For most photographers, seeing their photo on the cover of a book should be a highlight of their career. It’s the cover that does the selling so when a publisher decides that their image is powerful enough to attract attention and pull in buyers, it’s a sure sign that they’ve take a great photo. They’ll be able to see their picture on the shelf every time they walk into a bookstore, enjoy the feeling that customers are placing it on their own bookshelves… and the remuneration should be nice too. It doesn’t always work out that way though. Now that images are available on microstock sites, photos are appearing on book covers without photographers being aware of the sale, without being credited for the picture… and without receiving pay that would even cover the price of a latte in Starbucks.
Weldon Owen’s Snapshot Picture Library series, for example, are 64-page children’s books made up of around 70 pictures and 800 words of descriptive text. Altogether, the series covers 26 topics including tractors, trucks, birds and puppies. The photo credits on the back cover of the Sea Creatures title list are typical; they describe the sources as Dreamstime, iStockPhoto and Shutterstock.
The Price Was “Pathetic.”
The book’s lead image, showing a sea turtle, came from Shutterstock and was taken by Rich C, an underwater photographer based in Egypt. Rich had no idea that the photo was being used as a book cover until we contacted him. He took the picture last October and since then, it’s been downloaded fourteen times, all of them as part of a client’s subscription package. His total remuneration for the image, the amount he earned for all of those fourteen sales, was… $3.82.
“I realise this is a bit pathetic compared with what I would have received if the image had been bought through a traditional stock agency,” Rich commented, “but if it had been offered only [on], say, Alamy or Getty, it would probably never have been found and bought.”
Rich isn’t wrong about the fees being “a bit pathetic.” FotoLibra, a picture library, charges $314 to use this image of a turtle on a North American book cover. PhotoShelter, which uses fotoQuote software to estimate standard market prices, demands $840 for this turtle to appear on a book with a print run of up to 10,000 copies.
But Rich also isn’t wrong about the chances of selling the image through a traditional stock company. He does have pictures on Alamy, and a search for “turtle” will produce one of his photos. A buyer who sets the results page to show 120 pictures can find it on page 22, by which time he will have seen 2,520 other pictures of flippers and shells. It’s no surprise then that while Shutterstock has given Rich a total of 5,800 downloads since he joined last August, and “an income of a few hundred dollars every month” on top of the fees he usually charges for commissions, teaching and guiding, Alamy has given him just one sale.
“It would be great if I could sell on traditional stock agencies and get a good payout and credit every time one of my photos was used on a book cover,” says Rich. “Unfortunately, it is near impossible for a beginner photographer to first get represented by one of those agencies, and second to have their images shown someplace where buyers will actually get to find them, so in that situation I turned to microstock.”
Microstock Creates New Markets
You could argue then that microstock is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing: enabling new photographers to get their foot in the door and begin earning from their images, even if the amounts they receive for each sale are small. You could even say that microstock’s low prices are creating entirely new markets for those images. According to fotoQuote, a full page image used in a book with a print run of up to 10,000 copies costs $420. With 67 such images and three cover photos, Weldon Owen could have found itself spending up to $30,000 on photos for each of the titles in its Snapshot Picture Library series. Although it’s likely that the company would have been able to negotiate lower fees, it’s certainly possible that those expenses would have made the series unviable. The publisher wouldn’t reveal sales figures, but the books aren’t bestsellers.
That isn’t true though of C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution, the first in a series of historical thrillers featuring medieval lawyer Matthew Shardlake. The books have been commissioned by the BBC and will star Kenneth Branagh. One version of the cover however uses an image of an old book shot by Vladimir Stretonovic, and was bought from Shutterstock. Other books in the series use similar pictures even though, with a high-selling title, publishers Macmillan would have been able to choose from a broader range of suppliers.
For publishers then, microstock sites are providing a chance to create book series with low print runs and, when suitable, low-cost covers even for successful titles. But microstock isn’t replacing traditional image sourcing entirely. Not all covers are sourced from microstock sites and even Weldon Owen is now developing a new photo-based series that will license images directly from photographers. Executive Editor Elizabeth Dougherty says that she is looking for photographers with collections in areas ranging from celebrity bridal gowns to bicycles to sunsets. To apply, photographers can send a letter of introduction and a link to site that displays their work to [email protected] And the fees for non-exclusive worldwide rights?
“…are fair,” she told us, “but on the lower side for promotional books. We try to make up for that by buying in bulk and establishing ongoing relationships with photographers – and as important being nice and fun to work with.”
With the right pictures, you might even find yourself with the cover.
We’ve removed the photographer’s full name and link from this post at his request after he received angry emails from stock photographers blaming microstock for their loss of earnings. That is not acceptable. Microstock is here, it’s growing and stock photographers need to adjust to the new marketplace if they’re going to remain successful. Blaming individual photographers for making use of that marketplace is discourteous, disrespectful and it’s not going to help bring that success.