Tip for Microstockers: Don’t Quit Your Day Jobs

I have great respect for my colleague Jim Pickerell. So much so that about a decade ago, I hired him as an expert witness. Yet, I’m going to have to disagree with his example of microstock success, Erik Reis: Microstock Success Story, published here on Black Star Rising.

To the first point — Jim notes “Traditional stock photographers argue that it’s impossible to make money selling at microstock prices.” To wit, I am not a traditional stock photographer. I am an editorial/commercial photographer who also generates revenue from stock licenses.

To his second point — “microstock photographer Erik Reis is happy with his results.” You cannot equate this individual being “happy” with his results with someone who’s a success story. Just as people can be successful and not happy, so to, can people — especially hobbyists — be happy and not successful.

As evidenced in Jim’s next sentence — “Reis is a telecommunications technician who discovered microstock in 2005”, Reis identifies himself as a telecom tech, and, as such, photography is a (serious) hobby. Then Jim goes on to define success as having images downloaded “over 35,000 times.” While, at first blush, that seems successful, the buzz kill is the next sentence, which says “He receives an average of about $.50 per download.”


The next downer is “the best-selling…has been downloaded 696 times.”

Double ouch.

That means that this guy’s best image has generated $348 (at $0.50) in revenue! I for one know that if Black Star’s best images were generating only $348, 116 E. 27th Street would be running some other line of business.

Jim then writes that Reis “acknowledges that only about 10 percent are good sellers.” Ok, so, out of 1,338, only 133 are good sellers. That’s not so good for a year’s work. Even worse for two year’s work. My advise to Reis — don’t quit your day job.

Jim goes on to reveal “As is the case with the majority of the more than 70,000 microstock photographers, he has chosen to put the same images on many different sites.” I know that Black Star doesn’t want me putting the same images they represent on my behalf with other agencies. Why? Because I’d be competing with myself, and diluting the value of the Black Star archive if my work were also available at other lesser agencies. Every stock agency (including Getty and Corbis) specifically precludes you by contract from placing the same images with them, because it’s been proven to be bad for the agencies, and, as noted by clients — it’s been proven to upset clients when they find the same images in searches at many different places.

The one shining point of Jim’s article is the insight that iStockPhoto is not a satisfactory revenue producer, and that other smaller sites are better. I do hope that more and more microstock producers leave that sinking ship that is iStockPhoto. Once that model is proven to have failed (and I define failed as not being attractive enough to be sustained by venture capitalists who require 10x their investment in return) then the VC’s will be less likely to bankroll these services in the future.

In the end, it should be the agency’s commission on the licensing of images that their photographers own that supports the business, rather than the millions that VC’s pour in hoping for the next big thing.

Ultimately, it’s nearly impossible to reconcile the plan that “Reis is also looking to move his studio to another location with more space”, with Reis’ quote that “it’s more lucrative selling a lot more at a lower price than a few downloads at higher prices.” That’s almost equatable to the “We’re only losing a few dollars on each sale, but we’ll make it up in volume” mentality.

It seems Reis has consumed the Jonathan Klein Kool-Aid, but hasn’t gone so far as to join the mothership that is iStockPhoto because it’s not a significant revenue producer. Seriously though, with only 133 images generating even a nominal amount of revenue out of 1,338 that were accepted, you’ve clearly produced and presented for consideration far more than that.

This, on its own, is a recipe for disaster. Moving his “studio” (and I submit that with gross revenues of, at best, $17k, which after taxes leaves $8,500 max, even less if he’s writing off equipment, his studio may well be a small room in his home) to a larger space is a recipe for a catastrophe, divorce, or bankruptcy, or, quite possibly, all three.

It’s worth saying again, Mr. Reis. Don’t quit your day job.

[tags]John Harrington, Jim Pickerell, microstock, stock photography, Erik Reis [/tags]

One Response to “Tip for Microstockers: Don’t Quit Your Day Jobs”

  1. Hi Mr. John Harrington

    I only find your post here today... good (funny) surprise to me.
    Just to let you know, that I’m not still a Yuri Arcurs, but I'm quite happy white my experience and success on Microstock world.
    After 5 years I already quit my full time job at two years ago. I have new light equipments and cameras, and a new and bigger studio.
    I employ a full time assistant photographer and makeup artist.
    My best seller image already give me a revenue of more than $20.000, but yes only 10% of the images sell very well, and that includes the majority of all Stock Photographers.
    And my full month income is coming only from the Microstock market and some of the traditional market.

    Just to let you know.
    Thank you, and best regards.

    Erik Reis

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