Many view iStockphoto as the microstock industry leader. However, online forum threads about the company’s November sales and the future for non-exclusive microstockers offer a very different perspective. It appears that, in its pursuit of exclusive contributors, iStock is becoming a less important income source for many microstock shooters—not only those just starting out, but also those earning a living from microstock.
iStock has introduced a series of policies that give extreme preference to a very small percentage of exclusive contributors, to the detriment of the vast majority of those who are submitting images. As a result, many very experienced microstock shooters have seen such steep declines in their iStock revenues that they are no longer uploading new images.
iStock encourages exclusivity with higher royalties, shorter inspection queues and increased upload limits, all of which enable exclusive photographers to get more images online faster. Still, iStock has the most severe limits on uploads of any microstock company. Exclusive photographers are also prohibited from submitting to any other royalty-free distributor, and this even applies to images that iStock refuses to accept. This is much more restrictive than the standard Getty Images agreement, which requires exclusivity of accepted images only.
As is the case with most other microstock Web sites, iStock’s search return order gives preference to contributors with the most downloads. As the image inventory grows and some of the early adopters get more and more downloads, it becomes harder and harder for newer contributors to get high enough in the search return order for their images to be seen.
In October, iStock also adjusted its “Best Match” search algorithm to give even more preference to exclusive photographers. As a result, many non-exclusive contributors experienced a terrible second half of October and November, while some exclusives saw a 200% rise in revenues.
One forum surveyed 173 photographers—an admittedly small sample—and found that almost two thirds saw a decline in sales in November compared to the previous month. In some cases, the declines were 40% to 60%. Some photographers reported that, while iStock used to represent 50% of their microstock revenue, it now represents only 10% to 15%, and this share continues decreasing.
The top revenue producer for many non-exclusive microstock shooters seems to be Shutterstock, even though its royalty per download is the lowest of the major microstock companies. Depending on the photographer, Dreamstime or Fotolia rank second for non-exclusive revenues. iStock now often appears in fourth place.
In addition, contributors overwhelmingly agree that iStock is the most difficult company to deal with. Given its tight and erratic reviews, more and more photographers are deciding that uploading new images to iStock is not worth the trouble.
iStock may feel that all it needs is a few thousand of top producers, instead of the 60,000 photographers it currently represents. Interestingly, this approach is similar to that taken by Getty Images after it acquired Stone, Image Bank and FPG. But one thing is certain: iStock’s top producers will focus on shooting the high-demand subject matter. This will eventually result in a collection with much less variety than is being offered by competing microstock companies, who continue to take imagery from a broad cross-section of suppliers with varied interests. Time will tell which strategy is most effective.