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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Photo Agencies and The Stock Industry: a Matter of Proportion

In my blog post, "There are Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics", a series of email replies inspired me to post a follow-up. I'll get to them at the end, but first, a recap:

In that article, I mentioned how a Shutterstock survey focused on a small, select group of traditional image buyers to gauge their purchase expectations over the next year. I went on to say that it is the result of surveys like this (and others) that most stock photo analysts draw the wrong conclusions about the nature of the broader stock photo marketplace, which itself leads to a trickle-down effect of misinformation throughout the industry. In this case, the Shutterstock survey lead many to conclude that the industry is growing. And this perpetuates another misperception that agencies represent the lion's share of sales and revenue, which itself leads to the misperception that making money in stock requires joining an agency.

Each misperception leads to another, and another, and another, until finally, the industry is full of chaos and confusion, myth, and suspicion.

For now, I want to clarify that, just because it's easy to see how most analysts misinterpret information, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's easy to know how to do it right.

A primary example of this can be found in a July 18 article in the New York Times business section, titled, A Matter of Opinion?. The issue is how credit rating agencies were giving high marks to the very companies that were ultimately responsible for the credit crisis that lead to our current economic meltdown. After facts were uncovered, many feel these credit agencies should have known all along that banks and other institutions were engaged in speculative and complex financial instruments that would lead to this.

And that's how I feel about those who cover the photography industry. The evidence is so overwhelming that the predominant view of the stock photo industry is so wrong, that it is flatly irresponsible of the press and analysts to perpetuate that view. It's also important to point out that this is not the company's fault. Their survey and their data is just fine -- their goal was to illustrate other points more german to their businesses. The problem rests entirely within the press and blogosophere who are inappropriately using that survey to support (and perpetuate) incorrect conclusions about the industry at large.

First and foremost: The stock photo industry does not revolve around stock photo agencies. Though there are no scientifically viable surveys that show the total size of the market -- and therefore, the proportion that agencies may represent -- there is a great deal of asymmetric information (indirect data gathered from independent sources) to support the premise that agencies' role is minimal.

I've written many articles that cite multiple data sources that suggest that most stock imagery is licensed on a peer-to-peer basis--directly from photographers. Even though many of these individuals do tiny amounts of licensing annually for themselves, it's their collective economic activity that has far more gravitational pull on the industry than the entirety of stock photo agencies combined. (They are what my books call the "dark matter" of the photo industry: you don't see them, but they are there, and they account for over 80% of the stock photo universe.)

Once taken into account in discussing and analyzing the nature of the stock photo industry, a great many assumptions and other factors are instantly called into question. For one, the effects of pricing and other actions taken by agencies. If, even for the sake of argument, one assumes they are not the center of the universe, but rather, involuntarily pulled by everyone else, how they are presented and covered would not just change industry perceptions, but it could have a trickle-up effect, putting more pressure on industry executives to make better, more economically viable decisions that lead to industry growth.

As for the stock agencies themselves, I have no qualms about how they conduct their businesses, per se. True, I think they leave a lot of money on the table with their pricing, and I think they miss out on a great deal of consumer opportunities, but I don't think this harms the market at all--again, they do not "set trends", they are inadvertent followers of larger forces. I also understand well that running a profitable business is difficult, and growth is often fraught with risk. The graveyard of companies that tried to migrate to a consumer-oriented business is crowded.

Nor do I have an issue with how they market themselves. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the Shutterstock survey that I alluded to in my prior article. Shutterstock's business is to sell stock imagery, and their survey happened to focus on a particular market segment that they felt was their primary buyer base. That this segment of buyers (narrow, though it may have been) happened to show certain behaviors that also happens to underscore Shutterstock's future prospects shows that Shutterstock has a bright future (at least for the short term).

Also, the PR agency that helped promote the message, Morton PR, was particularly honest, insightful and articulate, not just about the survey itself, but in its own recognition that the survey was not (and did not intend to be) reflective of the industry at large. Not every survey is designed for that purpose, and Morton was uncharacteristically open about this, as compared to other PR firms that have contacted me as representatives of other stock agencies.

I also happened to point out that iStockphoto also had a banner year, and is showing signs of improvement for next year as well. This fact being anecdotally supported by a comment from Lee Torrens at microstockdiaries.com on his own bump in sales, despite the fact that he hasn't increased his submissions to any stock agencies.

So, if that data isn't representative of the entire market, what kind of conclusions can we learn about industry trends? And what data do we use to learn this information?

In the spirit of setting expectations correctly, I can address these questions by proxy: my replies to the emails I get on this subject.

First, there's the most common question: "How does a photographer succeed at selling stock if not through agencies?"

Begin by dispensing of the premise that agencies are the de facto channel for stock photo purchases. You can (and should) sell directly yourself, irrespective if whether you also sell through agencies.

As an added note: I strongly discourage anyone from signing an "exclusive" arrangement with an agency that did not reciprocate by prepaying minimum royalties. After all, this is standard boilerplate contract language for book publishing. Why allow a stock photo agency better rights than a book publisher?

Once you take out the exclusivity clause, you can and should sell your images through any and all channels you can. Including--and especially--your own website.

Selling your own stock is easier now than it ever has. Many applications allow you to build your own stock site, that even the most technically squeamish can produce. It's beyond the scope of discussion to address that; I talk about it more in length in this article, which also happens to be in my book on building a photo career.

The barrier to success in stock photography is less technology as it is psychology. Most don't think it's possible (the "agency" fallacy), or they just don't want to put the time and resources into it. There's also a misperception of time: that sales should come right away. Or that they'd come sooner with an agency. No -- It takes time for your stock images to derive revenue, regardless of where they are for sale. Yes, the revenue curves are different between a personal site and an agency site, but "different" isn't necessarily better. After one year, you may get more revenue from an agency site than yours, but over five years, you're sure to get more from your own site. This is usually because you will charge more on your site (because buyers are more willing to pay higher prices--a factor that most agencies don't really understand yet), you will keep more of the revenues (in fact, all of your own revenues), and your own site will likely get more traffic to your pictures than the agency's site will.

The assumption that the agency is going to do better for you and every other contributor is naive. There's going to be an uneven distribution of traffic to contributors on agency sites, and there's a 90% chance you're going to be on the short-end of that stick.

Which leads to next question I get: "It just doesn't seem to me to be that smart to be in a situation where you give away 80 to 90% of your profit. I want to create something where I keep 80 to 90% of the profit."

Stock agencies get 90% of the profit because they're doing 90% of the work. If all you do is take pictures and upload them, then all you deserve is 10% (IMHO). The value of stock photography is not the photo. It's getting it sold. If you go to the effort of creating your own website, generating traffic, building a buyer base, then you too can earn 90% of the profit (the 10% you don't get goes into your cost of setting it all up). I talk about that in my two articles on stock agencies, here and here.

This next email question represents another misimpression about stock sales: "...discussions among a number of us who primarily do landscape, scenic, wildlife photography [...] lead us to think that there is no significant stock market for this type of work. What are your thoughts?"

Most stock photo sales are done in vast, wide, disparate and unstructured transactions around the world. There actually is a very big market for landscapes and scenics and wildlife photos, but there are also billions of such images from millions of photographers too. Even bad photos sell. The problem isn't that there isn't a market--it's getting noticed among the crowd. This leads to two points, one of which I've already made: getting noticed and ranked is a function of building your own personal site and personal presence on the internet.

The second point is that stock photography should not be regarded as a vehicle for generating lots of money with little work.

Stock photography touches many people as either a buyer or seller of a photo. So much so that it is so thinly distributed among people around the world, it's fool-hearty for an individual to approach it with high expectations.

So, what does all this say about selling stock photography as a form of personal income?

For so long as the industry remains chaotic and unmanaged by any central body, stock photography will also be unstructured. There will be little innovation that helps sort, rank and distribute photos based on merit--it'll remain as it is now: arbitrary. And just as you should not rely on buying lottery tickets to sustain an income, neither should you rely on on stock imagery when it is so highly subject to sales channels that are diffuse and arbitrary.

In this day and age, stock falls into Truism #4 of my list of The Five Truism about having a Photography Business, which I originally wrote in 1998. Truism #4 says Diversify Your Business. Only a very few who truly know and perfect the stock photo marketplace should do nothing but stock. For everyone else, you don't "succeed" at stock so much as you use your existing imagery from other sources to augment your income.

Most who sell stock -- even well -- do it as fun way to earn a bit more from their hobby or as a lifestyle business. That's how it was for me for well over ten years of my photo career. And as I am more into consulting now, it's that way for me again.

In closing, I will summarize by quoting my last blog:

Turning a blind eye to the rest of the stock photo universe affects decisions about where to put marketing dollars, where to do research into buyer behaviors, pricing, and business development. If it were generally accepted that the market were larger, agencies could form partnerships with other media licensing agents, social groups and legal networks that reach that larger market.

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