Vanity magazines are a popular place for photographers to submit images to when they are looking to take their photography to the next level. Eager photographers who want to shoot fashion or beauty will scour the Internet for fashion magazines that accept submissions in the hope that these publications will be a rung on their ladder to success. Unfortunately for many photographers, rather than climbing the ladder, they’re merely wasting time and money.
There aren’t many road maps out there for photographers who want to work in the commercial and fashion side of the industry, but there is one thing everyone wants, and that is to see their images published. For most photographers, let alone new fashion photographers, the cover of a magazine like Vogue is only a dream. So, where do these photographers most often start their journeys? In the vanity magazine.
A vanity magazine is a publication, digital or print, that exists by making money from the work of featured artists, rather than making profits from advertising space and off-the-rack sales as most well-known magazines do. Established magazines can earn money this way because they have wide distribution of print magazines and website readership, whereas vanity magazines earn their income from the artists who submit images and then buy copies once the magazine publishes, or from website advertisements if they grow large enough. These publications rarely ask for submission fees, and they do not pay the artists, but their existence is predicated upon a flow of quality imagery they can acquire for free.
There are certainly benefits to having your work published in vanity magazines, but the drawbacks often prove to outweigh them. What, then, are the benefits of having your photographs published in a vanity magazine?
One of the largest benefits of having your photographs published in a vanity magazine is that, at least in the larger and more respected magazines, the photography has to have reached a certain level of quality to be accepted. If the work is accepted, it’s a justification of your skill and effort, and that is a good feeling. If your work is not accepted, you know that you've still got some growing to do.
Another important benefit is that the submission process forces the photographer to think through, plan, and photograph sometimes very complex stories. Photographers learn to conceptualize, gather and work with a team, plan their shoot and carry it through to completion. If vanity magazines provided no other benefit, the learning process alone might be worth it.
A final and more controversial benefit is social currency in the form of likes and shares. However, the only time this may make much of a difference for a photographer looking to earn a living by photographing fashion or beauty is if the reach of the magazine is high enough to earn them a substantial number of followers that may make them desirable enough for a client to want to leverage that influence.
Because the benefits of vanity publishing are so tenuous, it’s important to look at the drawbacks to find out whether or not taking the plunge is actually worth it.
It doesn’t pay; this is a rather large drawback. Photographers will spend their time planning, shooting, and retouching the editorials they submit. They’ll spend money sourcing garments, building sets, renting studios, getting permits, hiring a team, and ignoring their other work to see their images published in a magazine. The problem is that this kind of editorial work doesn't pay. Vanity magazines exist on the backs of artists, so they cannot pay those artists for their work. A few well-known vanity magazines even request submission fees for the honor of deciding whether to publish the work.
Another drawback is that most vanity magazines don’t have a large or diverse enough readership to turn potential clients on to the photographer's work. All the effort and money spent to produce a high-quality editorial is worth it if the images bring in paying clients. However, vanity magazines rarely, if ever, have a printed presence in stores, and their readership tends to be constrained to photographers, artists, and their friends and families. So, the likelihood of a potential client finding the photographer’s work via a vanity magazine, and then hiring the photographer, are incredibly slim.
The value of an image to a working photographer is its ability to generate income. Either the image sells on its own, or it inspires a client to hire the photographer to create new images. One of the other problems with submitting images to a vanity magazine is that the photos can be tied up in the submission process for months, which means that the capability of the image to bring the photographer revenue through viewership is damaged unless the vanity magazine has an incredibly high viewership.
The final nail in the coffin of magazine submissions is that, more often than not, clients don’t care whether the photographer has tear sheets from the magazines that have published their work. Not once have I ever been asked for a tear sheet, nor have I ever been turned down from a job for removing my tear sheets from my website. Clients rarely care if your work has been on a magazine cover unless the magazines you’re working with are of a high enough caliber to warrant the attention. At that point, cover photographers are hired rather than found through a submission process. Clients are interested in consistent, quality images that have a strong voice, not that your photo is on the cover of a magazine they’ve never heard the name of.
Rather than spend valuable time and money producing images for vanity magazines that don’t pay and don’t bring you paying clients, it may be more valuable to spend money in areas that have a higher likelihood of producing a return.
Purchasing an email list of art directors, editors and art buyers, producing a promotional mailer, designing marketing promotions, strengthening your platform, entering the right kind of photography contests (where you at least stand to earn some kind of a prize, be it money, gear, or having your images published in a respected industry magazine with a wide enough readership to matter), and investing in education all stand a better chance of producing a higher return on your investment than does submission to vanity magazines. Networking will do almost as much as all of these things put together.
While vanity magazines can provide valuable learning experiences for photographers who are set on climbing the ladder, the same skills can be learned by other means and, more often, to better effect.