Is Selling Art on Etsy Worth it? I Found Out

Every artist eventually gets asked ‘Do you sell on Etsy?’. It’s understandable, Etsy is a global marketplace dedicated to selling handmade and creative goods, so is selling art on Etsy worth it? Before I committed my time to the task, I decided to find out.

Etsy is not good for selling original art. The top-selling artists sell cheap prints or digital downloads. Etsy rewards volume sales, at low prices, with 5-star reviews. Even a successful art business can be lost overnight with one algorithm update.

Let’s start by covering how you sell art on Etsy and then explain the problems you will face.

How Do You Start Selling Art on Etsy?

It’s important to realize that it’s not enough to open a shop. Etsy is a search engine and you must ensure that your listings are optimized for the platform. If you ignore the basics nothing will ever work.

  • Use keywords in your shop titles, shop sections, product titles, and descriptions
  • Create your own product images
  • Use original mockups if possible, avoid free or generic imagery
  • Write unique product descriptions for each item

In order to generate sales you need good reviews and that’s where your friends and family come in. Ask them to buy a print and leave a 5-star review, then reimburse them.

You will have to pay the Etsy fees but it’s a small price to pay to get the ball rolling.

How Do You Make Money Selling Art on Etsy?

To make money you need traffic, to get the traffic you need listings. It’s not good enough to list a dozen of your finest paintings. No one will find you. You need 100’s of listings, each one with unique tags, titles, and descriptions.

It’s a tedious business but you must resist the urge to copy and paste identical descriptions. Each new listing is another chance of getting found by the search engine and you can’t afford to get lazy.

In other words, forget about original art, we are talking about prints or downloadable files. Your business is not scalable without reproductions. You make one original and sell it multiple times for the same effort.

You need as many listings as possible to get found by the Etsy search engine. The more listings you have, the higher your chances of making sales.

You will discover that only a small proportion of your inventory ever sells well. That’s the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule. Essentially that means you will gain 80% of your profits from only 20% of your work.

Your popular listings will attract customers and that in turn, will introduce people to your other listings. This will help your other listings to rank higher and generate more sales. It’s a virtuous circle.

How do artists find hundreds of Etsy products?

Very few artists will have an enormous catalog of images, instead, they repurpose the same images in different formats.

Etsy screenshot for selling art on etsy
Etsy Bestsellers Screenshot

Let’s say you have 10 images. Each print can be offered in 5 different sizes. That’s 50 listings. Then each of those might be offered in 3 different colors. That’s 150 listings now.

Why stop there? Now each of those 10 images can potentially be printed on different products. Many artists offer their work via Printful which fully integrates with Etsy and offer all kind of alternative products.

You are not limited to art prints, you can offer t-shirts, puzzles, phone cases, mugs, you name it, the list goes on. You can have hundreds of listings before you know it.

But do you want your art on these products? Well, that’s a different question and only you can decide what to do. I think it’s safe to say that the Etsy audience is at the lower end of the market. They are not looking for high art.

That’s an overview of how to sell your art on Etsy. Of course, there is more to it, you have to promote your listings on social media and even consider paid ads. When more people visit your store and actually buy something, Etsy starts to promote your listings to new people searching for your keywords.

Sounds straightforward, but it isn’t. There are no guarantees. Art is subjective and public tastes are fickle, but there are some trends and themes that work better than others.

Cute, quirky, funny, and cartoon domestic animals sell very well both as cheap prints and downloads. Pets are universally popular, especially dogs.

There is always a market for collectibles. Think about iconic animals, elephants, giraffes, and big cats.

Further Reading: 12 Wildlife Art Bestsellers

Color will always outsell black and white and 10″ x 8″ images seem to attract the most attention.

Your images must fit into readily available off-the-shelf frames. The whole idea is to make life easy for your customer.

Is it Hard Selling Art on Etsy?

So is selling art on Etsy worth it? Well, it can work if you are willing to play the game. Etsy encourages volume sales at low prices. It’s a marketplace, not a gallery. You must post hundreds of listings with the right keywords and the right type of art. That’s a tough call for most artists.

If you really want to succeed you have to follow the trends and be ready to adapt to changing tastes and fashions.

For example, if I was more commercially minded, and I’m obviously not, I would draw/paint sloths and get them printed. They are popular now. A few years back, people were potty about meerkats, and more recently I noticed flamingos on everything.

If you can spot a trend and catch the wave you have a greater chance of making sales. In short, you must follow the popular keywords and create art around them.

Real professionals will use a keyword research tool such as Ahrefs and find Etsy keywords with high volume and low competition to get ahead.

Can you chase keywords and create art around them?

Can You Build an Art Brand on Etsy?

You can build a brand and a following within the Etsy platform, but you must be aware that the last thing Etsy wants you to do, is to redirect your custom away from their site.

Etsy is a business and it cares for its own profits, not yours, and that means everything must remain in-house. Your customers are not yours at all, they are Etsy customers.

When someone visits your shop and buys your print, they are buying it on Etsy. You may have a fantastic range and a beautiful store, but you do not own the space. You are not an independent retailer, you are merely tenants with permission to list your products at Etsy’s discretion.

They make the rules and you have to go along with them, with no right of appeal. Fairness and ethics, don’t come into it.

Etsy owns your traffic and customer base, but why does that matter? It matters because you can’t easily take them with you.

Your mailing list IS your business. Every retailer will tell you about the importance of repeat trade. Your best customers are your existing customers. That’s why you must retain their contact details.

Now although it’s not true that you cannot email your purchaser, you have to do it legally. You can’t just add them to your mailing list just because they bought something. You must send a thank you email, with a link to your website, and hope they sign up.

It all has to be done manually and if you have multiple sales that will get tricky.

What you can’t do is chase cart abandonment. Ecommerce sites can track their customers who abort the sale and offer a discount. You can’t do this on Etsy and that costs you money.

It’s the bottom line, you don’t have control.

Your brand is built on a house of cards, one change in policy, or an algorithm update can destroy your business overnight. It happened to me on eBay.

The Problem With Free Shipping on Etsy

Now let me explain how I got shafted by eBay. It’s relevant because Etsy has jumped on the same bandwagon.

I was doing pretty well selling my art prints on eBay. I adapted to every change eBay imposed and although the sales dipped after each update, it was still worth my while. It was a lucrative sideline.

The killer blow occurred when I was forced to offer free shipping. Now on the face of it, what’s the problem? All I had to do was include the postage in the price, right?

Sure, and eBay forced me to pay commission on the final value fee which included my postage costs. If I didn’t agree to their conditions and offered separate postal rates my listings would be penalized.

Fewer sales or pay-up, what choice did I have?

Further Reading: 25 Selling Platforms for Artists

But that was not the only issue that screwed up my business model. I offered a postage deal. I could send multiple prints in one package for the same rate. This was a great deal and persuaded many people to buy more than one print at a time.

Free postage scuppered that offer and my sales suffered as a result.

When eBay insisted that I had to send my art prints within 24 hours and not the 48-hour offer I’d been running successfully for 10 years, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. 100% positive feedback selling to thousands of customers meant nothing.

Etsy now insists on free postage with the same ultimatum. Well, what do you know? They went for maximizing their profits over serving the best interest of their sellers. Funny that.

I’m not naive, Etsy knows that overall, they benefit from higher conversion rates if customers are offered free shipping. They have also calculated the extra income they generate taking a small slice of their seller’s postage costs.

It doesn’t matter that the sellers do not benefit. So what?

If selling prints has become harder, how are artists going to sell their original art with any confidence? Packaging is not a minor issue when it comes to sending original art in the post.

Framing sizes and weights vary, and so do the packaging costs. Shipping art is a nightmare.

You can easily add $100 for shipping and you have to give Etsy their undeserved cut of that.

The Problem With Etsy Fees For Artists

Again they seem to be modest enough at first. as I write this you pay 20 cents per listing, and that lasts 4 months. Then you pay a 5% final transaction fee, and a 3-4% payment processing fee.

It all sounds innocent enough but I’ve just discovered another fee.

Etsy runs off-site ads and if you make a sale as a result of their ad, you will be charged another 15% fee on top. That’s 15%, including the shipping costs remember. Now if that customer loves your art and returns to make another purchase within 30 days, you lose another 15% commission.

Ok that’s fair enough, they advertised your work and that’s the price you pay. You would never have had the sales otherwise so why complain?

Here’s why. Etsy can track you and your customers and place ads to entice them to your Etsy shop. Every time they succeed you lose 15% of the sale. It doesn’t matter that you have built your own following elsewhere, on other platforms, they can place an ad, in the hope that your customers can be stolen.

Further Reading: The 5 Best Social Media For Artists

Doesn’t sound so good now does it?

And do you think these fees will ever come down? Who can compete with a platform that big? No, they will only go up.

Is Selling Art on Etsy Only for America?

Etsy is worldwide, but it’s important to understand the limitations of selling art overseas. Posting to and from America can be prohibitively expensive. The prices have skyrocketed.

This is the result of the Trump administration threatening to withdraw from the UN’s UPU (Universal Postal Union). They struck a deal that allowed the US to set its own postal rates for accepting overseas mail.

The result was a 48% hike in prices, and that was on top of the extra costs of flying mail to the US during Covid. No doubt other countries have returned the favor.

It means that many sellers no longer find it viable to export their products to the States. This affects American sellers less because their internal market is so huge.

If most of your potential customers are in America, you have a problem.

Conclusion

Sobering stuff. It’s not a lost cause, but I think you will agree that selling on Etsy, or any other 3rd party platform is not secure. Great as a sideline, but precarious as your main income.

It’s good for art prints, printables, small gifts, and ephemera. It’s not good for originals.

It’s best to treat Etsy as just another outlet and not invest all your time, energy, and money on that platform alone.

Spread your bet and build your own website and mailing list. In the long run, it will pay off.


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