photograph by Marsel Minga
Selling prints can feel like a daunting task. Just the act of simply trying to figure out how to get your pieces printed can seem insurmountable.
You may not want to print them yourself. In that case you may want to consider a Print on Demand (POD) service. There is a LOT of misinformation about POD. Over the last two months, I have interviewed the CEOs and founders of several POD companies. In our conversations, some of them chose to sling mud at their competitors and shared information with me that was directly contradictory to what I could find in other sources. Some of the companies refused to respond at all.
I also took the time to interview a handful of artists who have had significant success with POD. A small number of them were incredibly generous with their time and I’ll be quoting them extensively throughout this post and future posts on POD services. All of the information in this post is true to best of my knowledge, and I will be updating to reflect any changes or inaccuracies.
The Rise in Print on Demand Services
There are a surprisingly large number of companies in the POD game. From tiny startups with just a few team members to huge companies with thousands of employees, POD is officially big business. For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll only include POD companies that make art prints. Some of them also offer t-shirts, mugs, posters, and other formats, but they all offer giclee or high quality fine art prints.
Here’s a list of POD companies that I found (so far):
There are a few reasons that so many companies are getting into POD.
It’s relatively easy. Some of these companies make a claim to having higher quality prints. The reality is that Fine Art America, Society6, Shutterfly, and other companies use the same printing and fulfillment centers. These POD company’s only startup costs are getting a website built and finding enough artists to attract buyers.
The profit margins are high. Prints can be a very profitable business. For some of the more successful artists I spoke to, prints were more than 80% of their income. Artists can mark up prints quite high from the cost of production, so having lots of popular artists on the site means more profitability for the POD company.
How to Pick a Print on Demand Service
There’s a LOT of things to consider when it comes to picking the right POD company. After talking to dozens of artists, here are the criteria that we came up with, in general order of importance.
What does the artist get paid? I was amazed at how much this varied from site to site. On some sites, the artist gets only 5% of the sale amount. On other sites, it’s as high as 70%. Be sure to read the fine print. The way that artists get paid varies considerably as well. Consider that on some sites, all prices are pre-set and the artist gets a tiny percentage of the sale. On other sites, the artist sets the price and the POD company adds their margin to arrive at the final retail price.
Quality of the printed product As mentioned above, many of the POD companies use the same fulfillment houses, so quality varies little. If you sell something on FAA, it’s printed by the same company that prints for Society6, Shutterfly, and others. Mark Tisdale is fan of Imagekind for quality, but most artists recommend ordering one of your own products to see how the quality comes out. Each artist cares about slightly different details and it’s impossible to say which service is definitively better.
Promotion and sales. It’s relatively easy to get thousands of artists to sign up for a website that promises to sell their art. It’s another thing entirely to attract qualified buyers regularly over time. Most of the time sales depend on the following:
- the number of collectors visiting the site, which is heavily affected by the site’s search engine rankings and how much marketing they do for their own site
- artists sending their own buyers to the site to make a purchase
- the biggest place for sales is art featured on the home page of the POD site
Different sites have different methods of highlighting their artists and it’s usually one of the following factors
- curation of content – some sites have employees who comb through their artists to find art that they think is likely to sell. Some sites have instituted algorithms that automatically promote artists who are selling regularly to the front page, the logic being that if an artist sells well on their own, they’ll sell really well if they’re highlighted on the front page.
- internal search – the importance of the quality of a site’s search function really can’t be understated. If your work can’t be found, then you won’t make any sales. Search functionality should give you the ability to filter by style of art, color, artist names, location, and other factors.
- paid promotion – this usually takes the form of paying to be on the home page of the site or to be in a newsletter. Not all POD sites do this.
Design. It’s more than just looking pretty. Good design includes ease of setup, mobile responsiveness, ease of purchase, discoverability of work, performance of the site, and other elements. A well designed site matters a lot.
Control. How much can you customize the look of your store? Does it look good with your art? Most of the companies don’t offer much in this area, but a couple of them do interesting things with allowing you to embed your products on your own site, which we will address in a future post.
The ability to interact directly with the end customer. Many POD sites don’t tell you who your buyers are, and this is a huge problem for an artist trying to build a business.
Stats & analytics. Sadly, this is an area where nearly all of the POD companies need to make major steps forward. In addition to seeing how many sales you’ve made, it would be really helpful to see how many views each piece has had, where those viewers came from, and a little info about those viewers. Even better would be seeing how much time they spent on each piece of art, and if they looked at any particular formatting options.
Culture & community on the site. Pay attention to the target audience of the site. DeviantArt.com has a very different audience from FineArtAmerica.com. Go where your art makes sense. Also, getting deeply involved in the social aspects of some of the POD sites can be hugely helpful to your sales. When you have a solid community, you are more likely to have your art shared and suggested by other members of the community.
Juried/Curated? Some artists appreciate being part of an exclusive group, and some collectors want to know that the artists they’re considering buying from have been vetted in some way. That said, the artists I spoke to who have been part of these curated sites have not seen higher revenues than sites that allow everyone to join.
One additional note on curation: many of the more popular sites have rules about image quality. The photography or scanning has to be at a certain level before they’ll accept the image. This is different than having a panel of judges who pick artists who match a theme or style that the site wants to highlight.
Image protection & Attribution. Quite frequently POD sites feature an artist’s work in their marketing without crediting the artist by name. This may not matter to you, but some artists find it concerning. Some sites prevent people from right-clicking on images to save them to desktop. While many artists find this to be a plus, if also makes sharing your art more difficult.
Experiences from Other Artists
In our next post, The Ultimate Guide to POD Services, we share some stories and case studies from other artists. We’ve interviewed artists who are pulling in five-figure incomes each month from prints. We’ll include the good, the bad, and the ugly.
In the mean while, if you are an artist who has benefitted from POD, we’d love to hear from you in the comments, or via email. What works for you? Do you have any great stories to share?