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Everything you need to know about selling your art online

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

I am a commercial artist, illustrator and surface designer and sell my design on several print on demand websites, Society6 and Redbubble being the to main ones but am not limited to these.

I've been at it for 5 years now, and I also teach art classes out of my home for kids, write this blog, and spend a few hours a week answering questions about selling on print on demand and making art on Quora. I even have a dedicated space called "Selling on Print on Demand - your guide to success" where I write content geared toward helping new artists making the most of selling their art online.

There are several questions about selling your art online that keeps on coming no matter where they are asked, Quora or elsewhere which prompted me to do an in dept blog post to answer them all in one space. Hopefully to help new artists to approach making money from their craft better.

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. These Print on Demand platforms are technically sources of passive income because you only create and upload the art once and have the potential to earn royalties from it for years to come, but it really doesn't mean one can just upload the work and then sit and relax waiting for anything to happen. So, if you haven't already, focus on marketing, and if you don't quite know how to do it, dedicate some times to learning all you can about the art of selling yourself and creating your own brand, this is as much part of being an artist as creating art is.

Which platform is the best to sell my designs on?

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?

That said, you will need to show up everyday, put in the work and pull your share of promoting and making sure people know you exist, don't expect the PoD platform to do EVERYTHING for you.

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.

Oh and just 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 re-hash of "Quality over quantity"

I think the prime example I can give is on my Etsy shop. It's no longer what it once was but hear me out. I opened that shop in 2018 but didn't actively sell anything there until April 2019 when I uploaded the first few stickers known as "India Vibe" they were stickers based on the artwork that sold the most in my Society6 and Redbubble shops and which I felt safe keeping an inventory for at home. I made 5 sales in the first 2 days of going live and announcing to the world that my shop was open for business. Why? Because I already had a handful of very loyal followers that knew me, knew my work and loved those designs. I also did sell quite a few of those in my offline circles pre-pandemic because I KNEW my market and knew what worked with them. Never underestimate the power of a small but dedicated audience, and certainly DO NOT under any curcumstances underestimate the power of your family and friends, even if they don't buy anything from you, they will gladly spread the word and help you expand your reach. Still not convinced? Here is how it went with Society6 : I started in April 2017, made my first sale in June 2017 a few days short of marking my 2 months anniversary on the platform. Back then I had less than 400 followers on Instagram and i'm pretty sure that if my Facebook page was an actual physical room, I'd hear my footstep eco pacing it all alone. I definitely didn't have the huge mythical following one think they should have...I still made sale. Need another point in favour of your family and friends circle? When I first started promoting myself and my art as an artist, after years of feeling chicken not doing it or wanting to even consider doing a career out of it, I got several message from close friends who said "Hey I didn't know you were an artist". Here is what it led to : A friend asked me if I was game teaching illustration art to her daughter, then another friend asked me if I wanted to join them on their homeschool group as an arts and craft teacher for 4 toddlers. From there more people came to know about me as a fun, talented art teacher and artist. I currently have a full week schedule of evening classes for kids, conducted a few adult workshops, take in commission work, all the while continuing to create work for my portfolio and online shops. 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. Back in 2018, I fell prey to the whole "This post is performing 95% better than other post, boost for a wider reach". At the time a 5 days promotion was 600 rupees, so I thought "Hey why not". The post in question was the one above, the pink Christmas tree phone case. It was a new design, it was around Christmas, so reaching more people sounded like a good idea.

Except that it was a MONUMENTAL waste of time and money. Here is how it went :

Being new at this whole Instagram promoted post gig, I let it decide for me what kind of audience should see it. I selected "Show this post to followers of my followers".

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 so it could add up to an insane amount just for t-shirt.

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, back when I was selling physical products on Etsy, I worked with a printing service who printed 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 6.5% 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 interacting 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 wer significantly higher on Etsy but I was also responsible for everything, including taking a rickshaw to go to the post office and ship those orders myself. And because inventory was all on me, I had to think very carefully about what I wanted 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.

Like this blog post? Please share it if you have an artist friend wants to start earning money, and subscribe to my newsletter to never miss an update and get cool printables, simply click on the picture below :

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