How to Start Your Own Art Publishing Company

The tools to get your work directly to your collectors are the best ever. I think every artist should have a website. Period. Most should have a blog. Working on using social media can be the single most important thing you will do for direct distribution of your work.

I received a request by email to weigh in on a post at the Wet Canvas General Art Business forum today. The title of the thread is How to Start Your Own Art Publishing Company. My answer turned out to be even more lengthy than the lengthy question. To save you the trouble of logging in over there, I have reposted here:

With advances in technology is it feasible to become your own publishing company today?

Both my wife and I are full-time artists and we feel, and many others have said, that our works would do well as prints and cards. We know this is true, at least on a small scale, as we already do sell prints regionally (printed on our own Epson 2200 printer) and those have done fairly well…but what does it take to go to the national level?

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My wife has been with one of the largest art publishing companies for 6 years now. She makes 10% of the wholesale cost, and the results have been disappointing, about $1,000 a year average paid out to us. Also, the company has been hurting recently as they try to figure out this tough economy, and sometimes they even have to miss payments and then will double up on the next payment….obviously not a good sign (payments made quarterly). This is one reason I’ve been wondering if it’s a wise thing to publish ourselves and keep the full profit?

Our niche or specialty is painting animals. Obviously we can’t print enough out on our own little Epson printer, so we need to find out:

1) Are there larger personal printers now that can produce prints fast enough and economically enough? Or, do individual images still need to be shipped off to a large commercial printer and printed out in the hundreds or thousands? If so, are there competitive printers in the USA still, or is everything done in China/asia?

2) I realize that the first few years require a lot of work going to gift shows, art shows, trade shows in order to become known. Also, to expand ones web presence as much as possible. Any other venues or ways to get ones name ‘out there’?

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What are some other thoughts/ideas/considerations on all this?

Do you know of any self-publishers who are doing well? I recently came across http://www.annemadecards.com/ and http://trollart.com/
I assume they do well as I’ve come across them now in quite a few shops. Of course that’s just an assumption as I dont know for sure. You can see that ‘AnneMade’ sells her cards for $1.50 each….so I’m assuming she’s getting these printed in China?

There’s also big names like Mary Engelbright and Jodi Bergsma. They are big now and control their own future, but I’d like to learn exactly how they did it when they started out. Of course, today is obviously a much different time than just 10 years ago, so how much would the old ways even work today?

One big reason I’m considering this direction is because we received a relatively small inheritance (less than $25K) and it’s the only ‘freebie’ we’re ever going to get really. So do we dink it away on what-not, or invest in this self-publishing idea? I know that’s not a lot of money anymore, but perhaps with advances in printer/computer technology…it’s enough??

Right now, with the Epson, we print with archival inks, and these are not cheap! I’m thinking more along the lines if one prints out their own images on a high volume personal printer…on card stock, with regular inks…and then perhaps varnish with a UV varnish. I know these will eventually still fade, but will at least be initially cheaper to produce (and sell more reasonably). If there arent good personal printers in this regard, how about getting inexpensive postcards printed (you see their ads in magazines) and turning those into prints or even greeting cards? I’m just kind of thinking out loud now at this point.

If one goes to a big gift show, they need to either have on hand a large inventory, or the ability to go home and produce orders quickly. It would just be so nice to be in control of the entire process rather than have to deal with commercial printers, handing over chunks of money per every image.

I hope I haven’t rambled too much here. I just wanted to get the ball rolling as I know there are smart/helpful people here who will have some thoughts and insights on this. I was also hoping this could be a thread of interest to the other artists who might also be thinking of doing their own self-publishing on a larger (even national) scale.

Many thanks….

My reply is:

I received a request by email to comment on this thread, which was inspiring. As much as I would like to post regularly, working full-time leaves little time to participate here. Between spending 50 hours weekly on the day gig, maintaining my Art Print Issues blog (now approaching 400 posts), and promoting the newly released second edition of How to Profit from the Art Print Market, where it remains a bestseller on the Amazon.com “Business of Art” category, and a couple of other projects, I run out of time and energy to get here and some other boards where I like to post.

So putting excuses aside, I do have some comments for Olde Bob. Yes, it is still feasible to start your own art publishing company. In many ways, it is the best of times to do this. Yes, the economy and market changes have created huge challenges, but how art is made and marketed has changed also.

As never before, artists now have more new and effective ways to control the direct distribution of their art. With the changes on the gallery scene, I think it is incumbent on every artist to create direct distribution of their art. When you do, you can sell less and keep more. You don’t keep the full 50% of retail you pay galleries, a big chunk of that goes to marketing.

There are digital printers that print relatively fast and inexpensive, but not like a four-color offset press. The difference is in inventory. If you bet wrong, you end up with stacks of paper and no where to sell them. I think printing in large quantities only makes sense for established artists who have volume buyers seeking their work. Sending to China creates potential quality issues, expensive shipping and long lead times. Again, more suited for established players than newbies.

Working for a publisher was never going to be something that would pay all the bills for most artists. If you consider, your wife’s publisher only made $10,000 from selling her work, you can figure if you were the publisher, it would not be a living from those sales. Publishers have big overhead costs that you would absorb trying to compete with them.

Tradeshows do not pack the same punch as just a few years ago. Look at what has happened to most of them. I am still shell-shocked that the Decor Expo Atlanta show has failed to produce in the past three years. This was once a show with 2,000 exhibitors and an absolute “must attend” for virtually every poster publisher and many self-published artists as well. Art business related trade magazines are hanging on by threads.

Artyczar offers good advice. You would be better served, IMHO, carving out a niche based on quality and uniqueness with the aim of developing a loyal collector base. I wrote a blog post titled, Build an Art Market – Profit from Your Passion. It was about how artist, Ashley Goldberg, built a $100k annual business on Etsy and ended up being featured in an Inc Magazine cover story about how it is possible to follow your passion and create a dream job.

By your questions and references to various artists, you seem to be more interested in the gift and licensing market than the art print market. That’s fine. I advise trying to tackle one or the other, but not both at the same time. It is tough enough to get traction in one of these arenas without trying to manage trying both.

You mention the $25,000 inheritance and then talk about how expensive archival inks are. These are clues to your situation and your thinking about things. My advice would be to decide to put a small portion ($5-7,000?) of that into marketing your work, and putting the rest aside in safe investments for the future.

Regarding printing your own work; there are many hidden costs in printing your own work. There is lost time and money when things do not come out as expected. The investment in high quality image capture equipment can easily exceed $25,000 and then you have to learn how to use it properly. You are adding this time and expense to making your art and marketing it. How much cheaper can you do your own printing? I would not be at all surprised for most artists, after all the costs are included, the lost time from the studio, and hidden expenses are added up, that the savings amount to less than 10% for work produced on the amateur level.

I love your optimism about going to a big show and coming back with a suitcase full of orders. It shows you have the ability to think big about your career. Unfortunately, the reality for most first-timers at shows, even back in the good old days, is that the likelihood is what you learn will be greater than what you earn. In other words, it takes more than one big event to turn on the big orders. It takes consistent marketing.

Perhaps the most important thing to consider, and this is often the hardest thing for artists to do, is to be able to honestly and brutally evaluate the marketability of your work. Your perspective is warped by being too close, your family and friends are not reliable because they love you and want the best for you and they likely have no art marketing experience to weigh the commercial viability of your work.

At the heart of the business every successful artist lies the ability to create work that resonates well with a large section of the potential market. Making stuff people want to buy and want to continue to buy is a crucial ingredient. It is not always about how your work is better than so and so’s. It is about how many people are willing to open their wallet and vote with their disposable income on how much they like your work.

I can’t judge how well your will do, often experienced publishers can’t judge it either. The final arbiter are volume buyers and retail buyers. If you can learn to tap into their needs you can build a successful print career. If your work is less accessible, more esoteric, or just not as commercially viable as others, you can still build a market. You may have to work harder at identifying where your buyers are and how to to reach them.

Learning how to reach them means being a student of the art business. Most artists will seek teachers far and wide to learn how to apply paint, but they won’t invest any time in learning how the top producers built their businesses.

The information is not laid out neatly in Wikipedia, you have to do your own sleuthing to ferret out the details and then spend more time figuring how to make them apply to your business. Fortunately, the cost of doing this is more in time than in money, which leaves you more money to spend on your marketing.

Lastly, the tools to get your work directly to your collectors are the best ever. I think every artist should have a website. Period. Most should have a blog. Working on using social media can be the single most important thing you will do for direct distribution of your work.

Whatever you do, don’t undercut your partners, galleries and dealers, specifically. Treat them fairly and honestly and with integrity. The best way to find them is by working concentric circles around where you live. How many potential galleries and alternative spaces that could repeatedly sell your art do you have in a 300-mile radius around your home? Probably enough to support your business if you are successful in getting into 10-20% of them.

This has turned into a piece so long, I am going to repost on Art Print Issues. Best wishes to Olde Bob and thanks to TC Steele for inviting my comments.

This has turned into a piece so long, I am going to repost on Art Print Issues. Best wishes to Old Bob and thanks to TC Steele for inviting my comments. Of course, I would be remiss from my own advice to artists, where I admonish them to be their own best self-promoter, if I did not encourage interested readers here to order my book.

If you want to learn more about the art print market and how to make a go of it in today’s changing challenging environment, my book will be a useful resource for you.

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Barney Davey

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

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