The business of selling art isn’t always as straightforward as we think, and neither are the selling methods we choose to employ. Yet artists can be loath to consider money matters, sometimes believing this subject tarnishes the purity of spirit in the studio. But unless we’re willing to give this issue its due attention, we may not be working artists for long! Taking care in not only how we create our work, but also in how we sell it ensures we’ll stay in business for a long time.
This is because so much about a successful sale isn’t so much what you sold as how you sold it. This means that the sale method you choose for a specific piece can be a make–or–break decision, catapulting that piece to unexpected success for you, or causing it to plummet well below its mark.
You invest a great deal of effort and love to create a quality piece of art worthy of admiration. So why not treat the other side of the equation with equal intent? Don’t you owe it to yourself to help each piece reach its best market advantage? Let’s weigh our options then and see how they can apply to different kinds of work.
The Ground Rules
Before we begin, we should address the ground rules that apply to all sales. Every sales process needs a foundation, those principles that are non–negotiable and consistent. So think of these rules as your line in the sand, but expect them to evolve as your business evolves. And each artist can have different policies, depending on your prerogatives, but whatever they are, put them in place before you start selling. These foundation policies should include (where applicable):
- A payment policy
- A return policy
- A refund, exchange or credit policy
- A shipping rate and service policy
- An out of stock or discontinued item policy
- A special order or discount policy
- A commissions policy
- A licensing policy
- A gift certificate policy
- A returned check/charge–back policy
- A repair policy
- Copyright and VARA notice policy
You can come up with your own, or study the policies of other artists and decide which portions apply to your needs. Yet don’t be afraid to tailor them to your sensibilities. Understand, however, that the more established the artist you study, the more likely their policies are solid ones—so keep that in mind when formulating yours. Above all, keep your policies simple, clear, and concise. The last thing you want to do is confuse both yourself and the customer with too many convoluted details or exceptions.
Above all, remember the intent of these policies: your protection as well as that of the customer. They are your seal by which you can be trusted in business—they’re your word, so to speak. When you start bending your policies, for whatever reason, understand that you’re compromising your position, which can have long–term effects. So stick to them unless some extenuating situation forces you to make an exception.
Sales Methods: The Pro and Con
Each sale method has its pluses and minuses, which can shift in importance depending on the particulars of the sale. For example, certain methods are more appropriate for one–of–a–kind works while other approaches work better for edition sales.
We also can’t only think in the short–term, but have to regard the long–term implications of any given sales method because they can be important to your business goals. We also shouldn’t feel locked–in to any given sales method. If one method proves not to work satisfactorily, feel free to switch. Learning how to sell your work is also a process of experimentation, so do so when the situation warrants it. So in order to get a better grasp of our options, let’s dive in!
Either through a private auction, online auction site or live venue, auctions are commonplace.
Pro: You maximize the amount you get for a particular piece, which can bring in a price you wouldn’t have originally asked. Auctions also can be a great way to gain public exposure and “buzz”—great advertising coupled with a great sale is a lot of bank for the buck! By studying the bidding history and the final bidding, you also get invaluable market data. For example, you learn at what price points that specific item had the most bites as well as the maximum the market will pay for it. This is vital information to know to keep your prices in tune with the client base so you don’t undercut yourself or price your work out of reach for too many people. An auction also is relatively easy—you do very little work if you go through an auction site or auction house, which can be a real benefit for a busy studio. There are fees involved, so find an auction service that fits your budge. Bidders also appreciate an auction because they get to control the accessibility of your work—they get to determine whether they get your piece or not simply by what they’re willing to spend.
Con: You maximize the amount you get for a particular piece. The thing is, an auction is a double–edged sword. If you rely on them entirely, what you’re actually doing is antagonizing the majority of your collector base by catering only to the deepest pocket books. This may be fine for a short–term strategy, but it can be disastrous for the long–term, especially when having to ride out market instability, economic downtimes, or when you’re trying to develop your client base. Remember, there aren’t a whole lot of collectors who can purchase big–ticket items, and even among that pool, their priorities shift. And so they may refrain from bidding altogether—and remember—high–ticket auctions are the result of only one thing: two deep–pocket bidders willing to duke it out. Along those lines, while an auction can bring you great notoriety, it also can be a public faceplant if your piece fails to perform up to expectation. Indeed, a poor auction price can be devastating to your sales by blowing apart the market value of your work. Remember, not only are potential bidders watching your auction, but your previous customers as well. If they see the sales point of your pieces tanking at auction, they’re going to rethink future purchases if they believe they can’t at least recoup their investment on the secondary market. Lastly, you’re progressively tapping out the upper echelon buyers, which may not only cause your future sales to suffer, but also those of your colleagues—not the smartest networking policy. Fees for auction sites or auction houses can be spendy, too, depending on what options or services you use. Now if you choose to hold a private auction yourself, you can certainly do that, and many opt for this route. Just keep in mind you’ll have to invest more effort into that process, so be sure you’re ready for that in terms of time, expenses, preparation, and follow–through. Such an auction also isn’t transparent, however, which can open us up to accusations of bid tampering if we aren’t absolutely above board with our reputation.
Best for: One–of–a–Kind pieces (OOAK), especially those of a very high demand. Also good for otherwise rare pieces, too, such as individual pieces from small editions or long discontinued items.
Notes: Various options exist with auctions, such as:
- Absolute auction: The piece is sold at whatever price of the final bid (sometimes referred to as a no–reserve auction).
- Minimum bid: The auction starts at a minimum price, usually set by the artist. This minimum price rarely is considered market value for the item. Indeed, it’s often a good idea to make the minimum bid considerably lower to entice bidding.
- “Buy It Now”: The acceptable sale price set by the artist. In essence, the artist is using the auction forum for a first–come–first–served sale. Sometimes the “BIN” option is exercised in addition to a minimum bid for a typical auction, however, this tends to send mixed messages to buyers. If the BIN price is too high, what induces people to bid? If it’s too low, again, there’s no enticement to bid. If the BIN price is in the Goldilocks zone, bidding is pointless, again.
- Reserve bid: The piece must reach a certain price in order to be sold, and the reserve price usually is confidential. This is very common, and recommended.
- Dutch auction: The seller lists multiple copies of the same item (such as castings in an edition). This means multiple bidders can win, or one bidder can win more than one piece. In the end, all winning bidders pay the lowest winning bid amount. Rare in the art world.
- Yankee auction: Each winning bidder pays her own determined high bid. Rare in the art world.
First–come-first–served (FC–FS) is commonly practiced. However, this can be tricky largely due to the structural dynamics within that market that tend to create an inordinately large demand for a rather small supply.
Pro: This is the easiest and quickest sales method because it’s a straight–shot deal that’s immediately over once the sale is confirmed. It also tends to be cheap since related fees are minimal or nonexistent. More importantly, it also usually attracts the ready buyer so you rarely have to fuss with payment issues unless you’ve attached time payment options to the sale. And because you set the price, you tend to price the item in the Goldilocks zone, and that’s often deemed more accessible by collectors. In essence, you’re “spreading the wealth” of your work, which always gets a positive nod from your client base. In turn, this approach can also be advantageous to certain key buyers. For instance, those who are ordinarily shut out of acquiring your pieces because of the amount of money in the bank or what name you draw in a lottery since everything depends on the luck of the moment. It can help even out access.
Con: Unavoidably, this method disadvantages everyone not immediately notified of your posting or without access to respond faster than anyone else. In this sense, you’re antagonizing some of of your client base for just one person. As such, this method can become a problem if you implement it too often for singular items of particular desirability. And unless you have an automated system to notify people that the piece has been sold, you’ll probably be spending quite a bit of time and energy sending out “sorry, the piece is sold” notifications to all the inquiries—no fun by any means, and definitely not an efficient use of your time. The good news is that payment buttons, such as those created through Paypal, automate the FC–FS system, making your life a whole lot easier.
Best for: Bulk items, an edition, discontinued items, and selected one–of–a–kind pieces (preferably those with multiple variations already on the market to lighten the demand pressure).
Notes: It’s a good idea to choose only one method of response for a FC–FS sale, whether it be email, text, or phone. Email usually is the preferred means because it tends to put everyone on the same playing field and has a time code to determine who got in the door first. But whatever method you choose, be sure your system is working when you offer items with this approach. And watch that spam folder. It’s also best to remain at the ready after listing the item so you can confirm the sale immediately and post a “sorry sold” notification immediately as a courtesy to your clients. Don’t keep everyone waiting.
Lotteries were rather common in the equine collectibles market, but are quite rare today.
Pro: Lotteries often are deemed most fair by customers because they avoid many of the problems associated with auctions and FC–FS. This isn’t something to dismiss—because demand often can outstrip supply, the issue of fair access can be a big one in your client base, so much so that it can even attract new clients to you or drive them away. Lotteries also provide you with solid data as to the demand for specific pieces at certain price points, which can help you price your future work. For example, if you have only three entries for a piece at a price point, you may have priced that item too high whereas if you have twenty entries for that same piece, you probably have priced it too low. You also get to see who’s entering, which can tell you a lot about who’s most consistently interested in your work.
Con: While lotteries avoid many of the problems associated with auctions and FC–FS, they usher in a host of new ones. First, they’re a lot of work. Really. A lot of work. That is unless you find a way to automate the system, which is possible. Nonetheless, if you can't, lotteries devour copious amounts of time with record keeping, organization, notifications, and dozens of other fiddly details that become rather maddening depending on the scope of the lottery itself. Is it really the best use of your time rather than in the studio creating more work? Also significant, because you’re running the lottery yourself, there’s no transparency to the process. This can be a serious problem, even if you run your lotteries with utmost integrity! The thing is, if enough people don’t win consistently, you’ll be open to accusations of shenanigans that can harm your future sales or cause you other headaches. While it’s flattering to have such demand for your work, if you give a hungry group the slightest reason to doubt, that demand can become a monster in a blink of an eye—and turn on you.
Likewise, while a lottery system can attract new clients, you can lose customers in droves over time. The problem is that people get discouraged—getting their hopes up to be repeatedly rejected is a negative feedback loop that eventually comes back to bite you. Ultimately, people may stop entering altogether because they either predict they have no chance of winning (assuming you already have copious entries) or they simply get tired of not winning. For this reason, it’s best not to use lotteries routinely for high–demand OOAK pieces.
Most importantly, however, lotteries also can get you into trouble with certain payment systems, such as Paypal® (not to mention your own state government or the IRS). It can be considered gambling, which is illegal in certain states. And because the term “lottery” is associated with gambling, you can be deemed to be running an illegal gambling racket if Paypal gets wind of the word “lottery” during the payment process. All it takes is one buyer accidentally including the word “lottery” with payment. Consequently, Paypal will freeze your account and may even permanently shut it down! And even if you reason with them that your lottery isn’t the same thing as a bone fide gambling lottery, they will require you to take certain arduous steps to keep your account active (such as remove any lottery terminology from your web site or sales posts). And you don’t get a second chance. And while you can ask the winners to avoid using the word “lottery” in their payments, invariably someone is going to slip and you’ll be permanently cut off from a vital banking pipeline. Is it really worth the risk? For this reason, it’s best not to use Paypal as a payment method when running a lottery.
Best for: Mid–priced items, certain mid–priced OOAK items (ideally those which already have variations in the market to relieve the demand pressure) or a batch of limited multiple copies of an identical item (such as castings within an edition).
Notes: It’s best to employ lotteries when payments are relegated only to checks, money orders, and cashier’s checks to avoid the whole misinterpretation issue with gambling. However, be careful with your state laws and federal laws on gambling.
Lotteries can also be used in multiple ways, even to augment an already established selling system. For example, if you’ve sold most of your edition through a FC–FS cart system, you can lottery off a portion among those of a targeted interest (such as those who missed out on the initial sales, those who only want to pay with a check, etc.).
As for marketing data, your pricing should aim for about ten lottery entries per piece, the “Goldilocks” price point. Any higher and you compromise the resale value, but any lower and you know you’re short–changing yourself. This doesn’t mean to lower or raise your price mid–way through the auction, but to apply this data on the next one.
Lastly, remember that a lottery really is a courtesy to buyers. It’s more of a PR move rather than a tangible benefit for you due to time, energy, and resource issues. Don’t forget that your time is better spent in the studio.
This method is relatively rare. A pour date sales method can come in various manifestations, but is typified by accepting orders for an edition within a certain period of time, after which, orders are no longer taken. Then those orders accepted during that window constitute the edition size.
Pro: This method usually is deemed most fair by collectors because anyone who wants a copy has access to one (or more). Plus, they usually have flexibility when they acquire their piece, which means they have a bit of control when they have to pay for it, too. Taken together, this can translate not only into big bonus points for you and garner you new customers, but it can increase the earning ability of a single edition into unexpected proportions. You also don’t have to drop everything to attend to immediate sales, but have time to go at your own pace for selling and distributing the castings. In turn, you develop a solid relationship with a caster because this method usually means a long–term relationship to complete the edition.
Con: While it would seem this method is the best of all worlds, it’s actually riddled with sobering problems. For starters, this method usually translates into huge edition runs, especially if the sculpture is quite popular. This has four important consequences that are worth serious consideration.
- Remember that VARA only protects art works of under two hundred copies (to include Artist Proofs). The pour-date method easily can cause an edition to balloon well above those numbers, so if this is a concern for you, this may not be your best option.
- If everyone who wants a copy can get one, where’s the value of these pieces on the secondary market? For that reason, it may not always be a good idea to completely fill the demand. Now this isn’t always the case. In–demand work usually always has a healthy secondary value, sometimes even one well above the initial selling price. But these are exceptions rather than the rule.
- Distribution will be slow to the waiting buyers—and people get tired of waiting. Consequently, they often opt to buy a copy on the secondary market and cancel their order with you, and this effect becomes more pronounced as the weeks, months, or even years go by. Translation: frustrated customers and heaps of lost sales.
- You cannot run too many pour–date editions simultaneously, otherwise you tap out your client base (which has consequences for the entire industry, too). Buyers prioritize their spending in a luxury, niche market.
- You’re putting all your eggs in one basket, which can spell financial problems if that basket starts to fray. For instance, this method forces you to be inordinately dependent on your caster, i.e., your financial stability rests entirely on whether your caster can deliver regularly like clockwork. Now given that distribution usually takes a very long time, that’s allowing a lot of variables to be introduced.
This method also has inherent logistical problems.
- It entails an amount of record–keeping that can become outrageously burdensome. Not only do you have to record every order’s information, but you have to keep it updated over the weeks, months, or years of the edition’s distribution.
- You have to coordinate the succession of paid, waiting, or delayed orders as you leap–frog down the list. Indeed, you will easily find yourself spending more time in your office keeping track of sales on your list than you are in the studio creating new work!
- To make matters worse, your customers begin to see how far you’ll bend to accommodate them, which tempts just enough to start abusing the system. For example, you’ll have a rather large percentage of deadbeat buyers, those who put their names down for an order, but seem to vaporize when it comes time to buy. This means you should expect about 35% of your initial orders to disappear over time.
- You’ll also find that about 30% of any batch’s notices will be responded to with a “please can I buy later?”—even when people have had weeks, months, or years to anticipate the purchase!
What does this mean for you? Copious lost time and poorly spent energy. And when it comes to a working artist, time is everything—time really is the only true commodity you have. So while you think you’ll have that new batch of castings sold inside a week, the reality is it can take weeks to filter down your list.
Best for: Editions that aren’t high priority, especially those that are mid–priced, and quick and easy to cast.
Notes: The speed at which your castings are made and distributed will relate directly to how many orders you retain over time; the longer it takes, the more orders you lose. So because time is of the essence with this method, be sure your caster is dedicated enough (or is able and willing) to meet your urgent demand over a long period of time. Also be sure that people check their spam blockers or security system for your notices, because your purchase notifications can often get scooped up by such things, causing you to lose or delay a sale. And never plan to cast the initial amount of your edition. Because of all the hassles, it’s best to “cast as you go.” So feel out the continued demand for castings over time because the longer the edition draws out, the more that demand will wane. Honestly, you may find that, in the end, you only cast about 70%-60% of the initially ordered numbers.
However, there are ways to create a self–service pour date list. You can assign every buyer with an anonymous code name, then list those code names on your website in the sequence their order will come up. That way people can anticipate the sale and prepare. Even better—somehow allow each buyer to jockey themselves on the list so you can avoid a delayed sale.
This method is a bit more common in the art world (especially with the sale of prints), but rather rare with equine collectibles. The system is typified by no limit to edition size or time limit on taking orders. In short, castings are always available in unlimited quantities.
Pro: The open edition method is perhaps closest to being a supplier of a mass–produced product rather than as a distributor of a limited edition. Like you always can buy a shovel from a hardware store, you’ll always be able to purchase a casting from the edition. But this isn’t something to sneeze at, for an important reason: it exploits the best of the pour date method while avoiding most of the problems associated with it. It also earns you big points in the PR department by removing any sense of exclusion or haste when purchasing castings, and is particularly appealing to finishers who need a ready supply of beautiful “bodies” to paint.
Con: On the other hand, this lack of haste can mean other problems. Because there’s no rush to purchase, sales often peter out after the initial rush, and perhaps stop altogether as the secondary market tends to take care of the extras. It also means you’re forced to keep a ready (and sitting) inventory of castings in case of the happenstance sale, which takes up space and locks up capital. This method also can present a particular dilemma when your mold has reached the end of its casting life—do you make a new one? Molds aren’t cheap. And like the pour date method, this system can cause an edition to go over the two hundred VARA limit, so if that’s a concern for you, it may be best to avoid this method.
Best for: Editions that are extremely desirable, but which are predicted to have a relatively reasonable market life. However, these editions are best not being your “bread and butter,” but more of a sideline since sales aren’t guaranteed over time. It’s also a good idea to relegate this method to mid–priced pieces that are quick to cast so they can become an impulse buy.
Notes: Keeping a good record of your inventory is crucial here. Plus, regular advertising doesn’t hurt, either. It’s also a good idea to feature beautifully painted copies of that edition from time to time to keep buyers interested in the edition.
This approach is similar to an auction in many ways, but practiced in a slightly different format, and usually outside of an auction format.
Pro: Because you run this process yourself, you circumvent fees associated with going through an auction system, meaning that you get the bonuses of a private auction without many of the minuses. This process also tends to be more discreet, which can be appealing for some buyers who wish to remain under the market’s radar.
Con: Because you hold this process yourself, you get relatively little market exposure. A lot of legwork is necessary, too, between the coordination of offers and constantly sending out notifications. A way around that is to assign each offering buyer an anonymous code which is publicly posted on your website with the recorded offer, creating a kind of self–serve offer–feedback system. Nonetheless, like a lottery, there’s not much transparency in this process which can leave you vulnerable to accusations of questionable doings. In truth, too, this method tends to be the least liked system of sales among collectors, due largely to that lack of transparency and how drawn out the process can become.
Best for: Mid–demand OOAK items, discontinued items, OOAK pieces within a series, or relatively rare pieces of a discontinued edition.
Notes: It’s a good idea to put a deadline on this process, otherwise it can draw out too long. It’s also a good idea to start out with a modest minimum bid, and perhaps institute a reserve bid to protect your interests in this less intense buying environment.
Every artist has a passel of customers with whom she’s formed a kind of loyalty, for various reasons. Reliable and courteous customers are usually favored most by artists and are, therefore, often afforded privileges others are not. So while this practice is common, it’s largely invisible.
Pro: This is perhaps one of the easiest sales methods because you have a known quotient in your selling equation: a reliable customer. That’s a treasure in an unpredictable market! Also some pieces simply need to "live" with certain collectors, making this a happy marriage. Plus, this method is ideal for those buyers who prefer to stay out of the market’s limelight and have a discreet sales relationship.
Con: This method rests on some rather fragile underpinnings—social bonds. It can sour alarmingly fast and often with rather unsettling consequences. Here’s the thing: when you can practice this method of selling, it means that the relationship between both you and your customer has gone right so far, earning each other’s trust. But that’s the point—one wrong move, and the entire dynamic can blow up in your face, usually spawning hard feelings and the loss of a good customer…and sometimes some rather bad PR. The problem is that this method of sale has no transparency, which puts you at a disadvantage if that customer becomes pushy, misinterprets your actions, or something goes wrong to put you at odds.
This can be particularly troublesome for a hot new artist as eager customers latch onto her sales, and not often with the friendliest of reasons. This is one of the reasons why this approach can result in an artist’s wholesale exploitation under the guise of friendship. For example, it’s not so uncommon for a customer to put such a piece up for sale on the secondary market (sometimes almost immediately after receiving it) and sometimes for many times what she paid with the “friendly” price. She may even consider this her right since she’s been such a great customer for you. Similarly, she may feel entitled to first dibs on all your new work for this same reason, or because the boundary between business and friendship has been so blurred. She may also feel entitled to your undivided attention in her personal life as she confuses a business relationship with a personal one. To add fuel to the fire, if other customers become resentful, you’ve got yourself one big hot mess. The reality is that all your good customers deserve some level consideration, too, and focusing your attentions on just a few not only puts your eggs in too few baskets, it also disenfranchises your larger client base. It also can compromise that distance necessary in a business transaction.
Best for: Specific pieces that “need” to live with a specific customer that usually don’t represent a high demand item.
Notes: This method is best initiated with those customers who have proven themselves—outside of your sales relationship—to be rational, trustworthy people who understand the difference between friendship and business. Also, only established artists should engage in this practice—new, hot artists should stay away from this method. Overall, use this approach only periodically and discreetly; don’t boast about this practice.
Commissions are quite common in the art world, but not so much with equine collectibles, largely because the dynamics of that market make commissions more problematic for both artist and buyer.
Pro: Commissions are like a private sale relationship, but with (ideally) more businesslike protections for both you and your customer. Commissions are a terrific way to build a loyal client base and gain exposure. And how many artists can boast a sure sale with a guaranteed buyer? In this way, commissions can become your “bread and butter,” filling in those financial gaps between other sales. You can also gain access to certain opportunities otherwise denied to you, which can open up brand new doors for your work. For example, creating work for production companies or award outlets, or being able to paint rare "bodies" you couldn't otherwise afford (which is fun!).
Con: It takes a rather specific kind of personality to effectively work within a commission relationship, and that personality is a rather rare artistic type. So artist—know thyself! If you bristle—even the slightest bit—at the thought of deadlines, a sense of obligation, or relinquishing creative control, it’s probably best to avoid commissions. In particular, those with problematic work habits and time management skills, a life full of distraction, and those who don’t do well with guilt complexes, or are overly–sensitive should avoid commissions as well. Otherwise, all you’re doing is setting yourself and your customer up for headache and hard feelings.
Also be very careful from whom you accept commissions. Some buyers are more difficult to work for than others, and so quickly make your life very difficult. For example, some people can be quite demanding of your time as a function of a commission relationship. If in doubt about someone then, ask other artists for feedback. Above all, as long as you remember that what you’re doing is more like “work for hire” than a spontaneous creation in which you have total control, you’ll make a healthy decision whether to accept a commission or not. Also some customers like to micro–manage the process, or may choose to continually change the order. So be sure to have policies in place and all your cards on the table. However, expect to make less with a commission sale than if you offered that same piece to the public, such as through an auction. So don’t get angry if that customer ends up reselling that piece for significantly more than what she paid for it, even if that sale is quick after receiving it. You signed up for that possibility when you chose predictability over risk—this is the trade–off you made for a guaranteed sale!
Best for: Only those artists best psychologically suited for this kind of sale relationship.
Notes: It’s good policy to install a contractual system and careful policies before accepting commissions. It’s also important to keep meticulous records, respond immediately to questions from the buyer, and keep all correspondence as relates to the commission for documentation. Also be ready to issue a full refund if things go sour, even if that means primering over existing work to return it “blank” again.
This method of sales is rather unique because it deliberately limits the number of buyers, something we usually try to avoid.
Pro: This approach combines the benefits of the commission, the pour date, and the private sale methods. In essence, you’re creating an exclusive collector base, giving you guaranteed sales and giving your customers a collecting and market monopoly. You can also develop a solid rapport with your list of core customers, which is always a benefit. And, predictably, you’ll always have people wanting to get onto your list, so vacancies are quickly filled. Moreover, you can quietly pick and choose who is on your list according to your own terms, giving you more control over who you want to deal with and how your work is treated.
Con: Because the customer base is static, you may be locked into a certain kind of product at a certain price, which can limit your creativity and potential. While this may work for the short–term, it could become an eventual problem in the long–term. For instance, you may find yourself wanting to expand your artistic or sales possibilities, or in times of economic downturn, this small basket can be financially precarious. This method also tempts resentment from those unable to get onto your list. But perhaps most importantly, unless you’re careful with who is on it, you can give an unwelcome advantage to profiteers.
Best for: “OF” production runs you create yourself.
Notes: A possible compromise could be a collector’s club of your work within your larger client base.
While this practice is relatively common with equine collectibles, it’s rather rare in the art world. A batch sale also can be paired with another method of sale, such as a lottery, FC–FS or pour date. Essentially, it means you have a batch of multiples, usually castings of an edition, and put them up for sale individually or as one bulk order (like a discounted multi–pack).
Pro: Usually this method is born out of necessity—you get batches of castings from your caster and so you sell an edition in batches. This can be advantageous for both you and your customer by allowing some breathing room between offerings. Also by parceling an edition out in batches, you can direct each batch for a different kind of sale. For example, the first batch could be for credit card sales only while another could be targeted only towards those paying by check. Or one batch could be sold through a cart system while another could be sold via auction. In the end, selling an edition in batches allows more flexibility in distribution, which always meets with approval by your customer base.
Con: If you take too long in the distribution of batches, you tend to run into the same problems inherent with the pour date or open edition approaches. And if you choose to record those people who missed out on a specific batch for a future sale, that can end up being a lot of record–keeping and correspondence (translation: time out of the studio).
Best for: Popular limited editions or bulk items.
Notes: Technically, batch sales aren’t so much a method of selling as an augmentation of another form of sale.
More artists are starting to implement a cart system to sell their work because it’s a great way to couple inventory management with automated selling in one easy step, leaving you free from logistical management. Remember that in the busy life of a working artist, time saved often outweighs fees associated with such a service.
A cart system is best suited for FC–FS sales, but can be used for any kind of piece, especially pieces within an open edition or with batch sales. The customer also tends to appreciate them because they quickly see what’s available and purchase what they want without having the delay of contacting you. Indeed, in this day and age of instant gratification, this approach is a real boon!
There are many kinds of cart systems available, but a discussion about all of them is beyond the scope of this post. So do your research to find the best fit for your needs. Paypal has a good cart system, but it’s relegated just to Paypal payments and not checks, money orders, or cashier’s checks. Another possibility is selling through Etsy’s® or Artfire’s® cart system. Nonetheless, fees are typically involved with cart systems, so make sure they’re within your expectations. That in mind, cart systems are also convenient because they can function from your web site or blog, too, so pick whichever one is compatible with the coding. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that not all cart systems process inventory the same. Some may have blind spots when it comes to payments other than Paypal or credit cards, which can skew the inventory count and cause problems in an edition’s distribution. So do your research to find one fitted for your needs.
No discussion of selling processes would be complete without a mention of payment methods, which is as important as how you sell your work. Boiled down, you don’t want to make payment difficult—ever! It should be as effortless and pain–free as possible, all the time. The harder someone has to work to pay you, the less likely that sale is going to happen and the less likely they’ll be a repeat customer. And in this day of a global marketplace, this can be a big concern. So the general rule of any payment system is: more is better, easiest is ideal. The more forms of payment you accept, the more likely you’ll make a sale and create a better sales experience for the buyer.
So let’s look at some different kinds of payment options to determine which can apply to your needs:
- Paypal: While fees are associated with this route of payment, many artists know that this service comprises a significant percentage of their annual sales. It’s also indispensable for international transactions, opening your potential to the global marketplace. Paypal also offers a shipping label service that can further streamline your processing. Additionally, Paypal processes many different kinds of credit cards so people can use that form of payment through the system, too. So if you’re seriously in business, you probably need to have a Paypal business account. It simply offers too many benefits that outweigh any disadvantages. You can even get a Paypal debit or credit card to directly access your balance. Paypal also offers monthly and year–end reports for your taxes.
- Credit Cards: Because this form of payment is ubiquitous today, you’re at a disadvantage if you aren’t able to process them, in some form. A common route is to go through your bank, and while fees are involved, they’re often justified by the benefits. However, new security PCI regulations have been instituted, so be sure to research to make sure you operate in compliance. Regardless, these PCI regulations are difficult for a small business to meet, and this alone may restrict your ability to process cards. That said, you may also want to explore the different methods of processing cards if you need flexibility such as processing cards from your office or from a POS location (point–of–sale). For example, processing cards at an arts and crafts show. Often, different venues require different systems. Keep in mind, too, that Apple Pay, Square, and now Paypal have rather secure POS gizmos for your smartphone to process credit cards on site, making the option of processing cards easier and safer.
- Checks: While booth sales commonly accept checks, they’re becoming rarer with online sales. Nonetheless, some people prefer to pay with them and checks can be a safe means to sell given you take certain precautions. For example, open a PO Box so incoming checks aren’t vulnerable to “check washing.” This way, incoming checks have a safe, secure place to wait for you to pick them up. This also helps in privacy if you don’t want to give out your bricks–in–mortar address. Also, allow a check to clear your bank before shipping the item, especially if the check is from a new client. Be sure to have an established returned check policy, too, including penalties for non–sufficient funds (NSF). Also stipulate that all checks be made out to your business if you have a separate corporate or business identity.
- Money Orders and Cashier’s Checks: This form of payment is rarer still, but relatively safe to take. Again, a PO Box is a good idea, and such payments should be made out to your business identity.
- Cash: Taking cash in person is perfectly fine, but discourage this practice through the mail. Whenever you do a cash transaction, however, be sure to provide a receipt to prove payment.
- Down Payments: These function as a kind of assurance that the customer has secured their desired item. However, caution always is necessary when you sit on people’s money. Remember it’s not your money until the sale is completed and the customer has her pristine piece in hand. A buyer can default, too, and may demand a refund of the down payment, leaving you out on a limb with a cancelled sale. For that reason, it’s often a good idea to make the down payment no more than 35% of the item’s sale price and to clearly explain that it’s non–refundable upon buyer default. Of course, set up strict deadlines when the final payment is due and have clear policies governing down payments. You can also take payments in monthly installments if you so choose. And be careful from whom you accept down payments—established, reliable customers are the best candidates.
- Time Payments: Similarly, time payments are relatively common. They can often lead to ballooned prices for any given item (especially in an auction) while allowing you to expand your client base for your high–ticket items. People like payments! But the issue of time payments is complicated at best. It can cause a breakdown of customer relations if things go awry. For instance, having to police and nag your buyers for payment is never a fun place to be. Or time payments can put you in a financial pinch if matters dictate a full refund. And what happens if something were to happen to you? What if something happens to the buyer? Or what if something happens to the piece itself while in your possession? Remember, you’re essentially sitting on someone’s property and money, and are therefore responsible for it. The issue of liability and ownership are highly significant ones. (So think twice before shipping the piece anywhere, like to a show or exhibition, because all liability lies with you.) The problem is this kind of financing can be problematic if you aren’t careful (just look at car financing to get a real idea of how complex this proposition can be). So try to avoid time payments whenever possible because remember—that’s what credit cards are for! “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” goes the saying. But if you find the need to implement them, employ impeccable record–keeping skills, crystal–clear policies, tremendous public relations skills, impeccable care of the piece, and the ability to refund at any time. It’s also a good idea to implement a rock–solid contract to protect both you and your buyer (and it’s recommended to have this contract reviewed by a lawyer). Also be very careful from whom you accept time payments—again, established and reliable customers are the best choice. It’s also often smart to have strict deadlines for when each payment is due (and late payments constituting a default or incurred fee). Above all, don’t spread the payments out too long. When you do the math, the longer it takes for those payments to come in, the more money you actually lose while your liability increases. Sure that $3000 auction bid is impressive, but spread that out over a year and you aren’t actually making much per month, let alone the lost interest, record–keeping, correspondence and, most of all, the ongoing liability. Never forget that time payments are a courtesy because buyers are circumventing the established financing institutions of credit cards or bank loans. So you must protect yourself because you ultimately lack the teeth (and probably the resources) of these larger financing entities to get customers to comply with payment terms. Remember, too, that as a business, the courts will tend to come down harder on you rather than the buyer, especially if you lack adequate records, documentation, and contractual agreements. If in doubt about how to enact time payments then, get advice from established artists who use them successfully or consult a lawyer versed in such matters. It’s also a good idea to have adequate business insurance to protect you if you regularly employ time payments, just in case the unthinkable happens and a piece gets damaged or destroyed. On that note, it’s good policy to ship with full insurance, tracking, and a signature upon receipt to prove a successful delivery.
There’s another set of possibilities—sales venues—that can be coupled with any one of the sales methods or payment options discussed. This allows you to custom–fit an approach that meet the needs of any given sale to its best advantage. Bear in mind, however, that most of these additional options entail jurying, fees, contracts, or memberships of some sort, so factor those into your decisions. There may also be legal or taxation ramifications that lie outside the scope of this post, so do your footwork and get advice from other professional artists before you dive in.
For starters, you can sell through online store fronts, creating a virtual store for you studio. Venues such as eBay®, Etsy, Artfire, Discovered Artists®, Zibbet®, Bonanza®, or Niche Marketplace® can offer you exposure and networking opportunities otherwise unavailable. The nature of the work you choose to sell through these venues is up to you, since just about any kind of creation is suitable. Just remember that these systems tend to be FC–FS types of sales.
Similarly, you can sell wholesale through retailers, either locally or through catalogues. Working with local retailers can prove lucrative and useful for establishing a local network of contacts or clients. It’s a good idea to chose a venue based on how closely it caters to your item’s target market. Trying to sell your china painted horse ornaments at a motorcycle shop may not be the best idea! Make an appointment to speak with the owner and have your marketing scheme well thought out and ready to deploy. Bring pieces completed and packaged, ready to sell to the store owner on the spot, and include a display if possible. Do the transaction quickly and efficiently—shop owners are busy, too! Most importantly, your items should be at wholesale prices because the store owner will mark–up the price. So keep that wholesale price point in mind because he or she will stop buying from you if your pieces don’t move at the marked–up price. Don’t just consider street shops either, but museum, gallery or co–op gift shops, too. Likewise, selling items wholesale to catalogues can be profitable if you’re able to meet the logistical requirements for their supply. With all this in mind, the ideal items to sell through these routes are pieces that are quickly produced and cheap enough to sell wholesale while still making a profit for you. For instance, plaques, medallions, tiles, busts, and bas–reliefs are good candidates.
Selling through galleries is another option that can prove beneficial. You gain exposure in a target market while you’re removed from the selling process to allow you more time in the studio. Keep in mind, however, that galleries work on consignment and take about 30% in commission. You should also know how to approach a gallery and have the proper materials on hand (which is beyond the scope of this post). The best types of work to sell through galleries are originals or exclusive pieces of an edition, and those of a specific archival media such as metals or ceramics. Also be sure such work is all yours, your 100% original work. Don’t try to offer repaints or customized pieces.
Also, too, arts and craft shows are an option, which aren’t only fun, but also successful venues for you to sell. You gain exposure and you get to interact with the public, which can provide some invaluable insights. You can also make some important connections and contacts for future projects. The important thing to remember about these venues is that most people are looking for gift items or impulse buys, which means looking for items within the $3-$65 range. But it’s still a good idea to bring a couple of higher–ticket items for that unexpected big sale and for display. Also, plan how you package your sold item for the customer—you just can’t hand it to them! Now sometimes boxes can be too burdensome, expensive, and can become a storage problem in a booth situation. So consider nice bags, bubblewrap, and tissue instead, or a similar strategy that’s manageable and quick to put together. Know that you’ll have to pay a fee or percentage of your sales to the venue, and some of them are juried, too, not just regarding the work you sell, but also the quality of your booth set–up. Also bear in mind that tax issues come into play, like state and local tax. Therefore, it’s a good idea to include that in your pricing for simplicity (and get advice from an accountant). For these kinds of exhibitions, using your smartphone as a POS device is a great idea, so look into Apple Pay, Square, or Paypal for details.
Don’t forget your local Farmer’s Market! If it’s an active one, it can be an effective sales venue. All the issues previously discussed apply here, and some Farmer’s Market booth space is even juried. Keep in mind you may have to commit to a season’s contract, too, meaning that you’ll be obligated to have a staffed and stocked booth for a certain amount of time throughout the season. This means your calendar may be dedicated to this venture for some time, and you may want to focus on items that can be restocked quickly like jewelry, tiles, medallions, plaques, busts, and bas–reliefs. And try to focus on giftware and chachkis as well as your finer artworks. And keep the price points relatively low for those chachkis as people tend to impulse buy at Farmer's Markets. But, again, present some higher–ticket items and have your promotional materials ready. Again, using your smartphone as a POS device is handy. On that note, it's often a good idea to include any taxes in with the price to make buying easier for you and your customer.
Many churches, schools, and various charity organizations hold bazaars regularly or during the holidays, which can be useful places to sell and gain exposure, too. Like art and craft shows, most people are looking for gifts or chachkis, so choose items and prices appropriate for the lower ranges. Again, it’s a good idea to include sales tax or other taxes in all the pricing. Plus, it’s a handy practice to price things in increments of $5 to avoid requiring change and $1 bills, which can make a big difference in the hectic bustle of selling. And like an arts and crafts show, think about how you’ll package the sold item because the same concerns apply. If you’re selling at a holiday bazaar, it’s a nice touch to use holiday–themed bags and wrap (which you can get for deep discounts the previous year in after–Christmas sales).
Certain horse shows, rodeos, and expos can be useful sales venues as well, and many of the discussed issues apply here, of course. Additionally, it’s useful to research the nature of the venue so you can target your items to those who’ll be attending. For example, it’s not smart to take too many Arabian horse items to a rodeo or too many draft horse items to a Saddlebred show. Have all your marketing materials on hand, too, and include them generously with each sale. And present yourself professionally. This builds a good first impression of you and your work, augmenting your good reputation. Have a beautiful booth, too, one that's stylish and unique to entice people to come and look.
Also consider local tourist stores. Many visitors prefer to buy local, handmade art items for their loved ones, and our giftware and trinkets can certainly fit the bill. We can feature the state horse, popular horses in the area, or horses in general, and they should be priced as chachkis. Again, have product nicely packaged, priced at wholesale and be ready to sell, with a nice display ready to deploy, too. Consider hangtags that add that final touch to each piece, which also help to funnel business back to you.
Also consider local tourist stores. Many visitors prefer to buy local, handmade art items for their loved ones, and our giftware and trinkets can certainly fit the bill. We can feature the state horse, popular horses in the area, or horses in general, and they should be priced as chachkis. Again, have product nicely packaged, priced at wholesale and be ready to sell, with a nice display ready to deploy, too. Consider hangtags that add that final touch to each piece, which also help to funnel business back to you.
Having a studio sale can be a wonderful means to sell, too, especially around the holidays. Not only do you get the benefits of selling and making connections, but you get to show people your work space and how your create your work. People love to learn about the process of how your art is made, so it can be a valuable educational opportunity for them. There’s also a great opportunity to showcase those bloopers that you find amusing, or anything else you believe your customers would find interesting “behind the studio door.” You can also control the tone of your environment, which can help you create a welcoming atmosphere for folks. It’s also smart to make a studio sale something regular on the calendar so people come to pre–plan for it and make it a regular excursion. For example, a holiday studio sale held every November can be quite popular. Make up nice postcards and mail them to all your previous local clients and post flyers in appropriate places. You can offer refreshments, too. Many of the issues already discussed apply here in terms of pricing, packaging, tax, accepting payments, and the kind of item you sell apply.
Donative sales can also be handy for gaining exposure and buzz in a new market. However, the issue of donations is a bit beyond the scope of this post, but practice donations with great caution regarding those causes to which you donate and their terms. Be sure to have a thought–out marketing package put together before you enter a new market, too, so you appear professional and polished. Above all, keep in mind not to indulge donations too much. Donations effectively tell people you can afford to give away your work, so practice them with care.
Most of all, when selling to other venues, be sure to only sell work that's 100% yours. Avoid customs or repaints on other people's work, or other people's work on your work. People don't often understand work of this nature, and expect artists to sell only original work, so be sure to meet those expectations.
Like with payment options, no discussion on selling would be complete without touching on the issue of customer relations. Oddly enough, this subject perhaps gets the least thought and effort from artists, probably because we’re accustomed to being alone in our studio and can quickly forget about the outside world. But it’s the outside world that finances your life in the studio! Remember that your art business is due entirely to your customers (and future customers), especially your repeat customers, so if any issue deserved your greatest attention, this one would be it.
In that light, you should consider the issue of customer contentment when it comes to your selling methods—you cannot operate in a vacuum. Subsequently, it’s important that your customers don’t feel disregarded or disenfranchised in their interactions with you. They need to know that their presence in your life has meaning to you. Don’t just give it lip service, either—live it! Garner feedback from them about any selling method and listen to them. Make changes, if necessary. If your trusted, paying customers are telling you something is wrong, why ignore them? Let’s face it, there are plenty of other artists’ works to collect!
This is why offering your work using many of these various selling methods is often smart—try not to depend on only one exclusively. Decide which of your works is best suited for which method not only according to your needs, but with your customer in mind, too. You’re building a long–term relationship with them, remember, and so it’s give and take.
Additionally, the buying experience should be pleasant and easy. Be cheerful and professional and add touches to your shipment that show you care. For example, ship according to professional standards that reflect thoughtful consideration. Never ship on the cheap. Also consider putting a “thank you” note in the box, along with a pamphlet for the piece, your business card, and any promotional material you deem appropriate. You could also offer coupons, or seasonal promotional flyers, or news on a debut piece. Give them materials that have value to them.
And interact with your customers on a friendly, personal level because so much about collecting art work is about associating with you, the artist. The more people get to know you, the more likely they’ll feel comfortable buying from you and having your work in their homes. Always remember when people look at your piece, they drum up memories about you! So while creating art is a deeply personal venture, collecting art often is as well. People are bringing bits of you into their homes. Make sure that’s a great feeling!
Now granted, working artists rarely have the time to indulge busy social calendars, but we can institute social networking to help fill the gap. Blogging about your experiences, or opening an active Facebook® and/or Twitter® account for your studio are good ideas to that end. This personalizes your work and helps people connect with you better. You also can get invaluable feedback through these venues that can help you become more responsive in your business dealings, or create work of greater demand.
Also consider giveaways from time to time (especially around the holidays), or fun contests with prizes. We all love to feel a part of something fun and these kinds of activities help to reinforce the sense that your client base is a kind of community. Regardless, keep these giveaways simple and focused on chachkis rather than your labor–intensive works. Tiles, small bas–reliefs, medallions, and simple jewelry are good choices. Eventually you may even get to a point where you can institute a collector club of your work to solidify that relationship between you and your customer.
Above all, demonstrate through your actions and attention to detail that you aren’t only dedicated to your art, but to your customers, too. This attitude is perhaps the most effective selling method of all!
But along with that comes balance—we can’t bend so much for our customers that we break. And here we come to the concept of fairness with sales methods.
The crux of the issue is that only you can create your work. No apprentice, no machine, and no hired help can create the way you do—and it’s your work that customers want. This means you’ll automatically be dealing with a business equation heavily weighted on demand but with a rather limited supply. Therefore, no sales method you employ ever could be “fair” by definition—someone will always have to lose out. Well, unless you’re willing to sacrifice quality with overseas manufacturing. Or create laborious dream pieces for everyone who wants one at the rock bottom price they can afford—over and over to fill their insatiable desires. You could, but you wouldn’t be in business for very long, and you probably wouldn’t be very happy, either.
What does this mean? It means you must accept that no amount of contrivance of a sale method will ensure any reasonable amount of “fairness.” Whatever method you choose will be inherently exclusionary to some degree, and there’s no real means to minimize that exclusion because you’ll simply be trading one form for another. It also means that the more “fair” you make a sales method, you’ll find that the more disadvantageous it is for you in numerous (and often disastrous) ways. So in the end, choosing a sales method is more about balancing the customer’s needs with yours to find a manageable equilibrium of pro and con. It will be imperfect, but it will be manageable. So expect that not all your customers will like it, no matter what decision you make. You will be “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” Get used to it.
Which brings us to the issue of those who complain (and often vocally in public). If you’ve been in business for any amount of time, you’ll find that the concept of “fairness” gets lobbed around the market rather often. Whether it’s found in those who complain about high prices, or those who fret about not winning another lottery, or those displeased with losing out on a FC–FS sale, it lies just below the surface to bubble up periodically anytime someone gets disgruntled. While there may be some merit to these complaints some of the time, if you notice, some of these comments can be meant as a form of coercion, as a way to dictate to artists how sales should be held. You may even get unsolicited advice on how to run your sale, and even your business. But if you read between the lines, you see this advice is typically offered from those with no thought for anyone else but themselves—not other collectors and certainly not you. In a sense, some people truly believe they are entitled to your work, regardless of any complications, prerogatives, or sensibilities you or anyone else might have.
This is where we need perspective to weed out the sensible suggestion from the self–interested one. It’s important to listen to the rational concerns your customers may have, but equally so, it’s important to ignore self–centered whining, not just for your own sanity, but for the benefit of your good customers. Because the truth is, if you cave in to the whining, you usually only end up hurting yourself, which is counterproductive. And always keep in mind, too, that the only customer you should focus on pleasing are those who buy. “Tire–kickers," “promisers” or "kudos–givers" just take up too much time.
Also remember that if you allow yourself to be bullied, you’ll be doing a disservice to your customer base who are happy to play by the rules. And you’ll find that if you focus on those customers more, not only will you find a better balance between their needs and yours, but you’ll build a stronger business relationship with them. This is as much a part of effective selling methods as anything else! Learning who to pay attention to and who to ignore (and why) is a learned skill, but it’s an essential one to keep you the most productive artist you can be for those clients who actually matter.
- Posting in–progress, sneak peeks, or teasers of upcoming pieces on your blog, social networking pages, or web site.
- Blog about your processes with a particular piece or an artistic method. Customers often relish a behind–the–scenes look into the studio!
- Be sensitive to the work hours or computer access of your customer base. This means that certain sales are best timed during certain days of the week, or even certain hours of the day, especially if it’s a FC–FS sale. And be sensitive to time zones, particularly around the globe. Don’t forget that while it’s day here, it’s night somewhere else! So mix up the sales calendar to appeal to multiple time zones with your sales.
- Try to coordinate with the sale of similar items other artists are selling to avoid too much overlap. For example, if you intend to auction off your much–anticipated new piece and you know of another artist with the same intention, you might want to coordinate with them to stagger your auctions. Not only will this potentially benefit both of you, but collectors of those pieces will appreciate this arrangement if there’s a significant enough amount of customer overlap. It also builds solid colleague relations.
- Adopt the policy of “if it’s not ready to ship, it’s not ready to sell.” (Thank you, Lynn Fraley for that catchy bit of good advice!) This applies especially if you don’t know how the molding process will proceed; otherwise you risk customer aggravation.
- Always declare the full value of a sales piece on customs forms, and don’t give in to peer pressure to send it as a “gift.” Doing so defrauds that government and you'll be the one held liable if discovered. A professional adheres to the laws, and serious collectors won’t try to put you in a legally vulnerable position to procure your work.
- Think about employing an email service to create a professional, visually–appealing newsletter to keep your customers abreast of your studio developments, debuts, and sales. Being able to include payment buttons in the newsletter as a direct POS is also a terrific boon. Yahoo Groups® is another option, but is far less professional and not visually oriented and much less flexible with format.
- Think about creating a “sales” page on your web site or blog that will host payment buttons to any pieces you have for sale. Being able to sell directly from these resources can be very helpful to you and your customers.
- Technology has improved immensely these past few years when it comes to POS devices for processing sales, even credit and debit cards. One of the best are those that turn your smartphone or tablet into a POS processing device. Apple Pay, Square, and Paypal all offer such services, so check them out for on–site sales.
We should acknowledge that we lead blessed lives. No matter how frustrating our sales can get at times, to be able to make a living at what we love doing, and then share that love with enthusiastic others is a treasured outcome not many people ever have the privilege of experiencing.
But business is business. So keep friendships separate; you tread dangerous waters when you blend the two. Don’t forget that a true friend, and a true customer, will appreciate and value this separation because it protects them, too.
Along those lines, it’s often best to choose the sales methods that ultimately are easiest for you. Honestly, all things considered, the less time you spend selling your work means more time in the studio creating it, right?
Clearly, selling your work isn’t as clear–cut at it would seem! There’s much to consider and weigh with every sale we make. Conscientious artists thinks in the long–term, not just the short–term because they see each sale as a process towards their goals. In this aspect, your sales aren’t only your livelihood, they’re also a marketing tool and a public relations mechanism.
So while there’s no perfect selling method, there’s only the selling method that works best for the most interests any given time, with your needs being the over–riding factor. Think about selling methods in these terms and you’ll be able to dance between the various options with greater confidence and success while maximizing your precious time and energy in the studio creating those wonderful pieces so many collectors want!
So until next time...sale away, sale away, sale away!
So until next time...sale away, sale away, sale away!
“So what do artists want? They simply want to do what they love: sell work to collectors who will adore and care for one–of–a–kind pieces. They want to make a living wage, like anyone else.”
~ Stephanie Greene