Market Twist: Sell Pictures For A Nickle

Posted on 7/7/2008 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

I've written before about how book publishers are exploiting photographers, illustrators (and also writers providing text material for textbooks), and about future opportunities to sell directly to consumers.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way educational information is supplied to students. The major technological issues have been solved. The potential economic benefits for new players in this market - being the most obvious - are overwhelming. Creatives will make more money. School systems will have more choice in teaching materials and save millions. The only thing to prevent such a change is inertia and the tendency for content creators to resist new methods.

Consider: School systems are not particularly happy with many textbook offerings. They may like some chapters in a particular book, but would like them organized differently, given the way they intend to teach the subject. For almost a decade, there has been a trend toward creating Custom Books enabling school systems to use most of a basic text and supplement it with two chapters from one author, three from another and reports from specialist. Publishers have packaged all this material into a single custom book. In addition, professors tend to refer their students to lots of Internet material and use the general text sparingly.

Despite these changes, it is not uncommon for publishers to sell a million copies of a particular textbook for approximately $100 each. Such a book might have 200 pictures. In today's market,. the rights to print 1 million copies could probably be purchased for something in the range of $500 per photo (dramatically less than what we got 10 years ago.) Thus, the total for all photographers with pictures in a given book is about $100,000, the writer(s) probably get a little more and the publisher is selling the product for $100 million. Does that sound fair?

What if? Writers decide they can sell chapters directly to school systems without the aid of a publisher. The chapters are posted in PDF format on a protected Internet site. Teachers or school system administrators can search for the chapters on a particular subject, compile them into one large PDF file and provide their students a link. The student goes online, purchases the material he/she needs, reads it online or downloads it. With each purchase, a portion of the money is allocated directly to the company operating the distribution system, a portion to the author and a portion to each of the photographers whose pictures were used in that chapter. All parties are paid based on the number of times a given chapter is downloaded.

It's the writers responsibility to choose illustrations for their chapters. Some writers will offer an entire year's teaching program based on their philosophy. Buyers may purchase the whole year's program, or specific chapters. Some specialist may only produce one or two chapters and not feel the need to publish an entire book.

Let's say there are five pictures in each lesson and 40 lessons in a semester's curriculum. The total charge for one lesson is $0.75. The writer(s) get $0.50 and $0.25 is allocated for five photographs or $.05 each. Not much, but if that lesson is downloaded 40,000 times. the photographer gets $2,000 per picture. If it is downloaded 1 million times, he gets $50,000. The customer's total cost for 40 lessons would be $30, not the $100 they're likely paying today. At those rates, creatives can easily afford to give up 35% to 50% of their fees to the organization that sets up the computer system to make the material available to buyers and administers the payments.

The disadvantage, of course, is that there is no upfront payment. But the fees we're getting now are so minimal that upfront payments are hardly an issue. Also, fees for high circulations are likely to come in over several years, not all at one time. Plus, if it is possible for more authors to participate in this market, the number of sales of any chapter or lesson is likely to be less than today.

There's another big advantage for Amazon to introduce such a product. Their new Kindle reading device would be perfect for storing, transporting and reading these books. Instead of carrying a backpack full of books, all the resource material a student needs for all his/her classes - including newspapers and other recreational reading material - would be stored on one electronic device the size of a paperback.

This development may not occur in 2009 or 2010, but it is such an obvious improvement over the existing system for everyone except publishers and those selling paper that something should appear in the near future. Photographers need to recognize that in some cases, selling direct to consumers can be much more lucrative than selling to packagers and commercial users. They should not reject the idea of selling images for low prices without fully exploring the potential customer base.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-251-0720, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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