Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fine Art Photographer Bill Schwab raises $42,502 in 30 days

It takes a lot of time to make it as a photographer. I don't mean the years of work needed to become an overnight success, I mean the hours you have to put in each week. It takes a lot of hours and you need to built a list of contacts that are interested in your work.

Bill Schwab has been putting in the hours for years, and building the contacts as well. 

Let's break down some of these options for the Northern Michigan Fine Art Photographer. Schwab isn't a famous photographer and he's ok with that. What Schwab has done is create a career as a Fine Art Photographer in Michigan, an area with a few challenges.

I first met Schwab at Photostock, his annual photography festival in Northern Michigan. He puts on the event each June and a nice crowd comes out to make photos, talk photography and play with friends.

Schwab spends part of his time putting together this festival and decided to push the bar higher with the construction of a building on some land he owned. How do you build a building for photographers to enjoy without charging huge fees for every event? Well, you can ask the photographers to help out and that's what started Schwab's Kickstarter project. If you don't know what Kickstarter is, then go here.

With Schwab's Kickstarter project he had a 30 day window and was dreaming of raising $30,000 to build his new building. He let everyone know about the project, and asked if they could let everyone else know. At the 30 day closure he had 411 people agree to pledge between $5 and $1,000 and raised $42,502 to build his building. Wow, that's $12,502 more than he dreamed of in 30 days. It turned out that thousands of people became involved, passing on the word through social media.

When you start a Kickstarter project the parent company let's all their members know about the event so you get a bit of a head-start there. 

Schwab also has 4440 friends on Facebook which became his main marketing tool. He also has twitter followers and almost 2000 people getting his monthly eNewsletter. Some of these followers get the eNewletter, Twitter feed and Facebook postings so they're not all unique viewers. 

When his 30 day window opened Schwab started posting. I know I found out about the project from the original posting, but then my friends started to repost and I reposted as well. As money started coming in, up-dates were sent out and those were reposted. You get the idea, a lot of people found out about the project, people learned who Bill Schwab was, and what he's about, and a small fraction felt this was something they wanted to help with. I'm sure some people wanted to help but didn't have the funds and I'm sure some people just forgot to pledge and then the window closed. In the end 411 people found the time and money to get involved.

Now Schwab is heavily involved in PhotoStock but it isn't how he makes a living since the event is low cost and only happens one weekend a year. He hopes to expand his Workshop presence in the marketplace putting on weekend and week long workshops at the new building. This builds on another revenue stream that Schwab already has, he puts on Photography Workshops and Tours including regular trips to the Faroe Islands, and the popular Wet Plate Collodion class that he teaches at different locations. The people that have been on past trips are the first to find out about the up-coming trips and form an A-list in his contact file. Each tour has a number of returning participants who enjoyed the previous event so much.

Yes, workshops and tours are fun but still don't pay all the bills. If you're going to be a photographer, you're going to have to sell a few photos. This is where Schwab finds social media so important. His work is represented by four main galleries including Meter in New York but he also sells his own work. "I'm not sure you need a dealer anymore. In the past you did, but these days you can keep it private if you like. I'm never going to be famous and I'm Ok with that," said Schwab. "A gallery is not that important any longer. Some people start off buying a poster, then maybe they pick up a book or one of the monthly prints. You need to offer all these things, but they all take up time as well."

Let's look at the math of a bimonthly print special. Any platinum print that's 11x14 or smaller is the same amount of work in the darkroom, packaging, and shipping, so the fact that these prints are 4x5 on an 8x10 sheet of paper doesn't mean they're less work, just smaller. Schwab sell's these jewels for $125 unmounted, and he sells between 20 and 25 each time he offers a new image. The best case is $3125 per offering. Sure there's some profit, but you have to make the prints and pay for materials and at $3125 every two months... well, I hope you like living in your mom's basement.

"I had to cut back on offering the prints every month, it became too much work," said Schwab. "It would take me most of the month to make the platinum prints and ship everything out. I had to cut back or all I would be working on is these 'print of the month' promotions." 

Schwab feels he's maxed out the time he can spend on the small regular print offerings and needs to concentrate on large print sales, working with architects and designers and publishing books. In the past he's done a number of books of his own work and also publishes books on other photographers on a regular schedule. He plans to continue doing this but also suggests he's maxing out on the time he can put into this as well. The books were a key part of his Kickstarter success though, giving him a great reward that he could send to the heavy pledgers. Sometimes it was a signed book and sometimes a signed book with a print.

Larger print sales are part of the mix but hard to get. It takes hours to contact architects and designers to see if your prints will work with their projects, and it takes more time to create a following of photography collectors. 

"I have a loyal following and a nice number of repeat clients. These people are the first to find out about any new print offerings or books that I'm working on," said Schwab. He reaches these collectors through email and his regular eNewsletter and they're the people most interested in his work. Schwab says, "You can buy an ad in a magazine or website to promote your work, and you'll get a few hits from these, but it's the list that you create over years that will really produce the most results. No one knows your clients as well as you do. It just takes time to build this up."

The success of the Kickstarter project, selling small prints, selling books, putting on tours, and selling large prints to collectors are all a result of building and working this client list, and spending the time to keep in touch with those who enjoy your work. 

-Rob Skeoch 

Although I've worked as a photography all my life, I'm currently back at school trying to finish my Masters of Fine Arts Degree at the Maine Media Workshops and College

Jan Rosenbaum is one of my mentors this semester and the project I'm working on is a paper on social media and future revenue streams with photography. 

My retail store for rangefinder gear and Zeiss lenses is www.rangefinderstore.com 

My retail store for large format photo supplies is www.bigcameraworkshops.com

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