Excerpts from a lively Q&A session at last year's PhotoPlus Expo, in which photographers talked directly with agents.
At the PhotoPlus Expo, held last October in New York City, I moderated a discussion with seven top stock-photo business leaders, who spoke as part of a panel called "What Stock Business Model Is Right for You?" The panel comprised the following luminaries:
James Alexander - Director, Adobe Images
Paul Banwell - Director of photographer and filmmaker relations, Getty Images
Patrick Donehue - Vice president, photographer relations, Corbis
Brad Kuhns - Co-founder, IPNStock.com
John Lund - Stock photographer, author and lecturer
Alexis Scott - Chief Executive Officer, Workbook Stock
Christina Vaughan - Chief Executive Officer, Image Source
James West - Chief Executive Officer, Alamy Images
The discussion covered such issues as current stock pricing structures, submission guidelines, revenue percentage splits, diversification, new image marketing models and international emerging economies. Here are some highlights from the lively Q&A session:
Audience member: In the last couple of years, I've noticed on my statements an enormous number of RM [rights-managed] sales that are selling for considerably less in the United States and overseas, for numbers way below what those same people have to pay for RF [royalty-free]. Why are agencies allowing this?
Donehue (Corbis): Overall pricing and sale of images, on an average basis, are actually holding and going up.
Banwell (Getty): We have managed to push prices up consistently. RF has a fixed price according to the file size, so prices are not as low as many photographers expect. For RM, low license fees may occur in particular markets — such as publishing, for example, where you might experience a relicense of an image for a textbook. Also, images will be priced to reflect the local market. India, for example, is a maturing growth market where you will see sales pitched to what that market can afford.
Betsy Reid, executive director, Stock Artist Alliance: Why [should photographers] expect to receive such a significantly lower percentage of the licensing revenues when they give you an RF image, as opposed to when they give you an RM image?
Banwell: Volume sales can't be ignored. When you think about return on investment, it's important to calculate how much you spend to make the pictures and how much you get back. It's all part of the mix. When you look at the royalty split in addition to your return, it's important to look at what your agency does with its part. At Getty Images, there is great investment in growing markets, expanding in non-English-speaking markets, and developing localized web sites. Consider [whether] your agency is static, or is ... using its portion of the split to grow the market.
Donehue: Some photographers are doing extraordinarily well in this business right now. You can do exceptionally well if you diversify. If you don't, you're dead. The RF vs. RM thing has been going on for a long time, and that argument is over. I have watched RM photographers spiral downward, and they will continue to do so as long as the market is demanding more innovation and a greater array of services.
Randy Taylor, StockPhotoFinder.com: Is the stock photo industry growing or shrinking?
Vaughan (Image Source): I think it's growing, because there are lots of new opportunities with new types of sales, such as wireless PDAs, cell phone usage and international emerging markets. Every business that is going to survive has to reinvent itself every day, and every day we have to look at ourselves and ask if we are being fair and making the right investments to grow business for our photographers. We put a lot into our creative side and maintain a large staff, which is just looking at creative trends and working very closely with our photographers. There is an art director on every set, looking at the personality of the photographer and how we can carry that to the market. If you work very closely with your agency, you have a hotline into what's selling. We are in the two biggest markets in Europe: Germany and the U.K. They are very different. An art director at Im-age Source can tell you why they're different and what you should be doing to maximize your sales in those different markets.
Audience member: If I have 100 images to place in the market, I have to make an RF or RM choice for each image. That is an irreversible choice. If I release an image into the RF stream, it can never be an RM image. Therefore, I may never get that $15,000 to $18,000 sale. What is the best method tode- termine these choices?
Scott (Workbook Stock): You can start with an RM model and wait for a while. If the image never sells, you can change it to an RF. ... However, you can't go in the opposite direction.
Lund: I make a decision, I move on and I don't worry about it. I just make more images.
Audience member: Regarding wholly owned images, will photographers' best images have to compete directly against an agent's library?
Banwell: We are growing wholly owned, but it's not to the detriment of self-funded images. They all have to equally meet our clients' needs.
Donehue: It's always advantageous, from an agent's point of view, to have the photographer take the risk to front production costs. When we are bringing thousands of images in the door every year, a wholly owned program creates its own risk. Wholly owned will grow in the area where the agency needs to have control over the asset. You should be shooting the abstract things that will not be in the wholly owned collections. These sites are learning machines, and the algorithms that are built into these machines allow them to favor images that are put into lightboxes and double-clicked on. It's in our best interest to get the images that are most popular.
Jeffrey Burke, director, Jupiterimages: Concerning international expansion, the Chinese government licenses Microsoft Office in about 4 to 5 percent of their computers. The rest of them are pirated. How viable a market is China going to be when the government is not taking any reasonable approach to intellectual property?
Alexander (Adobe): As a software company, we monitor the China situation very closely, and we are issuing Chinese versions of many of our applications. Adobe feels that the Chinese market is actually getting much better, and the government [has] realized that they have to adhere to worldwide policy and copyright. That being said, you are talking about a cultural change, so it's not going to happen overnight. You see billboards with Western-looking faces in them. Advertisers are picking these images for their inspirational value, so you don't have to go over there to shoot images for that market.
Lund: If you make great pictures and get them out there, you'll make money.