I’ve always wanted to make prints of my work available to buy, and through the years I’ve sold one-offs to friends and family, but until now I have never tried to scale that up into a sustainable business. Thanks to Etsy, I have done it!
I want to talk a bit about how I chose Etsy as the storefront for my work, but before I do that go check out my shop!
Selling photographic prints online is an interesting area of the market. I would never claim to be an expert on this, but I’ll tell you what I know.
You only have a couple of choices if you want to sell your photographs online (easiest to hardest):
Let a gallery site like SmugMug do all the work, receive the markup as profit.
Put up a “generic” online store using Etsy, Shopify, BigCommerce, or whatever else, and handle fulfillment yourself.
Put up a custom website of any kind (SquareSpace, Wix, whatever) and handle fulfillment yourself.
I would absolutely not recommend selling things off of your own custom website unless you’re integrating it with an online store backend like BigCommerce. The reason is simple: you have to collect money, and collecting money is tricky.
So that leaves the big question that I want to answer in this article:
I have been a SmugMug customer for years. With SmugMug’s recent acquisition of Flickr, it feels like a great time to be on the SmugMug bandwagon. While I still believe that SmugMug is the best overall custom photography gallery site (maybe I’ll do a separate post about this later), their commerce options don’t give me exactly what I want.
When evaluating which option to choose, I measured them against these goals (in descending order of priority):
Low cost of entry
Ability to offer a precise product lineup
Aesthetics, usability, community
Let me explain how each goal is met (or not met) by Etsy and SmugMug in particular. If you think I got this wrong, or missed something, please leave a comment below!
Cost of Entry
In order to sell for profit on SmugMug (and I need to make some profit here, since fulfillment and customer service will take time, even if I wish to make no substantial money on the whole enterprise), you must have at least a “Portfolio” level account. I currently have a “Power” account.
The Power account level has everything you need to build a totally custom gallery, and costs $6/mo. The Portfolio level is one step up and costs $15/mo. Finally, at the very top level, there is Business, which costs a whopping $30/mo.
The Portfolio level provides the essential commerce options; the ability to create a price list, choose galleries to sell from, a choice of four photo labs (though one is UK-only, so let’s say three labs), and a full order processing and fulfillment service.
Because SmugMug is handling things end-to-end, they’ll keep 15% of the net profit on each sale, but you are free to set a markup percentage or a final public price for each product sold on the price list.
So the cost to me, assuming that I upgrade my existing annual membership rather than going to a month-by-month, is essentially $108 for the first year, plus whatever time I spend choosing products, creating my price list, and so forth.
Etsy is much simpler. An Etsy account is free forever (they have recently announced a “Plus” subscription, but I won’t talk about that here), and there is a flat $0.20 fee to list a product on your shop, which can sit un-sold for four months before it must be renewed.
For photographic prints, which are made on-demand in unlimited quantities, I would expect to keep some number of items listed in perpetuity, replenishing their “inventory” from time to time so that Etsy keeps them up in the shop. Etsy will also charge an order processing fee at the time of purchase, which covers their money juggling costs. That fee is 5% of the item total (including shipping, if applicable), plus 3% and $0.25 for credit card processing (assuming that everyone does this).
So the main difference in cost is that SmugMug charges a flat subscription fee with no limit on item count or products offered, whereas Etsy charges per-item and has much higher order processing fees.
For me, having no idea if anyone would ever want to buy anything at all, Etsy was the clear winner. To list the 10-15 absolute best images from my collection, I would pay only three bucks and then just see what happens.
So that’s cost of entry, but what am I selling, exactly?
Precise Product Lineup
This is the area where things get very interesting for the entrepreneurial photographer. As an artist, I am very particular about how my work is reproduced, and I want to be sure that any product I sell, which is the culmination of not only physical but also emotional effort, is the best that it can be. I’m not selling stock photos, here; I’m selling a feeling that I’ve captured and want to share.
When I have sold prints, or made prints for myself, in the past, I have always used White House Custom Color, or WHCC for short. It’s a family-owned business in Minnesota, they have exceptional customer support, and offer a very wide variety of print products ranging from “light jet” photo prints to large-format archival ink jet prints.
Fortunately, SmugMug offers WHCC as a lab, so this is an apples-to-apples comparison in terms of print product line-up. But that’s not all there is to it…
SmugMug’s Portfolio account allows you to configure a single “price list,” in which you select the products from your chosen lab that you wish to sell. You then associate that price list to any galleries that you want people to be able to purchase from. The thing is, that price list contains specific print dimensions, which may not match up with the original image dimensions. So there is a good chance that your customer will get a print with a letterbox of some kind around it, if they choose a size with a different aspect ratio than the original image.
That’s not the end of the world, of course; it’s easy to just trim the excess, and I think there is a preview so that the customer can choose a size that works, but, should that be their job?
My goal is to offer, for each image, a very specific set of prints that will come out exactly the way I want them to. Moreover, WHCC offers some cool mounting options, like stand-outs on foam board, and so it would be great to be able to offer those variations as well, for all or some of the images in the shop.
SmugMug’s method of setting things up is efficient and probably the lowest effort for a seller, but it also lacks flexibility to create the exact buying experience that I want to offer.
So once again, Etsy wins; sure, it’s a lot more work to put up each listing one by one, but since I’m going for quality over quantity, it isn’t a massive burden. I got to a point where I could list a photo on my Etsy shop in about three minutes, and most of the time there is spent writing a short description of the image.
On the fulfillment side, placing an order with WHCC is dead simple, and they’ll drop ship anywhere in the world (though only US and Canada offer flat rates, so that’s what I’m doing to start off with).
OK, so, at this point I was pretty certain I wanted to use Etsy for this purpose, but there is one more category to consider.
Aesthetics, Usability, Community
Unfortunately, SmugMug loses on cost of entry and flexibility to create a very specific product line-up. But that isn’t everything that is important to the online shopping experience.
Since online shopping is now the de facto standard for buying stuff, the experience has to be really good. Furthermore, as a seller, I want the best platform I can find to jump-start my new enterprise.
Though SmugMug has a global search, and my images have always been listed in it, I am not sure that anyone uses it. What would they use it for? Not all of the galleries on SmugMug’s platform offer licensing or purchase, and if you just want to look at pretty pictures you can go to Google Images or, more likely, Instagram.
So you want to be on a commerce platform that has some kind of cohesive audience, a group of people who are there specifically to buy things. For example, if you list your things for sale on eBay or Craigslist, they aren’t going to get lost amongst millions of other items that are just there to be looked at and enjoyed.
In other words, SmugMug as a broader platform is sort of like a gigantic museum where some of the rooms have things for sale, but some of them don’t. Everything looks very beautiful there, but it’s primarily a place for people to look around, it isn’t a destination for people who want to buy things.
Contrast that with Etsy, which started out specifically as a marketplace for handmade goods (which is still its bread and butter, and you can tell from how the listing system is set up that it’s geared toward low-inventory crafts). People go to Etsy to find beautiful things they want to buy, and they use Etsy’s site search to find them. You can “favorite” the shops you like most, but part of the fun of Etsy is finding things made by all different people.
It seemed to me that this was a great way to jump-start my visibility. Maybe it would end up counting for nothing, but it’s worth trying. Similarly with Shopify, BigCommerce, and those types of platforms; it’s like Squarespace for online stores. There is no community, there is no marketplace.
In terms of aesthetics and usability, I think these platforms are all fairly on par with one another. Etsy provides a “standard” or “traditional” online shop feel, and it isn’t very customizable at all (which is actually a boon, if you wish to attract people who shop on Etsy frequently; you don’t want to force them to re-learn a UI for each visit).
Shopify lets you build up your site soup-to-nuts similar to Squarespace. This is great for branding, and probably suitable to a business making more of an investment in marketing, but I don’t think the ability to customize would be a game changer for me, personally.
To wrap it up, let me summarize. While SmugMug is probably the best platform available today for building a custom photography gallery, their commerce options lack the flexibility to really curate your precise product line-up, and as a photography gallery on a photography gallery platform, it lends you no potential spike of visitors ready to buy.
Etsy, on the other hand, is geared toward low-inventory handmade items, but can be made to work for photographic prints without a lot of effort (more on this in another post perhaps) and the Etsy marketplace provides your shop with an almost ideal audience.
Given that the cost of getting started with Etsy is so cheap compared to SmugMug, with literally no obligation whatsoever, it was a very easy decision for me to make in the end.
I did end up automating a couple of things to make listing photos on Etsy faster, and I’m still learning how to best present my work and how to market it, but those are topics for another post!
If you liked this post, let me know in the comments below. Or, if you prefer, just buy some of my prints! I’m kidding. Mostly.