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There has been a tremendous amount of buzz lately around Wired editor Chris Anderson’s new book Free (which you can, of course, read for free). The basic premise is that if you give something away, more people will “purchase” it than at any other price point (even one cent) and then money can be made on that group, through advertising, secondary sales, etc.
There are big examples (like Google giving away all their services and making money off their associated ads) and smaller ones (like Prince giving away his CD in London’s The Daily Mail, boosting ticket sales for him and circulation for the Mail).
Rob at APhotoEditor predicted a few months ago, “I suspect [Anderson is] going to take a real thrashing on this one since it seems the tide has turned on free. All anyone is talking about these days is subscriptions, premium upgrades and advertising.” His prediction has largely come true, with the New York Times refuting most of Anderson’s points in its review. Malcom Gladwell makes a strong case against Free in the New Yorker as well, which Chase Jarvis referenced in a recent post, after invoking a small firestorm earlier this year when he posted about Anderson’s original Free story in Wired.
Obviously the big question here is, how does this apply to photographers? Craig Swanson of CreativeTechs makes a smart point in Chase’s “featured comment”: “generic stock image libraries are among the digital products already on a steady march towards ‘Free’…while…the availability of, for example, ‘Chase Jarvis’ is quite scarce these days. (Scarce items maintain and even increase their value). So I think this has a lot to do with how we manage our careers and art in the future. To maintain our value we must become our own monopoly.”
I have talked to a lot of photographers and photo industry professionals about the importance of building an audience for themselves, building a reputation around quality work, industry knowledge, and personality. To do that, you often have to give away some things for free. Here are a few models that seem to be working.
Give away content, sell expertise
MediaStorm distributes its top-notch multimedia pieces for free, but makes a tidy sum on its workshops teaching professional photographers and journalists how to make multimedia pieces (and even some of those are free).
Give away general expertise, sell specific expertise
Consultants such as Mary Virginia Swanson and RESOLVE contributor Amanda Sosa Stone and Leslie Burns-Dell’Acqua, along with photographers like Art Wolfe, share their extensive knowledge for free online, knowing that people will pay for their consulting or teaching services once they have gotten to know and trust their work. (What Mary does might actually fit better in the above category, since she provides great information on her blog about events and deadlines, as opposed to generalized versions of her consultations.)
Give away your vision, sell your “monopoly”
It’s not surprising that Chase pulled out that comment about “becoming your own monopoly” or that he himself is the prime example. By constantly sharing his insights, expertise, even iPhones with his huge audience, Chase has created a kind of creativity factory with a built-in audience — clients are no longer just paying for his images, they are paying to be part of that community.
Give away involvement, sell the product
Photographer Simon Roberts has been keeping a detailed blog journal of his process of shooting, editing, and publishing his latest book, We English. Along the way he has done things to help his growing audience feel like part of the creation process, like offering free prints to the first 150 people who wrote him with an idea for something inherently “English.” Having a built-in, engaged audience like this can only help sales of his book and prints.
Give away the filter, charge for the content
This model has fewer proven examples but I think it has great potential. Since everyone is giving content away for free, what becomes valuable is a filter that you trust. PDN recently highlighted the importance of “digital curators,” like Flak Photo, Conscientious, and I Heart Photography, as the first layer of filtering, which galleries are now turning to for new artists. But these filter sites will have to become profitable themselves soon; one way could be for them to become distributors of the art they feature. Or they likely have some other things up their sleeves that I haven’t even thought of. (Stay tuned for a discussion with Flak Photo founder Andy Adams on this topic soon.)
Photography as a profitable business in some ways depends on individuals’ ability to flesh out these models and decide which one (or combination of several) works for them. What are the downsides to each of these? What other models am I missing that seem to work? Obvisouly there are many that don’t depend on the “free” mentality at all. Do you think those can hold out against the free content?