The Case for Open Edition Digital Prints

Maxfield Parrish Daybreak

As it turns out, print-on-demand was one of the best things in the past 100 years for the business. It’s time now to move, so the marketing of this incredible technology catches up with the benefits the technical development have brought us.

This piece started out as a reply to the comments on my previous post, Milton Glaser Post Goes Viral – A Lesson for Not Limiting Editions.

When I realized it was more than a couple of thoughts or a quick reply, I decided to publish it as its post so more readers would see it.

So here goes with more thoughts on why I am against limiting digital fine art prints.

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Thanks to Alan, Maria, and Daniel for commenting here. Alan, I’m glad you agree. Maria, yes, I am advocating against limited editions of digital fine art prints, aka giclees. I totally agree with your husband, Drew. Other than a marketing gimmick, there is no justification for limited edition giclee prints.

It is not always easy to take an unpopular or controversial stand on an issue, especially when those pitted against you get the knickers in a knot. However, I believe this issue is too important to ignore and will continue to champion open edition digital prints because, in the long run,  everybody involved will do better as this way of thinking gains traction. The change is underway, it is not whether, but when limited editions of giclees become passe.

Limited editions arose out of necessity

That necessity became a tradition in the art business. Now some dealers and artists have it in their head it makes their art “more elite” or “more marketable” or “more collectible.” REALLY? Do the research. For every limited edition that makes it to the secondary market and sells for greater prices than initially offered, thousands of limited editions that never sell out. Why bother?

Do you know you have to comply with the laws of 14 states when you sell limited editions, including sales made over the internet? Who needs that for something you might otherwise be able to sell many more of at a slightly reduced price without the bookkeeping headaches of managing limited editions. This extra bookkeeping is annoying and is a hidden cost that puts a drag on the profitability of print marketing.

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Buyers buy art they like, not limited editions

I believe most art buyers make the purchase decision on the fact they want to live with the art in their home or workplace and that being limited is not a huge buying factor. I also believe there are many dealer and galleries addicted to the notion without realizing it costs them money in the long run. Does anyone think consumers are not entirely aware that digital prints can be reproduced endlessly and perfectly? Then why in the 21st Century are we trying to pull the wool over their eyes with limited editions?

You can still sequentially number open editions

If you want to number them, it’s fine. Just don’t limit them. I believe there would be some prints that were an open edition, but numbered, that would still find the lower numbers collectible. If you look at the crazy things that are in plentiful supply but numbered somehow, and how the lower numbers are worth more, it says it all about the collector’s mentality. Low number license plates in Delaware go for half a million. Does that make sense when you can get a brand new one for rack rates? No, but collectors don’t care.

Give your buyers what they want

One of the greatest advantages, besides no inventory, to giclees is they can be made to order to suit the customer. This development is a first for the art business, and the industry has not picked up on the fact more art would be sold if you allowed people to order the size they want. We are completely missing a huge opportunity to fill the needs of buyers in ways never before possible, and it is easy.

Show me any other art form that artificially limits how many will be sold. You would laugh at recording artist who limited sales to 1,000 copies of their CD, or filmmakers who only let 10,000 people see a film or a Broadway play that closed in two weeks when the demand for tickets was still high. Artists do this to themselves when they artificially limit the number of pieces of their work.

What if Maxfield Parrish only sold 1,000 copies of Daybreak?

Other than blindly sticking to hidebound tradition and being fearful of not being capable of getting good prices for open editions, is there any viable reason for dealers and artists not to favor open editions? What if Maxfield Parrish or Ansel Adams had put all their works into only limited editions? Can you even imagine what a loss to mass culture and art appreciation that would have been?

I can understand an artist creating a limited edition of a print that is also open with the difference being the piece was hand worked by the artist after the printing. In such a case, the artist would probably not want to make more than a 100 or so prints that way. Making a small limited edition this way makes sense and is worthy of the effort. And, can be done without sacrificing the ability to sell open editions of the same image.

Now let’s talk about A/Ps (Artists’ Proofs) for digital prints. What the heck is that about? A way to jack up the price on a more limited edition of the same print? If limiting giclee is a gimmick, then A/Ps take the notion to another level. It flies in the face of the original idea which was that the first prints off the press, which traditionally are Artist Proofs, would be the crispest with the greatest fidelity before the plates wore down, and thus more valuable. Explain how that works with digital prints.

Later made digital prints should be better than the first ones

Daniel’s excellent observation about improving and changing images to make them better. I have argued his point before as well. That is, digital printmaking is an evolving art form. It is most likely that by the time an artist makes the same print in the thousands, or for years to come that the process to make them will be better. Improved printers, substrates, dyes, inks and software help printmakers to continue to turn out better reproductions than the first in the batch. Not to mention the improved skills of the printmaker, too.

This evolving situation turns the whole notion of A/Ps upside down when later prints stand a greater chance of being better than the first. We are living in different times. Consumer tastes are changing; we need to keep up with or be in front of their desires. I don’t see how limited edition digital fine art reproductions fit into the equation when the demand is for authenticity and transparency with a potential backlash against anything that doesn’t meet those standards.

Limited editions limit the income of the entire pipeline

Why should artists, dealers, galleries and printers be forced to shut off their revenue stream when a print with viral potential gets shelved because we are beholden to an old form of marketing that doesn’t make sense for anyone?

I believe a well-made compelling, excellent image can be sold as an open edition at a fair price that approximates what the price of a limited edition would be. Anyone who doesn’t believe this is possible is not selling on the value of the artist and the work, but is instead selling on some perceived notion of exclusivity and implied potential future value. Any truly good art salesperson should be able to easily transition to selling this way with no real loss of volume or income.

Things are different now, and they are not going back – Time to get with it

It seems to me if those who continue to rely on these outdated tactics are going to have an increasingly difficult time in the future. It was not that long ago that many people in the industry thought giclees and digital prints were the worst things that happened to the business. It turns out print-on-demand was one of the best things in the past 100 years for the business. It’s time now to move, so the marketing of this incredible technology catches up with the benefits the technical development have brought us.

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Barney Davey

I help artists and photographers find buyers, sell more art and operate profitably.

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