There’s often something a little demoralizing about browsing the calendars and cards in a bookstore. You spend hours in the studio wracking your brain to come up with new angles and new approaches to creating pictures. You try to think of creative ways to photograph daisies, daffodils, and other people’s dogs. And then you walk into Borders and see almost exactly the same posters, calendars and cards that they were selling last year.
The photos are still top-quality. They’re pretty and technically perfect. The colors on the petals are vibrant, the pets’ expressions are cute and the printing is second-to-none. And they express concepts that are about as original as the idea behind a fourth Hollywood sequel.
But if major publishers – the companies with the sort of distribution channels that can land them front-of-shop placements across the country – are consistently producing photo products that look the same year after year, there’s probably a good reason. They know they sell, and that can’t be said of products with more imaginative shots.
Pictures of Flowers Sell…
And you can see this outside the walls of Borders and Barnes and Noble too. Browse the most popular items on Zazzle and topping the list of calendars isn’t twelve unique pictures of Lego characters recreating classic images or expressive self-portraits but… flowers. They’re closely followed by images of Japan shot by the same photographer, and in third place are… more flowers.
“[N]ature, travel, architecture, landscape and historical photographs sell well,” Josh Elman, Zazzle’s one-time Head of Marketing has told us. “For instance, with nature, many contributors take flower photographs and see interest.”
Nor is it just uncreative concepts that can help to secure sales. The types of products on which those floral scenes are printed is important too. Zazzle might have made it possible to stick your photos on anything with a surface, from shoes to skateboards, but the most popular products for photographs remain posters, cards, stamps, prints and yes, calendars.
Of course, producing a photography product that sells still isn’t going to be easy, even when the subject matter is obvious. It may not take a great deal of thought to dream up the idea of creating a calendar with twelve pictures of stamens and stalks but it will take some great photography and smart marketing to beat the competition. Zazzle lists over 1,130 calendars tagged as depicting flowers while Cafepress offers a mind-boggling 1.55 million calendar designs of which more than 26,000 may contain floral scenes. If coming up with a simple plan takes the strain out of trying to be original it does leave an even bigger battle with the hordes of other photographers doing the same thing.
Clearly, one way to beat the crowd is always going to be to create professional quality images. While Etsy charges contributors to sell their products, both Zazzle and Cafepress allow open access. That’s good news for no-budget hobbyists but it does mean you don’t have to look too far to find products decorated with images that might have been lifted straight out of a snapshot album. The subject matter might be old but having the technique to shoot the pictures well can go a long way towards lifting your products out of the pack.
…and So Do Photos of Funny Animals
And depending on the product itself, you can get a little creative with the way the images appear. That’s particularly true when you’re putting the pictures on clothes – another competitive area but one which does provide a little more room to be flexible. Josh Elman pointed out that Zazzle sees “many users create t-shirt and apparel products using photographs modified with special graphics and design effects.”
Darren Glenn, a designer who told us that he has been “very successful” on Zazzle recommends making a few simple changes to the image to improve its chances of selling when it’s placed on an item of clothing.
“I would suggest (for t-shirts) clipping out the subject of your photo,” he told us in a comment. “A square on a shirt looks bad. Clip it out, give it some text…something clever and funny, and save it as a png.”
Darren also mentioned the importance of meeting changing demand and producing new, relevant items constantly. Political shirts sell well during election campaigns. And, he added:
“Funny animal shirts sell good on Zazzle.”
The good news is that there is still room for creativity when you’re looking to sell photo products. Tried and tested ideas may be a safe bet provided you can pull them off at the right level and back them up with a marketing push to bring buyers into your store (Darren Glenn, for example, doesn’t rely on sales through his store on Zazzle; he has also placed his Zazzle store on his own domain, allowing him to market his products separately). But taking a few risks and shooting what you love will always be more fun even if it’s not more financially rewarding. Vlad Gerasimov has built himself a presence on product sites with t-shirts, pictures and illustrations based on his creative designs.
Perhaps the best strategy if you’re looking to put your images among the top-selling photography products then is to do both. Accept the technical challenge of creating eye-catching images from traditional subjects and concepts — and enjoy the cash those sales bring – but also leave time to experiment, test the market and produce a range of products that are a little more edgy. You might never see them sitting on a display case in your local bookstore and even on the Internet, you may find them harder to sell, but they’ll be good for your soul.
And who knows, they might prove so successful, you’ll be tempted to produce sequels of those too.