Why is shipping so much with print on demand providers? What are my options for selling my art?

I researched extensively before choosing print-on-demand for my business.  I want to share what I learned and also explain why I chose this option.  

If you are an artist wanting to sell your artwork on merchandise, then you have a few options.  You can print, sell, and package your products from your home.  Another option is buying prints or merchandise in bulk orders and then selling the products, packaging, and shipping from your home.  There are two other options where you have little to now contact with the merchandise, which is print-on-demand marketplace and print-on-demand providers.  Let's look at the pros and cons of each of these avenues. 

Print, sell, package, and ship your products from your home.

Printing, selling, packaging, and shipping products from your home works really well for people that have already invested in technology like photo-editing and color-correction software, scanners, and printers.  Selling from your home also grants an artist full control over the product, packaging, and communication with the customer.   

There are, however, a few drawbacks to this option.  The upfront cost for this technology if you do not already own it is significant - at least $1,000.  If you sell your own products from your home you must have a way to accept credit card payments.  The cost for software and the technological expertise needed to protect yourself and your customers often drives artist to online marketplaces like Etsy, Shopify, and Woo.  These online marketplaces provide secure transactions...for a price.  Did I mention time?  This business avenue requires A LOT of time as you are handling the art, scanning, color correction, layout, paper, printing, selling, transaction, packaging, and shipping, and tracking all yourself. 

In making my decision, the amount of time required for this option immediately removed this option as viable for my business.  Even if I had this kind of time, I could not spend that upfront money on a hobby that may not sell. 


If you cannot print your products from your home, you can still sell your artwork from your home by first ordering bulk shipments of your product from a printing company.  Then, as in the above scenario, you handle the selling, transactions, packaging and shipping yourself.  

The inventory option works great for a certain type of artist.  First, this artist would likely already have a following and thus a way to communicate with possible customers about a new product offered.  The ideal inventory option artist would sell mostly prints of his or her artwork.  The economies of scale work heavily in favor for an artist selling prints.  One small shipment fee for a stack of prints translates well to profit for the artist.  A huge shipment fee for a case of mugs with your artwork does not translate as well.   A significant pro for the inventory option is shipping costs for your customer.  If a customer wants to buy 2 copies of 6 different prints, the artist can charge one shipping fee because all of the prints are in the same location and can be mailed together.  (The lack of this ability is a main drawback of Print on Demand Providers, which I will discuss later.)

Drawbacks for the inventory option include the transaction security and time for communication, packaging and shipment detailed above in the print-at-home option.  There are a few unique drawbacks to the inventory option.  First, inventory requires a lump sum upfront cost before an artist knows what will and won't sell.  An artist may make the wrong decision and never make that money back in sales.  Second, if you have more of a niche market that does not lean towards prints, then the margin for profit will likely be smaller.  Finally, the inventory option significantly hampers the number of products you can offer.  The artist must have space to store products, and the shipping for many different types of products will cut down on the profit.  

Print on Demand Marketplace.

A print on demand marketplace is an online company that sells products printed with your uploaded artwork.  You will recognize names like Red Bubble, Zazzle, and Society6 as well-known print on demand marketplaces. The customers are paying the marketplace for a product with your art, then the marketplace gives you a SMALL portion of the profit - sometimes as low as 10%.  Customers can find you and your artwork on these marketplaces using search functionality.

The most convincing pro for a print on demand marketplace is two-fold: ease of use and lowest time commitment.  Print on demand marketplaces are well set up to upload your artwork and provide product images with your artwork featured.  The print on demand marketplace handles everything but the art.  The artist does not need to consider product images, product options, transactions, taxes, packaging, or shipping.  

The main con for a print on demand marketplace is directly related to the time commitment.  Because the artist is responsible for so little of the product, the artist makes just a little on the sale.  If an artist makes 10% on each sale of a product featuring his or her art, then customers would need to buy $2000 worth of products for the artist to make $200.  There are marketplaces that give a larger percentage, but you must understand that you are handing over most of the time and work to someone else which means you are also handing over most of the profit.  

Print on Demand Providers

Print on demand providers print each product when it is ordered and then package and ship the product to the customer.  The customer, however, pays the artist, and then the artist pays the print on demand provider.   To use a print on demand provider an artist needs an online shop.  The print on demand providers give the artist product images, which are then posted on the artist's website/shop.  The website/shop is usually hosted by a marketplace like Shopify, Etsy, or Woo.  The marketplace helps set up the website/shop, accepts secure payments from customers, and then pays the artist.  The marketplace also helps the artist integrate his or her website with the print on demand providers.  This allows an artist to present products from multiple print on demand providers seamlessly on his or her website/shop.  Some familiar print on demand providers are Printify, Printful, and Teelaunch.  

The obvious pro for using print on demand providers is less upfront cost.  An artist needs only pay for a website/shop.  These websites often come with preset designs, so an artist must spend a little time filling out the design with text and pictures.  Then the artist has to spend significant time researching print on demand providers.  An artist must consider the following: how easy is the provider's editing tool used to create products, how much do the products cost, how much does the provider charge for shipping, and where are the providers located.   Another advantage to the print on demand provider option is the ability to offer many different types of products to a global customer base.  The print on demand providers often have multiple printing locations across the world.  

A major con for the print on demand provider option is shipping.  Each product is individually printed and shipped, possibly even shipped from all over the world.  Thus, an artist must decide to hike up the prices of the products to cover all the shipping costs or charge the customer separately for the significant shipping fees.  A customer may wish to buy five different products from an artist's website.  Based on consumer experience, most customers would logically assume the shipping would be based on the total price of the purchase.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  The five different products may be printed in five different locations and, therefore, be shipped in five separate shipments.  The difference between this and, say, Amazon Prime, creates a very real barrier to sales. 

I am still learning about all of these options, but I did choose to use the print on demand provider option.  Actually, the print on demand provider option chose me.  I realized that it was the only option that allowed me to see if anyone would want to buy my products, allow me some control, and allow for possible growth.  The options broke down like this for me:

  • The print, sell, package, and ship from home option requires too much time and upfront money for me
  • The inventory option requires too much risk and is too limited in options
  • The print on demand marketplaces are very little effort but yield very little profit and do not allow for much growth
  • The print on demand providers require less upfront money, reduce risk, and provide options both in products and possible growth.  These pros outweighed the major shipping con. 

I hope this helps some of you think through this process.  Making these decisions is no small task, and I spent MONTHS working on starting my business.  I do not know if my business will last or will last in this form, but I am really proud to have created Sarah Hays Blankenship LLC and actually sold some products.  Right now I am considering increasing the cost of my products to replace the shipping costs.  I don't know how I feel about that, but I think a customer might be more willing to pay $13 for an ornament with my art than $8 for an ornament with my art AND $5 shipping.  

Thank YOU for being there for the journey with support, encouragement, and ideas!  

Sarah Hays Blankenship