How to Sell Prints without a Gallery
August 10, 2016
Although he has also sold editioned 20x24 prints, Ryan Pfluger sometimes sells small, inexpensive prints to his Instagram followers. “I make work so that people can have it,” he says, “not just look at it on a screen.”
One of Sara Macel’s images hangs on a collector’s wall. When she ships her work, “I try to add personal touches to show it’s coming straight from me,” says Macel.
An image of San Juan Island from Kyle Johnson’s recent print sale, which featured open-edition outtakes from personal projects. He also sells large-scale, editioned images.
An aerial image Johnson made of the Pacific Ocean near Kauai, Hawaii, originally shot for AFAR magazine and sold as an editioned print.
Jason Florio, “Abdou with Rescued Crocodile,” The Gambia, West Africa, from his series “‘Makasutu.” When Florio didn’t always have time to respond to requests to buy his prints, his wife, Helen Jones-Florio, saw an opportunity and began marketing his prints for sale.
A detail of “Another Landscape #2,” Valletta, Malta, by Ritty Tacsum, whose prints are sold online by Helen Jones-Florio.
Many photographers who shoot assignments receive requests to sell prints of popular images. These can offer extra income and a way to reach a new audience, but promoting sales and filling orders takes time. Documentary photographer Jason Florio, for example, would occasionally receive emails from people who wanted to buy an image they had seen in a magazine or online. Florio wouldn’t always have time to respond.
His wife, Helen Jones-Florio, told him he was missing an opportunity. “If people were already buying his work, without any proper promotion, then there had to be more people out there who would like to see and buy his work—it just needed a little marketing.” In 2010, she made up business cards, set up a gallery page on Florio’s website, created a form that potential buyers could submit to receive price lists and print sizes and, she says, “began to actively promote print sales” through newsletters, social media and word of mouth.
Photographers who choose to sell prints themselves take a variety of approaches, from selling small, open editions at low prices to appeal to a high volume of buyers, to selling limited editions at gallery-level prices. But in either case, they have to establish ways to monitor print quality, handle payments, and manage shipping. There is no way to streamline customer service. (See also: “How to Sell Your Fine-Art Prints: A Primer.”)
Jones-Florio has recently launched an online gallery to showcase work by Florio and six other photographers. Though buyers can view images online, request a price list and place orders via email, customers expect personal interaction. “People often like to have direct contact [with the seller]. It opens a dialogue and helps put their mind at ease,” she says. “They may want to talk about options, budget, sizes, editions, which may entail a couple of emails, or a phone call, back and forth.” To Sara Macel, a fine-art photographer who has been selling prints herself for more than six years, communicating with collectors and enclosing a note with each package she ships takes effort, but it helps forge a connection with a potential supporter. She advises photographers, “Truly put forth the effort to personalize and send a thank you note. It does nothing but help you.”
To learn what photographers need to know to sell their prints themselves, we asked photographers who’ve done so how they manage each step of the process.
PRICING FOR THE CUSTOMER BASE
Many photographers who don’t specialize in fine-art photography sell their first prints to fans who want an image they saw online. Kyle Johnson, a Seattle-based editorial and commercial shooter says that he’s received many requests from people interested in purchasing prints of his travel and landscape images. “Each time was from someone browsing my website and sending me an email inquiring about that specific image,” he says. He sells these as limited edition, large prints – up to 30×40 inches. When he receives a query, he may send a wider selection of images from the same shoot to give the buyer an option.
This summer, to make some extra income, Johnson decided to hold a five-day sale of inexpensive, open edition 11×14 prints. Not wanting to “devalue” other prints he’s sold, he chose to make the prints from a small number of outtakes, and announced the sale on his personal Facebook page. “I wanted a chance for friends to have a more affordable print and to get more physical printed work out in the world,” he explains.
By keeping the sale short and offering only a few images, he limited the amount he spent promoting the sale and printing images.
New York-based editorial photographer Ryan Pfluger has sold 20×24 prints in editions of five, first through a gallery that used to represent his work and then on his own.
“A normal person my age can’t lay out that kind of money,” he notes. “I make work so that people can have it, not just look at it on a screen.” As he moved from fine-art work to shooting for magazines, he began selling zines and inexpensive, 5×7 or odd-sized prints on his blog; now he’ll announce a print sale once or twice a year to his Instagram followers. Typically, he offers an image he’s already printed for $20 or less. “I’m always making prints of my work, and I don’t have enough space for stuff,” he says. If he’s shot an assignment and printed a proof he’s excited about, he says, “I’ll say: I’ll just print 15 more of this and sell it.”
Jones-Florio says buyers she has worked with range “across the board—a combination of private collectors [and] interior designers buying work for clients.” Through her online gallery, she is selling limited edition prints that come with certificates of authenticity, but she and Florio have also offered “affordable,” open edition 8×10 prints. Many of the buyers of the lower-priced work, she says, simply liked the image—and didn’t care about its scarcity or sales history.
Macel says when she began selling prints, she didn’t bother with editions. People contacted her after seeing her work online or in gallery owner Jen Bekman’s “Hey, Hot Shot” group show for emerging artists. “I think in the beginning, the people who were approaching me were new collectors themselves. They saw an image and wanted it. I don’t think they were savvy enough to ask those questions” about edition sizes.
When she entered graduate school in 2009, Macel learned more about the business model of art galleries. She now makes her prints in only three sizes. “I like to keep editions to 12 at most, and as the size of the print goes up, the edition size gets smaller.” If a buyer isn’t an experienced collector, she educates them about the print’s size and edition. “I say that this is the third out of five, and it’s in this collection—so they understand what they are investing in.” Macel, who hopes to sign with a gallery in the future, carefully tracks her sales and inventory. She keeps spreadsheets on each project, noting sale price, the collector, and how many prints at each size have sold.
Jones-Florio notes, “We’ve done well with interior designers because they have the budgets, and they appreciate esthetics.” To promote the photographers her gallery represents, she researches which interior designers purchase art for private clients, commercial developments or the hospitality industry. She emails a sample PDF with no more than six images. “We’ve had a good response. They say, ‘We’ll put you in our file of suppliers,’” she says.
Her gallery website showcases a few images from each of the photographers she represents; buyers can browse more images she’s chosen from the photographers’ archives in the “flat files” section of the website, or by contacting Jones-Florio. “I don’t want the HJF Gallery to be like an overstocked warehouse,” she says. “I don’t want people to get overwhelmed.”
Macel says that any time her work is published or featured in an auction for publications such as Fraction or a nonprofit art space she supports, “I notice a little bit of a bump in sales.” She also promotes her work herself in a “low-key” way, she says. At the holidays, she sends collectors a note and a small print; she’s also followed up with collectors by sending a copy of her book, May the Road Rise to Meet You. “It’s a way of staying in touch, and sending them a nice note, but also reminding them that I might have more stuff they can buy.”
PRINTING, SHIPPING, MAILING
Packing and mailing prints is “a ton of work, unless you have a full-time studio manager and one or two interns,” says Pfluger. Many photographers prefer to leave that chore to the lab that also handles their printing. Johnson, for example, has his images on file with White House Custom Colour, “which has an option for slightly more money to ship directly to a client.” The Florios work with their long-time lab, A Small Light Room in New York City, which handles shipping and, if the couple is out of town, will arrange to show prints to customers who might want to preview them in person. Other photographers represented by Jones-Florio are responsible for printing and shipping their own work via insured, trackable mail, and for following up with the buyer to confirm receipt.
Macel tells her buyers that once she has received payment via PayPal or a credit card transaction, shipping can take about two weeks, and costs between $100 and $150, depending on the size of the print: “I feel that if you’re going to invest $800 in a print, then you don’t mind spending $100 to make sure it gets to you properly.” She ships prints in containers made by Masterpak, which have foam corners to hold prints in place. The containers then slip into hard-sided sleeves. When one of her prints is in a charity auction or about to be featured, Macel will stock up on Masterpak containers and make extra prints so she can ship orders quickly.
“I try to add personal touches to show it’s coming straight from me, not the printer,” she adds. For example, when she shipped prints from her series “May the Road Rise to Meet You,” about her father’s work as a traveling salesperson, she wrote thank you notes on vintage travel postcards.
“It could take all day to get a print ready to send someone,” Macel notes. “But at the end of the day, I’d rather invest my time in that, and knowing that my work is in a collector’s home.” Eventually she hopes to sign with a gallery that will “take my work to a new level,” but she says there are advantages to handling her own print sales. “I keep all the profits,” she notes, and she has the flexibility to accept payment in installments, or to barter with fellow artists. And she appreciates the connections she makes with her collecting base. “I’m a firm believer in thank you notes, so even if I were working with a gallery, I like to think I could still reach out with a personal note,” she says. “I can’t get over the compliment of someone saying: I want to invest in this print.”
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