Etsy-nomics

37

Dear Artist,

In my last years of high school, I made hand-painted cards and t-shirts to sell at the local craft fair. When I got to art school, I found I could support myself by selling t-shirts on my residence floor. Painted one at a time on my bed with supplies I’d brought from home, it was the most unsophisticated moneymaking scheme I could think of to pay for paint. While other students worked at the copy center or the college pub, I sat in my room with my t-shirts and eked out what my dad called, “the gift of poverty.” It was enough to get by and, like original art, impossible to scale.

etsy_pileated-woodpecker

Best of Etsy “Pileated Woodpecker”
Archival reproduction on 17 x 11 inch paper of original watercolor painting
by Amber Alexander

Fifteen years later, a 26-year-old website designer named Rob Kalin invented an online marketplace called Etsy in his Brooklyn walk-up. The idea was to build on the modern craft fairs popping up in art hubs like Brooklyn, Portland and Austin. To makers, it felt empowering, progressive, entrepreneurial and fulfilling — promising homemade financial independence — especially for those new to or on the margins of the workforce looking to create a work-life balance or just hoping to stick it to the man. They called it “The Artisan Economy,” and everybody got ready to quit their day job.

At its peak, Etsy clocked over 1.4 million active sellers from 150 countries and remains the fifth most-visited online marketplace in the U.S. after Amazon, eBay, Walmart and Best Buy. But with such formidable reach, it’s been tricky to stick to a mission of showcasing quality hand-mades. Manufacturers, resellers and dilettantes were quick to hijack the wave, polluting Etsy into an un-navigable superstore of crap. And with 20 cents taken for each item listed, plus a 3.5 percent transaction fee and additional processing fees, Etsy was poised to earn squillions. The values of excellence and specialness suffered. By 2013, annual Etsy sales topped $3.5 billion — that’s $47 million in transaction fees alone — while the average price of an individual item sold was $20.

etsy_chrysanthemum-2

Best of Etsy “Chrysanthemum Flower”
Oil on canvas panel 8×10 inches
by H. Oomen

Currently, over 30 million items are for sale on Etsy, with many now having taken on a kind of likeness. The aesthetic, as you may have noticed, has leaked into the mainstream via big box stores and retail chains. Copyright infringement and plagiarism claims have had trouble getting traction with such a wide and ubiquitous look. The result has been that most of the talented and original craftspeople have moved on — online and otherwise. Of course, exceptions of quality and uniqueness, skill and ingenuity are still cutting through there, though the artists’ names remain anecdotal. Admirers default to, “I found it on Etsy.”

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “My goal was to empower people to make a living making things.” (Rob Kalin, who no longer works at, or is listed among Etsy’s top shareholders.)

etsy_ldawning-scott

Best of Etsy “Stormy Collection”
Giclee on Fine Art Paper, Canvas, or Metallic Canvas from original painted canvas
by LDawningScott

Esoterica: Art and craft remain boutique businesses, where special people find special things and are guided by a special environment to confirm their special choice. Original, handmade work is un-scalable by design. This is what makes it precious and covetable. Even so, Internet anecdotes about six-figure-earning Etsy Moms have inspired modern artisans to give the superstore a go, and many now enjoy a supplemental income and flexible, creative lives. I say “Moms” because 86 percent of Etsy sellers are women — in contrast to 29 percent of all small business owners — and one-third report that Etsy is their sole source of income, having formerly been homemakers. It’s also worth noting that less than one percent of sellers take a loan to start an online shop — a trend that supports real-world data: Women are less likely to start a business with outside financing, launching with about 64 percent of the capital of male-owned start-ups. For artists in general, they remain in it for the happiness. Two-thirds of Etsy sellers say it’s more important than money.

Illustrated in this letter are some of what we feel to be the best of Etsy paintings.

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37 Comments

  1. Thank you, Sara, for this article on Etsy – and all your articles! Thoroughly enjoy them and am learning as I go along. I have had an Etsy shop for the past few years and have met some wonderful fellow-Etsyers! The Etsy landscape has changed somewhat from its initial appeal being original, handmade works. Definitely copyright infringement is an issue for any online artist and it is always a challenge to protect one’s work. Anyway, thank you again, always look forward to your newsletters, as I did your father’s.
    all the best,
    susan

    • Check out Julian Merrow Smith’s personal auction site. Go to shifting light.com. You can also check out Artfinder or daily paintworks. Hope this helps.

  2. Thank You Sara for this informative article about Etsy. I didn’t know about this e-store prior to reading your article. I also read about Neil Waldman, the featured artist in this newsletter. I am so moved by the stories of the founders of his Foundation who dedicated their life to encourage and support young artists who grew up in poverty and dangerous environment in the Bronx. Once again, Thank you, for your newsletters.

  3. Stephanie Friesen on

    Hi Sara!
    I STILL have one of your t-shirts from way back in the day!! Yellowed but still around!
    Love that you are continuing these letters.
    Steph xo

  4. I would love to see a letter about giclees vs. hand pulled prints. There is so much confusion in the marketplace since “Limited Edition Prints” have come on the scene – all of which are reproductions of paintings or drawings and none are Original Prints. I see many giclees on Etsy and think the world could do with some clarification.

  5. Hi Sara……I had a shop through Etsy but dropped out when it opened up to “manufacturers”, a code name for overseas sweatshops turning out kitsch. What got me started was when I accidentally clicked on a page of quilts featuring the image of “The Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle. Curious, I checked with his representatives and they informed me that there was no licensing or copyright permission offered to any of these quiltmakers….and there were ten different companies using Carle’s image on one page! When I complained to Etsy, they blandly informed me that “it was up to the artist” to police these infringements. I closed my shop.

  6. I am an ETSY seller. I close my eyes to the mass of crap. There is not anything better. I am technically retired (in California I was a full time craftsman) but now cannot support the studio without sales. I sell and build my fans. It works but I feel sorry for the uninitiated.

  7. people are very resourceful when the mighty dollar is the driving force, anything you say or described can be used to invent or steal someones crazy ideas…I once told someone while walking to work through the isles of our store….it would be a good idea to make slippers out of swiffers’ for wood floors, just sluff around your house with them on and happy you no dust…well the next week, there they were for sale!
    That is one example, feather bed was the other I described to the ladies at the fabricland store….now you see them for sale everywhere……another was the short tub, tall walls and a seat, and with a door to get in, was going to call it a fido, like in italy….my partner thought it was a terrible idea and wouldn’t work…..

    • I think the featherbed has been around a hundred years before you were probably born. It’s not that someone stole your idea. That one was already around and maybe these ladies perfected the old ones and your mentioning it was a lightbulb moment for them—that there was a need. The only way to prevent this from happening is to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Since most of us have more ideas than time in our lives, I think it is best to keep what we are most passionate about to ourselves and work on those ideas and let the rest go.

    • Yes, Leona, as Jeanne said before me these people didn’t steal your ideas. I think we can probably all relate to stories like that; I know I certainly can with a number of products. The “swiffer slippers” for example would have taken months, if not years, to go from initial idea to a product on the shelf…

  8. I joined Etsy many years ago, when paintings were the number one item for sale there. What has happened to it over the past couple of years is causing me to wind down my business there and spend my efforts on “art only” websites, like DPW, Vangoart and Saatchi.

  9. I’m another Etsy seller, for five years. I started with my paintings, added prints, then branched out into painting pendants and holiday ornaments. After I lost my job I hoped I could grow my shop into a decent income but was not successful. I enjoy painting, making and selling high quality art and crafts, so I keep doing it, but only part time and with no expectation of the amazing success a few sellers have achieved. The site is huge and crowded. It takes time to learn the ropes, and to realize that for most sellers, there will be modest results. It is humbling to be just another artist among thousands on the site, and just one of over a million shops. But wonderful customers and a little profit still make it a positive experience for me.

    • I’m with Penny on this too. I am an Etsy seller as well. I have positive things to say about Etsy. For me, it has opened up a world of customers for me, that would otherwise have never seen my paintings. I keep them small and affordable, because I love to paint, and I get some wonderful feedback from the families that buy my art. I’ve never intended to get my art into a gallery setting, but I do love that my art is getting into people’s hands. And that makes my heart happy.

      Since putting my art on DailyPaintworks.com, I have seen more Etsy sales…and increasing every year. I think the combination of those two online entities have helped me to grow as an artist. It does good to have at least a hundred items listed, and to list often on Etsy.

      Incidentally, Sara’s father also thought Etsy was similar to a “garage sale”…but in my eyes, it helps artists connect with art lovers… even though there is a vast sea of other items on Etsy. I try to support the artisans who knit, sew, make jewelry, etc…on Etsy. Because we are all doing what we love to do.

  10. I’ve been an Etsy seller since 2009, doing original art. I am being drowned, like other producers of handmade goods, in the pool of manufacturers Etsy has let in. My sales have gone down since I began, so I am now on Fine Art Studio Online as well, and they provide a really nice, easy-to-use website for the artist as well. So far my main sales are from Etsy, though.

    • Absolutely agree, Carmen. I’ve been on Etsy since 2010 and the amount of “crap” on there just blows my mind. If the average price of an item is $20 – with most, I suspect, coming from third world countires, what chance does a genuine creator of handmade art have in a market like that? I make silver jewellery and my sales are pitiful enough to make me question why I’m there every few months. I keep telling myself that I get requests for custom work because of Etsy and others sites but it is very difficult to quantify.

  11. Interesting to read all the comments surrounding Etsy. I’ve often wondered if it would be worth the effort. My instincts tell me that signing up with a fine art online site may be better than Etsy, especially since my work is worth more than $20.
    Thanks, Sara, and to the rest of your readers.

    • I only recently started shopping on etsey but I would not buy original fine art there. More crafty type stuff from individual sellers I hear about through blogs or other references that I trust. I find it a great place to get a unique piece that has meaning for my daily life and I am grateful for the sellers I buy from. They are very special with special products.
      On the other hand I have been inundated with email after email of millions of items relating to my interests and it is reduntant and crazy!
      I would appreciate a listing of reputable internet fine art sites.

  12. I recently asked one of my fellow artists at Eumundi Markets why all his paintings on show always depicted yachts under sail. He told me he used to paint and show all sorts of subjects, but as soon as he put them on show, someone else would do something very similar.” No one else here does yachts,” he said, “so I am sticking with them.” Uniqueness is one way of cutting down competition I guess.

  13. Great article, and exactly the reason why I founded PRINTSOLO.COM, a marketplace website dedicated to printmaking. Hand-pulled prints on Etsy were confused with cheap reproductions. PRINT SOLO only sells works of art created by ‘serious’ ( for want of a better word) artists by hand. Apologies for the shameless self promotion but we need the support of art lovers and collectors !
    Ilaria

  14. I used to have a shop on etsy. And I’ve been in daily painters and daily paint works for 10 years. Since etsy opened up to manufacturers – mostly Chinese companies – and with the economic downturn – many artists dropped their prices to try to scrape out some piece of the pie. I think those sites have done a disservice to fine art makers. We’ve trained people to expect to pay next to nothing for original art. Nor have the sites been curated in any way to show the best quality. We haven’t created collectors or patrons.
    I used to shop on etsy too because I loved the unique and handmade items especially to gift to people. I could find things I couldn’t make and loved supporting the makers. But now it’s impossible to find the handmade original items. I wish we could filter by country of origin.

  15. Hi Sara,
    Thank you for this article.
    As an artist considering avenues for sharing/selling my work on the WWW, Etsy was on the list.
    In doing the research, i felt these kinds of sites were good for introductions, but a personal web page should be part/all of the foudation for such business.
    So, your words were a bit helpful, except i had trouble deciphering whether you were warning artist away from using it or saying it was a good thing because of its popularity?
    Would look foward to a response if you have a moment.

    • Hi Steve,
      Thanks for your remarks, and thanks to everyone who’s responded, especially those of you sharing your first-hand experience using Etsy. Your insights are what make this forum so valuable to others.
      Steve, you’re on the mark beginning with a personal web page as the foundation for an online art presence. With regards to Etsy, I struggle with the notion of originals sold in any kind of superstore for a couple of reasons: How does one stand out? And the falling pricing trends on Etsy devalue original art and craft. Reproductions are a way of scaling business (“scaling” means batching/automating production in order to increase profit while keeping costs low — for example, buying flour in bulk for a lower price and then baking a bigger batch of cookies by machine — for the same or lower cost) — but this is not the art business, and reproductions interfere with the marketing of your originals, which hold the most value. Prices dip ever lower, making it harder to stay afloat.
      With this said, the reach of sites like Etsy is enormous. But with the expanding number of sellers, this reach becomes unusable for all but for the most savvy, who understand how to get noticed. Did you know that the top 10 sellers on Etsy are selling craft supplies to other Etsy sellers? Beads, mostly.
      New and better art portals are popping up daily (many mentioned in the comments here — artist’s reviews of them are most helpful.) Also, social media is a wonderful way to share your creations with an infinite audience. It’s a brave new world for artists and I believe that original, quality work can be discovered, championed and collected on the Internet. Thanks again to everyone for reading and for your insights. Sara

  16. I started my Etsy shop before all the mass-market made overseas junk showed up, and had high hopes of the sales on it becoming my main source of income and lifting me out of the poverty level earners group. It never happenned. Currently I am focusing on local shops in touristy areas, which seems to be working better, but Facebook seems to be the best place to sell my work. Etsy’s search criteria make it very hard for anyone to find me. I’m a textile artist. A search for anything I make usually results in a list of mass-made items from sweatshops overseas. Isn’t that what Etsy was supposed to be against in the beginning? Now its more like Ebay

    • Exactly spot on, Denyse. I was with Ebay a great number of years ago. Then I found Etsy in 2010 and dropped Ebay like a hot potato. Now I find myself with serious thoughts about quitting that site also.

  17. Sara–

    I am an artist who makes hand-crafted artifacts in the manner in which my ancestors once did. I tried selling to buyers who wanted authentic Native American artifacts, but was too low on the food chain to get past the tourist trade crap. What’s more insulting is seeing it done by those who will not even pretend to craft their wares in a manner even remotely resembling a historic culture–more so when coupled with the fact that they aren’t indigenous to North America. I seldom sell my work–when I teach, I’m a little higher on the [dare I say?] economic totem pole! I wish i knew of a place where tribal artisans could place their work where true craft could be recognized and paid for.

  18. Most artist are artist not business owners, they have been to Art schools like Bateman , not a business schools like Trump.
    So these post on the best places to sell art are some of the things we should ALWAYS talk about. If we can never sell a work of art how do we keep on making it?
    Any success story ( not a theory) is greatly appreciated and thank you for sharing.

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