Selling prints on Etsy - Part 1
(Edited 12/12/14: The original posts were made before Etsy made a lot of changes, and i've updated them as well as added a Part 4 in order to address some of these changes.)
First, i'm going to come right out and say that I went back and forth about writing about this for a while. Why? Because i'm a jerk! With almost everything photo related, over the past 10+ years I've had to learn through trial and error and doing the legwork to find answers myself. I've helped people out along the way, and often, but lets just say I didn't do it willy nilly. So for a while now i've had an attitude about not just sharing everything all the time with everyone.
Which now feels dumb, and so here I am.
Before I get started, I just want to say that I don't claim to be an expert at this, and it's not like i'm bringing in enough money from print sales to live off of. But i've had a shop on Etsy since 2006, and over the years i've made many changes, as well as changed my attitude when it comes to how I approach it, and have seen it all lead to improvements. Some of it is probably obvious, but other points are things I don't see mentioned too often, if at all. Either way, it never hurts to be thorough. So thorough I went from one post to having to split it into multiple posts! And this first piece will be more for beginners just starting out selling prints of their images.
First things first, Reality!
No shop will survive if they don’t sell items people want to buy, and for most people art purchases aren't considered a priority. So if you’re not offering something that strikes people in some way, it’s not going to sell. While i'm no guru in selling other types of art, or art period, I think this is more of an issue when it comes to photography. Most people can’t draw or paint with great skill, but it IS becoming easier for people to take a nice photo that is of really good quality and can be printed by a box store around the corner. And if people feel they can replicate what you'vre offering with little to no effort, they're not going to see any reason to buy a print of yours, no matter how low you price it. So for starters make sure you're objectively looking at what you're considering offering, maybe talk to some people you can trust to be honest with you, and yes, take a look at what is already listed on Etsy. Regardless you can still give it a try if you've got your heart set on it, but if your work blends in with most everything else on there, don’t be surprised if a sale never comes.
Know the beast and have a game plan!
There are lots of little bits and pieces you should have figured out before you start listing prints. You don’t have to, but you’ll be helping yourself out if you’ve got at least the basics figured out. Here are some things I suggest you consider:
What are you going to list?
What sizes will you offer?
What are you going to charge?
Are you going to make the prints yourself or have a shop do it?
How are you going to package and ship it?
How much can you afford to invest right off the bat?
Are you going to already have all the prints you offer in stock, or order/print on demand?
Do you have adequate storage space to store everything?
How are you going to handle something going wrong after you've shipped it?
How much time can you invest in all of this?
Which, and how many images you're listing is up to you, but try not to over-think it. It's not easy to predict what people will buy, and since it's not too much to list on Etsy it doesn't hurt to add some of the images you're not too sure about over time. (I'll talk more about everything concerning the actual listings in part 2.)
When it comes to packaging/shipping supplies it IS usually best to buy in bulk, but you should start small. There’s no point if you don’t have the space, or the money, or know yet how much you’ll be selling. Same goes for having prints already in stock. Even now that I actually have proper print storage, I don’t keep prints around. It’s hard to predict when you’ll get a sale, but again even harder predicting what images exactly will sell. And if you’re thinking of listing a lot of images and offering a variety of sizes, you’re talking about putting out a lot of money before you know how things will go.
Pricing is hard and I still don’t feel good at it, but at least right now I finally have some level of comfort with my prices. I got that comfort by finally breaking every expense down per print sold and factoring it into how I price prints, and how I handle shipping. You can’t just consider what the print costs to make, add on what profit you’d like to have, then what exactly it will cost to ship. WAY more goes into it than that:
You’re charged a fee to list an item on Etsy. You're charged another fee if something sells. Whether the customer pays via Paypal or using direct checkout through Etsy you're going to be charged a fee just to receive your payment. Then you need a print. Are you printing at home? Then you should have at the very least a photo quality printer [the ones I mean are not cheap] that needs ink [also not cheap] and photo paper [cost depends]. Or you can use a local place to print. Or you can use an online place that prints and ships to you. OR you can use an online place that prints and ships it directly to customers. This is up to you, but either way you’ll have the cost of the print itself and shipping somewhere.
Printing yourself requires some level of dedication to this endeavor, especially if you want to make quality prints that are long lasting. I spent a few hundred dollars on a wide format printer for side projects mostly, because the prints it makes look great but will only last a small portion of time compared to an archival one from a print shop. It's nice to be able to print on demand, but you have to worry about it drying, or in my case, worry about animal hair getting in the printer or on prints. And there is also restrictions to what sizes you can print, unless you're comfortable only offering small prints, and/or feel ok cutting a print down to size. Plus getting an image to look right isn't always easy, i've wasted lots of photo paper trying to get an image to print "right" from a file that prints with no issues from an outside print shop.
If you are lucky to have a local place, or even multiple ones (I’m NOT talking something like Walgreens or similar) or will be using an online shop, get some tests done first. Order the same images from each place and compare. Not everyone uses the same paper or printers or cameras, so prints can look different from shop to shop. (This is why I don't answer questions when asked where I print. I can give you an answer, but it doesn't mean it's a good place for you.) For a local place, no worries about having it shipped to you, but consider that you need to drive there and home. Not a big deal if you get few orders, but it becomes a bigger deal if you’re far away or orders start picking up. [For tax purposes, if you do only photo business related things at this time, this could be a tax write off, just like all these other expenses.]
If you use an online print shop like I do, and have it shipped to you before sending it to the customer, that's one shipping cost to factor in. [Etsy does allow drop shipping now, which means you could buy your print from an online shop and have it shipped directly to the customer. I won't do this because then I can't sign and date the print, or make sure the image looks the way I intended it to and isn't flawed in some way. Recently I had a print arrive with a weird line running through it. A new one was printed and sent to me at no charge, and with no flaw, but I would have hated a customer getting a print with a flaw like that and thinking I willingly sent it to them. It might still be an option for you, it just depends on what you’re comfortable with.]
If you're shipping yourself you need to take into consideration how you're shipping it. Sandwiched between cardboard? [Please make sure you use new cardboard, don't reuse anything that could have dirt and grime on it.] "Photo mailers"? [I personally hate these] Tubes? [I hate these too.] No one option is perfect, and preference will vary from artist to artist. And each is going to cost money as well. You're probably also going to want some sort of envelope or sleeve to put the print itself in, so it's not rubbing against anything abrasive or moving around loose in an envelope. If you're going the flat route, you're going to need a mailing envelope too. And you might want to slip something extra in there, like a business card or something similar with your shop name and contact info. Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching. But, not a BAD cha-ching. Personally I believe presentation matters.
And then there is the fun journey of choosing the shipping method and paying for that as well. Luckily it's easy to pay for and print shipping through both Etsy and Paypal, but you will need to have an appropriate scale to weigh the package for this. [Sticker labels you can print on makes this even easier, and 'do not bend' stickers are nice to slap on the outside.] Bringing it to the post office yourself? More gas used. Or do what I do, always try to have one priority mail item to ship out, because then USPS will do a free pickup when my mail person delivers my mail. I don't even have to be awake, which is nice, because i'm usually not! Size doesn’t even matter, and you set it all up online.
Here is a general idea of what I include when figuring out my print/shipping prices.
- Cost of the print.
- Cost of having that print shipped to me.
- Cost of two pieces of cardboard. (I buy it pre-cut in bulk and split the total cost over how many pieces i've bought.)
- Cost of cello envelope to put the print in. (same process as cardboard.)
- Cost of an extra of some sort.
- Cost of the envelope to mail it in.
- Then an average shipping cost for each print size. (This part gets a little complicated considering I include shipping and nothing changes with the total price to the customer even if the print is going to another country. I'll spare everyone all that.)
If you choose to do some things differently, just substitute your thing for mine on the list and you should still be good to go.
I round everything up to cover some of the other small costs I don't include outright, especially since some things, like shipping labels, i purchased boxes of years and years ago and am still using. And from there I just figured out what i'd like profit wise. This isn't what will work best for everyone, it's just an example of what's working for me.
I bring up each option and all these costs not to overwhelm, but to both point out details some overlook and fail to consider when it comes to pricing their prints, as well the many different things that need to be thought about in general when you're starting a small business like this. Some things I mentioned are optional, but some are not. Don't let it all scare you, most of these things are quick and easy to change up if you decide something isn't working for you. And Ebay is a great option for buying a lot of this extra stuff i've mentioned pretty cheap. Labels, a scale, envelopes, cardboard, do not bend stickers, all of it i've bought in bulk from Ebay. Just start out however seems easiest and best for you, so long as you're not cutting corners quality wise. If you're upsetting customers with poor quality prints or shipping everything in a way that results in damaged goods what is the point?!
Also, while considering all these little costs might seem tedious, they can add up quick, and give you a precise idea of what you have coming in and going out and, most importantly, what you’re pocketing, or could be. While you might have previously considered photography a hobby or a passion, it does become more of a business when you go this route, and you should consider it as such. Unfortunately. =)
One extra thing I can’t stress enough is that if you don’t have the time, or don’t care enough to be able to provide basic customer service, don’t do it. After so many years of buying on Etsy my biggest complaint is lack of customer service from sellers on there. It’s not even time consuming, even when I go out of my way to be thorough and helpful, so really it’s not even about having time, it’s about being willing to take the time. If someone messages you, message them back. If they ask a question, answer it. If they have a problem, fix it. (Within reason.) If you mess up, make up for it! You’d think this would be common sense, but trust me, it’s not for everyone.
And that's it for the beginner basics. If anyone would like to add anything i've forgotten, has any suggestions or questions or whatever, feel free to leave a comment!
For the next part of this series I’ll get into actual listings on Etsy, how I suggest going about them, and the tips I stumbled upon that have easily more than doubled the views and likes I get. You can find Part 2 here.