Everything you need to know about selling your art online

2:12 PM

As many of you might know already, I am an artist and designer who sell my artwork on products on a couple of "Print on Demand" websites, the most notorious being Society6 and Redbubble. I also sell some of my most popular designs on products I have manufactured and ship myself on Etsy.

I've been doing so for almost 3 years now, and on the side, I still write this blog, and teach art classes in my neighbourhood.
This all amounts to a full time career that I wouldn't trade for the worlds.

I also spend a few hours a week reading and answering questions on Quora about art, and selling online, especially on Print on Demand platform (aka PoD).
This is exactly what prompted me to write this blog post, because there are a lot of recurrent themes, questions and even a couple of myths that do the round when it comes to selling your designs online and I want to address them all in one place.

Is selling on Redbubble/Society6 a quick and easy way to make money? 

I can't tell you how many variant of that question you will find on Quora and in forums all over the internet! 

The answer? A big fat huge and definite NO

Seriously if there was even a thing such as making a quick buck wouldn't you think it would be well known by now? 
People often see the work and life of a handful of artists who sell on those sites and make a solid income, and think "Geez it sounds easy".
What they ignore, is that these big artists didn't get there overnight and their financial success is the product of years of keeping at it and most importantly, diversifying their portfolio, none of the big artists I know stick to only one source of income. 

What a newbie needs to know about PoD platforms is that it's free to join, you can upload your art immediately, but you enter a saturated market, your work will be in constant competition with thousands of artists and hundreds of similar designs. 
If you aren't prepared to promote your work, and your brand and make a presence for yourself on the internet, this will amount to nothing. 

Which platform is the best to sell my designs on? 

Insert a choice of popular PoD site to boot. I am absolutely amazed at how many people believe that you must only have a presence on just one platform and must pledge your allegiance to it forever. 

The first rule of art licensing : DIVERSIFY

Or if you prefer, do not put all your eggs in the same basket. All the big designers I know, sell on several platforms, they might advertise 2 or 3 but they do have a presence on minor ones as well. Why? Because if you limit yourself to just one platform, you also limit the size of your potential customer base. 

As an artist, I of course know about all the big players in the PoD field, and I have a presence on a couple of them. But I know that my potential customer might only be loyal to one shopping place. I'm pretty sure those who buy my art on Society6 aren't the same who frequent Redbubble. I also know that different items sell on different platforms. 
on Redbubble I pretty much only sell stickers, on Society6 I sell a lot of different things and a lot of those things were art prints. Limiting myself to one platform I would miss on many sales. 

Though I get from where that question stems. I think a lot of people still have this idea that the art they upload end up belonging to the PoD site and therefore they can't just go on selling it elsewhere. 

This is a huge misconception, as far as I know most PoD platform do not demand exclusivity over the designs you upload, they let you retain all rights to it, so you are free to sell the same artwork on as many as you want, what they do is pay you a licensing fee (aka royalty fee) each time they sell one of their item with your art on them. 

Selling on PoD is a waste of time

This is the kind of statement you usually get from a dejected, beaten artist who thought they would make a huge income from it in a short amount of time. They didn't sell much, so nobody can, and they will be very vocal about it. 

My advice? Ignore them

If you know full on that you will not become a best selling sensation overnight, what is the harm of making a few sales a month and see those numbers go up overtime? 
It's still a form of passive income, that frees you to pursue other ways of earning from your art so that alone is no waste of time to me. 

What having a presence on PoD also does is help you build an audience, and do so without having to invest tons of money in inventory or building and hosting a website. Those PoD platform handle everything for you and in exchange you get 10-20% of their sales price as a royalty. 

Put that into perspective against starting your own business, keeping your inventory, having to worry about production, shipping and all the IT stuff...pretty neat no? 

How often do you need to upload new work on those Print on Demand websites? 

There is no perfect answer to that one, because in theory, you are free to upload just one and then sit and wait for sale to happen. 
In reality though that is a very lousy plan, because even though I am yet to come across a print on demand platform that will openly acknowledge it, they want to have active users. They aren't really going to favour the artist who uploaded 3 designs and disappeared off the face of internet when they can instead favour an artist who's been uploading new work regularly and does make an effort at maintaining a presence on social medias. 

A few years ago Society6 did write a blog post sharing their "Curation process"and one of the point they shared that influence their decision to get an artist featured in a collection or a seasonal trend on their site is this one : 

4. YOUR ACTIVITY AS AN ARTIST (ON & OFF SOCIETY6)Are you creating consistently? We pay attention to Artists who take their creative work as seriously as we take the responsibility of sharing their work with the world. Naturally, we like to support and elevate Society6 Artists who are actively developing a business around their art on the same tenets of curation in this article.

Yep! You read it right, they will favour artists who are serious about their work and actively participate in the artist community.
How can you get their attention? Simply tag them when you share one of their products on social media, participate in forums they moderate (they have FB group just for artists). 

Oh and just to for the record, I have been featured in a Christmas collection on S6 two years in a row. 

All in all, if you plan on selling your art online, you need to be serious about it. Aim at uploading at least one artwork a week and resist the urge to upload 10 designs on one day and then disappear for two weeks. 
Making it on PoD is a marathon, not a sprint race. 

How big an audience do you need to start getting sales?

This question is often asked about not only to sell on Society6 and Redbubble, but on Etsy as well. There is still that common belief that you need to have a large audience in order to drive sales. 

Well......Not necessarily so! 

Don't get me wrong, it never hurt to have a big following, but it's not what is going to make you get those sales rolling in by default, not with the changing algorithm on most social media that now have switched to favour engagement over a big number of likes or followers. 

What you need to aim at is an engaged audience over a huge passive crowd. In short, it's a return of "Quality over quantity" 

I think the prime example I can give is on my Etsy shop. Even though I registered for a shop in 2018, I didn't really actively put listings in it before April 2019. 
Since then I have made 16 sales, not much, but I know sellers that made less than that in their first year. 
The first products I uploaded in my shop were these : 

These were the product of careful analysis of what sold the most in my PoD shops, and what my small but committed audience liked the most. 

I made 5 sales within 2 days of going live with my Etsy shop! Not because I had a big following, or I was ranking high in searches, but because the audience I already had was really into this kind of products to begin with, and they were willing to buy from me because they were already connecting with the brand via the blog and my Instagram account.

I also sold and still sell a lot offline, through my social networks, via word of mouth, because one dedicated friend is very likely to buy from me and then spread the word and in the end it snowballs to more sales coming in. 

So to sell, you need an audience, make no mistakes, but it doesn't have to be a big one, just one that is dedicated to you. And to get that kind of audience, you need to put in the work. Interact with your fans, comment on posts by other artists you like, just be an engaging human being on all platforms you have a presence on. Don't push your products on them, just be that fun person they can joke with. To connect with people you need to let them into your life, and usually people will buy from people or brands they can relate to. 

The magic formula to sales hasn't changed much over the centuries huh? 

Is paid advertisement worth it? 

In the past few years, Facebook, who also owns Instagram by the way has made it clear that if you want to be seen by a wide audience, you will have to pay to get that privilege. 

This has lead to many small business to just go and give paid promotion a try, myself included. And if you missed it, this is the one and only post I ever promoted on Instagram : 

It was during a Christmas promotion Society6 had, and I made this beautiful mockup using their product, uploaded it on Instagram, only for IG to suggest I boost that post because it was "Performing well" 

I thought it sounded good, 600 rupees for a 5 days promotion, it wasn't a big amount I might as well give it a try. 
Since I never did it before, I decided to follow IG's tips to target my audience by selecting "Show this post to the friends of my followers" or something along those lines. 

The problem was that apparently Instagram decided that the people most similar to my audience were Indian guys in their 20's probably because I am based out of India. 
A few hours only seeing a few likes and a disturbing amount of message requests from hopeful Romeos, I cancelled that campaign and decided to target the 15-50 female demographics residing in the US and UK who liked Lifestyle and Home Decor. 

In 5 days, this post got 280 likes, just a handful of visit to my feeds and ZERO engagement, not to mention ZERO sales on S6. 

The only thing that the paid promotion achieved is inflating the amount of "Likes" that the post got, but nothing more. 
This is an experience that I heard from many other small business owners, promoting a post or a listing doesn't really translates into more sales, it just give a boost to your exposure, but in the end, exposure doesn't really translate into sale because lets not forget that people tend to buy from people or brands they can connect with. 

And to be fair, when I scroll down my IG feed, I don't go visit the sponsored post page I just looked at either. 
It's probably a very viable solution for a big brand, but for a small business, better invest that money elsewhere until you become bigger. 

What happens if I set a higher markup on Redbubble? 

Redbubble is a print on demand platform that unlike many others let you set your profit margin on all their products. Society6 only let you do that on art print and only gives you 10% of the maximum retail price as a royalty. 

This is leading people to wonder if they should crank their margin as high as they want when they are allowed to. 

If you are a small artist, I strongly advise you keep within the 20% markup range on all products except stickers on Redbubble. 
Why? Because, again, you are in competition with thousands of artists, and a customer might end up viewing your work after entering "Donut t-shirt" and see hundreds of designs competing for a sale. 
So unless your Donut design is completely and utterly out of this world there is little chance the customer will agree to pay 7$ extra when all the other t-shirts are cheaper because the majority or artists didn't go beyond the 10-15% margin. 
Remember on most PoD the customer also end up having to pay shipping charges on top of the retail price for the item they buy.

A lot of people complain that 10% on a 20$ t-shirt is low, but then, again, you don't have to print it, ship it and pay hosting fees on your own website. So just take it as it is, in time you make more sales a month and those small royalty fees will add up to big numbers. 

The only product I advise hiking the margin on are stickers, because Redbubble calculate your royalty fee based on the actual price at which they sell it, not the MRP. And because shipping cost a bomb, they offered a very interesting permanent promotion on stickers, enticing people to buy any 10 stickers across the site and get 50% off the total price. This means that your sticker that would sell for 2$ at full price will only be billed as costing 1$. If you keep the markup at the standard 10% you only make 10 cents a sale and that is really not worth it. 

I put the margin on my stickers at 50% so that I make 50 cent per stickers sold since most people really only buy them in bulk to avail the promotion. And I still sell them very regularly at this price, as I said earlier, the bulk of my Redbubble sales are stickers.

What is the difference between Society6 and Etsy

Or Etsy and any print on demand website for that matter....The difference is significant enough that you should pay attention to it. 

Etsy is a market place that gather designers and makers of handmade items. As a rule what you sell has to either be a craft material or a finished hand made product. 
The handmade part means it has been in large part conceived and made by you. This means that if like me you are designer, and sell your art on stickers, or other products, you don't necessarily have to manufacture the product from scratch, but the product has to be yours in concept. 

In my case, I work with a printing service who print my designs on stickers and notepads, but the artwork has been physically made by me. 

As per Etsy policy, the moment you outsource a part of the production to a 3rd party, you must list them in your shop as "Production partner"
You also can't rely on drop shipping, the product has to be shipped by you. 

To sum it, on Etsy, you are responsible for keeping your inventory, shipping the orders and interacting with the customers. In exchange for letting you list your items on the site, Etsy charges 0.20$ to list an item, and if I remember correctly a 5% commission on each sales. 
They total the amount you owe them at the end of each month and send you an invoice to pay it on the 1st of the next month. If you don't pay it, they close your shop. 

On Society6 or any other PoD, you only upload the artwork, decide on which products you want it featured and sold and they take care of everything : manufacturing, shipping, and interracting with the customer. You never even get to know who bought your art, just know what they bought and how much you earned. 
These sites do not charge you a listing fee, or membership or anything, they only pay you when sold a product with your art on it and then pay you a royalty fee. On most PoD it's between 10-20% of the retail price that goes in your pocket. 
It's passive income at it's best, and a great way to start selling when you can't afford to keep an inventory, or pay hosting fees for a website. 

In both cases, I'll say that the earning is really proportional to the amount of work you put in. My margins are significantly higher on Etsy but I'm also responsible for everything, including taking a rickshaw to go to the post office and ship those orders myself. And because inventory is all on me, I think very carefully about what I want to sell in the first place. On PoD all my 200+ designs are available as stickers, because the job to print them and ship them isn't on me. On my own I can't afford to place an order for a minimum of 30 stickers with my production partner on a design that might not even sell in the first place. 

In conclusion...

Do not expect to make it big overnight, on any platform, heck even offline. What nobody really tells you upfront is that being an artist means you need to learn how to sell yourself as well as your art. It's a package deal, you can't just do great work and hope it'll sell for itself, and you can't just promote your work without putting yourself in the spotlight as well. 

If you want to really understand what being an artist means in our time and age, and what myths about the vocation you MUST kill once and for all, I highly recommend you read "Real Artists Don't Starve" by Jeff Goins. This link is an Amazon affiliate link by the way, if you click on it and make any purchase on Amazon, I get paid at no extra charge to you. 

On these word we must part until the next blog post, yours truly is working on a big watercolor project this month, so I must get back to it. 

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  1. I am sure this post will be very useful for many people who sell stuff online.

    1. I hope it will, I spend enough time on Quora dispelling misconceptions about selling art online, and I find it amazing the number of people that seem to think selling art online is a quick and easy money deal and that they don't need to put much effort into it.

      I also keep reading the whole "You need to have a lot of followers to start making sales" yet here I am with not that many followers, and regular sales coming in.


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