Microstock Photographer Lands Book Cover for $3.82


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.

15 comments for this post.

  1. Tyler Olson Said:

    I think the new markets microstock has created (and is still creating) is amongst the private sector. Everyone has uses for images, weather it be a local sports club hand-out, newsletter, or business presentation. These things need pictures, and lots of them. Prices over $20 aren't viable for this type of customer so we have microstock to fill this need. Since there is a large enough market to create millions of sales and give a decent return to the photographer - it has become a new and viable market

    Of course, major companies can take advantage of these cheep prices but they are also getting images that have been (or will be) potentially used thousands of times. There is nothing stopping me from releasing a book on Sea Life using exactly the same picture as this book and piggy backing all it's sales. That is the risk big companies make when taking advantage of microstock. For some the risk is worth it.

  2. Flavio Massari Said:

    Not all the photographer production can go on the microstock channel. There are images that you have lucky to sell 20 times all around the big six. Some seller are in the way of cleaning their database from unasaled images. These images may have better market on mid or macrostock, but many photographers put in the wrong channel.

  3. Fashion Photographer Jerry Avenaim Said:

    Reminds me of my last check from Corbis!

  4. Jason Said:

    Very well written article on this subject. It is a very polarizing subject and while I do hear some sarcasm in the your tone you do hit on both sides of the argument.

  5. Sean Locke Said:

    On iStockphoto, a book where the imagery is the focus of the publication (and not the text) would require an extended license.

  6. F.57 stock photo blog Said:

    A lot of those calculator quotes from traditional agencies are misleading. Any Alamy contributor will confirm that the price actually agreed is often a lot less than the Alamy calculator would indicate. In general there has been a narrowing of the price differential between micro and trad over the last year or two.

    Also I would suggest Rob probably needs to work on his keywords and descriptions on Alamy in order to get his images better placed in searches. Alamy has a pretty open door re submissions but contributors have to put the effort into administration of their images if they want them to stand a chance of making a sale, particularly in saturated topics.


  7. Wild Dingo Said:

    The only ones profiting from the “new markets” being created are the:

    1. The microstock agencies who use technology to aggregate content at massive scales and license it for less than the cost of production;

    2. The microstock buyers who are purchasing a good for less than the economic value;

    3. Parasites like the Olson dude above who feed the microstock ecosystem with false hope in order to profit from ignorant microstock photographers by selling seminars, books, and, in his case, advertising.

    Dingo just loves it when people say that microstock opens up new markets.

    New markets my ass!

    An activity where 99% of photographers cannot make a profit despite pouring in thousands of hours of labor and thousands of dollars in equipment is called a hobby. An expense hobby at that.

    The microstock ignorant cannot differentiate between cashflow and profit. They see revenue coming in and think this means that their microstock “business plan” is working! In their ignorance, they don’t recognize that they would turn a profit faster and with less risk if they worked at McDonald’s.

    As for Weldon Owen willing to pay “fair” prices for cutting out the microstock middleman... just more hypocritical crap!

    How much do you want to bet that Weldon’s profit margins and those of the photographers supplying them are polar opposites?

  8. GIGO Said:

    Wild Dingo wins today's award for most cogent commentary. Microstock and its good for nothing parents RF and Subscription Stock, is the fastest way for a wannabe photographer to become an overworked hobbyist.

    Images are NOT a commodity...they are produced one at a time and each one is unique...but the microstock model sees and prices them as a commodity because they are really just selling bytes via their digital interface...and the more bytes they sell, the more profit they make. Since they don't share in the cost of production of the bytes they sell, they have no reason to factor that in to the pricing of their product.

    Unfortunately, photography has always been something of a vanity profession, in which the intangible excitement of having one's "vision" validated thru the choosing of that vision by others who need to illustrate a concept is the "profit" many are willing to settle for. Add to that the facts that digital shooting and the internet have so reduced the technical barriers and cost of entry into the marketplace that I'm afraid those needing to earn a livable income from stock photography are s**t out of luck...

  9. Denver Fashion Photographer Said:

    I can't believe how little that amount is for a full cover. That seems completely ridiculous. Hence another reason why I'm not a stock photo shooter.

  10. UF Said:

    I don't know what's more obscene — promoting this Weldon Owen company, or the photo-whores that are involved in the various microstock schemes.

    And I'm sure the bill for Kenneth Branagh's bottled water on set will be far greater than the stock photography compensation.

    Welcome to the world of hyper-capitalism where some photographers fill the role of the ultimate chump on our behalf.

  11. Lindsay Keats Said:

    Please remember that the designer who searches for your photograph will be logging exponentially more time on their timesheet than you will ever expect to receive as payment. The cost of the photographs is always marked up substantially as well.

    Unfortunately the remark "unaware the photograph was being used", "surprised to see it being used" just shows how little some photographers value their work- they only see value in it once someone else has seen the value- ie published it.

    $3.82 for 14 "sales"= .14 cents a download. Any microstock contributors out there need to have a really good think about what else they can buy for 14 cents, You people have established the market by being contributors. Shutterstock and I Stock came up with an idea. I bet they never realised just how many mugs there were out there just waiting to be exploited.

    It's unfortunate that the microstock model affects also those who do not contribute and who shoot assignment work

  12. Lindsay Keats Said:

    Sorry 27cents- still what can you buy for that- stick of gum ??

  13. Jason Collin Photography Said:

    Seems photographers should just price their photographs accordingly then don't have to worry about only getting $3 bucks for a book cover. No?

  14. Pal Simon Said:

    Yes microstock model undervalues completely the role of the photographer and is a insult to any person who does Photography,either professionally or as amateur. Wild Dingo expressed very well whats all about.

  15. Edward Olive Said:

    Is there respect for photography or just the taking advantage of photographers who need to eat?

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