If you’ve been with me for a while, you know that I have been making a portion of my income on POD sites like Zazzle and CafePress for almost a decade. The agreements have changed a lot over the years, as have the options, and though I’m not emphasizing them the way I used to, I’m still on them.

This discussion could get really boring if you’re not interested in the ins and outs of the online t-shirt business.

Zazzle and CafePress have both changed their agreements from “earn what you want” to something more like “earn what you want but we really really want you to keep your markup around 10%.” They both have implemented systems that reward artists/shopkeepers for both keeping their markup in a certain range, and for “participation in the community,” and CafePress alters your earning potential based on your score (10% is the most, but even at that level there are situations in which you will earn closer to 5%. I’ll get to that).

A fair few colleagues have jumped ship after these changes. Some of them are still on sites like RedBubble (I’ve got one there, too), but I’m still on all of them, and I still try to keep my score up despite earning more per shirt in my own shop and on RedBubble.

Why, with the dismal margin, would I even bother, you ask?

I can still count on an income from those sites. The age of the links and the steady stream of sales from some of my older designs are enough to keep me on the happy side of the algorithm. I post with just enough regularity to keep my accounts active, and while it’s not growing because my focus is elsewhere, it’s holding steady, and for now, that’s fine.

What about traditional licensing?

Cute Sloth on a Branch t-shirt at sharptoothsnail.com

I haven’t ruled that out going forward. As I’m narrowing in on my personal style, as my ability to turn out work increases, I’m more likely to be able to make collections that agencies and manufacturers want to see. But I don’t imagine ending my work with POD, particularly in my own shop, where I have a great partner here in my hometown that employs my neighbors, uses US-made shirt blanks, and offers me base prices where I can turn a decent profit and still have competitive prices.

Also because, as POD is a strong force in the market, the royalty you might earn in a traditional licensing scenario is an advance against a certain amount of units at roughly 5% a piece nowadays anyway. That’s the same as the occasional 5% I get out of CafePress, and for the same reason— sometimes they are partnering with sites like Zulily and I’m selling several dozen shirts in one day. That’s just this side of a traditional licensing scenario, on the site that is sometimes touted as having killed traditional licensing.

It’s getting weird out there.

Live Slow, Die Whenever (or Never, if you’re a Tardigrade)

My Owl Annimus says "I am no trend— I AM ETERNAL!"

Whatever you say, little buddy.

This is one of the reasons POD still works for me: I’ve had some good luck with catching a few market trends early, and as it turns out, it takes a long time for some trends to die. The cognoscenti of the surface design world have been predicting (or is it praying for?) the End of Owls for years now. They are still everywhere. I am not sad about this.

And while I suspect they are following which way the internet blows, big retailers are always going to be much slower to jump on trends than my one-woman, scrappy, on-demand outfit is able to be. With POD, I can take the hit if my Axolotl shirt doesn’t sell (spoiler: it does). I’m just starting to see sloths in big retail shops, but mine have been doing well for me for years now. And when they stop doing well enough for big retail to bother with, I will still be able catch the people who have claimed the sloth as their personal spiritual symbol.


I’d Do It Again, Starting Right Now. But Differently

I’m sure that’s the heart of the matter for you if you’ve gotten this far. If someone asked me whether to bother with a site like Redbubble or Zazzle, or whether to go straight to their own brand, I would have to check and make sure they had a few minutes because I have opinions. Briefly, I think it makes a lot of sense to start out on those platforms to take advantage of their marketing power if you’re just getting started. But I would build in your own separate presence right from the beginning.

If anybody who has been in this scene for a while has a different feeling about it, or wants to add anything, please feel free to leave me a comment or drop me a line. If you’re new and want to talk, please get in touch, too.

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