Selling prints, the start
Print journey, the start.
It’s been about 9 years now, since I made the jump into selling my photography prints full time, before opening my printing and framing business.
The journey in doing so was certainly not easy. Quite painful at times actually. I know many of my clients are currently selling, or trying to start selling prints. Here are some things that worked for me, and some things that didn’t, from the perspective of selling prints, and knowing others that do ok selling theirs. First off, I will say this. There is a LOT of opinion online, and much of it totally clashes with what I will say about it. Some people might not agree with my own experience, and that’s fine. If you don’t, then this article isn’t for you it’s no skin off my back. When I say full time, that means it was my ONLY source of income. About 2 or 3 times per year, I would throw in a workshop, but other than that, that’s it.
What came first the chicken or the egg? I’m saying that, as it relates to continuing to work a stable job, or making the jump into selling full time. Having done the head on jump, I might lean towards keeping stable employment because the other options seems somewhat irresponsible. Sink or swim, fast. On the other hand, there is no greater teacher than fighting through pain and struggle. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Having done the head first method, I can say with confidence that I learned and grew much much faster as a result. The more stable way will take more time, but at least you will have funds and not get as stuck at times, but then again, getting stuck requires coming up with creative solutions to get unstuck. If I did it again, I’d jump in personally. A lot of artist reject the word business. If you are selling, or wanting to sell prints, then the bottom line is you’re a business, and should treat it as such…period.
So, when you look at other photographers / artists to seek advice, here is the typical scenario, and the one that is most common. Photographer wants to sell prints. Asks friends on Facebook groups for pricing advice, and how to go about selling prints. The typical advice coming back from the majority is to double the cost of printing, put your work on a website, and that’s basically it.
It looks a little like that South Park Episode where the little gnomes collect underpants to sell.
Phase 1 Double your printing costs
Phase 2 ??????????
Phase 3 Profit
Ok, so, let’s continue the typical scenario. So, price doubled, check. Website built, check. Start posting to Facebook, Instagram…. Visit my site…. crickets. Maybe they do or do not get lots of likes, comments, etc, mmaaaayyyybe a bit of web traffic, but nothing. A lot of people have the expectation that they can just sell their prints through their website and that’s not how it works.
If you build it, they will come. No, no they won’t, and here’s why.
Here’s the deal with websites. If you are selling through your website, it is subject to the conversion laws of e-commerce. Here are some hard facts around that. E-commerce requires traffic to your website. A lot of traffic. Driving this traffic is it’s own job. It can’t be random anybody traffic either. It needs to be specific people who are interested in what you offer. Only a tiny, tiny percentage of that traffic will convert to a sale.
The average across industries for sales optimized websites is 2%. Your conversion rate will likely be close to 0%. You might get a sale or 2 from people who know you and trust you initially, but as far as e-commerce I wouldn’t count those as it will totally screw your numbers at first, but that conversion rate with those initial friends and family sales will very rapidly tank with more traffic. I’ve built many websites, have a lot of experience doing so, know about analytics, SEO, and all of that stuff, and I can rank a website very, very, very quickly in Google. It takes me a minimum of 6 months, and closer to 7 or 8 to start generating anything meaningful. The reality is, on the first go, it’s going to take years. It’s going to take years IF you measure, track, and adjust through analytics and take a measured and calculated approach along with user testing, and ensuring there are SO many things in place. Years of learning, constantly. The other option is to hire an agency to do it for you. Not a web designer, but an agency experienced in marketing and e-commerce conversions that know all of the barriers to a conversion, who can build out an entire lead capture strategy. That’s insanely expensive to do. If you can afford that, sure, go for it, but you’re going to be all in for a long time to see a return in the long haul.
While we’re discussing websites, there is another thing you will need to do, and this is very critical. Get a newsletter going, and get people to sign up for it. You need to keep in contact with people it’s important. Not through Social Media, because the reach is really bad. The only thing you can own, is your newsletter data base. Many marketers will tell you that they can judge the future health of your business based on your newsletter data base.
What I’m trying to portray here with all of that, is the sheer difficulty and knowledge required in order to sell anything online, especially as an independent creative with an unknown brand. See where I’m going with this? By focusing on online sales initially, you are going to be wasting years, and you might not ever get traction, like MOST photographers who are giving you that advice. Sure, you’ll sell a print here and there, but it won’t bring you closer to be able to do it in anyway that can even come close to supporting you, for a very, very long time. Work on SEO, and all of that other stuff, but don’t make it your main priority, build it over time.
Sharing is caring and will get you known.
Another thing you will see, is people wanting to sell prints, posting to Facebook groups and spending a majority of time sharing with other photographers, on photography groups. Before it was 500px, Flickr, etc. This is great if you want to share your work or get critiques. For selling prints it’s a total waste of time. Ok, maybe if you're really good, and want to build a business selling photography workshops that’s great, but we are talking about prints here, and for this purpose, is a time sink.
Define your audience.
You can’t just simply define your market as anybody and everybody. The faster you can figure this out, the faster you will have initial “success”, and the easier things will be. The more defined you can get, the easier it will be to find your specific audience. This is why simply copying other business doesn’t work well. For example, if you shoot beautiful mountain landscapes that mountain lovers and hikers would connect with, do you think paying $2000 to get an exhibitor booth at Comicon is going to get you a return, or a loss? You’re probably going to lose a lot of money and watch it vaporize. If you do spiritual, serene, nature scenes for empaths and natural creatives, do you think taking a booth at the Body Soul and Spirit Expo is a good or bad idea? Probably a good idea, because it’s a fit, and you’ll get more sales. This is tough to do, and it might even take some time, but again, the faster you can figure this part out, the better.
The great disconnect.
There is a HUGE disconnect in showing your work online, vs in person, social media included. Online, it’s just another image. A print looks WAY better in person than it ever can online, if done and presented properly. There’s NO comparison, it’s not even close. A print, in person, with finished examples has a wow factor. You can not get that same wow factor online. If you take an image that gets a huge reaction on Facebook, blow it up, print it big, and show it, it will blow peoples minds.
In person, be present, connect.
Here’s the deal, if you want to sell prints, then you show prints, in front of the crowds that connect with your work. Talk to people, connect with them, if they are interested in your work, they will either purchase something, or they will sign up for your newsletter to keep in contact, and maybe get something later. There’s WAY more to this, people write entire books around sales, but the important thing, if you want to sell prints, is to show prints in person. Coffee shops are fine, as is showing at other venues, but if you do this, and are not present, then you need story to go with your piece, pricing, contact info, and a way to get people to sign up for your newsletter. That is a minimum if you are not present. Your best money is spent on showing your work, in person, with you present. There are a variety of things that help with this, and i’ll get into much more detail on that later. But to start, showing in person, is the way to go.
Consistency is also key, one show is not enough, it needs to be many, over time. The thing a lot of people don’t realize, is it’s just like any other business. It’s going to take time, and it could potentially take many shows to start to get traction. You will do some shows that aren’t a fit, and lose money, and find some shows that are a fit, and make money, it’s a long haul, not a one hit try, but a long process. You instantly stand out because the amount of people showing their work in person is very small, because most are trying to do what the majority “tries” and that is simply not effective.
The idea here is to keep it as simple as possible. For fine art prints, pricing by square foot, or square inch is a great idea, and here’s why.
You will NEVER have to guess at pricing for ANY custom size requested by your client, ever. You’ll never make the painful mistake of accidentally pricing too low if you are negotiating, if that’s something you don’t have a lot of experience in.
The only thing you really need to get used too, is to memorize the formula to convert square inches into square footage, and back. It’s easy once you get used to it.
For example, if you pay $25 per square foot for a high quality fine art paper, and you simply double it to $50 per square foot, then you can apply that to any size.
So if you offer 16x24 and 24x36” prints, and your client wants a custom size of 14x20 here’s what you do:
14x20” = 280 square inches.
To convert square inches to square feet, divide by 144 which works out to 1.9 square feet.
Now multiply that by the square foot price of $50 | $50 x 1.9 = $95
Easy, no guessing, and you have a calculator on your phone to help.
If you want to price by square inch instead, to make it even easier.
$50 divided by 144 = .35c per square inch.
Now calculating anything is super fast and easy. (Because of the decimals, it might be off a few dollars converting, depending on if you round up or down) Most print shops price by square foot. Just be aware that some will charge a higher square footage for small pieces, and then tier at certain break points due to labour costs.
The main thing here is to learn to convert square footage, to square inches, and then multiply the price by that. It’s easy to learn, but may require a bit of practice depending on how good you are at math.
If you offer smaller sizes between 4x6 and 8x10”, then you may want to consider price breaking it, and charging a higher square footage cost for those sizes, because you could end up very, very, very low, and can be completely wasting your time on small payments that don’t even come close to covering your labour or admin time.
Getting a bit more advanced, and something to consider for smaller sizes. You can tier your pricing in a way such as:
Up to 1 square foot (144 square inches) $75 per square foot. From 1 to 1.5 square feet $70
Up to 2 $65
Up to 2.5 $60
These numbers are just examples of how you can run your pricing, and not a recommendation on what you should charge. Play with those numbers, and do it in a way that makes sense for the sizing you offer, and are comfortable with. Just make sure you are very careful to measure how much time you are spending on admin on small sizes that barely make you any profit, or even likely take a loss on. You want to compare profit per print on each of those tiers, and make sure you are not losing money in administrative costs and time spent.
For me, and what I do, I can tell you I measured everything, for a long time, and discovered that on any print order under $20, I was losing money on. I’m not a photo lab, I’m a large format fine art quality printer, and between the handling, file prep, etc, it costs me $2 out of my own pocket to handle those orders.
So what should you charge?
So, here’s the thing. The cold hard honest truth. MOST people that are giving advice of “just double the costs”, are NOT selling much, if any of their work. What works for one person, will not work for another. Everyone has different costs of doing business for the most part. We’re talking about creating an art business that you can survive on. That’s the focus of this series, if you’re against the idea of “selling out”, or against art and business mingling, then stop reading these, the point is to get your work out in a way that enables you to continue to do so.
Here are a few facts:
The less you charge, the easier it is to sell, and the less on point everything else has to be. In theory, with charging less, you should generate more volume. HOWEVER, the lower you charge, the more you start competing with volume players, and as an independent, there is no way you are going to be able to compete on price alone.
The more you charge, the more social proof you will need, the more you will have to back up your pricing, your professionalism will become more and more important, as will how you present everything as a completed art piece.
As you start getting into premium collector markets, the more you will have to show that you are an investment, and the more experience and supporting documentation you will need such as CV’s, history, quality. Also, you will have much less sales frequency.
The type of customer or client you are seeking out will also dictate how much you can charge. As I said before in part 1, it’s very very critical to define the type of client you want to work with. This can be quite hard, but the more dialled you have this, the easier it will be to price.
Ask people. Go out, show your work, and ASK your demographic what they would be willing to pay. Take the guesswork out, have conversations.
There are a LOT of people that buy based on personal connection to that piece or place. You need to align some sort of personal connection, with a price that person is able to pay, who sees the value of the creation. Price becomes less important with connection.
Focus on creating value for your client. Whatever price you start with, focus on creating as much value within that price, as you possibly can.
I would very highly recommend having some sort of minimum order you are willing to deal with, to make it worth your time. The lower your price is, greeting cards for example, then the more volume you will need, which then becomes a massive distribution problem to solve to make anything, which then eats up all of the time you can be focusing on larger things. *more later.
In short, what you “should” charge, is largely dependant on the strategy you want to use, where, in what setting, and who you are selling to, and “should” entail testing, and tracking your success and metrics.
Traction matters. Having some sales frequency will boost your confidence, give you motivation to keep going, and create momentum. For this reason, in my experience, and I’ve tried many ways, it’s better to start a bit lower, rather than starting crazy high in collector territory. Grab some of your work, go to retailers, find others that are selling the same things in SHOPS, (ACTUALLY SELLING, not online advice), and ask. For example, if you want to sell landscapes at shops, then head out to Banff or Canmore and see what shops are charging, in that particular market. Seeking out gift shops / galleries? Then go to that market, and see what those gift shops and galleries are charging, and ask about how they are selling through. Are they limited editions? Open editions?
Open or limited editions? This also affects price. The theory is, that if you limit your editions, that you will be able to charge more, which may or may not always matter. Are you also willing to cap your income if an edition sells out, and what is the value of that once done? Do you create enough work to find other images that will sell well on a regular basis, if your editions are selling out? Be careful. Limiting your editions also has potential to hurt you if you don't get traction within reasonable time. For example, there was a guy selling his limited edition prints from the 80's. They were mostly marked as 2/100, 1/100, etc. It made me think, wow, this guys work doesn't sell at all, and judging by the numbers, many others thought the same. People want to be part of success, not thinking wow, i'm going to buy this persons work that doesn't sell.
To start your pricing, what is the minimum PROFIT you are willing to accept, to make it worth your time, on the smaller end? Start there, and work up.
As you see, there’s a lot to think about, and it’s complex, and hopefully this sheds some light and understanding on only a few of the factors that make it complex. If you want an answer as to what you should charge for your prints, then I’d say start anywhere from 1.5 to 10x your cost. Pretty big, vague range right? Yes, yes it is, and it's going to depend on how much effort you are willing to put into marketing, how you are presenting your work, and what kind of potential clients you can get in front of. If you want traction, and to start testing your market a bit, then it’s probably better to start from 1.5 - 2.5x your cost. Higher with lower priced items such as prints, and lower with higher priced items that are complete, such as canvas. If I were doing it again, that is what I would do. I started at the high end, and had to come down and test for volume.
*A note on commercial, corporate, office, and volume jobs. You can NOT, unless you are EXTREMELY lucky, apply the same markup to these types of jobs, that you can with single sales to personal collectors. It doesn’t work. With hotels, offices, or businesses ordering 20, 30, 100 pieces, that work is most likely going to trade partners, POD services, or straight to printers such as myself. As a printer, I can license out stock for dollars, reduce my costs, and supply this type of work at volume at a fraction of the cost. If this is the type of work you want to seek out, your best bet is going to be partnering with a print shop. Talk to them, because the most likely scenario is you will need to work with them on a per volume job partnership. As an artist, i’d never closed a single volume job to a business, and never understood why. As a printer, I have supplied many corporate jobs. As a printer, I have quoted for many, many, many photographers and artists on hotel and commercial volume jobs, and have seen exactly 1 close due to it being a personal friend of theirs. The point of this, is unless you are highly experienced, and have your stuff dialled with this type of work, my recommendation would be talking to someone such as myself, and having them involved in the quoting process of the sale and helping you close. The fact is the pricing model is completely different, and there is no shortage of commercial operations out there, competing for that type of volume work. Conversation are important here. The other alternative is being open to licensing which is another beast all together.
It’s important to keep things as simple as possible. A few sizes, a few options, and a note stating you can do custom sizing, if you want. It keeps decision making very clean and streamlined for your potential clients. For my own photography, I offer 5 sizes on canvas, and 5 sizes on fine art paper. That’s it. Even that is a lot, I’ll likely cull that to 4. Think small, medium, large, and extra large. That has worked great for me, and still does. At the end of the day, you only have so much time and attention to dedicate to moving and marketing your artwork. Do you want to focus that time and attention on small pieces, or large feature pieces?
Product mix and some thoughts
First off, I will say that it's much easier, more streamlined, and better to only offer a few options at the most. Stick with 2 or 3 if you can, that suites your work best. If you offer prints, which you should, try to avoid offering a multitude of confusing options here. For my own work, I don't even offer options of print types, I decide based on what looks best for the image, keeping all choices low glare, but always on fine art papers.
These are a volume play to make anything worth your time. I used to make them. I printed them myself. I made about 2.50 in profit each time one sold. They sold in Banff and Canmore. They were sold at 4 locations. That wasn’t even CLOSE to being enough to make anything worth my time, or that covered gas for that matter. 2.50 profit…. think about how many you have to sell. To sell that many, how many shops do you have to be in? Think volume, and distribution. 4 retail locations, in a heavy tourist market….totally wasn’t worth it. Sure, you can sell them here and there as singles or a few at a time. The thing to think about, is would your time be more productive on focusing on large sales that actually are substantial enough to pay bills.
If you’re going to do these on a small scale, then maybe you can:
-Leverage them into some sort of low to no cost marketing tool
-Package them. Instead of selling singles, do them in packs large enough for the profit to be worth your time. Think, “artist cards” 25 packs, or 50 packs…
Just make sure your website, and contact info is on them, perhaps even with an insert with an incentive to get a nice wall sized version of the image that’s on it.
Prints are obviously a go to. On their own, they are relatively inexpensive, and easy for people to buy. Doing shows, and having work in retail shops, I’ve tried both matted, and not matted. The matted prints always sold better than the not matted prints. They just look more complete. At the very minimum, they will need a clear bag, and rigid backing. The backing should be foam core. Again, presentation matters here. The ones you see with cardboard backing look cheap and flimsy. Care about your work, and others will too. Definitely offer prints. There is a HUGE difference in look between high quality fine art papers, and cheap flimsy photo or card stock. If you have flimsy cheap paper with cardboard backing, and sloppy presentation, don’t expect to charge much, or get many sales, in comparison to offering a nice high quality print, foam core backing, and professional looking insert. One looks polished, one does not.
In my own experience, and again, your mileage may vary, canvas outsells prints substantially. With a finished canvas, the end purchaser doesn’t need to worry about the additional and unknown costs of finishing it. People love canvas. Fact. I’d very highly recommend offering canvas. I’d go as far as to say that if your work suits canvas, it would almost be foolish to not offer it. You’ll get way more sales if you do.
There are 2 types of acrylic. Direct print, and face mount. Direct print is typically cheap, and it looks cheap. Face mounting is very, very expensive. There is a huge difference in how they look. When I see a direct print, I can tell immediately. They are in my not so humble opinion cheap in look, actually, I think they look like garbage if I’m being honest. They do well though in the print services world with the mass consumers who really aren’t that quality focused being happy with them. Compare the 2 though, and it’s a huge difference. If you’re focused on quality, stay away from direct print they suffer all sorts of quality issues. On the flip side, large, face mounted acrylic piece look absolutely mind blowing. The look is phenomenal. BUT, by the time you apply a markup to these, the price is going to be high, and because of this I have always found they are hard to sell. They also do not handle being moved from show to show well, as they scratch easily.
Personally I don’t have a lot of experience selling metal prints of my own work. I know a guy that makes a killing from them in Vancouver, but given what he does he would be making a killing on any medium because his marketing is dialled in, and does all of the right things. I’ve found the markets I’ve been in, canvas is the most popular hands down. Personal confirmation bias? Yup. Like acrylic, there are a few methods. Direct print, and infused. Direct print, like the acrylic looks really bad if you know what you are looking at with printing. Sublimation has more impact, but because of the process, doesn't create as sharp of an image, but can look impressive if done well.
My own experience with pricing and a few thoughts.
I’ve tried high pricing, low pricing, and everything in between with my own photography, including volume jobs, tourists, and local collectors. The important thing to note here, is the way I would show, included trade shows such as the Calgary Home and Design show, Vancouver, gallery shows in Canmore, coffee shops, and a few alternate locations, mostly in the tourist markets. I’ve sold single invoice amounts, as a photographer, as low as $20, and several in the 5 digit volume range, and everything in between from open, to limited editions.
My best sales frequency occurs in the 250 - 550 range. Within that range, the most effective thing to do, was to create value with size. The larger the size I was able to offer in that upper end, the easier, and more frequent sales would be…..on canvas typically.
You can’t markup any framing you do, in the same way you can your print. You need to treat them as 2 separate products, because they are. If you are framing your work, which you SHOULD be to stand out as example pieces, then your markup needs to equate to either retail, or a hair above retail on the frame, with your print markup being separate. I can’t stress this enough. Work with your framer here.
I sold more when I started framing for the piece artistically, rather than doing what most people do, which is sticking a boring and standard black frame with white mat. Everyone does that. Don’t do what everyone else does, just because it’s what most people do or recommend. For small, matted prints in retail shops, the best frequency occurred in the $50 - $100 range. In the market and shops I was in, $50 was pretty standard for a matted 8x10ish size.
Out of all of those small pieces, greeting cards, and large sized pieces, almost all of my sales frequency occurs in that 250 - 550 sweet spot. The most profitable, and the ones that paid the larger bills have been the larger sized pieces. 20x30” to 24x36” framed pieces regularly for anywhere from $1200 - $1800. 40x60” pieces framed canvas prints for $2500 For example, my last 2 sales as of the date of writing this, were $975 for a 32x48” canvas print, and $1400 for a framed 16x24” print. The point of that, is that yes, people buy photography prints all the time, there is a market despite what you will hear people say online, and the key is to get your market fit right at the price you are planning to sell at. It’s a full time job, and like any other business, takes TIME and consistency to build. The other point of that is focus on larger pieces. There are a TON of people at shows showing and trying to sell mid and small sizes. You want to stand out? Show big, feature pieces. The key to selling the framed pieces at 1k+ was showing in really nice high quality frames, framed for the piece, behind museum glass.
I’ll have more strategies on actually showing and driving sales at a later time. I'm out of time for now.
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