Print on Demand: Cafe Press

April 8, 2014 at 8:24 pm 3 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.

I started off the series with a general explanation about what print on demand is and how it works. The following posts will focus on the websites that I am familiar with through years of use.

Cafe Press was my introduction to the print on demand world and it is one of the first sites to offer this service to the general customer. They started in 1999, offering customizable t-shirts. It has since grown to include a wide variety of objects from clothing to electronics accessories like iPhone and Samsung cases, paper products, home decor, and even items for your pets and much more. According to the Cafe Press corporate site, there are over 2 million CafePress shops creating some 300 million unique products (with over 135,000 new designs added each week). And over 11 million people visit their sites each month to find products that express their personality

The main draw was for artists like me who wanted a way to access a wide audience that I would normally not be able to reach to at the get go and also offer a huge variety of products. It took me a few years from hearing about it to setting up shop, but finally in August of 2008, I got started. Cafe Press was where Kimchi Kawaii got its start and was the first location where I sold my pun-filled artwork.

As a newbie business owner, I did not have a ton of money to work with at the get go. Cafe Press was an affordable way to get started. At the time, there were two shop levels that you could pick from when opening up a store front on their site: basic and premium. Basic was pretty much what it sounds like and was (and still is) free. Premium allowed some more features that would allow me to run my shop easier, namely on the back end stuff like the uploading and organizing of my products. Premium shops do have a monthly fee attached to them and you choose the plan that works best for you. It’s been a while since I set up shop, but I think I started out at the annual rate of about $60 a year. I figured it was easier to just pay once a year and not have to worry about it every month. I was just getting started so I had a lot of other things to worry about, like art creation!

You upload your designs to the Image Basket and then go about setting your art on the items you want to sell and listing it in your shop. They have organized all the items available to customize into categories. There are some that overlap – I’ve found Kindle cases in both Bags and the Cases categories. You go into each category and click on the items you like to add them to your shop. One of the nice features of Cafe Press is that you can create a grouping of products. If you find that you’re offering your different designs on the same products (ex. shirts, mugs, phone cases, dishes), you can just select the group and then you don’t have to go through and select each one over and over. It’s a definite time saver!

Once you’ve selected everything, you are taken to a screen where you can then adjust the design on each item. Sometimes, the design needs to be scaled down a bit to make sure it fits in the safety zone (the area where it is guaranteed you won’t lose any part of your design when the item is printed/manufactured). Adjusting images can be a bit tedious, especially if you are adding your design to a lot of products. However, it’s highly recommended as you don’t want your artwork displayed poorly all because you didn’t want to take the time to do this step.

The design tools are where Cafe Press is a bit lacking in my opinion. They seem very limited vs. what I’ve been able to do on other sites. You can only scale up or down and scaling up is only to a set size predetermined by Cafe Press. Sometimes, I like to zoom in on an image for certain items – ex. a button can look really nice with a close up of the character’s face instead of the full piece where you’ll lose some detail on a 2.25″ button. You can upload multiple instances of the artwork, but who wants to save 5 different files of the same piece? Images are also placed in the dead center of the item with no ability to move it elsewhere. All sites have specific printable areas, but others offer more flexibility of placement within that window. Cafe Press’s scaling tools only allow you to enlarge or shrink the image placed in the center of this window.

Two pillows one from Cafe Press with a white background and a second one from Zazzle with a black background that I was able to add in the website.

Cafe Press Pillow on left with the white background and the same design on a pillow in Zazzle with a black background that I was able to add in-site.

Another design element that I find lacking is the ability to add a background color. I design my pieces once and in a 10×10″ square with a transparent background. Most of my artwork can stand alone without a background as it usually features a single character with a pun or humous caption. But sometimes, a simple background color can really make a design pop.

Pictured are two similar pillows from my shops in Cafe Press and Zazzle featuring the same candycorn (get it?) design. I created the design in Illustrator and saved it as a png. This allows me to use one file across a wide variety of products. I can put it on a shirt and not have a colored square framing it. Anyway, in Cafe Press, I’m stuck with the background being the color of the pillow which is just white unless I upload a file with a background that fits the dimensions of the pillow. Zazzle has a way for me to add background color within their website (I even did a contrasting color on the flip side of the pillow for added fun). Considering I often sell my designs on 20-30 products each, you can imagine why I don’t want to have to create specific files that have backgrounds fitting the dimensions of each one.

Once you’ve fixed your designs to be the way you want, it’s time to put it up for sale! Items have their base price which is pre-set by Cafe Press and you determine the amount of markup you want to make. You can set either a specific dollar amount or a percentage. Average percent across the board from what I’ve seen online is 15%. I just do the percentage. Your items can sell in two different locations – directly from your shop site or through the Cafe Press Marketplace.

The Marketplace is where you are going to get a majority of your sales as this is where people discover your items through a general search. Joe Schmoe from across the country who does not know you from the next person goes into Cafe Press and knows he wants to buy something with a dog on it. He types in “dog” in the search bar and sees all the items with dogs on them. He likes your design the best and buys it right there. This is considered a marketplace sale. Shop sales are rarer unless you market the heck out of your shop as they are generated when people specifically buy from your shop page which has it’s own custom URL.

And this brings me to the biggest complaint I have with Cafe Press. Items sold through the Marketplace are set at a 10% markup and the artists do not have control over this. It is set by Cafe Press. Markup commissions from items sold directly from your shop are set by you. As I said earlier, I go with the average and have my items set at a 15% commission. When I first started, I had control over the markup in both the marketplace and my shop and so both were set at 15%. However, a few years ago, Cafe Press changed this policy to the current one. They also did a redesign and made it nearly impossible for customers to find my direct shop link unless they knew me directly either in person or through one of my social media sites. As a majority of my sales come through the marketplace, this means that I’m kind of stuck at the lower markup rate. I thought this was rather unfair and honestly, it took some of the magical glitter away from Cafe Press for me.

They did a more recent update and their site is more social media friendly. You can now follow an artist and my brand name is more prominent, however it still does not take the general customer to my shop where I have the higher commission rate. When they did the first change to the different commission rates, I started to look for other venues to sell my works and that was when I discovered Zazzle which I’ll talk about in the next post.


Summary: Cafe Press


  • Have been around longest of the ones I use, so therefore gets more traffic, is more well known
  • Adding products to your shop is very easy and quick.
  • I didn’t mention this earlier, but if you want to update an image in a section (I’ve updated some of my older designs to reflect the skills I’ve learned over the years), it’s very easy to do so, you don’t have to re-list the item or have doubles. This is especially helpful as I don’t lose link history that’s been building up on something that’s been around for a few years.
  • Ability to create custom groups of items for easy selection when adding new designs.
  • Large selection of products to customize. One of the coolest ones is the ability to print on mylar balloons. That’s just fun!


  • Design tools rather limited, no ability to add a background color within the site. Nearly all products are on white backgrounds. Only a few items come in different colors – namely shirts and phone cases.
  • Image always in the center of the object.
  • Majority of sales come from the Marketplace where CP controls the markup rate (set at 10%)
  • Extremely hard for the new shopper  to find your direct shop link where you have control over your markup percentage.



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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. GigglishInk  |  April 23, 2014 at 7:18 am

    CafePress has actually made more changes recently so you might earn even less in the marketplace than 10%…it could go down as low at 5% base on your “Sales Quality Score.”

    • 2. kimchikawaii  |  April 24, 2014 at 1:17 am

      Well, that’s a bit disheartening. I had noticed that sales with them had slumped even more. Now I see why. Maybe it’s time to just close that shop down and focus on my more rewarding ones.

  • 3. GigglishInk  |  April 24, 2014 at 1:32 am

    It’s not too hard to do the things that are require to keep the score up, but it is a pain.
    Copied from here

    The factors that presently go into determining your SQS are:

    * Have you logged in to CafePress in the last three months?
    * Have you uploaded at least one design in the last three months?
    * Have you gained a follower on in the last three months?
    * Have you followed another designer on in the last three months?
    * Is your designer profile at least 80 percent complete?

    Also, I personally think it’s worth keeping up and make at least some money rather than none at all. If sales drop too low you may be able to switch to the No Up-front Fees Plan where you only pay a percentage based on when you earn royalties (I have so few designs and sales on there that this is what I do…but if I start making enough I’ll switch to the other setup of paying a flat fee).


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