Promoting Your Images

Posted on 7/30/1996 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)


Promoting Your Stock

July 30, 1996 - Promoting Your Stock

Images must be properly promoted in order to sell. Just getting them in a
stock agency's file is no longer enough. Fewer and fewer requests are for a
general file search. Most clients use catalogs to find the images they need. I
believe the majority of stock images purchased today are located by using

catalogs. When you consider the number of images available in catalogs compared
with the total number of images available in general files this sales volume is
a daunting statistic.

When considering catalog marketing there are a number of options open to
photographers. In the next two issues I want to look at the various types of
catalogs in an organized way and examine the advantages and disadvantages of

Promotion Options

    The various promotion options available to photographers are as follows:

  • Print Catalog
    • Stock Agency produced
    • Private Company produced
      • Direct Stock and Stock Workbook
    • Photographer produced
  • CD-ROM Catalog
    • Stock Agency produced
    • Private Company produced
      • Stock Workbook and Black Book
      • Digital Stock Connection
    • Photographer Produced
  • On-Line Catalog
    • Stock Agencies on-line directly
    • Corbis
    • Companies distributing for Stock Agencies
      • KPX and PNI
    • Photographer produced WEB sites

Paying For Catalogs

Promotion costs money. Unfortunately, photographer's not only have to bare the
cost of production, but now, in most cases, they must also pay the promotion and
marketing costs, if they hope to make any sales of their images.

Some years ago when fewer people were producing stock, virtually all sales
resulted from laborious research of a large general file. Stock agencies
promoted the comprehensiveness of their file, not specific images. Promotion
costs were relatively modest and the agencies tended to pay them out of their
share of royalties. Many photographers think stock agencies should continue to
pay all promotion costs. However, there are two factors that make agency funded
promotions a totally unrealistic hope.

Promotion costs have risen dramatically and most stock agencies simply can not
afford to pay these costs out of their 50% of the gross fees collected. (I only
know of one agency, Sharpshooters in Miami, that doesn't charge catalog fees.
Their marketing is focused heavily toward advertising agencies and the fees they
get for usage are among the highest in the industry.)

There are so many photographers trying to get into the agencies, and willing
to pay the catalog promotion costs, that there is absolutely no incentive for
agencies to try to set up a system where they don't charge for this service.

Thus, if you want to be in the business of selling stock photography you are
going to have to pay to promote your work. That said, there are a lot of things
you can do to get more "bang for your promotion buck."

Best Promotion

Without question the current best way to promote an image is in the print
catalog of one of the MAJOR stock agencies. In addition to broad distribution
in the U.S. these catalogs are sent to buyers throughout the world.
Distributions of upwards of 200,000 copies are not uncommon. This enables many
potential buyers to actually see your image.

I recently talked to a photographer who was given a chance to have a few of his
images in a major agency catalog. He rejected the option because he didn't want
to pay the per picture cost the agency was charging.

I believe that was a bad decision. These catalogs are very productive when
compared with all other methods of selling stock. Anyone who can get images
into one of the major catalogs should take advantage of the opportunity.

Even if the image doesn't sell (and some don't) you will have learned some
important lessons about your specific image and the category of imagery. You
will have learned that (1) there is little demand for the subject matter as
stock, or (2) if you are sure the subject matter is in high demand, then you
know that buyers are choosing the images of other photographers instead of
yours. At that point you need to begin to assess why.

In the above recommendation I am only talking about MAJOR catalogs. The short
list of companies I would include in this group are: Tony Stone Images, FPG,
Stock Market, The Image Bank, Telegraph Colour Library, Comstock, Superstock,
Sharpshooters, WestLight, and Masterfile. Among this list I might have some
reservations about the ones that want to charge an additional percentage of
sales to put your images in the catalog rather than a flat fee. If the image
turns out to be a good seller you can pay a lot for that catalog space if you
are getting 25% instead of 50% of gross sales.

Smaller agency catalogs often have very limited distribution. This affects
their sales volume. Given the cost of placing an image in a print catalog it is
easy to spend more for promotion than image sales will generate. You should
test this method of marketing with your best images, but don't go too far, too
fast. This is particularly true if your images are of low demand subject
matter. Do not assume you will recover your costs and make a profit on any
image you place in any catalog.

If you are considering the print catalog of a smaller agency I strongly suggest
that you talk to some of the photographers from that agency who produce similar
subject matter and who have images in the current catalog. Find out how long it
took them to recover their catalog investment. If the catalog is distributed
outside the U.S. ask what percentage of their sales are international. If it is
only distributed in the U.S. talk to some photographers who have images in
Direct Stock (discussed below).

Stock Agency Produced Print Catalogs

Among the ADVANTAGES of dealing with a Stock Agency rather than trying to
handle sales yourself through a private catalog is that someone is always
available to handle phone requests, negotiate sales, deliver images to the
clients and collect fees. Other services which are important to consider and
vary from agency to agency include:

  • The agency's name recognition with clients.

  • The other advertising the agency does to encourage potential clients to use
    their agency instead of all others.

  • The number of clients that deal with the agency on a regular basis.

  • The agency's ability to choose images that are in greatest demand given their
    past selling experience and the sales statistics they have developed.

  • The agency's ability to track images and insure their return from clients as
    well as to insure their return to the photographer at the end of agreement.

  • The agency's knowledge of current going rates for various types of usage and
    their ability to negotiate the best prices. (Some agencies focus more on sales
    volume than on maintaining high fees. An important question to ask is their
    average price per sale on an annual basis. When you begin getting sales reports
    if your averages are below the agency's try to understand why.)

  • The agency's ability to advise the photographer as to what to shoot.

The DISADVANTAGES in dealing with an agency include:

  • The photographer usually has very little choice as to which images get in the
    catalog. Often photographers would like to show more images than the agency is
    willing to include in their catalog. Due to their experience the agency should
    have the ability to select the most salable images, but no editor is perfect and
    many photographers have examples of images their agency rejected which have sold
    well through other sources. This may not be a big problem if the photographer
    is free to use other means to market the images not selected for the agency's
    catalog. However, many stock agency contracts prohibit the photographer from
    working with other agencies.

  • The photographer usually must give up a huge percentage of the gross sale in
    order to take advantage of the service provided by the agency.

  • The photographer must give up an even bigger percentage if the images are sold
    by a sub-agent.

  • The photographer often gets little information about the kinds of subjects that
    are actually being requested, and those which are selling.

Privately Produced Print Catalogs

There are two privately produced and distributed print catalogs that give the
photographer the opportunity to select the images to be included.

Photographers can buy a minimum of a page in Direct Stock and handle all sales
negotiations directly retaining 100% of any fees negotiated, rather than having
to share half the fee with a stock agency. The cost per image is about the same
as stock agency catalogs. Direct Stock is distributed to 25,000 buyers in the
U.S. and Volume 5 is larger than most stock agency catalogs with 513 pages of
images. Thus, the image users gets a broader selection within one book than
most stock agencies provide.

Some of the images from previous books have been placed in separate catalogs
distributed in Japan and Germany at no additional cost to the photographer.
This has resulted in additional sales of the images.

Photographers who want to place images in Direct Stock but do not want to
handle the sales negotiations, as well as the delivery and tracking of their
transparencies, and the collection of fees, may use the services of Stock
Connection. Stock Connection keeps dupe transparencies on file and handles the
above services for photographers for 25% of the gross fee collected. The
photographer gets 75%. Other agencies may decide to offer similar services.

Stock Workbook has been publishing catalogs for nine years and distributes to
30,000 buyers. They only allow stock agencies to participate in their catalog
to insure that someone will always be available to handle requests.

Three years ago Stock Connection set up a system which allows individual
photographers to advertise in Stock Workbook and choose the images they want to
place in this catalog. Stock Connection handles the negotiations for all usage
and the delivery of film as needed. For this service Stock Connection retains
25% of fees collected. Photographers benefit by being able to show clients
images that their stock agencies were unwilling to put in their catalogs. The
photographer also gets an additional 25% of sales.

Photographer Produced Print Catalogs

Some very prolific photographers produce their own catalogs, but I don't advise
it. The major disadvantage is the cost of production and distribution -- a
print catalog of reasonable size and with reasonable distribution can cost over
$100,000 to produce. Catalogs can be produced for less money if not many copies
are distributed, but low distribution will inhibit sales.

To really be effective, in addition to the U.S. distribution which the
photographer might handle himself, the photographer must line up foreign
agencies who will accept the catalog and handle the distribution and sales in
their countries. This can be very time consuming and the photographer will only
receive 50% to 60% of the gross collected from these sales.

I will deal with CD-ROM and on-line catalogs in the next issue.

Promote Stock Digitally

The first CD-ROM stock catalogs appeared on the scene in the fall of 1992.
Stock Workbook gave their's away while the major stock agencies tried to sell
their's for prices in the range of $200.

The Stock Workbook's disc began to get used. Currently, several agencies have
found that the Stock Workbook Disc outsells the print book. Stock Workbook is
in the final production stages of Disc 5 which will have 10,000 images and be
released to 8,000 photo buyers in September.

In the last four years there have been steady growth in the acceptance and use
of CD-ROM catalogs. Graphic Design:USA reports that 97% of graphics
professionals use computers for design, publishing and/or production.

Meanwhile, the initial stock agency offerings went nowhere, even when they
started lowering prices for their discs. For the most part the agencies
concluded that they were doing fine with print catalogs and that the market was
not ready for digital catalogs. They held back from making new CD-ROM offerings
for a couple of years. They tended to ignore the possibility that it was the
price they were charging for these digital catalogs that was turning buyers

Since the catalog CD's were trailing clip-photo CD's by a couple of years, many
sellers assumed that buyers would expect to have free unlimited use of anything
they found on a CD-ROM disc.

That has not turned out to be the case. Certainly, many of our traditional
customers are buying and using a lot of clip photo discs, but they are also
buying stock photography at regular stock prices from CD-ROM catalogs.

Market Segments

Certain segments of the market still seem to be making very little use of the
discs. There are some indications that large advertising agencies are slow to
switch to using discs and are still making the majority of their stock
selections from print catalogs. By far, the strongest users are the graphic
design firms, particularly the smaller shops. They find the speed and
efficiency of search very appealing and like the fact that they can easily use
the images to build comps.

Magazine editorial users seem to be making very little use of CD-ROM. I
suspect this is because they have relatively little need for "generic" images
which are the staple of all catalogs. In addition, with CD-ROM, just like print
catalogs, it takes a long time between the time the image was shot and the time
it is available for viewing.

Editorial users get their news images from the wire services and Press-Link,
and seem to be avoiding other sources.

Textbook users are the most disappointing area of poten tial sales. CD-ROM
catalogs would appear to have many natural advantages for these users. The
discs can show a broader selection of image types than are available in
traditional print catalogs due to the lower cost per image. Many suppliers have
made a concerted effort to put images of the type traditionally used by the
textbook publishers onto these discs. Discs or on-line search could reduce
shipping charges by eliminating the need for shipping images that do not fill
the client's needs.

Even if the publisher does not find the exact image they need on the disc, the
disc should be a good first step in locating a photographer or agency that
probably has a more in depth file on a particular subject matter.

Nevertheless, based on the number of calls received, we have the strong
impression that textbook and encyclopedia buyers are not making much use of
digital search.

Advantages of Digital Catalogs

The search-and-find software on most of the discs is very easy to learn and
use. Once the user gets the hang of the software they discover that it is much
easier to find the images they want on a CD-ROM disc than by looking through a
print catalog.

In addition, the user has a digital file immediately available that he or she
can size, crop, manipulate and insert into a digital layout. Most graphic
designers are currently doing much of their design work on computer. As a
result having digital files immediately available can speed their design process
and their efficiency.

Photographers should consider put the images they have sold on disc, or
on-line. Images that sell once are likely to sell again. With print catalogs
there is a tendency for the user to look at the newest catalogs first and
possibly never get to those which are four or five years old. With digital
products -- and particularly on-line -- that problem can be avoided.

I strongly urge photographers to carefully examine their images that have sold
in the past and make sure they are included in digital catalogs. Some may be
outdated, but it is surprising how many images that were shot 5, 10 or 15 years
ago keep getting used because they are where the user can easily find them.

Disc Sales Results

Stock Connection released its first disc in 1993 and has since released three
other discs with a total of about 11,000 images on all the discs.

In addition we place images in digital catalogs produced by Stock Workbook and
Black Book as well as placing images in print catalogs.

In 1995 we helped photographers place images in both Stock Workbook 8 (print
catalog) and Stock Workbook Disc 3 (a CD-ROM catalog). Both were released in
the fall of 1994. Sales results after one year provide some interesting

  • Stock Workbook 8 (SW8) - Stock Connection placed 25 pages (248 images) from 20
    photographers into SW8, which was distributed in September 1994. The book went
    to 30,000 buyers. The average per image investment for the photographers was
    $212.00. As of October 31, 1995 we had made 29 sales from the print catalog,
    and the average photographer had only recovered 37% of their cost of advertising
    meaning it would take almost three years before they begin to recover some of
    the costs of producing the images. These figures are based on the
    photographer's 75% share of gross sales, not the total gross sale price.

  • Stock Workbook Disc 3 (SWDSC3) - Stock Connection placed 610 images from 16
    photographers onto SWDSC3, which was distributed in October, 1994. The disc
    went to 7,000 buyers. The average investment per images was $17.00. As of
    October 31, 1995 we had made 86 sales from the disc. The average return on
    investment for each photographer was 342% (some photographers made close to 500%
    ROI). Thus, on average, photographers made their advertising costs back within
    four months of the disc's release.

    The average gross sale price for pictures in the book was $629 (due to a couple
    particularly large uses) and $564 for images on the disc. Within the first year
    only 18% of the images shown in the print catalog and 16% of the images on the
    disc sold.


    About the same time that CD-ROM catalogs came on the market two on-line
    services developed. The first was Kodak Picture Exchange which went on-line in
    September 1993. Picture Network International followed in late 1994.

    Sales from these two sources have been weak, at best. They have been hampered
    by search engines that are more complex to use than those on the discs, and by
    the fact that searching through picture files (relatively large compared with
    text files) on the internet takes much more time using a 28,800 modem than it
    does using a CD-ROM.

    The major advantage to the networks is that their database of images is much
    larger. PNI has over 300,000 images and KPX has in the range of 200,000. PNI's
    image base is more editorially oriented and KPX's base has a greater focus on
    images that might be used for advertising purposes.

    Initially the only way to get images on one of these services was to be a stock
    agency and agree to put on a minimum of 5,000 images in the first year. Both
    organizations have begun to make some compromises on this rule for a few
    individual photographers that have large files, but so far most of the
    organizations they represent are stock agencies.

    PNI went on the Internet in 1995 with their "Publisher's Depot" service and KPX
    is still considering WEB service. Stock agencies indicate that there has been a
    marked improvement in the volume of sales since PNI went on the internet, but
    they have been disturbed by the extremely low prices. (See PNI story on page

    One agent said, "I have no problem with selling for low prices if the volume is
    large enough to make up the difference. However, the volumes we are seeing now,
    (even though they are much better than a year ago) are no where near what we
    would need to justify these low prices."

    Corbis is about to begin testing direct on-line access. One test client in the
    initial phase will be Microsoft Network News which uses 50 to 80 photographs a
    day. Corbis currently has over 650,000 images in their database and expects to
    have over a million by the end of the year.

    Some stock agencies have their own on-line services via the WEB and you can
    expect the number of agencies providing a direct service to increase.
    Currently, Index Stock, West Stock and Stock Solution are actively promoting
    work on-line.

    Index Stock, West Stock (MUSE) and Stock Solution all have on-line services.
    Stock Workbook is also planning to offer an on-line service.

    Future of On-Line

    I think we can expect on-line catalogs to be playing an important role in the
    licensing of image rights by the end of 1997.

    While the large agencies will operate their own independent systems, there will
    also be many opportunities for individual photographers to put their images
    on-line and either market directly to clients, or at least have much more
    control over what the clients get to see than they have had in the traditional
    stock agency relationships.

    Many photographers are looking to put their own individual home pages on the
    web. In the long run I don't believe that system of marketing will work very
    well. I believe clients will be more inclined to go to sites that have a broad
    cross section of imagery, not just one individual photographer's work.
    Individual producers will have a better chance of selling material by including
    it on a large well-promoted site, rather than developing their own site.
    Individual sites may be more useful in getting assignments than in selling

    It has been pointed out that it will be theoretically possible to search the
    internet for all tigers, and all the home pages that have tiger pictures on them
    will be found. This would require a uniform naming or keywording convention so
    that you get only pictures, not stories about tigers, or text where the word
    tiger is uses, are found.

    What the picture buyer wants is a quick way to look at only the tiger pictures,
    not to go to a home page with 50 pictures on it, only one of them being of a
    tiger. To make that happen, there would need to be software that would pull
    thumbnails of all the images found, and enable them to be easily viewed side by
    side without out extraneous data.

    I don't think internet usage is going to develop this way. I think there will
    be a few search areas -- some operated by stock agencies and some operated by
    private companies -- where users will go to find images. Some of the
    characteristics of these sites will include:

  • Heavy promotion of the site address through traditional media, not just the
    Internet, so picture buyers will know where to find it.

  • A broad cross-section of imagery. The more images a site has the less it will
    cost per image to promote it.

  • The database will be one for selling stock, not for getting assignments. Many
    photographers want to put both on their home page. From the buyers point of
    view, when they are looking for stock they want to see only stock pictures.
    They don't, for example, want to see a technically excellent product shot that
    helps them understand the photographer's potential for doing assignments, but
    which has no value as a stock image. There are many other types of imagery that
    fit into this category.

  • Careful editing of the images with only the most saleable going on-line. With
    CD-ROM we tried to set up a system that allowed photographers a great deal of
    latitude in what they put into the catalog. We discovered that many
    photographers simply do not have a clear idea of the kinds of imagery that will
    sell as stock. Thus, they tend to want to put images into a catalog that have
    almost no chance of ever being requested, even though they are technically
    excellent. This doesn't benefit anyone.

  • Photographer need guidance as to what to shoot and what is in demand. One of
    the disadvantages of selling directly is that it is difficult to get information
    about statistical trends as they relate to a larger group of sellers. This can
    be very useful in planning shoots and marketing strategies.

    Unfortunately, many photographers who have been in large agencies have not
    benefitted from such data because the information has been closely held.

    As the market gets more competitive and the margins for error get narrower, it
    will be much more important to make decisions based on good statistical data.
    Organizations that can provide such data and help photographers in this way will
    be in demand.

  • For the next few years, at least, an important aspect of a successful systems
    will be to provide film delivery in a timely manner when needed.

  • The question of how to deliver large files will be a consideration. I don't
    think having large files interactively available for clients to grab at any time
    is advisable or necessary. I believe many suppliers will e-mail files as
    requested by e-mail or phone.

  • One of the elements of the fee charged will be the size of the file requested.
    File size and resolution relate directly to the size of the reproduction.

  • When sales are being made outside the normal marketing area of a photographer
    or agency (i.e. overseas sales for U.S. photographers) arrangements will be made
    with some local organization to handle negotiations and delivery of film.

    While it will be technically possible, and tempting, for photographers in the
    U.S. to try to negotiate sales directly in Europe, Japan and third world
    countries, it will be much better to have someone local handling the
    negotiations for you. (See the article about Indian sale on page 6.) The local
    agent will know the going rates in their area and the local customs and
    practices. They will also be able to watchdog for misuse. Since these people
    will be providing fewer services than stock agencies have provided in the past,
    the percentage of fee may be adjusted in favor of the photographer.

  • Eventually we will get to direct use of digital files, but I think this
    practice will not be widespread for sometime. The main inhibiting factor is
    that when a digital file (without a match print for calibration) is provided,
    the client has no way to maintain quality control with their separator or
    printer. Whatever output they get the printer can say "that's what you get with
    the digital file you gave me." There doesn't seem to be much progress toward a
    universal calibration standard. Until that happens clients will want to see

  • Copyright © 1996 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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