It’s new, it’s exciting, more and more people are doing it. It’s nothing short of a new paradigm for artists, an entirely new business model for us.
It promises complete independence. No gallery cut. You get to choose what you paint.
What follows is just my take of course. But I’ve been doing this pretty successfully for a couple of years now, and this is what I’ve learned from the front lines.
All these questions came directly from attendees of an online webinar I ran recently about this. If they have these questions, I’m betting you do too.
I’ve divided them up into four sections:
- Practical stuff: shipping, currency etc
- Business stuff
- Tech stuff
So here they are: 21 things you (probably) wish you already knew about auctioning your work online.
Do you need an audience?
Yes you do.
In fact, it’s the most important thing, the engine that makes the whole thing work.
Who is your audience?
Your audience is your email list.
Yes, you can build up followers on social media, but if someone has gone as far as giving you their email address, they have given you permission to contact them directly. That implies a closer relationship with a level of trust.
It’s a relationship that needs to be respected and treated with the same consideration you would bring to a real life relationship.
The following questions are all related to this most important aspect of running a business as an artist online.
1. How big does your audience need to be before you can run auctions?
It’s not possible to give a figure for this. But it’s probably less than you expect.
What really matters is not how many people you have on your list, but the quality of the relationship you have with them.
This idea is exemplified in a famous piece of Internet marketing wisdom from Kevin Kelly called 1000 true fans. I strongly recommend reading it, it won’t take long.
Don’t get too excited about the 1000. You might need more, you might need less. It depends on your goals. And I would substitute “true fans” for “meaningful connections”.
But the principle is basically sound.
Here’s my advice: Build real relationships one at a time. Help people in some way if you can. Follower counts on social media look good but you’ll struggle to build a business with them.
Of course, you do need a reasonable amount of people who have given you permission to contact them in order to sell work. How many will depend on whether you want just a side income or a full time living, and also on the quality of the relationships you have with them.
I can tell you that as I write this, I have a little over 9000 people on my email list. But you certainly don’t need that many people in order to make a start.
So don’t focus on the numbers, focus on helping people and building meaningful relationships, and you’ll get there much faster in my opinion.
2. How long did it take you to build your list?
Years. Maybe 10 years. But in the beginning, I wasn’t focused on building an audience, I was just trying to share useful stuff. Gradually over time, I’ve given more it time and effort, so you can certainly do it much more quickly than I have. I even went one entire year without posting anything on this site at all! (I was busy, ok!?)
If you want to turn full time, it’s really hard to give you a time frame. But for most online business just starting out, the average is three to five years. So factor that in.
This is not a quick thing, it takes time and commitment to build.
But the freedom, independence and meaningfulness that you gain make it very much worth the effort.
And you can get to a side income much quicker than that.
3. Do you consider your personal contacts part of your email list for business purposes?
No. People have to add themselves explicitly to your email list, give you permission to contact them. I would never send out emails to anyone who hadn’t signed up for my list.
But also yes, in that I don’t make any distinction between personal and business contacts.
My business is personal, all of me is out there on my website and on my social media accounts. So the lines are too blurred to be able to distinguish the two. That’s part of what makes the business I run so meaningful for me.
4. Do you ever send emails about your auctions to anyone who isn’t on your email list?
No, never. It is illegal to do that – and rude! I only ever send emails to people who have added themselves to my email list, and so have given me express permission to get in touch with them.
5. Could you use a pseudonym for this?
For me, I think this is all about meaningful connections, and that means bringing all of yourself to it. Using a pseudonym would feel deceptive to me.
How would you feel if you’d built up a relationship with someone only to find out that they were presenting a persona and that the name you knew them by wasn’t even their real name?
Exactly. Same here.
Practical stuff: shipping, currencies, etc.
6. Why do you sell in Dollars if you’re in the UK?
Because most of my audience is in the US. I want to make things easier for my audience, not for myself, so I price in a currency that most people won’t have to translate.
7. Why did you choose auctions to sell your work?
What I like about auctions is that the work finds its own price that way. Pricing anything is hard, and when it’s your own artwork it’s doubly so. This takes the decision away from you and lets people choose their own price, in a sense.
I like the democracy of it, that the price a work goes for depends on how many people connect with it, and how strong that connection is.
8. Have you found a difference in timing of when you put the auctions live?
Hah! I have tried to work that out, but every time I’ve come up with a theory it’s been immediately disproved. Honestly, I don’t think it makes much difference, and I don’t worry about it now.
9. How do you manage different currencies?
Paypal manages all that. When someone buys one of my paintings they are automatically emailed a link to pay by Paypal. Paypal charges for the currency conversion, but take it from me, running a business online on your own is time consuming and simple is usually best!
10. Have you ever tried selling larger pieces or does it only work for smaller ones?
Yes, some. And they’ve sold fine. The two best-known artists doing this, Julian Merrow-Smith and Duane Keyser, both sell larger works too. Duane Keyser, sometimes very large!
I don’t know what the ceiling is, or even if it’s better in the long run to sell only large, only small or a combination of both. The business model is very young and still developing. It’s best approached as an experiment 🙂
11. How do you handle shipping?
I pay for it myself and send the paintings tracked and signed. If someone is going to trust me enough to buy a piece of mine for a few hundred dollars without ever meeting me, the least I can do pay for the shipping!
12. Do you run your auctions for 24 hours?
Usually mine run for two or three days. That’s a pretty arbitrary choice though, I haven’t tested it. To an extent it probably depends on the software you use for your auctions.
13. Do you have paintings back for varnishing?
No. It would just be too complicated for small pieces I think. But I keep meaning to do a video on it. (And I will soon…)
14. Do you frame your auction pieces?
No, they would be too expensive to buy and too expensive to send. Again, it might be worth doing for larger pieces, but for small ones I don’t think it is. Simple is best.
15. Do you paint on panels because of personal choice or because they ship easier?
It’s a compromise. Panels are dimensionally stable, and also light, so they are easier and cheaper to ship and much less likely to get damaged in the post. They will also last longer. I use Ampersand gessobord panels, they’re good quality and have a nice surface.
16. Do you use retouch varnish?
Both of those are fine for oiling out. On balance, I prefer Dave’s because of the nice finish.
17. Is it possible to combine your own auctions with galley sales?
Yes it is. I have, but I think it would depend very much on the gallery. I was recently with a lovely gallery in Denmark run by friends that has sadly closed, but they were fine with me auctioning my pieces online.
I can imagine that some galleries wouldn’t like it at all, but I believe their business model is being slowly killed by the Internet anyway, at least at the level that we’re likely to be working.
18. Does your plugin handle sales tax and VAT?
No, you have to handle that yourself
19. Can I use blogger/blogspot/Wix/FASO/the business level of wordpress.com to run auctions?
No. Sorry! It’s highly unlikely that any hosted platform like that will allow you to add auction functionality.
It’s also much better for SEO (making sure your site can be found by Google) to have your own site, on your own hosting account, with your own domain name.
And be careful, because there are two ways you can have a wordpress site: A hosted site on wordpress.com, and a site you run with wordpress on your own hosting account. You want the second one.
Yes, there is some tech to learn, but it’s really not rocket science.
20. OK, then how do I switch if I already have a domain name and site on my own hosting?
Most hosts have a very simple wordpress installation option they will do it for you and you just need to learn how to configure it and make it look nice. And that’s not that hard.
If you’re already with a hosting company, contact the help and ask them how to go about it.
21. How do you get good photos for your work?
This is a big question, but here’s a quick answer: Take your photos with a decent DSLR (NOT with your phone), take them in daylight and set the white balance first.
Then process them in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, and optimise them for the web. I’ll be going into excruciating detail on how to do this in Threads, but there are very good free resources out there telling you how to do it. Start with the YouTube search.
I hope you learned something from this! If you have any more questions about any of this, just leave me a comment andI’ll get back to you.
The biggest unasked question here is how do you grow your audience?
That, too, is a very big big question, too big to cover in one go. It’s also the most important question.
For a good overview, I’ve got a webinar coming up soon which I’ll be giving to people who are interested Threads, my new program for artists who want to make an income from their work online.
You can join these people and get notified about the webinar here.
Feel free to just join for the webinar, there’s no requirement to become a member of Threads (a Threadie?) to come along and learn some useful stuff.
once again, just leave me a comment here if you have any questions.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,