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How I Sell Digital Downloads of My Artwork on Etsy

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In the early days of COVID, I locked myself in the house and started spending my time creating art. After covering every inch of wall space with moss walls, quilled pictures, air plant frames and paintings of my kids’ favorite characters, I needed to find something else to do with my creations. Enter Etsy.

I started my hobby business (which I named The Graphite Pencil) in 2020. After trying a few different mediums, I noticed that shipping costs for my physical creations really ate into my profits. Instead of continuing to increase my prices I decided to shift into digital downloads, which are also known as printables. 

My decision came right around the time I sold a painting that I had created of a pixelated wolf. It had been hanging in my son’s room. He had grown attached to it and wasn’t thrilled when I told him I sold it (mom fail). Although the plan had always been to paint something new to take its place, he seemed skeptical that he would like the replacement as much as the original.

So I offered him a bit of an insurance policy. I told him I would take a picture of the wolf painting and, if he didn’t like the new painting, I would have the wolf picture printed and framed for his wall. 

He agreed to the offer. I didn’t end up needing to frame the older print for his wall, but I did decide to post it on Etsy to see if others would want to. The resulting listing explains to potential customers that, in exchange for their $5 purchase, they will receive five digital images that they can download and print on their own. 

Pro tip: The reason why there are five files available for download is because the dimensions are slightly different for each. This allows the buyer to use the file that matches their preferred size. Otherwise, if the ratio you offer is different from what the buyer wants, some portion of the image will be cropped by the printer.

At the time this article was written, the digital image above had been listed at a price of $5 for nearly three years. In that time, I sold the image to 41 people. My cost for each sale was $0.93 (20 cent listing fee, 33 cent transaction fee, and a 40 cent fee for accepting credit card payments). 

Here’s the breakdown:

  • $205 in total revenue ($5 x 41 sales).
  • $8 spent on materials (for the original painting).
  • -$38.13 in total fees ($0.83 x 41 sales).
  • $158.87 total profit to date from the digital print.

By contrast, I sold the original painting for $55. My costs for that sale were significantly higher at $14.79:

  • $55 in total revenue (1 sale).
  • $8 spent on materials.
  • -$14.79 in total fees and shipping costs.      
  • $32.21 one-time profit for the physical painting.

Note that I included the materials costs in both calculations. Because my digital prints were created from an original painting, I need to include the costs of those materials ($5 for the stretched canvas and an estimated $3 of paint) in my analysis. 

The Basics of Selling Digital Downloads on Etsy

Why People Buy Digital Downloads and Printables

People buy digital downloads primarily because they’re less expensive than purchasing original works of art. 

Let’s revisit my example above. The person who purchased my 18” x 24” wolf painting paid $55. Alternatively, someone could purchase the digital print for only $5, have it printed locally for less than $10, and pick up a frame for a few dollars more. All in all, a framed digital print would cost less than half the amount of an original.

Depending on the size and complexity of the original work, that difference could be substantially greater. (My $55 wolf painting is on the low end of the cost spectrum for original artwork.)

Plus, low-cost printables allow people to change their decor over time. I’ve wanted to change up my art in the past, but have hesitated because of the value of the pieces. While I don’t have a problem selling or giving away the art I’ve made, pieces that I’ve purchased are a different story. Although I know that what I’ve paid for artwork is a sunk cost, I’m too frugal to get rid of hundreds of dollars worth of wall hangings for something I like a bit more. 

However, if I had only spent $15 to buy and print something, I know I’d be more open to updating what’s in my frames.  

Types of Digital Downloads and Printables That Sell Well

Just about everyone has decorations of some kind in their home. Because of that large market, printable decor can sell very well. Additionally, these prints (which may have been designed for the wall) can be used for more than just hanging art. Digital files can be used to create unique gifts like ornaments, mugs, tote bags, mouse pads, puzzles, shirts and more. 

Printable sales don’t end with decor. Some listings sell well because buyers can find a design they like, and then use a separate service to print in bulk. A few great examples are coloring pages (children/adult activity or classroom or home-school learning), cards (wedding invitations, baby shower invites, thank yous and Christmas cards), and stickers (for coloring, kids’ birthday party invites, favors, cupcake toppers or general crafting).

Then there are one-off printables that may not be top of mind, but which have niche audiences. Etsy is a great source for patterns (sewing, knitting and crocheting), planners (school, work, relaxation/meditation and exercise workouts) and other calendars. 

Skills and Tools You Need to Get Started

When I decided to make my first printables listing, I had never used any kind of online digital studio. In fact, most of my printables were created from photos of paintings I had made. So, first things first: decide whether you’d prefer to photograph your original pieces or create digital art from scratch.

Photographs of Originals

You’ll need the original artwork or whatever paint, canvas, pencils, papers, clay or other medium are needed to create it. If you have a quality camera that provides high resolution photos, use that to take pictures of the art. Alternatively, a relatively new smartphone should work just fine. (I took my photos with an iPhone SE.)

When taking photos, do so in a well-light room and avoid creating shadows on your photographed piece. Take multiple shots (the first one is rarely the one you’ll end up using) and ensure you get the full piece of art in the shot (you can always crop the picture afterwards). 

Digital Art

To create art digitally, you’ll need software. Before deciding to spend $20 or more per month for a standalone app like Adobe Photoshop, consider a free service. Canva and GIMP are two of many free platforms to get you started.  

Four Steps for Getting Started

Before you even create your first piece, think about your lifestyle, how much free time you have to dedicate to your shop, and how involved you want to be in its day-to-day operations. This will help you determine whether you’re willing to offer custom pieces.

Step #1: Decide Whether to Offer “Made to Order” or “Digital Download”

When listing a printable, you’ll need to choose “digital download” or “made to order.” For a truly passive seller experience, where you set up your listing once and allow Etsy to pass the files along to the customer upon a sale, opt for digital downloads.

If customization is required before sending a file to a customer (e.g., adding a customer’s name or creating a print using the customer’s pet as a model), you’ll want to select “Made to Order.” Made to order sales will require you to upload the final file for your customer to download.

Step #2: Make a Professional-Looking Shop

After you’ve signed up for your account, you’ll need to create your shop. A few details to consider are the name, your logo, and your shop design.

  • Name: When creating a shop, Etsy will only allow you to choose a shop name that has never been used on the platform before. Prior to making your final selection, you may want to search the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s database of trademarked names to ensure you don’t choose something that could create issues down the line.
  • Logo: A logo can give your shop a sense of professionalism from the start. Adobe offers a free logo maker to get you started.
  • Shop design: When a shop’s name, logo, design and listings all have the same vibe, they feel legitimate. Some shops (like mine) feel a bit mismatched. My name, logo and design haven’t been updated since I opened the shop, despite the fact that I’ve shifted from offering original works of art meant for grown adults to printables more suited for a tween’s game room. 

Once you’ve set up a professional-looking shop and have created your digital art (or have created digital files of your physical art), you’re ready to list. 

Five Tips and Five Common Mistakes

Here’s a short list of tips for creating your listings.

What to Do

1. Offer multiple dimensions. Some buyers may want a small print while others want a huge poster. You don’t need to offer a file in every possible size, but offering prints with the most common aspect ratios will give the buyer plenty of printing options. 

An aspect ratio is the ratio of the image’s width to its height. Offering various ratios will allow buyers to print in whatever size they want without having to worry about part of the design getting chopped off at the printer. Etsy allows sellers to include five digital downloads. I recommend including one of each of the following ratios:

  • 1×1: 10” x 10”, 12” x 12”, 18” x 18”, etc.
  • 2×3: 4” x 6”, 8” x 12”, 24” x 36”, etc.
  • 3×4: 6” x 8”, 9” x 12”, 18” x 24”, etc.
  • 4×5: 4” x 5”, 8” x 10”, 16” x 20”, etc.

To change the aspect ratio of your original without cropping it, you can use an editing suite. I use the “scale image” option in GIMP to alter my files.

Enter your desired width and height (see the options above) for the aspect ratio you’re seeking. Note that although the image won’t be cropped, altering the aspect ratio does change the image’s appearance. This is most noticeable in the 1×1 ratio, as shown below.

An example of how to change the aspect ratio in GIMP
My wolf looks a little more short and stout in a 1×1 ratio.

2. Choose the right DPI. One measure of print resolution is dots per inch, or DPI. DPI is the number of ink droplets a printer produces per inch; the higher the DPI number, the higher the print quality. Aim for at least 300 DPI. You can increase that number, but keep in mind that the higher the DPI, the bigger the file size. Etsy’s max file size is 20 MB.

3. Include multiple photos (and maybe even a video). When listing your digital downloads, you’ll want to include photos. Consider showing your prospective buyers what your printable would look like in someone’s living room (or on a bag, water bottle, in a planner, etc.).

Adding a product video can be extremely valuable to buyers. Check out the Etsy seller handbook for tips (and sample videos). A video offers you the ability to show buyers how well your printables turn out and what they really look like when used.  

4. Use keywords. You may have the best design out there, but no one will find it (or buy it) without keywords. You’re allowed 13 “tags” (keywords) for each listing. Be specific; a keyword of “print” may be accurate, but “wolf bedroom print” is more likely to bring buyers who will be interested in that type of offering. I also recommend learning the basics of SEO (search engine optimization) so you know how to use the right terms in your listing title and description.

5. Remember to update your availability. Once you have customers, you want to make sure you’re available to help them! If you don’t often receive questions about your prints, you might be fine to leave your shop for a few days at a time. However, if you plan to offer customized prints, you need to be available to fulfill your orders. Add information in the description about how long buyers can expect to wait to receive their files. Additionally, when you’ll be away from your computer for a few days, or if you just need a break from your shop, you’ll need to let your buyers know. The easiest way to do that is to turn on vacation mode in your shop’s settings.

What Not to Do

1. Don’t over (or under) price. You’re offering a copy of an original, not the original itself. Buyers will still need to pay to print. You may be offering a unique item, but there is still a limit to what people will be willing to pay. On the flip side, don’t sell yourself short. You don’t want to be in a race to the bottom with all the other Etsy sellers out there. Do your research by reviewing other, similar, printables and let that guide you to what is reasonable.

2. Don’t be stingy with directions. Some buyers will have had experience with digital downloads in the past but others will be first timers. Including as much information in your product description as possible will not only help buyers with a smoother experience, it will reduce the number of questions you get before and after the sale. I cover the following topics in my listing descriptions:

  • The fact that buyers are receiving a digital file. I include the following sentence at the top of each description: “Please note the price is for a digital download — no physical item will be shipped.”
  • A general overview of how digital purchases work.
  • A note reminding buyers that computer and phone screens are all calibrated differently and the colors in the final print may look slightly different from what the buyer sees on their screen.
  • How to print larger/smaller sizes.
  • A few suggestions on where buyers can have their files printed.
  • A statement reminding buyers that the design cannot be copied, shared or resold in any way.

3. Don’t forget to protect your image from theft. When adding photos to your listing, you want prospective buyers to be able to see the details of your graphics without giving them the opportunity to right click and “save image as” and skip the whole process of paying you for the image. Consider adding a watermark or a logo to the file before uploading it. Alternatively (or additionally), use a photo of the image printed and hanging on a wall, or printed on an item, instead of uploading the image itself.

A well-placed logo or “Do Not Copy” watermark will deter theft
A well-placed logo or “Do Not Copy” watermark will deter theft.

4. Don’t neglect the “about” section of your shop. Sharing information about yourself and your work will help people relate to you. Many Etsy shoppers are looking to support artists while picking up unique pieces. Showing that you’re an actual human helps your cause, especially when you’re just starting out and don’t have previous sales and five star reviews on your side.

5. Don’t skimp on customer service. You’re likely to experience a few hiccups on your printables journey. Providing quick responses to customer questions and helping to resolve any issues will keep your customers happy, and hopefully get you some positive reviews to help you secure future sales. 

How Much Money Can You Make Selling Digital Downloads?

While I’ve read about people who were able to quit their day jobs because of their Etsy printables business, I haven’t been quite as lucky. I’ve sold anywhere between one and 41 copies of 12 different printables over the last three years. I’ve also created, listed and not sold any copies of at least 10 others. 

If I account for the fact that not all of my printables required painting materials (some were digital creations), the fact that I’ve paid to list items that never sold, and the fact that I’ve paid relisting fees for items that have only sold sparingly, I’d estimate that I’ve made approximately $450 selling printables on Etsy.

$450 certainly isn’t an earth-shattering profit. However, I continue to (slowly) grow this amount over time despite the fact that I haven’t created any new printable content for several years.  

Summary and Final Thoughts

Selling printables is one of the best ways to make money on Etsy and can be a legit source of (mostly) passive income. It’s not as easy as taking pictures and uploading them for sale, but if you’re dedicated to your collection and are willing to add and remove the content that does/doesn’t sell, you can make money.

The amount you’ll make will largely depend on your creativity, the effort you’re willing to extend to find what sells, how successful your keywords are at bringing in buyers, and how easy you make the process for your customers.

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Vanessa Zeigler
Vanessa Zeigler is a freelance writer and editor focused on personal finance and time management. She has an MBA from Duke University and is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP). She writes about frugal-living techniques, side hustles, product testing, selling on Etsy and eBay, and using money-making apps. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Upwork and Etsy.

    1 Comment

    1. Thank you. Very helpful article! I am a photographer preparing to use Etsy for digital downloads. I saved your article for personal use only as a reference. Thanks again.

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