iStock: Downloads Don’t Tell Whole Story

Posted on 7/6/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

A few iStock contributors tell me that since the introduction of subscription sales in March 2015 downloads as reported on the contributor’s portfolio page no longer tell the whole story.

These contributors have confirmed that subscription downloads are not included in the number reported on their portfolio page. That number is just a count of “credit” sales downloads. They also say they receive 4.5 to 5.5 times as many subscription downloads as credit downloads. Thus, if we go back to my analysis of various contributor’s downloads in the past 12 months and someone had 2,000 reported credit downloads they might have actually had as many 12,000 (10,000 subscription and 2,000 credit) total downloads.

However, in terms of royalty it seems to take 5.5 to 6 subscription downloads to equal the royalty of one credit download. For exclusive contributors that receive a 40% royalty on sales the average royalty for a credit sale seems to be in the range of $8.00 to $10.00 and the average royalty for a subscription sale is in the range of $1.35 to $1.85. For non-exclusive contributors, many of whom receive a 17% royalty the average credit royalty is about $1.45 and subscription royalties run about $0.26. Royalties vary depending on the size of the credit pack or subscription the customer purchases.

Given the number of subscription downloads and the number it takes to equal the revenue generated by one credit download, to get a rough idea of the revenue generated for a particular contributor we can take the number of downloads reported, double that number and multiply the new number by the average royalty for a credit sale depending on whether the contributor is exclusive or non-exclusive. For example, if a contributor has a maximum of 3,000 credit downloads. Multiply 6,000 times (twice the actual number) by $10 and you get $60,000 in royalties for the year for subscription and credit sales. This is a rough, not precise, estimate.  (To determine whether a contributor is exclusive or non-exclusive it will be necessary to go to this chart I prepared in January).

In addition to revenue from subscription and credit sales contributors also receive additional revenue from Extended Licenses, Partner sales made through Thinkstock, and sales made through The revenue from a small percentage of sales through can represent an additional 15% to 25% of total revenue for the contributor.

Exclusive contributors tend to make very few sales through Thinkstock. There are indications that Getty will stop licensing iStock exclusive material through Thinkstock in the near future. On the other hand, for non-exclusive contributors Thinkstock sales can sometimes generate more revenue than iStock subscription sales. Most Thinkstock sales are via subscriptions, but some are single image licenses. Thus, the overall average royalty for Partner (Thinkstock) sales tends to be higher than the average royalty for iStock subscriptions.

Contributors I have talked with say that unlike credit customers who tend to choose the single “best” image when making a credit purchase, subscription customers often purchase several images from a series. These subscription customers probably only end up using one image in their project, but while working on the project they have a broad selection of images on their desktop to consider. From a contributor’s revenue point of view, the end results are about the same.

Some contributors also believe that strong subscription sales boost their images in the search return order and this can result in improved credit sales.

Getty Midstock

One of the interesting questions about Getty’s Midstock division is the portions of revenue generated by Thinkstock and iStock. Based on the latest information from Moody’s, I estimate that gross Midstock revenue is around $220 million. The Thinkstock share of that revenue could be as high as 30%. The revenue generated for iStock contributors through should be counted as sales by Getty’s Premium division and not counted as Midstock revenue. Thus, iStock’s combined total of credit purchases, extended licenses and subscription sales should be around $154 million. Roughly half of this number should be from subscription sales and the rest from credit sales.

It is interesting to reflect on where iStock was in 2010. At that time all sales were single image credit sales with the average price per download much higher than it is today. Gross annual revenue at that time was rumored to be in the range of $350 million.

Shutterstock Comparisons

It is also interesting to compare Shutterstock and iStock downloads now that iStock is offering subscriptions. For Shutterstock about 9 out of every 10 download are via subscription. One in 10 is an Image on Demand or Enterprise sale. (See Q1 analysis)

If we lump the iStock subscription and Thinkstock Partner sales for non-exclusives and compare them with non-exclusive credit sales the result is almost exactly the same with 9 out of 10 download being subscription and 1 in 10 credit sales. Exclusive contributors don’t seem to have quite as high a ratio, but that is probably because both the subscription and credit prices for their images are higher.

This would seem to indicate that Getty and Shutterstock have about the same ratio of credit to subscription customers.  

Copyright © 2016 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, 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:  


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