November, 2017: iStock recently announced changes to its royalty structure for contributors. While the stated object of the changes was to simplify the royalty distribution system, the result appears to have been something quite different. I was a non-exclusive contributor. Before the new royalty structure was introduced, the minimum royalty payment I received as a non-exclusive contributor was $0.28 per image sold. Given the changes to the plans offered to iStock buyers, essentially all of the images sold from my portfolio were sold under either the ‘Partner Program’ or as a ‘subscription sale’. Either way, each sale netted $0.28. Sales of images by way of credits (which, I gather, was the norm in the heyday of microstock photography) were few and far between.
Under iStock’s new regime, the minimum royalty for each sale declined to $0.02 per photo sold. Yes, you read that correctly – TWO CENTS per photo sold. To be clear, that is not to say that every sale would yield only $0.02, but this is the MINIMUM royalty that iStock was committing to pay me for each image of mine that was sold by iStock.
Given the current state of the microstock photography industry (several major players competing, each slashing prices to compete with the others for market share, falling standards on the part of the agencies for accepting images for publishing, and more and more contributors) the writing was on the wall. It is apparent that, in the never-ending fight to capture and retain market share, each of the microstock agencies is going to have to continue to slash prices. I foresee the day in the not-too-distant future that contributors will be forced to accept royalty payments of around $0.02 per image sold for essentially all sales, and that higher-value sales will be exceptional.
I was not prepared to sell a licence to use any of my images for two cents. I was not happy to let them be sold for $0.28 (to me), but $0.02 as a minimum price – that was going too far. So I closed my account at iStock. I still have a few images on Shutterstock, by the way, but I have not been actively contributing there for a while now. I may or may not continue. [Update – June, 2020 – Shutterstock introduced new royalty payment structure – minimum payout for each imaged licensed is $0.10 – that is 10 cents – so I closed my account there, too.]
I hope that more and more photographers who are flooding microstock agencies with thousands upon thousands of images, think again. If you are truly a dedicated photographer (amateur or professional) you would not let any of your images be sold at these ridiculously low prices. Surely, your work must be better than that. If it is, then you should be paid fairly for it.
I am fortunate in that I do not have to earn my living through photography. I am fortunate for several reasons. First, my prediction is that, as a way of earning a living, microstock is dying, and will soon be dead. Next, I think to succeed commercially as a photographer, you have to be exceptionally good at it. I’m not there right now, and I may never achieve that level of proficiency. But I enjoy making images anyway. Moreover, I suspect that for every photographer who earns a good living from her or his craft, there are dozens (if not hundreds) who are merely eking out a subsistence living.
As a final note, I sincerely wish those who continue to contribute to iStock the very best. I hope the new royalty structure proves to be better than the one that is being abandoned! Good luck to all of you.