‘Race to the bottom’ – we’ve all heard this dreadful phrase to describe the current state of the microstock industry. Particularly after many agencies have unexpected and inexplicably rushed to negatively change contributor payment schedules.
The pressure on agencies to go lower on prices is aided by the growing presence of free-download (Creative Commons) photography agencies, such as Unsplash and Pexels, and the willingness of companies to use API services to seamlessly embed those free images into their workflow, newsletters, promo materials, and other forms of visual content.
Uploading to multiple stock photo sites seems to be the norm these days with only a minority of contributors choosing to go exclusive with Midstock agencies such as, Adobe Stock exclusive, Robert Harding, Getty and Offset by Shutterstock. The reason is simple, many contributors simply do not want to ‘put all their eggs in one basket’. In addition, earnings aren’t what they used to be, even within the premium exclusive agencies.
With this challenging backdrop in mind, are there still opportunities out there, for hard-working microstock contributors and if so, which are now the best places to sell stock photos?
Covid-19 lockdowns through 2020 and onto 2021 have ensured that the global book publishing industry, particularly those sold digitally via Amazon, goes from strength to strength. Every single one of those books will require a book cover, usually licensed via stock photo companies.
Sure, stock photo buyers, usually designers, may license photos from the likes of Adobe Stock, Alamy, iStock / Getty and Shutterstock for relatively cheap even with extended usages. However, those sites may not offer as many niche subjects, as well as the required exclusivity guarantee. Literally the last thing a publisher wants is a rival publisher using the same image/similar image within one of their books covers – more on this later.
Therefore, buyers may choose to go shop at more specialist agencies which cater to fine artsy type images that fit into the niches of romance, thrillers / suspense, crime, and period types of novels, etc. such as the following licensed via Trevillion:
Depending on usage, stock photography best seller royalties may be upwards to net $1,000. This is not a typo - Alexandre Rotenberg, also known as the Brutally Honest guy, has blogged about his experience, including earnings with book covers.
On average though, stock photo contributors can expect their images to be sold in the low net $100s each, which is considerably more than you would earn via Royalty-Free microstock licenses on any bread-and-butter stock photography websites. Before we get to specifics on selling such images, challenges, portfolio photos and tips, let’s take a quick look at the main players in the field.
There are two main premium agencies that provide imagery for the book cover industry, Arcangel Images and Trevillion Images. Both have impressive artistic collections, both have an exam to pass to become a contributor, and both provide contributors with significant royalties for sales, making them the best stock photo sites to sell book covers. However, Trevillion tends to be more selective on who they accept within their ranks.
Therefore, in this post we will concentrate on Arcangel as a more viable option to become a contributor, particularly from those transitioning from microstock photography.
Currently their collection has just over 800,000 online searchable assets and they accept both – photography and illustrations. Arcangel has an industry-leading commission, which is 50% on all sales made and no images are sold at bargain basement prices.
Relatively few images in their photo portfolios means that they’re bound to be selective, but it also means they have not reached the point of content oversaturation, which is good news for contributors, if/once accepted.
First, you must pass an exam, which can be submitted in two ways:
- You can send Arcangel samples of your work (least 20 low res jpegs (600 pixels) to firstname.lastname@example.org ; or
- You can use their online contributors form to submit samples of your work here.
For more details on applying, see their New Contributor’s Guide.
To pass the exam, it is crucial to understand what type of imagery Arcangel is looking for. Book covers require specific images with specific style and look. Get acquainted with their collection and portfolio photography examples before submitting your images - I bet you would find their work to be a tad different from what you’ve done in the past. Also, a good idea to look at some examples on Amazon for the niches outlined earlier, such as “thriller”.
As they say, a picture worth a thousand words, so before delving into specifics, take a look at the batch that passed the Arcangel quality exam, it will give you a better idea as to what is expected.
Let’s start with two obvious points:
Arcangel sometimes takes your image, cuts only the part that may work for the book cover and edits it to represent the desired concept. For the same reason, Arcangel has been known to create collages out of different images to create a book cover concept.
To illustrate this concept below, the source image used by Arcangel and the end result used for the actual book cover are shown below in two examples:
Tip 1: Embrace your dark side
Most book covers tend to be on the darker and moodier spectrum. Even adding grain to your images can be justified in some cases as the following.
Tip 2: Learn new post-processing techniques
One of the go-to tools for creating book covers is using VSCO (Visual Design Company) filters which are compatible with Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop, that emulate film and analog cameras from different vendors, such as Fuji, Canon, Sony, Leica and give images an artistic or even cinematic look, often with added grain, such as the following, with some adjustments, which was recently accepted within the Arcangel collection:
What makes creating book covers fun is that the world is your oyster and you can try any creative techniques that provide means to achieve the end result, which makes for a nice change from traditional microstock. For example, using photoshop brushes to create a torn paper effect can be useful in some cases and can provide a lot of copy space.
Bird and cloud overlays, dramatic sky replacements, sun flares, added lightnings… you pretty much have no creativity limits when it comes to creating book covers. Even if the themes are slightly on the controversial side.
Tip 3: Remove unnecessary details
Antennas sticking from the top of the buildings, ubiquitous tree branches that seem to invade every image, paintings, graffiti or spots on the walls, electric wires that criss-cross the sky, you name it – there is always something that gets in the frame that must be removed later.
If you do work with models, make sure that you pay attention to the small details, for instance if you’re creating a concept which is supposed to be in the 1940s, the clothes, make-up, technology and overall mood should match that period.
Tip 4: Embrace the “less is more” principle
Which leads on to the next point that most of us have an almost insurmountable urge to squeeze as many ‘great things’ as possible into a single image. It may work for beautiful city skyline panorama but doesn’t work for book covers. You should stay on topic, be minimalistic and learn to think in ‘end result’ terms of how it may be used to tell a story – you are creating a book cover, not a stand-alone image.
Tip 5: Persistence is key
Being accepted on Arcangel is not a breeze, as it often takes contributors an average of three times before being accepted. If you’re rejected, take it on the chin and look at it as an opportunity to improve by studying different image processing workflows / techniques. Perhaps you need to accept your ‘darker side’ to break the habit of processing images in bright saturated colors as required by most microckstock agencies.
Once you are in and once you figure out what is expected from you, the submission rejection rate on batches hovers upwards to 75% for new contributors. One of the great Arcangel features is that you do not need to use any microstock keyword tools, as all keywording is done in-house by the Arcangel team.
Additional tips can be found here:
As with any agency, building your photo portfolio on Arcangel and learning new skills for a niche market can take some time and effort. But the end-result is gratifying from a financial and creativity perspective. Having your photography work properly compensated is an extremely rare commodity these days and Arcangel is a rare agency that still provides fair pricing in 2021. Good luck!