• October 2011

Penny for Your Thoughts

He saw it coming. More than a decade ago, illustrator Michael Gibbs was peppered with offers to sell his artwork to be used as stock by big distributors. The promise was that the volume would make up for the difference in the cost of a commissioned assignment. Gibbs knew better.

Although Gibbs did create his own stock website, www.stockillustration.com, and has posted and sold his own work since before the last major recession—he refused the other offers. Check out his perspicacious forecast for what he saw coming for artists, and learn why so many of his contemporaries have gone out of business.

By Michael Gibbs
Illustrator & Designer

“Pile it high, sell it cheap.”

This is the motto of the U.K.‘s largest supermarket chain. But one could be forgiven for thinking it’s the motto of the stock illustration business in this new age of stock illustration houses and royalty-free illustration.

For illustrators, the large stock houses and royalty free CDs (RFCD) now invading the market are a new breed, not to be confused with direct stock or the selling of one’s own stock. Any illustrator who values commissioned assignments, the dynamics of working with clients, the perception of illustration held by clients and the public, and the reward and fulfillment that comes from creating inspired, meaningful illustration should be concerned.

The issues fueling this discussion are not about stock itself, but rather how to sell stock. Stock illustration can be a valuable part of illustrators’ livelihoods, beneficial to themselves as well as their clients if sold and controlled responsibly. Artists have been selling secondary rights to their own work for years without inflicting the damage caused by the off-the-shelf concepting and opportunistic price-slashing of the stock houses and RFCD vendors.

The unfettered growth of stock has destroyed the delicate balance that’s traditionally existed between commissioned work and re-use, and it’s a malignancy that threatens the entire industry.

Hindsight is 20/20

In the beginning it all seemed benign. The premise, of course, was to blow the dust off the archives and make some extra money without any work, beyond the light dusting. Great idea, right?

Well it might have been, if all those illustrations were sold—fairly—into an untapped market. But they are being dumped—aggressively—into an already competitive one. No untapped market existed, so the stock houses devoured a large chunk of an existing one. What they couldn’t devour, they devalued.

Being a new business concept to illustrators, it was hard to see past the hype to the altered landscape beyond. With prices for illustration already stagnant for decades, illustrators were easy to romance. The financial chicanery was easy to fall for, but in hindsight, the consequences should have been painfully obvious.

The entire premise of “extra money” is a false one. Stock and RFCDs don’t generate extra money, they replace one paycheck with another, smaller one.

Experienced illustrators may have seen selling their work to stock distributors as a chance to increase business, or generate that “extra cash.” Those just starting out may have seen it as an opportunity to attract clients. But the “extra cash” was an illusion, and the clients belong to the stock houses, not the illustrators. Those clients are quickly getting accustomed to slashed prices and fast delivery, and, sadly, trading craftsmanship and uniqueness of vision for mediocrity and off-the-shelf concepting.

It’s turning illustration from an idea market into a flea market. From a mixed assortment of individual artisans to a warehouse full of secondhand, often second-rate work.

The middleman meets his match.

Before the advent of stock houses, illustrators sold their stock themselves. By doing so, illustrators maintained the integrity of their images and their reputations, retained control of their artwork, obtained reasonable fees, interacted directly with the client, and made the sale without undercutting their own business or unfairly encroaching on the businesses of others.

But now selling stock is big business. Its players play by different rules. And like it or not, it’s here to stay. Until recently, illustrators’ options have been limited, but fortunately the stock houses are being challenged, albeit belatedly, in two distinct ways:

  • Direct stock outlets, and
  • Increasingly efficient and sophisticated marketing by individual illustrators.

Through the direct stock outlets, illustrators have the marketing clout necessary to go up against the middlemen. These direct stock options are available both in print and online.

Direct stock books recently have been introduced by American Showcase and The Workbook.

Direct stock websites have hit the Internet. Illustrators’ rep Jerry Rapp, who has observed a declining demand for assignment illustration over the last several years, suggests “doing stock yourself or through a website like The I Spot. These direct stock outlets share a few things in common that differentiate them from stock houses and RFCDs:

  • illustrators retain ownership of their artwork and all rights
  • illustrators negotiate their own fees and can receive fair market value
  • illustrators deal directly with the buyer/client, retaining their clients and developing new contacts rather ceding them to the stock houses
  • illustrators keep 90-100 percent of the fee
  • illustrators control how and where their images are used
  • illustrators maintain a healthy respect for their image, their craft, their profession, and each other.

In addition to these direct stock outlets, many illustrators have recently begun to sell stock, or change the way they sell it. The time-worn tradition of stock sales—selling occasional secondary usage to clients familiar with a handful of images—is being replaced by a more proactive, formal approach. Many illustrators’ websites now offer stock images, and increasingly those sites feature sophisticated search capabilities.

These individual stock sites dovetail neatly with the independence sought by most illustrators. As illustrator David Lesh observes: “Does ‘freelance’ end when we put down the brush? Are we really too lazy and ill-equipped to handle our own business affairs? Take a business course if you must, but don’t give in to the easy money promised by stock houses at the price of giving up your autonomy.”

This is your brain on stock: splat!

Art schools teach, and illustrators know, that good illustration is one half concept, one half execution.

Stock houses would disagree and say that’s only half right. StockArt.com’s Richard Askew, in the 1998 CA Design Annual, opines that “stock illustration is of equal, if not greater, value than commissioned work because it allows the client to avoid the hassles of sketches and concepts.”

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that these middlemen would adopt this viewpoint. After all, they have a vested interest in conditioning illustration buyers to pick out pre-fab, instant art rather than deal with ideas and sketches and the illustrator’s imagination—and its attendant creativity, spontaneity, and uniqueness. Those ideas and sketches are what make illustration a unique, dynamic, vibrant solution to visual communication, the very foundation on which successful illustration is built. In this new world of stock house illustration, concepting often becomes a superficial process exercised by a designer on the spur of the moment, based on a quick scan through a stock illustration catalog or two, often settling for something that’s “close enough.”

The stock house catalog becomes the concepting tool, replacing the illustrator. Overexposure to stock nurtures this off-the-shelf, lackadaisical approach to art direction, trading the limitless potential of illustrators’ imaginations for a limited selection of used, redundant, often cliché images. It trivializes the role of the art director and eliminates the illustrator.

It may be expedient, but it’s not inspired. Good illustration requires thought. Refining and communicating those thoughts require sketches. Sketches require time. It’s a necessary part of concepting, visual communication, and good illustration. Whether finding the right solution is a “hassle” is a matter of perspective and motive. Searching for a strong solution, or a novel one, can be more challenging than searching for the easy solution, but challenge is part of any worthwhile endeavor.

Undoing It All

Most illustrators got into this business out of a love for creating pictures, solving visual problems, illuminating ideas, perfecting a technique, and developing a unique style.

Most have an independent streak that relishes autonomy.

Most also, in some point of their thinking, considered the chance of making an acceptable living, and if they are lucky, a good living. Certainly those with mortgages and families to support give it some thought.

Though few appreciate it when they begin, they are methodically assembling a catalog of intellectual property, an inventory of illustrations that, with success, acquires a value of its own, the equivalent of stock in oneself. This is valuable property, for illustrators and their heirs. It’s not simply boxes of art, it’s a potentially invaluable revenue stream for years to come.

Most take immense pride in their individual work; those who attended the Illustration Conference in Santa Fe in October felt the collective pride the entire industry shares. Stock houses undo all of that.

Unless illustrators stop colluding with stock houses and RFCDs, and illustration buyers reevaluate how, and why, they buy illustration, stock houses and royalty-frees will take over the illustration community, decimating the studios on Main Street and leaving illustration as we now know it a boarded-up memory.

What are your thoughts? Send Michael Gibbs an email.

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