This overview on Print on Demand services is something of a follow-up to my article last week about making my work available through Fine Art America. The discussion is likely of most interest to other visual artists, but anyone curious to know more about the print on demand experience is welcome! I’m discussing my own experience with each site, and quite honestly for every person I find who has had X experience with one business, someone else has had precisely the opposite experience. Put simply, your mileage may vary.
I’ve been utilizing various print on demand sites for over 5 years now. For part of that time, I also did show and sell some work in gallery shows and art festivals, often with other artists. There’s something to be said for being able to meet an artist and look at their work in person. While I generally enjoyed that experience, I was never a fan of having a closet full of prints and mats and bags, i.e. inventory between those events. Maybe if one participates longer, their inventory becomes more focused? Or perhaps there’s always that one art print that you drag from show to show until the person who loves it finally discovers it?
At any rate, those shows and festivals felt even less practical when life found me in a rural setting once more. That was partially the impetus to focus more on print on demand sites. And the POD industry is quite honestly an ever-changing game. The sites that are rising today can easily be passe next year. At times I’m a little stunned by the fast rise and fall of internet businesses, to be honest. Are we that fickle or is there really some inherent reason that so many internet businesses fail to keep the momentum with which they start?
I’m going to go somewhat in chronological order in this print on demand overview, so that means we start with Imagekind. I hate to say for me personally Imagekind was essentially a POD write-off. Five years ago, their platinum package for artist’s cost about $100 a year! I don’t remember the particulars of the discount I got at the time, but I paid $25 and it was the only year I subscribed at that service level. At the end of the year not only hadn’t I recouped the cost of their platinum print on demand service, I hadn’t made enough to even qualify for a pay out! I remained for three more years as a basic (free) subscriber before I sold a few more prints, qualified for a payout, and promptly marked my remaining work as not for sale! It is really a shame, though, as I was truly bowled over by the beauty of their prints. Even with those fantastic prints, I personally was never able to drive any business through their site.
Redbubble, who I joined later the same year, was a completely different print on demand story. Artists can upload and sell work for free, but there is no free lunch. Redbubble obviously has bills to pay to stay in business, and that free status comes with what I regard as high base prices for the various prints and t-shirts they have on offer. As with all these sites, the artist profit comes from their markup over that base price. It’s attractive to artists to have a free account, but the longer I’ve been on print on demand sites, the more I appreciate the ones that have some type of subscription-based service that pays to keep the servers running and the base prices perhaps a bit lower.
Redbubble was a strong print on demand service for me for several years. However, two years ago the site revised how it handled keywords in a very ham-handed way. It was the push I needed to see what other print on demand sites were offering. I still like the quality of their products, which is why I retain a presence on Redbubble. However my personal take is that they seem to have peaked. The changes over the past two years have felt like little more than the equivalent of a few coats of paint without any real functional upgrades for artists using the POD.
High on my want list when changing my focus from Redbubble was to still have a print on demand service but to have fine tuned control over the look and feel of my portfolio. At the end of the day, I prefer making art with my camera and Photoshop, not printing and shipping it and generally handling the fulfillment end of things. You’ll find artists all over the spectrum on this issue. Some would rather manage absolutely every aspect of things, but for me, my desire to control things mostly revolves around creation and to some degree online presentation.
I reviewed several sites, but I ultimately chose Zenfolio for one major reason. I had been using Mpix, their main vendor here in the US, to do my own prints for several years. Each package I receive from Mpix has surpassed my expectations. I actually discovered Zenfolio through Mpix’s website and that put them at the lead of the pack. Two years with this print on demand portfolio and no regrets!
Zenfolio has multiple levels of membership. At the bottom end, it’s a simple portfolio site, and as you move up the ladder, you get access to print on demand services from a host of vendors. In fact artists and photographers can allow Zenfolio to act as their shopping cart but handle fulfillment on their own terms. A perfect scenario for you major control freaks out there! With each of Zenfolio’s Vendor partners around the world, you can specify whether or not you will use that vendor and what products you will offer. In fact, the pricing tool that comes with Zenfolio is one of my favorite features and the strongest I’ve encountered to date. Most print on demand services seem to just allow you to markup the POD products in one way. Either the site allows you to set a percent markup or a dollar markup. With Zenfolio, you create a price list and you can make it as sophisticated or as simple as you want. And you apply that price list to however many of your images you want. So, you can have a price list for new prints, and a different price list for best sellers, etc. There are probably far more ways you can use this sophisticated tool than I have imagined so far!
The look and feel of a Zenfolio site can be customized to a degree, but if you’re looking for a print on demand site where you have intimate control over the design of the site, you may want to keep looking. I know this is the reason some artists and photographers choose Smugmug, but I have no personal experience to offer there. When I chose Zenfolio, I wasn’t interested in getting dirty with the CSS side of things. I love Zenfolio’s simple clean page layouts to choose from. And I have been more than happy with the level of control offered over the general look of the site through background colors, background images, fonts, font colors, what appears on the menus, etc. I think the average photographer or artist who isn’t an armchair web designer can more than make their Zenfolio-powered site their own style without having to know the inner workings of their site. There have been hints that more ability to customize the site may be coming, but there are already so many features I don’t use that I’m not waiting with bated breath!
While Zenfolio can both be your portfolio as well as a print on demand service, you are something of an Island on the internet. It takes a good deal of effort for visual artists to make their work visible on the internet on any site. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but on the internet, we still use words to search! Maybe something like Google Image Search will eventually turn this paradigm on its head, but right now, a potential fan or even collector of your work will enter a word or phrase into a search engine. And you may have a perfectly suitable piece of art to match that term, but search engines will deliver your work to them only if those words or phrases are in the content on the page surrounding your image! If I had a penny for every artists who has included very little in the way of descriptions around their artwork… That diminutive description scenario leaves it up to that artist to drive all their traffic. Search engines will rarely find their work to show it to the person searching for it. After a year of writing and re-writing my content, both to make it more easily found and more personal, this is a subject near and dear, but I’m beginning to digress from the subject!
Fine Art America
There was a reason I was going there, though, because it explains my decision to expand and offer my work on other print on demand sites. While I am beginning to see some fruit from my labor of re-working all those descriptions, I also recognize that there’s a benefit to being on a high profile print on demand service that ranks high in the search engines on its own accord. Because a POD like Fine Art America has a high web ranking, my artwork with similar quality in descriptions and titles, has a better chance of rising to the top in search engine results. I wouldn’t count on any of these sites to generate results internally. Yes, there’s the possibility that a customer may come directly to the site and plug in a keyword that leads them to your art, but there’s a lot of internal competition for those results. I picked Fine Art America for the additional visibility for my work as well as a great line up of quality print options, some of which are not duplicated through my Zenfolio POD.
My feedback on Fine Art America as a Print on Demand service will, understandably, be brief right now, but I’ll try to follow up on this in the future. It is funny, though, that one of the features I was most excited about is one with which I’ve been least enchanted. What feature is that? It’s the ability for customers to preview 100% crops of my work. I spend a lot of time zoomed in on my work in increments far greater than 100% in order to fine-tune the details of anything I want to offer for sale. Yet when I see it at 100% in a customer preview it feels a bit gimmicky and unrealistic to me. This is not the way people observe artwork. At least, I can’t recall the last time I personally stepped up to a photo or painting and put my eye an inch from the surface. I’ve left the feature enabled. Perhaps there are potential customers who will appreciate it far more than I do, but for me it does little.
The one challenge I’ve found with Fine Art America is with its pricing tool. And here-in lies one of your challenges if you choose to offer work on multiple print on demand sites. Just as an example, Redbubble allows you to set a percent mark-up, and until only the past year or so it was a single percent for each artwork, be it greeting cards or canvas prints! Fine Art America by comparison allows one to set a dollar amount markup for each print size the artist chooses to offer, but there’s no way to choose whether or not you offer a given paper at that size or to charge a different artist markup for a given substrate. Combine this with Zenfolio that has an entirely different level of control and it quickly becomes complicated! My goal, of course, is to keep the prices as close as humanly possible despite these different pricing mechanisms and different base prices. Still, there is no way to keep multiple print on demand sites completely in sync in regards to pricing. I can only dream that at least Fine Art America might beef up this one area and give artists a little more control over the pricing of different substrates, or for that matter whether an artist even wants to offer a given work on a given paper. This has been the only thorn in my side thus far with Fine Art America.
There are only two account levels at Fine Art America. Currently with a free account, you can upload an unlimited number of images, but you can only offer 25 of them for sale through their Print on Demand Service. To offer more of your work for sale, you’ll need a premium account for $30 a year. There are some perks that come with that price including an artist portal similar in concept to Zenfolio’s portfolio. The benefit of the artist website is, of course, that you can drive your traffic to a site with fewer potential distractions while still making your work available through the main marketplace. Fine Art America allows far less control over the look and feel of their artist website. You can modify the header and choose from a handful of color schemes, but beyond that your control over how the site looks is very limited. In fact, you can’t remove menu items you don’t intend to use. There are tools like the built in blog and mailing list that duplicate my main site. Now, if you don’t already have those features elsewhere, you’ll be excited to have a print on demand service that includes them, but I’d still like the power to hide the tools I’m not currently using.
The only print on demand site I have a presence on but haven’t covered in depth here is Zazzle. Chronologically I wasn’t quite sure where to place it, and I’ve also had a waxing and waning relationship with Zazzle. There’s not enough control over the prices and substrates of prints for me to utilize them for regular prints while offering the same work on other sites. I would never come close to similar prices based on my past attempts. I have experimented in the past year with offering some collage-style posters through their POD site but honestly haven’t created enough work in that genre to report on that one way or the other. Most of my sales on Zazzle have been through t-shirts and products like their iPhone and iPad covers. I find the great bulk of my sales on Zazzle occur near Christmas. Zazzle offers a dizzying array of products, though, so it’s worth checking out. Perhaps I will find the time to build more of a presence there, but that’s about the extent of my feedback for them. If you have more detailed feedback on this POD, feel free to sound off in the comments!
Aside from Imagekind, I would recommend any of the above for the visual artist who aspires to offer their work via Print on Demand. Heck, assuming Imagekind’s products still match what I got several years ago, I’d even recommend their products. The thing is there is no one size fits all option. Despite liking their products, I slowly found Redbubble to be an ill-fitting shoe for me. You might have a different experience. My top two POD choices at the moment should be obvious from the above, but it really does boil down to what fits you best. If you’re good with a Print on Demand site that has a great reputation and ranks high in the search engines, and you can live with an artist portal that you have little ability to customize, you can hardly beat $30 a year for Fine Art America. If you need more control over the look and feel of your site and the products and prices you offer, then Zenfolio could be your ticket. My main hope is in the end I’ve offered some insight that will allow you to get a better handle on what print on demand will fit you!
Note: Have your own experiences to share concerning Print on Demand Sites? Please share them in the comments, and feel free to link to articles on the subject you’ve written or found particularly helpful. This is one post that I was hoping would be beneficial to others trying to follow their dreams, and the more input the better.
Follow-Up: This article has remained popular over the last several years and I have frequently been asked about how my experience may have changed since then. To see an update check out this recent post on Artists Websites today.