24 Jan 2011 How to Negotiate with New Microstock Agencies

Did you know that, as a microstock contributor, you can negotiate for a better deal with new microstock agencies? Turns out many of the top microstock contributors do this for each new agency that solicits their portfolio. And with great success!

After evaluating a new agency and determining that it’s likely a profitable opportunity for you, or close to it, negotiating can help decrease the cost of submitting and increase the profitability of the partnership. But what can you request in your negotiations? Which agencies will be open to negotiations? And, how do you know how much negotiating power you have?

Which Microstock Agencies will Negotiate?

Business Negotiation - Joshua HodgeHistorically microstock agencies have not negotiated with any contributors at all. Even today, if you approach one of the top four agencies with the intention of negotiating you will have no success, regardless of who you are and how good your stock photo portfolio. Top agencies have enough selling power that they simply don’t need to negotiate. Their quantity of contributors also makes it impractical and creating a precedent would be dangerous.

However, new microstock agencies – and even smaller agencies that have been around for a while – don’t have the same selling power nor the same quantity of contributors. They also have a more desperate need for content. Given this situation they’re much more inclined to negotiate deals beyond the standard offer.

But before you start responding to the solicitation emails from new microstock agencies with a list of demands, you have to know how much negotiating power your microstock portfolio provides you. Even if you’re completely unattached to the outcome and you know the agency is desperate for content, they’re not going to bother negotiating with you if your portfolio has low sales performance.

What Gives you Negotiating Power

  1. Portfolio Quality – This is the single biggest factor to your negotiating position. Agencies need quality photos to please buyers. An agency boasting that they have a portfolio of a million photos doesn’t help if all photos are low-quality with lots of similars.   A contributor with 500 high-quality images that sell well has much more negotiating power than a contributor with 10,000 low-quality, low-demand photos with lots of similars.
  2. Portfolio Size – After quality comes quantity. Of two portfolios of equal quality, the larger portfolios is obviously more attractive for agencies. So the larger your portfolio is, the more negotiating power you have.
  3. Portfolio Uniqueness – Some stock photographers have a unique style, shoot a particular subject, or have a higher quality level to set themselves apart. This adds much more to their negotiating power than a photographer whose images are similar to those of every other stock photographer.
  4. Reputation – It’s not easy to build a reputation for having a high-selling microstock portfolio without actually having one. As a result, those contributors in the market with a strong reputation have what new and small microstock agencies need. The additional benefit for the agency is boasting about the high-profile contributors who have already signed up to encourage other contributors.

What to Request

Handshake stock photo - Joshua Hodge

  1. Bulk Submission – agencies can import photos in bulk from a hard drive or DVDs. This means no submission: no categorizing, no attaching releases, no disambiguation and no submit buttons. To take advantage of this, you’ll need to have a spreadsheet to manage your releases. Just put the filename of each photo in column A and list the release file names that apply to each photo in the other columns. Doing this once, and getting it setup as part of your workflow, is a worthwhile exercise as it opens up many more distribution opportunities. If any agency claims they can’t do bulk submission, don’t believe them. They may not be setup to do it easily, but it’s never that they can’t, only that they won’t.
  2. Blanket Acceptance – if it’s clear from your portfolio that you have a professional stock photography workflow and a high level of quality, it’s possible to negotiate blanket acceptance. This means no reviews; all of the images you submit are accepted and there’s no rejections. Not all agencies will be open to this request, and those that are will be very selective about who gets it.
  3. Exclusion from Subscription – stock subscriptions are a necessary component for agencies but usually not so lucrative for contributors. When a contributor with negotiating power thinks that they can earn more by not participating in subscriptions at a new agency, this is often something they will request. Again, not all agencies are open to it, but it can be worthwhile requesting if it’s important to you and you have a strong enough negotiating position.
  4. Matching Ranking Levels – not all new agencies have ranking levels like the top agencies, but when they do it can be lucrative to request that they match your other status levels. Fotolia have a formal program to do this for new contributors.
  5. No Upload Limits – microstock agencies use upload limits for a variety of reasons. New and small agencies use them to limit the cost of reviewing images from contributors who lazily upload directly from their memory card, without proper editing (selecting), or without proper attention to metadata. In this case, they’re likely to lift upload limits for contributors with proven experience when asked.

Premium Demands

Drawing a line in the sand - SharpshotWhen your microstock portfolio reaches a certain point you will have access to a whole new level of negotiating power. How do you know when you’ve reached that level? It’s simple. If you don’t already know, you’re not there yet.

Here’s what the top contributors can, and frequently do, demand of new agencies when they submit their portfolio.

  1. Higher Royalty Rates – this is perhaps the request that makes the most difference to the profitability of new agencies. When you see top contributors who seem to have their portfolio on every agency you come across, this is the reason why. By negotiating a high royalty rate, they ensure they’re not losing out from sales at other agencies.
  2. Prepaid Royalties – not all new agencies survive for very long. When they close down, contributors lose out as they’ve invested time and sometimes money to submit their images. But top contributors ensure they don’t miss out by demanding the agency pre-pay a set amount of royalties. If the agency fails, the contributor keeps the money. This is relatively low risk for the agency, but they must be well funded to make it work, and are likely extremely selective about which contributors get this request.
  3. Search Result Boost – not many microstock agencies let business get in the way of their relevance search result orders. It’s one of the most powerful tools of a microstock agency – and one of the biggest challenges – but it’s usually considered too important to artificially manipulate too heavily. New and smaller microstock agencies, like traditional stock photo agencies, will occasionally negotiate a boost to a contributor’s search result positions in order to convince them to contribute.
  4. Exposure – when you see new contributors promoted on a new or small microstock agency it’s not always just because the agency is proud. Some contributors negotiate for blog exposure, featured contributor status, or even inclusion in a press release.

Know Your Place

Stock photographers notoriously over-estimate the value of their own portfolios. Chances are you’re no exception. Starting a negotiation with “I think my portfolio is worth¦.” will inevitably result in a disappointing response. The solution is to use external measures that are publicly visible or can be easily demonstrated or verified:

  1. Check your ranking levels at the top agencies. iStockphoto and Fotolia have contributor ranking levels that are publicly visible. The higher you are, the more negotiating power you have.
  2. See where you fit on the iStockcharts rankings. This provides a simple numerical score of where you fit in the iStockphoto contributor base. Your rank may be disproportionately low if you’re new to iStockphoto or have a small portfolio, but expect the agencies you want to negotiate with will check out your rank anyway.
  3. Check your rankings on the MicrostockGroup rankings lists. Not everyone participates in these rankings, but it’s another data point that adds to the overall picture.
  4. Compare your portfolio size to the top contributors. Dreamstime lists the largest contributor portfolios on their Community & Stats page.

It’s not a numerical measure, but you can also compare the quality of your portfolio to that of the top contributors. View their portfolios sorted by downloads to get an idea of what makes a high selling stock photo. In this context, suitability for stock is a prime measurement, so pay attention to the subjects and style as well.   This will be what makes the bosses of new microstock agencies bend to your demands.

With a little background research and a solid understanding of your position in the market, you can make new microstock agencies work hard for you instead of the other way around. Imagine seeing those solicitation emails as an opportunity for lucrative distribution expansion rather than the dread of yet another new microstock agency.

  • Cory
    Posted at 12:31h, 24 January Reply

    Nice post. I’m not sure about my negotiating power, but it doesn’t hurt to see what you can get.

  • Michael Brown
    Posted at 12:51h, 24 January Reply

    This information is very useful and well presented. I’ve been doing microstock since 2005, and I’ve read a lot of blogs about it. Most are rehashes or just for newbs. This, in contrast, is good stuff.

  • CandyBox Photography
    Posted at 15:03h, 24 January Reply

    Lee, again right on time 😉 Maybe “productivity” and “reliability” are not bad asset when negotiating whit a new agency…Great post anyhow.

    Cheers, JM

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 16:08h, 25 January Reply

      Yes, two excellent points which I’m sure add to the negotiating power of contributors – such as yourself – who have them (productivity & reliability) in spades!

  • John Griffin
    Posted at 01:20h, 25 January Reply

    From your post.

    “Search Result Boost – not many microstock agencies let business get in the way of their relevance search result orders. It’s one of the most powerful tools of a microstock agency – and one of the biggest challenges – but it’s usually considered too important to artificially manipulate too heavily. New and smaller microstock agencies, like traditional stock photo agencies, will occasionally negotiate a boost to a contributor’s search result positions in order to convince them to contribute.”

    Anyone that creates distortion like this on purpose is a complete idiot and to the detriment of other contributors. I know we have been asked the the answer is always the same, no.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 16:10h, 25 January Reply

      This is more common in the traditional stock photo market where it’s a significant bargaining variable. Microstock is very different in this way. It’s great to see microstock agencies putting the most suitable photos up front rather than the most profitable. Ultimately that’s what keeps buyers happy.

      I’m also glad to see that Cutcaster is keeping the search results untarnished in this way.

  • Tyler Olson
    Posted at 05:41h, 25 January Reply

    Very well covered Lee.

    My experience with negotiating is pretty limited, but the few times I had my images automagically imported into an agency I didn’t create an excel spreadsheet (do any microstock photographers really have this?)… I really don’t think I could bring myself to spend the time doing this. The agencies requested that I put the releases in organized folders together with the images they involve. This process was quick and as it was the same for several agencies I uploaded to so I could use the same sorting method once it was in place. Another agency just made me sign a paper saying I am legally responsible for having the releases.

    Anyhow great list – it is important for photographers to realize they have some bargaining power in the deal as well.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 16:21h, 25 January Reply

      Yes, most of the top microstock photographers have these spreadsheets. As you will have just read in an email I sent to you, your experience of needing them is – unfortunately – about to change. Signing a declaration that you have them would be the ideal, and I guess you could even negotiate for that too.

  • Paulo Simon
    Posted at 07:01h, 25 January Reply

    Interesting post. But I am not sure till what level microstock agencies will accept negotiation,even with a great portfolio. I just think will be better to spend that energy with other kind of agencies,who can defend your interests better.. Or even too deal with clients directly,much more rewarding and worthwhile,for someone with the aim of becoming professional.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 16:31h, 25 January Reply

      Hi Paulo, this is not a theoretical situation. Agencies actually do negotiate with top microstock photographers. I developed this list through speaking with both agencies and top contributors, so this is what actually happens.

      And for top contributors, adding a new agency – especially when they’ve negotiated a great deal – is a very lucrative use of their time. They have large portfolios and can gain substantial extra revenue from each additional agency. They would spend much more time generating the same additional revenue through the production of more stock. Your point is totally valid for contributors with small portfolios, but for those with large, high-quality portfolios, the economics are different.


  • Holgs
    Posted at 02:39h, 27 January Reply

    Nice article Lee – I’d suggest one other point to consider, namely exclusion from the “we can change whatever we want whenever we want” clause which most agencies seem to have. If you’re going to the trouble of negotiating a special deal, I’d say you’d also have an interest in expressly locking that deal in.

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