The Upside Down World of Micro-stock Photo Agencies

I began dabbling in the world of micro-stock about 7 years ago.  There are some positives, but in 2020, the negatives have far exceeded the hope.  Recently, Shutterstock Inc., decided they would have a minimum commission to contributors of 10 cents per image.  This move shocked the contributor community, and caused a bit of a revolt, to which Shutterstock has not addressed (As of June 14, 2020).  Since about 2010, the world of micro-stock has been a constant race to the bottom on who can offer the best deals.  It has always been at the expense of the contributor, who actually makes the product.  In this blog entry, I want to examine how ridiculous this industry has really become.

What I saw on June 5, for a Commission on my Images

I want to setup a scenario for you and although it is not a direct comparison, it will serve to make a valid point.  We will start with a company called Company X.  Company X makes widgets, which are sold all over the world.  Company X designs the widgets, manufactures the widgets and fixes the widgets for customers when they break.  They even throw in company level marketing to sell the widgets.

Company X hires a team of salespeople to sell for Company X.  In this case, let us just say they make 10% commission on each widget they sell.  The salesmen are quite good at their job and they sell an enormous amount of product.  This is a common scenario seen throughout the world,  Company X is the manufacturer and own the product, therefore they make the most profit. Salesmen, get a commission and make the least amount of profit, because they didn't do all the heavy lifting.

Now, I want to make a comparison to the world of stock photography.  First, the stock photographer designs the product.  He has to purchase the equipment to make the right image, he then determines the location, pays for gas to get there (if needed) and pays for any props that might be involved.  Next, the photographer makes the image.  Here, he carefully waits for the perfect time of day, perhaps.  He may even shoot the concept twice to get the right shots.  We could easily be hours and hours into the job now. In my case, as a wildlife photographer, I might spend 12 hours per shoot in the field waiting for the perfect moment.

Next, the photographer returns to his office and carefully edits the images for exposure, sharpness, contrast and noise reduction.  In the case of an illustration, he may combine multiple images into one using photo editing software. He then has to put metadata into his images.  Metadata just means data that describes data.  So he will put in keywords, titles and descriptions.  Then he exports the product and uploads it to the various stock agencies. In essence we are the manufacturer, we are Company X.  The stock agency is the salesman.  Yet, the stock agency makes a huge profit.  Let me break it down for you further.

So, in this case, let's say just for ease of comparison, that we are selling our images at a flat rate of 1.00 per image.  Essentially, agencies like Shutterstock are taking 90% of the gross profit on an image despite the fact that they didn't make it, didn't design it and did a half baked job of marketing it.  The contributor, the guy or gal who put in all the hours designing it, making it and editing it gets only 10% which would be 10 cents on a dollar.  Shutterstock is making (in this scenario) 90 cents on a dollar.  Now you understand the cold hard reality of what is happening and has been happening in the industry for years.  

Shutterstock was Swarmed by Angry Contributors

In Shutterstock's case, they have far too much overhead and are paying people far too much money to work there.  I recently saw they were hiring for a fair bunch of positions ranging from 40,000 to 219,000 dollars. Not only that they are headquartered in a New York City.  This is a city which has an enormous standard of living.

To look on the bright side, there are some stock agencies that are continuing to attempt to do it right, despite the race to the bottom that other agencies are taking.  The fact that professional photographs are being thought of as nothing more than a simple commodity is mind numbing.  In fact they have gone even lower than most commodities.  I would bet that Coke makes more off a 20 oz bottle of Coke than we make on an image.

Needless to say, I disabled my Shutterstock account and have turned my focus completely on the other stock agencies I support.

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