Print on Demand: What is It?

April 4, 2014 at 6:38 am 4 comments

I’ve had a few artists in the Artist Alley community ask me about the print on demand companies that I use for Kimchi Kawaii so thought it could be helpful to write up some blog posts comparing the pro’s and con’s of the ones I’m familiar with. Usually, my explanations are a bit TL;DR for a Facebook comment or reply. I’m going to break this into a multipart series, starting off with a little explanation how print on demand works.

Roary, Kimchi Kawaii's tiger mascot with a magpie.

My original logo when I started.

A Little History
I started Kimchi Kawaii through Cafe Press over 5 years ago. I had heard about the company through a newspaper article via my mom. She’s great about saving stories for me that would be of interest. It seemed like a really good way to go about getting my art out there on products and to a global audience that I would have had a lot more difficulty reaching on my own. I work a full time graphic design job and I was familiar with the somewhat prohibitive costs of screen printing for an artist like me who was just starting out and didn’t have a huge operating budget.

At the time, Cafe Press had two levels of shops – there was a free basic one and a premium shop for something like $59 a month (can’t remember the exact cost off the top of my head and they’ve since changed their shop levels and fees). This meant that I could sell my stuff on shirts and many other products all from this one shop for one fee*. Sounded like a pretty sweat deal to get my feet wet!

So What is Print on Demand?
Basically, you create your artwork and upload it to the website offering the services. You select the items you want your piece to sell on. Cafe Press and similar companies like Zazzle have TONS of product to pick from and your design may not fit well on certain things. Items you can pick from range from clothing to housewares like pillows, kitchen utensils; electronics accessories (cases for all your mobile devices); to stationary items (stickers, post-its, greeting cards, etc.). Once you’ve put your product on the items you like, you put your items up in your shop. When a customer buys an item, Cafe Press will print, process the payment and ship the item. You don’t have to stock inventory or worry about finding production time.

Show Me the Money!
You get paid by setting up your mark-up on top of the base price set by the company. Here’s an example: say you want to sell Design A on a t-shirt. It’s base price is $12.99. You set your mark up for  15% (the general recommended percentage) which is about $1.95. The company posts the shirt with a price that reflects their base and your mark up, in this case $14.94. A customer, let’s call them John, finds your design on the site and buys it. The site keeps their base price and sends you your mark up of $1.95. Usually, they will hold all your profits until you reach a minimum amount like $25 and then cut you a monthly check or direct deposit into an account like Paypal.

Note that these companies often have a customer satisfaction guarantee, so your commission won’t clear for 30 days.

Now, at this point, you’re probably thinking ‘$1.95 isn’t much of a profit. I can’t even get a Starbucks with that’! This is true. However, I think of it this way to take the ‘sting’ out – I only had to create the design once. So maybe I put in about 2-3 hours of work on my art. I upload it once and set it on all the products I want once and then let it do it’s thing. Sure, I do market it on my own as well as take advantage of the site’s own search engine optimization (SEO), but my work is largely done. I sell one product and get my 15% tiny mark up. But then, fast forward a year or more to when I’ve sold that same design that I did all the work for ONCE multiple times over. Those 15%’s start to add up in the big picture. On some of my more popular designs, I’ve sold enough instances of them to be making a pretty decent profit off those initial 2-3 hours.

I will say this – it is NOT a get rich quick by any stretch of the imagination. Sales will trickle in very  slowly for the first year or so unless you are either A) extremely well connected to people with money and influence and/or B) the Gandalf of SEO and can wiz traffic to your shop. Let’s face it, most of us are not, lol! So it’s the slow and steady road for us.

Get Out There and Sell!
The other thing to keep in mind is the fact that you do have to do some leg work yourself. Sure sites like Cafe Press and Zazzle have people dedicated to developing their sites’ SEO cause obviously, they want your products to sell cause they also get a cut. However, if you want your shop to grow, you need to do some marketing work of your own. Spread the word through social media like Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr and Wanelo. Tell your friends. Buy your own products and become walking advertising. Do what you gotta do, but do it and don’t just sit on your laurels.

I see a lot of people saying ‘I set up my shop a month ago and I’ve not had ONE sale’ and then they get frustrated and chalk it up as a waste of time. Like I said, it’s going to take at least a year to get stuff going depending on how much effort you also throw in. When I started, there were months at a time where nothing happened and I didn’t even get a check. But I kept on marketing and adding new designs and by a year, started to get monthly checks. Not all of them were huge, but I was making sales!

So, hopefully this intro helped you understand a bit of what it is these sites like Cafe Press and Zazzle do and if it’s something you want to jump into. I definitely recommend print on demand as a way to get started. It’s low overhead (you’re not stuck buying a ton of inventory with money you don’t have yet) and allows you to sell your designs on a huge variety of products. Most of these sites have global reach that people starting out rarely have. For a while, I had a world map and would color in the countries where I made sales. I remember feeling really excited when I sold to a customer in the U.A.E. I never thought I would have product selling there!


In the following entries, I’ll start to review the pro’s and con’s of specific sites that I’ve used. First up will be Cafe Press 🙂


Side note: I only mention Cafe Press and Zazzle in this entry as those are the two large ones and the ones I’m most familiar with. There are a lot of other print on demand companies out there to chose from. Some offer more items than others. Take a look at them and figure out which works best for you to set up shop.

*Not all sites charge a fee to have a shop. Zazzle and Redbubble, the other sites I use are currently free.


Entry filed under: Informational. Tags: , , , , , .

Artist Alley Con Review: Anime Boston 2014 Print on Demand: Cafe Press

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. thechillydog  |  April 7, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    These are some really good tips. Selling your creations online definitely takes some time and promotion, but like you said it’s a few hours of work up front but you can make a decent profit over time.

    • 2. kimchikawaii  |  April 9, 2014 at 4:55 am

      It’s one of the things I stress a lot when answering the ‘Should I do it?’ question. People seem to have this misconception that you post your art and the paying hordes come flying in instantly. Can’t tell you how many people I see posting about how discouraged they are cause they’ve had their store up for a month and no sales. Definitely have to give it time!

  • 3. Milly  |  April 8, 2014 at 7:11 am

    I use the basic cafepress option where they take up to $10 of your profits each month (or 10% of your profits, with a maximum cut-off of $10). It seems like a better deal than the premium shop price since they only take money if you’ve made a profit.

    Totally agree with you on the point of PODs taking some time to take off. It requires much patience and perseverence but I’ve found it a great low-risk way to start out.

    Great article 🙂

    • 4. kimchikawaii  |  April 9, 2014 at 4:53 am

      Thank you! It’s been interesting cause a lot of artists are asking me. The type of art I do and the group of artists I’m familiar with – they usually start out selling at anime cons which require a bit of overhead to get started (registration, supplies, travel, etc.). I kinda took the slow route starting in POD, but it’s really helped me in the long run.


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