Does Adding To An Image Collection Automatically Grow Revenue?

Posted on 10/17/2017 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

The question for today is: “Does adding to an image collection automatically grow revenue?” and the companion question “Must an image be NEW to be useful to a customer?”

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to much of the data necessary to arrive at a good answer to this question. For the most part the big agencies have such data, but they seem to either not be reviewing what they have, or ignoring what the data tells them.

Shutterstock does supply some detail that is instructive and worth reviewing.

At the end of 2015 Shutterstock had 71.4 million images in its collection and generated $425.1 million is revenue during the year. They paid out about 30% in royalties during the year so that would have been about $127.35 million. Thus, for contributors the average return-per-image-in-the-collection would have been $1.78.

In 2016 they added 44.8 million more images. a 62% growth in the size of the collection, and generated $494.3 million during the year (16% growth in revenue). The royalties paid contributors was about $148.29 million. When we divide that number by 116.2 million images in the collection we get an average return-per-image-in-the-collection of $1.27.

As we move to 2017 Shutterstock seems to be on track to generate about $540 million (9% growth) in revenue and have about 172 million images, (48% growth) in its collection size by the end of the year. At 30% royalty they will probably pay out about $162 million, an average return-per-image-in-the-collection of $0.94. That’s a 26% decline in revenue per image contributors receive for the year.

When we compare downloads in the first half of 2017 compared to the first half of 2016 there was a little less than 2% growth. (Shutterstock will report its Q3 2017 numbers on October 31st.)

Looking ahead to 2018 and projecting the growth in collection size at just 40% they will have in the range of 240 million images in the collection by the end of 2018. Assuming a continued revenue growth of 9% (note it has been going down) revenue for 2018 would be about $589 million. After doing our royalty calculations and dividing the images into the royalty available the average return-per-image-in-the-collection will probably be in the range of $0.73.

Of course, it contributors can keep producing more and more images every year, maybe they can stay even on gross revenue received. But, producing those additional images is an additional cost in time and revenue. Return-per-image is getting so low that one has to wonder if the image cost itself were to be $0.0, would it be worth the trouble to caption, keyword and upload all these new images.

There is at least one big flaw in the above calculations. I have assumed that the total revenue resulted from licensing photos and illustration. But, in fact, we know that a share of that revenue comes from licensing clips. In addition, we believe that as a percentage of total revenue the sale of clips has been going up in the last few years. Thus, the actual average revenue-per-still-image is probably less than the numbers I have projected.

Do Customers Only Buy New Images?

This raises the question as to whether all these new images are really needed. If customers always demand new images, then maybe they are. I have no hard numbers on this subject, but observation, information from contributors and experience tells me that a significant percent of the images the customers purchase have been in the files for a long time -- many before 2015.

To some extent, I believe these older images, with a usage history, get pushed to the top of the search-return-order. They are more likely to be seen than new images that don’t generate a usage history right out of the box.

If that is the case, then it may be more important to develop a system where a greater percentage of the images in the collection get seen by customers – particularly if they have some sales history -- than just loading up with more new images.

Copyright © 2017 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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