Subscription fees set to soar at SmugMug

SmugMug's new pricing scheme

There's a bit of a ruckus going on over at the blog of online portfolio and printing service, SmugMug, right now. It's all very polite and restrained, but there are a lot of angry and confused photographers trying to make themselves heard, and I don't really blame them.

Last night, an email dropped into the inboxes of some of SmugMug's members, informing them of changes to their subscription plans. 'That's not so bad,' you say, 'businesses need to earn a profit and they need to evolve,' and you'd be right. Except that some SmugMug users might be paying 66% more on their current fee for the same service, whilst others might be paying the same fee for a reduction in features. A bit steep, no?

Until now, SmugMug had three levels of subscription: Basic, Power, and Pro. They cost $40, $60, and $150 a year respectively. All of the accounts offered unlimited photo storage; the Power account offered a customised domain and site along with unlimited HD video storage; finally the Pro account added the ability to sell your images with your own markup and offer promotional coupons if you wanted, too. There were other bits and pieces, as well, but those were the key features.

Come 15 October, Pro users' accounts will be split into two categories: Portfolio and Business. Portfolio will cost $150 a year and offer (amongst other things) domain and site customisation, watermarking, and professional print options. The Business plan will be $250 per year for existing subscribers, whilst new users will be expected to fork out $300 each year for the privilege of all that's available to Portfolio users, with the addition of the ability to sell their prints at prices they set, the provision of discount coupons, and customised packaging, along with some other bits and pieces.

Consequently, existing SmugMug Pro users who wish to continue to sell prints through the site will have to pay an extra $100 a year for the convenience. SmugMug has made a rough guess at which of its subscribers will want to renew with Portfolio subscriptions and which with the Business plan and sorted them accordingly, but they can alter their preferences come renewal time if they wish, and that's just as well. There are a lot of SmugMug subscribers expressing their dismay, disappointment, and disgust on the SmugMug blog. It isn't just that a $100 increase in fees is a significant sum in one go (hell, if my car insurance renewal were to increase $100 in one go, I'd be looking for an alternative) but that SmugMug isn't offering any tangible benefits alongside it. In fact, users claim that they've been asking for feature improvements for some time, but nothing has been forthcoming. They're not too happy about the idea of paying for something that might or might not happen.

The platitude that SmugMug hasn't increased its prices in seven years isn't having the desired effect on riled subscribers. If anything, it's a claim that smacks of bad business practice, not only because SmugMug's directors haven't reacted appropriately to the market over the last few years, but SmugMug is likely to force its low band-width users–those who can no longer justify the cost of a Portfolio account, but put the least strain on the servers and therefore provided the business with its highest margins–into self-imposed exile. They might down-grade their accounts to Power level (which doesn't offer printing options), or look elsewhere. Either way, SmugMug would lose a valuable revenue stream; one user has gone so far as to suggest its a decision that could lead to the company's demise by summer 2013.

That's possibly a little over-reactionary, because there are a great many SmugMug users who love the operation, and in particular its customer service, and appreciate the up-front manner that Chris MacAskill, SmugMug's president, set out the changes. But it doesn't change the fact that it's a lot of money to ask for without any appreciable improvements.

There's been quite a lot of talk of users switching portfolio and print providers. So what, then, are the alternatives? If you're only looking for portfolio providers then there's the cutely named (and themed) Carbonmade and the far more grown-up looking Viewbook. If you want the SmugMug Pro experience (portfolio and printing) but without the pricing, then Zenfolio is the most commonly named alternative, but I've heard very good things about Photoshelter and I've enjoyed good experiences with Photoswarm.

Any other suggestions out there?