any two people, hence, there are no "secrets." I open up my entire business methods, strategies, prices, and everything else in what I've written online, and if anyone wants to copy it, be my guest. They'll soon find that it can't be copied because the way tasks are executed has more to do with how I make decisions on an ongoing basis, not the script or template that seems to be laid out.

As long as photographers think it's all about taking good pictures and letting someone else do the sales, they will never leverage whatever they may have that really makes them valuable. In other words, they're all melting into the same thing. Hence, they're all equally likely to draw a winning lottery ticket. But, why play the lottery? Sure, your photography has to be good, but that's not saying much -- most people who _fail_ also are good photographers.