Corbis to take 'microstock' plunge

Established stock photography seller will take on a host of smaller rivals--and one bigger one--in the budding realm of low-cost online photo sales.

For the small army of photographers looking for Web sites to sell images at low prices, there already are many choices: Dreamstime, Fotolia, iStockphoto, Stockxpert, 123rf, BigStockPhoto, CreStock, LuckyOliver, Can Stock Photo, Shutterstock.

This month, Corbis, an established but traditional seller of stock photos, will add its name to the list as part of an effort to attain profitability. Until now, the company has missed out as this "microstock" market blossomed, with networks growing to encompass thousands of photographers and buyers. Gary Shenk, Corbis' president and, come July 1, its chief executive, is unworried about the timing.

"It's by no means too late," Shenk said. "We feel the microstock industry is still at the top of the first inning. Nobody's really emerged with the ultimate experience."

Corbis is the other company founded by Bill Gates, who still owns 100 percent of its shares. It has yet to become profitable, but the microstock site and Shenk's promotion to CEO are elements of a turnaround strategy.

"We're going to be acutely focused on profitability over the next couple months," Shenk said.

The growth of microstock sites has been fueled by the increasing quality of digital cameras, the eagerness of amateur photographers to make a little supplementary income, and an appetite for low-cost, royalty-free photos. Corbis' two biggest rivals moved into the microstock business in 2006, sending a clear message that the microstock business was to be taken seriously. Jupiterimages acquired a 90 percent interest in Stockxpert, and stock art leader Getty Images acquired iStockphoto.

The head of one microstock rival, Fotolia, said he's unworried about Corbis' arrival as a direct competitor. "They have the name of Corbis, but it's a new business," said Oleg Tscheltzoff, Fotolia's co-founder and president. "What makes a microstock site successful is the customers," and Corbis will have to attract a new set.

A warm welcome
Corbis may be late to the microstock party, but it won't need much of an introduction.

"I will definitely apply to the microstock offering from Corbis. No hesitation," said Lee Torrens, author of the Microstock Diaries blog and an amateur photographer who submits his own photos to several sites. Given that he's a hobbyist, not a professional, though, he has modest expectations Corbis will approve his work.

Deciding whether to join a new microstock--thereby potentially reaching a new batch of buyers--isn't the no-brainer it might appear to be at first glance. It takes time to upload photos, tag them with keywords and ensure that model release forms are filled out and attached when images show human faces. Torrens concluded earlier this year that some second-tier microstocks might not be worth his time.

Torrens expects Corbis to be worthwhile. Although it's hard for cash-strapped microstock start-ups to build critical mass, he said, Corbis "has a large existing business behind them, one of the top brands in stock photography and probably all the industry contacts there are," he said. "These same factors will give them sufficient advantage to easily overtake the second-tier players."

There often are incentives for stock photographers to sell their work exclusively through one site--iStockphoto lets top exclusive photographers keep 40 percent of the proceeds compared to 20 percent for ordinary members, for example--but Corbis is counting on photographers spreading their eggs among several baskets.

"One thing we have going for us is that photographers are submitting to multiple sites. Very few are exclusively submitting to one site," Shenk said.

That assessment was one factor in Corbis' decision to build its own microstock site rather than purchase an existing one. "None of these companies out there have enormous barriers to entry or competitive advantage," Shenk said. "We decided building it ourselves, given the valuation environment, was a much better way to go."

Corbis can offer microstock members something most others can't: access to the higher-end stock art market. "We're using the microstock as a farm club to find great photographers who can sell their photographs on the main Corbis Web site," Shenk said.

Microstock sites may have shaken up the stock photo business, but Shenk plans on doing some shaking of his own by taking the microstock business into new domains.

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