Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Public Demesne: Using Public Domain Images to raise funds #3


by Allana Mayer

In the first part of this series, I talked about why I chose public-domain images to stock a print-on-demand fundraising store. In the second part, I taught you some Photoshop and Illustrator basics to generate printable designs. In this part, I’ll talk about the logistics of print-on-demand platforms.

The Store

I chose Society6 as my sales platform because I’ve heard great things about the quality of their items. I also have artist-friends who use it and speak highly of it. Its pros include: frequent sales and free-shipping days (that don’t affect your profits); a good variety of products; and relatively simple instructions.

Alternatives include Zazzle, Red Bubble, ThreadBubble, and the old stalwart CafePress. There are lots of online guides and comparisons if you’re unsure which to choose.


Uploading a design requires you to name it, insert some descriptive text (which I usually take directly from the book), select some categories, and upload your image.



Society6 lets you set your own prices for the art prints; the other products (coffee mugs, phone cases, clothing, etc.) are set automatically. There are frequent sales on specific products, as well as free-shipping days, which makes some of the high prices a bit easier to stomach (and doesn’t cut into the profits for the artist), so it’s good to keep an eye on the website, because as an artist I’m not notified of most of the sales.

Society6 requires you verify your PayPal account right off the bat, which costs $1 USD. They don’t require a W8 or anything, as Zazzle does, if you’re an international seller (I’m Canadian). I have yet to withdraw the funds from my sales so far, so I can’t tell you precisely how much gets eaten in fees (or what will happen given that vicious exchange rate) but I’m going to donate every cent to the Society of American Archivists’ Mosaic Scholarship (minus the dollar I spent on PayPal!). So, for me personally, I’ll count these sales as personal profit, but write off the equivalent donation to the SAA as tax-deductible.

The Society6 side of things is more straightforward than the PayPal side; if you’re a library and/or a non-profit, your PayPal account should reflect the type of work you’re doing. A non-profit PayPal account is subject to different fees than a profitable venture, for example. I’m not a lawyer or accountant, and you should seek proper counsel if you need more information.

My only beef with Society6 is that their product images are rendered wonkily sometimes. It’s hard to tell what people will be getting based on what you upload – several products needed added margins and dead space in order not to get stretched strangely (I’m looking at you, laptop sleeves). Because one image generates multiple products (pillows and tote bags, for example) what looks good on one product may not work for another, and you have to choose what you think will sell more. I choose greeting cards over phone cases, for example.

I also sometimes identify white bits I’ve missed via the product renders for the t-shirts. They’re the only product that uses transparent PNGs, so sometimes the bright colors help me identify spots that look, frankly, awful. That’s okay, because you can take down and re-upload things right off the bat.


You don’t have to do any labor after that; I haven’t received any customer complaints or returns yet, so I can’t tell you what that process is like. You don’t even get to see orders with any identifying information; you only get to see what precise products are being sold. Which is great – it helps you identify popular and less-popular items! It helped me make that choice between products that sold most (stationery) and least (iPod skins). It can also save you time in the future, to be able to skip a few items that you know don’t sell anyways.

Image caption: A sample of my sales, and the profit earned on each item.

Image caption: A sample of my sales, and the profit earned on each item.

I did make it well-known on social media (and on the store’s About page) that I would do custom designs on request: from recoloring designs to working on leggings and other harder-to-make products. So far, I haven’t gotten any requests, which suits me just fine – but you could do the same and save more time that way.

To Recap

  • Step one: browse around, rejoicing in the beauteous wonder of the public domain and our brilliant cultural heritage collections!
  • Step two: modify your chosen images just a tad to make them cleaner and more versatile, suited to a variety of awesome clothing, home-decor, and other items.
  • Step three: set up a free print-on-demand shop where you can sell your amazing designs.
  • Step four: profit!

Personally, I think this is a great fundraising method: it requires little effort after you master the basic skills; it promotes your library; it shows the richness and potential of your collections; it evidences healthy copyright use; and the profits are pretty respectable, even if you don’t have a huge audience (I only advertised on my blog, a few listservs, and Twitter, where I have about 500 followers). I imagine if you’re advertising to a student body or a public-library following, you’ll do much better than I did. And I’d love to hear about it – if anyone finds this useful and starts a store, share the link with me and let me know how it goes!

So far, mine seems to be a success: I’ve made a tidy chunk of change for the scholarship, and I’m pretty sure I can dedicate time to it for a few more years. I haven’t decided whether I want to operate it indefinitely, or make it an annual campaign with entirely new designs.

The only thing I’d ask everyone to be mindful of: Know where you stand, legally speaking. From the copyright side to the fundraising/tax side, this is a great opportunity to learn, but if you’re ever unsure about anything, get expert help.

Check it out online:

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.16.39 PMAllana Mayer is an archivist, librarian, and freelance writer in Toronto. She has an undergraduate degree in cultural studies, and a graduate degree in library and information science. She researches and writes on all topics cultural-heritage but especially on art and media, digital preservation, copyright, scholarly communications, and technology for archives and archivists. | Twitter:@allanaaaaaaa | Blog: blog.allanaaa.com

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