Choosing a Marketing Strategy in 2009

Posted on 1/5/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

This year, should photographers market new images as rights-managed, traditional royalty-free or microstock? It likely will not make a whole lot of difference.

Estimated Getty Images' revenues 2007–2009 (US$ millions)
Year Rights-managed images Royalty-free images iStockphoto
2007 $305 $255 $72
2008 $250 $210 $122–$148
2009 $227 $165 $207–$251

The 2007 figures in the table at right are Getty’s reported sales for the year. Prior to Getty’s acquisition by Hellman & Friedman, Goldman Sachs estimated the company’s 2008 creative-image revenues, excluding iStockphoto, at $460 million. In order to split this into rights-managed and royalty-free revenues, the table uses the 2007 percentages of total creative revenues. Goldman Sachs estimated 2008 iStock revenues at $122 million.

Goldman Sachs also estimated Getty creative and iStockphoto revenues for 2012 at $348 million and $262 million, respectively. One quarter of the total creative-revenue decline between 2008 and 2012 was assigned to the 2009 creative category.

iStockphoto revenue was projected to grow by 70% in 2008 compared to 2007. Based on what iStock currently pays photographers, the company may have doubled its 2007 revenue in 2008. Consequently, the 2008 iStock revenue estimate is between $122 million and $148 million. iStock may be paying a higher percentage of gross sales in 2008 than was the case in 2007 due to an increased number of exclusive photographers receiving 40% of sales. Since the gross sale number in the table is based on growth of royalties paid photographers, this could account for part of the higher number.

To estimate iStock revenues for 2009, Selling Stock assumed unit sales would continue to grow by at least 70% on an annual basis. iStock will raise prices in January. Despite the recession, there is every indication that microstock sales will continue to grow: microstock is by far the cheapest source of stock imagery, and there will still be demand for pictures. Taking these factors into consideration, 2009 iStockphoto revenues are estimated to be between $207 million and $251 million.

In all likelihood, 2009 will be the year when microstock revenues exceed those of either rights-managed or traditional royalty-free images, at least for Getty.

Photographers submitting to traditional outlets must recognize that, while sales decline or remain flat at best, the number of images in the market is growing at a significant rate. This reduces the odds that any particular image will sell. On the microstock side, even with tight editing, the number of images available to customers is increasing at an even faster pace than rights-managed and traditional royalty-free images. In addition, microstock the advantages of rapid sales growth and a much higher number of overall sales.

With respect to royalties, iStock pays exclusive photographers 40%, and non-exclusives receive 20%. Some microstock companies pay even higher percentages under certain conditions. The standard rate for traditional royalty-free producers is 20%, and Getty rights-managed photographers receive about 35% of gross sales. Other rights-managed agencies pay higher percentages. However, photographers often fail to recognize that the percentage paid is relevant only when the number of units licensed is the same, and this is never the case. The companies that pay higher percentages typically do not make as many sales.

There are strong indications that the combined revenues of other microstock portals—particularly Dreamstime, Shutterstock, Fotolia and Stockxpert—are greater than iStockphoto’s total revenues. Thus, many photographers find it more profitable to sell the same images through multiple sites, rather than being exclusive with iStock and getting the higher percentage.

Despite the high volume of microstock sales, it may be more difficult to achieve top-producer status with a microstock brand than with rights-managed or traditional royalty-free agencies. There are approximately 150,000 photographers licensing images as microstock. Over 60,000 photographers contribute images to iStock, but the top 274 (all with 25,000 or more lifetime downloads) are responsible for a third of total downloads.

By comparison, there are over 15,000 individual contributors to Alamy and probably between 2,000 and 3,000 photographers contracted to Getty Images, not including third-party suppliers of either company. A previous article demonstrates that gross royalties are about the same per contributor for the top 50 photographers contributing to iStockphoto or Getty’s creative collection. However, the top 50 represent a very small percentage of total microstock contributors but a much higher percentage of total rights-managed and traditional royalty-free photographers. Another important consideration in deciding where to place one’s images is the number of images accepted from a given shoot. In general, rights-managed distributors will accept the fewest. Traditional royalty-free agencies tend to accept at least twice as many, if not more, and microstock acceptance rates are the highest of all. There are hurdles to overcome in getting images accepted by any distributor, and they tend to differ greatly between traditional sellers and microstock.

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, 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:  


  • Gerard Fritz Posted Jan 5, 2009
    You rarely include Rights-Ready in these sorts of commparisons, probably because it is a very small percentage. Are you getting any feedback on RR viability or relative sales data?

  • Leslie Hughes Posted Jan 19, 2009
    I just got around to reading this and had to comment. It always matters what strategy one employs to sell product and to determine what product to sell. The issue is marketing - to whom will we sell and how are we going to increase customers? How do we get the current ones to buy more and get more new customers?

    Each photographer needs to consider what they are shooting and determine the best strategy for THEIR work. This could be a broad distribution approach and getting lots of work into lots of agencies. This approach takes a lot of time and effort not only in shooting but in working with those agencies to stay top of mind, being in front of the editors to make sure they know the work, prepping the images, pre-editing, and following up to ensure the images can be found in the search tools, are loaded with the correct data, etc... One must manage these relationships to make them valuable. Or take a more targeted approach and select a few boutique or market-oriented partners. Ask them to commit. This is harder today but still possible depending on the type of content being shot. It still takes work, a plan and focus. The licensing model (RM, RF, RR, Micro..) is part of the strategy and frankly, depends on where one is able to grow their customers more than where Getty or Corbis or anyone else is going to grow. Some photographers will choose to focus on one type of licensing and grow extremely well because they will target their work specifically and well against the needs of the market that is most served by that model. Others will focus on creating content that is driven by the subject matter - the latter approach can often be sold under many licensing models and do extremely well, as we all know. If prolific, they may want to sell into micro and go for volume - if they have high costs, they may want to build a strategy that offers something unique and hard to replace to customers who are willing to pay... But - the point is that strategy always matters if you are to grow your business.

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