The syndication agency I started with was Caters News who placed my images in a handful of publications in the United Kingdom in May 2011. Although it wasn’t the first time my images had been in print, syndication was a completely new experience in many respects. I expected that I’d get a little bit of money. What actually happened is that my images quickly spread. After appearing in England they were in Scotland. Then in France, Greece and Italy. Then Pakistan and Australia. The photographs of tiny figures and food that I had worked on in obscurity for almost a decade were suddenly everywhere online. My inbox was flooded with comments and e-mails asking where people could buy prints. There were interview requests from editors and requests to use images that went on for months. I even received a contact from a book agent at a top agency, suggesting that the work would make a great book. And there were galleries reaching out to ask if I would be interested in selling my photographs as fine art prints. Interest was suddenly raining down from the sky and I was running around with a paper cup trying to do my best to catch it.
That summer the work took off like a rocket, completely exceeding my expectations. What came first was just the attention. No one was writing me checks overnight. The money would come long after the notoriety. Big Appetites would go on to be published as a book but not until two years later. And I did start signing with fine art galleries. But that had its own process too. I’ll cover the book process and my fine art experiences (which have ranged from terrific to absolutely horrible) in other posts as there is much to say about both. But for the purposes of the subject at hand I think it is best to focus the rest of this post on the pros and cons of syndicating your images. We’ll start with the positive.
Syndication is a powerful way to introduce your photography to the world. I can obviously speak only from my own experience and results may vary. But on the whole, syndicating my images got my work into a range of publications around the world, expanded knowledge of my photography very quickly and broadly, and brought me opportunities that I may not have been able to realize through other means. Doing two or three syndication deals, one after the other, for six months to a year at a time, resulted in my photographs being published in around 100 countries without me having to do much of the work in getting them there.
A little bit of money
Depending on the details of the syndication arrangements, the syndicator generally will split the profit with the photographer. So if the publication offers $250 for the content, you get $125. Some publications pay less, some more.
Awareness leading to opportunities
Many people have used the term “going viral” in reference to the way my Big Appetites photographs ricocheted around the Internet. And at a certain point the notoriety did seem to have an organic power of its own. Though to be fair, much of the momentum had to do with the significant work that I did to keep it going. This involved finding a design house to put together a website for me, posting on social media, working very hard to continue the photo series by shooting a lot of new images, doing endless interviews via both e-mail and telephone. I’d say the first six months or so were the most intense. Due to the widespread interest in my photography from around the world, I was often working on behalf of Big Appetites from very early in the morning to late at night. It is one thing to have doors of opportunity open. It is another to be prepared in a way that helps you figure out the best way to go through that door.
Cons: (A longer list)
Lack of transparency
I found that syndication networks were less than clear about where my work was being used. Nor did they readily identify the other syndication networks they partner with. So while they would generate intermittent reports about where images were published, sometimes it was evident – like on the NBC Today Show website or InTouch magazine – and other times it would be some obscure Belgian print publication I had never heard of and that was identified in the payment report merely by way of an incomprehensible acronym. Which leads us to….
Certainly it is no surprise to any visual artist who uses the internet to promote their work that it is easy for others to take and republish images without permission. So as my photographs spread through the syndication networks, they just as quickly began to pop up on many (many!) websites of publications that had absolutely no right to use them. Now I could write volumes about my experiences with copyright infringement, and I will at a later date. But I’m not talking here about teenagers who discovered some of my images, found them funny and entertaining, and decided to post some of them to social media. I’m referring to mainstream news publications – generating revenue from subscriptions, newsstand sales and advertising – who just helped themselves to my work and used it as free content to enrich themselves.
The percentage of this activity probably comprised better than 40% of where my images went online. In some cases, it could be curtailed or stopped. But in many other cases (Turkey, Russia, Brazil, China, Argentina, just to name a few) the publications rampantly steal content with impunity.
I’ve frequently seen comments from amateur photographers who seem to like to assign me the blame for the image theft I’ve had to endure simply because I didn’t watermark my work before putting it online. The truth is that you can’t so readily sell your work with big, ugly watermarks on them. You most certainly can’t do that if, say, The New York Times or Washington Post is hiring you to create an editorial commission. My experience has demonstrated that the world is full of entitled people with no respect for artist rights and they are more than happy to take your work and use it to gain attention/interest/traffic. This is not just news publications either, but commercial brands who take and use images without permission as they engage with customers on social media. But I digress. There is much to say about copyright at another time. I’ll just finish by saying that the lack of transparency and clear accounting from the syndicators makes copyright enforcement tricky.
Having done editorial commissions I can tell you that print publications are not well known for paying contributors quickly. Working through syndication networks as no exception. Do not undertake syndication arrangements if you are expecting to collect payment swiftly or to generate a living wage. If you are patient, however, and view this income as part of an overall plan as a working photographer, then you’ll be fine.
Read your syndication contracts carefully to avoid getting yourself in a situation in which your images are being offered in a way that you’re not comfortable with. For example, you might be thrilled to see your pictures used in a large feature spread in a major magazine or newspaper. But you might not be OK with your images being offered to stock agencies as well, especially when you couldn’t potentially make a lot more by directly licensing your work on your own (to audiences who might be outside of the contract, like commercial entities).
I think I worked with three different syndication agencies over a period of a couple years, but of course none simultaneously as contracts require exclusivity. In my experience they ask you to commit for a certain amount of time, I’d say at least six months. So be sure you are OK with sticking it out. Business generally works better when professionals abide by their contracts.
It’s a volume business
Certain publications seem extremely hungry for syndicated content. I’ve had my work featured in major newspapers in the UK only to have them see my work somewhere else six months later and come back to me to ask if I’d like to be featured in their publication. They have so many different photo editors, and churn through so much content, that it’s likely they don’t remember that they’ve already published my work. I do take care to offer them fresh content and new text (if they’re looking for it). And here is but one reason this is on the list of cons: