Friday, April 27, 2012

iStockphoto’s Long Lingering Death

iStockphoto has a long history of controversial actions that make it appear as if adults are not in charge.  It started in early 2006 when Bruce Livingstone,  founder of iStockphoto in 2000, announced he had sold it to stock powerhouse Getty Images.  A huge debate raged in the forums on the future of iStock that was the most alarming for the Exclusives who had all of their eggs in one basket.  One comment that stood out for me from that time was when one of the more clueless posters wrote, "They couldn't beat us so they joined us."   I cringed at reading that.  No, poor soul, the big fish gobbled up the little fish.  And you and we are in the belly.
This was the start of the long decline.
In their latest move, a recent announcement stated that phone support for contributors was being terminated in what was termed a cost cutting move.  Only contacting support via e-mail is henceforth allowed.  It's amazing that a company, any company, would make such a preposterous decision as this.  I can't imagine a more insulting or disrespectful way to treat people that are the soul reason for your success.  It shows somewhere up the corporate chain, a contempt for the people that made iStock what it is, or was.  And to add a dash of incompetence to the mix, the contributor agreement (i.e., contract) clearly states that phone support is to be supplied to all contributors!  It appears they drew their guns and fired too fast.  An update on that should be forthcoming.  
Anyway, it's ironic that a photographer, videographer or illustrator in the higher bracket, earning Getty/iStock $50,000 to $100,00 a year in sales can't get phone support when a guy buying a $1 image can.  
It wasn't clear at first but it certainly is now that Getty bought iStockphoto for one purpose, and that was to rein in the competition.  Sadly, many in the iStock community have never grasped this basic fact.  A generally smart bunch, they keep bringing up ideasmany quite goodregarding what management needs to do to get iStock to maximize its full potential in the marketplace, to produce happy buyers and happy contributors providing quality content. 
But it's hopelessly naive.  Their words are ignored and their pleadings never heeded.  Some people there actually think the Getty cabal actually cares what they think.  Maybe in the Livingston days but not now.  The business model is crowd sourcingget people to work for next to nothing.  It's an ancient tradition for those in Power.  That's why some Microstocks move the financial goals just as people are starting to make money and get ahead so the crowd sourcing model stays intact.  iStock did that when they changed the royalty structure in 2010 and made it performance based.   Meaning, sell a certain number of images and keep your royalty rate.  Don't and lose it.  I didn't and my 20% dropped to around 15%.  It's another way to remind the peasants at the gate that the gate is still shut. 
What was slow and subtle is now a blitz of blatant dismantling of the pioneering Microstock firm and the diluting of its content.  The last six years has been a routine of unpleasant announcements, followed by anguish in the site forums to calm being restored, only to have the same sequence of events play themselves out again, and again.  As time has gone on it's never let up.  Every new announcement is filled with trepidation for what lies ahead.  
Take a look at what has gone down in the past six years:  A brief history of events include changing the royalty structure so that many photographers/illustrators earn less, based on an absurd idea that the previous process was "unsustainable."  This from a company whose financial stats indicated that it is highly profitable since the content is not produced by them but by iStock members.  Salt was rubbed in the wound by having a now fired Admin tell contributors that, "Money won't make you happy...";  after massive credit card fraud in early 2011, Getty/iStock decided that the contributors would suffer the "clawbacks" not them.  One photographer reportedly lost over $5,000 in a clawback which is clearly a result of iStock's incompetent online security; they launched the higher priced Vetta Collection just to later dilute it with outside images from Getty's other stock collections; Getty photos don't need to pass through the rigorous file inspection which has raised the ire of many; the offering of logo designs just to terminate the project after a long period of inaction; PNG file format announced just to later be dumped after contributors had put many hours of work converting images over to the new format; launched Editorial images only to dump a ton of Getty editorial photographs to compete with member's images; constant tweaking of the search system resulting in feast or famine for members and making sure Getty, Vetta, and exclusive contributor's images have priority; Getty photos from their other online sites (known as collections) have flooded in and all are immune to exclusivity.  Meaning, these images are still for sale on other Getty-owned web sites which no iStock exclusive member is allowed to do; and finally, the afore mentioned canceling of phone support for all contributors.  
(This is just a brief history.  Go to iStockphoto's forums for the full history of controversies not covered here.)
Frankly, I don't know why photographers and illustrators that are Exclusive to iStock stay exclusive. Getty-iStock maintains what amounts to a basically abusive relationship with its suppliers.  They’ve committed enough outrages to have been sued many times over, yet strangely, they have avoided that fate so far.  I do acknowledge that it's a lot of work to go independent and start from scratch rebuilding multiple portfolios to a host of different stock agencies.  And that work also includes doing a lot of side labor such as key words,  description, selection of categories and so on.  I imagine if one has a large portfolio the job would take weeks, if not months, to accomplish. The future is staring the Exclusives in the eye.  There is nothing left but continued dominance of Getty's interests over that of iStock and its members and a flood of Getty content (which includes some hearty dreck) from all over the globe.  
So what do we have here?  More of the same actually.  Getty didn't buy iStock to make it boom, it bought it to remake it into a vassal state.  It's hard to imagine things getting much worse but I bet it can.  Many features on the site don't work right and haven't for years with apparently little incentive to ever fix them.  (We are told it's oh, so, complicated but the other stock agencies don't appear to suffer this malady and their sites are well maintained.)  iStock has the worst royalty rates in the business and that won't be getting better anytime soon.  Many Exclusives have turned in their crowns and are moving their content to other stock sites.  Sales are still pretty good, good enough for people to hang on a while longer.  It's good that an aspiring photographer can still sell images especially if he or she got in early onmeaning around 2005.  Now is not a good time for a rookie to sign up.  Continuing sales for the established are the only bright spot I see, providing they can tolerate the disrespect they will be subject to.