Warning Signs: How-To Book or Recipe for Disaster?

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Some of these start-a-photography-business books are obviously written for the get-rich-quick set who aren’t necessarily drawn to photography, but drawn to what the author insists is easy money. While it is true that photography has a low barrier to entry, it is easy to see how people are lured into failure by false expectations.

One thing that entrepreneurs and coaches do in abundance is read. All the best advice in the world tells you that you should never stop reading. Regardless of who you are and what you do in life, you should make it a habit to read something every day. It can be anything, as long as it enriches you in some way.

I take topics by spells. One month, I’ll be all excited about brand, the next month, will be the latest groupthink on leadership. This month I’m catching up on – surprise, surprise – photography. Your own industry is perhaps the most important to keep up with, after all.

As a photography business mentor, it is also important to know what other people are being exposed to on their journey. I’m also on the constant lookout for material I can recommend. This not only helps the mentee, it makes my life a bit easier to not have to explain every little detail all the time. And, of course, I must admit that I do not know everything. Yes, that was my attempt at sarcasm. The truth is that everyone has something to be learned and I enjoy learning, and sharing what I learn.

Another side of reading new material is discovering the horrors of misinformation.

There’s not a lot of room to get the technical aspects of photography wrong, and the artistic aspects are subjective, so by definition have no right and wrong. The topic of professional photography as a business, however, is a soft target for anyone who wants to make a few shekels on an ebook they can pump out over a weekend.

It is little wonder that people 1) think a successful photography business is effortless, and 2) jump right in with little or no – or worse, bad – preparation.

Before you start thinking that I’m about to lace up my arrogance boots and pontificate with my superior knowledge, let me put your mind at ease. If an experienced person shares empiric knowledge of an industry, with facts, strategies, and tactics that contributed to their success, I can go along with whatever arcane information they impart. Likewise, if they share from their setbacks or failures, more power to them. Tell it like it is and hopefully save someone else from the same mistakes.

The material that I find objectionable is the so-called guidance from people spinning fairy tales of how they imagine a photography business must work. Or how they think they would do it if they ever got around to “putting their passion to work”, as they insist their readers can do.

Be warned. If you write a book, ebook, booklet, or any other consumable literature that Amazon might offer on the topic of photography, I will read it if I haven’t already. Be it tome or tripe, I will endure it – or as much as I can of it – and review it for the masses.

I am especially drawn to the short, inexpensive fast reads that promise to guide you to success as a photographer. It’s a bit like watching a train as it nears a broken track. You know that there will be carnage, but you simply can not walk away without seeing just how bad it gets. The lure of “make fun and easy money” is a lot like the train’s conductor promising “breathtaking views” right before the train spirals into the gorge.

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Some of the statements I come across are so toxic that I have to wonder how many people have been handicapped by following that advice. Recently, I came across something so mesmerizingly bad that I made nearly as many notes in rebuttal as the author did in his entire work.

Because I’m just certain no one believes me, let’s have a bit of fun as I demonstrate examples of what I mean. I will not, however, divulge the names of the articles, books, or authors, simply because I do not want to tempt anyone to pollute their paths with some of these wayward thought processes.

One recent gem opened with a sentence improperly punctuated. The very first sentence. This is usually a bad sign. I gave it the benefit of the doubt and carried on. I was not – or was, depending on how you look at it – disappointed. Before you accuse me of being the grammar police, please know that it was a glaring middle-school writing error, not just a missing comma, which even I can forgive.

The author set forth his authority by dividing photography into a (small) number of set genre. No arguing, these were it. One of my coaching topics is niche. If there is a genre – or niche – of photography, I have heard of it, or its synonyms. The author’s categories were made up. I’m sure he intended to cleverly divide things a new and signature way, but “creative” will never be a genre of photography that describes anything. All photography by definition is creative.

I take a dim view of people who insist that someone can go into photography and make fast, enjoyable money even if they know nothing about cameras or even photography. Some of these start-a-photography-business books are obviously written for the get-rich-quick set who aren’t necessarily drawn to photography, but drawn to what the author insists is easy money. While it is true that photography has a low barrier to entry, it is easy to see how people are lured into failure by false expectations.

It is amazingly irresponsible to claim that someone can start a skill based business without understanding the skill and expect to be successful. On the job training is great if you are the employee, but can be disaster if you are the boss. The natural progression of business creation comes from people who have spent time in an apprentice – or job learning by doing – function under the guidance of another in a master, or employer/supervisor, relationship. No client will pay you to experiment on their once in a lifetime event and forgive you when it goes horribly wrong.

One author who said it was perfectly okay to know nothing about cameras went on to offer advice on how to select a camera. The advice was a very quick primer on the exposure triangle, and advised to select a camera that would give you the settings you want to use for the photography style you want. I can not tell you how many times I read and reread that small chapter to try to figure out what he was even talking about. I know what you’re thinking. If a person doesn’t know anything about cameras, how do they know what settings will give them the photos they want to produce, and don’t all cameras operate under the principles of the exposure triangle anyway? Don’t all cameras account for aperture, shutter speed, and ISO? I suppose not even the author needs to understand anything about cameras to write a book about starting a photography business.

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Even worse than the authors who dismiss the camera as a necessary tool, is the author who dispenses financial and legal information that is not only incorrect, but that could lead to dire consequences if followed. Just because the author’s state or city doesn’t require certain registration, licensing, and fees does not make it universal. Blanket statements about what is and is not required to be in compliance as a business are almost always false. Just the way you learned in school that the words “always” and “never” will make a statement false on a test, you should view blanket statements with suspicion.

I always shudder when I read tax and financial advice that confuses the powers and jurisdictions of things like the Internal Revenue Service and a state’s Department of Revenue. They are separate and control different aspects of taxation and business formation and function. This is an actual statement from one of these books: “If you forgot to pay your sales taxes, the IRS will be able to get your personal assets.” From this single statement alone, it was clear that whoever wrote this was not a business owner, never had been, and never should be.

For the benefit of those who don’t know, the IRS has nothing to do with sales tax. IRS is income tax. Sales tax is usually handled by a state’s department of revenue. The two are very separate beasts.

Another dead giveaway that the author has never run a photography business is found in their marketing advice. Anyone who recommends flagrantly marketing during a client assignment is trying to get you to buy in to the easy money fantasy. It is a massive breach of professional etiquette to hand out unsolicited cards, flyers, or other sales information, or to otherwise solicit business while actively engaged in an assignment. The photographer is contracted for a specific set of duties and should be 100% focused and available for his or her client. As a photographer, you are at a wedding or event for one purpose only: to document that event in photos. Contract assignments are not trade shows.

The old adage that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression applies to marketing. Gimmicks or tactics that work for other industries can be the kiss of death for your professional photography business. An experienced business owner will have tried and tested tactics that you can at least believe, even if it is not applicable to your unique strategy.

The way you test the veracity of marketing advice is the same way you test the source of any material in general. Ask yourself: Does this sound like something someone has done for positive results, or does it sound like a wild guess or someone’s “great idea”?

The bottom line is that the purpose of many how-to-do-something-easily books and articles is to make money for their authors. Don’t rely on a single source as the total authority for anything you endeavor in life. Compare different viewpoints and experiences to get as complete an understanding as possible.

Remember the old saying that if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Read, study, and ask often. In fact, feel free to ask me. At the very least, you can trust that all I want is for you to succeed.