Saturday, July 25, 2009

Thoughts on selling your creative work via POD ( Print On Demand ) or other online companies vs all on your own

Can you spot the bull in this picture?

(A POD company, lists your creative work for sale, prints it when demanded (bought) ships the finished product, bills the customer and eventually pays you a percentage or an agreed upon fee. They also handle customer service/returns. Normally the content provider (the artist) sets the percentage or fee, is responsible for tagging and describing images, properly formatting and preparing images to fit various printed products, and performs the bulk of the marketing if they expect to sell much. Unfortunately this arrangement seems to be changing in a classic bait and switch manner wherein the POD company arbitrarily changes the terms of service-- including the amount of money you are paid for your own work.)

I got asked about selling art online, so this is my short answer.

FYI if you sell your own art or other creative work:

We have mixed feelings about Imagekind since they were bought out by Cafepress whom we figure are about the worst of the worst greedy bastards at this point. They recently reduced the income of their hard working artists by about 66% on average, or in some cases 90%. Many of these folks are handicapped, disabled, home caregivers, stay at home moms and dads, or other people who cannot simply "return to the workforce" in a standard way. Often these people spent years learning how to build up a successful home based business, creating, uploading, describing and tagging thousands of images, investing in advertising and networking. In the process they made Cafepress a huge success-- only to have their incomes gutted with only 30 days notice. Cafepress denied being in any kind of financial trouble, they simply took the commissions because they wanted the money. There is much more to the story, if you search Blogs it's all out there. The amazing thing is that it has not hit the mainstream news yet. Seriously, we are talking widows and orphans out on the street because of this greedy profit grab. Imagine losing two thirds of your total income. Sheryl and I were lucky, we only lost 66% of our grocery money. It hurt, but we will survive it. Cafepress boasts some 6.5 million content contributors, apparently they figured they could lose a few, and thought nothing of the human costs or about the real people that they are hurting.

If you're really good at doing your own marketing and driving people to your Imagekind site (again, owned by Cafepress) then you might make some sales there, otherwise they have a pretty poor rep for making sales without your direct involvement. And so, if they're just printer/shippers, then why pay them $100 a year for a premium acct? Oh yeah, you also won't get paid on a sale for 45 days because of their return policy, and your commissions have to come to $50 or more or they won't cut a check until it does. So I won't get paid for my first sale there unless I sell several more.

I had nearly 20,000 image-views on Imagekind before making my first sale (yesterday). We did much better than that on Cafepress with many of the same images before they reduced our commissions by nearly 70%.

Since then we've turned to Zazzle, another POD company as have many others.

But I personally have been rethinking the whole POD company thing as to whether it is worth the time, effort, and most of all the risk that the company may change "terms of service" on you at any time. If they do, they will most certainly change terms to favor their own profits, not yours. At that point you may find yourself in an untenable agreement with no way out except to quit-- at which point you will never recoup your time, effort, business cards, advertising costs, online links and affiliates, it can be years of efforts down the drain. Starting from scratch again is no small matter.

POD companies like this don't have the best prices on printing, because they're including a lot of their other overhead in the base price. Also, your customers won't get the personal touch like thank you notes and signed prints unless you're willing to ship your own. You may have incomplete information on your customers if you go with a POD company and you may be excluded by "contract" from directly contacting your own customers if a sale went through the "company site". My 1st sale through Imagekind went to a suburb of Dallas, Texas, and that's all I'm allowed to know. Most likely corporate is going to send them coupons and enticements to buy more art from their stable of artists, but my art will not be emphasized in any way. It's a printing and framing shop promoting their own work, not yours. They don't care at all what they print and frame nor who they benefit or harm other than themselves. It seems odd, but they have no stake in the success of individual artists. It's pretty cut-throat, and I mean that just the way that it sounds. Ever see the Michael Moore film "Pets or Food" ? I think that everyone should see it at this point in history, or at least be aware of the issues that it illustrates.

There are quite a few pros and cons to using a POD company. We sold better on one of them because we piggy-backed on their SEO. It's difficult for an individual artist's website to compete head to head with a Mega-site with 6.5 million crazed/constantly uploading artists, designers, and just plain people who think they're funny. Google likes huge websites which are always updating. That's the hook-- really it's a partnership with the artists, or it should be, because the Mega-site is nothing without their constant contributions. They are a print shop with nothing to print. They also are a website with absolutely no presence to search engines upon which they heavily rely. The contributing artists write virtually all their ad copy and build their SEO from the ground up. Unfortunately some of these companies don't see it that way-- they figure that one artist is as good as the next and there will always be more lined up behind them just waiting to be exploited. I would hate to think that they're right. I do think that they are right.

Back when I was a unionized government employee I was well aware that there were people out there clamoring for my job if I chose to leave it. My potential successors were there because what I had was better than what they had. It's always been that way. Not to say that positive change can't occur, but the artists (or worker's) true exploiter is not the company, it's the artist standing next to him, behind him, or the one living in a third world country. And the exploiters of these fine human beings are the customers who buy the products which they produce for the "Big Box" in whatever form that takes. Unfortunately on-line art companies appear to be following the Walmart model. We all exploit each other because we are so very exploitable. Every human being will reach first for the apple that's lowest on the tree, will probably gather more than he needs and sell them to his neighbors-- on and on. But what we're talking about ( in the context of art sales ) are all the apple trees, all the fruit trees, all the trees on the planet behind a barbed wire fence with a single gate.

Back to specifics: I am currently equating POD companies somewhat with "microstock" photo and graphics companies such as iStockphoto-- it's pretty much an 80/20 split there in favor of the company, and to boot the prices per image are very low even for unlimited print runs. They count on the idea that artists will think that they need to get on the mega-list in order to be seen at all, and they also count on customers who want to shop the "Big Box" for their images rather than going directly to artists, designers, photographers, videographers, even musicians and voice artists (writers?). Personally I think that charging 80% just to archive files and manage downloads is pretty excessive.

( If you're a photographer, do yourself a favor and look up Dan Heller on the web. He writes about this stuff and other photo business matters in depth.)

With the apparent trend being exploitation of the artists, one needs to weigh very carefully any supposed benefits from partnering with "corporate." It's a bit like cattle believing that they have partnered with Oscar Meyer Wieners. Out where we live, the cattle roam free. I like to think that some of them never get rounded up. I believe that.

No comments: