Perfect Print On Demand

THE PERFECT PRINT ON DEMAND SITE

There are so many companies offering print on demand (POD) services these days that it is difficult to keep up. Also when you are an artist you would much rather be creating rather than uploading your latest efforts and creating descriptions and metadata to multiple POD sites.

A Blank Page
Start with a blank page!

I am often asked what POD means, essentially it is a method to upload your artwork and the printing, shipping, and money side of the business are dealt with by the print on demand service. The artist receives a commission over and above the base price for the materials charged by the print company. Orders are placed and the POD site sends the order to a local fulfilment centre who then ship the artwork (or books or other products) to the client. The artist then receives a commission at some point, usually the month after a 30-day return period has expired. The reality is that an artist may get paid a month later for sales made before the cut-off date in the month, for sales made after a certain date, the artist could be waiting for two months for payment.

Print on Demand works well for me as I have so little time to prepare artwork for dispatch and handle the associated administration, but only up to a point. Print on demand doesn’t promote every artist, and when they do promote an artist, it is usually for a very limited time, and usually from a pool of the bestselling artists. Getting to the point of becoming a bestseller is up to each individual artist and how they promote themselves.

There are so many artists. I literally mean there really are hundreds of thousands of artists on each print on demand service. Hundreds of thousands of artists equates to millions of pieces of artwork. So it would be really difficult for any print on demand service to promote everyone who signs up. Who would you pick?

Large scale printing
Large scale printing requires way bigger ink tanks!

 

Those who currently work with POD sites will at some point in their lives have thought about what would make the service better. Lower shipping costs, lower base prices, and more exposure for artists who have yet to make any significant sales, or maybe the process of uploading could be changed.

The problem for the POD sites is that they would prefer to promote what is already selling. It is after all down to the artist to promote their work and bring in customers, so taking a gamble on an unknown and unpublished artist who has recently started selling commercially is often more than just a bit of a risk. It’s also something that would need the POD sites to take on additional staff.

THE CURRENT LANDSCAPE

So what do we get currently? My favourite, and the POD site that I have had most success on is Fine Art America (FAA) which also operates the Pixels site too. In fact Pixels is the parent organisation. FAA offer two tiers of service, a free account that allows you to upload up to 25 images to sell on a range of products, or to upload as many images as you want, you can pay a $30 annual membership. This also gives you access to your own personal website where you can upload and sell your art and FAA/Pixels handle everything else. It really is a bargain.

In addition they also allow you to make your products available through a range of retail outlets, they have a designer program, and will allow you to sell your art through the Disney/ABC program so that your art can be used as props in TV and film. It is very good value for money, but as with most POD sites, when it comes to promoting your work, you are on your own.

I find the Fine Art America / Pixels service as close as I can get to perfect. It is easy to upload new art, you pay a fee for premium services such as displaying more than 25 images, providing you with an e-commerce site that would normally cost many times the price to set up on your own, and your work is also available in retail outlets if you want it to be. The issue for me is that the whole promotion thing is really difficult. The quality of the art is tremendous.

Zazzle is another platform I use but the perks are less in terms of features. Although they have an extended range of products that you can apply your designs on, I have always found that for prints especially, the return to the artist is significantly less than when selling through Fine Art America. Although you can set your own percentage of the total sale, if Zazzle run a promotion on their base price, your commission is reduced. If they offer a 50% discount to buyers, you’ll only receive 50% of your set commission. Just as with Fine Art America and Pixels, their products are very good quality.

There are of course alternatives, some print on demand services only allow juried art to go on sale. This makes sense when you consider the amount of art that is available on a few POD sites that is shall we say, a little less appealing.

There is an elephant in the room with print on demand, and that is the amount of people who are attempting to make a quick buck by uploading some work that even I would struggle to describe as being in anyway artistic. By this I mean that I see art in most things, but when someone uploads a plain green background to apply on a keyring, and they do this for every other colour in the history of colours too, and all on the same day, it detracts from the other art that is being uploaded by other artists at the same time. If you do this, add something artistic in the mix too, please!

A good example was when I created a landscape that had taken many hours of work to achieve, it was uploaded at a peak time in the day, but my one piece of landscape art was lost in the recent additions search because someone had uploaded around 200 keyrings that were just plain single coloured backgrounds. I have seen badly cropped images that have been shrunk to fit, and whilst I encourage everyone who wants to have a go to have a go, it is essential that in order to make a sale, an understanding of print on demand is needed. Unfortunately many sign up and do so without fully understanding just how patient you have to be. I know artists who are seven and eight years in, yet they have sold very few if any pieces during that time.

If you do it right, and you have mastered the art of promotion, eventually you will make a sale. Some people make a decent living purely from print on demand, but these do seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

THE STATE OF POD

 

Over the last few weeks or so I have been carrying out some relatively serious research around print on demand sites because frankly at this time of year sales are always patchy with the onset of summer. People tend to be slightly more focussed on living outdoors than hanging new art. But also because I think something fresh is needed in the industry that supports the artist better, and especially during the seasons that are generally quieter, and this is something I have been considering setting up on a small scale for a while.

Speaking to a few artists recently, they had told me how they have had to adapt their ways of working to accommodate the slacker periods. Producing work in the summer in readiness for Christmas trading, and of course preparing for the annual art fairs and expos. Taking this as a time to promote not quite so rigorously, instead using it to create new works, and making sure that their names stay just on the radar of potential buyers for the busier seasons.

Multi function device printers
Something bigger than this would be needed!

 

A perfect print on demand service for artists wouldn’t necessarily be a perfect print on demand service for buyers, but is there a compromise that no other print on demand services have yet met?

I think there probably is. Throughout my research to date I have come at this from both the perspective of someone who buys original art and prints, and from the view of an artist on print on demand.

Whilst I would be foolish to give away the entire business plan I am starting to formulate, there are some very clear indications from both sides as to what would be needed to get close to perfect. If you are an angel investor looking to invest in a start-up, it might be worth getting in touch! There are more than a few artists who would like to get involved.

First of all, I am still in the process of exploring the options, and carrying out a needs analysis, so the following are really only very early indications of some of my findings to date.

The current issues are generally around promotion of artists. As I said earlier, the issue with print on demand is that artists need to promote themselves, and contrary to any preconceived ideas that anyone may have that artists can be creative in all sorts of ways, generally this excludes marketing our own work. I can market the work of others and tell you exactly why you need to buy it, but I, just like many other artists am my harshest critic. You should hear the conversations I have with myself.

I am no marketing guru, but I have over 30-years in the business to know what tends to work a little better, and what tends to bear no low-hanging fruit at all. Promotion is a skill that really is a science and you need to know your market. Any individual will be able to tell you that, so it should come as no surprise that identifying the exact demographic that your art is targeted on is critical not just for artists, but for whoever offers a product or a service.

There really is no point at all in targeting people who are solely interested in buying abstract art if what you do is paint traditional portraits. You might sell the odd piece here and there, you may even get the odd commission, but your effort and time would bear more fruit if you focussed on those who love abstract works.

As a print on demand site, would you specialise in one particular artistic style? Most likely not. You would need to have a range of artistic styles from a range of artists. This is what they all do anyway, the problem for those who are emerging in to the art world is that it can take forever or never for them to be discovered. Probably 1% of the 1% of those artists who enter print on demand will see any form of immediate sale, a few more will see sales within weeks, and a few more over months and eventually you will get sales but the reality is that it could even take a few years.

Although you may be the next Matisse or Van Gogh, who knows you are there? Your friends and family, maybe your Facebook friends, but the world has a population of over 7 billion people. The reality is that in the great scheme of things, you won’t be making a dent. When you appear on search pages, you will be alongside everyone else who is trying to do the same.

Mark Taylor Rhino art
One of my most popular print on demand pieces is Rhino. Available from http://10-Mark-Taylor.pixels.com

 

WHAT WOULD PERFECT LOOK LIKE?

I can without any doubt at this point tell you that setting up something completely new would need some significant investment.

But a Print on Demand service that is run by artists who are passionate about the arts, that also supports artists much more widely than current offerings, and one that is also ethical, would be a refreshing change and much needed. Recently two very good artist friends have said the exact same thing to me, and many more artists have said that this idea is one that they would encourage.

Whilst I get the whole economies of scale thing, I do wonder if the current offerings are simply too big? Too big to support artists in the current economy, and too big to allow new artists to become discovered?

I mentioned ethical. That’s not to say that any of the current services aren’t. However, without the artists none of these print on demand services would be able to exist. It is a symbiotic relationship that too often seems a little one sided.

Supporting artists is critical to the success of both the artists and ultimately it is no use to any print on demand service if an artist never sells anything at all. In fact it will cost the print on demand service to host images and descriptions of works that have never, or will never sell.

Some of the services have deleted older unsold files in the past, but I wonder how many people have tried out print on demand, not made a sale, and then walked away without closing their account. By doing this, images could sit on the servers for years, and whilst it increases the number of images available, ultimately the new artists sink lower in the search results.

Now some images will have been posted a number of years ago but have yet to sell. Who knows if they ever will, we need to be mindful though that one day those images may eventually sell. Would it not be better for print on demand services to require an artist to access their account say at least every 12-months to confirm that they want to continue? Maybe having an artist login every 120-days would provide a useful filter to sort out those who have simply given up, but still have an account.

I know from the research I have carried out to date that this is often the case. A friend of mine decided to try out print on demand in the early days. It was only when I mentioned a particular print on demand site that he realised that he once had an account but had not logged in for more than 3-years. In the five years he had the account, he had sold well in the first six-months, then a couple of sales over the next couple of years, then he walked away because it wasn’t worth the effort. He didn’t close his account, and he had simply forgotten that it was still active.

So reducing the number of artists doesn’t necessarily mean that the buying public will have a lesser experience. They will see fresh art and photography in place of outdated work where the artist has walked away.

Would a new print on demand service really need hundreds of thousands of artists in order to be successful? Again it comes down to economies of scale, but I have a feeling that some of the benefits of a large user base will be outweighed by the longer-term cost.

A smaller print on demand service would focus on its artists and in turn would be able to support the artists with promotion. A print on demand service with say a maximum of one, two, three, or five thousand artists would give each artist a chance of being seen. This then makes it a much more attractive proposition for an artist. In fact existing print on demand services could also consider this. I expect the reason that they don’t always promote is simply the economics of employing more staff, and also like I said earlier, just who do you promote?

NOT ALL ABOUT ME

In terms of ethics it’s not all about promoting artists. How the work is produced is just as important to me. Producing work on good quality stock is how I envision that my artwork should be displayed.

The Fine Art Trade Guild in the UK state that whichever type of print you buy, you should expect it to last. The Guild print standard requires paper to be at least 250gsm, with an acidity level of between pH7 and pH9, to minimise discolouring. Colours should be relatively lightfast, scoring 6 or more on the Blue Wool Scale, the industry-standard measurement in the UK, or its equivalent.

That is certainly the product I would like my art to be printed on. I want something that the buyer will be able to hand down for generations to come, and whilst it is a little more expensive, I think most art buyers would agree that they would rather pay a little more to get a much higher quality. Often that little more is no more than a couple of cups of coffee from a well-known coffee chain.

Handmade papers also offer environmental benefits. Usually the paper that we all use every day is made in a mill from wood pulp. The pulp comes from cutting down trees, and dyes and chemicals are added.

Handmade paper doesn’t need the chemicals when it is created from cotton waste from textile mills, waste bio-mass such as grass, jute, husk, waste wool, broken leaves and flower petals, and what’s more, often handmade paper adds a depth to the work that simply cannot be reproduced with traditional mill made papers.

If handmade paper is stored away from dampness and moisture it can last a very long time. Some of it will also have an inherent protection built in against insects, and without any chemical input. It is also often much stronger than mill-made paper due to its dispersed fibres.

It is similar with frames. When you purchase art more often than not you will want it framed. There are so many frames available nowadays that can cost as little as a few dollars/pounds/Euros etc. However, think about how such frames can be made and then sold, including a profit for a few dollars. They are likely to be manufactured in huge production facilities, most likely in places where humanitarian concerns are less important than the cost.

Whilst these will serve a purpose, offering frames from framers who have joined a professional guild, or are time-served, is a great way to not only encourage local economies, but also to provide a quality that you simply cannot find in a box store.

I have also yet to find a print on demand service that will allow me to sell a set number of limited edition prints. Not every work of mine is available through print on demand, some of my works are very limited editions and I make them available only occasionally. Usually there is a production run of twenty-five prints, and occasionally I only produce a single work and then destroy the original digital file when the product is printed.

So a print on demand service that allowed only a set number to be sold, that could also number each piece, would certainly be a draw to me. If I could offer my art through print on demand and only with a set number that would go on to be sold, it would be more akin to what art buyers would expect when visiting a traditional gallery.

These ideas would certainly collectively offer a new or emerging artist a simpler way to experience high-end art sales without the help of galleries. Often galleries will not represent an artist who has received few or no sales, unless they see an exceptional piece of art that is so different from anything else on the market.

Any new service would need to cater for a wide range of artists. Those who are new to the commercial art world, those who are not new, but as yet are to achieve regular sales, artists who have sold on a regular basis, and finally those artists who sell on a regular basis, and where their art is priced significantly higher.

Until an artist has made a sale, it is essential that they are supported and promoted. It is also essential that the artists engage with more experienced artists to gain an understanding of the industry. Imagine a print on demand service where more experienced artists actually mentored new artists too. That would be phenomenal.

ABOUT THE MONEY

Whilst to an extent an artist in print on demand can set their own prices, some artists haven’t gained the confidence in themselves to price their art at a value that is consistent to the quality of the art that they actually produce. Often they add in a commission equivalent to less than a single cup of coffee. Out of that commission they may have a yearly fee to pay, they need to pay for materials, and of course they need to pay for their time. They also need to eat and pay bills.

So many artists set their commissions too low. Even I struggle when I am told to increase my prices. I received an additional payment from a buyer who had realised that I had only made $5 on one of my prints recently, she got in touch and sent an additional $45 to my PayPal account and told me that I really should charge more. She said that she had purchased art from print on demand sites for years, never realising that the artist wouldn’t be able to buy a new paintbrush from the proceeds.

Whilst artists need to compete and offer good value, they also need to have a sustainable business model. You don’t have to charge the earth, but you do need to realise that people will pay for what they like, even in these turbulent days of financial uncertainty. If the difference is the price of that now famous cup of coffee, will it really put a determined buyer off. I know that very high unrealistic prices will put people off too, I'm still figuring out the happy balance.

Maybe the perfect print on demand service should encourage artists to set a minimum. I can see that indicating a recommended retail price is beneficial, the services will know what sells at what price, but when it comes to art prints, no one really suggests a price. Some services will recommend a price for items such as phone cases, but when it comes to prints, there is no clear indication.

I know that when I first started in print on demand my prices were hilariously low. I really did think that by charging a commission so low, I would sell in volume and make a profit that way. What I hadn’t realised is that I was undervaluing my work, and people were actually turned off from buying it. I am currently reviewing my prices again and uplifting them slightly, just as any business will do outside of the art world.

Looking around the internet, no one has really produced a guide to setting prices that actually will guarantee sales. I guess, there just isn’t a guaranteed pricing structure, but I know that pricing too low definitely doesn’t work. I tested my theory again over the last two weeks, I reduced everything. It made no difference to sales, in fact sales have been less. Now they have changed not quite back to normal. I have simplified the pricing a little, asking for less commission on all sizes, but applying the same commission to some sizes means that the more popular sizes have gone up by the price of a flat white, others have come down, but overall the collective commission is the same. Let's see what happens!

WHAT NEXT

For now, as close to perfect as you will get are the primary print on demand services. Fine Art America, Pixels, Society 6, Zazzle, and the rest of them. They all need an enormous amount of hard work to make them viable ways of selling prints.

Ultimately the art world is changing and we are now starting to see on demand digital picture frames with art available through subscription. But if the models are anything like AdSense with returns based on cost per 1000 views, you’ll likely earn very little until you gain a following. AdSense is certainly not my retirement plan. It's a bit like web welfare but with less money.

For me, I will continue as I am for now but will take my research further. What we do need though is a print on demand service that can focus on the unknown, yet to be discovered artists. We also need a service that isn’t too big. As I said, the perfect print on demand for artists might not feel like the perfect print on demand site for buyers. But I think even if I had to pay $100 per year as an artist instead of $30, if I knew I was getting a certain level of promotion I would be all in. At that point it’s the quality of my work I will need to be concerned about, and not the associated dilemma of how much I should charge, or when and where and how often I should be worrying about promotion.

I also said I wouldn’t hand out my complete business plan, but let’s say it is certainly something I would invest in! If you have any ideas on what the perfect print on demand service could offer artists please do leave a comment.

M.A

Remember you can purchase my artwork on this site and over at http://10-mark-taylor.pixels.com and join me on Facebook at https:facebook.com/beechhousemedia and in my two artist groups, The Artists Exchange, and The Artists Hangout. Both are free to join and offer access to a great community of artists

 

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