By Angela Wolff
Back in the 80s and 90s, "stock" was the name of the game. The economy was good, the market was hungry, and agencies hustled to get their photographers the biggest clients at the best rates. But then came agency consolidation. New contracts were issued, and many photographers felt their "agents" had become vendors, chipping away at prices, demanding higher sales percentages, and leaving their photographers to fend for themselves.
Some photographers have become frustrated and have left the stock game altogether. Others have simply decided to take matters into their own hands. Many are collecting fees from images still represented by the big agencies, while cultivating profitable stock models of their own. They have found ways — by creating their own e-commerce sites, by capitalizing on niche specialties, by maintaining hands-on relationships with buyers, or by turning low-profit deals into moneymakers — to make the most of the current stock market.
The photographers we talked to all said that, when licensing their own images, they garnered higher fees than agencies would have. Not just higher than the percentage split they'd usually see on their commission statements, but fees higher than what agencies typically charge their clients in the first place. The reason: As the big agencies gobbled up more and more small agencies and subsequently cut their image libraries, they not only offered lower revenues to their photographers, they also gave their clients fewer options and fewer services.
Serving the Client, Serving Yourself
"The way Tony Stone Images was organized, they'd take pictures from photographers' submissions, pick the best from the shoot, duplicate them for the 'Dupe Master Collection' or 'DMC' as it was called, and take the rest for their files, known as 'Mainstock.'" explains Joe Pobereskin. "Very often someone looked at a picture in the DMC, but wanted something a little different from the same shoot."
No longer can the buyer expect a researcher to dig through files to find the perfect picture. First, there's often no researcher, and second, stock files — which often garnered higher fees for the photographers because they were less exposed — have been returned to the photographers. Buyers are expected to "make do" with what exists in limited and overused Web libraries.
If it's a low price or a bulk deal the buyer is after, the big agencies might do the trick, but independent photographers feel they have much more to offer, and they can charge a premium for it.
Most photographers agree that usage is the first thing to consider in determining a price. The more you know about the intended use, the better you will be able to negotiate a fee that is fair to everyone.
"Let's take, for example, someone who wants something as simple or as complicated as use for one year in magazine advertising only," says Seth Resnick of Boston, and co-founder of D-65.com, which offers pricing services to photographers. "I know a lot of people who would just jump and give a price, but I can't be fair to my client or myself like that."
Resnick says he first needs to find out the name of the magazine, its size and circulation, and how often the ad will run. "If it were my image, I would calculate a percentage of the media buy. But fifteen ads in a trade journal might not even be close to the cost of one in Time," he says. "It's not about price gouging, it's about being fair to both sides."
Pobereskin agrees and says the same rules apply to relicensing.
Pobereskin got a call from a textbook publisher's freelance researcher who was interested in relicensing an image that the publisher had originally licensed through Pobereskin's agency. Pobereskin established usage, and sent the client an invoice for the re-use. But the client complained via e-mail, saying: "I don't mean to be at all cheeky, but I was wondering if you had the correct total, as this is roughly $200.00 to $250.00 more than sources normally charge for this sort of re-use. I know this image is no longer represented by [your agency] but the agreement [we] previously had for this re-use is $130.00 to 150.00."
"I explained that [my agency] prices this type of usage in bulk knowing that a certain publisher may license hundreds of images per title, thousands of images per year," Pobereksin says. "As an individual photographer I have no possibility of supplying him with that volume, so a bulk discount is out of the question."
The researcher then told Pobereskin that the license was for a revised edition of the original book, so the license fee should be lower.
"I asked him if he thought the publisher was going to discount the price of the book, it being a revision, rather than sell it at the usual price. He answered, 'No,'" Pobereskin says. "I asked him if he thought I was supposed to take less profit in order to facilitate his client's increased profit? He immediately saw my point and agreed to submit my invoice as it was."
Catering to a Niche
Both Resnick and Pobereskin have opted not to host e-commerce sites, so as to be more in touch with their clients and to monitor custom pricing. But for photographers catering to a niche market with special needs, or for those who have extensive archives on subjects of interest to stock buyers, the e-commerce model might be a viable option.
"I have images with Getty and Workbook and have been involved in stock for years," says Cameron Davidson of Arlington, Va. "I created AerialStock.com a little over a year ago for my aerial images only, images that come from personal projects, book projects, and other assignments."
Davidson has 20,000 aerial shots for which he has found a market. "The agencies are selective about what they accept," he says, "So I thought I'd take this huge library of aerial work, license it myself for commercial use and market it as fine art prints."
Davidson is using NancyScansDFM (digital fulfillment module) for output and print sales. He currently has about 1,000 images on his site and plans to add another 50 every month. NancyScans offers dedicated agency personnel who will negotiate prices, but for now Davidson prefers to handle pricing directly through a pricing module NancyScans offers for all its DFM sites, as well as through direct negotiation with clients. (He likes FotoQuote software guidelines for its ease of use.) "I want to offer more immediate service, and to have a better idea of exactly how my clients are using the pictures."
Susie Fitzhugh photographs children, families and educational themes primarily for textbook and nonprofit markets. She employs limited model releases that protect her subjects from being commercially exploited. By licensing the images herself she can carefully monitor requests for usage.
"The agencies I've spoken to aren't interested in carrying images with releases that have such narrow limitations," says the Seattle-based photographer. "And I doubt they'd be as careful about usage as I am.
"I know a lot about education and social issuesperhaps more than the average agency mightso I'm better able to understand my clients' requests," Fitzhugh says.
Fitzhugh and her assistant, Stefanie Felix, handle stock requests by phone and e-mail. "I spend a lot of time and money learning new systems and buying new equipment and software to help my stock delivery responses keep up with the ever increasing need for speed everyone feels these days," she says. "I don't need to corner the market, I just need to find people who want to use my work, and who will pay what I feel it's worth, because they think it's strong and it fits their needs."
One area in which agencies would seem to have an advantage over an individual is with marketing funds. But necessity is the mother of invention, and independent photographers are often very creative when it comes to marketing their own stock work.
Pobereskin, for example, found a way to exploit both his agency's reluctance to license work for low-fee paper products and his clients' willingness to throw in a little extra to get him to sign on to otherwise unappealing calendar and poster projects.
A calendar publisher asked Pobereskin to submit forty images of New York City to be considered for a compilation calendar. Maybe two or three of those images would actually be licensed for the project. Pobereskin politely declined, saying it wasn't worth hours of his time to research the submission if he was only going to license a couple of images for low fees. He asked instead if he could do the whole calendar, with his name printed on the cover. A few weeks later he got a call offering just that.
"When we started talking about fees, I told the client I'd take the fee offered if they'd throw in 200 free calendars," Pobereskin says, figuring the calendars' wholesale value at approximately $1,200. "Not to sell them, but to send to clients and prospects as a year-end promotion. I couldn't afford to print a promotion like that, but here I am getting paid for the calendar and getting the promotion free."
Many photographers still choose to sell stock images through agencies. For those who do, Seth Resnick offers some advice. He is adamant about avoiding what he refers to as the anti-trust policies of many stock agencies. "They want you to sign an exclusive deal where only they have the right to license a particular picture. That just gets in the way of free enterprise," he says. "I'm happy to be totally exclusive with one agent if they in turn don't take on any other photographers."
Resnick still submits images to Workbook Stock (and serves on their advisory board) because they allow him to license images they also have on file. "Otherwise somebody gets a lesser picture. In my case I'd be screwing the agency by giving them a 'second,'" he says. "I'd rather give them a 'first' and have a 'first' of my own. We let each other know if we sell exclusive rights to a particular picture."
Photographers marketing their own stock images often find that moving out from behind the "veil of anonymity" associated with big agencies can offer a big boost to business.
"A big agency wants the buyer to think of their name, not of the individual photographers," Pobereskin says. "Now I'm in contact with the buyer, someone with money in hand, and I enjoy that interaction. I enjoy not being anonymous anymore."
Pobereskin says that when a client is looking for an image he doesn't have, but really loves his work, it often turns into an assignment. And when Pobereskin's on assignment, his clients sometimes ask about images already in his stock portfolio.
"Instead of just getting a check every month, I'm cultivating a client base," he says. "There are so many more benefits for an individual photographer when he sells his own work, I don't know why more don't do it."