Half of 2013 has passed. I think this is a good time to look back at some more aspects of my independence and experiences. There is a handful of topics I will discuss, nothing scientific nor a big picture behind. If you feel there are other aspects of questions you want to hear about, feel free to leave a comment at the end of the page.
The overall experience of being non-exclusive
I enjoyed being an exclusive contributor at iStockphoto for many years. It made my life easier, especially in the phase when photography was mainly a hobby for me. Also I believe that financially I was better off with being iStock exclusive rather than distributing my images across different platforms. For the better part of the last six years, iStock was not just a market leader but dominating the business, at least the microstock part of it. Getting higher royalties at higher prices was something not even all other agencies combined could have made up for.
The market has changed but most iStock exclusives have not. I think many of them are still right and would not earn a similar amount of money distributing their images through multiple microstock agencies. But then again here is the most important message I learned in these last six month: iStock is not only microstock, comparing being an iStock exclusive to be an independent microstock contributor is not the right way to do it. You need to divide your images in microstock imagery and in those types of images that would sell better in higher priced markets. And you would not want to submit the latter type to agencies selling high-res images for $5. Keep this in mind when comparing your potential income from different sources instead of a single place.
The other thing I learned is that being non-exclusive is giving me a lot of peace and freedom. If something changes at one of my places, I don’t have to bet my house that it works. Okay, granted, I don’t have a house to bet and my royalties are too marginal at this time to be of huge importance anyways. But still, the peace of mind to sit out any changes which I can’t influence anyways is very valuable to me. The freedom part is that I can think out of the tiny box I was sitting in – starting from acceptance criteria to the choice of topics to different ways to make money. It was liberating act having had to restructure my income, and today I am making about two times more money from sources outside of image royalties which I would not have even approached or thought of before.
Finally, it opened doors I didn’t expect to open. Stocksy United is a new start to something better. Maybe it won’t make as much money as we would wish but it feels more honest, more rewarding to be part of it. A macro agency is something I would not have approached on my own but through this blog and being an active person “in the market”, one approached me and we started having a good relationship. This also might not work out at all or in the best case will take a year or longer to build up but it’s another way to think outside of my tiny box (the tiny box reference – by the way – is a reference to a piece of blogging exchange I had with the CEO of Westend61, the macro agency I am talking about).
Top selling images in the first half of 2013
As can be seen easily, the top selling images differ from agency to agency. The difference actually is big enough to draw the conclusion that there is a lot of randomness involved in best selling stuff. Even the difference between iStock and the iStock Partner Program is appalling: While six of the top ten images in the partner program are from a minlypse in Bled, Slovenia, only one of those images made it in the ranks at iStock’s home base. All other images in there were shot and uploaded between 2007 and 2009, a strong indication that new uploads have very bad odds to gather downloads at iStock these days.
As depressing as it might sound, it indicates that we might have even less control over our success than we assume. The only cure seems to offer images at as many places as possible to give each of them multiple chances to find a group of buyers. Once the random factor kicks in, images start selling again and again because of the better placement in searches.
(I did not add the list for the smaller agencies as there are lots of them only having sold once or twice, so this appears even more random)
What is the right price for an image?
Since microstock came up, there has been an ongoing discussion about the “right” price for an image. Actually if you know how to search for information in the internet, you could go back to the times before 2000 and find out that this discussion had been already running before microstock was born, it just re-focused once the really cheap images started to gain market share. I will not participate in that discussion right now, though I have certain ideas which I might put into words at some point.
For the moment, I am just busy finding out the “right price” for my own images. Obviously I can not really influence the price being set for the images I supply to stock agencies (with the exception of Pond5 and at least a choice between three layers at GL Stock Images). But I can make a choice where to submit which part of my images, given the average price I am achieving at the different agencies. The key to make a comparison is the RPD value – royalties per download. It is not my key indicator for success overall but it can be used to show how my images are valued by agencies and their customers. Having a high RPD at one agency that rarely sells any licenses won’t pay for the bills but a cheap agency providing a lot of cheap downloads might add up.
However, I started running stats across my earnings to find out how much money I am making on average each time one of my images gets licensed: When I started submitting to iStockphoto in 2007, the average royalty I was paid was $0.60 – sixty cents per download. This value grew to $1.30 in 2008 and through several price raises peaked at about $5 in recent years. It got dilluted already during my exclusivity through the addition of partner program sales at a far lower price point, to an average of around $2.50 later. When considering the RPD for iStockphoto nowadays, for exclusives at a high royalty rate I believe values of around $10 are not uncommon.
However, as a non-exclusive looking at iStockphoto is giving a wrong impression: Comparing a pure sales-by-credit site to all the other agencies – today all offering some kind of subscriptions along with single image sales – is creating a false picture. iStockphoto does not have a competitive subscription program, so Getty Images decided to use their old brand names Thinkstockphotos and photos.com to be competitive with Shutterstock. For iStock contributors, there was an option to take part called the “partner program”. Today, this is not an option any longer for non-exclusives but mandatory. That’s why I will use the combined iStock + partner program numbers to make a true comparison with sites like Shutterstock or Fotolia, both of which selling my images as part of their subscription program at low royalty rates along with more or less single image sales at a higher price.
In the first months of 2013, my average royalty per download at iStockphoto was $1.65 but adding the partner program to it (returning about $0.30 per download at a much higher number of downloads), this is being diluted to a true value of $0.71 for April. This makes iStock look much less attractive than you would think by judging their credit and single image sales only. And this is with less than one third of my images available in the partner program so far. I expect the low paying PP downloads to grow in the long term, even more diluting the bigger sales. And with the recent lowering of prices for all of my images, I also expect the return per download to drop significantly.
For comparison, at Shutterstock I started to receive $0.25 per download within the subscription program. But a constant stream of image packs, single image sales and a number of Enhanced Licenses (far more than I ever received at iStock), the average royalty per download rose to above $0.40 and even further with a raise I received when reaching the first mark of $500 royalties. I expect Shutterstock to pay an average of at least $0.50 in the near future, further raises will happen in 2014.
At Fotolia, I profited from their rules to pay contributors in their “local” currency, to me this means I am getting paid “credits” in Euro instead of US Dollars – this makes a difference of about 30 per cent. On average, downloads on Fotolia are paying $0.88. Dreamstime has the lowest number of subscription downloads, so due to their credit system I am receiving an average of $0.98 per download. CanStock is paying an average of $0.81 per download, Depositphotos has more subscriptions mixed in which reduces the average payment to $0.50.
To be honest, calculating these numbers made me look twice at some agencies. The differences might look very small but between $0.50 and $0.98 there is almost a difference of 100 per cent. In my reading of this number, this is how an agency (and their clients) value my images. I will use this number more regularly in the future to find out where my images are appreciated more or less, and this will have consequences where to submit more or quicker and which agencies to put on the bottom end of my submissions.
As it appears, I am not losing out much by not submitting new content at iStockphoto – new images did not work well anyways and with the lower average payment it is getting even less attractive. It makes me believe that trying out image exclusivity for a wider range of files at Fotolia and Dreamstime might be an alternative.
In the past, my image handling was pretty easy: When you upload to one agency only, you just need to keep track of your shoots, once they are processed, you can upload your images and basically forget about them.
When you deliver material to different agencies, you need to get more organization behind the image management. I had started with a handful of agencies and extended my reach over time. To achieve that I had to keep track which images were already sent to what agency.
Despite having worked in software development and certainly capable of making things complicated and automated, I always stayed a big fan of simple solutions: So I went for a easy to use structure of folders on my hard disk again. The images are going into folders, ordered by a plain numbering system. Whenever I want to upload to a new agency, I will start with the top folder and work my way down.
The bottom folders get smaller in size as there is no big backlog left. But when I have uploaded a number of batches, I try to merge folders again to keep the list as short as possible without getting confused. I also started adding small text indications of the content at the end of the folder name for my own reference. Also all model releases required for a certain batch are in a subfolder below.
Trying and reconsidering agencies
In the past six months, I have uploaded my images to Shutterstock, Fotolia, Dreamstime, 123RF, Depositphotos, CanStockPhoto, GL Stock Images, Colourbox and Pond5. Most of my images are also available at iStockphoto, of course – unfortunately only a third of those have made it to the Partner Program with Thinkstockphotos and photos.com. All in all, these are 12 places offering a huge part of my imagery.
Across those agencies, iStockphoto (including the PP), Shutterstock and Fotolia are without surprise the top selling places. Dreamstime is falling a bit behind and all others are low earners. Unfortunately this includes GL Stock Images and Pond5 which offer the highest royalty percentages and seem to be more artist friendly. If staying in microstock is a goal, these six places are probably set in stone while the others are optional.
With Deposit and CanStock, I have a good feeling that they will continue to at least bring in some money and they are easy to handle. I had far more technical issues with 123RF along with their really low sales plus low earnings per download. I am not sure if they will stay on my list. I also have issues with Colourbox because they only offer a flat rate payment – I opened my account mainly because they are well represented in German media, so they might become an outlet of on-the-go editorial pictures I take. They will certainly not get much of my support if their policies are not changed for creative imagery, though.
For the time being, I have no intention to start submitting to other agencies. As it appears, there is no other out there delivering a constant stream of money, not even enough to make it to at least one payment per year which I consider the minimum I expect even for the smallest site.
My view on the microstock market and my consequences
I have been a big fan of the microstock market as it disrupted an old closed circle of people involved and used new technologies to make it easier to use even for non-professionals on both sides. I believe the number of people buying images has significantly risen with the internet and WYSIWIG applications, allowing even non-designers to prepare and print brochures, stationary or banners for exhibitions as well as creating media rich content for the web. My assumption is that the number of buyers has risen by anywhere between a factor of 10 or maybe even 100.
When macrostock photographers claimed that microstock ruined a market, my usual response was that 5% of the market was ruined to create the other 95% of today’s market. And probably it had to be done the way it was done for the sake of easiness.
However, my outlook for the future is less optimistic: The market has peaked with economic crisis around the globe. It will certainly at some point return to growth but most likely not with the speed we used to see. More importantly: The main players in the market have changed from dynamic entrepreneurs, mostly involved in design and photography themselves, to business people and corporations. Once again, you could say. Their way of thinking is less of the risky “we want to create something new and better” rather than “we want to optimize what we have to be more profitable”. And they mean “profitable” for themselves, not for the others involved. Agencies have become distributors, the community of contributors has been degraded to suppliers.
With these changes, contributors will not be winners any longer. It will no longer be the market for everyone to participate successfully. Instead, it will be a matter of strength to decide about success or failure in the future. Only strong suppliers will be able to cherry pick and negotiate, the standard microstock photographer of the past will be in a position to either accept whatever happens or go away.
For me personally, I am still in the process of considering my options and consequences. One of the consequences I am already working at is to build up new, better content which I am not going to supply to the microstock market. Diversification is an important issue for me because relying on a single corporation as an independent supplier seems even worse than having a regular office job – the last one at least offers a certain amount of stability and social security.
In addition, I have tried to diversify my income into writing and social/community management. This is most likely to supply a certain amount of my personal income very quickly, outside of whatever is going to happen with microstock.
Right now I am not even convinced if diversification will work out for me, if I can change quickly enough, if I can produce higher quality more regularly. Right now, it appears a vital option to go back to other industries and work as an employee.
How to continue
Well, despite the bleak outlook I have mentioned in this last section, I am not ready to give up right now. I love creating pictures, I love the challenges I am facing right now, and I am not yet starving. Some things actually look better than expected for me personally. So I will at least try to stay on the path, maybe take another curve here and a turn there to try out other routes.
And I will keep running this blog because it’s fun – not only because it makes me happy to see it is being read, not only because it is a good way to clear my own mind every now and then. But also because it’s interesting for my own reference to keep a diary of what I have achieved. It’s so much easier to find new motivation when you can make a look back to the part of the road you have already taken. I hope you enjoy being part of my journey.