It doesn’t exist. But some are much better than others. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Let’s say you’re a photographer, you’d like to sell prints, but have absolutely no ability to market yourself. You don’t know any gallery owners. You’ve boosted posts on Facebook, and found out you can buy ‘likes’, and that’s about it. You’ve looked into Google ads and realized it’s too complex for the human mind. Live shows? Summiting Everest sounds easier, and cheaper. Instagram and Twitter? Life is short and anyway, they’re dead. If this sounds like you, then you’re like me. You need a Print On Demand site.
I’ve been on one (FineArtAmerica.com) for years, while doing absolutely zero marketing of my own, and somehow I get a few sales every month. So I know the ropes. But like I said, no POD has it all, or is going to be around forever. I’m always looking for new ones, and I’m trying to get systematic about it.
Here’s my list of things I need or want in a POD.
Absolute “Must Haves“:
A site that does it all. It has to bring in customers, display photos, process payments, print, ship and do the customer service. And there will always be some unhappy customers. You don’t want to get those calls yourself.
Etsy, for example, isn’t a POD – they hand the customer off to you.. There are print suppliers that can link to an Etsy store but it gets complicated, especially when things go wrong. And Etsy forces you to offer “free shipping” – how can that possibly work, when you don’t know that cost in advance?
Let me make a few bucks. It’s fine if the site makes money, as long as I do too. Some sites offer only a fixed, low percentage of the sale. My work is worth something, and I want some control over my prices, or at least a reasonable margin. And don’t tell me I’m getting “exposure”.
Society6, for example, pays 10% of sale price. I guess that’s fine – if you sell by the truckload.
Keyword search. I have no marketing; people find my photos by searching for keywords, like “Minneapolis downtown”. So the site needs a search function – one that works, and isn’t totally flooded by software-generated similars, big corporate sellers, and keyword spammers, like the microstocks are.
The search on Fine Art America is a bit broken right now, showing lots of unrelated stuff. They’ve (somewhat) acknowledged a problem, but once keyword spam gets rolling it can be too expensive to clean up – as the microstocks found out.
A streamlined upload process. The upload system has to read my embedded IPTC keywords and descriptions, use my previously set pricing, and not require 50 clicks per image. I have potentially 800 photos to upload, and life is short.
I tried Society6 once. To put a single photo up for sale, you jump through more hoops than a dog in a Russian circus. I guess this is by design, to limit uploads. Don’t they want any new sellers with established portfolios?
A market for what I do. If none of the featured images on the main page of a site appeals to me, then their marketing is probably aimed at the wrong audience.
Photo4Me, for example, is a nice operation. But they basically sell only UK tourism photos – landscapes, buildings and iconic sites in the British Isles. I wasted a lot of time uploading there before realizing they weren’t interested in the US market.
Big print sizes. Buyers today like their wall art BIG and I’m really surprised at how many 36″, 48″ and even 60″ prints I’ve sold at FineArtAmerica.com. But many sites don’t offer prints that large, and cling to a long-outdated requirement for 300dpi in the source image. FAA will go well beyond that, and their customers are happy. Sure we could upsize before uploading, but what a pointless PITA that would be, when the print makers just do it automatically.
PicFair.com, for example, only prints up to 24″. Come on, guys.
Vetting of submissions. A sword with 2 sharp edges. On the one hand (or edge), requiring a portfolio sample to get in the door – or even approving every upload – can prevent a site from being overrun with junk. On the other hand, it can lead to excessive “artsiness” and a narrow range of offerings.
INPRNT.com requires initial approval of 3 images. I got in; but the site mainly features digital art which I find uninteresting – hardly any photography.
A good UI for framing. Buying wall art is an impulse thing; people need to see what it’s going to look like in a frame, on a wall. And they have a short attention span for this process. This is where Fine Art America shines: a clean UI that shows you instantly what that color of mat would like like with that frame.
SmugMug, on the other hand, makes you click through a series of tedious choose-an-option screens before you see anything. It’s a non-starter.
Enough with the discounts. I realize many buyers today expect discounts, but it shouldn’t become an addiction. I tried RedBubble.com for a while and made a few sales – but every one was so heavily discounted that it felt pointless.
That’s my list so far. I’m hoping readers of this post will chime in with their experiences on POD sites and eventually, I plan to create some sort of spreadsheet display of the pros and cons. There are lots of new PODs coming online all the time, and I’m out of date.
So if you have thoughts or ideas on PODs for photographers, please leave a comment. If it includes a link to your own photo site, you get a nice SEO-boosting ‘dofollow’ backlink.