No One Negotiates for Royalty Free Images

Photography: gynti_46

When John Griffin launched Cutcaster in early 2008, he injected a novel idea into the world of commercial photography. A former equity sales trader on Wall Street, Griffin’s aim was to create a research tool that would deliver to the photography industry the kind of vital information that Bloomberg supplies for finance. The site would also provide a platform for the deals to be made, allowing photographers to sell image licenses for the true market rate.

“We wanted to create a dynamic marketplace much like the NASDAQ stock exchange and also give people tools to educate themselves on what the marketplace was looking for, analyze the data surrounding their content and find available market research,” Griffin told us then. “It’s supposed to be a fluid system where buyers and sellers
can adjust to what the market is telling them.”

Sellers were able to set their own price or choose an algorithm created by the site to fluctuate prices. Crucially, buyers could also submit a bid lower than the asking price, allowing buyer and seller to negotiate until they reached a price on which both could agree. The site’s launch followed two years of research into the factors that affect photography pricing, and should have created a marketplace in which all deals were fair, photographers never felt that they were receiving less than they deserved and buyers never felt that they were paying too much.

It should, in other words, have solved the two largest problems generated by microstock and traditional stock.

Bidding for Photos is Confusing

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Visit Cutcaster now and a message welcomes you to “the new Cutcaster… a simple-to-use website for intelligently searching and buying royalty free photos.” Navigation is simpler and search has been overhauled to enable buyers to find what they’re looking for faster and to discourage keyword spam.

But the most obvious change is a list of fixed royalty-free prices on the home page that range from 70 cents for a “tiny” image to $14.95 for “XXX-large.” Credits cost as little as 80 cents.

The change is recent and was brought on by the response to Cutcaster’s flexible pricing system. Buyers weren’t interested in bidding for royalty-free images and only placed bids 6 percent of the time. Removing a bidding option that allowed the two sides to negotiate, Griffin says, has made the system less confusing.

Sellers can still choose either to set their own price for a medium-sized image, allowing Cutcaster to price other sizes in relation to their choice, or use Cutcaster’s algorithm to price all of their sizes for them. (Cutcaster sets the price for about 60 percent of images, Griffin says.) The flexibility and responsiveness though have gone. A buyer who disagrees with a seller’s price point has no option but to move on to the next picture.

So why didn’t the bidding option work? Why weren’t buyers willing to enter into negotiations with sellers to achieve a fairer price?

Part of the reason might have been the complexity of image pricing. For Wall Street brokers the value of a company can be measured in earnings reports; Cutcaster’s pricing algorithm is affected by less obvious factors that include views, downloads, exclusivity, keyword queries and time available, among other things. And that’s before you reach usage, an element that has no parallel in finance where corporate investors pay the same price per share as individual savers.

But it could also be because the prices were fair already. Last July Griffin told us that pricing on Cutcaster was stable at around $10 an image (“although $5 images sell better.”) Advertisers and designers who use the site tend to look for downloads below $10 and the average sales price across all sizes was $9. With prices that low and with thousands of other options a click away it made more sense for buyers to keep looking than to lose time talking.

“The three things that obviously effect buyers thinking the most are price, speed and quality,” said Griffin.

If the price wasn’t right, then buyers weren’t going to sacrifice speed of purchase to change it.

That dynamic though has also been shown to work in the opposite direction.

Sellers Won’t Haggle Either

Go to now, and you reach a site stuffed with keyword spam and little by way of valuable content or a useful service. It wasn’t always that way. The domain used to provide a photo bounty service on which buyers would describe a picture they were looking for and the amount that they were willing to pay for it, and photographers could pack their cameras and get shooting.

The site’s founder Josh Rothman came up with the idea when he was considering buying an antique chair online.

“The seller had some photos posted on his website, but I was concerned that there might be some flaws in the chair that the seller was not revealing in either the written description or the photos he chose to provide,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘I wish I knew someone who lived there that could go look at that chair for me.’”

He wasn’t the only one thinking that way. SpyMedia was already offering a similar service. That site also no longer exists.

The problem with those services is that the value of the image to the buyer — usually around $5 to $10 — was much lower than the expense for the photographer in creating it. Few photographers were willing to spend several hours shooting and editing a picture for the chance — and there was no guarantee — of winning five or ten bucks.

The principle of requesting images as part of a stock service can be useful. UK-based photo library fotoLibra puts out frequent calls for images and iStockPhoto has a forum thread on which designers can ask for specific content. But building a business around the concept seems to have been a pretty poor idea when the two sides have such different ideas about the price of an image — and an unwillingness to negotiate that price.

The photography market might sound like a place in which haggling is a part of business and negotiations can take place over time, but it’s more like a supermarket than bazaar. Buyers want to take images off-the-shelf, but they’ll put them back quickly if they don’t like the price on the label.

Negotiation might work for high-priced rights-managed images but for royalty-free, you only get one chance to name your price.

One comment for this post.

  1. Daniel Padavona Said:

    The Cutcaster negotiation model is one of the most interesting I know of. The problem is that many buyers are aware of prices at other agencies, so this forces most images into a natural "band" of prices. Images exclusive to Cutcaster stand a better chance of breaking out of the normal bands.

    Unfortunately the Cutcaster model still hasn't caught on. It has been 2 years and they aren't exactly putting a scare into Shutterstock.

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