Part 1 - Introduction. How to start selling stock photos (microstock)
Part 2 - Stock photography business
Part 3 - Taking your stock photography to the next level
Part 4 - Selling fine-art prints, self-published books
Part 5 (this page) - How to grow your photo business
Significant portion of the topic is covered in Part 3. This part will further elaborate on your growth options, focusing first on overcoming a plateau in sales.
Many micrstock photographers reported reaching a plateau in sales at certain point. I experienced it myself several times. I mean I continued to upload new photos but my sales per month remain flat.
On the other hand, if I stop uploading for a long time my sales remain flat too, though at a lower level. Some other photographers mentioned the same phenomenon: they stopped uploading for some reason, sales drop at first (up to 30% or less, sometimes even no decrease), but then sales remain stable for a long time.
For example, Jonathan Ross (who is one of the most successful stock photographers in the world) has mentioned that he continues to get a stable income after he didn't upload to microstock for 2 years.
One simple consequence from these 2 observations:
Every portfolio has a threshold. If you supply the number of photos above the threshold your sales will grow. If you supply below the threshold the sales will stay flat.
Average beginners tend to reach their first plateay fairly quickly; and then can get to another plateu again and again. Even the most talented and successful photographers reach a plateu sometimes, though for them it is located on much higher level than for an average semi-professional contributor.
Remark: there are other factors having impact on sales, for example season (e.g. December sales are typically the lowest in the year). So when we are talking about plateu we need to compare the same month of the year across several years rather than one month to another. Also, changes in search algorythms made by the agencies might influence your sales.
The statement above about portfolio threshold is based on the assumption that you produce the pictures of the same quality as before, and on the same subjects. Thus an obvious consequence is:
To overcome a plateu and to grow your sales you have to either produce more pictures than before or you should produce better pictures and perhaps change your subject.
When I say "better pictures" I mean commerically better. It doesn't necessarily mean technical or artistic qualities, it means the pictures that sell better. Analyze your portfolio. Sort the pictures by the number of sales - how many of your pictures are never sold or sold only once? Look at your best selling pictures and try to find what distinguishes them from your pictures that don't sell. And aim to make new pictures with the same distinct qualities as your best sellers. That means "produce better pictures".
Another important thing is to step out of your comfort zone. Whether you are a beginner or an experinced photographer there are areas you are more experienced than the others; and probably there are subjects you never photographed. For example, most amateurs tend to do landscape, nature (including closeup/macro) and pets. Photographing people is a challenge for them. Another example is professional photographers photographing people might have no experience in food photography. Don't be afraid to take the challenge, try to explore new subjects. Some people would argue that it isn't something they like. Well, my advice is to do what you like, but still try the other things. You might not like it simply because you feel uncomfortable. When you experience and learn it you might start liking it.
Don't limit your exploration to one attempt. Keep trying new things again and again. Don't bustle, take your time to explore and learn new subject before you start the next one. But don't stay still in your comfort zone. Make a step out of it, learn the new thing until it becomes a part of your comfort zone, and then make the next step.
Unlike traditional stock, microstock is accessible to very many photographers. Thus competition in microstock is heavy. In total there are several tens thousand registered microstock contributors today. Not all of them are very active, but still there are several thousand photographers truly active in microstock.
To grow your microstock business you need to be competitive on the market. You can distinguish yourself from the competition by better pictures and/or by finding a good niche.
A good niche is basically a subject that has a strong demand but a limited supply, i.e. not a very heavy competition. Finding a subject with low competition isn't that difficult, but finding the one that has a strong demand is really tricky. Typically a good niche is something not easily accessible by mass photographers. For example good quality food photography remains a good subject with limited competition; and good quality pictures of interiors with property releases is another example.
Microstock is a typical example of so called "long tail" business. As with many other human activities, about 80 per cent of money is made by 20 per cent of contributors. However these 20 per cent are also spread un-evenly, i.e. something like 60-70 per cent of money is made by less than 5 per cent of photographers. If you put it on a chart you'll see a very high peak at the beginning that very quickly goes down, and then has a very long tail. (The char on the right is indicative and not precise)
There are 2 different approaches that can be used to grow your sales (and they can be combined). I mentioned them both already just without reference to the long tail.
One approach is to become more competitive by producing better pictures and/or finding a good niche.
Another approach is to compete by volume i.e. to produce more pictures of the same quality and same subject.
Of course a better approach is to produce more competitive photos and to increase the volume of production at the same time. And it's important to keep your costs under control (i.e. the cost of production should stay the same or grow slower than your sales). The top microstock photographers typically use this combined approach - they have portfolios larger than the contributors in the tail; and they have pictures better than in the rest of the tail.
Last update: January, 2012