Erik Sherman's WriterBiz

A spot about the business of writing as seen by a freelance writer. That includes marketing, sales, contracts, copyright, planning, research - in short, the business end of writing.

Name: Erik Sherman
Location: Massachusetts, United States

I'm an independent writer and photographer who covers business, food, technology, books, media, general features, and pretty much anything appealing that results in a signed check. My work has appeared in such places as the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Newsweek Japan, Fortune, Inc, Fortune Small Business, the Financial Times, Advertising Age, Saveur, US News & World Report, and Continental

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What Will Become of Professional Photography, and Why Writers Should Care

Columbia Journalism Review has a good article on how photographers have felt enormous pressure from amateur sources of images, but have just been quieter about it than writers. I'd strongly suggest that it's worth reading and then considering how often we all complain about falling rates, and yet are willing to take advantage of the analogous forces in photography that depress rates there. Freelancers often scowl when "non-writers" have the temerity to provide an article, and yet many of us look for opportunities to sell our own photography and anything else that can boost the profit on an assignment.

I'm not suggesting that there is something inherently wrong in developing multiple skills and making use of them all. Far from it. However, it's easy to fall into the "I'll do it for next to nothing if necessary" mind frame in what one sees as a sideline endeavor. Each of us is gaining an advantage from becoming a single source of story-telling, and so is the buyer, because there is only one set of expenses. However, take a look at the bargain you're making and with whom, because, done wrong, it could come back to haunt.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Safely Storing Digital Files

I wrote an article for about how to develop a storage strategy for digital photos, but the same principles can work for virtually any type of file. Here's the link, if you're interested.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Selling Articles and Photos

I'm actually writing this at the request of someone on Freelance Success, who had a question about selling photography and writing together to a magazine. The writer/photographer wanted an opinion on the wisdom of selling the two as a package and how to price photos when also writing the story. For example, should you round up the price of the story by 25 cents or 50 cents a word? The person also provides six month rights to photos and then resells them on a web site.

Let's break things down into two areas: payment and rights. Obviously, you want to maximize the pay you get. Remember that the photo department and its budget are usually separate from editorial. It always makes sense, then, to ask the photo department what it would normally pay for images.

Sometime publications will pay a daily rate plus expenses. Some pay by the image. Some have a flat fee in mind for a certain number of images. Generally, the amount is going to be significant in comparison to the writing. I've personally had assignments where the photos paid about as much as the writing did. In the worst case that I can remember, it was still about a third of the fee. There are cases where the photography could run more than the writing.

Only after you've understood the publisher's photo pricing can you know if a bundled price give you more money or less. The publication wants to minimize the total, because then it saves money is is more profitable. You can also reasonably guess that the publication is unlikely to pay you more in total than it might otherwise. Unless you have a sense of how the photo department pays, you won't know if you're maximizing your income. I wouldn't give a break in pricing for getting both parts of the business. By having only one person go to an event, the publisher is already saving on expenses. You want that to be the source of cost reduction.

When you bundle two services together in pricing without explicit acknowledgement of each contribution, you effectively devalue both. If the publication decides to use some extra photos, well, it's already paid for them in the word rate and doesn't need to pay the addition that it might. You've eliminated an argument for getting a future rate increase because the editor thinks that should include something additional - more photography. But for all you know, some writers might already get a higher per word fee than you.

Now lets discuss the rights portion. When you bundle things together, you also start lumping together rights. But photographers generally give less generous rights packages. Why should you be unable to sell the photos for six months? Because you think the publisher should have that long with the story? The idea of exclusive use for a period of time is usually to keep something away from competitors. But if you treat photography separately from writing, you can possibly get more nuance in negotiations. For example, if you sell directly from a web site to people who might like an image, that shouldn't be competitive, and so, shouldn't be part of an exclusive run. (I'd actually think six months was too long even for writing. Try three, or even two.)

In summary, by bundling, you impair your ability to get better terms on rights, and you potentially devalue your work. I think separate pricing and rights negotiations are usually the better choice to sell both writing and photography.

As for publishers who expect writers to provide photos for a single fee, consider what you're actually doing. Say that the photography would typically run half of the writing fee (and, again, that's not wildly optimistic). So you're selling 1.5X, where X is the writing fee. Now divide the package price the publisher offers by 1.5. If the amount is, say, $1,200, then your writing is actually bringing only $800. If someone offers $600, then the writing is only bringing $400. Ask yourself if the amount you get seems reasonable for the writing alone. If not, then pass on the project.

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Monday, July 2, 2007

8 Pointers on Mixing Writing and Photography

A writer recently asked me about selling photos with articles. It's great if you can do it, but there are some things to consider:
  • Know your stuff. Just as you would rightly be insulted if someone suggested that anybody could write an article, photographers and photo editors feel the same way when told that anyone can snap a picture - and the results prove it. Good photography is as hard to achieve as good writing, so learn about the technical and compositional aspects and then practice. If possible, get someone to critique your early attempts so you can avoid telltale signs that you're just pushing the button. Study good photo work in publications you'd like to reach and get yours up to that level. I still work on learning more, and I've been taking photos for at least 30 years and even recently published the Complete Idiot's Guide to Canon EOS Digital Cameras. If I can stand to learn more, you probably can as well.

  • Talk to the right people. You wouldn't approach an advertising sales manager with an article idea. Know who looks at photo pitches. Generally it will be a photo editor separate from the editorial department. They don't like having their turf marked up by others, so be considerate and respectful of their positions and don't assume that your editor will assign you photo work.

  • You can't always be everything. Yes, it's nice to make more money, but many publications have a prejudice against jacks-of-all-trades. I can remember a magazine where I had contributed for a number of years where the photo people wouldn't even entertain looking at my work because they found that, generally speaking, writers weren't good photographers. (That goes back to the first point.) Realize that some won't want to open the photo door to you.

  • Get an introduction. Even though there are separate territories, if you've worked with an editor for a while, he or she might be willing to give you an introduction to the photo people. I've gotten such introductions at most of the magazines for which I've done some shooting.

  • Find your strengths. Just as there are certain types of articles and topics at which you excel, you will have photo strengths and weaknesses. Until you can bolster the weaknesses, sell on the strengths, whether formal portraits, candid work, a knowledge of particular conditions, or certain types of formats and results that you can provide.

  • Invest in your business. Unlike writing, photography is equipment heavy. Make sure that what you have can provide the quality results that photo departments need. For example, don't try to get away with a point-and-shoot digital that won't give you the image size, resolution, and file format that the editor is likely to want.

  • Learn the lingo. If anything in the previous point was confusing, then it's time to learn more about the language of photography - not just how to do it, but how to communicate about it. Know as much about how to communicate with photo departments about their needs as you know about communicating with editors. Also learn the organizational structure of the typical photo department and the usual business practices in the field.

  • Watch the rights. Ultimately there is money to be made in reusing photographs. Don't let some publication snow you into thinking that selling all rights is normal. Most photographers are far more sophisticated about rights issues than writers, so learn from them.
It's certainly work to get there, but photography can add significant revenue to your assignments and satisfaction to your story telling.

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