Microstock Plateau: iStockphoto July 2010

Posted on 7/6/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

For 14 months, I have been following the sales of 198 of iStockphoto’s top contributors. (The term “contributor” is more accurate than “photographer,” because a significant number of iStock’s top sellers are illustrators and graphic designers selling illustration, not photography.) At that time, these 198 were, according to iStockcharts data, among the top 250 image sellers of what is now over 100,000 total contributors.

Since May 2009, some have risen to higher positions; others have declined as more aggressive producers moved up. The lowest person on my list, Skashkin, has had more than 47,000 total downloads and between 5,033 and 6,033 total downloads in the last 14 months; he now ranks 347th. Yuri Arcurs, the number one producer, had between 357,574 and 367,574 total downloads in the last 14 months.

Since May 2009, some contributors have declined in iStockcharts rankings as more aggressive producers moved up. For example, Monkey Business Images went from 254 to 37 and is still climbing, despite its relatively late arrival in 2008.
Monkey Business Images first uploaded to iStock in March 2008. By July 1, 2009, the company had fewer than 53,000 downloads. Today, Monkey Business-produced images have been downloaded over 180,000 times, for a total of more than 128,000 downloads in the past 12 months. On July 1, 2009, the company’s iStockcharts rank was 254; today, it is in 37th position and climbing.

The 29,475 contributors whose information was listed on iStockcharts as of July 1, 2010, had over 23,570,469 downloads in the last 14 months. This group represents 6,279,767 images—89% of iStock’s overall total of 7,063,000. The remaining 11% of the images on the site are spread over more than 70,000 contributors that iStockcharts does not identify. Though this group makes up some 70% of the iStock contributor pool, portfolio size (an average of 11 total images) and download statistics suggest that most of them are largely inactive. In contrast, the portfolio sizes and downloads of the top 198 contributors likely provide an accurate picture of iStock sales trends.

Numerical precision

Some of the numbers available for iStock are very precise, while others are ranges. Until May 2009, iStock visitors were able, at any moment, to determine the exact number of images licensed in each contributor’s career. The following June, iStock changed its reporting to only supply the nearest lower rounded number of downloads, with the actual number of varying by as much as 10,000. For example, a number listed as “greater than 100,000” could mean anything between 100,001 and 110,000. If the contributor’s total downloads are less than 100,000, the range is 1,000 downloads.

Estimates presented here were calculated by determining the minimum and maximum number of downloads each contributor could have had for the entire period. We subtracted the May 1, 2009 number from the July 1, 2010 number. Then we divided by 14 to determine the average monthly low for the 14-month period through June 30, 2010. We did a separate calculation for the average high based on the highest possible number that could have been licensed during the period. Then we totaled the results for 198 contributors and compared them with the actual May totals. We are aware of a few contributors who have just recently passed the low number, but some could also be very near the top of the range and about to move to the next level.

This method revealed that, compared to May 2009:

  • 55 of the 198 contributors have, on average, licensed more images per month;
  • 69 have, on average, licensed fewer images per month; and
  • 74 were midway in their range—more than the average low, but less than the average high.

(See this table for individual data.)

Top 198

The top 198 iStock contributors currently have a combined total of 567,324 images, or about 8% of the total collection. In the past six months, every member of this group has enlarged his or her collection by an average of more than 10%, adding 52,449 images. (We did not track the number of images each had in the collection in May 2009, so there is no way of knowing how many images were added in 14 months.)

iStock sales—in terms of number of units—have been flat over the last 14 months. Since it is unquestionably the largest microstock image seller in the industry, it is reasonable to assume that its numbers represent a best-case industry trend.
Overall the number of images downloaded for these 198 contributors was 450,593 in May 2009. For the 14 months the average low per month was 417,686 and the average high per month was 491,174. The median is 454,430. Since this represents 29% of the images downloaded, it suggests that sales—in terms of number of units—have been flat over the last 14 months. Since iStock is unquestionably the largest microstock image seller in the industry, it is reasonable to assume that its numbers represent a best-case industry trend.

It is important to note that, despite flat unit sales, revenue has still risen because of price increases. Also notable is the fact that adding more images does not appear to increase unit sales but may be necessary in order to maintain sales volume.

This group’s low number for total downloads in the 14 months was 6,888,490. If we divide that by 23,570,469, the lowest number of total downloads from the iStock site during the 14 months, we discover that over 29% of all the images downloaded during that period belonged to these 198 contributors. If I had tracked all the sales of the top 350 (out of 100,000), I estimate that over 50% of all the images licensed by iStock during the period belonged to these individuals, who represent less than 0.4% of all contributors. While it is certainly possible for a few to earn significant revenue licensing images as microstock, this points out how extremely difficult it can be to achieve that goal.

The reason why 5.2% of the images in the iStock collection generate 29% of total downloads is the same as it is across other microstock sites: since customers are able to sort results by downloads, previously sold images have an advantage.
It is important for contributors to understand why 5.2% of the images in the collection generate 29% of downloads. Certainly, all the images that are selling are of good quality, but good quality is not enough. iStockphoto and other microstocks make it possible for customers to sort by downloads, which means customers can see the most popular images first in every search. Yuri Arcurs estimates that 80% to 90% of customers sort results by downloads. This gives images that have previously sold a huge advantage over those that have sold only occasionally—or never. Consequently, new images are at an extreme disadvantage, irrespective of quality, because they tend to appear at the bottom of the search return order and are never seen.

Some will want to know how much these downloads represent in dollars. Based on information from some photographers, I believe the average gross sale for an image in the standard collection (not Vetta or video) is $6.50 to $7.50. A significant number of these top photographers are exclusive with iStock and thus earn 40% of this gross. Non-exclusives earn 20%, but they can and do submit the same images to many other microstock sites. It is important to note that Yuri Arcurs, Andres Rodriguez and Monkey Business Images are among a group of shooters who say they earn much more by being non-exclusive than they could earn with iStock alone.

Lessons learned

  1. Sales over the last year have been flat.
  2. Images produced by a very small percentage of contributors represent the majority of sales.
  3. Despite the widespread belief in the growing use of images online and predictions that such growth will never end, we may have reached a level where all those individuals who are willing to pay money to purchase images at microstock prices are already doing so. They need a fixed number of images per year. They already go to the lowest priced source and are unlikely to buy more simply because more are available. But they will be happy to pay less for what they do buy, if they can find a lower price.
  4. Once a business model has reached maturity—which microstock has—it will no longer grow simply by producing more. The only way to grow is to sell more units or raise prices.
  5. Will price increases drive away some customers? As some brands increase price, others may increase market share by keeping their prices lower than the market leaders.
  6. Some customers may go back to free sources, particularly if Google and Flickr are able to deliver better search results.
  7. It is important not to judge success by revenue increases alone, but to also look at the underlying unit sales growth.
  8. According to iStockcharts, iStock has had at least 23,570,469 downloads in the last 14 months. In the spring, Getty Images chief executive officer Jonathan Klein told TechDirt that in 2009, Getty Images licensed 22 million—and “all of the growth was through our user-generated business.” Based on this figure, about 20.6 million of the images licensed would have come from iStockphoto.
  9. Economic recovery does not seem to have had any effect.

Copyright © 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.  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Jul 6, 2010
    Reading all of this very carefully, any new photographer should realize he/she has a very slim chance of making ANY money from Microstock. A few at the top (very few) are making some money, but a new person can not post images to be found because they are at the BOTTOm of the food chain where their images will not be searched!

    New shooters... why not go RM and have the same chance as a top shooter to make large sales that are 50% yours?? It seems like anyone with any business sense would make that decision and not be lured by Microstock and rest on the bottom!! Even Yuri (King of Microstock) realized this and is starting to put some images in RM to make a lot more money!


  • steve cole Posted Jul 14, 2010
    Bill - do you have ANY personal experience with microstock?

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