It has been ten years since I signed my first contract and I have mixed feelings about the experience. When first approached, I was thrilled. I also naively thought fame and fortune would be coming next. Even though I was just starting out on the art festival circuit, I was already seeking ways to minimize the amount of shows I would have to do.
At the first meeting with the publisher I remember feeling a bit concerned about my “artistic freedom” as they described the “trends in the industry” and other information meant to guide me in choosing my subject matter. I reasoned that this was no different than being a commercial photographer and chose to treat the publisher as my “client”. I also learned that images should be submitted, and are usually sold as sets. A set can be a pair of related images, but usually four is the preferred number.
The first set of photographs I submitted were accepted and I was told they would be released in a few months. I waited patiently for my first royalty check and when it arrived, tore it open to find a check for $5.75! Not what I had envisioned. Eventually the royalty checks grew larger as more images were released, but never came close to being an amount I could rely on as a steady stream of income.
Soon after that first check arrived, I had the surreal experience of being in Linens & Things, shopping for a clothes hamper, when I came upon something that looked vaguely familiar. Those were my photographs! Framed and hanging in a major retail outlet! I would go on to experience this in Cost Plus and Bombay Company as well.
After the novelty of that wore off, I continued to work hard at producing images for possible publication. This became more difficult each time I set out to shoot. I started to get resentful - feeling like I had “sold out”.
The requirement that images be made in “sets” proved to be my greatest challenge. I would get excited about a shot I made, and then remember that I needed a “mate” to go with it. This usually felt forced and the resulting image never satisfied me like the first one did.
Just like everything else, the print publishing industry has suffered greatly in the current economy. I have not submitted anything to my publisher in over a year. I have a few images from Paris that I made a small effort to create a series with, but once again, one photograph always appears to be the strong one, while the others feel like a stretch. From a marketing standpoint, even if I wasn’t working with publishers, it’s a good idea to create images that can be grouped together - but I resist it for some reason.
I don’t regret working with publishers and will continue to send images when I feel they are appropriate. I know that there are some artists that have a strong opinion about this subject, but for me, it’s been a fairly positive experience. I still retain all rights to the original and it is returned to me to sell as I wish. It’s also nice to get monthly checks - even if they are sometimes small. Having my images made into prints and posters is a small part of the larger equation of getting my work out into the world. After ten years I am wiser and more realistic, but also grateful for any opportunity that makes it possible for me to continue making art.