Floor Prices For Editorial Use

Posted on 5/12/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

Is it time to institute a system of floor prices for the use of rights-managed images for editorial purposes? Is there any price so low—$50, $30 or $20—that the image creator would prefer not to make the sale?

Given where pricing based on usage seems to be headed—particularly for editorial usages—it is time to start asking these questions. It is time to consider whether there is any possible solution to the problem.

When I started in the stock photo business, the theory was that stock agencies always acted in the best interest of their photographers, because it was in the agency’s best interest to get the maximum they could for any given sale. The idea that they would make it up on volume, by selling huge quantities at much lower prices was not a major factor driving prices. At that time, the road to increasing volume was to have better quality images. Agencies would sometimes negotiate lower prices, but at a 50/50 split if they cut the price, they were cutting their fee by the same amount.

Today, as a result of buyer consolidation, there are fewer customers and many purchase a significant number of images on an annual basis. In addition, there is competition from microstock. These pressures have driven agencies to often lower prices for editorial use to microstock levels in the hopes of capturing sales. Photographers that want to license their image based on how the image will be used need to ask themselves if they want to make a sale at any cost—even at microstock price levels? Is some minimum price below which they would rather not make the sale?

Some photographer may say, “Sell my images for whatever you can get. I want to maximize the number of times my images are licensed.” But many would also say, “I do not want to allow my images to be used, unless the customer is willing to pay a certain minimum amount for such rights.”

Photographers ought to have more say with regard to the fees charged for using their images. With the current advances in technology, that is not as difficult as it sounds.

Many photographers are currently receiving so little for magazine, newspaper and book uses that many would be willing to risk losing some sales for the chance to guarantee that they would receive a more reasonable payment if and when their images were used.

How could such a system work?

Currently, the biggest problem areas are magazine, newspaper and book uses. I would recommend continuing to allow agent total flexibility to negotiate rights for commercial uses. The floor prices I am recommending would be limited to editorial uses, at least in the beginning. To illustrate, the table presents a sample schedule of floor prices for the use of an image in a consumer magazine based on the circulation of that magazine (assuming the photographer receives a 40% royalty). Newspapers and book uses will have different numbers.

Table: Recommended minimum editorial image pricing for consumer magazine
Circulation Floor price (minimum gross fee charged) Photographer royalty (40%)
5 million $550 $220
2.5 million $500 $200
1 million $440 $176
500,000 $380 $152
250,000 $340 $136
100,000 $310 $124
50,000 $275 $110
25,000 $240 $96
10,000 $220 $88
Under 10,000 $200 $80

Thus, if the magazine publisher wants rights to print 250,000 copies of the magazine, then the photographer would be guaranteed to receive at least $136 for the usage of his image. The agent might negotiate for a higher fee if the image was used larger than a quarter page, or if it happened to be very unique in one way or another, but the photographer would never be paid less than the $136 for that usage.

If the buyer was one of the agent’s very good customers, the agent has the freedom to license the image for less to that customer, but the agent still pays the photographer his $136 floor price for the usage. Let’s say that the agent decides to sell the image to the customer for $250. The agent pays the photographer $136 for the usage, and he keeps $114 for itself. If the agent charges more than $340 the photographer gets 40% of whatever fee is paid. Obviously, the agent has a huge incentive to hold the line on pricing.

Floor prices should be published so photographers represented by the agency know the minimum they will receive if one of their images is licensed for use in a magazine. The numbers should not be carved in stone. Each agency can have a different set of numbers, but if the numbers are published the agency’s photographers can make rational decisions as to whether they want to submit more work to the agency.

Photographers should also be able to compare the floor prices of various agencies to determine who offers the best deal. It should be recognized that going with the agency with the lowest floor price does not necessarily mean the photographer will make more sales. Having the right image to fulfill a customer’s needs is still important and the agent may price the image higher than the base price depending on other factors (size of use, uniqueness, etc.) related to the use of the image.

Each agency would probably have a single set of floor prices. But, they could easily offer additional options to photographers and image suppliers. Photographers might be allowed to price their images at 1.2 times the floor price, or 0.8 times if they think they will make more sales by offering a lower price. But it would be the photographer’s decision.

Photographers should also have the choice of giving the agency full freedom to negotiate any price they want for use of their images or to opt out entirely from editorial and book sales and only make their images available for commercial uses.

With computers such a system is not as complex as it sounds. Most agencies already have different price schedules for various image partners. Giving image partners a little more choice in how their images are priced could make many of those who are increasingly dissatisfied with their relationships with primary selling agencies much happier. The work of individual photographers could be coded to fall into one of several groups which might include: (1) unavailable for editorial use; (2) standard floor pricing; (3) floor pricing times 1.2; (4) floor pricing times 1.4; (5) floor price times 0.9 and (6) floor price times 0.8.

Agencies will never go for it

Most who have read this far are thinking that agencies will never go for this. That is probably true. But agencies are not gaining customers by lowering prices. At best they are holding even on the number of units licensed and because they are charging less their gross revenue continues to decline. Maybe, if they charged the people who really need the images a more reasonable price based on value received they could earn the same amount of money they have been earning while licensing rights to fewer units.

Just cutting prices does not seem to be increasing rights-managed sales so maybe it is time to try what RM photographers want them to do and offer a premium product at a premium price. The agencies also need to take into consideration the growing number of photographers that have stopped producing new images of the type needed by the editorial market.

Before rushing to adopt this strategy photographers needs to think carefully about the kind of imagery they produce. If there are hundreds or thousands of similar images on microstock sites that can be purchased for a fraction of the photographer’s floor price the agency will probably make few sales. In such a case the best strategy for the photographer may be to let the agency sell for whatever it can get, or maybe put the images on microstock sites and try to benefit from the volume rights managed sellers seem unable to get. On the other hand, if the subject matter is truly unique, when customers need that subject matter they will pay your price.

An advantage for agencies is that their sales people would be able to tell their customers, “I’d love to be able to sell that image to you for $50, but this particular photographer hasn’t given me the contractual right to do that. However, I’ve got this other image I can sell you for the price you want to pay.” At this point the agency looks like the good guy which is on the buyer’s side. It is the photographer who expects too much, but if the buyer really wants to use the photographer’s image he/she will need to find enough money to pay for it.

Historically, agencies have always been allowed to set prices at whatever point they need to be in order to make the sale. But, we have now reached a point where the amount the photographer earns for many newspaper, magazine and book uses isn’t worth the trouble.

Maybe the agencies will not accept images from photographers unless they can license them for all purposes. For many rights-managed sellers, that would not be the end of the world. They are earning so little now that it really doesn’t make much difference whether they sell, or not.

It could end up that the agency is selling at the floor price most of the time, but that would be a lot better than some of the low prices they are getting now.

Maybe photographers will find this idea unacceptable. If only a handful are willing to go along with such a strategy, then introducing it would not be worth the agency’s trouble. Agencies could easily determine the number of photographers who favor the strategy by preparing floor price charts for the three types of use and surveying their photographers. The concept would not be implemented unless a large percentage of photographers agreed to risk losing some sales in order to hold the line on more reasonable prices.

It is certainly time to consider some adjustments.

Copyright © Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted May 12, 2010
    Hold the line on dropping prices and we all get more money. Otherwise, Jim, it seems agencies want to "race to the bottom"!

    I feel buyers still want good quality. If they buy for one dollar, soon those photographers will be out of business because they tried to lower past where the photographer could make money.

    Can we not make a minimum that really is fair? We do not sell our images cheap and that may be why we still make a good living at this stock business.


  • John Harris Posted May 13, 2010
    A few libraries are buying market share using price/volume. It is a conscious long term strategy to exclude competition (ala Wal-Mart) and undermine any "restrictive practices" such as (in the UK) minimum NUJ rates. For those libraries who aggregate amateur content there are "plenty more where you came from". Professionals should get their pictures out of these toxic landfill sites and put together other businesses that differentiate themselves both in quality and in delivery.
    John Harris

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