After my "Price Relative to Image Quality" article appeared, one photographer wrote that "better quality images is the only argument we have to sell RM images, if not, it is in the interest of the customer to buy RF or Microstock." I disagree.
If the only argument for RM is "better quality," then RM shooters should give up now. From the customers point of view, much traditional RF imagery is considered of equal or better quality than a significant portion of the imagery that is being licensed as RM. And, an increasing number of microstock images are also considered of "better quality" than some RM imagery. Photographers seriously delude themselves when they believe that RM images are by definition of "better quality" than RF or microstock.
In addition, there is no clear, universal agreement as to what defines quality. Even if it was definable, not all buyers would chose it.
RM does have significant advantages for the buyer. Foremost is that RM is priced-based on usage, or the value the customer receives from using the image. Some customers for large usage wish they didn't have to pay as much for certain images, but with RM, it is also possible to negotiate affordable fees.
However, the principle advantage goes to that huge percentage of customers whose planned uses are relatively small. They want to use the best image they can find and with RM, they can negotiate a reasonable price. With RF and microstock, for the most part, there is one fixed price regardless of the benefit the customer will receive. With RF, the customer who print 10,000 copies of a locally distributed brochure will pay exactly the same as the customer who uses the image in a national ad that appears in many major magazines -- a big break for the big user, but not particularly fair for the little guy.
Recent Alamy figures are worth considering. For Q3 2007, the average price of all RM images licensed was $159, while the average price of RF images licensed was $226. And yet, not all RM images were sold for less than RF. The average price for RM images used for commercial purposes was $393. RM buyers paid fees based on how they intended to use the images. RF buyers did not have that option.
In 2007, almost 20% of the RM sales made by various distributors representing Stock Connection images (the agency I partly own) were for gross fees of less than $100. Many were for editorial uses. But the important point is that a significant percentage of all RM sales are for relatively low fees.
So being able to negotiate price is a major advantage for the RM customer. It is also important to recognize that every buyer has a unique definition of what is the best image for his project. If the buyer were to search all sources sometimes the right image would be one being licensed as RM, in other cases RF, and still others as microstock. Price only becomes relevant if the buyer has a limited budget. It has nothing to do with defining the "quality" of the available images. There are countless examples of customers who would have preferred to buy a particular traditional RF image, but couldn't afford it. They purchased an RM image instead because the price was negotiable for small uses.
Another reason for using RM is the greater variety of imagery available than with RF. In the past, RF tended to focus on certain high demand subject areas and didn't offer much variety in many subject areas. With the introduction of microstock that is changing; it may not be long until this is less of an advantage for RM.
Finally, RM offers the customer the ability to purchase exclusive rights, or limit an image's use by competitors. To some degree, this is also possible with RF, but nowhere near as easily as it is with RM.
RM sellers need to recognize the true advantages of their business model, and the comparative advantages and limitations of competitive models. Only then will they be able to develop a long-term strategy for profits.