You don’t take pictures for a living…

Many years ago, when I was doing book reviews for Amazing Science Fiction (at that time owned by TSR. I did say “many years ago!”) a common question I got was ‘How can I get paid to read books?’

It may sound like I’m picking nits, but this is an important semantical detail: I didn’t get paid to read books. I got paid to help readers decide whether to read (and buy) books.

Typing is a skill. Writing is a craft. You don’t get paid for writing. You get paid for selling what you wrote. What you wrote is an asset, and your income depends on how others value that asset and what they’re willing to pay for it.

Ditto photography. The act of taking a photograph is a skill. The act of making a photograph is a craft. You don’t get paid to make a photo; that photo is an asset; it has to be valued and bought to generate income. (or more wonderful thoughts on making vs. taking, see Scott Bourne and Chase Jarvis)

Nowhere in here have I mentioned the word “art” or “artist”. To a good degree, it’s an irrelevant concept in the discussion (except it’s not). In my way of seeing things, to be a craftsman, you have to master the skills. To be an artist, you have to master the craft AND have a specific inner spark or vision that drives your work beyond the typical. Few are true artists, but in some fields, defining yourself as an “artist” is a marketing tactic used to increase your value and and improve sales. That’s not a crticism — it worked wonderfully for Andy Warhol (but is what he did art?)

Stephen King You don’t take pictures for a living… is a craftsman. So are John Scalzi You don’t take pictures for a living… and Terry Goodkind You don’t take pictures for a living… and John Le Carre You don’t take pictures for a living…. Gene Wolfe You don’t take pictures for a living… and Michael Swanwick You don’t take pictures for a living… are artists. Joe McNally is a craftsman. Art Wolfe is an artist. One s not superior to the other, they are different (and many times highly subjective) paths down the same road — and I tend to believe that the louder someone declares themselves an artist, the less likely they really are.

This is a somewhat round-about way of pointing out that business of selling your work has very little to do with the act of creating it. If you don’t understand this, I can’t believe you can succeed as a business — but you may still be a great writer or photographer.

Which is a round-about way of bringing forward the idea that there’s going to be very little discussion about making great photos. It’s a given that you can do that; you can probably market yourself to some level of success if you’re craft is technically mediocre, but you’ll be constantly shooting yourself in the foot.

So this conversation is really about what to sell. It’s about how to market it so people know you’re selling it. It’s about making sure that someone who wants to buy it can. It’s about maximizing the value of your assets, and making sure that what you sell it for makes you more than it cost you to make it.

It’s also about when to give it away, because many times, the best sales tool you have is the free sample.

But the trick there is how to give it away, without, well, giving it away. Because if it’s free, why should someone pay for it?

And that issue is core to success in the internet-enabled universe, and is both a massive challenge — and a bigger opportunity.

This entry was posted in Photography.