Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How to make money as an artist

There are a lot of different ways to make money as an artist, and the market changes constantly. A year ago I would have recommended Cafepress as a way to sell ones art online via what's called a POD company or "print on demand". Now I can't. We have over 400 designs up on something like 32,000 products, and we've spent hours on every design, not to mention a lot of self promotion. You can still buy our stuff at reasonable prices that we set ourselves here in our shop, but if you go here to what's called the Cafepress Marketplace the corporation that we partnered with has jacked up the prices and hacked down our commission to only 10% of the selling price on exactly the same products and designs. Learn from our mistakes, read on.

A real world example is a long sleeved t-shirt which somebody was about to buy at the inflated price of $28.00, they cancelled the order without ever knowing about the existence of our shop where they could have saved $5.00. Interestingly, had they bought the shirt in our shop at the lower price, we would have made five or six bucks commission. Had the sale gone through at the inflated price, we'd have made only $2.80 and the corporation would have profited from the rest. It gets worse: the same corporation has already set what they call the "base price" upon which they already make a profit. In this case they added about $10.00 to the base price as their profit on top of profit. They charge us money just to have a shop too. Bottom line, I think that one of the next steps is that they will take over pricing and commission in our shop as well. We don't really have any good reasons to stay there-- we're just still reeling from the shock. In the meantime, however, I've sold my work in thirty-six US States and six foreign countries, and as a resume builder, that helps me.

Almost unbelievably, people are still signing up as new shopkeepers to Cafepress, thinking they are going to do well, while all the existing shopkeepers checking in are reporting a real world 80% reduction in income. All that money now goes directly to the corporation. Many artists and designers have had their incomes completely wrecked by the greed of this Corporation, all the way from some who barely makes grocery money (including the disabled, handicapped, stay at home moms) on up to loyal, top-shopkeepers who have been there for many years and typically rake in $100,000 a year in commissions (making several times that for the corporation). The official word is that every shopkeeper in the marketplace just got their commissions slashed to the bone.

Even from a pure greed/business perspective this makes no sense to kick your top earners in the teeth-- but they did it. I guess the lure of quick cash was just too much. And that worries me, because a year ago in July, they had just made similar greedy moves, and bought another POD company called Imagekind (we have some of our work there also). So now regardless of how we feel about our "corporate partner" they own both POD companies where our work is housed. What are they going to buy this July? I hope not Zazzle-- because we just opened a shop there.

There are many other POD companies of course. Two of which are Zazzle and Printfection. We have opened a shop at Zazzle which they don't charge us money for, and we get to set our own prices/commissions (for now). There are a lot of other perks at Zazzle, and I now wish we'd branched out sooner. However, it is possible for terms of service to change there also, and we could find ourselves in the same boat as before, with hundreds if not thousands of hours of our time and efforts invested, and our "partner" suddenly skimming 80% of our profits in plain view. As an artist I now have to warn others to be very cautious about putting their creative work into the hands of others. If you're new at this and you think that 10% sounds pretty good-- yeah, it could be if you manage to sell $1000 retail every day of the week, and I guess some people do, but not many. At that level you'd really have to ask yourself if a 10/90 split is a good deal for you, cuz it ain't. If you can sell in big numbers, invest the money in your own production. Don't give it all away to a glorified print shop ( a POD company ).

Working with POD companies is essentially self publishing, meaning nobody judges your work and it's up to you to sell direct to the public. So before you jump in, ask yourself who is going to sell more units; Walmart, with some lame design which is nonetheless incredibly palatable to a wide number of people? Or you, all alone with your masterpiece. It probably really is a masterpiece. That doesn't matter much. Even on the Internet you're going to want top placement: that means you want people seeing your design first, and if possible, mostly your design amongst a small quantity of other high quality designs. This is where 10% commissions versus much higher commissions become so vitally important. If a big chain store offers you even 5% that might be a real good thing for you. But conversely if you're going to sell small quantities yourself you need to do a lot better per unit. Personally, I'm not all about the money. If I thought it would be cool to sell greeting cards myself on the street corner making a dollar per unit, I would do that. Success isn't always about money.

By the way, 10% is considered a fair licensing fee. A licensing fee is what a company pays an artist for the rights (usually limited rights) to reproduce their work. It's considered fair because the company pays you upfront and you sign away the limited rights to a specific design. The limits usually involve time limits, and a maximum number of units reproduced. You still own the design, they are just renting it. So, for example they say, "Hey, we'll give you 10% of ten thousand units for one year on a coffee mug. We'll sell them at $3.00 each (wholesale) and you'll get thirty cents. Here is your advance check for $3,000." Of course, you could do it yourself instead: buy 10,000 white porcelain mugs here with a one color design for 98 cents each, put em all in a truck and drive around selling them to retail outlets at 3 bucks a unit. Better yet, if you're the retailer you get to sell them at 6 bucks and you've increased your investment sixfold.

On the other hand, if your one color design only looks good to you, your mom, your wife and one of your best friends ( the rest tend to change the subject when asked, or they say the design is "interesting" ) then YIKES. You just blew 3 grand plus shipping, storage costs etc. This is why people get tempted by "print on demand." Your risk is minimal. There's no risk for the POD company either, so when they get greedy there just isn't any excuse for it. They aren't going to mass market a print run of 10,000 for you, they aren't paying you anything up front, they just throw your designs in with thousands of others and it's all up to you if you can possibly get your work noticed. There's a lot more to that but I have to get off this POD thing.

If I were a retailer, I'd get into the manufacturing business on at least one product, even if I had to produce it myself in the back room. As an artist, I have to consider becoming a retailer/manufacturer, because at least you have some control, and the risk is somewhat outweighed by the possibility of selling your one dollar item for six or eight bucks even if "cute" and "funny" are it's primary attributes. Right? That means you have a break even point on your investment after selling only a fraction (one sixth or one eighth) of your inventory. The rest is gravy.

Which brings me to my next point, fine art, and selling original works (not reproductions). If you're Andy Warhol, you'd be dead and you wouldn't care about any of this. But if you're a living breathing reasonable facsimile of Andy Warhol, you'd take your 3,000 mugs with the same design and stack them up in an art gallery. The entire piece would be "conceptual art" and the price tag might be in the millions of dollars. If you're Damien Hirst, you might do the same thing. In fact, if you're Damien Hirst and you stack up 3,000 coffee mugs anytime soon I'll appreciate advance payment for stealing my conceptual art.

Damien Hirst is the highest paid artist in the world. He's a conceptual artist. He conceives of things, he doesn't make anything himself, except amazingly clever titles, without which much of his work would make no sense at all. I'm pretty sure that makes him the most highly paid WRITER in the world, but what do I know about fine art. So, if Damien has a concept which is photographic in nature, he'll hire a photographer to take a picture of a human skull. Then he'll hire a printer to print it on a t-shirt. Then he'll have an assistant wrap the t-shirt around the human skull, photograph that, and print it on a another t-shirt. Then he'll wear the t-shirt to one of his gallery openings and title it "enough is enough" and some rich guy will hand him fifty thousand bucks to give him the shirt off his back. Far be it for me to Judge. Damien, if you need a photographer, I'm available. I think you're cool man. Really cool. I'm not kidding. You and I would totally get along.

It's judgement which put Damien Hirst where he is today. Not my judgement, and not even his, but the judgement of those in the art-world who have gained the reputation to be "the arbiters of taste." I understand that his big break came when a guy named Saatchi saw his work and liked it. Offered to fund future projects. PS, Saatchi is really cool too-- invests a lot of his own money promoting upcoming artists. We need Angels like that. They are, in a sense, the authorities who decide which art is worth thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars. Sadly, it is usually the artist himself who decides that his work is worth two dollars and twenty cents commission on a t-shirt that he's only going to sell a dozen of. . . over the course of two years.

As an artist, besides luck, judgement is your most important concept to pay attention to. It's your conceptual art. Like my "Rock On" design. Not a big seller, but it sold lately and it has sold several times. It's not even a very good photo, and as a designer, putting together words and photos is not exactly my strong point. But some people have liked the concept. It's an upbeat way of expressing both concern and conviction over equal rights. It acknowledges that those who are "different", are here and have always been here, will always be here. Rock on baby, that's right. A PhD professor who is an expert on such things told me that it's a metaphor which works on many levels. Yeah, I thought, too bad it doesn't look nicer. A lot of my best photos have never sold, and some of my mediocre ones have sold multiple times. Sometimes it's the concept, sometimes it's just good timing, sometimes it's placement: a dumb joke at the right time and place is actually priceless, but a price tag can be put on it. So, you, or somebody who is a better expert than you should judge where and when and how a specific design should be sold. My "Rock On" design shouldn't be in an art gallery, but maybe it's OK on a t-shirt.

In some cases therefore, an artist might have his work in several different venues and in many different forms, depending on what the design is most suited for. Some oil paintings reproduce extremely well. They might never have the power and impact of the original, and reproductions will probably never have the pull as a financial investment that an original does. But you, the artist only gets to sell the original one time. Frig magnets are forever. An in-between solution is to sell limited production, signed and numbered reproductions. That means that you, the artist is promising to only reproduce a piece a set number of times, thus preserving the value of each print as something rare. It goes without saying that the limited run should be of the highest possible quality. The best bet for an artist investing in print repros is to be particular, but not over the top insane about exact color matching. If you want to form a relationship with a print shop, you let the best that they can do be good enough-- and then you tell them what a fantastic job they did, and mean it.

Making sales is really what it's all about (to you, or you wouldn't be reading this), but it might be the last thing that you do as an artist looking to make money. There are a lot of good reasons for that. For one thing you don't want the "cart leading the horse." This can happen when an artist has a popular design early in their career. Next thing you know, they make ten more designs remarkably similar to the first one. Now you've plagiarized yourself. Writers fall for that trap too. Sure, it worked for Louie L'Amour and his western pulp novels, but Annie Dillard? Please, move on. "Guernica" by Pablo Picasso isn't exactly mainstream, commercial, or even pleasing to the eye some would say. But it was one of the most expensive paintings of all time, until Damien Hirst sold his platinum, diamond-studded human skull (with real human teeth!) for about a hundred million dollars. Some say that Damien Hirst bought the piece himself, titled "for the love of god", thus grabbing the title of most expensive art sale (of a living artist) of all time-- but don't get mad, take notes. He's a conceptual artist. He's making a statement. And he's doing it better than any other conceptual artist ever has.

So let's say you've built your skills and talent over a period of years. Maybe you have an education in the arts, which is probably a good idea. You've sold a few things here and there, you've been in ruts, stuck, stagnant, repeating yourself, and you've crawled out of them too. You also have extended high points creatively. Now you're ready to really start making some sales. Well here is the real secret that you've been waiting for: don't. Don't sell anything. Make the next art project you do be the least likely thing that you'll ever sell. Artists build upon reputation, and reputation is built by not caring if anyone else loves your art, as long as YOU do. Don't believe me? ask Damien Hirst, or any other successful artist. Art is made for art's sake, it belongs to everyone, and even if high rollers trade in art like it were stock options that's OK because it supports the concept of the value of the human spirit as precious and irreplaceable. So, after you've made your art that won't sell, donate it to a museum. Then do it again. Find some people who will look at your art and make statements about it in writing, like art critics. Because here is the most ironic bit of all: a successful artist follows the dictates of his soul, then art critics and connoisseurs critique it, bash it, and eventually some of them like it. When the public learns that art critics and other experts like it-- then they'll buy it in droves, and at a fair price, but not before. People want to be told what to like and treasure, they want to be told what's valuable. I really, really hate that, but it's true. The best way to make money as an artist then, is to build a reputation which is of course built on the foundation of not caring what anybody thinks. You can always sell your Frig magnets later on, but the best way to make money as an artist is to get the fame by having your work noticed, judged, even hated. Then Walmart will offer you 15%, but only after you're dead. That's the art world. If you understand it better than I do, leave me a comment because I really want to know.

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