If you think that selling photos through an art gallery is difficult, spare a thought for buyers. Although a few have the budget to pay four-figure sums and more for photographs they like, there’s a much bigger pool of photography lovers who’d like to pay a smaller sum for an attractive photograph that would just look good on their landing wall.
There’s an even bigger group who would like to buy photo-based calendars that don’t show the usual fluffy kittens and ball-of-fur dogs that chain stores stock up on towards the end of every year.
More importantly, many buyers would also like to buy those photographs from living artists whose works they appreciate – and those artists would very much like to sell to them.
Blogging for Photo Artists
RedBubble was created to try to bring these two demands together. Launched in early 2007, the site aims to deliver for aspiring artists what blogging has done for aspiring writers and what YouTube has done for aspiring directors… with one exception: it wants the artists to get paid too.
The site is free to join and anyone can upload images, making them available for sale as prints, posters, calendars and cards, and on t-shirts too. RedBubble sets a fee to print each item and artists are then free to set their own mark-ups above the cost price.
So far, so familiar. Zazzle too allows artists to offer their works on products that range from plimsolls to mouse pads. Unlike that site though, RedBubble steers clear of big brands in order to focus on individual creators, while Etsy, which has a similar feel, tends to be more craft-oriented.
Judging by the result of its first couple of years in business, the service seems to be working. More than 90,000 contributors have already joined the site and after generating more than $1.2 million in sales in the first year, RedBubble looks likely to double that this year. Around 40 percent of those sales have been of photography products, not including t-shirt sales.
“We… don’t see ourselves as just a print-on-demand service but as an art site which means that we don’t promote things like mouse pads or a service of getting your dog’s photo on a mug,” co-founder and executive chairman Martin Hosking told us. “Right now we are growing so rapidly because we have really tried to deliver on the needs of living artists and allowing them to reach a global audience.”
Calendars are the best sellers, Martin says, because they combine accessibility with a high quality art product, but cards and framed prints also sell well.
$2.4 million Divided into 90,000 Equals…
A tougher question though is how well they sell, and what a photographer has to do to generate those sales. If the site is generating $2.4 million a year in sales and has 90,000 contributors, each artist is earning on average… less than $27 per year. Clearly, no one is going to get rich on that but equally clearly, the sales aren’t averaged out. Not all of the contributors will be active and while some may be making good money, many are presumably making very little, if any, money at all.
In part, that’s likely to be down to their own marketing skill. While RedBubble handles search engine optimization, offers widgets that can be embedded in blogs and social media sites, and has active PR offices, as usual, the real marketing work is left to each seller.
“Our best sellers are making a reasonable part time living,” says Martin. “This is obviously growing and if they combine this with sales off RedBubble they can do OK.
“It is not, however, as simple as simply putting up your work then letting it sell itself. If you want to do well you will need to find multiple ways to promote yourself both within RedBubble and in other forums.”
Martin points to the Aussie Exotics sports car photography calendar as one example of a product that has sold “many hundreds” of copies. The photographer contacted sites directly to promote it, he says, winning a glowing recommendation from at least one site. Other photographers though, Martin concedes, are not as good at marketing themselves so the site offers a sales blog and a sales forum to help them learn the basics and pick up some new ideas. Those suggestions might include the importance of describing the works on offer so that buyers can put them in context and understand what they’re buying. Themed calendars also sell much better than calendars with a random collection of attractive images, and the images themselves have to be high-resolution so that they print at top quality.
Like non-commercial sites such as Flickr though, RedBubble also has groups that allow contributors to swap tips among themselves and arrange local meet-ups, a factor that has helped to contribute to the site’s rapid growth.
“People want to get together with each other (both online and offline),” says Martin. “They are motivated not only by the sales but the overall experience of sharing.”
So if you decide not to put in the effort at marketing and find that you don’t make any sales, at least you’ll make some new friends. And maybe one of them will be looking for a new picture for the landing wall.