Thursday, November 25, 2010

Busy Days On Etsy/Blog to Finnegan Blog

Dan, regarding your Etsy impressions.....I had EXACTLY the same impression.

Anyway, I think it was two or three years ago that someone posted a link to etsy on the NAIA forum. My first take: I was totally underwhelmed. I didn’t see much work there that….well, I didn’t see much work there that even a charitable jury would accept into the average art fair.

Maybe it’s my age or the length of time I’ve been doing this for a living (33 years) or maybe just that I’m irrationally, undeservedly arrogant (<--prolly that one), but I didn’t want the association with what I saw as “that level of work”. But that summer I really started to feel the need again to fix my website for marketing. I had the sense that my Fall schedule wasn’t something I could have confidence in to get me through the Winter. Still, I had no clue as to how to do what I needed to do.

Some people were telling me “Oh, it’s easy. Just put “Buy It Now” buttons on your website”. Others were telling me that putting a shopping cart on the website was no big deal.


It was a big deal. And a dead end. Again.

But I started looking at other potter’s sites. I’d spend a few hours a day for a while just going from site to site and traveling down rabbit hole after rabbit hole. Then I googled up the site of a potter acquaintance who (as I remembered it) didn’t used to have a site -- at least not when I was first building mine. “Hmmm” says I, “Richard’s got a site now”. And when I clicked on the link on his site titled “Pots to Buy” it took me to an etsy site. Well, probably because it was Richard, but mostly because I went from Richard’s site to the etsy site, it suddenly dawned on me… …there really was no need for my customers, or the public-at-large who may be following links to and from my site, to ever know (or make any association with) anything of etsy beyond my page there.

My fears (unfounded ANYWAY, as it turns out) of people making qualitative assumptions about my work because of the other work on etsy were allayed.

So I immediately opened an etsy account. But I had show commitments and really didn’t have tons of inventory (as I saw it then) to upload right away. And St James Court Art Show was great that year – causing me to put off uploading even longer.

But when November rolled around I decided to start working on the site. I had sales almost immediately. And here are at least a few of the most gratifying discoveries:

1. The sales came, not by linkage from my site, but directly from the etsy site. So not only was etsy not deserving of my arrogance and condescension – they’ve put together a real market -- and a tremendous internal marketing mechanism.

2. And because the sales were coming from etsy – not from prior customers – I’ve now made sales to areas of the country where I’ve never done art fairs. Of the nearly 100 sales I made in my first month with etsy, most of the pots were shipped to BRAND NEW CUSTOMERS. I've now passed 670 sales and most of them follow that same trend.

3. I found myself making out shipping labels to people named “Brianna” and “Alecia” and “Cara”. In other words, the very demographic that we seem unable to DRAG to art fairs. Younger people. Yay. Hooray.

I have a much different philosophy about how I intend to keep up my etsy site. So far it seems I’m right, even though I’m going counter to what my friends tell me they like in a site. My friends tell me they want a no-muss, no-fuss site with minimal copy to read through, and point and click buying.

I go along with the ease of point and click buying, but I don’t agree with minimal copy.

I’ve always felt that there were several built-in advantages to selling via art fairs, not the least of which was trading on each other’s gravitas. In other words: when someone who might not know pottery sees me at the same art fair set up next to Steve Kostyshyn’s incredible baskets, or Jerry Smith's marvelous landscapes, or paintings done on the masterful level of an Eddie Corkery, or drawings like Don Coons’, the assumption falls to my advantage. The art fair implies to the public that I am quite possibly a craftsman of the same level as those masters (whether true or not).

The other strength of the art fairs is the face-to-face meeting of artist and patron. We get to tell people – beyond just what we are selling – a bit of who and what we are. And I’ve always believed strongly that that was a VERY important marketing factor. I think that for the past thirty years, the art fair patron has been buying what we’re selling, yes – but also buying a little bit of our “story” too…. ”I got this from a guy who does the coolest….” …The art fair patron LOVES a good story to go along with their purchase.

I don’t mean B.S. I mean our real stories.

Sometimes we forget just what a wonderful dream we live out by making our living with our wits, skills, imagination, clay, glazes and fire. It’s magic, I tell you.

When we go off on our own into the ether of the internet, there is no such strength in numbers – nothing giving a point of reference to either my quality or even some hint as to who I am. And there’s no story inherent in a picture of product. I believe strongly in building up a winsome marketplace via my site. I believe in telling my story.

And beyond the initial sale, I think the strength of the internet market is in coming up with SOMETHING about your site -- your story -- that will make one potential patron not only buy, but send a website link to their entire forwarding list with a subject heading…”You ought to see this website! This guy’s got the coolest….tells the funniest…” Whatever you’ve got that you think will move at the speed of light from one email address to another to bring them back to your site for more – more product, yes.

More story? … yeah, that too.

So, yeah, I risk embarrassment by going out of my comfort zone and writing creatively to a bunch of strangers. I’m on a high wire without an editor. It’s scary, and perhaps I’ve embarrassed myself without yet knowing it.

But so far it seems to have worked too. And, yes, it’s been a lot of work. Lots of hours writing and re-writing. Lots of hours shooting photographs that aren’t supposed to appeal to an art fair jury (subject for another rambling, boring post – it occurred to me that jury slides are not good marketing tools). But there’s been a great response. And so far it's kept up for more than two years.

Etsy weaknesses:

1. You can’t do the simplest codes in your copy – no italic, no bold, no underline. No nothing. In this day and age that’s inexcusable and unnecessary for a site that should be expecting the expressive descriptions that today’s market demands.

2. No linking outside of etsy. That means if you have published articles in periodicals, or a book, or anything else that might help you tell your story to your etsy audience, you can’t link to them.

3. No reverse linking to your own website. I understand etsy's perspective. But it’s limiting enough that it will quite possibly cause a number of successful artists to leave to develop their own sites because of the editorial inflexibility of etsy.

4. You can’t change the order in which your images appear on your etsy page. If you don’t think ahead as to what might look good together – in good layout fashion – you can’t change it if the overall appearance of your page looks less than it could be if you could but change the images around to put your favorite foot forward.

I'd encourage you to at least give etsy another look. Or not. Your call -- you know how you want to sell.


  1. My Goodness! How do you get that basket weave pattern to come out so evenly spaced? That is wonderful!

  2. Well,now there you go. If someone like John Baumann can sell his beautiful work on Etsy, I don't see how others can be too good for a shop there.
    Ironically, there may be "so much crap" on Etsy because people who make great work have reservations about being associated with Etsy, and won't open shops there; whereas if they DID open shops ther, the amount of junk would be reduced quite a bit. There IS quality work on Etsy, and having a shop there can get you sales and more opportunities, for example, we got a commmision for a charity auction fundraiser to make bowls, and some other items, because we have a shop on Etsy. We do it every year, and it's worth quite a bit of dough. Not to brag, but to say that the exposure can be good, and we might never have had the opportunity were we not on Etsy.
    If people making quality, great work like you, Dan Finnegan, Jeff Campana, Whitney Smith, et al, might have some reservations about being associated with junky sites, that is understandable, but why cut your nose off to spite your face?

    PS Dan Finnegan, if you read this, about a year ago you had posted some killer bowls on your blog that I would have bought in a second had they been in an Etsy shop. I'm sure they sold anyway, but you might sell even more.

  3. Brilliant post, John. I've been looking for this kind of description of Etsy. Thanks for it.

  4. I think you nailed it. I had the same reservations as you, not wanting to be associated with such mediocre quality as was predominant on etsy 3 or 4 years ago. And when I checked back last year I was surprised that so many really talented artists were now selling their work there.

    Of course the majority still set the bar fairly low, but artists such as yourself have changed the perception to now include some incredibly talented and sophisticated work. And I think you are right that there is no shame in rubbing shoulders with beginner potters or hobbyists. The audience will decide what it likes, and if one person doesn't like what you do that reflects more on their taste than on the quality of what you are presenting. As is always the case.

    I think your point about the difference to juried art fairs is also telling. A fair where the artists have all been selected, presumably based on quality, gives the audience that confidence you described. A booth "next to Steve Kostyshyn’s incredible baskets, or Jerry Smith's marvelous landscapes" is much different than one next to a beginner or occasional hobbyist. Perhaps especially with ceramics the audience often needs to be told what counts as quality. There simply isn't a lot of cultural education in that direction, except perhaps in some communities with strong traditions.

    I guess I have a small concern that because so few folks are educated about quality in ceramics that often it is fairly irrelevant to a sales situation. A brightly glazed or garishly decorated pot has more intrinsic mass appeal than quiet subtlety. In a venue like etsy there is no presumption of quality, and personal taste mocks the "juried" standards of merit. But I think it is quite amazing that clay workers with minimal experience and marginal skill sets can make decent money off their endeavors on etsy. And on an important level this is exactly as it should be. If someone wants to pay good money for a thing, that is entirely up to them.

    I guess the question is whether pottery needs a standard of professionalism or if merely anything goes. Potters are getting kicked out of ceramics departments, can't get in most galleries or museums. Is etsy our last refuge? Will the public perception of our craft be based mostly on what gets sold on etsy? Will we someday only get juried into craft fairs based on how well we sold on etsy? Is this troubling? [Of course you can count on me as the voice of paranoia on this issue ;) ]

  5. Hi John!
    Thanks for your kinds words about the birds...I have to admit i'm pretty excited about them. But more importantly, thanks for the ETSY advise. I have to admit that I was fishing for this kind of info. and no surprise that it would be YOU with a terrific answer!
    My computer skills are pathetic and it may take help from someone a little younger and brighter than me, but I will be looking much closer.
    It is hard to suppress the contrarian in me...and the elitist in me...and all my other issues!
    Thanks again, I'm sure that a lot of us will find this useful.

  6. Great post! I read Dan's comment about Etsy and while I agree with him and said so on his blog, this post makes me rethink how I have felt about Etsy, some very good points in your post and from those that have commented. Maybe if enough people that have quality work like you sell on Etsy, it will outweigh the crap that is there....hmmmmm.

  7. Following all of this with much interest. Thank you!

  8. Lovely pots and I enjoy your blog. I've had some modest success with Etsy so it has been good for me also. I've sold pots to people all over the country and Canada that I never would have reached otherwise and these sales have often led to commissions. Sure, there is alot of work on Etsy of questionable quality, but it almost makes good quality work stand out all the more:) Also, Re Etsy weakness no.4, I might be misunderstanding what you are referring to, but Etsy has a "rearrange your shop" feature to rearrange the order of your listings. Go to "your etsy", under "shop setting", click on "options" and click to enable "rearrange your shop". Great post - thanks!

  9. John,

    Spot on with this article. I had all the same apprehensions, but unlike you, I needed to make a living from my pots (adjunct professors don't make a living wage) and I had absolutely no established market -local, national, regional, -nothing. I was a complete unknown. I got my website up and tried to figure out a cart system and noticed that Kristen Kieffer's online store was etsy powered, so I gave it a shot.

    I experienced an immediate swell of sales, and a base of fans and collectors who weren't even familiar with pottery. I found high-end home decorators buying vases by the boxful for their clients. I even got some galleries contacting me about wholesale arrangements, I got an article in Niche Magazine through Etsy! things I never would have imagined. Incredible.

    One thing I came to learn from this was that part of what is off-putting at first about selling on Etsy is also what makes it powerful. There is definitely a sea of crap to wade through on Etsy to find anything decent. As long as you don't feel dependent upon the venue to lend you cachet, that shouldn't be a problem, but rather a benefit. After sifting through a lot of poorly thought out, poorly thrown, poorly photographed stuff, someone stumbles upon my work and it must look like a shining jewel in comparison. I think within the context of an Etsy search, there is a major advantage for strong artists to stick out from the crowd, which draws the traffic in. The people who have been drawn in to buy my work have been the exact customers I want to find. They are not the typical demographic of pottery buyers, they are people just discovering how wonderful handmade pots can be through MY work. It doesn't get more satisfying than that.

    On a side note, one of your listed disadvantages has been fixed. Look on the left side column of "your etsy" and you will find a link "rearrange my shop" that will allow you to switch around the order of your products at will.

  10. I am an Etyhoovian.
    Admittedly I was initially reluctant to sign-up, it did have the feeling of a rummage sale, but my reluctance had more to do with my computer skills than my aesthetics.
    Learning to post and maintain a shop was a challenge, but it wasn't all that difficult.
    I joined a few Teams, made a whole lot of new friends, and most importantly, I grew beyond my local market.
    As an emerging potter, it was one of the best investments in time that I've made.

  11. GREAT insights... I especially like your observations on ETSY's weaknesses -maybe they will listen(?) Hmmm, I had been thinking/not thinking about ETSY for 3 years now... haven't had the energy for what it takes to maintain a quality site on ETSY. It wasn't so much other people's work that has deterred me, just the amount of time it takes to commit to selling work that way -but hey it probably beats the 35-50% commissions I'm paying to the Galleries huh?!

  12. What a great conversation! Thanks for starting something, Dan. And thanks everyone for your thoughts.

    I'm guessing that we're all up against the same wall -- the same "Catch 22": The more time we spend marketing (whether on the road at shows, or online cranking out copy and images for websales), the less time we have for making the very inventory we need to sell (not to mention the making being the very reason we got into this lifestyle in the first place).

    It's been the biggest puzzlement (to quote the King of Siam) of my entire 33 year career. Trying to balance the making and the selling.

    I noticed early on that guys whose work didn't sell well always had pots available for self-advancement opportunities (exhibitions, publication, etc). For me, I was always out of inventory and scrambling for the next show. I remember about 20 years ago Studio Potter was going to feature potters of Indiana. I had to pass. I was too busy chasing my tail to take advantage of a nice opportunity for a li'l ink.

    I'm not sure Etsy solves that Catch 22 problem for me.'s how I'd put it:

    I think we are at a point in our culture (and hopefully it is a passing thing) wherein most of the low-hanging fruit has done been picked. Etsy affords us a ladder and a reason to get back in the orchard.

  13. Hi John, It's great to see this post. I'm actually going to sort of do what you did w. Dan and do a blog post about it over on my site. I have some questions and issues I'd like to put out for further discussion. I'll get it up there soon.

  14. John, Congrats on your etsy success. I have been on etsy for just over 4 years now. I have shipped pots all over the country. I don't think that would have happened through my blog/facebook/twitter alone. I have found that I need to constantly list items in order to keep selling and sometimes I get lazy about it. I think it is a great venue for people who don't want to haul their wares around the country for art fairs.

  15. I am caught within the "catch 22"
    making - marketing - mothering all the while
    feeling bogged down by the "low apples gone" idea you used. This "convo" (<--- an etsy term I just learned :) has me feeling resigned to carving in the time to get etsy involved in my life.
    So glad ya'all are simply up front with your experiences about it.
    Thank you. w dot snowapplestudios dot com

  16. Hi Mickey,

    Sorry, I nearly missed your post. These blogs are a terrible way to communicate after the first day or two of a post. Once the post is old enough, any further comments to it go unnoticed because there's nothing to bring it to the blogger's attention.

    Anyway, good luck with Etsy. You're at least the fourth person who has told me that you're beginning to do Etsy because of the Finnegan/Bauman/Philbeck blog conversation.

    So I guess the blogs work after all?