Lessons from Bachmann

Posted on 12/7/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

It is interesting that such a high portion of Bill Bachmann’s total income comes from assignments and directing the shooting of video ads. This dovetails closely with Jim Erickson’s experience, which we reported on a couple months ago. In both cases, assignment work gives these photographers access to great locations and models at costs far below what might have been required if the entire productions had been organized for the sole purpose of producing stock. In addition, the photographer benefits from the interaction with top creative directors, and a sharing of ideas as well as the creative team’s participation in pre-production planning. When shoots are produced totally for stock, the photographer must be much more intimately involved in all the pre-production details. At the very least this eats up his time.

It the last decade or so many of the best stock shooters have let their assignment businesses die as they focused exclusively on producing stock. Given how the market has changed, these two examples may indicate that in future successful photographers may need to focus more on developing a strong assignment business and get back to treating stock as a supplement not their only or primary source of income. As Bachmann sayid, “stock and assignments go hand-in-hand.”

During the same Selling Stock interview, Bachmann repeatedly talked about $1 or $2 licenses. This is not an accurate reflection of what is happening today. The current average price for an iStockphoto image is about $6.50, which may not seem like much more than $1, but many rights-managed sales made through Getty Images are for less than the iStock average. Some iStock images sell for $27, and that does not take into account the upmarket Vetta Collection, where images can sell for over $70. Images in Fotolia’s Infinite collection are being sold for hundreds of dollars—basically traditional royalty-free prices.

These are still all royalty-free, note usage-based prices Bachmann prefers, but if readers are going to reject microstock, they need to base their decisions on facts, not fiction. And the facts are: Microstock prices are going up. Rights-managed prices are clearly declining.

One of Bachmann’s complaints about dealing with exclusive agents is that a lot of good images are locked out of ever being seen by clients. That is definitely true. However, instead of dealing with multiple traditional agents, one solution that may be coming down the road is dealing with customers directly through Flickr and Google. In these cases, the photographer decides which images to put into the collection, handles all negotiations, sets the price and keeps 100% of the fee. Part of the problem with many traditional agents is that discounting has gotten so out of control and royalty percentages have dropped so low that photographers may be able to make a lot more money selling many fewer images and more reasonable prices. The Flickr/Google strategy is still in its infancy and my not develop, but it is certainly something that needs to be carefully watched and considered.

It is true that an image put into microstock can never be sold for “exclusive rights.” However, much less than 1% of sales, and probably not more than a few percent of total rights-managed revenue, comes from exclusive sales. Consequently, images that have been in microstock could still be licensed to the vast majority of customers on a non-exclusive basis and priced based on usage. It is also possible to easily withdraw images from all microstock representation and make them available through a source like Flickr, where the photographer controls the price.

Bachmann argues that no one can earn top dollar selling at microstock prices and believes rights-managed pricing is the only solution. But we cannot ignore the few who earn very good money using other strategies—for instance, the top iStock shooters on this list. For those who are non-exclusive with iStock, these figures often represent only 20% to 25% of their total microstock earnings. Yuri Arcurs is the number one microstock earner, with more than 25,000 images on the many sites that represent his work; he earns more than Bachmann, but with much higher expenses, so his profit is a lot lower.

Bachmann even acknowledges that, “traditional royalty-free at least has a chance for success.” Many of today’s top income producers license rights to a significant portion of their work at traditional royalty-free prices; Blend photographers are a good example. The prices for these usages are higher than most microstock, but are still based on file size and not usage, as Bachmann recommends.

There is no question that there is a huge oversupply of stock imagery today, compared to what there was throughout most of Bachmann’s career. That oversupply will continue to grow, regardless of whether photographers sell their images as rights-managed, traditional royalty-free or microstock. Oversupply of anything leads to declining prices.

I fully agree that pricing based on file size is a bad system, and that pricing based on use is much better. Two years ago, I proposed a solution that could have gotten all the royalty-free sellers back to pricing based on use. Nobody adopted it, and now microstock has such a foothold that it may be too late.

I also agree that most microstock photographers are not making much, if any, profit because their costs exceed their income. Yet there is no indication that these photographers will stop producing and selling images, no matter how much others protest. Therefore, the question for a photographer trying to make a living in stock is how to structure his or her business when an increasing number of good images will continue to be available at very low prices.

We may be coming to a time when it is no longer possible to build a career around producing stock exclusively, but it can be an important supplement to another source of income.


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 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.  

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