Leaving iStockPhoto Exclusivity

iStock Exclusive Contributor Or Not?

Updated: 2018

“Should I go iStock exclusive or not?”

That must be one of the most common questions asked in the world of selling stock media. But why? First, a brief history on it.

iStock Exclusive Or Not? When It Made Sense.

Wind the clock back to 2008 for example. Imagine you are starting fresh in selling your photos or vectors.

Before you could even get started with your first sales, you had an important decision to make that would shape your entire view of selling microstock. It boiled down to this – exclusivity vs non-exclusive. And pretty much the only agency that made sense to consider for exclusivity was iStock.

There is no doubt that iStock (now officially named ‘iStock by Getty Images’, formerly known as ‘iStockPhoto’) has earned its contributors some serious cash over the years. Especially the iStock exclusive contributors.

In fact, for many years it made good financial sense to stick all your eggs in one basket and become an iStock exclusive illustrator or photographer. Exclusive artists were earning high commissions, getting search ranking boosts and selling huge amounts of images.

Another big plus was you only had to deal with one agency. That meant only one set of standards to learn. One company to keep up with. One way of thinking to perfect.

But, in the world of microstock, times aren’t what they used to be.

Does It Make Sense To Be iStock Exclusive In 2018?

While iStock still ranks in the top earners for a few, it’s sales have massively declined for many exclusive artists. This is scary when they are your only source of income from microstock. There are many reasons for this apparent decline.

For a number of years the website had a huge list of bugs, glitches and errors that affected both buyers and contributors. They were almost entirely unaddressed despite repeated calls from the vocal contributor base.

The buyout by Getty didn’t help.

Getty hasn’t had the best history of looking after its contributors. In fact, it pays one of the lowest royalty rates in the industry (non-exclusives at iStock earn a tiny 15%).

Also, competition became fiercer than ever and Shutterstock gained more market share by the day. Add to that the complicated RC system that left more artists on reduced commissions and you begin to see why many started to question the benefits of staying exclusive at iStock.

Exclusive artists can do little to improve matters, other than continue to upload new content and hope that things improve.

Thus many exclusive illustrators and photographers at iStock are faced with a big decision. Essentially the same big decision as when they probably started selling microstock – should I leave iStock exclusivity and become an independent microstock artist?

The answer most likely is yes – go independent.

Leaving iStock Exclusivity (or ‘Dropping the Crown’)

2013 was the year when the mass exodus of exclusives from iStock began. If you have hung on until now, it’s still not too late to go it alone. But what are the factors to consider if contemplating leaving as an iStock exclusive?

  • Am I prepared to deal with MANY microstock agencies, instead of just one?
  • Am I prepared to learn all the requirements of the different agencies?
  • Am I prepared to take a hit in earnings for the first 12 months, to see longer terms results?
  • Can I get my images uploaded quickly to all the best sites, so as to reduce the income hit?
  • If the other sites only accept X% of my iStock portfolio, will that still be enough to make an income?
  • Without the boost of being an exclusive, will my images be competitive enough in the wider marketplace?
  • Am I doing this just for fun, or do I need to continue to make wise business decisions and take risks to ensure my long-term viability?

Road Arrows Stock Photo

As for the third point, taking a hit in earnings, 12 months seems to be the time-frame that a few former exclusives have thrown around as being the point where you start recovering your earnings (and perhaps surpassing what you made at iStock). But that will vary with each persons portfolio quality, content and speciality, as well as whether you are a stock illustrator or photographer (or video for that matter).

In the end, what it really comes down to is that no-one else can make your decision for you. You can read endless forum threads or blog posts about the subject and you will see some that it worked for (the majority), and others who regret the move (harder to find).

It’s a gamble, just like going exclusive in the first place was. The best advice would boil down to doing the math as best you can, and then taking a chance either way.

I’m quitting as an iStock Exclusive – What now?

So let’s say you’ve made up your mind, and have decided to leave as an exclusive. What should you begin doing immediately? Join the best sites and start uploading right now.

Some sites, like Shutterstock, allow you to get your content online without having it go live to the public, then flick a switch and have it activated immediately. This is perfect for an exclusive artist who doesn’t want any downtime between the move.

As for what microstock agencies to join, you would do well to look at our Best Microstock Agency list and try as many as you can. Different ones work better with different portfolios.

In summary, does it make sense to be iStock exclusive in 2018? From our perspective, almost certainly not. But you also don’t have to leave them entirely. Staying on as an independent might be a good move (you can read our general iStock Contributor Review) to continue having them as an income stream.

Leaving behind iStock as an exclusive artist may be hard if you’ve been with them a long time. But it may just be the right move. Reapply yourself to learn how the other agencies work and get uploading. You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Are you an iStock exclusive in this situation? Thought of other questions iStock exclusive’s should consider? Leave your thoughts for others below.

10 replies
  1. KIM
    KIM says:

    My name is Kim, and I have been contributing to stock photography /illustration since November 2004.

    I started with one company and became an exclusive Contributor with them, I remember the excitement Back Then with my first download being $.10, I also remember In those days there was such a community spirit and everybody was Happy… the contributors Were happy the company was happy it was a great time.

    I had made it as far as diamond and my income ranged anywhere from $900 to an occasional 1500 in a month with only one agency!

    Over a year ago that agency I was with completely changed how they calculate royalties and due to this change I saw my income from that agency gradually dwindle Down to half what it was and less as prices also increased and the overall economy as well as my lack of new content.

    I decided to cancel my exclusivity with that particular agency as I learned a lesson about depending so much on one agency being able to pull the rug out from under you.

    I am now in the process of branding myself With my own website http://www.kimscreativehub.com and logo, which is an exciting and fun process.

    What happened to my income when I dropped my exclusively back in June 2012, well, I lost half of what I had left on a monthly basis with them, I am starting to make ground back now, also, I am still adding the rest of my portfolio to the other agencies .

    Do I regret the switch, no I feel like I have more opportunities going this direction, and not having all my eggs in one basket I think leaves me less vulnerable to having being so affected by one company and what they decide to do.

    I would like to say a big thanks to Tim of Microstockman, he has done an awesome job with this website and article and I’m very thankful that he started the conversation about this subject and I look forward to everyone’s comments :)

    • MicrostockMan
      MicrostockMan says:

      Thanks a lot Kim for taking the time to comment so thoroughly. Very interesting to learn a little more about how your income was affected, glad it is starting to pick back up for you again.

      I notice you have only put a fraction of your portfolio online with the agencies you have joined since leaving exclusivity, such as Shutterstock and Depositphotos. I am curious as to what your reasoning is to starting off slowly, rather than getting as much of your port online as possible right away (as I mentioned in the post above)? Hope thats not too personal to ask :)

    • MicrostockMan
      MicrostockMan says:

      Hi Gord,

      You are allowed to sign up whenever you want, the problem is SELLING. So you can sign up right away with all the sites, but just make sure you don’t upload content yet. That way you can get all your account info setup, so you can focus on uploading when you are ready.

      Shutterstock is a little different in that they allow you to sign up, have your portfolio “turned off” in the account settings, and then upload as much content as you want so that you are ready to “turn it on” after your 30 days period has ended. That way all your content can be instantly available without breaking your 30-day iStock clause.

      Hope that helps. All the best with it.

  2. Julie
    Julie says:

    Nice blog. With the price raise, I’ll leave exclusivity. I have no choice. I have 3000 photo, since 2004, but selling 5-6 per day maximum since. It was my living. Is not anymore I got to find another job. Make me feel very depressing about istock and how a community with everyone happy, became a business with all contributor frustrated.

    • MicrostockMan
      MicrostockMan says:

      Hi Julie,

      So sorry to hear that after so many years with them you have to make such a difficult decision. It is so sad that so many contributors put in so much effort with iStock, only to have their conditions degraded again and again over time. Amazing that a company can act that way when it relies on a supportive contributor base.

      I really hope that you can make a go of it with the other sites. With 3000+ photos I’m sure you will do well. It may take a year or so, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you catch up and then exceed your former earnings once your portfolio is online for a while.

      Really hope it works out for you and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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