Ruben Ireland’s Wakeful Warrior – In Blue illustration can be bought at bit.ly/NCRIJd either as a print, apparel or iPhone and laptop skins  

Whether you’re fresh out of university or an established name, most illustrators make a neat chunk of their income by selling self-generated work, either through online manufacturers and retailers, independent labels or under their own steam. But knowing where to start can be a bit of a challenge, and as new sites and business models pop up all the time – all with different licensing deals – it’s important to do your research and keep abreast of new ways to pocket some cash. 

Illustrator Susie Wright (susiewright.co.uk) recommends spreading yourself across a number of different platforms for maximum audience reach and PR power. “Even if you don’t always sell a lot of work through a stockist they can provide advertising of your work through newsletters, and just by having an association with them can lead to direct sales through your own web store,” she says.

Scarygirl City Folk toys designed by Nathan Jurevicius can be purchased from scarygirl.com

London-based graphic artist Ruben Ireland (rubenireland.co.uk) agrees. He currently sells his dark, dreamlike illustrations across a number of platforms and retailers, and has had particular success with Society6. Ideal for those just starting out, the platform allows any illustrator to upload their work to the site, which can then be selected by customers and transformed into T-shirts, iPhone cases or prints. You retain the rights to your work, can set your own profit margins, or earn a fixed figure for products such as iPhone cases or laptop skins.

“For anyone wanting to sell their products, I think it’s a great idea to start online as it costs nothing, carries little to no risk and doesn’t require the organisational skills to produce and ship orders,” explains Ruben.

Susie Wright’s cushion is based on drawings made in Windsor Great Park. It’s available from
bit.ly/OC1hHY

Chris Bodily, who sells his illustration work under the name Hatrobot (hatrobot.com), agrees. “When I started as an illustrator, I made my own merchandise. If I didn’t sell all my products, I had to eat the loss. Because Society6 takes care of all the production and shipping, the artist can focus on what they do best, making art.”

But although the accessibility of sites like Society6 are no doubt useful to newcomers, how do you escape being lost in an endless sea of work, especially if there’s little quality control? Illustrator Richie Pope (richiepope.com) says: “Avoid sites where they seem to be overloaded with users and their portfolios. The chances are, unless you have a very distinctive look and audience to your work, you’ll get lost within the crowd while still paying a monthly fee.”

Richie Pope’s Manga Publishing Is Dying is a limited edition print of just 20. It can be purchased from bit.ly/Qg6dEF

With that in mind, ClickforArt was founded, specialising in limited edition prints, cushions, ceramics and large scale items such as illustration-upholstered armchairs. Its big names include Kozyndan, Nathan Jurevicius and Tara McPherson. Director Darren Riley explains the benefits of the company’s business model: “We are by invitation, not everyone can join, so new illustrators will be rubbing shoulders with some special artists. We take our art to trade shows, exhibitions, we put it in front of real people as much as we can. It won’t remain just online.” 

But be aware that although exclusivity has its benefits, be prepared to work hard to get a deal and always read the small print. “Because their prints and homewards are limited edition, the only restriction is that I’m unable to sell the work anywhere else, which is not the case with most other sites like Society6,” explains Ruben.

Guardian by Sam Flores is available via ClickforArt’s website (bit.ly/Mz9kXV)

Danya Winter, communications manager at laptop, tablet and phone skins manufacturer Gelaskins, recommends upping your online visibility if you want to get approached by a manufacturer. “If you’re awesome, you get blog-love, and you’re diligent about self-promotion, we’ll probably find you organically,” she says. “We try to stay abreast of what’s hot in design (via Pinterest, our favourite sites and social media) and approach artists accordingly.”

Social media, keeping an eye on trends, and carefully tracking what you’re selling are also useful tools for developing your work to increase sales. Solid research into the needs of a retailer is also essential before you pitch to them. Victoria George from smartphone and tablet case brand Uncommon agrees: “Bright colours, patterns and fun illustrative designs tend to be the most successful designs for us. We have a fairly strong female audience, so always keep in mind who you’re designing for.”

Tokidoki’sSingapore Wingchair can also be bought from ClickforArt (bit.ly/OiXjlF)

Knowing about the technical requirements of each manufacturer will win you points in a pitch, as will creating illustrations that work both in landscape and portrait formats, and can be easily cropped. Also make sure you get your work professionally shot if you don’t work digitally.

Once you’ve been selected, negotiating your pay is the next hurdle. Tara McPherson (taramcpherson.com) sells her self-generated work across a number of platforms, ranging from collectable vinyl toys to high-end homewares and homemade prints. She argues that whether you’re dealing with a huge company or small independent, you should always try to negotiate for a better deal. “If you’re working with a small company and they can’t budget for more royalties, get more product in return. Do your arithmetic and see how much extra money that will mean when you sell through your own shop.”

Derek Prospero’s Loose Leaf case has been designed for a number of mobile devices and is available from Gelaskins (bit.ly/khftoN)

Like many, Tara warns of the perils of signing away the rights of your artwork. If royalties are not an option, she licenses the usage for a certain amount of time or run of 100 T-shirts, rather than selling outright.  

Illustrator Sebastian Gomez de la Torre (seabass.carbonmade.com) agrees: “As with anything, there are people that will try and take advantage of artists. You should never have to sell off the rights to your own artwork. There are exceptions though; Threadless has a similar clause, but that’s okay because I trust them as a company and I trust their design team to make good choices.

Times of Weakness by Ruben Ireland is available on a limited edition cushion from bit.ly/NCUQ7S

“You should avoid ‘art contests’ and spec work. You should never have to put money down or give out your credit card info. Even at a lot of legitimate sites, the payoff isn’t worth your time. Just make sure you do your homework before you jump into anything.”

If you’re keen to have more control over the manufacturing process of your products, or have excess stock from previous partnerships or solo ventures, retailers such as Bouf are a smart option. The curated boutique is a marketplace platform where you’re responsible for production and distribution, but it’s very selective, has a strong PR team and has strong links with the consumer press.

Leah Duncan’s iPhone case can be bought at bit.ly/NFKm4P

Susie Wright first approached Bouf to sell some products that she worked on for clothing line Oddities, and now sells bags inspired by the oak trees, deer and red kites found in Windsor Great Park. There the fit was perfect, but she warns to make sure you tailor your work to each individual vendor. She says: “Be aware of who the audience is for each seller and offer a suitable selection of work, paying attention to prices and what your return will be. You can’t sell a print on one website for £50 and the same one for £100 on another. Be selective about what you sell where.”

Sunday Telegraph cartoonist Adrian Teal is currently raising money for his bawdy historical romp, The Gin Lane Gazette, using Unbound (bit.ly/sDmOLO), which functions like a Kickstater for books. Once the funds have been raised by fans, authors get 50 per cent of the take, which is vast compared to the meagre eight per cent that most authors are lucky to secure in conventional publishing. 

Bear and The Party were both created by Sebastian Gomez de la Torre. Bear is avilable at bit.ly/M03COY, while The Party appears on a T-shirt and can be bought from bit.ly/I2Yu6I

Adrian says: “Someone described Unbound as like being able to feel the horse’s fetlocks before it runs a race, and I think that’s a brilliant analogy. They hold live events, where writers can pitch their ideas to potential readers, and it’s a pure delight to meet the people who are charmed by your idea, and want to read it before it’s even written.”

Despite the advantages of selling your work under license, many illustrators also choose to go it alone, selling work through their own shop or collaborating with an illustrator run-label. Although such ventures take many different shapes and sizes, financial rewards are usually a lot greater – as both you and label bosses put a greater value on your work – but these must be measured against the extra effort you will have to undertake to produce and distribute your product.

An extract from Adrian Teal’s The Gin Lane Gazette (bit.ly/sDmOLO

Just as ClickforArt builds a must-buy credibility by producing only a certain number of special products, illustrator Richie Pope (richiepope.com) suggests that those selling their own work, on platforms like Big Cartel, might try doing the same. “Limited runs are good because they have an immediacy for the customer and it saves you from having to get one job printed every time you get an order,” he argues. “Once it sells out, you can label it as ‘Sold Out’ and gauge the demand on your social media to decide whether to print subsequent series.”

If you find you’re not getting enough traffic, try organising a collective shop with other like-minded illustrators. Ciara Phelan, who set up label Many Hands (many-hands.co) with fellow illustrator Adam Ellison in December 2011, found the joint traffic and marketing efforts enabled them to work on more ambitious projects.

Hatrobot’s Fiction and Beauty iPod case can be purchased at bit.ly/ND4DLc

Ciara says: “The main way we promote ourselves is by being part of bigger events that then promote us to their audience, for example, in the past few months we’ve taken part in Pick Me Up at Somerset House, ELCAF and the D&AD New Blood show. These events help to raise our profile, and help us meet new and exciting people.”

Whether it’s setting up your own label or securing a deal with a manufacturer, Tara agrees that the most important thing is to be involved in the scene. “It’s important to place yourself in situations where you want to sell. So if you want to do toys for example, go to events, shows and comics conventions. Introduce yourself to people.”

Kozyndan’s Amorous Nudi bag was created for ClickforArt. It sold out 

Where to sell

 It doesn’t take a genius to twig that researching companies before you sign deals with them is an absolute must, but finding reliable sources of information can sometimes be tricky. Digital Arts asked the illustrators that contributed to this feature to name their top service provides, suppliers and printers, to make that first step, or change of process, just that bit easier. 

Prints/Homewares

Society6: society6.com

Bouf: bouf.com

ClickforArt: clickforart.com 

Books

Blurb: blurb.com

Unbound: unbound.co.uk

Printers

Moo: uk.moo.com

Inky Little Fingers: inkylittlefingers.co.uk

Printclub London: printclublondon.com

Ditto Press: dittopress.co.uk

WS Bespoke: wsbespoke.co.uk

Printshop: thisisprintshop.co.uk

Döts Printhaus: dotsprint.co.uk

Fabrics/buttons

Awesome Merchandise: awesomemerchandise.com

Spoonflower: spoonflower.com

T-shirts

Twinne: twinne.com

Ardentees: ardentees.com

Kneedeepinsleep: kneedeepinsleep.com

Threadless: threadless.com

Ist Kunst: istkunst.com

Global Thread Collective: globalthreadcollective.com

Mintees: mintees.com

Phone, tablet and computer accessories

Cygnett: uk.cygnett.com

Gelaskins: gelaskins.com

Iconemesis: iconemesis.co.uk

Uncommon: getuncommon.com

China

Buttercup china: buttercupchina.co.uk