iStockphoto first quarter 2010

In January we published an analysis of the units licensed in 2009 by a group of iStockphoto’s most successful contributors and asked the question “Has Microstock Reached (a) Plateau?”

First quarter 2010 results seem to confirm this is the case. As a baseline, on June 1, 2009 we did a count of the total number of images licensed in May 2009 by a group of 196 out of the 250 top selling iStock contributors. (Information on some of the top 250 was not available.) There were 442,533 images licensed by this group in that month.

Eight months later as of December 31, 2009 this group licensed 464,884 images on average, a 5 increase over the May figures. The method of arriving at this average requires some explanation.

In May 2009 it was possible to go to and determine the exact number of images licensed in each contributor’s career. In June 2009, iStock changed it’s strategy and since then only supplies the nearest lower round number of downloads. The actual number of downloads can vary by as much as 10,000. For example, >100,000 could be anything from 100,001 to 110,000. If the photographer’s total downloads are less than 100,000, the range is 1,000 downloads.

Our estimates were calculated by determining the minimum and maximum number of downloads each contributor could have had for the entire period. We subtracted the May 1, 2009 number from the April 1, 2010 number. Then we divided by 11 to determine the average monthly low for the 11 month period through March 31, 2010. We did a separate calculation for the average high working with the highest possible number based on the information supplied. We are aware of a few contributors who have recently passed the low number, but some could also be very near the top of the range and about to move to the next level. Then we totaled the results for 196 contributors and compared them with the May totals.

We used the same method to determine the average for the 8 months from May 1, 2009 to December 31, 2009. That information can be found here.

The lowest possible number of average downloads for the 196 contributors for the 8 month period was 416,642 per month, and the highest was 513,126 per month. The average of these two numbers is 464,884 which is a 5% increase over May 2009 figure of 442,533 downloads.

The lowest possible number of total downloads for the 196 contributors for the 11 month period was 420,136 pre month, and the highest was 499,836 per month. The average of these two numbers is 459,986 with is a 3.9% increase over May 2009 or a 1% decline from the level at the end of last year.

In addition, in the last three months these contributors have expanded their iStock collections by a total of 27,409 new image, an average of about 140 images each or a total of 5% of all the images they have at iStock. The total number of images they had in the collection at the end of 2009 was 509,842. Their combined total now is 537,251.

Based on these numbers it appears that the most productive of iStock’s contributors are, on average, experiencing very little, if any, growth in units licensed. (For the experience of individual photographers see this chart.) Most contributors continue to see revenue growth as iStock continues to raise prices, but there is a question as to how long they can do that before the company starts losing customers. In fact, that may already be happening to a minimal degree. A number of the company’s competitors are already under pricing them.

The next thing to consider is the degree to which the experiences of 196 individuals are representative of the more than 80,000 iStockphoto contributors. Currently, iStock has about 6,579,000 images in their collection meaning that the images belonging to these contributors represent about 8% of the total collection.

Percentage of Sales these Contributors Represent

Recently, in an article in TechDirt, Jonathan Klein, Getty Images CEO, was quoted as saying, “In 2005, Getty Images licensed 1.4 million preshot commercial photos. Last year, it licensed 22 million — and ‘all of the growth was through our user-generated business.’” Based on this figure about 20.6 million of the images licensed would have come from iStockphoto. (Selling-Stock had estimated iStock’s 2009 sales at 25 to 30 million, but maybe they made fewer licenses at higher average prices than we believed.)

In any event an average 464,884 licenses per month for 12 months would be 5,578,608 total sales for 2009, or 27% of iStockphoto’s total licenses if they licensed 20.6 million images.

So we have 3/100ths of the photographers contributing 8% of the images to the collection and making 27% of the sales. The same kind of thing where a very small percentage of total contributors earn an inordinate share of total revenue is common on the traditional side of the business as well. However, photographers should take note. Anyone who believes stock photography is an easy way to make money should think again.

Other Explanations for Trends

Some other explanations for the leveling of sales should be considered.

  • Competitors may be taking some market share. In many cases competitors offer the same images as iStock at lower prices. 161 of these 196 photographers are exclusive with iStock, but 35 also have their images on other microstock sites. A high percentage of other iStock photographers are represented non-exclusively.
  • The growth in the size of the collection, and in the number of contributors make it less likely that images belonging to any particular photographer will be chosen. On the other hand the tendency of customers to choose images that have been licensed before (see Yuri Arcurs article) give these photographers preference in the search-return-order and is one of the reasons that 27% of the downloads come from their 8% of the images.

For the latest information about microstock and iStockphoto you can visit Jim Pickerells Photolicensingoptions.

About the author is an online information resource for stock photographers. We look at photography as a business, not as an art form. We try to help readers understand what they need to do to earn more from the pictures they produce, rather than tell them how to take better pictures.

Stories are aimed primarily toward those seeking to earn their living from their stock images, but part-timers whose only interest is to earn a little extra money from their photographs will also find many of the articles useful. Jim Pickerell, editor and principle writer of the articles on this site, has been in the stock photo business for more than 45 years and writing about the industry for over 20 years. A small fee is charged to read most articles on this site. However, a FREE email with brief summaries of the latest stories is sent to all interested parties each Saturday. Readers are only asked to pay when they want to read a story in its entirety.

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Editor at large and founder of a bunch of stockphoto businesses

2 thoughts on “iStockphoto first quarter 2010

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  • July 16, 2010 at 11:46 am

    The problem with this “analysis” is that it completely ignores the Long Tail principle. Like Amazon or others, istock main revenue is not coming from Best sellers but by the myriad of small sales. Thus, declaring that microstock is reaching a plateau just from best sellers is misguided. Since Istock does not release numbers for their long tail sales, there is currently no way to confirm or infirm this.
    The real analysis here would be to see if Istock is selling more of “one to two downloads” images than they did in the past.
    Old rules just do not apply here anymore.
    My bet, as well as many others, is that microstock is still growing : it’s just not doing it via best sellers.
    Paul Melcher


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