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Why It's Difficult to Sell Custom Card Decks and Journals on Etsy

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Selling self-published card decks and journals is both more difficult and less fun than creating them.

Selling self-published card decks and journals is both more difficult and less fun than creating them.

Selling Journals/Cards on Etsy

A question came in on my YouTube video about self-publishing custom card decks (e.g., tarot, oracle, and inspirational cards). The creator said he would love for me to make a video about selling a card deck on Etsy since he was finding it challenging. So, let’s dig into the topic of selling—not just creating and publishing—card decks. I've included journals in this discussion since they have a similar market.

Why Selling Is Harder Than Creating

With the advent of the print-on-demand market, self-publishing a card deck, workbook, or journal has become easier than it’s ever been. True, card decks still present many printing and production problems. However, today, printing services are available that will produce as few as 10 decks for a reasonable price.

While the challenges of producing your deck or journal may seem overwhelming (and they are!), those challenges pale in comparison to the amount of effort and investment it will take to actually sell your products.

Why Creator Selling Sites Don't Help You Make Sales

I don’t care what platform you’ve chosen to use to sell your deck or journal—Etsy, eBay, Amazon, Handmade by Amazon, Printful, Shopify, Printify, Patreon, Red Bubble, whatever—none of them will intentionally drive traffic to your sales pages. Buyers discover your wares only through the grace of the almighty robot algorithms that power these sites.

Can you encourage the robots to send buyers to you? No, save for making sure that you post your product listings on sites relevant to your ideal buyers and include keywords and phrases that your buyers would likely search.

Realize, too, that algorithms and AI are getting more and more sophisticated all the time, only showing content and listings that match the buyers’ intents and interests, regardless of what you or your buyers type in while on the site. To even hope to rig these algorithms to favor your offerings is a game you cannot win since these algorithms are very complex and constantly changing, sometimes daily.

Fed up with not being able to control the way these sites operate, some creators discontinue using them. They question why they should give these sites a cut of their revenue if the site isn’t going to help them make sales. All the creators see is their little corner of a site and think, “I could do this myself.”

Technically, you could take over the actual sales operations for yourself. It’s not that big of a deal these days to set up an e-commerce plugin for a website. But that opens up a whole host of administrative costs and tax issues. Both taxes (like sales and income taxes) and efforts will take a toll on your mental and emotional health.

If you've never run a business before, please, for the sake of your finances and sanity, don’t do it without the advice of both your CPA and business attorney. Oh, you don’t have either one of those people in your life? You’re already in trouble.

What Creator Selling Sites Have That You Don’t

Right now, I want you to go to Google Analytics and see how many visitors your own site had last month. Don’t have a website? Only on social media? Okay. Look at how many people checked out your profile pages or clicked your “link in bio,” and add those up. Now multiply that number by one percent, and that should give you an idea of how many sales you can expect to make monthly. Here, let me give you a tissue while you cry it out.

Why do I say one percent? Well, I’ve been self-publishing on Amazon for a decade. I’ve watched my own sales over time and monitored what has been going on in the self-publishing world. I also had a decades-long career in sales and advertising. If I got a two-percent response on a campaign—not sales, just leads—it was a good result. That’s pretty standard.

Also, with online advertising, you’re doing good if you get a two percent clickthrough rate on your online ads. Again, these are not sales; these are just interested people clicking through. So even a one percent estimate of sales from your followers and website visitors could be optimistic.

Big creator selling platforms have one big thing you don’t: web traffic—lots and lots of web traffic. That increases the chances of you making some sales instead of the paltry to zero sales you might get by going it alone. Advertising to generate traffic to your site can be super expensive. Part of that is due to random ad traffic being loaded with looky-loos who are just surfing.

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The good news is that sites such as eBay and Etsy do offer creators some analytics tools that help you understand the web traffic that is visiting your listings and profile. As I’m writing this, eBay just transitioned sellers to a comprehensive seller-management interface and direct-payments system. I’ve found the analytics, even on their free seller programs, to be insightful.

The only site that continues to be a black box for authors and creators of workbooks and journals is Kindle Direct Publishing. Their new Reports Beta is much easier to read than before, but no traffic analysis is available unless you use paid Amazon advertising. And even that’s just limited to analytics of clicks generated within the Amazon universe—not external traffic that lands on your products. The customer journey is still a mystery, even though Amazon surely knows what's going on.

Pricing to Build Sales and Profits

Pricing is another area where many creators and authors get in trouble. They usually don’t start thinking about pricing until after they’re emotionally invested in the project and are desperate to make it work. The time to think about pricing is before even starting the project.

Frustrated by low sales, creators may lower the price of their products in a panicked effort to gain sales. This is a losing strategy since you may not cover your costs, and you may even end up paying to make sales. Never ever believe that a high sales volume will make up for underpricing. As discussed earlier, high sales volume is a difficult feat.

You need to know your costs to produce, your costs to run your business, your investment in product development, and competitors’ prices before you can choose a price. Do a sales projection for your card deck, workbook, or journal, initially with a conservative sales forecast of one to two percent of your followers or website visitors becoming buyers.

Next, do a profit-and-loss projection that deducts production and printing costs as well as overhead administrative costs (advertising, website fees, telephone, etc.) from sales. Run these numbers with various product prices to find your ideal target price.

Then compare that ideal price result to competitors’ prices. Is yours way too high? It probably is. So, you’re going to have to cut your costs, your profit expectations, or both.

What About Promoted Listings?

I sell my self-published books on Amazon. I have run ads on Amazon for several years, which, historically, helped make some additional sales—not many, but some.

Lately, though, my Amazon ads have seriously underperformed. Watching the evolution of the Amazon advertising juggernaut, it’s easy to understand why this has happened to me. Competition for advertising space on Amazon is now highly competitive and expensive. But I’m not going to make the mistake of overpaying for advertising to win ad bids while losing sales revenues. So, if I can profitably continue to run ads on Amazon, I will. Otherwise, I’ll drop it. I’ve already turned off or revised campaigns in response to poor performance.

On sites like eBay and Etsy, promoted listings are also offered. From a scan of an eBay community thread on the topic, sellers didn’t seem to be experiencing dramatically increased sales from promoted listings, though some have had positive experiences. One theme I did see throughout threads on the topic was that making sure your listing has the right keywords, description, etc., can help push listings higher in search results, regardless of whether you pay for promoted listings or not. That applies to almost any creator selling platform.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2021 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 06, 2021:

Linda, thanks for reading and your kind comments! Some of these are tough selling situations. So I hope they provide insight for those who need it. Have a beautiful weekend!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 03, 2021:

This article is full of useful advice, like all of your articles. Thank you for sharing the facts and data. They are important for people to know.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 03, 2021:

Chitrangada, you're so right! online selling is incredibly challenging, and just getting more so all the time. Glad you found this informative. Thanks for reading and commenting! Have a beautiful day!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on July 27, 2021:

An excellent and informative article, as always. Your explanation is educative and clear, and I always learn so much from your experiences.

Online selling, needs lot of understanding, to achieve success, and it’s changing everyday.

Thank you for sharing your expertise. Have a great day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 27, 2021:

Donna, I totally agree that eBay and Etsy have incredible search engine capabilities. I've actually been amazed at how some of my offerings have shown up in search on eBay, and I didn't even do any marketing for them. But optimizing listings for search is essential to not get lost in the fray. Thanks so much for chiming in with your perspective! Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 27, 2021:

Hi Mary! Glad you can relate! These sites like Etsy are actually wondrous tools for creators. But they do not guarantee success, only facilitation of sales.

Thanks for joining in the conversation from an experienced point of view. Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 27, 2021:

Bill, yeah, it's a thing. Sometimes I have to shake my head, too. What in the world are they thinking? And while they're seeking a creative solution, sadly it's almost always an expensive one.

Happy Tuesday and have a great week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 27, 2021:

Flourish, I have to agree that these new online ways of selling our wares beat the craft fair and bazaar scene. Gosh, how did we ever do it back in the day? :) And, yes, it almost makes me cry when I see some of these people who aren't doing good financially go for an expensive outlay into a speculative adventure. But I guess they'll learn by consequence.

Thanks for always adding your thoughtful comments to the conversation. Means a lot. Have a wonderful day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 27, 2021:

Pamela, like you, even though I am not in some businesses anymore, I still enjoy reading about them even years later. Thank you for your support, as always, and have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 27, 2021:

Hi Thelma! Glad you found it helpful, and that my writing speaks to you. Thanks for stopping by and have a wonderful day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 27, 2021:

Thanks for the kinds works, Peggy! Glad you find them informative and helpful. Have a beautiful day!

Donna Herron from USA on July 27, 2021:

Hi Heidi - Thanks for explaining these different sales sites and the analytics they offer (or don't offer) to help understand traffic. This article is helpful for any type of writer, artist, or creator. I'm only familiar with etsy and ebay. They might not drive buyers to your listing, but I think both sites have very good search engines to help buyers find your product when they are specifically looking for an particular type of item.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on July 27, 2021:

As usual, your advise is based on experience and is truly realistic. I observe the same having used Etsy.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 26, 2021:

Is this a thing? LOL Never heard of it. Well that's great, I guess. Whatever floats your boat, right? During tough times, people certainly do get creative.

Happy Monday, my friend!

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 26, 2021:

Too many people double down on an expensive strategy that isn't working for them rather than reassess and revise. You give a good personal example with Amazon ads. Some of these creative sites (and there are so many) make it so easy to create printed works that I doubt that even the most industrious and well funded individual could replicate what they offer. It beats the old days of offering up your stuff at craft fairs and church bazaars.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 26, 2021:

I always enjoy reading your articles, Heidi, as they are full of such good advice. I am not in any business but I enjoy learning about publishing and business. Thanks for another excellent article.

Thelma Raker Coffone from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on July 25, 2021:

Very informative and helpful article. Love your writing style!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 25, 2021:

Hi Heidi,

You offer so much good information with an experienced background on almost everything you write. Thanks for continuing to offer such good free advice.

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