Eight Lessons I've Learned in Eight Years of Licensing


Licensing your fine art photography can be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiencing in your photography business.

But like any aspect of your business, it will come with its ups and downs as well as hard lessons.

I've been selling my fine art for book covers for nearly a decade now, and I still learn new things about the ever-changing market everyday.

Now I want to share those lessons with you.

1. Rejection and criticism hurt, but are amazing teachers

Whenever your work gets rejected from an agency (or an art gallery), it sucks. 

Rejection and criticism can be a punch to the gut.

Believe me, I have had critiques that have brought me to tears.

One gallery owner completely tore my work apart, but some of those same images have gone on to sell as prints and book covers.

Often, I have had one agency reject my work only to have another agency be able to turn around and produce licensing sales from it.

Does that mean that the gallery owner or the one agency were wrong?

Absolutely not.

Every gallery owner or creative director at an agency knows their audience and their market.

So often times a rejection can simply mean that your work is not a good fit for their particular market.

There might be other reasons you were rejected by a stock agency, which I discuss in this post here.

Whether it be a gallery or a stock agency, ask why you were rejected.

Yes, it hurts to hear.

None of us ever really want to hear about why we were rejected.

But if you have the opportunity to hear the reasons, those lessons will be immensely helpful for you on your photography journey.

Look for connections in the work that gets rejected.

You might find that when you're submitting a specific genre or images with a specific kind of edit, your work gets rejected more.

Pay attention and you'll learn what works!

2. Photograph what you love

Chances are you got into photography because it was a passion.

The business of photography can feel like a *job.*

And yes, licensing your work is certainly a business aspect of your photography business.

But if you stick to shooting what you love and what you are truly passionate about, you'll find that your licensing career is more sustainable.

If you try to photograph things that you aren't interested in, you will burn out.

The sweet spot is to find genres that sell well, and that intersect with your passion.

I talk all about how to do this in my course Uncovered: Book Cover Licensing for Fine Art Photographers.

3. It's a Marathon, not a Sprint

Licensing your photography is a long term investment.

As they say, slow and steady wins the race.

You're better off adding a few images to your portfolio every week than posting a portfolio once and then never adding to it again.

Here is an example of how often I am uploading to one of my agencies. 

This is a screenshot of my contributor dashboard in for one agency, showing how often I upload photographs.

This is a screenshot of my contributor dashboard in for one agency, showing how often I upload photographs.

You can see that I am trying to upload close to once a week.

My personal goal is to get 1,000 sale-able images by the end of this year.

It's honestly a bit of a reach.

It would require about 20 accepted images a week.

4. What sells may not always make sense

I have three images in my portfolio that I would consider to be my "best sellers."

As a fine art photographer, I would never consider these images to be Art.

They are certainly not images I would sell in a gallery.

But book cover publishers have purchased the rights to them over and over again!

Am I going to complain?

Absolutely not!

And while I always make my personal fine art work available for license, when I see that certain types of images sell really well I make more of them!

This is one way you learn about what is popular in the licensing market.

Another tool I've created for you is an ebook called Licensed to Thrill of my 30 favorite classic book cover themes:


Licensed to Thrill

30 Photography Prompts To Build A Book Cover Licensing Portfolio

This 20 page ebook also deep into each theme.

Plus I have provided questions or suggestions to help you dive deeper and create something that is true to your voice and your art.

Here is an example page from Licensed to Thrill:

An preview of my ebook   Licensed to Thrill   ,  which includes worksheets to help you capture your inspiration, for only $27!

An preview of my ebook Licensed to Thrill, which includes worksheets to help you capture your inspiration, for only $27!

5. Your Keywords Matter!

While the ways that we search for things on the internet is evolving, most agency websites still function by using simple keyword searches.

And that means that book publishers will be using simple keywords to help them find your images to purchase.

Here is an example of the keywords used in one of my best selling images:

These are the keywords that book publishers would search to potentially find my image to purchase for a book cover.

These are the keywords that book publishers would search to potentially find my image to purchase for a book cover.

So if your images don't have well thought-out keywords and captions, they cannot be found.

And if your images are essentially invisible, they will never sell.

Many agencies that license photography for book covers will provide keywording for you.

Although there are some that do not.

Arcangel is one agency that recently moved from letting contributors create their own keywords to having professionals do the work.

They made this move because their keyword library was getting cluttered with irrelevant or incorrect tags.

From a photographer's perspective, the more keywords they had on an image the better.

But from a publisher's perspective, if they searched for something and got a bunch of irrelevant images, it was a negative experience.

So if you decide to work with an agency or library that relies on contributors to do their own keywording, be diligent and accurate with your word choice!

6. Captions and Titles Matter too!

Just like keywords, the titles and captions of your photos are searchable too.

Remember the example we used before of a publisher doing a search and getting irrelevant images?

Well the same thing could happen with our titles and captions too if we aren't careful.

One stock library I submit to for Royalty Free images has auto-suggested keywords.

While I love this feature, it's not always accurate.

And it could seriously mislead me when I'm creating a title and caption.

It has suggested "daffodils" as a keyword for a photo of lilies.

So if I titled my image "Spring Daffodils," someone doing a search might be pretty annoyed to get images that aren't accurate.

Also if there is an action being taken in the image, try to include that information in your caption.

One of my best selling images is simply captioned "woman peering out window."

An example of how simple your captions can be when licensing your images.

An example of how simple your captions can be when licensing your images.

Keep it simple and accurate!

7. Bend and break and few rules

Photographers and agencies alike need to diversify.

In order to keep selling, interesting images need to be available to publishers and brands.

Most agencies will tell you that certain kinds of images don't sell.

For example, I was told that there isn't much fo a market for black and white images.

Well, one of my best sellers is black and white:

Despite being black and white, this image sells over and over for me.

Despite being black and white, this image sells over and over for me.

Other agencies will say they don't want florals or pets.

The likely reason for this is that they have seen the same kinds of flower and pet images over and over again.

But if your images are unique, it's likely that they will be accepted and they will sell.

After all, especially in the Royalty Free market, there is always a pet product that needs an image!

So even if you discover rules along the way, find opportunities to bend them!

Create in your own unique voice, and you may be surprised how few rules apply. 

8) The most important rule of all: Don't give up!

It takes time to make sales.

Just how long?

Well, I'm glad you asked.

I wrote a blog post all about how long it takes to make licensing sales.

At the end of the day, it's a numbers game and a long haul commitment.

This will all take time.

First you have to take the images.

Then, if you're working with an agency, you have to upload them.

Next the agency has to approve or reject those images.

Finally, the images will need to be keyworded.

A single submission can take weeks before it is finally live.

I always advice students in my courses and members of my group to be patient, and to keep shooting and uploading.

Eventually sales will begin to come.

And some agencies have an algorithm which features better selling images first in the search results.

Sometimes they also take into account how many images you have and how often your images are purchased.

So this means the more sales you make, the more sales you make!


When you're starting out licensing your photography it will take time to build up your portfolio in order to make sales.

But taking these lessons that I've learned over the past eight years can help you avoid some of the potholes that I hit!

I host a Facebook group of awesome artists who are on the same journey that you are.

I would love for you to join us, ask questions, share your journey and let us support you!

Join us here at Beneath the Surface on Facebook.

Cheers to your success!