Jim Erickson: A Contrarian's Approach

Posted on 10/8/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

Jim Erickson breaks all the stock photography rules and yet is one of the world’s most successful sellers of stock images. Pick any strategy that everyone agrees is the key to success in stock, and Erickson is probably doing the opposite.

Everyone believes that customers want to search large databases where they can find a wide variety of imagery on every conceivable subject, shot by many different photographers with different styles and approaches to the subject matter. Erickson Stock is a collection of about 50,000 images with approximately 1,000 new images added each month. Every image was shot by Erickson, his 1st assistant, or a small group of freelancers he uses on a regular basis for certain projects. All the freelancers have been trained, and are directed, by Jim.

Erickson believes that customers are drawn to his site by the ‘consistent style” and “classic composition” of the images. “Everything hangs together. A designer who needs several images for a project can find what she needs on our site. Everything has the same look and feel,” he said. He believes that what the public wants is “real” and much of the work that others offer is “too stylized” for public tastes and most art directors. "We’re not intending to be everything to everyone. We offer high-quality images that hang well together, thus decreasing our customers’ time spent on a search,” he continued. In order to maintain the consistent look, he does not represent photographers outside the group he has trained.

Industry experts believe that you must grow volume in order to grow revenue, and in order to grow volume in a business where there is such an oversupply and low-priced competition, it is necessary to cut prices. Erickson never licenses rights to an image for less than $350, and the average license fee is about $1,800. One would expect that with such high prices he makes few sales, but his gross 2008 stock revenue was over $2 million. Average gross revenue per image licensed has gone up slightly in 2009, although the overall number of units licensed is down. Yet the drop in sales is not nearly as bad as most photographers and agencies are reporting. Erickson’s assignment business also generates about $2 million a year in fees, not including expenses.

Everyone believes that in order to be successful, your stock images must be represented by one or all of the major agencies that have a broad reach around the world. In contrast, 95% of Erickson’s sales are made direct to his customers, and he retains the entire fee collected. His images are not represented by any of the major agencies. About 5% of revenue comes from five distributors outside the U.S. who speak languages other than English and operate in different time zones.

The whole idea of delivering expensive print catalogs to customers died in the early 2000s, when customers started turning more and more to online databases to find the images they needed for their projects. Jim produces a catalog every year, some with more than 200 pages. Recent catalogs were themed Luke, Water, China and Relationships. He also produced a hard-cover book entitled Mother in 2001.

The industry philosophy on catalogs is that, if they are going to be successful, they must be delivered to something in the range of 300,000 customers. Erickson delivers his catalogs to the top 20,000 buyers in the world. The cost to print his latest catalog of 248 pages was approximately $53,000, plus about $100,000 in shipping and distribution. Evidence indicates that the catalogs will sit on shelves and remind people of Erickson Stock for years to come—particularly when no one else is producing them. The company also does about 80 print and electronic banner ads per year.

Erickson does a major stock shoot about every six weeks, which might seem very infrequent to some. Still, it is important to recognize that some of these shoots are very ambitious. The shoot to create the China library lasted 24 days and cost more than $300,000. Erickson’s production team of 20 shot in 31 locations, hired 300 models, and traveled from urban to rural areas all over China. The team produced 110,000 frames (about 4,500 a day); roughly 4% made it into the library.  

Erickson’s pricing philosophy is interesting given the $1,800 average price per image. The goal is to keep prices at a premium level, or about 20% above industry leaders. However, if you compare Getty’s prices with Erickson Stock’s, the latter are often lower. The difference seems to lie in the comparative willingness to negotiate. The Erickson Stock negotiates minimally and pretty much sticks to its list prices. Getty often negotiates fees that are substantially lower than list prices, and a high percentage of the company’s sales result from bulk deals.

Erickson’s very active assignment business also benefits the stock side of his operation. First, he works with very experienced art directors who produce the assignment shoots. This saves him time and costs, compared to doing the same thing for self-produced stock shoots. It also helps him have a very clear sense of what the customers want, compared to the stock shooter who never has a chance to work with, or often even communicate with, the end user.

In addition, assignment images are normally licensed for one- to three-year uses, after which they are available as stock. After finishing a client shoot, Erickson will occasionally schedule a stock shoot the next day, using the same models and wardrobe in a different, unrelated location to produce a totally different and unrelated set of images for stock. Many of Erickson’s assignment clients also make extensive use of Erickson Stock, because they find that its images integrate well with images shot on assignment.

At his headquarters in Petaluma, CA, Erickson has 14 full-time employees. These include director of sales and marketing, stock sales manager, chief financial officer and accounting staff, graphic designer, Erickson’s first assistant (who is also a great retoucher), editors and other creative and production staff.

Copyright © 2009 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.  


  • Peter Dazeley Posted Oct 9, 2009
    Wow what an amazing average, seems to be completely different to everything we are being told by the big library's, that people aren't prepared to pay big fees any more. I can't think of any another market that sells it's premium brands at rock bottom prices, long term this really isn't going to make any sense. Well done Jim

  • Gerard Fritz Posted Oct 9, 2009
    Not too long ago there were mid-sized agencies known for premium quality collections that weren't afraid to charge real fees. Once the "Walmart" thinkers at the mega-agencies bought them up and gave their work away at discount prices it all ended. Erickson shows excellent work for high prices is still a viable model

  • Shannon Fagan Posted Oct 9, 2009
    Great story - thanks Jim for reporting!
    Shannon Fagan

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