A primer on how to make money off your artwork on today’s internet

Ads are pretty great, right? You get anywhere between a few cents to a few dollars a day in exchange for making your website look kind of cheap and trashy. We just can’t love them enough, so we stick them all over everything because there is nothing that your comic needs than some gaudy eyesore right next to (or above or below) it to draw attention away from it.

Yeah, I’m not a real big fan of using ads. You can make five dollars in a month on Project Wonderful ads, or you can make four times that by selling just one t-shirt or print. I’ll tell you which one I’d pick.

I’m aware of the ongoing argument about shirts and other merchandise – there’s the contention that if your primary source of income is merch, rather than the comic itself, that you aren’t truly making a living as a cartoonist. And, uh, I don’t really care. I have to confess that I’m a lot more personally invested in getting that paper than I am in scoring points on somebody else’s totally arbitrary purist credibility scale.

If you’re of the same mind about turning your artwork into cash money, let’s continue.

I am going to assume you’ve heard of Cafepress. Let’s not talk about cafepress. You may have also heard of Zazzle. I’m not going to talk about Zazzle, either. In my experience it seems like these two options tend to be about as far as the webcomics crowd is willing to investigate as far as merchandising options go, with maybe Topatoco as being the aspirational destination.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s a bigger world out there.

Prior to starting my current webcomic project, I’d been doing t-shirt designs, and the community that’s sprung up around apparel art online is a whole different world. These guys generally operate with two objectives and those are to make art, and then to sell it on a shirt, and they take the business aspect of what they do very seriously. There’s this whole ecosystem of storefronts, printers, and fulfillment services has since sprung up around them, and there’s a lot happening on that end of the internet that I think webcomics artists stand to profit from.

Print on demand: MySoti and Redbubble

Think of MySoti and Redbubble as upscale alternatives to Cafepress or Zazzle. The method is pretty much the same: you upload your artwork and it becomes available for sale on a variety of merchandise options. You pay nothing upfront and there aren’t, at present, any options for customizing your storefront.

With Cafepress and Zazzle your commission is capped at a few dollars per unit, whereas Mysoti and Redbubble set a base cost per unit and allow you the option of marking up the price to earn whatever kind of commission you like. And while your options are limited to tees and fine art prints, you can count on the merchandise being high-quality.

MySoti does tees and fine art prints. Their tee options run from a base price of $14.50 to $17.60, and as they appear to be targeted at the skinny indie-rocking hipster crowd, their sizes don’t go higher than XL. The fine art prints come in one size, a4, and start at $17.60 on archival paper or $50 for canvas prints, so they may not be a good choice if you’re hoping to keep your price point low.

Redbubble has a little bit more to offer: fine art prints in framed and laminated poster flavors, calendars, and greeting cards, in addition to their tees. The base price for their tees is a bit higher – $19.95 out of the gate – but they’re available in sizes up to 3xl.

Both of these companies print their shirts with the Direct-to-Garment (DTG) process, rather than silkscreening. DTG is basically inkjet printing onto fabric, which means that full-color images with gradients or halftones are fine, and you don’t need to do your own color separations, which is very convenient.

Neither of these merchants allow you to do much in the way of designing your own storefront, though Redbubble does offer a small selection of themes without any of their own branding on them.

In both cases, because there are no fees and it’s an upload-and-you’re done arrangement, I can’t really think of a downside to having artwork on these sites. You’re out nothing if you’re not making sales, and it’s just more money in your pocket if you are. And because they both have very active user communities, they also serve as vectors for growing your audience and bringing more readers to your comic.

Crowdfunding: Patchtogether and Cameesa

An alternative to print-on-demand that has no overhead cost is with a crowdfunding: you encourage your audience to one of these sites to preorder the item, and once a preorder threshold has been met, you recieve a cash payout and royalties on any further sales

Patchtogether is an interesting online store that allows artists to submit toy designs, and encourages the community to vote on them. Once a design as accrued enough votes to be approved for production, it then becomes available for preorders. Fair warning: following the successes of a few very popular furry artists on Patchtogether, the site is now positively swimming with Balto fanart.

Cameesa is a t-shirt printer that skips the voting portion completely and instead opens up any design submitted for preorders. The preorder threshhold is pretty high at a thousand dollars, though, which makes this option slanted heavily in favor of artists who have already built up a big enough audience that they’d be able to sell shirts on their own without any help. It might be worth it to take preorders on your own for a shorter run, and keep the profits yourself.

With both of these options, you don’t really have much control over the branding of your item, and you don’t get to put it in your own storefront. It’s part of their catalog, not yours. If the possibility of a cash payout at some undetermined point in the future is worth it to you, knock yourself out.

Stock your own: Bigcartel, Storenvy, and Etsy

As you start to make a bit more money and become more established, chances are pretty good that you’re going to want more control over what you sell, how you sell it, and how much you’re getting paid. You want to feel more legit, and I don’t blame you. So you’ll want to set up your own storefront.

Etsy, Bigcartel, and Storenvy offer you the opportunity to create your own online store and sell nearly anything through it that you’d like. There’s a few reasons you’d want to use them, rather than just putting together a page on your own site that’s got some images and Paypal buy-it-now buttons on it.

Inventory tracking is a big one – you tell the store how many of a particular thing you have for sale, and it will stop selling it once it determines you’ve run out. Etsy and Storenvy do this right out of the gate, whereas Bigcartel only offers this feature for subscribers. Additionally, these storefronts will manage shipping and sales tax calculations for you and include them in the cost of the sale.

If you’d like to present a more professional appearance, Bigcartel and Storenvy offer completely customizeable storefronts, and the option of offering promotional discount codes. Again, Bigcartel’s functionality is limited at the free level, but even then it’s beyond what’s available with Etsy or Redbubble.

While all three services are free to join and use, only Storenvy is completely free. Bigcartel’s functionality is very limited at the free level, offering only five products and limited customization, and only really becomes useful at the $9.99/month subscription level. Etsy charges a small listing fee per item, which can add up quickly if you have a large inventory to stock – and the listings expire after six months, so if you don’t sell out, that’s money lost. Storenvy’s profit model is built on their printing and order fulfillment services, which you are not required to use to have a storefront.

And, like Mysoti and Redbubble, these services include your storefront in their larger community, allowing casual shoppers to browse into, search for, and include your store among their favorites. This of course means it’s another way for new fans to find you. Storenvy and Etsy take it a step further by offering Facebook integration, allowing you to add a store tab to your Facebook profile or fan page.

Printing and Fabrication Services

If you use one of the previously named storefronts or if you go with a different shopping cart solution, you’re still going to need to fill it with product. Original artwork is a good start, but if you’re here, you don’t need me to tell you how to do that. There’s a huge number of merchants that specialize in dealing with the needs of single creators.

For getting books printed in short runs, there’s an ongoing argument to be had in whether Ka-Blam or Comixpress is better. I’ve personally heard more positive endorsements of Ka-Blam from people who’ve had experience with them and more complaints about Comixpress, but I’ve also been told by SLG Publishing’s Dan Vado that Comixpress is his choice by a wide margin, so good luck with whatever you choose to go with.

Customink is an easy, entry-level apparel printing shop, though they are more expensive than some of the others on this list. What you gain in convenience you’re paying for in cost per item.

If you’re going to get deeper into printing tees, it’s worth becoming familiar with the different kinds of printing available to you and what the specific artwork needs are. For screen printing, especially, you’ll need to remember to limit your design to a small set of separated colors, unless you’re working with a printer that can handle four color process (CMYK) screenprinting. Some printers will handle artwork separations for you, usually for an additional fee.

Once you’ve decided what you want to do, the internet has no shortage of screen printers. Check out a few sites like: Print My Tees, Cargo Collective, Merchspin, Radical Promotions, or BKNY Printing, and that should be enough to get you started. With some creative googling and an idea of what the prices ought to be for the kind of designs you want to get printed, you should be able to find a printer that you can build a working relationship with.

Storenvy, as I mentioned earlier, has built their business model around their printing services. They offer silkscreened tees and other apparel, 11×17″ poster prints, stickers, and buttons. Bandwandwagon Merchandise and Terminus Tees are services that also offer inexpensive, short-run silkscreened apparel, as well as buttons and stickers. Awesome Merchandise offers similar services and is located in the UK.

Modbuttons offers short runs of round buttons and magnets, and they’re run by an indie comics publisher. Printsess is another merchandising option for artists that sells acrylic and metal charms, die-cut custom stickers, and prints in sizes ranging from 4×5″ to 23×29″. And Ponoko allows you to create laser-cut and etched items out of a variety of materials. (It’s worth noting that most of the merchandise I offer in my own store is created using this method, though I don’t use Ponoko specifically.)

I’m always looking for more ways to make cool stuff. If you know of other services or have experiences with any of these sites that you’d like to share, be sure to leave a comment.