A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Making stock photography pay
To some illustrators and photographers, stock art spells the end of the creative industry as we know it. To others, selling work to image libraries provides an additional means of income. Craig Grannell investigates this potentially lucrative field of design
Few things polarise the creative industry more than the subject of stock. Some consider it merely another means of making money (with the added bonus of a possible lottery-style ‘win’ scenario should their work become insanely popular, leading to royalty payments), while others believe that stock serves only to stifle creativity and will ultimately lead to an unsettling state of affairs where individual commissions become increasingly rare, due to the sheer abundance of available stock.
The truth is somewhere in-between, and although there are negative aspects to stock, there are positive ones, too. “Exposure, mainly,” suggests graphic designer Tom Muller. “Stock libraries sometimes operate on a different level to the individual, enabling a designer’s catalogue to be seen by, or sent to, a large number of agencies and companies, which can open new doors.”
There’s also the possibility of repurposing existing content. “Licensing existing material enables artists to collect revenue on work over a period of time, rather than receive a single payment and file the art away,” explains John Knepper, stock sales manager at theispot.com. His organisation (like several others) prices images according to each individual use, so the ‘reused’ art sometimes commands a higher fee than it originally gained.
For those just starting out, stock provides a potential entry point into the creative industry. “For amateurs, our site brings the benefit of making money from photographs that might otherwise go unshared,” says Dreamstime’s Serban Enache. “These earnings can be reinvested into equipment, which helps improve the photographer’s skills.” He claims numerous Dreamstime members started as amateurs and now compete with experienced professionals, making a living solely from their photography – although he stresses that pros also use the site extensively.
Illustrator Jay Montgomery believes this is a better approach than creating generic non-abstract images: “Flooding the market with stock decreases your commission sales and causes art buyers to come up with generic concepts that don’t sell products as well as commissioned pieces.” But Knepper disagrees: “There’s plenty of sophisticated stock out there – when a quality image is well-matched to a concept, you really can’t tell whether it was licensed or commissioned as new.”
Not everyone’s so sure that stock reduces the value of your brand. Graphic designer Per Gustafson worried he wouldn’t land further jobs after creating his first series for a major stock company. “Instead, it increased my exposure, which led to more work,” he says, before admitting that he believes stock can stifle creativity. “If you’re making a series of images, they should follow a ‘pattern’, and this can be uninspiring.”
Spending time working on stock can be problematic for other reasons, too. Montgomery notes that your best work may not sell, while work you think is mediocre might. For that reason, he recommends not “wasting time creating work only for stock use”, instead concentrating on “getting original commissioned art, rather than saturating the market with more stock”. Knepper largely agrees, suggesting: “Artists who do well in stock tend to have a mature career that’s yielded a deep collection of images over time.” He adds that images that illustrate concepts, rather than purely representational pictures of items, tend to be most successful.
In the video industry, production costs are perhaps of greater concern. “Shooting work specifically for stock is risky, since it takes time to pay for the cost of expensive shoots,” warns Phil Bates, president of Artbeats. In the video industry, he thinks generic topics such as ‘nature’, ‘timelapse’, ‘cityscapes’ and ‘lifestyles’ do well, and that quality is paramount. To some extent, all these warnings also apply to the type industry. “Once crafted, a font sells over a long period of time – revenue from a couple of years won’t justify the effort, but the income from five years might,” says Cape Arcona’s Thomas Schostok.
Unlike those in other fields, he’s keen to stress the importance of new work. “Generally, the newest fonts sell best. Then, over time, cheap, experimental fonts and refined font families continue to perform well.”
Choosing the right partner isn’t easy, though. “You must read the terms carefully, and understand what you’re signing,” says Knepper. “Be careful of agreements that lock in work for long periods of time and slip through automatic renewals. Shop around, compare services and commission percentages, and be wary of agencies that demand you sign away rights. Illustrators must embrace the idea that every piece of work they create is part of their legacy, and has the potential to reward them on a continual basis. Why would anyone give that up?” If unsure, hire a lawyer to check contracts, and, as Hughes urges, “Try to keep agreements non-exclusive and ensure there’s a ‘withdrawal clause’.” That way you can take work elsewhere or remove it completely if needs be.
There are also differences in the ways work can be sold. “You can sell work for a one-off fixed fee, or get an advance and receive royalties on sales of the work,” Muller explains. “Neither method is perfect: one-off sales don’t lead to further revenue if your work sells like hot cakes, but royalty systems can disappoint if the work doesn’t sell at all.”
Just as stock splits opinion among the creative community, the issue of ‘rights managed versus royalty free’ polarises those who work within the stock industry. “We believe artists should only license rights-managed stock,” argues Knepper. “Royalty-free imagery sets up low fee expectations with buyers, which can be damaging to assignment pricing, and image usage is neither tracked nor controlled.” Montgomery believes that this can lead to “an image sold to a client showing up in a competitor’s materials,” which could have a really negative impact on you.
Even when choosing a library that’s rights managed, you must still be mindful of what control you’ll have and what percentage of the fee you’ll receive when your work sells – something that varies wildly. Royalty-free libraries do have their benefits. “Rights-managed stock may bring more earnings per unit sold, but you have fewer sales,” explains Enache, who claims royalty-free libraries have a wider audience because many simply can’t afford rights-managed stock.
What goes around
However, Knepper has a more optimistic outlook: “Many see the present as a transitional period. Clients are going to buy stock, so it becomes an issue of retaining rights to your images, and getting a fair price. If a client can license one of your images from a stock library for $200 when you would usually charge $1,000, you’ve essentially set up competition against yourself.”
Knepper says those in the industry are finally beginning to understand this, which may eventually lead to a much healthier stock industry, where instead of driving down prices, stock companies support them, thereby making the creator’s income more befitting of the effort that’s gone into his or her work.
“Think generic when creating stock – minimal filtering and effects, no
radical colour treatments, and so on. The end-user of the stock needs to have
all their options open – if the stock is already highly stylised, it becomes
“There are so many libraries, each with distinct collections. As a
designer, I suggest targeting those that don’t just offer bog-standard
‘smiling accountant guy with cell-phone’ images, but those that offer
creative imagery that doesn’t just spell out the subject.”
“Try to price your stock similarly to your original commissioned work.
The client benefits when buying stock – the work’s already done, and
it’s what they want; there are no surprises and they get it immediately.
They should pay for that benefit.”
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