Have you ever considered creating stock images to generate passive income? Stock up on some tips and best practices from someone who’s been doing just that, so that you can make the most of your efforts.
Anne Bracker has been a graphic designer for more than 15 years. She works at a small agency in Kansas City, and in her spare time, she creates vector images for stock websites and teaches design on her YouTube channel, Graphic Design How To. She was a featured session speaker and pavilion tutorial presenter at the Adobe MAX Creativity Conference in 2017 and speaks a few times a year at a local Adobe group. She continues to expand her passive income endeavors and increase her graphic design knowledge on a daily basis. Anne can also be found on Twitter @How2GraphDesign, Facebook and Behance.
Colleen Gratzer: Welcome to the podcast, Anne.
Anne Bracker: Hi, Colleen. Thanks so much for having me.
Colleen: You have a great YouTube channel and you have so many episodes about passive income. So how long have you been generating passive income?
Anne: Probably about three years. I started in 2015 with the stock sites, doing stock vectors. Yeah, so three years.
Colleen: How did you decide what to sell?
Anne: Well, I worked at an agency as a graphic designer for two years and we use ShutterStock for all our clients. And I noticed that the images that I was downloading the most were really in the business, healthcare and technology sectors so I decided to start making stuff for those. And right now, I do mostly icon sets. Because I noticed that’s what has made the most money over time.
Colleen: How would somebody figure out what they should sell? Is it something that they like to do, what they’re good at, where they see a need? What do you think works best?
Anne: I think if you see a need, that is probably the best spot to go. A lot of time if you’re just creating stuff you like to create, it might not be what someone wants to download. So I think marketing to a specific sector, or just doing stuff that you think will be downloaded a lot, that’s how you’re going to make money.
Colleen: And how often do you create artwork? I mean are you creating it in big bulk chunks and uploading it, or are you doing it consistently?
Anne: Well, I try to average one per day. But we all get super busy and that’s why I say average. Because I just cannot fit one in every single day. So a lot of times I’ll do 10 in one day, or 15 in one day. And then I upload everything the same day every week. I think it’s really important if you’re going to get into this to be consistent. So that means trying to get an average going, an average two a day or one a day, or even three a week if you can’t handle that. Also, choose a specific day of the week that you’re going to upload because that’s really important. The algorithms really focus on consistency and that’s across the board with YouTube, with Etsy, with the stock sites. They really want consistency. So they like to see you uploading new things all the time.
Colleen: And do you set any goals for income or the number of uploads you have? How does that work?
Anne: Yeah, when I first started out I set a goal of $10 a month. But just know that you’re not always going to make your goals and you should do it for about six months before really realizing what your goals should be. So, that first month I only made $1.81. And I had 10 images out there on one of the stock sites. And those 10 images just made $1.81. But as I kept going, I started learning what was wanted and you start getting ranked higher on the site. And then you can start really seeing what your goals should be. So after a while you should be saying $20 a month, $30 a month… As it goes, you can kind of get a good feeling of what your goals should be. But yes, you should make goals and try to hit them.
Colleen: So you said your rank was getting higher. What affects the rank?
Anne: I’m not 100% sure on that. And it’s different on every site. But I do know that consistency matters. You should always upload something every week. So that is really important.
Colleen: So that’s better than just uploading a whole bunch at one time is if you’re consistently doing it over time, that can actually help?
Anne: Yeah. Let’s say you have 10 images. You should spread those out. You should spread those out over two months. If you know you’re not going to be able to put any new images on in that two months, then just do two, upload two every week. And always do it on a Thursday morning. And I’m not 100% sure that the Thursday morning thing or whatever day you choose matters, but with YouTube and others I know it matters with those. So I just try to do what works with other sites because I think they all kind of share knowledge with those algorithms. The more consistent you can be, that is going to help.
Colleen: And if you’re uploading a lot more images, that’s going to help too. So if you’re consistent and uploading a lot of them.
Anne: Yeah. I’m guessing that there’s a max where they just don’t care anymore. You definitely want quality over quantity. So if you’re uploading seven images a week, I think that is plenty. I don’t think you’re going to get higher in the algorithm for uploading 10 or 40 a week over just, say, seven.
Colleen: And so you started this three years ago you said?
Colleen: How has this helped your income? Not specific numbers, obviously, but percentage wise, how have you seen this side income increase over that time?
Anne: Oh, I don’t even know exact percentages. But it really has made a difference in my yearly income. And it’s a nice little side income to have coming in every month. It’s like, “Oh, that’ll pay one bill at least.” And as you add more sites to your passive income streams, it all adds up. So you’ll have your really good ones that make a lot of money a month. Well, I wouldn’t even say “a lot.” But your best ones. And then you have some that are just making a little tiny bit. But even those will add up. So I really recommend getting your stuff on a lot of different sites, but not all at once.
I think you should start with just one site and get used to how that is and then add another site. Because if you try to do all of them at once, it is totally overwhelming. Every stock site is different and they all want different ways to upload. So it’s like I say get used to one, then add another one. Get used to that until you have them all. Have your portfolio on all of them.
Colleen: And what do these stock companies usually take into consideration when they’re accepting your work? I mean, they don’t just take everything I’m sure. So what kind of things do they look for?
Anne: They’re looking for absolutely perfect files that have no problems whatsoever. So if you’re talking about photography, it means all your images have perfect focus and perfect lighting. If you’re talking about vectors, you can’t have any stray paths or points in the artwork. They also want ones that’ll sell. So if they don’t think your image is going to sell, they won’t accept it. And they cannot accept copyrighted stuff. So you won’t be able to upload, say, social icons like Facebook or Instagram, that kind of thing.
Colleen: If you’re a photographer, what are some things to consider what you’re going to take a photo of? How do you decide what that’s going to be?
Anne: Well, I haven’t really done a whole lot of photography, but your images really have to be perfect. That’s the thing. If they’re not, they’ll just get rejected. And I find that lighting is the thing that holds me back because I don’t know a lot about it. But if you’re a photographer by trade, you’re going to have all that stuff down pat anyway.
If you have people in your images, they are definitely going to sell better. But if you have people in your images, you also need to get a model release and you have to upload that to the site when you upload your image. It’s always a good idea to specifically shoot for a specific industry. Like I said, healthcare, business, tech, those are going to do well. And then you want to do something that you haven’t seen a lot of before. So try to be unique. That is really helpful.
Colleen: And what about camera set up and file formats and resolution?
Anne: Well, I don’t actually know a whole lot about it. But I would just make sure my camera was on the highest resolution setting there is. I know that when I’ve downloaded images from ShutterStock, a lot of time they’ll be 19 MB. So that is a pretty big file. That is a very high-quality file. I’ve heard of people shooting images with their iPhone though, and those get accepted. So I think just if you set your camera on the best setting it can be, then you’re probably good.
Colleen: Now when creating vectors, like you already mentioned it has to be technically perfect, no stray points and things like that. When you’re working in a vector program like Illustrator, what do you have to take into consideration when creating them and setting them up?
Anne: Well, I always make my art boards 600 by 600, and that’s pixels. And I always export as an EPS 10 because it’s actually a really old vector format, but some people are still using, say, Illustrator 8. And so they need to be able to open those images. So if you do an illustrator 10, I have never had any problem with that what so ever. And that’s the way to go, really. And you’ll also need a jpeg with the same name as your file exactly. So you want name.eps, and then name.jpeg. They should be exactly the same. The reason you need both of those is almost every stock site that you upload to will require a jpeg for the preview. Not all of them, but most. So it’s good to just go ahead and make it.
Colleen: And you already mentioned about of course you can’t upload anything that’s copyrighted already, but what about work that you’ve previously created. Is that something that designers can consider to then sell?
Anne: Yeah, you can definitely put your old work on there. That’s actually how I got my start. Because I thought at first it can be really overwhelming when you’re trying to figure out what to make so I just dug into my old files. But the problem with doing that, it’s probably not going to sell very well unless it also happens to be something that other designers are willing to pay for. Really with stock imagery, your main target market is other designers. These are people who work at agencies. And they don’t want to take the time to create this or they don’t have the budget for a stock photo shoot. So they just want to get onto ShutterStock or iStock and download something. And if they have no reason to do that with some of your old logos, for example, then it’s not going to do you a whole lot of good.
Colleen: Yeah, so in one of your YouTube videos, I thought this was really interesting, you had a logo and you said, well, obviously you’re not going to upload the logo and sell that, but you were talking about taking just portions of it. I remember you were talking about a Q. Just the way you had styled a Q. So you could take out different portions of that and sell those.
Anne: Yeah, you can sell kind of generic-looking logos. And even ones that maybe you design for a client that they didn’t want. Just make sure you’re not throwing something out there that is a client’s work that they paid you for because you’re really reaching into possible legal problems if you do that. So, it’s totally okay to sell those older files but just know that if you’re creating specifically for a certain sector, you’re probably going to sell more images that way.
Colleen: What are some of the places that you can sell photos and vector art?
Anne: Well, I sell on ten different stock sites: iStock, Adobe Stock, 123rf, I mentioned ShutterStock, there’s also BigStock, CanStock, DepositPhotos, and then DreamsTime and Alamy. And they all have completely different setups. They all have completely different ways to upload. You just have to get used to all of them.
Colleen: There are some designers on Etsy that sell digital downloads. Do they allow for stock images to be sold there, do you know?
Anne: Yes. I’m also on Etsy, as I mentioned earlier. And the thing about Etsy is it’s a completely different target audience. So I haven’t put any of my, well, I put some of my stock images from those sites on Etsy, but so much of it wouldn’t work for the target audience that I just don’t even bother. So Etsy is geared more towards moms and crafters and they’re not designers most of the time. So you have to really keep in mind who your audience is, and on Etsy I just sell Cricket and Cameo files. Those are cut files. So it’s more for the crafter market.
Colleen: Okay. So just like with clients, you want to go where they’re hanging out. You want to go where your target market’s hanging out to sell those.
Anne: Exactly. There are actually a lot of other places you can sell art. Have you heard of Red Bubble?
Colleen: I don’t know if I’ve heard of Red Bubble.
Anne: Red Bubble’s a lot like Zazzle or CafePress. You can actually put your design on a pillow or a t-shirt or stuff like that. You just upload your design and then Red Bubble takes care of all of the shipping, all the creation of the t-shirts or whatever. And so you get a pretty small cut, but it’s still worth it, I think. You can also sell on Creative Market. I haven’t branched out to Creative Market yet, but I want to very soon, hopefully.
Colleen: When you’re selling your own artwork, what kinds of things do you have to consider when it comes to licensing, or you don’t really have a choice? Because you have to sign their agreements, I guess. But what kind of options do you have with that? I guess what I’m asking is if you’re going to sell on ShutterStock, does that mean you can’t sell on DepositPhotos, or are you limited?
Anne: The only site that I have seen exclusives on are iStock. So if you sign up to be an exclusive seller on iStock, that means you cannot put your images anywhere else or sell them anywhere else. But you can also sign up on iStock as just a general seller and that way you can put on all the other sites too. The difference is you make way more money per sale on iStock exclusive, but you’re limited. So it’s kind of a give and take there.
Colleen: When they are paying you a commission, do you make… like if you sell over a certain amount of a certain image, do you make more or is it always the same amount per image that you make? How does that work? Is it tiered, I guess, I would call it? Or is it just a flat amount per image?
Anne: It is tiered. And it really depends also on the stock site. Like, ShutterStock will tier your images. So when you first start out, you’re making $0.25 and it goes up from there. I think if you make over a certain amount, then it goes to $0.28. And then it goes to $0.35. I’m not even sure. But there is a max on that, so you can’t just keep getting a raise basically.
The other sites I haven’t seen too much. Some of them are very opaque, I guess—the opposite of transparent—when it comes to how they want to pay you. So I don’t really know. I just get a check. I guess I should look into that a little more. But iStock, I am always kind of confused about what’s sold and what hasn’t. They have that information locked down so that we can’t see it very well.
Colleen: Oh, that’s interesting.
Colleen: So when it comes to marketing, when you upload, or create and upload new images, do you ever promote them on Facebook or anywhere else to be like, “Hey, here’s something else I just created and now it’s going to be available on such and such site.” Or do you just upload them to the site and deal with the marketing that they do?
Anne: Yeah, that’s what I do. I actually don’t promote my stock sites anywhere. I just let the stock sites kind of market them for me. With Etsy, I market on Pinterest and Facebook every day. Instagram is supposed to be really good with Etsy too, but I think it just takes way too much time to actually post stuff there because you have to have all the hashtags and everything. So I just don’t even do Instagram at all with Etsy. But, yeah.
Colleen: When it comes to preparing your images so that they’re going to be seen by the search engines that are within the stock photo company searches, how do you decide on what keywords and is there a certain number of keywords that you’re allowed? What are some guidelines about keywords?
Anne: Keywords are really kind of a mystery. I think that actually most sites do not want you to know how they rank based on keywords. But some will just tell you. Like Adobe Stock, if you upload there, they say in their handbook that they want the most important keywords first. So let’s say you have an image of a dog eating from a bowl. You would put “dog, eat, eating, food”—stuff that just has to do with that image. And then the less important stuff would be later on in the keywords, which I can’t really think of… Some non-important ones for that image.
Colleen: If it’s an illustration as opposed to a photo, would you need to say “illustration” or “cartoon” or “photo” or anything like that?
Anne: I do put that in there. I am not exactly sure that is going to help a lot because you upload as a vector, so they know it’s a vector. But I still put it in anyway just on the off chance someone searches for that exact keyword. Yeah, I don’t know 100% though on that.
Colleen: You must have a lot of images, right? How many images do you think you’ve uploaded in the past three years? Hundreds? Thousands?
Anne: I have about 2,000 right now.
Colleen: Oh, wow.
Anne: And the thing about it is, it’s on 10 sites, so it’s actually … I don’t know … 20,000. But they’re the same images across all the 10 sites.
Colleen: So how do you keep them all organized on your computer?
Anne: Well, I organize by category and I actually… Something that helps me make the images faster is I keep a library of images that I think will be used in another icon set in the future. That way I can just go to that illustrator file, find that image, and grab it and pull it in as an icon or modify it, whatever I need to do.
Colleen: And do you keep track of the keywords for each image too?
Anne: Yes, I do. I keep them all in an ever note doc. You could also use a word doc if you don’t want it out there online. I mean it’s supposed to be secure, but who knows really these days.
Anne: With Ever note it’s nice because I can just search. And the reason I’d want to do that is if I had a new image set that I was putting out there and I thought, “Well, this is really similar to that old one, I’ll just do a search for that and pull all the relevant keywords out of that.’
Colleen: Are there any things that you should not do? I mean you mentioned a few like obviously not uploading anything that’s been copyrighted, but what are some other things that you definitely should not do when you’re thinking about doing this?
Anne: I think something that’s really important is to be careful about spamming with images. So if you make 50 icons and then, well, actually, we’ll say make one icon and then copy it 50 times and change the colors on all 50, that is sort of spamming and they just won’t accept them. If you keep trying to do it, they will eventually ban you, I’ve heard. So you want to steer clear of that.
Also, public domain content—that is, images that are over 70 years old. They don’t want you to sell that because it’s free for everyone. Anyone can download those images and use them for free. So they won’t accept public domain content.
Another thing is pictures with celebrities or famous buildings. They do accept those but they have a whole other set of rules and they’re called editorial use images. And they cannot be used in advertising or selling a product. So if you are on ShutterStock and you download one of those, you’re limited in the ways that you could use it. But also, if you do that for a living—if you take celebrity photos for a living—it probably is worth it to check it out and learn all the rules and upload them. But I tend to steer clear of them. I have tried to upload some images of celebrities that I made in Illustrator. But they just got rejected and rejected and rejected. They’re very hard to get past the reviewers. So I just see them as too much work and I just don’t do them.
Anne: Oh, man. I do a lot of tutorials. I mean a lot of tutorials. I’ve got a whole set of there of videos of how to use the Illustrator tools in the tool bar. So that’s something that I’ve focused on. I also do a lot of job hunting… graphic design job-hunting videos, how to do interviews. I’m thinking about doing one about résumés and how to create a good graphic design résumé. Yeah. There’s a lot of there. Passive income, as you mentioned, is a big one.
Colleen: Okay, great. And that’s Graphic Design How To.
Anne: Yes, and if you go into YouTube and you just type “Anne Bracker,” that’s probably going to get you there faster. If you have any questions for me, you can leave those on a YouTube video. I see all my comments on the videos and I try to respond to everybody.
Colleen: Okay. Great. Thanks for being on the podcast, Anne.
Anne: Thanks so much for having me, Colleen.