Selling artwork to earn passive income in the form of digital products or resources is a growing attraction for many designers and artists.
It’s not a new concept though. Royalty free image libraries for example, have been going for decades. But things have changed since then. Dramatically. Now artists have more control over their work and how they sell it.
But given the relatively new nature of the digital product boom means it can be difficult to find information about the ins and outs of earning “passive” income. I’m often asked by other designers and artist who want to start selling online, “what should I sell”, “where should I sell”, and the most common “can I make a living from it?”.
So I decided to write an honest article answering some of those questions and give you the pros and cons about selling artwork online in the form of digital resources or print-on-demand (POD) products.
It’s not a step by step guide that will take you through how to open a shop and upload your artwork. But rather it’s an article on my first-hand experience at selling digital products online as passive income, including the good, the bad and the ugly. And trust me, there’s a fair amount of ugly!
I’ll be focusing on selling illustration-type products, but most of the insights and tips below will apply to just about any online digital product. So grab a cup of coffee, I have a lot to say on the subject which I hope you’ll find useful!
Topics I’ll be covering:
- What should I be selling?
- How do I know if it will sell?
- Can I make a living from it?
- There’s nothing passive about passive income
- How much should I charge?
- Where should I sell?
- Then there’s the ugly stuff
- So why bother?
What should I be selling?
Actually, the first question you should ask is “Who am I selling to?”.
So many artists make the mistake of not identifying their customer. I know I know, we hate having to think about marketing stuff! But if you think about it, without a market you don’t have a business.
You don’t have to go deep into the boring stuff, just get a clear idea (and be clear, it’s important trust me), on who your target customer is and focus on their needs, wants and likes.
Don’t aim to please all the online buying customers, because you won’t no matter how hard you try. But rather aim to please the customer base you think is best suited to your style and type of products you love creating.
If you don’t know what you love creating yet, then by all means experiment. But at some point you’ll need to buckle down and focus on creating products for a particular customer.
Maybe you love painting watercolour flowers, so your market could be designers who create wedding stationery. And possibly crafting customers who love dabbling and creating projects like cards, invites, etc. Creating lovely floral watercolour graphics suited for these projects would be perfect for this market.
Or perhaps you love designing logos. You could create pre-made logo templates and sell it to customers who are new business owners with a tight budget or designers who need a quick logo for a client.
So you see, knowing your customer basically tells you what you should be selling! Do some research. Find out what your ideal customer needs, wants and likes.
Creating products with a particular customer in mind is easier than thumbsucking a random idea and hoping for the best.
How do I know if it will sell?
The short answer is, you don’t! Every time I invest time and resources into creating a product, I have no guarantee that it will sell. But what I do have is experience in my customers’ wants, needs or likes. You don’t have to solve all three of these areas in the same product.
I have a loose formula I’ve been using since I started selling products online:
Create a product your target audience wants that they can’t find anywhere else;
Or create a product that solves a problem they frequently have;
Or better yet do both;
+ do it in your own unique style;
+ create something you love to create;
= a successful product.
My genuine aim every time I create a product is to help my customers with their own work or projects by creating resources they will find useful and love using. Plus I don’t create work I don’t love creating myself. For me that defeats the whole purpose, and I believe people can pick up on your intention behind what you create. If you don’t love it, no one else will.
And the last, but very important tip I can offer regarding the success of a product is, be unique. Just because you saw another artist’s product do well, doesn’t mean by creating something similar, or worse identical, will mean success for you. I don’t believe that’s a sustainable business model. You’ll build a following much quicker and stand out a lot more if you focus on creating unique goods in your own style.
Make an effort to come up with your own concepts instead of piggy backing off others. Do you want to lead or follow? That’s the number one marketing strategy you can apply to fast track your success.
Can I make a living from it?
Yes absolutely! But how much you earn is directly related to how much effort you put in.
You could upload a few products, sit back and wait for a few sales to trickle in. But that’s the thing, it will be a trickle. The chances of you having success with little to no effort on your part are very slim.
Selling products online has the potential to earn you a very decent living.
To give you an idea, I ran my own graphic design business which was quite successful. I earned a good living doing that. It only took a year of proper, dedicated focus on my online business to quit my graphic design work and focus full time on illustrating and selling digital products.
Essentially I started earning the same income as my graphic design business selling digital goods by the end of that year. But be warned, it took huge commitment, sacrifice and serious hard work.
Think about it, if you’re a one man show as a graphic designer selling your services, your entire business relies on you, the service provider.
Your earning potential is directly related to how many hours you work. But selling online allows you to scale up without the need for more staff. Because you’re creating something once, and selling it over and over, possibly forever, your earning potential increases hugely.
You’re not relying on what you can achieve in an hour anymore, you’re relying on your product to earn you income long after you created it.
Which brings me to my next point (which has nothing to do with bunnies! he’s just there for his cuteness value).
There’s nothing passive about passive income
Many people believe that having a “passive income” business means you barely have to work to earn a living. How hard can it be? It’s called “passive” for a reason, right?
Well this may shatter all your dreams of earning a fortune for doing nothing. I’m afraid the only passive part about passive income is the automated sales. “Exactly!” You might be thinking.
Yes it’s true, you do earn while you sleep. But to get it to a point where you’re earning enough while you’re in deep slumber, takes a lot of hard graft which is the opposite of passive!
And when you’re awake, you’re basically working all the time. Ok, that’s not entirely true. But essentially I work 7 days a week. Some days longer than others.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I haven’t attended to something related to my business. Whether it’s answering emails, attending to customer support queries, writing a blog post, researching trends, preparing product files, creating product preview images, etc. it’s all related to building a successful “passive” income. And this of course excludes the main part of the business, which is creating products.
How much you put into all the above areas of your business is entirely up to you. That’s the beauty of being your own boss. But as I’ve mentioned several times already, effort = outcome.
How much should I charge?
Ah! The million dollar question. Actually more like the ten dollar question!
One of the concepts you might struggle with when first starting out is, you’re essentially selling work for as little as $10 that took you weeks to create and prepare. This can be difficult to wrap your head around.
But it’s a business model used by many successful companies. Your earnings come from selling the same low priced item over and over to hundreds, and hopefully, thousands of customers. Given that, it may take a while to make money back for the time you put in.
But once you’ve reached that point, anything earned after that is profit. And it can continue to give you returns for years to come if your product has longevity and isn’t too trend driven.
It’s becoming increasingly competitive to sell digital products. Customers have more and more choices, plus they’re constantly bombarded by really cheap, all-in-one bundles that seem too good to be true. The sad thing is, sometimes they are. Often quality is compromised when products are churned out so they can be bundled and sold for a song. This kind of business strategy can work, but it’s one that I chose not to follow early on in my online business.
I made a conscious decision to not try and compete with the mass, super-low priced products, but rather concentrate on creating quality over quantity and focus on building my own unique style and use that to help me stand out.
I feel undercharging for your work in the hopes of attracting more sales will be damaging to your business in the long run.
Do you want to be seen as the cheap clipart store? Or the quality, unique digital resource artist? It also damages the overall perception of this industry and the value of art. It creates a “race to the bottom” culture among designers and artists which is counter productive for all of us.
It is a bit of a balancing act between charging too little for what your work is worth, versus charging too much which could turn customers away. But as your confidence in your work grows and you gain more experience each time you put a product out, you’ll learn to balance the two and get a feel for what to charge.
Just remember to respect your time as an artist and in turn, respect your customer’s money by providing them with good, quality work.
Where should I sell?
Not all online marketplaces are created equal.
If you’re looking to sell your work on a site that has their own End User Licence Agreement, often that means your work will fall under their agreement and not your own. So do your homework! Read their licence terms carefully. Make sure you are happy with what they allow the end users to do with your work.
By law, the end user i.e. customer is bound by the agreement they enter into when making a purchase. You cannot impose your own licence on someone if it’s different to the licence of the marketplace they bought the item from.
This is why my licence and the licence of the other marketplaces I sell on are almost identical – the differences are minor, but the basic restrictions and terms are exactly the same.
I’m often approached by other marketplaces to join their site, but I’ve resisted the urge because I want to maintain a good focus on my current shops. And having my work scattered across the internet will make me feel scattered too!
Many other artists choose to have their work on several sites, but for me personally, that will become overwhelming and my customer service will probably take a knock, something I’m not willing to let happen.
I have also tried several other online platforms like Gumroad, Society 6, Zazzle, and more that I can’t even remember, that weren’t successful at all. So why did some work, while others didn’t? I believe it’s because I spread myself too thin and couldn’t give them each the focus they needed.
Giving them the focus they need would include uploading regularly. Promoting on social media. Sending out newsletters when there’s a sale. Basically reminding customers you exist.
This is all doable if all your different online shops sell the same product. But if you sell design templates on one, art prints on another, digital goods here and there, you simply cannot market all of them well enough unless you hire someone to help you. And the more you need to hop from shop to shop, the more time you spend away from creating.
In my passive income business I have noticed the shops, product types and platforms I spend the most time on, are the most successful. If you’re starting out my advice is keep it simple by deciding whether you’ll be selling print-on-demand products or digital resources. This will determine which platform is best for your product. Then pour all your energy into that. Once you’re established you’ll have more freedom to dabble in the stuff you want to try out.
Be aware though, not all customers within your chosen product and marketplace are the same. The customer base on Etsy for example, is quite different to the customer base on Design Cuts. So do your research. Read the forums. Look at what sells well. Does this suite your style and product?
Then there’s the ugly stuff
The internet is an amazing platform to connect people from all over the world. Which means your work has the potential to reach anyone, anywhere. But it also means it may end up in the hands of despicable people too.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of torrent sites that pirate work from artists, musicians, writers etc. And the bad news is, your work almost certainly will end up on at least one of those sites.
When I first saw all my products on one of these sites, I was devastated! It took me some time and several unsuccessful attempts at trying to get it taken down, to accept there was nothing I could do. The more popular my work became, the more sites it would appear on. It was, and still is, horrible.
You can try and spend hours finding the original site’s owner or IP address. Track down the host. Send them a DMCA. Send them another because they ignored the first one. But all you’re doing is trying to plug a huge hole with a tiny bit of chewing gum. Your stuff will be back within days if not hours. It’s also soul destroying and time consuming.
So I’ve learned to accept it and I’ve given up on trying to get my work removed from these types of sites. I also believe the people who use these sites aren’t going to buy from me in the first place. But it doesn’t make it easier to deal with and it doesn’t make it right.
Then there’s the legitimate customers who intentionally or unintentionally, breach the licence agreement terms.
Dealing with this ugly side of things can really have a negative impact on you and your work.
Recently I had to deal with a large well known international company selling my original files, as is, to their customer base which is worldwide. Their products are available in all major supermarkets and major online shops like Amazon. When I first found out I truly wanted to give up. It was kind of like the straw that broke the camels back. I’m still licking my wounds to be honest and I’ve learned a lot about how to deal with such a terrible situation. But I’ve also realized that I want to fight for my dream of illustrating full time. I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am, I shouldn’t let unscrupulous people stop me from creating.
I know I haven’t even scraped the surface when it comes to licence infringements. There are countless people out there either fraudulently obtaining my work, copying and selling my art and misusing my products. It can be soul destroying if you let it get to you.
But I’m learning to see it as a liability cost of selling digital goods. Much like the corner shop owner builds in loses like theft and breakages, I need to build in theft and licence infringements.
It truly is the ugly part of an otherwise amazing job. I promised you honest insights into selling online, so if you think you’ll be destroyed knowing your work is being stolen regularly, then this may not be for you.
But if you can somehow learn to see your work as a gift meant to be shared regardless of the obstacles you face, then it can be an extraordinary and fulfilling career choice.
So why bother?
You might be wondering at this stage why bother if it’s so much hard work and has so many drawbacks?
Personally I bother because I love what I do so much. I bother because it brings me independence as an artist. I bother because I wake up everyday knowing I get to shape my day to suit me and do things that replenish my soul. I bother because living my dream of illustrating and getting paid to do it, is like winning the lotto!
I don’t regret all the sacrifices I made to get here. It was all worth it. I live a life jammed-packed full of amazing experiences. I get to form wonderful relationships with my lovely customers from all over the world. I’m privileged to be able to create and sell products that can help others achieve their own wonderful designs.
There’s a saying “Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.”
It is possible to achieve your dream but as with all worthwhile endeavors, it doesn’t come without a price. Effort = outcome. How much you’re willing to put in to reach your dream is entirely up to you.
If you decide to venture down this interesting path, I wish you great success and many happy hours of creating and putting your work out there! If you know of someone else who will benefit from this article on passive income, please feel free to share it.