Will Microstock Or Macrostock Be The Winner?

Posted on 12/19/2013 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

Recently, a German subscriber asked, “Who will be the winner, Microstock or Macrostock?” To answer that question we must define winning. Is licensing the most pictures winning? Is the distributor with the most revenue the winner? Is making it possible for more photographers to earn some money from the pictures they take winning? Is it winning to make it possible for more photographers to earn a living producing and licensing rights to stock pictures? Is it providing customers with better service?

Most Licenses

If we’re talking about images licensed, clearly Microstock has won. To be more precise subscription has won. Subscription is taking market share from the single image microstock sellers and forcing most of them to keep their single image prices lower than they would like.

Worldwide, not counting editorial sales, I think something in the range of 170 million images will be licensed in 2013. That breaks down to:

120,000,000    Subscription
50,000,000      Single image Microstock and Midstock
3,000,000        Traditional RM    

6,000,000        Traditional RF
    *Note: I’m not counting the hard news sales made by the major wire services and agencies that license images mostly to newspapers. A significant number of these sales are made via various types of subscriptions. As far as I know there is no good tracking of the number of images downloaded or actually used.
Readers also need to keep in mind that probably in excess of 25% of the RM and RF images are currently being licensed for gross fees of less than $25 and many are licensed for less than many microstock sites charge for single image use. Fewer and fewer of the RM traditional RF licenses are for the kind of prices charged a few years ago.

It should also be noted that a huge percentage of the images licensed via subscription are never used. Customers download a lot of images they are considering for a project, but end up using only a few. Nobody, has any idea how many of those downloads end up making it into an actual project.

Distributor Revenue

Clearly Shutterstock will be a winner. Getty has higher gross revenue, but has seen slight declines for the last 4 quarters and has huge debt. I think Getty will continue to see declines. iStock, in particular, has seen significant declines, mostly by losing sales to other cheaper microstock offerings, particularly Shutterstock. I don’t see any evidence that this trend is likely to turn around. Some microstock distributors are growing. Others are not.

In general traditional distributors with broad based general collections are hurting. That is likely to get worse. They are not making significantly more sales and have been forced to license images for much lower prices than used to be the case in order to compete. Companies with tightly edited niche collections tend to do better. The huge collections that return thousands of images on even the most narrowly defined search are becoming counter productive (7,195 images of pineapple plants on Shutterstock). Customers will start going to sites that offer fewer choices and evidence of some professional editing.

More Photographers Selling Their Work

Microstock has made it possible for many more photographers to earn some money from the images they produce. The launch of sites like Scoopshot, Foap, Instant and RooM that accept images shot with mobile phones will greatly increase the number of photographers trying to sell their images online. Very few photographers will make any serious money marketing their images in this way. But, the existence of these sites will likely eat into traditional editorial sales, restrain microstock companies from raising prices and generally force prices down.

More and more amateurs and part-timers will give Microstock a try. Very few will develop sustainable businesses or stick with it for very long, but most will earn a few dollars.

Earning A Living

The number of photographers able to earn a living licensing their images at RM or Traditional RF prices will continue to decline rapidly.

There are, and will continue to be, Microstock producers that are able to earn enough to support themselves and a family. In three years they will probably outnumber the traditional RM and RF shooters able to do the same. However, they will represent an infinitesimal small number compared to the total number of part-time photographers supplying images to the microstock and subscription sites.

Serving Customers

Some great images are being produced at all levels, but in general the overall quality of the offering is declining in a race for volume. I think it will continue to decline. More and more customers will find that it is easier to shoot many of the images they need rather than search through the massive collections for just the right image.

Niche collections that focus on a particular subject matter and do a good job of curating will be in greater demand. But curation requires experienced humans making educated judgments. At the prices being charged for usage no one can afford humans.

Stocksy has a good chance of carving out a successful niche because it is customer friendly and priced right. Offset has very little chance of being successful because it is priced way above what the current market will bear.

Copyright © 2013 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.  


  • Paul Melcher Posted Dec 19, 2013
    Jim, do you have any sources for these allegations ? like subscription sales volume vs individual or istock revenues ?

  • Yan Kit Liu Posted Dec 19, 2013
    Yes it would be cool to see how the volume data is derived from and what the trend has been for past 2-3 years

  • Jim Pickerell Posted Dec 20, 2013
    See "Shutterstock Q3 Revenue" (http://www.selling-stock.com/Article/shutterstock-q3-revenue-596-million) and "iStock Download Trends" (http://www.selling-stock.com/Article/istockphoto-download-trends). The iStock report will be updated in the next couple of weeks.

    Based on reports from photographers with both Shutterstock and Thinkstock I believe Thinkstock will have something in the range of 20 million downloads this year.

    Fotolia will do slightly about $87 million this year. (http://www.selling-stock.com/Article/fotolia-seeking-300-million-to-refinance-debt). I think Dreamstime revenue and downloads will be less. And then we have to add in all the other Microstock sellers.

    The RM and RF numbers are based on a lot of my historical analysis; examining sales reports of a number of major producers and conversations with a lot of traditional suppliers.

    Granted, there is a lot of extrapolation, but I feel very comfortable with the general percentages.

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