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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.
Differences in Agencies
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.
Long-term vs. Short-term Relationships
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
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.
Many vs. Few Photographers
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
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.)
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.
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 badyou just have to choose wisely what's appropriate
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.)
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
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 waythey
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.
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.
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 themthey
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.)
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Approaching an Agency
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.
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
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.
Interviewing an Agency
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
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?"
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 thisafter
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.
Know where you are in the ranking.
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
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.
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 efficiencythe 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 processby providing keyworded
images in a database format, for examplethen that process will go faster.
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.
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.
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.
Usuallyor, at least, historicallythe 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Does the agency have rights protected ("RP") and royalty-free ("RF") work?
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.
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.
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 returndon'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.
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.
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.
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.
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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