(Part 2 can be found here)
I’ve been an iStock contributor since 2003 and went exclusive on day 1 of the exclusivity program, though I don’t remember when that was (2005 or thereabouts, presumably). After quitting exclusivity in December 2016, some fellow contributors seemed to be interested in how things would go as an independent so I’ll try and keep you updated.
Should You Go Independent At All?
Short answer: I don’t know and nobody will be able to tell you beforehand (bummer). Depending on your motivation, your portfolio, your luck and probably 1000 other things, going independent can make things better or worse for you.
However, looking at financials only, I came upon one number while googleing on this topic: The industry average seems to be an RPI (=revenue per image) of $0.50 per month. This means that if the “industry average” is of any relevance for your own individual case, every month you should be making roughly $500 for each 1000 images in your portfolio. Assuming this actually is the industry average (and not just some number somebody invented, which I have no way of verifying), income will still vary a lot for each photographer depending on content type, uploading strategy and more.
Still, it’s a number and we all love numbers! My monthly RPI was close to $4 at its best but generally oscillated between $2 and $3 between 2008 and 2012. However, since 2012 it’s been in constant decline and ended up being quite a good bit below the $0.50 mark in the second half of 2016. Also, I was on the 40% royalty level under the RC-based system and have been uploading close to 2000 images every year between 2012 and 2016 so it’s not that I had been particularly lazy.
Whether the decline was caused by my content, by the stock photo market in general or iStock/getty’s performance within this market is something nobody can answer so let’s just leave it at this: By the second half of 2016, my monthly income had dropped by over 60% when compared to my best month ever (May 2012) although my portfolio almost tripled.
Let’s face it: If you decide to drop the crown, you will (initially) see a considerable drop in income. Now, the December/January period is generally very slow (and the iStock site doesn’t currenlty show any numbers because they’re migrating to that ESP system) but from what I can guess I’d say that my iStock income is down by ~66%. This means that if you heavily rely on your stock photography income for your daily expenses, you better have some savings to bridge the time until you build up your portfolio on other sites. Which brings us to:
Building your portfolio on other sites. This will be a lot of work, but maybe less than you expect. How much less depends on several questions:
- How well are your images (and releases) organized?
- Do you have keywords in your images’ EXIF?
- Did you use DeepMeta for uploading?
- Can you code? (‘coding’ as in ‘computer programming’)
(For me the answers would be: quite well – no – yes – yes)
One central tool to know about is StockSubmitter (I’m not affiliated with them in any way, in case you should wonder). It does what the name says: It will upload AND submit stock photos (and possibly videos and vectors, but I don’t know anything about that), which means it handles the uploading AND the keywording AND selecting categories AND attaching (and uploading) model and property releases. I’m using it to upload/submit my photos to seven agencies (see ‘Where To Upload’) and it works great – I’ve submitted roughly 1000 images to each of these 7 agencies in one week (again, I can’t say anything about the video, audio or illustration part). Once you have your data in the app, it’s really just a single click and your content goes to all agencies.
Getting Your Metadata Into StockSubmitter
The simplest (but most time consuming way) is to just import your files and re-keyword them in SS. If your portfolio is small, this may actually be an option as the app can do batch editing and has a nice copy-paste system. Don’t know if it can read keywords / title / description from EXIF, though.
If you don’t want to go down this route (and with over 11.000 files I didn’t), you can migrate your metadata from DeepMeta. Provided you used it for uploading, DM has a CSV export (see below) which contains everything (title, keywords, releases, categories, local file path) and SS has a CSV import (the Windows version of it at least, the OSX one has much fewer features, but of course you can just use Parallels to run the Windows version on a Mac). However, formats are obviously different so you’ll need to code some scripts which transform the data from one format into another. I do have the Java code I used myself (as an Eclipse project) and if we’ve met (which means I won’t give it to just anyone), I can just send it to you but you should be aware it’s far from being a finished application and you’ll have to do a bit of fidgeting and coding yourself.
DeepMeta’s CSV export (in case you didn’t know about it) works like this (only tested on Windows, don’t know if it works on Macs as well): Open DM, select all rows in the files list, press Ctrl+C, open a text document in your favorite text editor, press Ctrl+V. This should be it.
Where To Upload
I chose to upload my stuff to any agency which is fully supported by StockSubmitter and which doesn’t demand image exclusivity. For me, these are: 123RF, DreamsTime, Pond5, BigStock, Shutterstock, Fotolia and DepositPhotos.
Other interesting options are probably Stocksy and Westend61 – But to my knowledge these require image (or better: series) exclusivity and also look for a certain image style. As nowadays you can’t deactivate images from iStock anymore and as I have (almost) no content which I haven’t uploaded yet, these are options to explore in the future.
One word on model / property releases: Most of my portfolio is people imagery and until 1-2 years ago I had been using the German version of the iStock MR and PR. Recently, I have switched to the English version of the iStock documents. You should know that of the seven above agencies ALL – except for Dreamstime – accept the German (and a few French) releases without any problems. Dreamstime is a tiny bit more complicated, but doable: Contact them, explain your situation and they’ll send you some forms which you have to sign. Then you’ll have to upload those forms and an English version of the release along with the rest of the – say German – documents. You’ll only need to fill that form once for every release type (e.g. one for the German MR, one for the German PR), not for every individual release. Also, StockSubmitter allows you to specify releases which are to be uploaded only to specific agencies, so that part is taken care of as well.
I can’t tell you what a ‘good’ strategy is, but here’s how I decided to do it for myself: Upload 30-40% of my portfolio (approx 4000 files) in the first month, another 30% over the following half year and the rest over yet another year. The idea is to ensure that I get a lot of files online (and thus an acceptable income, hopefully) in a relatively short time, but still have enough content to keep uploading over a rather long period. At least some agencies seem to factor in your uploading activity into your placement in searches so uploading constantly is rather important.
Also, I upload my content pretty much at random (except for seasonal imagery), so there’s always a mix of high-production-large-groups-of-people-stuff and some crappy apples-on-white.
So far, acceptance rates are well over 90% – so if iStock accepted the image (under the old policy, when there was still quality control), chances are very high that other agencies will accept it, too. Worth noting that some agencies have some weird restrictions, like a minimum number of words in the title or description. I didn’t normally fix that (esp. because it seems to only affect the low selling sites), so the number of actual submissions is quite different for the individual sites (see below).
I’ve been into this for just a bit over a week now so it’s way too early to draw conclusions, but because we all love numbers, here you go:
Submissions (because some agencies take longer to inspect, acceptance numbers vary wildly, with only 4 on Pond5 and over 1000 on DepositPhotos and others)
- Shutterstock – 1380
- Fotolia – 1360
- Pond5 – 1330
- 123RF – 1250
- DreamsTime – 980
- DepositPhotos – 1220
- BigStock – 880
- TOTAL – 8400
- Shutterstock – 290DLs / 114$
- Fotolia – 5DLs / $2.80
- Pond5 – 0
- 123RF – 2DLs / $0.50
- DreamsTime – 2DLs / $0.70
- DepositPhotos – 0
- BigStock – 6DLs / $1.75
- TOTAL – 305DLs / $119.75
This isn’t great, but taking into account the short time span (and that I’ve uploaded ~10% of my portfolio), I find it rather encouraging – due to Shutterstock. Hoping that sales will begin to pick up on other sites as well.
You should also note that royalties per download are roughly $0.30. This is not a lot so if you feel that your images are worth more and you don’t want to give them away for pennies, maybe these stock agencies (or independence in general) is not for you.
- What about the 30 days notice? Will I still have all my exclusive benefits during this time?
From my experience: yes. I noticed no change whatsoever.
- Will iStock/getty offer me any “special deal” to make me change my mind about quitting?
No (at least not in my case).
- Will my Signature / Signature+ files be moved to Essentials when going independent?
Apparently not. It may be too early to answer this, but it seems that files do remain in the S / S+ categories.
The same happened when I quit video exclusivity a few years ago: Videos uploaded while I was exclusive have remained in Signature until this day, but content uploaded after quitting ended up in Essentials. I guess this is what happens to photos as well.
- Will my images mirrored to getty be removed once I become independet?
Yes, and rather quickly. It’s been a week of independence for me now, and my getty portfolio is now at 170 files (from >4000). I’m assuming it will be completely gone soon.
No. While my 4000 files were (almost) gone at a moment (down to about 100), they magically reappeared a few weeks later and are now complete again. Whether the “disappearing” or the “reappearing” was a glitch in the getty system or whether it was all just a normal part of making my account non-exclusive is up for guessin.