19 Jan 2011 How to Evaluate a New Microstock Agency

When a new microstock agency launches there’s always a pitch for contributors. Sometimes we jump on board and contribute, and sometimes it works out and the agency eventually starts generating reasonable earnings.

But most of us have also seen the time and energy we spent submitting go down with the agencies that fail. We each develop our own requirements for what we need to see in a new agency before we start contributing. I thought I’d share some of mine.


Pricing - stock photoIt’s important that the agency doesn’t set their prices too low. It’s a common strategy for new microstock agencies to try to attract customers away from the established leaders by under-cutting pricing. As photographers we want prices to go up, not down and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that a large portion of photo buyers have low price resistance.

It’s also important that agencies don’t set their prices too high. Doing so makes it difficult to attract buyers unless they have exclusive content, so the agency will be unlikely to succeed. Zymmetrical‘s super high prices for the same content that was available everywhere else in the market likely contributed to their demise.

Royalty Rate

Cash Payout - stock photoNew agencies need to pay a royalty rate that’s higher than the average of existing agencies. If not, there’s no incentive for me to contribute there, potentially losing the sales I might make at a higher paying agency. I know this makes it difficult for the new agencies to build momentum, but it’s the simple economics of the current market. Agency managers that say, “bear with us why we build up the buyer base and we’ll raise royalties later” just don’t get it.

But of course royalty rates can’t be too high either. I don’t want to pick on Zymmetrical too much, but their 70% royalty can’t have helped their profitability either. Successful microstock agencies are able to consolidate their positions by having enough margin in the transactions to fund development and promotion.

I like to see new agencies with a royalty rate above average but still sustainable.

Something Original

In 2004 Shutterstock introduced microstock subscriptions. In 2005 Fotolia did the first submission incentive and StockXpert launched on the back of the popular Stock.xchng photo sharing site. These are the last examples of original strategies that took new microstock agencies to the top of the market, so I’m somewhat forgiving when applying this requirement.

There’s many unique strategies in the smaller and newer microstock agencies. Some fail. Some just survive. But others do well enough to provide a positive return on the investment (and risk) of contributing to a new agency. What I’m yet to see is an agency with nothing original provide that positive return on investment.

I don’t expect original strategies to be enough to take an agency to the top of the market, but I don’t intend to contribute to any new agency that doesn’t have something original.


Anonymous - stock photoA disturbing quantity of new agencies launch under a cloak of anonymity. They don’t put the names of owners or managers or even staff on their websites. Many don’t provide a physical address, or use the physical address of a virtual office service. Some even use privacy services to hide the contact details of their domain name registrations. I know some of the reasons why people would want to do this, but I don’t think any of them outweigh the suspicion it creates for both contributors and buyers.

I won’t submit my photos to an anonymous agency because there’s a high possibility the people behind the agency have something to hide – something that they don’t want me to know for fear that I won’t submit. Plus, my content is important to me and I want to be able to take appropriate action if something nasty happens and I want my content removed. PLUS, how is an anonymous agency going to convince a large number of buyers to spent large amounts of money?

Market Knowledge

Confused - stock photoWe’ve seen many examples of new microstock agencies launched by people who don’t understand stock photography, or don’t understand microstock. As contributors we can detect outsiders from that first ‘send us your photos’ email we receive. It’s a clear sign that the agency is destined to make mistakes that the industry has already learned from.

Such agencies either fail or learn from their mistakes. By waiting for either of those things to happen I avoid contributing to agencies destined to fail.


New microstock agencies that are under-capitalized, bootstrapped, or worse: a one-man band, simply don’t last long in the microstock market. It takes a long time for agencies to build momentum and there’s a lot of very expensive costs to get a serious agency operational. They need to have enough capital to survive and continue to develop until they become cashflow positive. It’s easy to spot these agencies from the design of their website and the information within it.

At the other end of the scale, agencies with boatloads of cash can often overcome the other requirements. Recently launched microstock agencies seem to have overcome the ‘something original’ and ‘anonymous’ requirements for many other contributors. There’s nothing like a fat submission incentive to make microstockers overlook an agencies shortcomings.

What are Your Criteria for New Microstock Agencies?

Looking back over my past decisions it’s clear I haven’t always adhered to these criteria in the past. Some of the criteria were generated from negative and disappointing experiences. Hopefully publishing them here will help others avoid the same experiences.

What about you? Do you use different criteria? Which ones are important for you?

  • Rahul Pathak
    Posted at 20:03h, 19 January Reply

    Nice post, Lee. I realize you’re focusing on the contributor, but a new agency’s strategy for getting buyers is also critical.

    CEO & Founder

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 20:27h, 19 January Reply

      Thanks Rahul. I had ‘strategy for getting buyers’ in my head for the ‘something different’ section, just didn’t get it onto the page. But yes, I obviously agree.

  • Tyler Olson
    Posted at 20:06h, 19 January Reply

    This looks like a great list to refer to when considering a new stock agency… or send people to when they wonder if they should join.

    One big factor for me is the upload process. If a site is new and not making sales, I am not going to put in several days (weeks) time uploading images. Uploading on new sites has to be extremely seamless and quick. There has been a few new sites I thought I would check out and ended up turning around in the door after painfully uploading my first few images

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 20:33h, 19 January Reply

      Hey Tyler, yes, an efficient upload process is a good criteria to use. I use that one too and would file it under ‘market knowledge’, though in hindsight, it would have been more appropriate as a separate criteria. Next time…

  • Luis Santos
    Posted at 20:23h, 19 January Reply

    Regarding anonymity what do you know about PhotoSpin? thanks 🙂

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 20:36h, 19 January Reply

      Hey Luis, I know a little and have spoken to the owner. I’m not a fan of their particular business for a variety of reasons, though I’m glad to see they’ve finally capped the unlimited subscriptions. From what I’ve seen so far I have no reason to suspect they’re not trustworthy, but I don’t recommend contributing there at this time.

      • Luis Santos
        Posted at 20:39h, 19 January Reply

        I have uploaded a few files around 200 (old stuff and 50% rejected on agencies) have 3$ for 18 sales.. I will wait a little longer to see how it goes.. still thinking.. but the 4x cheaper than SS and customer can downloads 2x more..

  • Ben
    Posted at 20:27h, 19 January Reply

    Having been exclusive for years at istock, I haven’t considered this question. But it is a great post!

  • Jo Ann Snover
    Posted at 20:54h, 19 January Reply

    It’s a good summary of the issues contributors face. There would be a couple more I’d mention (based on the problems I’ve had on sites that I uploaded to but which never took off). I’d also echo Tyler’s comment about ease of the upload process.

    – Can you delete your own images? Are there any restrictions on how long content must remain? When you can’t delete your own images and things go south, you really don’t have the necessary tools to control your own images. One now-defunct agency just stopped responding to contributors and only let you delete one image a day.

    – Low payout threshholds are helpful when an agency is new and sales volume is low.

    – Clear and detailed reporting of sales and earnings – transparency is an important part of building trust.

    Something another contributor once said about new agencies might bear repeating. The suggestion was to upload a set of the known top sellers from other agencies. If the new agency couldn’t generate $xxx a month from the known sellers, then uploading anything else probably wasn’t worth the effort.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 12:04h, 21 January Reply

      Thanks Jo Ann, all great points. I particularly like the strategy of uploading proven sellers. I do that myself (I send my top 50) but didn’t think to include the strategy in the post. Thanks for suggesting it.


  • Leremy
    Posted at 23:44h, 19 January Reply

    Agree to these. And as Tyler said, uploading process also plays an important factors.

  • Steve Gibson
    Posted at 07:44h, 20 January Reply

    Following on from Tyler’s comments I think I’d mention something about the overall way the site looks and operates. You can tell a lot from how much or little was spent on the function and the aesthetics. The search is also a big tell-tale, search is hard to do so a few choice ‘unusual’ keywords can reveal a lot about how many images are there and how happy the buyers will be with the results (are they just in order of upload, or ranked in some way would you buy any of them, is it easy to buy them?).

    For comparison I posted my own criteria a while back at the bottom of http://microstockinsider.com/guides/the-long-term-reviews
    (Note that I tend to upload to some sites to ‘try it out’ if I was not writing reviews, I’d probably not bother with a lot of them)

    Interesting you mention the funding, I guess it’s something I have in the back of my head, I probably should put a little more weight on.

  • paul prescott
    Posted at 19:23h, 20 January Reply

    Lee, nice post. I gave up a while ago even considering adding new agencies. When I look at the figures, it is better to stick to just a few agencies, and concentrate on shooting. Or else you spend more time administrating than photographing.
    I hope you will comment on Fotolia’s new pricing. Maybe pricing across the board, to give us an insight into how end prices and contributor prices are evolving, and if agencies are finding new tricks to raise prices, but keep contributions to a minimum.
    Look forward to your next post!

  • dbltapp
    Posted at 21:11h, 20 January Reply

    Regarding this segment of your article dealing with “… new agencies launch under a cloak of anonymity.” and “I know some of the reasons why people would want to do this…”

    So why WOULD legitimate businesses go to such lengths to hide their identities?

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 09:08h, 21 January Reply

      Keep in mind that it’s my opinion that none of these reasons justify anonymity, but here’s some that I know of:

      • Avoiding phone calls and other contact from contributors and customers before they have a customer service center setup
      • Keeping ‘associations’ that are not positive from being known (like the DepositFiles example)
      • Avoiding conflicts of interests (some agency owners have “day jobs” or work in other areas of the industry)
      • Avoiding negative reactions from peers – some traditional stock pros have been heavily criticized by their colleagues for getting involved with microstock)

      Again, I don’t think any of these reasons outweigh the benefit of being open about who’s behind a new microstock agency, or any business, but these are some that I’ve seen cited or can imagine being the excuses used by the owners.


  • Stuart Littlechild
    Posted at 03:31h, 21 January Reply

    Thanks for this info, seems to me that all the creative time and shooting becomes worthless (financially) when using companys as described….does it turn the photographer into a image whore for others to make the cash ?
    Maybe I will just stick to creating and shooting and not sell my soul.


  • paul prescott
    Posted at 05:03h, 21 January Reply

    @stu. all people somehow prostitute their time for money. Even ‘real’ artists need to survive. I think, getting pleasure prostituting yourself, is what counts.

  • Cory
    Posted at 16:55h, 21 January Reply

    I’m big on reading through their licensing agreements. Nothing says partnership like a nice lengthy contract. 🙂 Plus, you want to know exactly what you are agreeing to.

  • CandyBox Photography
    Posted at 18:36h, 21 January Reply

    Right on time, Lee… Great read! Business deals should always be based on “Win-Win” relationship…so as soon as you can’t get out the new agency what YOU as contributor wants (read need), just do not participate in a deal you do not feel comfortable about. We all have different “needs” as contributors…Remember that in business there are no hard guarantees and a contract is just another piece of paper. You can’t be sure that a new agency will be successful and will return your time investment, uploads time etc. All the suggestions above are great and very well thought!
    I personally do very much value the possibility the get personal contact with responsible persons by the agency and never trust to good sounding deals! remember that whatever new agency is supposed at the end of the day to generate profit from (your)images sales… so business after all 😉 Cheers Lee.

  • Stuart Littlechild
    Posted at 05:31h, 22 January Reply

    So very true above…. I did think about going with the flow but then the photographer business side of me said hold on … sell my image created by
    me all for a few cents ? That is unless you upload many of them to earn a dollar and make others many dollars as said thats bussiness …. sure aint Fairtrade to me….
    great debate guys … nice to get it out into the open wish others would speak the truth.
    cheers all
    Stu aka Dreadzeps.com

  • Luke
    Posted at 00:20h, 08 March Reply

    Thanks for the tips, your site has been an inspiration for me. I have contributed to Istock for about 4 years, but you have helped give me the reasurance to branch out to some new agencies. Keep up the good information!

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