Print On Demand

Posted on 3/12/2012 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

A few years ago when a photographer wanted to make his images available as posters or fine art prints he usually searched for a publisher with access to a network of retail outlets. Assuming the publisher thought the image had market potential he would normally would pay a one-time fee for the rights to make several thousand lithographic copies of an image and through retail contacts make the product available for customers to purchase. The Internet and Print-On-Demand (POD) technology has dramatically changed this market.

Given their financial risk the publishers would usually only accept work from photographers with established reputations. Even then publishers were very selective in what they would print. Publishers tended to search the collections of agencies or galleries rather than dealing with individual creators. For the most part creators were forced to wait for publishers to seek them out rather than being able to take a proactive approach to show their work to consumers.

Now with the introduction of sites like, Cafepress, Zazzle, FineArtAmerica and many more it is possible for individual artists to post their work online where customers can find it. Customers search these sites, find an image they like, choose the size and finish and order custom prints. The prices of POD products are competitive with the mass produced products of the past but many of the steps in the supply chain from creator to consumer have also been eliminated.

One of the difficulties with this market is that now there is so much choice that the odds of making a sale are very slim. Nevertheless, a few photographers seem to be making significant income from this market. We talked to John Rutter, Manager, Strategic Partnerships for National Geographic.

He said, “A handful of our photographers have had big success – gross income of $20,000 or more – and this is usually traced to a collection of images that sells very well or the occasional case when a single image becomes very popular. In our case the next subset of photographers probably see $2000-3000 in annual income from prints.  For the remainder, income will be more incremental.”

“The most popular images sell hundreds of times, and, with most sites these days, good sales translate into good placement in search returns. A good selling image will sell 40-50 times initially (over the course of the first month or two), then taper off.  The “long tail” effect in print-on-demand means photographers will see a lot of images sell only a few times each,” he continued.


According to Rutter royalty rates vary from site to site, but are usually in the range of 10% to 25% of the gross sale price the consumer pays. With FineArtAmerica the price the creator receives 100% of the price he sets for his work. FineArtAmerica counts on making its money by up-selling framed products, but their method of operation is unique in the industry.

Most of National Geographic’s images sell for the two small sizes of unframed prints. Some sites have a better spread among products than others. On AllPosters a 12x16 print of a Geographic Image is $39.99. On Zazzle prints can cost $7.00 or less for the smallest size. Assuming Geographic gets 25% of this sale price and they split it with the photographer the photographer’s royalty for a $7 sale would be $0.87. In this market it is not unusual for a photographer’s royalty for a single sale to be significantly under $1.00. But, the potential for volume can make the difference.

Many photographers refuse to participate in this market because the amount they receive per unit licensed is so low. They should take the time to analyze what they are really receiving for each poster or print sold in the traditional way through retail stores. For example most photographers wouldn’t have a problem licensing rights to a publisher for $1,000 to print 10,000 posters. Getty’s price is actually less. If the publisher really sells all 10,000 the photography cost for each poster is $0.10. And if the sale was made through an agent the photographer will be receiving less. The photographer’s royalty share of the price for each poster sold is 1% or less. Of course the publisher is taking a risk and may not sell every poster he prints. Then the photography costs will be a higher percentage of the total the publisher receives from producing posters.

By the time the poster reaches the retail store and the consumer has a chance to buy it the price will probably be something in the general range of $7.00. If the photographer could get 12.5% of the $7.00 he would receive $0.87 per poster for that use vs. a few pennies per unit sold when he makes that big sale to the publisher. In POD his percentage is based on what the consumer pays, not what the publisher paid to use the image. We’ve cut out that publishing middle man.  

What Sells?

I asked Rutter for some idea of the kind of images that are most in demand. He said, “I can speak to what has sold best from our collection. Our 100 bestsellers are broad in topic: big mammals – wolves, polar bears, tigers and other big cats - and landscapes – particularly showing trees/plants and a waterfall, lake or river - would be among our most popular categories; domesticated animals, undersea creatures, dramatic weather, cityscapes, canyonlands and ancient temples make up much of the rest.  In looking through this selection I’d say many of the images have a quality of either peace or drama to them, the peace of a tranquil landscape or nuzzling wolves, the drama of a buffalo coming out of the mist or a bizarre looking nudibranch.

“My belief is that the difference falls on the intent of the consumer.  If they are surfing the Web and wind up browsing a print site, I think their purchase is likely to be more impulsive and smaller.  If they log on looking to shop, they probably have specific products in mind and are more likely to purchase larger or more expensive wall décor pieces.

“Photographic prints are, by far, the most popular item.  Canvas prints would come in second.  We are not seeing many sales of the ancillary products, but, in truth, we do not have a long history offering cards, mugs, buttons and such.  I think we will need through 2013 to really see if those products bring in reasonable income,” he continued.

Participating in this market can be difficult for individuals because there are an endless number of sites and they all tend to operate a little differently. It is probably best to have your images on many sites rather than one or two, but learning the necessary steps with each to maximize return could be daunting. This is a place where an agent, who understands the strength of each site, and represents the work of hundreds of photographers, could be beneficial.
In addition to National Geographic some of the agents that have collections on Allposters are: Associate Press, Daily Mirror, Danita Delimont, Garden Picture Library, Jupiter Images, Lonely Planet, Mary Evans Picture Library, Oxford Scientific, Panoramic Images, Robert Harding Imagery and Superstock.

Another very common strategy at print-on-demand sites is to offer discounts of varying amounts – a different sale every week, so to speak – to move images around in the search returns and boost sales. Understanding the sales strategy and managing the sales is another way that agents can be useful.

One rather surprising thing to me is that in Geographic’s experience that the demand for horizontal shots out numbers verticals 4 to 1.

One of the keys to success in the future is to find ways to deal more directly with consumers and cut out as many middlemen as possible without feeling that the only way to operate is to do it all yourself.

Copyright © 2012 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Mar 12, 2012
    I also have had really good success with posters and add significant to the bottom line with these poster sales.

    And, no, my verticals far outsell my horizontals. That fact of Geographics was surprising to me.

    Good story, Jim, and I hope it becomes another source of income for many of your readers.

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