A few days ago, we had our first inquiry about selling files. Even though we knew we'd be asked someday, we weren't totally prepared for it, and we always assumed we'd succumb in some way. But you know what we said? We said, "No". You know what the client did? They placed an order.
The reason they asked was because their wedding photographer sold them the files, and they assumed we would do that too.
So, we needed to confront the issue and decide whether we wanted to charge into what might be the next phase of portrait service, or hold back. After a lot of deliberation, we decided not to sell files for portrait clients, at least for the foreseeable future. Obviously, that can change, if the circumstances warrant it.
Whenever I post an opinion that seems to side with the status quo, I risk sounding like a dinosaur. I hate that because I'm far from it, and the points I try to make are more nuanced than simple stubbornness to move out of the dark ages. I KNOW the answer is always supposed to be, "Yes, and the price is..." But sometimes "No" makes it simpler and ends the problem. Remember, just because someone asks a question doesn't mean we have to comply with their request. They don't know what else to ask.
Let's say you're on I-65 going south through Indiana. Traffic is going smoothly. But then you think to yourself, "Self, if there's a big hole somewhere in the road, and I hit it, I'll probably wreck my steering system. So you slow down to 30MPH and travel in the middle of the road, thus causing a massive traffic jam. Everyone behind you is pissed off at having to put up with this mess. Now, there wasn't any real need to do what you did, but you just wanted to be “ready”.
So unless some other jokers in your market started selling files and you HAVE to in order to stay in business, is there really a need to do this?
My opinion is that the rush to sell printable digital files stems from either of these factors:
1) Fear that they'll lose business because everyone else in their market is doing it
2) Laziness to deliver an end product that requires more effort than simply handing over the files
3) Anxiousness to appear old-fashioned
4) A real opportunity to profit more than by selling prints
If you MUST do this to keep your head above water, OK. But ask yourselves these questions first…
1) Is there a huge demand in your area for files or a cheap print system?
2) If you don't do this, will your business suffer?
3) Will you make more money by doing this?
If you're losing business to some other yokel who sells files, and now you must get down in the mud and compete on price, etc. OK fine. Good luck maintaining a business with that kind of business model. But as long as you're not significantly losing business... Just say No.
I FULLY realize that this is a digital society and prints aren't the only way images can be enjoyed. I also understand this is a moving world. Nothing stands still... thank goodness. But there are many changes that aren't necessarily good ones, and we don't need to hasten our demise by rushing to the bottom any sooner than we need to. In the standard portrait business, selling printable files is a hornet's nest that I'd just as soon hold off as long as I can still profit with prints.
Selling files is what ruined wedding photography. There is NO DOUBT that selling CDs is one of the contributing factors that has ruined its better potential profit and even its viability. Do we really want that to happen to portrait photography? Countless markets suffer from this. I hear it time after time... "I HAVE to sell a CD, because if I don't the caller will just go to the next guy down the street who does." And then it's simply a matter of comparing the cost of that CD, versus comparing image quality, etc.
Great damage is done to the industry as a whole from such practices. It begins a chain reaction that results in a negative sales direction. It's hard for anyone with a short history or knowledge of it to have that same concern.
So when I hear of "amazing" results by selling files, I want to know these two things:
1) What is your average sale?
2) How many seniors do you photograph?
In order to get a REAL handle on this problem or opportunity, depending on how we look at it, we need to know some figures. I know there are some studios that can make more profit by selling CDs. But in my experience, typically their average sale is relatively low, at least compared to my average. A system that may be profitable (in the short run) for a studio that averages $800 could be disastrous for a studio that averages $3000.
Some people want the files just to have the files, but most want them to make prints cheap. It's that simple. As an experiment, in the past I have listed the CD of images (not because I wanted to go down that path, but because I wanted to see if people were truly interested in the files and not just a way to get cheaper prints. We priced it at $3000. Not one sale! Yet those same people had no problem spending our average of $2964. So it wasn't that they didn't have $3000 to spend. It was that $3000 and a CD wouldn't fulfill their needs, that being PRINTS!
If the clients want to make prints, we should sell prints. If the client need files for publicity release, that's what we sell. If a senior ALSO want digital files for Facebook, web use or their digital keychain viewer, sell that too. So we should be selling whatever the END RESULT PRODUCT is. And who better to make prints than a professional who has control over the quality of the printing process?
As we go DOWN this path of offering digital files, we'll see variations of file sales concepts, such as the increasingly popular "Buy In" system. This is a compromise method whereby the client pays a significant fee, then the client gets the ability to get prints as nearly the studio’s cost. I expect that eventually we photographers (the few remaining) will be selling digital files almost exclusively. Rather than deliverers of finished work, we’ll simply exist as a means for people to have better photographic files than they can do themselves. And as you might expect, the perceived value for such a limited service will be less than what we offer today. So I don’t see why everyone is in such a hurry to get there.
As long as there's no need to bow to the pressure, let's not cave in before it's absolutely necessary. If it ain’t broke...