Rights Licensing Is All About Visibility

In working to license rights to your photography, you need to recognize that there is a tremendous oversupply of images. So while your images are certainly much better on a quality and artistic level than most of the images out there, unfortunately that isn’t all it takes to make sales. As I said in my most recent post, getting the images seen by potential customers is the big problem.

Here’s a list of the number of images in a few categories at 4 of the major distributors.

Statistics show that the vast majority of customers choose an image from those found in the first 300 reviewed in a web search. Very few look at more than a few hundred images in any category before making a decision either to buy, or go somewhere else. So the question is how do you get your images shown in that first 300.

Customers can’t buy what they don’t see. At most sites the newest images uploaded play a major role in the sequence images are shown. This means that newly uploaded images have a chance of being seen in the first weeks or months after being uploaded. But it won’t be long until they are pushed down below that 300 level.

Using additional keywords to define specific aspects of an image may keep your image high in the search returns for a longer period of time – assuming some customers actually use the words you’ve inputted to search for images. Specifics don’t always help because many customers are looking for more generic images.

Algorithms Have Replaced Editing

Twenty years ago customers would call a picture agency for research, describe what they were looking for and the agency’s researchers would go through the files and pick a selection of images that they thought would fit the customer’s needs. The researchers got to know the best images in their collections and developed a sense of what their customers wanted. New images weren’t sent out just because they were new.

Now, all that personal visual judgment is gone. At the rights-managed and traditional royalty-free agencies the personal judgment of image quality and appropriateness of the subject matter has been replaced by computer algorithms that are heavily dependent on words.

Buyers Often Follow the Herd

The microstock sellers (iStockphoto, Shutterstock, et al) do offer a variety of ways for the customers to organize search returns. One is usually the number of times an image has been downloaded or purchased. There aren’t any good public figures on how frequently customers use any of the sort options, but it is believed that a significant percentage of customers sort on Number of Downloads when it is an option. This gives the customer the benefit of quickly seeing the images that a huge number of other customers found useful and purchased.

In one sense the picture research principle is still working. But, it is now much harder for that new image that has just arrived to ever get seen unless the customer is smart enough to do a search for newest images as well as a separate search for most downloads.

Take iStockphoto for example. The top-selling waterfall image has been licensed more than 2,000 times; mountains, 1,500 times; domestic cats, 1,500 times; and tigers, 1400 times. I encourage you to go to iStockphoto, search for the subject matter in your collection, sort by downloads, see how many times some of the images have been downloaded and how long they have been on that site.

Look at some on the first page, but also look at the 100th and 300th image to see how quickly the number of downloads falls off. This will give you a good idea of the demand for that subject matter.

Traditional Sites’ Methods Mysterious

Traditional sites (RM and RF) don’t offer a variety of search options like the microstock sites do. With traditional sites the search order is pre-determined by the distributor and the customer must take-it-or-leave-it.

Traditionals do use complex computer algorithms that attempt to bring certain images to the top, but often they are based on which images will generate the most revenue for the distributor (lowest royalty percentage for the creator) rather than a visual judgment of image quality and appropriateness that a good editor might make. In some cases weight is given to the number of times an image has been viewed, put in a lightbox, or licensed. Part of the problem is that the information about how the algorithms work is considered proprietary and not shared with the image suppliers.

Some Good News About Microstock

More and more customers are going to the microstock sites to find most of the images they need. Microstock prices, while still low, are going up. Prices for RM images are going down as the sellers of these products try to compete with microstock. Many RM images are now being licensed for prices lower than microstock The proportional share of images licensed as RM relative to the share licensed as microstock is declining steadily.

Most of the RM companies (Alamy excepted) will want exclusive rights to the images (and similars) they accept. To maximize earnings it is important to have your images in as many different places as possible so they can be seen by the broadest possible cross-section of customers. You can put the same images with multiple microstock sites plus Alamy on a non-exclusive basis.

For more information check out: Getting Images Seen, 2011 Stock Photo Market Size and Average Return from iStockphoto.

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