Can Traditional Distributors Learn From Microstock?

Posted on 5/12/2008 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

RM and traditional RF photographers complain about declining incomes and the difficulty in getting information from the companies that represent their work. Traditional distributors might do well to adopt a number of ideas popularized by microstock, to improve relationships between photographers and distributors.

1- they could make it possible for photographers to check the status of their accounts daily online. This should be easy enough for sales made electronically. It may be more difficult for sales made on account, but far from impossible. Account sales should be entered into the agency's records whenever the sale is booked. At that time, it should show up in the photographer's online account.

The same is true for distributors that make sales on behalf of an agent. The agent ought to be able to check his account with the distributor on a daily basis. If the agent and distributor have compatible accounting systems, the distributor should transfer the updates nightly. This kind of integration is happening at a few large agencies, but not at most smaller ones. The industry is headed toward a time when there will be many more sales, but for smaller amounts. To facilitate such a transition, a more automated, integrated accounting system needs to be put in place.

Given current reporting systems and declining sales, many photographers fear they are not being paid for some sales, which is probably not the case. While the vast majority of agents are paying according to contract, a few are withholding funds. Immediate reporting makes it harder, though not impossible, to manipulate the books. Unfortunately, when some are caught, it tends to tarnish everyone's reputation. Those who adopt a more transparent system of reporting are seen as more trustworthy. The micropayment people are doing it. Why can't everyone else?

2 - To deal with the "on account" issue, the distributor could supply a line that indicates every time a high-res file is downloaded and by whom. Then photographers could track if and when such downloads are actually billed, and expect to receive some explanation if it isn't.

3 - Make it easier for photographers with small collections to be approved to submit images and upload new images. Many of the most successful image distributors severely limit the number of photographers they accept, due to the high cost of managing individual, small suppliers. Microstock distributors solve this problem by requiring individual photographer to do all the preparation work, offering them little direct communication with the agent and answering "most frequent" questions online. Also, photographers receive a higher percentage of the gross sale when they deal directly with the primary seller, rather than through a sub-agent.

4 - Require that an electronic copy of each model release be submitted with every image. Supply a separate identifying device near the thumbnail for every image where the release is on file with the agent. Have a different release mark for older images where the photographer has a release, but a copy is not on file with the agent. Traditional agents could implement such a system without doing a lot of catch up work.

5 - Facilitate searches in order of the number of previews and downloads. The ability to quickly see the images on a particular subject in greatest demand is a useful tool for both image producers and buyers.

6 - Allow the customer more flexibility in organizing search-return order.

7 - Make it easier for your photographers to communicate with each other. Granted, this sometimes makes it easier for them to complain, but often they answer each other's questions rather than taking up the distributor's time.

Copyright © 2008 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:  


  • Lee Torrens Posted May 12, 2008
    Excellent analysis Jim. I'll delete the draft article from my blog with almost the exact same title - I can't improve on yours.

    Inmagine has gone a long way towards this with their new Submission (INIS) system which includes numbers 1, 3 and 4 from your article. So it looks like it's already underway. In a market where traditional business is in decline and microstock is growing, it's a bit of a no-brainer for the old-guard to look at the technology gap as part of the solution to recovering lost growth.

    Microstock has been made possible by Internet technology, but there's no reason the traditional end of the market can't use it to their advantage too.

  • Jeff Maloney Posted May 13, 2008
    Good article! I would add more communication about subject needs as there seems to be a huge vacuum about what is and is not selling. I have been with 2 major agencies for years and I am lucky if I get two e-mails a year from them.


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