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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Business  >  Working with Stock Photography Agencies

Working with Stock Photography Agencies

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 7676
1 Introduction  (304)
2 Differences in Agencies  (100)
       2.1 Long-term vs. Short-term Relationships  (192)
       2.2 Many vs. Few Photographers  (228)
       2.3 Marketing Strategies  (238)
       2.4 E-commerce Stock Houses  (186)
       2.5 Assignments  (413)
3 Your responsibilities  (1298)
4 Basics  (730)
5 Approaching an Agency  (402)
       5.1 The Catch-22 Rule  (212)
6 Interviewing an Agency  (3160)
7 Summary (213)

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1 Introduction

Happy, Confident Photographer
(Indiana, USA)
america, families, fisheye, fisheye lens, indiana, jills, north america, square format, united states, photograph
As discussed in the previous chapter, The Stock Photography Business, the stock photo business involves your selling pictures you've already taken to new clients. There are three ways to do this: you can sell direct to the buyer, or you can work with an agency that handles your images for you, or you may choose a hybrid of these. If you've determined you want to explore working with an agency, this chapter gets into the pragmatic ways for finding the right one, and then working out a "mutually beneficial relationship" (which is a euphemism for saying that you have to set your expectations realistically on what you're going to end up with).

Before we begin, the one thing that almost all agencies share today (and the laggards are moving increasingly faster in this direction) is the obsolescence of film. The industry is moving towards digital imaging at such an increasing speed, that most larger agencies won't even accept film submissions anymore. You are certainly free to submit scans of your film (which is better anyway, since you keep your originals), but it's not even worth approaching anyone with film unless you are a dealing with a specialized niche market that still deals with film on specialized subjects, formats or other conditions (assignments on behalf of the agency, for example). Since the role of film is diminishing so quickly, I'm not going to bother with the subject here.

As for image style, you usually pick the agency (or it picks you) based on whether your image styles and subjects match. Needless to say, you need to have marketable images for your area of focus, but your creative interpretations may not be shared by others. Thus, half the battle of finding the right agency is finding one that shares your tastes.

Baby Donkeys (5)
(Alberobello, Puglia, Italy)
alberobello, babies, donkeys, europe, italy, mule farm, puglia, vertical, photograph
Agencies differ considerably in how they do their business, and one can't say definitively whether one model is better or worse than another. That depends on your strengths as well as your long-term objectives. We'll address all these things in the course of this chapter, and then glue it all together to help you in your analysis of choosing the right agency. For now, let's review the most fundamental ways agencies differ from one another. Note that these are not mutually exclusive; some agencies can share in many of these different attributes.

Some agencies may present opportunities for short-term immediate income at the expense of long-term growth. (These agencies may pass lucrative assignments your way, where you get a fee for doing the shoot, but they retain the bulk of the royalties associated with any ongoing stock sales.) Such a model may be good for photographers who only need quick cash infusions as they grow other parts of their businesses, whereas many photographers take these kinds of agreements because that's all the work they can get. Again, another by-product of a highly competitive and saturated market.

Suffice to say, however, that most seasoned pros who've established their stock bases years (or decades) ago are doing quite well with the residual royalties from the net sum of their images. These people are working with traditional stock agencies who are more structured to provide little short-term return, but a more reliable income stream down the road. This may be what you're looking for if you plan on building up a large library of images where the accumulated collection has intrinsic value all its own, and which can provide an "annuity" type return.

Street Couple (b&w)
(Alghero, Sardinia, Italy)
alghero, black and white, couples, europe, horizontal, italy, sardinia, streets, photograph
Another structural differences between agencies is how many photographers they take. Some agencies may be set up to favor a few high-profile photographers, making it difficult to get in, but those chosen few will have good returns by not having to compete with one another for sales. You may already be thinking that if you're a general shooter with no defined "specialty," then this may not be the right agency for you, which is wise.

The other end of the spectrum finds those agencies that readily accept photographers because they are looking to capitalize on selling images in large quantities. (One form of "bulk licensing" that some agencies use is "royalty free" image disks, where the buyer of the CD gets several hundred images for a low, fixed fee.) For volume sales, an agency may warehouse thousands of images for every different market segment they can find within dozens of different industries. There is likely to be a lot of overlap, too. But, this is part of the goal. For photographers, the ease of getting in is offset by the payout, which is distributed widely among a large population. In this scenario, substantial returns are unlikely, but are still achievable if your images compete strongly against others at the agency. (See "The 80/20 Rule" in The Stock Photography Business.)

Waiting for Royalty Checks
(California, USA)
animals, black and white, dogs, heads, horizontal, paws, sammy, slow exposure, photograph
Some have marketing strengths that can make your images more visible to a target market segment. But, don't get "marketing images" and "photographer promotion" confused. Agencies sell images; they don't make celebrities. Marketing yourself is your responsibility. (Go back to Marketing your Photography Business for that.) Agencies can't make you a star, or even "better known." That's not their purpose nor their goal (although it might be part of their pitch for those they try to attract). They may appear to promote certain photographers, but you need to look closely at what they're really doing and why. Their goal is to sell images, and the images that sell are those from big-name talent. Hence, agencies look for and aggressively market photographers who already have a name. Their subsequent promotion of those names isn't to "promote the photographer" it's to promote themselves for carrying that photographer's work.

Accordingly, be careful of agencies that claim to market you instead of your images. It's often a way (not quite a "scam") to get you to pay cash out of pocket for "marketing and promotion." Agencies that ask for up front fees are less likely to have enough capital to cover their marketing expenses, plus many others things. Paying your agencies marketing bills for them won't generate more business. Those same dollars should be used for self-promotion instead. The caveat to this is discussed next:

Don't get "charging for fees" confused with agencies who aren't really stock photo agencies, but just another form of web presence where you can house your images for a fee. Such companies do nothing but provide an e-commerce infrastructure (web site, disk storage, payment, fulfillment) for you to put your images. They take anyone that wants to pay money to get their images into the mix. This is fine as a business model, so long as you understand that you're paying for a glamorized web presence, and someone to move your images on your behalf. In fact, it may be just what you need if you have no web site at all and don't want to get into that. (See Web-based Photography Business.) Yet, because this is a relatively new business model, there isn't enough evidence to suggest whether it will last beyond a few years. The few companies that do this have tried to expand beyond their means in attempts to compete with larger agencies, so it may take some time for good ones to emerge as mature players in the field.

Set Your Sites High
(Nassau, Bahamas)
bahamas, capital, capital city, caribbean, cities, hats, island-nation, islands, nassau, nation, towers, tropics, vertical, water, water towers, photograph
As the stock photography market has become more saturated, agencies have had to diversify their business models. One of these methods is to offer other services, including custom/assignment photography. In fact, some stock agencies are turning into just that: assignment agencies. Here, the agency may call upon you to shoot an assignment based on the client's specs. This has many different pay structures associated with it, so it's even more critical that you know what your longer-term plan is for photography (and "stock" in particular) before you readily accept (or reject) any given business proposal. Many agencies will hire photographers on the classic per-diem basis, plus expenses, whereas others may ask the photographers to pay everything themselves, and get paid a lump sum after the client has accepted the work. Also in question is the royalty structure for the images, as well as copyright ownership.

Before determining whether the assignment (or the relationship) is worthwhile, you need to look at the total package, not just one part of it. Consider what your out-of-pocket expenses might be, what your royalty fee is, copyright ownership (so you can add these images to your existing stock library), what the shooting fee is (or isn't), etc. In all, your worst-case scenario should be the low water mark for whether the deal is worthwhile. For some who are new to the industry, and/or who have a hard time getting work or gaining any level of professional experience, such a relationship may have intangible benefits, if not direct financial returns. That is, simply being asked to shoot may be a great way to get experience. If your images are good, you'll eventually get the income you want and deserve, and you can re-evaluate whether this form of relationship is still worthwhile. If your images aren't so good, you will be spending a lot of time and money shooting, getting nothing in return. Yes, that's bad for you, but that's doesn't represent a "bad deal." Indeed, it suggests maybe you're not in the right business.

For the slightly more experienced photographer looking to get quick cash, an assignment that pays $5,000 for a two-day shoot, but no ongoing royalties and no copyright ownership, may be worthwhile. For someone looking to get into the stock industry for the longer term, however, it may not. As we can see, these relationships are not inherently good or bad—you just have to choose wisely what's appropriate for you.

Boys (5)
asia, asian, boys, people, vertical, vietnam, villages, photograph
Many people over-glamorize the relationship photographers have with agencies. The typical perception is that people would give their hundreds or thousands of vacation slides to a stock agency and wait for the money to come in. Very few agencies work like a savings bond, where you make an initial investment (by giving them your images), and you then receive interest payments every quarter. The only ones that work that way are those that have had multidecade track records with star photographers, who can rely on a select portfolio of photos that seem to produce a reliable income stream over time. (This kind of portfolio is rare, but it can happen if it has had the benefit of time to mature.)

For everyone else, you should expect to work so closely with your agency, that you feel their like your photo lab: you deliver photos to them constantly. For shooters who are persistent, and who have no time to manage the sales part of their businesses, they will probably do best with agencies. Your objective is to "flood the pipeline with product, and hope that lightning strikes often." Most will make a small amount of money, relative to the number of images they submit, so the numbers game dictates that the more you throw into the pot, the more likely your income will rise from the aggregate total. (Don't forget: you have to maintain image quality too.)

Amargosa Opera 6 (b&w)
(Amargosa, California, USA)
amargosa, black and white, california, horizontal, opera, west coast, western usa, photograph
The natural timeline for working with an agency usually starts after you've already developed a pretty significant and important arsenal of images that an agency can pick up right away. This will virtually enforce itself for no other reason than most good agencies won't take you unless they see a large enough supply of salable images that they can start with. Even then, it's considerably challenging. Your best bet is when you have a proven and demonstrable sales stream (substantiated by high-profile references and tear sheets) that you can present to an agency.

Yes, this throws you back again to the prospect of working alone. But look at it from their perspective: imagine if you were a bank. You wouldn't want to risk loaning money to someone that won't pay you back. Of course, there's a degree of risk, but the goal is loan money to those who are most likely to pay you back. The income you get is on the interest they pay on that money. Agencies work the same way—they seek out photographers who've got a track record, and avoid riskier candidates. They money they make is on the revenue generated from photographers that demonstrate sales.

Waterfall and Beach (2)
(Palomarin Trail, Bolinas, California, USA)
beaches, california, horizontal, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, palomarin trail, waterfalls, west coast, western usa, photograph
As it turns out, that process of "doing your own sales" first, before even approaching an agency, is probably the most effective and risk-free approach you can take, even if it may not be the most expedient. Put another way, you can take the shortcut through the woods to grandma's house, so long as you're ready to face the wolves you'll meet. There are several pitfalls to approaching agencies too soon. First, you need to have a good, solid understanding of the stock business. Doing it alone first gives you empirical experience, but it also exposes you to those agencies that you may eventually end up working with. You'll learn who's who, who's good, and who's not. You'll also know what your own clients think of specific agencies, since most people get their images from multiple sources. Through them, you can learn what their reputations are, their advantages, pitfalls, etc. When you're finally ready to work with an agency, it'll either be from their calling you, or you finally taking advantage of the contacts you've developed inside (or close to it) over the course of time. And lo and behold, you won't need any "tough questions list" to ask them to determine if they're right for you. You'll already know.

Another risk in attempting to join agencies too soon is the investment of time. As discussed in Photography and Business Sense, time is your most valuable and precious resource. Attempting to join an agency is exceedingly time-consuming, from the gathering and submitting of materials in your application, to the incredibly long wait in getting a response. Worse, many agencies have a habit of stringing applicants along with requests for submittal of more material, especially if they have specific needs for an immediate client. (Even if they license an image, it doesn't mean there are long-term prospects with that agency.) So, it's extremely important not to dive into this model too soon when you have other, more basic infrastructure to build first. If you've already got an existing business, this kind of effort is more easily and efficiently managed, because you can leverage the existing infrastructure you've already built. Thus, the time investment is almost negligible. Wherever you lie along that spectrum between "beginner" and "professional" makes the decision on when the time is right more difficult.

Bus and Trees
(Buenos Aires, Argentina)
argentina, buenos aires, bus, horizontal, latin america, trees, photograph
Where it can get even more confusing is through some of the emerging agency models that make it seemingly easier to dip your toes into the water without a big commitment of time or resources. Examples include agencies that are structured so that you don't even join them—they simply have "needs lists" for images their clients are seeking. These lists are posted to their Web sites, which photographers can browse and submit images for consideration. Whichever images the client selects, the photographer gets the sale and/or a commission. (These have sprung up to capitlize on the large number of amateur photographers looking to get in.)

Sounds easy enough. But, you can imagine that the client will be overwhelmed by images, many of which are likely to be amateurish. When I was first testing the viability of one such agency, I'd submitted a few images for an ad requested by a phone company, but never got a response. A few weeks later, I was contacted by that very company through my Web site, requesting an image for the same ad. (The image they requested was not one of those that I'd submitted.) When I asked about the company's experience with the agency, they said that the huge influx of poor quality images halted their search for any images from that source. (And no, they never saw my submission either because of the volume.)

Tiger Viewing (3)
(Disneyworld, Orlando, Florida, USA)
america, animal kingdom, disney, florida, north america, orlando, tigers, united states, vertical, viewing, photograph
Many such agency models are going in and out of existence as companies experiment with new models for success. The above example is but one, and it will certainly go through various permutations to improve how images are submitted and edited to optimize the benefits for both the client and the photographer alike. How that evolves is unclear, and it's beyond the scope of this book to foretell what may come of those agencies, or to suggest that any one may be better than another. Once again, it's dependent on your personal skills and objectives as to whether any given agency may be right for you. However, the basic rules of business management still apply and are echoed here:

    "Be conscientious of the time investment required for any given activity."

If you put a lot of time into repeatedly submitting images to agencies or clients, yet yielding little success, you've wasted a lot of time that could have otherwise been spent on building a Web site or an image database infrastructure. These can be used later to tackle an infinite number of similar opportunities, but much more efficiently because you can tackle many at once, rather than one by one. So be very careful about the choices you make when choosing an agency, or agency model.

Look Closely
(Indiana, USA)
america, families, fisheye, fisheye lens, indiana, jills, north america, square format, united states, photograph
When any given photographer should consider joining an agency is not measured in time. It is dependent on how far along he is in his career, what his goals are, his skills and business acumen, and of course, experience. All these may vary among individuals. To that end, here are some checklist items to round out the discussion:

1 Learn How Stock Agencies Work
There is no stronger piece of advice for any photographer hoping to work with an agency than to learn the ins and outs of the business itself (see, The Stock Photography Business). Whatever it is they say about their strength, you need to put that to the test to see how they go about doing what they purport to be so good. If they say they're great at image fulfillment, you should see evidence of it on their website. If it's marketing, you should already know the agency by name recognition, an it should have high visibility in advertisements and other promotional materials.

2 Your Mileage Will Vary
You are guaranteed to have different experiences with different agencies. You may also be surprised to learn that even within the same agency, you may start out very differently than how you end up. While everyone expects to start on the low rung of the ladder, and move up, it is also possible for you to drop back down the ladder. Worse, there are usually no good reasons for your movement within the "ladder" in either direction. It happens to just about everyone.
Informed Photographer
(Indiana, USA)
america, families, fisheye, fisheye lens, horizontal, indiana, jills, north america, united states, photograph

3 Don't Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
It's often better to avoid full and total commitment to a single agency unless and until you've gained a certain degree of confidence in their ability to generate a revenue stream, and perhaps more importantly, by the personal rapport you build with individuals within the agency (sales rep, marketing, upper management). Until that point, you should continue (or try) your own direct sales efforts, or working with other agencies simultaneously, or both. Remember truism #4 of the photography business: Diversify Your Income.

4 Know Yourself and Your Market
Before you consider having someone else sell your photos, understand the market that's most apropos for your work. If you don't know, or you feel that's the job for the agency, you aren't ready to work with one. You have to know your market: the magazines, the trade journals, the ad agencies, the photographers, and anyone else that may be a source of information within your market segment. Buyers who go to stock agencies for images are filling a business need, and if you're going to be a supplier (even if indirectly via an agency), then you have to understand what the buyers' needs are and create images that meet those needs. If you specialize in cars, know the automobile market; if you specialize in fashion, know the latest trends; if you specialize in travel, know what kind of imagery appeals to that market. If you're a general all-around photographer, that's fine too, but you have to understand your own pictures and something about who'd buy them.

Tourists Riding Elephants (6)
(Siem Reap, Cambodia)
asia, cambodia, elephant ride, elephants, people, riding, tourists, vertical, photograph
Contact the photo editors of the magazines you know, or the ad agencies that produce the product ads, or any other potential user of photos, and ask them where they get their images. Assuming that any of their photos are obtained from stock photo agencies (something that shouldn't be assumed), you will get a list of such companies, contacts, and so on. (Who knows: you may learn that the stock business for your target market isn't big enough to justify working with an agency, and selling direct may be more apropos.) If you are considering a particular agency, but none of your contacts have heard of them, this should tell you something.

Lastly, if you don't know your own work, you can't gauge whether an agency is good. Photographers mistakenly assume that a stock photo agency is full of experts, with inside contacts at ad agencies and magazines, with expert photo editors who'll sift through your material and pick out the unseen winners from your glorious work, and push them onto buyers, where everyone gets rich. Needless to say, this isn't going to happen. If you know yourself, you'll be better-equipped at judging and monitoring the effectiveness of the agency you choose.

Monk Boy at Snake Stairs (4)
(Luang Prabang, Laos)
asia, asian, boy and stairs, boys, colors, laos, luang prabang, men, monks, oranges, people, snakes, stairs, vertical, photograph
There are usually one of two reasons you're talking to an agency. The least effective (but most popular) method is the fishing expedition. You're on a calling binge, sending portfolios and postcards, Push-Marketing yourself onto one agency after another, hoping to find one that will accept you. Accordingly, they are in "defense mode" to this approach (because everyone does it), so their primary goal is to keep out of the fray. More often than not, you won't get very far this way, since the presumption is that you're "spamming" (even if you're not using email to do it). It's not that this doesn't work. You will hear countless stories of photographers who claim that they were picked because they were always in the art director's face, never letting her forget about his presence. Of course, buying lottery tickets also yields a millionaire now and then, too. The question is whether it's worth your time to play these kinds of odds, and then comparing those odds with those of other methods.

Alternatively (or, perhaps, concurrently), you are called by an agency that wants to represent you. You've been filled with overly complimentary feedback about the quality of your work and your website, and they want to carry your photos. Now you're in their position, playing goalie, protecting your turf. (Let's face it, anyone that sends spam to attract business is not the type of company you want to be with, and there are those who do it, as you'll learn sooner or later.)

The best way to approach an agency is through some sort of inside contact. One of the best ways to get an inside contact is by going to conferences or other venues where agencies recruit. Photo schools also get recruiters to visit; you might contact a school (if you're not already in school) to see if they can help or offer local advice. You can also gain access through other photographers that work for an agency. (Note: you have to know the photographer, and he has to know you. It won't do anyone any good if you ask someone you don't know if they can help you "get in.") Lastly, many people who work at agencies are active on certain photographer discussion boards on the internet. By participating in those lists, you may establish a good rapport with someone.

Get Close to Your Subject
(Kilimanjaro, Tanzania)
africa, kilimanjaro, maa, people, roses, tanzania, vertical, photograph
Now for the reality check: The Catch-22 Rule states that the agencies you want to work with don't want you, and the agencies that you've ruled out are eager to represent you. Before you know it, you're sounding like Groucho Marx (made famous by Woody Allen in Allie Hall):

    "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member."

Photographers often think more highly of their work than agencies do, and the constant rejection from art directors causes one to doubt the credibility of those agencies that may actually accept them. As pointed out earlier, it's profitable to work with known, desirable properties, regardless of how "good" their work is (or used to be). This is why it's often hard to accept it when an agency does want to work with you. Psychologically, you've gone a complete circle: you started with the hope that this very thing would happen, but in the process, you learned the ugly side of the industry, so that when it actually does happen, you're not so sure. This is understandable, but if you've followed the strategies outlined here, you'll be able to make that analytical judgment as to whether it's worthwhile.

Live Tough, Stay Young
(Ohio, USA)
america, amusement park, cedar point, childrens, fun, games, north america, ohio, old, people, sandusky, times, united states, vertical, photograph
Once you find an agency you feel is worth considering, now what? Discussing terms, conditions, royalty rates and other sorts of details is more important than anything else, but because of the diversity of how agencies are structured these days, it would be disingenuous to give specific guidelines as to what you should ask for, or other terms of your contract, since that would presume that I (or anyone) knows your business model better than you. (You can read between the lines on this to realize that you need to know this industry well enough to know what your goals are; if you're looking to others to answer this for you, you will fail.) Despite what some might say, there are no "industry standards" for working with agencies, nor are there generalizations, other than signs that illustrate when an agency may not be in good financial shape (when they ask you for fees).

When considering working with an agency, try to avoid questions that get nowhere fast. For example, don't ask this question:

    "Do you promise to answer my phone calls?"

(Indiana, USA)
america, dogs, families, fisheye lens, horizontal, indiana, luna, north america, united states, photograph
This question is often suggested because experienced pros have found that it's very hard to get your contacts to return your phone calls or emails. There are stories by the bucketful about communication channels breaking down between the photographer and the agency. Believe me, before I ever worked with an agency, I was shocked to hear this—after all, you're supposed to be on the same team. Sure enough, it happens. But, I can't run through the entire list of "what happens" because the nature of business is that the list never ends.

What's more, this is not a business-substance question. These are what I call, rhetorical gotcha! questions. These questions are not asked because you want an answer, but to put the person on notice that you understand the business, and that you're not a beginner. This doesn't really accomplish that, though, and you don't learn anything about the agency at all (nor do you leave a good impression of yourself). Raising the issue ahead of time is not going to guarantee that the person will do what you want. With that in mind, let's run through some checklist items on what are substantive issues to bring up.

checkbox-big.gif Know where you are in the ranking.

Don't Get Squeezed Out by the Competition
(Ohio, USA)
america, amusement park, cedar point, fun, games, horizontal, north america, ohio, people, sandusky, sandwiches, united states, photograph
All agencies are more than willing to accept top-notch photographers, and few agencies ever want to work with inexperienced wanna-be's that have no stock base. Somewhere in the middle is you, so the question isn't whether they are taking "new" photographers; it's whether they'd consider you. If they are, you need to get a good sense of where you rank in that ladder. The lower you are, the lower your income potential is. Again, this will probably be commensurate with your experience and pre-existing track record with sales of your own. Knowing yourself is critical, but in this case, you also need to examine the people and portfolios that you'll be up against.

You should do this analysis before talking to them so you can be prepared to discuss the subject. You can have differing opinions on the analysis of it, but if they can't discuss their findings coherently, the agency may not be right for you.

checkbox-big.gif Timelines for Integration, Sales and Marketing

Many photographers think that once their material is accepted by the agency, and they've sent their images, their work is ready to sell. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. More often than not, images sit, untouched, for an indefinite period of time because they have to be integrated into a database, placed online, printed in sales books and other promotional materials, etc. What you'll find is that it all comes down to efficiency—the more efficient the agency, the quicker your images will be ready to be sold. Learning what their processes are is critical. If you can help expedite that process—by providing keyworded images in a database format, for example—then that process will go faster.

Car on Winding Road (1)
(Hell's Canyon National Recreational Area, Idaho, USA)
america, cars, hells canyon, idaho, north america, roads, united states, vertical, winding, photograph
Assessing the efficiency of an agency involves finding out how many editors they have? How many people are dedicated to keywording images and entering them into the global search database? Who educates the sales staff about the new collections, and what form does that take? How often are such introductions done? What software do they use to do that? (Are they on the cheap, or do they use high-end software?) The point is: know how their business is run from the inside out.

As for sales, it's senseless to ask when you can expect to receive revenue. (Well, you can ask...) More importantly are the terms associated with payment. When do you get paid? After the agency sends the image to the buyer? Or after the agency gets paid? If a buyer licenses an image for an ad, and they never pay the agency, you don't get paid either. But, it's still important to know who licensed images, when, for what, etc. You should still receive this information, and a timely basis.

checkbox-big.gif Audits

Your contract should stipulate the right to audit. Chances are, an agency will "permit" it, but under terms that are favorable to them because audits are extremely difficult to manage, take up people's time and are often only done when there is suspicion of fraud. You have to bear the cost of the audit, which is not inexpensive, so you want terms that indicate that if the audit differs by a certain percent (5-10percent) from the actual numbers, the agency reimburses for the audit (as well as paying any due monies).

Chances are very small you will ever audit them (and the owners know that), but a noteworthy item from NPR's "All Things Considered" early in 2004 reported a survey of artists that audited their agencies to see if their royalty payments were accurate. Only a small percentage of them performed audits, but of those who did, 100percent found that agencies failed to report sales and pay commissions on some portion of revenues. The smallest amount was $10,000 in unpaid royalties. This may seem like a high number, but it is skewed by the fact that only the extremely high-grossing talent was able to afford (and justify) the expense of performing an audit in the first place.

checkbox-big.gif Commission Splits

Obviously, the relationship with the agency is that they sell your images on your behalf, and split the sale with you. (You get the funds, but they take "commissions.") How it is split varies from one agency to the next, but it is typically set based on the type of service the agency provides. Usually—or, at least, historically—the more the agency does, the more overhead is involved in doing it, so it follows that they would require a higher percentage of the sales.

These days, it's hard to negotiate your terms, and you'll find that it is directly related to your "name recognition value." Still, many agencies don't negotiate at all, if for no other reason than administrative overhead. For those that do negotiate, the risk is that there is less incentive to push work that has higher percentages that go back to the photographer. The profitable images to the agency are those whose commissions are lowest. The exception, once again, is if you are already a known quantity with a track record of performing images, and/or if your name alone sells images, then you clearly have the upper hand and can usually demand a higher percentage successfully.

Ancient Church Ruin
(Otranto, Puglia, Italy)
ancient, churches, europe, horizontal, italy, materials, otranto, puglia, ruin, santo emilian, stones, photograph
Because royalty splits vary so much (from 10percent to 90percent), there is no way to know whether any given agency "earns" what they take from your sales until you've been with them for a while. If you love the agency for all the other analysis you've done, don't worry about leaving money on the table. If, over time, you've done well and think you can do better with another agency, or by going at it alone, you're in a better position to negotiate higher rates.

One thing to note: many agencies have "sub-agents" in other countries, which further dilutes your royalty. If this is the case, you might want to factor it into your analysis on what your return potential is. Some agencies will allow you to opt out of using their sub-agents; others may not. All you can do is negotiate what you want. But, keep in mind that if you do choose to find your own international representation, you have to go through the same difficult process of finding an agency and negotiating terms. If you think it's hard to do this on agencies in your home country, consider the time and expense associated with dealing with foreign agents. It just may be worth giving up another 25percent. (But, that's up to you.)

checkbox-big.gif Frequency and Nature of Image Submissions

Some stock agencies require photographers to supply a minimum number of images in various time periods. This is good for you too, since you naturally get more revenue when you've got more material for sale. If you have a unique specialty, or the agency doesn't have many other photographers who shoot what you shoot, a constant stream may be required in order to keep you. Remember, when new material comes in, old stuff usually cycles out.

Vendor and Old Woman
(Dubrovnik, Croatia)
croatia, dubrovnik, europe, horizontal, old, people, vendors, womens, photograph
A concern is that the agency is inefficient and tosses images too quickly, leaving potential value behind. They may not tell you when images are cycled out either, so you should keep a running track of which images the agency has and their status. Here, I recommend keeping an extra tag in your personal image catalog on which images the agency has, and which they don't. If you're working with multiple agencies, this is absolutely critical.

checkbox-big.gif Photo Editors and Other Business Contacts

A determining element in calculating your "worth" to the agency is what level of person you are given as a main contact. Once again, different agencies work different ways. Many have a sales staff that works with image buyers, as well as a staff of photo editors who work with photographers. (In some cases, the sales staff is also your assigned rep, in which case, you don't have "formal" or "assigned" access to a photo editor. Knowing this is important.) It's great to be assigned a sales rep that deals with buyers, but it's critical to have a good rapport with the photo editors. These people are the bottleneck between photographers and buyers; if the photo editors don't choose your images, the sales reps will never see them. While the sales staff tells the editors their image needs, it's still up to the subjective tastes of the photo editors to determine what images to use to meet those needs.

checkbox-big.gif Assignments

Does the agency have regularly published "needs lists" that indicate what they're looking for? Can you be given assignments to produce those images? Of course, one can always shoot assignments on the speculation that the agency may sell the resulting work, but this can be costly if you do it several times without having made a sale. This is why having an "assignment" to do it is more cost-effective. If that's the case, what are the terms of the assignment, and how do they differ from the regular stock agreement for images you've already submitted?

Also, you want to know whether needs lists and assignments are ever given to photographers outside the agency. It is usually the case that agencies that publish such lists work with a large collection of photographers, including freelancers not represented by the agency. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it does illustrate who your competition is, and that your images will be diluted by a plethora of commodity products coming through a very fat pipeline. If this is the case, find out what advantages there are by working with the agency, or as an outsider along side the others. (If the response is verbal only, this is a sign that you may be better off as one of the outsiders. Otherwise, you should have verbiage in the contract that states the agency won't go to outsiders before giving you the right of first refusal.)

If they do have outside lists, consider getting that list first, and just watching it for a few months. Submit images as you feel comfortable, and if you find the agency never chooses your work, you now know you saved yourself from signing up prematurely.

checkbox-big.gif Does the agency have rights protected ("RP") and royalty-free ("RF") work?

Louvre at Night (4)
(Paris, France)
buildings, europe, france, glasses, horizontal, louvre, materials, nite, paris, pyramids, structures, photograph
The only way to gain any revenue from dead capital is to dump it on the market. What happens is that the most generic or lowest-selling images of general interest are sold as "royalty-free images." This has provided some benefit to stock photo agencies and photographers alike, because everyone has a chance to reap some financial return for inventory that would otherwise have no value. The risk, of course, is undermining the value of other, more traditionally valuable images either by diminishing the value of photographs as a whole to the entire stock industry, and/or of particular images or classes of photos. But, this is still a relatively new phenomenon, and the few years it's been around hasn't shown consistency in its use or acceptance. This is true among buyers, agencies and photographers alike. So far, it has only been quantitatively identified by the low end of the market, where small firms and individuals who never were the type to license images in the first place, have embraced RF images. Still, there are stories where larger companies have used them in ways that caused major gaffs, such as when both Dell and Gateway licensed the same image from an RF disc, which showed up at the same time in various magazines.

This sort of "cannibalization" of low-end products into its higher-end counterparts is typical, common, and expected within any commodity-based industry. Examples include computer hardware, software, and long distance telephone charges, just to name a few. In each of these cases, production grows, demand is high, new products replace obsolete products, and prices drop.

Single Wave (5)
(Marin County, California, USA)
california, horizontal, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, san francisco bay area, single waves, singles, waves, west coast, western usa, photograph
Where the question becomes relevant is whether you can opt out of having images in the RF category. Some agencies require that photographers allow them to make this business decision on their behalf, so you should determine ahead of time whether you think an image (or series of them) is still capable of better returns if you sold them directly. In this case, don't submit images to programs that could subject them to RF.

checkbox-big.gif Exclusivity

This is a biggie. If an agency requests exclusivity to your images, it means that you cannot sell any of them through any other agency, and in some cases, even on your own. If you decline exclusivity, they'll probably not try to argue with you, because the request is unreasonable, and few photographers accept those terms.

If you're a highly sought-after photographer, then an agency may argue that exclusivity will maximize the price they can charge for your images. Of course, you want this too, so provided that the agency does well for you, it may be a good thing if the lack of competition keeps your price point higher to buyers, and the agency is well-placed enough to service all the buyers that may need your images. Additionally, it's easier to work with one agency than many, so another advantage to exclusivity is simpler and easier management your business relationships. Also, this may enable you to negotiate more favorable terms, such as prepayments or other terms in your favor.

Exclusivity is best negotiated as a quid pro quo: require something in return—don't just give it away. For example, minimum quarterly fees paid in advance annually. Depending on the number of images you provide, the frequency of delivering new images, and/or the term of the contract, you may request a higher or lower dollar amount. Such payments act as incentives for an agency to perform so those payments they give you aren't money they're throwing out. They need to sell at least a minimum number of images to offset those payments. If the agency is serious about exclusivity, this won't be a problem. But chances are, they'll back off pretty quickly because they weren't that serious about exclusivity in the first place.

checkbox-big.gif Rights of First Refusal

This comes up when you do not have an "exclusivity agreement" discussed above. Here, the agency requests to review all your images before you make them available to other agencies; only those images that they "refuse" are given back to you so you can shop them to other agencies. Unlike "exclusivity", which does have some potential benefit to you in very rare circumstances, there is no advantage at all for providing first-refusal rights. Well, no advantages except one: another opportunity for a quid pro quo in your favor.

Even Ghouls Need a Hobby
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, ghouls, halloween, horizontal, san francisco, west coast, western usa, photograph
No one expects an experienced photographer to give right of refusal, and inexperienced/unproven shooters probably don't generate the type of product that the agency is going to lose sleep over if you don't present it to them. So, be mindful of what you choose to barter; it may not be that important to them either.

checkbox-big.gif Length of Contract

Many agencies will claim that it takes a lot of time to get images into the sales pipeline, and once in, the sales cycle is very long. Also, they will claim that years of marketing your images is a costly and time-telling process fraught with trial and error, and such an investment cannot be made unless they can be protected from your terminating the contract. Lastly, time is required to create a more consistent demand for your work, not to mention a larger, well-established base of successful images to draw upon. For these and other reasons, agencies try to write contracts that allow them to represent you for ten years or more.

This is a very valid concern, but not a valid timeframe. The issue on your side is that lengthy agreements can keep you tied to a partner that may not necessarily be performing well. If you can't go to other agencies in this case, your career is over, or stagnates. So, applying quid pro quo again, it would be entirely reasonable to negotiate for performance metrics to be tied to timeframes. That is, if they don't do a certain minimum dollar amount of sales by year X, then you have the right to terminate. What those specific numbers are varies, and you (again) need to be informed and realistic about your business model and the cost of lost opportunities. No, this isn't easy, but then, it isn't for anyone else either.

Windows Ladder (b&w)
(Hakone, Japan)
asia, black and white, fujiya hotel, gardens, hakone, japan, ladder, vertical, windows, photograph
The most important question you need to ask before signing up with any given stock photo agency is: "Do I trust these people, and do I feel comfortable working with them?"

That's not an easy question to answer unless you go through the discussions and negotiations described above. There's no way I or anyone else can prepare you for the real-time dialog that will transpire at any given time, and I can only imagine the plethora of questions that you will have as someone presents circumstances to you that aren't addressed here. But, if you find yourself stumped, the best thing to do is think for yourself with the big picture in mind; don't just start asking others for answers. It's good to seek advice, input, opinions of various sorts, but take them for what they are: one person's opinion. No one is expert enough at this field to speak authoritatively on every situation. All they can do is relate their own opinions and experiences and speculate based on what they'd do. No matter what you are told, you will find someone with an opposite experience or opinion to counter-balance it. If you learn to think for yourself, that will be the best decision-making tool you will have.

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