Etsy for Illustrators – Mistakes to Avoid

How I failed at Etsy, what we can learn, and some thoughts on how to move forward.

If you are already an Etsy success, this is not the post for you. This post is for people who failed at Esty, or people who are thinking to start an Esty shop, so that you can avoid my mistakes, and hopefully learn from them.

For impatient people, here is the short version:

In summary, here are my one-liners for success (or at least hopefully more than one sale) on Etsy:

  • List physical items, not digital ones
  • Research how other similar shops operate and the kind of items they list
  • Schedule time each week to check in with your shop, preferably more than once
  • List a variety of items – postcards, notebooks, original art work, Giclée prints
  • Update your items every few months
  • Always provide the best customer experience – be polite, kind and helpful if you do make a sale
  • Use illustrations you have created for other projects – you do not need to spend time specifically creating illustrations for Esty unless your shop really takes off
  • Listen to customer feedback, and respect it
  • If you loose motivation and make no progress, even despite trying all of the above, take down your shop rather than simply ignoring it, and use the time before adding it again to re-evaluate and create a better business plan

For those who are interested, here is the long version:

In 2016 I first set up my Esty shop with the intention of selling “digital downloads” of my illustrations. At the time, I was very attracted to the idea of “passive income.” I thought that I could make a few digitized illustrations,  upload them to Etsy, and happily supplement my income while doing practically nothing.

This did not happen, and looking back, it was entirely because of my lazy attitude. I uploaded one collection of 13 watercolour PNG files made around a nautical theme. The set was priced in line with other similar watercolour downloadables I’d seen, at about ¥900 or about£6. I thought they would be perfect for adding to digital projects like invitations. However, I was wrong (perhaps because not many people actually use things like this?). In two years, I only made one sale! I then put my head in the sand in embarrassment at my failure and did not log into or touch my shop for about a year.

Finally, in August 2018, the time has come for me to re-evaluate my relationship with Etsy. In this post, I will honestly go through what was wrong in my approach to running an Etsy shop the first time around. At the end of each section, after “FIX,” I will think about how to remedy these problems moving forward. So, without further ado, let’s go…

1.    Distorted Expectations

  • I believed that selling digital downloads on Etsy would be a great way to get passive income – make something once, with no need to ship anything, and no other extraneous costs for materials. However, when looking at other illustrators selling on Etsy, physical items like cards and prints actually appear to be much more lucrative and more popular.
  • I didn’t take into account that the people who are successful in selling digital downloads are prolific. One shop I looked at, WatercolorCliparts lists 207 items, with 5156 sales as of August 2018, with a five star rating. I applaud you, WatercolorCliparts! A shop like this, with a prolific, dedicated owner and a reputation for high quality, is the ideal downloadables shop on Etsy. A shop like mine, with one obscure item, no reviews and an admittedly un-dedicated seller cannot compete.

FIX: Conduct actual market research, as far as you can. Spend a few hours making a spreadsheet to compare the shops of a few illustrators you like. What are they selling? How much are they selling their items for? Read their reviews – What do their customers like about their service or items? What keeps them coming back for more? Then use the data you gain to help you develop your own Etsy shop more effectively.

Distorted expectations can lead you to quit at the first disappointment. Don’t do that! Know that setting up a good shop that sells well is tied to many factors – how attractive your items are, how well-known your work is, or even how precise the wording of your description is. So, keep tweaking your items and descriptions, and keep promoting yourself and your shop on social media until you get that elusive first sale. If you are really struggling, take your shop down until you feel ready to engage again – don’t just ignore it.

2.    Divided Attention

  • I never gave my shop the attention it deserved. I was proud of having made an initial effort to post an item, but after that, when I failed to make any sales, my motivation evaporated. The whole point was that I would create “passive income,” but I was so passive I was practically asleep on the job.
  • My attention was focused elsewhere – I wanted to get into editorial, I wanted to add content to my website, I wanted to make YouTube videos, I wanted to just draw… The list went on.

FIX: I have scheduled time every week to devote to my shop. I scheduled this time (two x two-hour sessions per week at the time of writing) using Google Goals so that the time is slotted into my schedule automatically. I can use this time to plan and create new items, order prints and envelopes, and ship any items that are sold.

Rather than creating new items specifically for their shops, it seems most illustrators re-imagine new uses for items already in their portfolios. This approach would have saved me time and effort – all that’s needed is a little editing and thought as to how to use the images. Will I get them printed to sell on Esty as Giclée prints or postcards, or will I sell my paintings as original work? But the important thing is that I  would not waste  time by making items specifically for Etsy at the outset.

3.    Lack of Market Research

  • I did not spend enough time looking at what other people were making, and what customers were buying. Spending a few hours simply browsing for the kind of work I could produce and making notes about prices, items, materials and so on should have been a logical first step.

FIX: Similar to the first Fix, these problems can be remedied by adequate market research. For example, the brilliant Fran Meneses has a wide variety of items in her shop, from calendars and planners, to stickers and notebooks. What fun! I would love to see my designs on a variety of bits and pieces, and what a great way to engage with a wider audience.

It seems that items which are physically shipped are actually the better bet, perhaps because they are closer to the original work the illustrator is actually producing? Illustrations are intended to be displayed. To adorn a page, or a wall in our homes. One of the main purpose of illustrations are to make the world around us more visually engaging. Remember this when you come to set up your own illustration shop on Esty.

In closing…

There you have it – why I failed, and where I’m going from here. I do think Esty is a great tool when used effectively, with a lot of potential for supplementing our incomes as freelance illustrators. Hopefully I will post about my upcoming stunning success after my shop has risen from the ashes of my first attempt… Good luck with your own Etsy projects, too!