May 2000 Selling Stock

Posted on 5/10/2000 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



May 2, 2000

Where do we go from here? In the past seven months the stock photo industry has

experienced a tremendous consolidation. As we entered the fall of 1999 there were

six big rights protected agencies:

Tony Stone Images (Getty)

The Image Bank


Telegraph Colour Library


The Stock Market

Now we have Two -- Getty and Corbis.

Consider some statistics. Corbis and Getty combined currently control close to 45%

of the worldwide sales of stock photos. Combined, they control close to 75% of the

Royalty Free sales.

The TSM acquisition makes it clear that Corbis does not intend to cede the market

for stock photos to Getty, any more than Microsoft ceded the internet browser

market to Netscape. They intend to aggressively compete with Getty. Get ready for

a battle for dominance. Even though Getty may be four times larger, it is not a

foregone conclusion they will end up on top. Again, remember Netscape.

One of the big problems is that both of these giants are trying to be all things to

all people. As a result some big gaps are developing in their servicing of

specific market areas. These gaps are targets of opportunity for other industry

players. The giants are focused on "all digital" operations. When Corbis

announced its acquisition of The Stock Market Tony Rojas said, (Corbis has a)

"...strategy to expand its commercial business in an all-digital model."

There is no question that there is a rapidly growing demand for digital search and

delivery. Photographers need to position themselves to participate in this growth.

But there are weaknesses in an all digital solution -- (hard to believe with all

the hype we hear today) -- and for many there will be opportunities to prosper in

those gaps. Television did not eliminate radio. In the future there will still be

value in images the giants refuse to digitize.

I will begin this article with a list a things photographers should begin doing

immediately. Next I will discuss some general "issues to consider" as

photographers and agents decide how to proceed. Finally I will examine some

winning strategies for photographers and small agents.

Immediate Steps For Photographers

Photographers with the above named agencies should, at a minimum, do the following.

These things are also good advice for photographers with other agencies.

  • Track carefully, the number of your images that make it into the on-line

    database and determine how quickly they get up.

  • Insist that managers of the on-line systems structure the system so you can

    search on your name to determine which of your images are actually on-line.

  • Track sales of non-scanned general file images. If sales are low -- which

    will be the case for many photographers -- it may be because the images are never

    shown to potential buyers.

    If your images are dying in the file try to place them some where else so they have

    a chance of being seen. Many of the images that the big agencies refuse to promote

    will continue to earn income if you put them in other on-line databases, or with

    agencies that continue to do file research.

  • Images accepted into the general files of a Getty or Corbis agency are

    unlikely to sell well. This hurts you in two ways. You receive no income from

    your prime agency and you are prohibited from attempting to market these images in

    other ways where they might earn royalties.

    There are two possible exceptions. The Stock Market may continue to operate in

    the traditional manner and continue to do file searches when clients can't find the

    images they are looking for on-line. The early word is that it will be business as

    usual at TSM, but this will be a dramatic reversal of Corbis' past philosophy.

    Photographers will need to watch the results closely.

    The TIB and VCG overseas operations may continue to sell well from the general file

    until they get fully integrated into the Getty system. But as that integration is

    completed expect sales to fall off.

  • With these agencies, attempt to negotiate non-exclusive or image exclusive

    agreements. If they will put your images in a position where clients can see them,

    then these agencies are certainly the place to be. But if they are going to bury

    your images, you've got to try to find some other way to earn income from that


  • Fight to get images returned that the agency refuses to place on-line. You

    must be persistent. There are definite indications that photographers are having

    trouble getting their images returned. There is no incentive for the agencies to

    search their files and return images.

    It is fairly easy for the agencies to return un-selected images at the time of

    initial submission. Once the image has been integrated into the general file, it

    is a major research project to retrieve a particular photographer's images. The

    major agencies don't want to spend the money to do this. Moreover, it is to the

    agency's advantage to make sure these images are not marketed by someone else

    because then there is no way the images can be competing against images the agency

    has chosen to market.

    As files of the various brands are consolidated much of the work will end up in a

    "black hole." Researchers who knew a particular file will be replaced. Even if

    there is some incentive to look in the file for a certain subject the chances of

    finding it are lessened.

  • Pay attention to how images are placed in the digital database and determine

    if there is any way you can influence that placement. With some search engines all

    new images go to the bottom of the pack in any search. Thus, if there are 450

    images already in a category and you add 10 new images to that category they become

    the 451st through the 460th to be seen. The chances of these images ever selling,

    no matter how good they are, is slim.

    Reverse date order so the newest images come up first is better. Some search

    engines like Stock Workbook's allow for regular adjustment of the sequencing based

    on what the agency feels are likely to be the images in greatest demand. New

    images can be put at the top, or certain older images that are best sellers can be

    put up there.

    The important thing to recognize is that it makes a difference how your images are

    sequenced in the search, not just that they are in an on-line database.

  • Explore other options. If the agency tends to use fewer photographers, or

    post fewer new images per photographer, many photographers will eventually see

    their sales fall off. Now is the time to begin exploring other options.

Issues To Consider

Regardless of whether you are just beginning to sell stock photos, or whether you

have been in the business for years and are trying to decide how aggressively you

should produce new stock images in the future, there are several issues that you

should consider carefully.

Too Many Photographers

Getty has too many photographers. Published reports in the investment community

say they have about 4,000, but my estimate is that they are marketing the work of

well over 5,000 individuals. In the future not more than a few hundred will get a

significant number of images added to the Getty databases in any given year. Getty

would like to have the pick of the best work that the 5,000 produce. They want the

ideas -- the vision -- of a broad cross section of photographers.

On the other hand read Ian Buchanan's interview with Andrew Saunders that first

appeared in the British Journal of Photography (See story 295 at the Selling Stock

on-line site). It makes clear that Stone, at least, intends to work with a small

group of photographers who will be heavily art directed. The philosophy at Stone

reflects Getty's approach to "rights protected" imagery. TIB, FPG and VCG

photographers should expect this philosophy to migrate to their collections in the

near future.

Most photographers will find that they get no more than a handful of images added

to the file each year. Most will find they can not support continued stock

production with so few accepted images.

Is The Market Growing?

Is the market for still photos growing? The big guys say yes. But, sales at Getty

rose very little in 1999, if you discount their growth by acquisition. VCG sales

were down 6% to 7% in 1999 compared to 1998. They were particularly down in the

U.S. and the UK. Individual photographers with many agencies are seeing a falloff

in their royalty payments. So who's right -- is it growing or not?

Consider these numbers. Gross sales of Royalty Free images in North America in

1999 were probably between $120 and $140 million. Getty says that 85% of their RF

sales are in North America. I believe gross sales of stock images worldwide were

about $1.25 billion in 1999. Approximately 45% of that, or $560 million, was in

North America. The average price of an RF image, which may have resulted in

multiple uses, was $75.00. The average price of a Rights Protected image for a

single use was probably around $350, and at best $400.

Lets assume that $440 million was generated from RP sales at an average $400 each

for 1,100,000 uses. And $120 million was generated from RF sales at $75 each

producing, at a minimum, 1,600,000 uses. Thus, conservatively 59%, of all uses in

the U.S. were RF. It may be worse. On the positive side for the Rights Protected

producer, there are signs that RF uses, as a percentage of total uses, may be

beginning to plateau in the U.S.

RF is the segment of the market that is growing in the number of images used but

that will not necessarily result in a growth in revenue for the industry, and

particularly for the photographers doing the work. RF is taking sales away from

Rights Protected. There are certainly some add-on RF sales -- new customers that

would not have bought Rights Protected under any conditions. But the growth in RF

use must be very significant to offset, in terms of dollar volume, the lost in

Rights Protected sales.

In the last year of so there are indications that this sales growth is beginning to

plateau in the U.S. Just because a product is easier to find and cheaper, doesn't

mean that user will necessarily use a lot more of it. So far, RF has had

relatively little impact outside of North America. But it is my belief that it

will begin to capture an increased share of the uses in both Europe and Asia in the

next two to three years, just as it has in the U.S.

Re-capturing RF Uses

Some sellers think they can convert some of those RF users back to using Rights

Protected images. As I see it, the only way this could happen is if Rights

Protected sellers, not only promote as aggressively as RF (which many are), but

also lower their prices to match RF.

I believe the price cutting route will lead to disaster for any Rights Protected

seller who attempts it. They will not be able to cover their costs of marketing

and production and generate a profit. Rights Protected plays may be able to win a

few percentage points of sales back from the major RF providers, but at the

significantly lower prices it will not be enough to improve their bottom line.

Others advocate spending whatever it takes to put as many images as possible

on-line and to promote the hell out of the site. This is "new economy" thinking.

Sellers insist that such actions will produce an income stream, and it probably

will. But costs could easily far exceed the income stream. The object is to turn

a profit, not just see if you can generate a few more sales.

I believe the Rights Protected players need to accept that a significant portion of

all uses (maybe 60% of what was available a few years ago), are no longer available

to RP. They have gone to the lower cost option. The RP sellers should focus on

that 40% of the market that is left. For many reasons the 40% of buyers are not

satisfied with the Royalty Free offerings and are willing to pay significantly

higher prices than RF for the images they want. Find out what it takes to satisfy

this segment of the market and focus on their needs.

For those who say, "I can't give up any portion of the market; I've got to go after

it all," I suggest you think of Nordstorm. They have not tried to match K-Mart and

Walmart prices in order to attract the buyers that use these major retailers.

Instead they have offered a different quality of goods and service, and have a very

successful business model. Both business models co-exist. In the stock

photography business we need to think about co-existence. To be successful your

products do not have to be priced at a level that all buyers can afford. You can

build a viable business by servicing a particular segment of the market, rather

than worrying about the entire market.

e-Commerce Sales

Yes e-commerce sales are growing, but that does not mean that overall growth will

follow. Most e-commerce sales come with a corresponding reduction in analog sales.

In addition, it is unclear that e-commerce sales are actually less expensive in

the short term than traditional sales. A huge amount of money is being spent on

print promotion to generate e-commerce sales. In addition, a huge amount of money

must be spent scanning and keywording images that will never sell. (More on this


There is a huge initial expense in putting images on-line compared with traditional

storage methods. If those images must be updated regularly, after only a year or

so, then that "initial" expense will continue and the long range cost savings that

is hoped for won't necessarily be there.

In fact, it looks like the big on-line operators are not going to add as much new

material to their files on an annual basis as the analog operators have been adding

in the last few years. In addition the "all digital" operators will try to sell

the images, for as long as possible, that they have gone to great expense to scan

and keyword. They will be very reluctant to purge them from the database as they


This opens an opportunity for those who can develop a strategy that successfully

combines the research

and delivery of both digital and analog files.

Much of the e-commerce growth is Royalty Free. The RF people insist that because

promotion and marketing expenses are higher for RF than for traditional analog

delivery photographers must accept a lower percentage of sales. (Of course, these

sales are also for lower dollars.)

What about the consumer market?

In a recent memo to Corbis photographers, Peter Howe said, "Last year the income

derived from Corbis Productions, the consumer arm of Corbis, increase by nearly

350%... This is now a million-dollar business rapidly heading toward being a

multimillion-dollar business."

Consider, if Corbis Production sales were $300,000 in 1998, and they increased by

350% in 1999, the 1999 totals would be $1,050.000. Even if Corbis' sales in 1999

were $2 million (multi-million by my definition) that would have put 1998 sales at

less than $600,000.

This is not a huge potential market for photographers, even under the new Corbis

contracts (more favorable to photographers in this area) where the photographer

receives 20% of Corbis's net fees. Also, consider the dollars Corbis must spend in

advertising and promotion to generate this $1 million, or so, in sales.

Getty has boasted of significant 1999 sales growth in their Consumer Channel, which

includes and American Royal Arts. This sector achieved sales of $6.1

million for 1999. However, according to Getty, due to continued investment in, principally to generate sales, there was a $5.8 million EBITDA loss in the

Consumer Channel.

When will consumers sales be greater than the expenses to generate them? It seems

unlikely that consumer use of stock photos is going to make up for loses in

business-to-business uses anytime in the foreseeable future.

Acquire, Acquire

One problem that Getty and Corbis face is that they must continually acquire more

companies to generate growth -- and to be competitive with each others. Lower

level managers then struggle with integrating the various elements. Often a smooth

integration is impossible to implement before the next acquisition and another


In this acquire environment, Corbis -- even though smaller -- is at a distinct

advantage. Getty must answer to stock holders. They must show continued growth in

sales on a quarter by quarter basis, and at some point the stock market may require

them to show real profits. Last year Getty's profits were $-1.93 per share.

Increasingly, investors want to see a number in the plus column.

Gates, on the other hand, has the resources to accept loses, or very slow growth,

for a very long time while he waits for the market to catch up.

Scanning Costs

The Getty/Corbis strategy of scanning everything in high resolution and having it

available for immediate e-commerce delivery offers some important competitive

openings for smaller agencies and individual photographers.

  • Clients want a broader selection than these agencies are willing to offer

    in high resolution scans. The clients will seek out alternatives.

  • Client will look for specialist collections.

  • Clients want true research. They have needs that go beyond what will be

    available on-line. They want to deal with sellers who will go to the trouble to

    dig through their files in an effort to fulfill the clients needs, when the

    situation requires such research. They are smart enough to know when they are

    being blown off by Getty and Corbis.

  • Many of the best paying clients don't need immediate digital delivery. They

    will want to search on-line, but smaller agencies can offer this option at much

    lower cost than Getty or Corbis, by simply putting thumbnails and previews on-line.

    When a high resolution scan is needed the small agency scans on demand.

Keep in mind that in only a fraction of the cases are high resolution scans ever

needed. According to Getty's own statistics only about 1/60th of their images are

scanned. Are the other images being made available to clients?

Let's look at some comparative numbers for scanning. Of the $45 per image Getty is

spending to put images on-line probably $25 is the cost of the drum scan. You can

get a Photo CD scan for $1.50 which is perfectly satisfactory for preview use,

digital use and maybe 75% of the print uses. It will not, however, be good enough

for ALL uses as the more costly drum scan would be.

It may be possible to cut that drum scan price somewhat, but scanning and

keywording is never going to approach the price of putting a transparency in a

plastic sheet and sticking it in a file drawer.

We also have to look at the number of images that must be scanned compared to the

number that ever sell. For many agencies it is not uncommon to sell less than 1%

of the images in the file and the costs of those that don't sell have to be

amortized over the ones that do.

Getty says they have 70 million images, but they also say they have 1.2 million

scanned and 80% of their sales come from 200,000 images 1/350th of the total in

file. If they have six scanned images for every one that sells their true cost of

scanning is $150 per image that sells. An agency that puts up six Photo CD scans

for every one that sells would have a scanning cost of $9.00 per saleable image.

But the real advantage for small agencies that scan on demand is that they can

offer many more images for the same money. They can offer 100 images for the

client to review for every 6 images Getty offers. The trick is not to try to be

all things to all buyers, but to carve out a niche and offer a service that will

satisfy the needs of some, but maybe not every buyer.

It is clear that there are a significant number of buyers who will want to see a

broader selection of images than Getty and Corbis are prepared to offer. Getty has

1.2 million images scanned and expects to eventually scan 3 million. Corbis has

about 2 million scanned.

One would think a database of 3 million images would surely be sufficient for most

buyers. Talk to buyers and ask them how many times the consolidators didn't have,

or were unable to find, what they needed? Also keep in mind that over 50% of the

dollars buyers are spending is still going to someone other than Getty or Corbis.

Given the up front $45 cost, the consolidators are reluctant to replace, or make

redundant, anything already in their system. Consequently, many top U.S. shooters,

on contract with the consolidators, are having most, if not all, of their new

submissions rejected. This is particularly true for those who produce travel,

scenic and wildlife images. Photographers who specialize in shooting for textbooks

are finding that Stone hasn't accepted a new image in almost two years. Meanwhile

these same images, rejected by Stone, are going into the files of specialist

libraries -- and are selling. Some photographers report that gross royalties from

the specialist libraries are going up while royalties from Stone are going down.

Why Would An Agency Not Do File Searches?

The goal of the major agencies is to develop operations that are totally digital.

They want to put a selection of images on-line, give the buyer the responsibility

of doing the research, and force them to make a choice from the images available

on-line. In theory, this can greatly reduce the agency's people costs and result

in a much higher profit margin from sales.

This theory may not be correct. As pointed out above, the costs of making images

available in this way are very high compared with the non-people costs of a

traditional operation. A great deal will depend on the number of times the chosen

images sell. At best the current data available can only offer a proof that the

theory works for some of the highest demand subject matter, not the broad cross

section of subjects that buyers want to use. So far there is no evidence that

people costs will actually be reduced. What seems to be happening is that any

reduction in traditional researchers is offset by added costs for higher paid

technicians with computer skills. Finally, there is a big question as to whether

in the long run buyers will settle for a picture that only fulfills half their

needs, rather than continuing to seek what they really want.

Getty and Corbis may tell photographers that they do file searches, but there are

too many stories from clients who request images they know were in the files of the

agency, or it predecessor, which can no longer be found. The lack of interest in

accepting images for the general file is another strong indicator that they will

not do file searches in the future. They get rid of older images based solely on

the date they were taken, and then are unwilling to replace them with similar new

subject matter.

If the scanned and keyworded images are the only ones shown, buyers are not

benefiting from the entire 135 million image collection Getty and Corbis have to

offer, but maybe from only 2% of it.

Agency Editing

Editors choose images for different reasons. Most of those reasons are valid for

the particular market the editor is reaching. One danger big agencies face is that

their editors get too smart. They think their definitive research tells them

exactly what clients will want in the future, and that they can narrow their

selection accordingly. The more the big agencies focus the more openings there

will be for smaller agencies and individual suppliers to fill.

One lesson that many of my generation learned was that we could take a set of

images and send them to the editor at Agency A who would make a selection. Those

rejected by Agency A would go to Agency B, and those rejected by Agency B would go

to Agency C. Each editor would pick different images from the same take. Agency

A's sales never fell off because B or C were offering different solutions from the

same set of images. B and C were add on income and often the income from B or C

would be higher on a particular shoot because it so happened that the client who

needed that particular image went to C rather than A. The lesson is to let as many

good editors as possible look at the images produced, and go with the instincts of

each of them.

As Getty and Corbis limit selection in an effort to reduce costs, one of the

complaints we hear from art buyers is, "They want to sell the edgy stuff they have

produced, not what I need." This opens opportunities for everyone else. The

important thing is to find a way to give the buyer a good selection of what he or

she wants to look at, not to try to sell the buyer that your editor is omnipotent

and knows more than the buyer.

"Holes" that develop in the big agency files may not be in the highest demand

subject areas, but they will often be in subjects that can generate a significant

income if the images are where they can be seen by potential customers.

Smaller agencies have an opportunity to review the imagery being rejected by the

leaders and get some of these great images in play. The smaller agencies can also

win by supplying file research and personal service. These agencies will need

on-line catalogs, the capability to accept and market digitally produced images,

and the capability to scan 35mm film on demand and deliver the file digitally.

Total E-Commerce

Being able to deliver files digitally, doesn't mean that you have to be prepared to

offer a total e-commerce solution. It is not necessary that every image in your

file be scanned and stored at high resolution before it can be offered for sale.

Many sellers will be able to operate successfully by negotiating via phone or

e-mail and delivering the final digital file 30 minutes to an hour after the

negotiations are completed, rather than instantaneously with the push of a button.

In rare cases even sending film will still be acceptable.

It is important to recognize that there are alternatives to total e-commerce.

Every site does not have to be e-commerce enabled in order to generate sales.

There are a number of ways sellers can offer a valuable service and broader

selection without adopting the total e-commerce route Getty and Corbis have chosen.

These methods of operation can be instituted for much less up-front costs than

Getty and Corbis are spending.

Winning Strategies for Photographers

Is The Stock Market the answer?

If The Stock Market is allowed to continue to operate as it has in the past, it may

be the best opportunity among the big agencies for photographers. Like many other

major agencies TSM has been cutting back on the size of its file, and returning

images. But, based on photographer reports, TSM's seems to be retaining a broader

cross section of material and their cuts in the file don't seem to be as deep as

those of some of the Getty agencies.

Early indications are that TSM will be allowed to operate autonomously within the

Corbis family. As we look at Corbis' existing operations it is hard to imagine

that will happen, but maybe Corbis has learned from past mistakes. It will be a

few months to a year before anyone can make a definitive prediction as to how it

will play out.

TSM photographers are betting told they will be allowed to extend their 50%

contracts for another three years. That offer, which for most photographers is not

in writing, needs to be tempered with what Corbis is offering other suppliers. The

new Corbis contract which is causing quite a stir in the industry (Story 296

on-line). The Sygma version has been rejected by photographers in France and it is

hard to tell what the eventual outcome will be.

Photographers with good advertising oriented work who have contacted Corbis (not

TSM) in the last month are being offered 40% and told there is no flexibility on

this point. At the same time photographers who have been with Corbis for a year or

more, and produce editorial work (generally of lower demand in terms of sales),

have been given new 45% contracts.

I have heard no rational explanation for why Corbis is offering photographers, who

produce the kind of work they say they want, a poorer deal than they are giving

photographers who have been with them for a while. It seems they believe these

photographers have no other option, and thus will be forced to accept whatever deal

Corbis offers. In this era when photographers are sharing information with each

other in much more depth than they ever have before, I think this strategy will

backfire for Corbis. If they discourage the first photographers who walk in the

door, and make them think they are being treated as second class citizens, they

will have a great deal of difficulty getting others interested.

I have no information as to what new photographers contacting The Stock Market will

be offered, but it is doubtful that it will be the same 50% that current TSM

photographers receive.

There are strong indications that, in addition to TSM, Corbis intends to acquire

other advertising oriented agencies in the near future.

Setting Up Your Own Site

Many photographers think the solution to their distribution problem is to set up

their own site. They point out that the technology needed to manage a small site

is relatively simple and that they can show several hundred images for relatively

little expense.

If the photographer has a real niche, maybe that will work. But, if he or she is

showing people, lifestyle, business, travel or scenic images it is unlikely they

will get many serious buyers to look at their site. The problem has to do with

promotion of the site in order to remind potential buyers that it exists. Even

when buyers look at the site, they will be unlikely to return if they don't find an

image that works for their current project on an early visit.

Thus what is needed is a critical mass or images, so the buyer has a good chance of

finding something that will work, and an advertising campaign that constantly

reminds your target buyers of the existence of the site.

I believe photographers will need to band together for the purposes of promotion,

as well as to reach a critical mass of imagery. Getty says they have over 350,000

registered users. PictureQuest has upwards of 75,000. How is an individual or a

small agency with a file that covers a broad cross section of subject matter going

to remind this number of buyers of their existence?

Cooperative sites benefit the buyer because they offer a broad cross section of

subject matter. With a single search the buyer can see the work of many

photographers on a particular subject. In addition, they spread the costs of

promoting the site among many photographers greatly reducing the promotional costs

for all individuals.

Some new sites that have recently gone on-line, or been announced are: Direct

Stock, StockMedia, Speedpix and StockPhotoIndex. I am not prepared to specifically

recommend any of these at this point, but they are worth watching and exploring.

Photographers have a better chance of earning income using sources like these with

heavy promotional budgets, than in trying to sell directly.

Outsourcing Some Of Your Work

In addition, individual photographers may find a real advantage in having someone

available (an agent) whose job it is to handle requests, do research that some

customers will need, scan on demand, negotiate, nail down the rights and handle


It is tempting for a photographer who makes relatively few stock sales to try to

handle the negotiations and retain 100% of the fee. For photographers earning most

of their income from assignments or other activities, the downside to this approach

is that stock requests invariably come when the photographer's staff is heavily

involved in an assignment project and has little time to break away to deal with

the stock request. The agent whose full time job is being available to handle such

requests, is more likely to be able to deal with client needs in a timely manner

One photographer reports that he used to do nothing but take pictures and ship them

off to his agency. Little office work was required. Now, in order to sell

pictures he has to learn much more about technology. He has to scan images and

e-mail them to clients. He has to consider setting up his own site and keywording

images. If he does that he will have to make sure the site stays up and working.

He will have to market the site. Maybe outsourcing some of these tasks is a good


An agency can help you get the images scanned and keyworded. They can help you

decide which ones are the most important to promote initially. One photographer

spent a huge amount of time scanning 30,000 of his images, only then to realize

that he was going to have to spend even more time keywording them before the images

could be effectively marketed on-line.

An agent with statistical experience on various sites can help you determine the

most effective on-line venues to use to market your particular subject matter.

Agents also get better deals from site operators because they provide a volume of

images and reduce the workload of the site operator in getting new material.

If you hope to sell outside the U.S. it may be useful to have an arrangement with a

foreign agent who can handle requests in the local language, provide technical

support and promote the site in the local area. You are much more likely to get

hits when there is active promotion of the site to qualified buyers than just

waiting for someone to find your site through a search engine. In some countries

buyers will look to English speaking researchers to find images for them rather

than doing the research themselves. Such researchers usually work for agencies.

The foreign agent understands the local pricing structures and can handle

negotiations, as well as monitor usage and take care of collections. In many cases

foreign buyers will not be able to pay by credit card, and many individual

photographers will find it difficult to accept credit card payments anyway.

Winning Strategies For Small Agencies

Tony Rojas says Corbis is focused on a "...strategy to expand its commercial

business in an all-digital model." Richard Steedman says the TSM goal is "...

bringing the world's finest photography to our clients through digital and

traditional means..." Getty has given lots of indications that they are also

headed toward "all-digital."

In the end which will succeed -- "all digital" or "digital and traditional?" Maybe

Steedman will change the focus at Corbis. There is no evidence that anyone at

Getty has a desire, or the will, to move away from the "all digital" model.

This defines the opportunity for smaller agencies and individual photographers. As

big agency editing strategies narrow in focus, opportunities for smaller

independent agencies and specialist libraries open up. More and more buyers will

have trouble finding what they want, given their editing philosophies of the

giants. Many of the photographers formerly represented by the giants will be

seeking new representation with agents who offer, both photographers and buyers,

more personal attention and service.

Agents that can strike a balance between an all-digital file and research of a more

traditional analog file will be able to offer clients a very valuable and much

needed option. Finding the proper balance that is economically viable may be


Buyers who want choice will find it necessary to go to the specialists. In total,

these small libraries have many more editors, each with their own distinctive point

of view, and with a knowledge of their particular subject area. They provide a

more varied and eclectic file than the consolidators ever will. The philosophy of

limited choice, produced in high volume, may work in off-the-rack clothes or auto

manufacturing, but in the creative business of photography variety and unique

vision are much more important.

Smaller agencies have an advantage because most buyers want more than one or two

sources of images. They want options and will support the options that provide

reasonable, friendly service.

Agents will be able to license rights to images not physically in their possession.

They will do this by building networks of subsidiary relationships. Once the deal

has been negotiated the agent will be able to have a high resolution file delivered

on-line from the primary source.

In the new "globalization" a different type of sub-agent alliance may be useful.

In such an alliance two companies agree to work together in a very intimate way.

The functions of the sub-agent may be to market to local buyers, provide research

of several on-line databases, negotiate, monitor uses, collect and pay the creator.

It will be extremely important that they know the local customs and speak the

language. In some cases they may have to provide technological assistance to new


It may not be necessary for these sub-agents to physically handle high resolution

files. The producer can upload the high resolution file to a storage site where it

can be accessed by the buyer after the sale is negotiated. In theory, the

sub-agent does not have to play any part in the management of the image storage


On the other hand, we are hearing from some forward thinking sub-agents that they

will still need to have a piece of film in-house which they can scan on demand.

This may be an intermediate step the industry will have to live with for a while,

rather than just delivering digital files from the home office.

These services can be of great value to the American photographer trying to do

business in a foreign country. In some cases the photographer may deal directly

with the foreign agent. In others there may be an advantage if several

photographers deal through one prime agent who builds a network of sub-agents for

the photographers.

Specialist libraries will be forced to hold the line on prices and maybe even raise

prices for the images they sell. Compared with the sales they could make five

years ago, they can count on losing a certain percentage to RF. If they make fewer

sales they must earn more per use in order to cover their costs, and provide their

photographers with a reasonable return on investment.


The changes have just begun. There are opportunities. But many of the old rules

and old ideas about how the business should operate will no longer apply. Sorting

out which new proposals are pie-in-the-sky dreams and which will be the next

killer-ap will be difficult. Image producers must give more attention to how their

work is marketed and test every assumption. No one, least of all this writer, can

claim they have the answers. The best we can do is examine options.

Copyright © 2000 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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