How To Effectively Sell Your Work

Selling your work is one of the most critical aspects of making it as an artist, and yet it is also the one element in many artist’s professional lives  that is the most fraught with challenges and frustration.  Even when you have an agent or galleries that do the selling for you, you still have to be able to be the person who presents the face for the product, and that means selling.  While this may seem distasteful to some artists, it is a reality.  The trouble I often have seen both in myself and in other artists is that there is a cognitive bias about what selling ones self is all about.  It doesn’t automatically mean that you are somehow compromising your principles, or selling out.  Selling is a multifaceted activity that achieves many goals, the last of which is selling your work so that you may support yourself so that you can go on to make still more work.  When someone wants to buy your work, most often, they aren’t JUST buying the object, they are buying YOU.  They are buying your skills, your effort, your love and grace.  they are buying the idea that there is someone who is brave enough to step out into and put their work out there so that it can be shared.  I learned this when I began selling my work at art shows and craft fairs all across the country when I began my business in 1997.  People wanted to know how it was made, how I got into the field, and anything else I cared to share.  Were my pieces a big surprise when I got done?  How did I achieve those layers of color and how DO you get something suspended in the center of the glass like that?  Many liked to put their work on show in their homes and it was a point of pride and conversation for them to be in the know about this artist instead of it being a faceless name whose work they found online.  Many of my customers are buying more than just a piece of art glass, they are buying a story as well as a way of life.  They are also participating in an effort that is more than the artist alone but makes up galleries and customers who all take part in an effort that makes it possible for an artist to do what she or he does.  It is not so unusual for art afficianados to actually care about more than JUST the work, but the spirit and the human touch of the person who laid paint to canvas, or sculpted a delicate figure out of porcelain.  At its best, the industry is about love. When I go into a craft gallery who sells nothing but handmade, it is very rare that I ever come across sales staff and owners who seem aloof.  they are all excited to be living this kind of life and selling work that they feels makes the world a better place.  They get to see people coming into their gallery on a daily basis who are amazed at all the things that are on display that were made by hand.  Sure, those in the industry are shrewd business people, but they have learned that you have to be in order to survive and thrive in the world of art and craft.  That goes for the artist as well, at least in some measure.
How you present yourself is crucial to creating a look and a feel that will help support your business. You will attract different kinds of people as customers and clients based on how you present yourself. If you can convey your own sense of style and taste in how you dress, how you design your booth or studio gallery, these things all help to convey who you are in little and big ways (and this is not always easy for everyone).  This is a fine art in presentation and communication. It all works best when it makes intuitive sense to the public that you are attracting. This is why being yourself is so important. You don’t have to pretend to be anything that you are not, but you certainly have to come across as comfortable and confident. This does not mean that you do the hard sell.  In fact, most selling of yourself is best done when you are simply you. Its in understanding the psychology of selling that makes all the difference, and you do not have to be a great salesperson in order to find your way.  you just need to understand what goes through everyone’s head when they go into a retail outlet, a store, mall, or gallery, or booth at an art or craft fair.
Artists can be horrible at selling their work. I say this because I was in this camp. I was always curious about the psychology of selling as I was growing up as an artist  because this is one aspect that we were simply never taught about.  Most of the material on the bookshelves about selling had to do with  mainstream forms of merchandising like selling cars or clothing.  So how was I going to make a story about selling a shirt apply to selling a sculpture or a piece of decorative blown glass?  When I graduated from college I decided I didn’t want to do any art for a while.  Instead, I decided to do something I had never done; I took a job selling  water treatment equipment!  What this experience did was it revealed one side of the sales industry with its own ideas about how things are bought and sold.  I quickly grew jaded because it was a formulaic approach;  there is an average number of times that a person will say no, make sure you make eye contact during a certain part of the presentation, you need to make sure that you emphasize certain words at the right time, etc.  After a certain number of no’s,  they will tend to give up and start saying yes. The strategy was to get them to say no even if it wasn’t even a resistance to what you were trying to sell them. There were certain presentation methods that were based on making assumptions in the hopes of selling some option or service in order to increase the bottom line for the company. It all felt like so much manipulation!  It just didn’t feel honest to me.  The only problem, though, was this was how so many in the sales field sold things from vacuum cleaners to siding. Remember the movie Tin Men with Richard Dreyfus and Danny DeVito?  If you do, you have a pretty good idea what kind of environment I had walked into.  Don’t get me wrong, it did teach me some things, but after a while I found I just could no longer sell,  and I moved on to other things.  Its not surprising that we all could be soured on the idea of selling when we only think about unscrupulous tin men…..but as it turned out, there was a whole other world to selling, and none of it had anything at ALL to do with sneaky tricks, manipulation, or pressure in the least!
The big a-ha moment came for me when I bought a very unlikely book while attending the Buyers Market In Philadelphia.  Outside the exhibit hall there were vendors for things like boxes and bags, as well as books on how to promote and make yourself into a more effective business person. The artisans were located in the hall adjacent to these vendors, so I would walk past them as I came into and out of the conference hall each day.  The book I picked up was entitled No Thanks, I’m Just Looking!  by Harry J. Friedman (ISBN 0-7872-5350-2).  It was when I read this book that I was able to draw comparisons between the world of merchandising and the world of my own form of merchandising.  I forgot that the author was talking about a shirt, or furniture and started to consider the psychology of buying itself, which of course was what the book was all about. I found that instead of picking up tricks or techniques, all I had to do was to think about what it is like for me whenever I walk into a store. that really was the very crux of the book, and my reactions in a store turn out to be just like everyone else’s!  It became a simple way to simply put myself in my customers shoes as they browsed my booth or gallery.  This wasn’t selling; this was empathy!  Big light bulb moment.
What the book was so effective at underlining was the psychology of buying.  What was so interesting to me was how it did not provide tricks or formulas;  this book was about stepping back and thinking what its like when you first enter a store and the phases that most people go through when shopping.  To understand this, you need only to think about how you feel when you go into a store.  What happens?  Most people don’t pause to reflect that there are very definite states that they enter when just browsing and when they are ready to BUY.  You might be a lot like I was when I first started reading the book, which was that I never paused to consider what those different phases or states of mind were whenever I went into a store.  The book was presenting the idea that if you understand these clues as they are being presented in store guests, you could become a more effective sales person  not because you are going in for the kill or that you are using pressure tactics but that you can then become a facilitator for what the person may need or want.  Its interesting how this all happens, and it makes all the difference between your buying and not buying. I put myself in those shoes and only then did it make sense why I was doing all the wrong things when I was trying to sell my work.
First of all, when you enter a store or a booth or gallery, its an adventure.  You might go in for a shirt, but you really don’t know what you will find. The world is open to you, and your mind is in that wide open kind of space.  I just went shopping for clothes and all I knew was that I needed shirts and some jeans and some slacks and socks.  I just had no idea what I would find, but if I found what I LIKED, I was going to buy it most likely if the price and look was right for me.  You MIGHT wind up buying a different shirt than the one you originally had in mind, but you have to see what there is to see just to make a decision.  At this early stage, you are excited with all the new sights and sounds.  You have to get oriented, you have to look around some.  You are in browsing mode.  You need to be left alone.  For a little while.
You are not in buying mode yet, and if someone walks up to you and starts peppering you right away with questions about what it is you need or want to buy, it will simply turn you off.  The desire to buy simply has not been aroused just yet, and all of this helpfulness so soon can often wind up being a turn off or irritation.  this is where you allow your imagination freer rein.  “Hmmm….that shirt sure looks nice…I wonder how I would look in it….it doesn’t really match anything I have…..maybe I will keep that one in mind as I go look at those other shirts…”  You see what I mean?
The first lesson  is to let people walk around and look, and dream. Give them the room to do this because it will only be as a result of seeing all the possibilities that the desire will arise to buy anything.  You have to see thirty polo shirts all on a wall in thirty different colors in order to buy just one.  Being able to sit back and imagine how that shirt will look on you, or how that piece of glass or sculpture or painting will look in your home is critical to entering the next phase.  Most people simply have to be let alone in order to do this.  By approaching people too soon, you make them more self conscious and being self conscious is a killer for desire.  People have to want or desire your work.   People need the room to be seduced by what they see and then to get excited enough to buy.  When you are sufficiently aware of how this all works and plays out in the real world, you can quite literally feel the shift from dream mode to buying mode. Something heats up and the energy changes in a noticeable way. People move from a very passive activity and body language to much more “aggressive” behavior.  All of this is very subtle and you need to know what to look for. I have never been able to discern if it was just a “vibe” or if I was picking up on a stream of small body language signals, but I have learned to be tuned in to it. Knowing when this is happening is crucial because this step can wane without support from the clerk or artist in the booth or gallery. Everyone is different, though and I can tell you  that I have also  had people who walk right into the booth and pick up a piece, present it to me for buying and leave quickly and quietly.  Others need to browse, daydream, chat, and talk with their friends.
Its true. But just as important is having a good sense of timing as the seller of your work.  You can’t simply leave someone to drift through the store or booth or gallery. This is where your own instincts for knowing when to walk up to the person for the next phase of the process.  If you come on too strong, you can scare them away or just turn them off. People may have questions but they may not want to ask you these questions.  They want to be served, and this is where you have to be ready to answer their questions and help them with knowing the many options available so they can make an informed decision.  So instead of going for the hard sell, you ask questions which also help steer them in the right direction.  This often began, for me, in asking how they are doing first.  Sometimes its as simple as saying hello, a signal that you know they are there, and that you do are not acting in a presumptuous way, but that you are simply there for them. Your body language can help when you stand off to the side, ready, but not too ready. You let them know in a very simple way that whenever THEY are ready, so are you. You are there to serve them.
This is why I was able to see that there were certain things I said would always be a sale killer in my work.  I had this tendency to say “Let me know if you have any questions” because I thought this was the best way. No sales EVER resulted form this approach. Why?  I was in a very subtle way letting them know I was ready to sell them work. It was a very very subtle form of trying to make the sale.  I changed all of this when I observed people looking at my work and would ask “Which is your favorite?”  Sometimes I would pick up a piece that they were looking at and I would say in an off hand way the different ways it could be lighted.  I had pieces that looked great even in low light, something people had a hard time believing.  One of the problems people had was that they KNEW I was displaying the work to its fullest potential.  Of course it would look worse in their home.  This is the first kind of refusal for buying the work.  I often would take work out of the booth to show just how well the work would look in less than ideal situations.  This was a major hurdle for them without their realizing I was in truth beginning to sell the work.  I learned to do it in such a casual way that it didn’t read as any form of pressure.  I totally understood how you wanted the work to look as good as it did in the booth.  People will not buy in a perception of remorse.  By removing that and showing unequivocally that this isn’t a big concern, one less hurdle existed for them.
In the end, all buying comes down to how relaxed someone feels during buying and how excited they are about buying it.  Part of this is how you present yourself.  People aren’t just buying a product, they are also buying into the fact that it is hand made and made by someone they met.  Many of my buyers will tell stories to their guests who see my work about the conversation they had with the artist. Most often I know someone is closer to buying when they ask how its made. This is not a guarantee, but its a sign.  Sometimes people with the most questions also do the least buying.  I have seen the same person come to my booth over several years only to chat with me to find out how the work is made. The less someone knows about a medium, the more they will tend to ask. They cannot appreciate what goes into the making of a piece until they reach this understanding or level of education. it is corny and very true that the gateway to appreciation is through education. So I knew that I had to educate all the time.  It was like an investment, and I did this with no expectation of ever selling a single piece.  Those would would reach the requisite level of appreciation would buy and some would not.  I gave of my time freely and without expectation.  It was hands off. But I was in the process friendly affable, and easy to talk to. I did not bludgeon my guests with information, but would always given them a positive experience in our talking together.  They had to feel comfortable with me.  They had to know I was the real deal.  They had to feel into all of this to know it was right for them. I managed to go from being quite inept at selling my work to selling my work not through pressure or gimmicks but by simply understanding how people wanted to be treated.  it wasn’t foolproof, but it worked far better than any other method I had tried.
All of this culminated in one of the single best shows I had ever had.  I was simply doing what I did best, which was to engage my guests and potential customers without seeming the least bit desperate to sell.  In fact, I was completely relaxed and at ease.  I felt confident.  I had stopped worrying about having a good show and this let my own uniqueness shine through. A veteran of these shows whose booth was across from me came over the second to last day of the show and said “You know, I have been watching you with your customers and I have to tell you that you are so good with them!  You seem so natural.  I know so many exhibitors who allow themselves to get frustrated when they don’t make a sale and it winds up effecting the rest of their day….”  This was perhaps the single best compliment I could have gotten from a colleague.  I considered myself something of an amateur at all of this in so many ways and here someone who had been at it for over 20 years was so kind enough to point out what she thought was effective in how I did what I did.
The thing about this is that selling yourself in ANY situation is a lot like this, whether you are selling directly to the public or to a gallery.  I have always been the most effective when I let all of my anxiety about whatever it was I was doing go and let myself be me. I found that my promotional materials like web site, letter head and work itself all needed to have a sense like they all came from me.  This is what many in the industry call branding, and the problem with most branding is that the WAY in which you present your work and your business can be at odds with who you really are.  If a logo or design was made by someone else who has a poor ability to fit your own style with the branding, something will simply read as being a little off. Here, there are no hard and fast rules because all of this tends to be very intuitive and somewhat under the radar. You have to make sure that branding, however it is done, fits who you are.  If you do not have an investment in it, how can you expect others to plug into it?
If you make work that is abstract, spare, and quiet in its visual impact, it doesn’t make much sense to splash your web site with wild colors and forms when your own work does not do this. Somehow it all has to make sense.  It all expresses worlds of things that some people do not immediately pick up on but that all play a part in creating an overall impression.  This impression can make the difference between attracting a certain customer or client or not. Are you a quiet retiring type, or are you gregarious and really out there?  Are you loud and edgy?  Are you a nuanced renaissance person with many different qualities?  How you present yourself in print and on-line will help to support this. If it doesn’t, it could be a small glitch in the road to your door where something just doesn’t seem or feel right.  Again, this is all pretty subtle, but everything is important.  The font is important, the color and feel of the paper your catalog is printed on, the images used on your business card, and how your web site is designed to tell the story of who you are.
One very important part of selling is pricing your work, and this is where you send a strong message to the buying public.  It also determines how you sell your work.  If you sell inexpensive work below $300.00, for example, you will naturally have to position yourself in a market where you can sell a lot of work and often.  If you sell work that is in the $10,000.00 range, then what you do to make the sale will be very different from what you do to sell one print.  I once stopped selling Christmas ornaments at shows because there was a glassblower who sold almost nothing BUT ornaments.  He also sold them cheaper than anybody else.  When I stopped trying to compete with this guy and stopped selling ornaments, I found an interesting thing had happened.  I found that there was no discernible difference in my bottom line by dropping the ornaments.  Every year I always made a different figure for my income for that year, but there was nothing that suggested to me that I had somehow suffered from dropping the bottom end of my market.  in fact, this gave me more time to focus on selling pieces that were $75.00 and up instead of $15.00 or less.  If you price your work too high, you will suffer from slow sales.  However, you can suffer in different ways if you under price your work.  In an effort to make sure their work sells, many artists tend to devalue the potential of their work to support them by keeping prices low so that they will have plenty of sales.  The only problem is that if you do not value your work enough to give it a fair price, then how is anyone else going to value your work as well?
In 2006 me and my siblings sold land to a local government that had been in our family through two generations.  We formed a corporation in order to manage a large farm that was big enough to warrant forming the corporation. For years, we knew that the value of this land was significant, but the market just wasn’t there.  It was a farm, but it was a farm in an area of the market that was near D.C., so near in fact that to sell it as farmland would have meant that we would have to sell it cheap.  We weren’t ready to do that.  We knew the value was much higher.  The local government had not assessed property yet, but when they did, they placed it more in the area of value where we felt it should be.  Before that, offers from the customer, or this government body, were all low-ball.  Once the assessment was made, it helped to support our feeling that this was a valuable piece of land.  It had location, it had development potential.  Once the assessment came through, the government acted.  they realized that the only place for the value of this property now was up.  Developers could easily come along and offer us more than assessed value.  Houses were going up, malls and supermarkets were being built.  It was only a matter of time.  We knew the value and we held fast and did not sell until our market was there.  Once this happened, we were in a very good position to negotiate a very good price and we did.  On behalf of this corporation, I had to make sure that in each negotiation with the government, with attorneys, with CPA’s and with real estate agents, that we preserved the value for ourselves.  Everyone had their own interests, which was to either get the property as cheaply as they could, or to get a piece of the pie that was as big as they could get.  What this experience taught me is that you have to realize what the value is of whatever it is you have to offer snd believe in what that value is and then find your market.  This sometimes means waiting until you find that market.  Sometimes it means sticking to your guns.  Eventually, if your sense is on the mark, others will see the same.  The lesson is you have to believe in what it is you are doing or else no one else is going to.  You have to find your buyers and market the property correctly, and you also have to have something that other people want.  If you create value and demand, this is the very force that will draw customers and will hep support the right prices.  If market issues change, so will the price, which means you also have to be realistic, but not hasty.  You need to be shrewd.
if you price your work too high, you can have trouble moving work quickly enough.  If you price it too low, you can starve yourself of the resources that you need.  there are plenty of businesses that are busy making work hand over fist and making a very thin margin by the end of the year.  it may all look good from the outside, but it is like someone climbing a great mountain while breathing air that is so thin that they are about to pass out.  the trick is in finding the right balance.  This is always a judgement call and it is why judgement is so important.  it is true that some things may only take a small amount of money to make, but the value of that object made is so high that the price has to be adjusted to match the value involved.  If you are the only person making something completely unique, who is to say what price should be set?  If no one is making anything like your own and you can develop a market and create demand, the price that is involved in creating the object is often besides the point.  I can probably learn to pain like Monet and yet, what I make wont BE a Monet.  What is the difference?  The difference is the fact that the people are buying into the PERSON.  They want more than just a picture of a Monet.  If that were the case, they could buy a calendar with Monet reproductions and they’d be happy.  for those buying art, the reasons are very different.  Knowing how to first pricing your work where you get paid AND so the price reflects the value that you bring in your work is the combination of elements that need to go into pricing work.  Price it too low and you may never attract the better galleries and buyers because a low price often signals your need to sell at whatever cost.  Price it too high, and you could outstrip the perception of value that does exist and sales slow or stop.  Knowing how to do this requires some experimentation and observation.  When I doubled my prices, I found I no longer had people wanting to haggle with me over prices.  My price point was still fair but it eliminated those people who could only afford a small amount, thus the haggling. But what I did not realize was that most people who were looking for quality didn’t believe they saw quality with my prices so low. It is a little funny, but it is true.  If something look like a Mercedes, then the price tag should match, otherwise there is a lingering doubt.  The truth is, you are not just selling work, you are selling an idea.  And unlike paint and canvas, an idea is immaterial and thus does not adhere to plain black and white figures.
You may not like the idea that YOU are a product, but the truth is, you cannot fully disentangle yourself from this reality because you will always be the person who created that installation, that sculpture, the pot, the weaving or print.  Because of this, people will naturally be interested in you and show their friends “This is my painting by Richardson,” while beaming with pride.  Perhaps the problem is only in how you are choosing to relate to this.  If you are yourself, then what is there to worry about?  People want to know who you are and they wont get this unless you are.  If you are comfortable in how all of this happens, it isn’t like you are some object, you are an experience that many people seem to need to help fill in the cracks in their perception of you.  The more confident you are in yourself, the more natural and the more comfortable people will be around you, its just that simple. People buy the product, but they also buy the sizzle because there is real excitement in finally reaching the decision to splurge and buy something like art.
If you can bear these things in mind, you will become a much more effective and natural promoter of your work.  Its hard enough as it is sometimes to put yourself “out there” so being able to know what is good about your work is an important aspect in being able to present yourself in your best light.