I’ve learned a ton about having my own small business recently, due in part to moving across the country and having to deal with differences between my home state and California. I know a lot of folks who follow my art are young/new/aspiring artists, so I thought it might be helpful to compile some pointers about basics of selling art online from the US. This isn’t exactly comprehensive (There are so many ways to handle these things!), and I don’t consider myself a top expert, but I’m hoping my experience can point some people in the right direction if they want to grow their art businesses and are feeling overwhelmed.
Here are 10 topics to consider if you are starting to sell your artwork online or hope to do so in the near future:
1. Build Your Audience
Pick a couple of social media sites that you really enjoy and take some time to think critically about how you can present your artwork there. Try to keep your handles consistent across platforms and use lots of links! Remember: Even if people can’t buy your art, they may still share it and help you continue to grow your audience. Being engaged on social media will help tremendously. The key is to make your art easy to find and share, while ensuring it's attributed to you.
A word of caution: Don't fall into the trap of spreading yourself too thinly across a million sites or spending too much time on creating new posts.
Having your own site as a ‘home base’ online can be critical. There are free options you can use to start (I used Wordpress for a few years, myself).
Once you have a big enough audience, consider how something like Patreon or crowdfunding options might help you grow your business or make the kind of work you’re most excited about.
2. Terms and Conditions- What are your ‘rules’?
You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble by taking time to figure out your process for commissioned work and/or orders for your store. There are great resources out there to help you get started, like this video from Frannerd. How many edits are you willing to make before you charge an extra fee? Will you be paid upfront or after the project is done? What are your shipping/return policies? How should people contact you with inquiries (I highly recommend a dedicated email address)?
There are various methods for collecting payment. Do a bit of research to find out what works for you and aligns with things like your online store (if you have one or plan to open one later). Consider whether you should open another bank account exclusively for your artwork and what your related options are. I use PayPal because it allows me to accept credit/debit payments, send invoices, and have all of my store payments and Patreon payments go through the same service. There are many other options, though, each with different pros and cons.
I don’t know that I’ll ever be comfortable with this one, but knowledge is power! Do some research. What are artists with similar skill sets charging? What do you need to make per hour to meet your financial needs/goals? I highly recommend picking up a copy of the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. This has a ton of info about standards for various types of design/illustration/art work, including pricing breakdowns and business considerations.
5. Passive Income
What are your options for passive income (making money without having to do new/more work)? Can you sell merchandise through Society6? Do you have expertise you can share through ebooks/downloadable PDFs? There are ways you may be able to diversify your sources of income and make the most of your artwork, without having to do more work for every sale.
The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines also has a lot of information about contracts and includes sample contracts and other documents. You may not find yourself using contracts for all of your freelance/commission work, but it’s still very helpful for figuring out the considerations to have in mind.
I don’t feel super comfortable with this yet, but I’ve started using Quickbooks to track my income, expenses, and taxes. It has been very helpful so far, and it automatically imports my information from PayPal (payments and fees). I can photograph receipts to import expense info, too! It will also integrate with TurboTax, and it can help me estimate quarterly taxes (research those!). Right now Quickbooks Self-Employed doesn’t track sales tax, so that’s something to consider.
8. On that note . . . What are your tax responsibilities?
My situation is a great example: I had to register my business with Los Angeles because LA requires me to report my income for taxes. If I was unregistered or I filed late, I wouldn’t be eligible for the appropriate exemptions and I could face huge fines. I also had to register with the state of California to collect and pay sales tax. I needed to learn about state and district sales taxes, how that relates to my nexus now that I’m a resident of California, what products I have to collect sales tax for, etc. Look into your local responsibilities! It’s better to get it right early on than to find yourself in trouble later. If you’re using online store services or something like PayPal– your income isn’t a secret.
9. What type of business do you have?
US folks– you need to research your business license/registration responsibilities and familiarize yourself with different business structures. You’ll likely handle your art business as a self-proprietorship, at least to start. It’s empowering to know the benefits of potentially registering as an LLC in the future. There are a ton of related resources online. Note: You may have to choose/register a fictitious business/DBA name where you live/work for tax purposes or to open a business bank account.
It’s important to understand how to responsibly use source material, what your rights are as an artist, and your options for addressing copyright violations. Did you know that when you sell a commissioned drawing you retain the copyright to that image unless you sign it over? Did you know you own the copyright for an image upon its creation, even if you don’t register the copyright immediately? Are you familiar with DMCA takedown notices? Take care to be an ethical contributor to your creative community, and don't let yourself feel helpless when people mistreat your work.
TL;DR - RESEARCHRESEARCHRESEARCH
Doing some research early on is going to help a lot. It can be overwhelming at times, but once you have a handle on some of these things the knowledge is empowering. Plus you’ll avoid unnecessary stress later in the process. There are a lot of resources and guides out there that can help.
I hope this was a helpful starting point, at least, and I'll be wishing you good luck in your future creative endeavors!