Sell webcomic merch for free

We’ve come a long way from the days when CafePress was the only way to sell webcomic merch. Today you can set up a shop within your webcomic’s existing WordPress site and offer a wide range of products. This way you keep ownership and control of your store, instead of handing your profits and data off to companies that want to lock you into their services.

If you’re willing to put in some work setting things up, you can offer merchandise without any up-front or monthly fees. So even if your comic doesn’t have many readers yet, you can still make a little money now. Then you can watch your income grow with your readership. (Make sure you complete your comic’s listing on Comic Rocket, so I can help more readers find you.)

I’ve gone through this process for the newly launched Comic Rocket Shop. Now I’m going to tell you how you can sell webcomic merch the same way I do. This guide covers the most significant choices I made. To keep it somewhat short, I left out a lot of details.

Now, if you already have a lot of readers, you may be better off with a different strategy. You can invest money up front to save on the cost of each product. You can also pay for services that make your life easier when you’re getting hundreds of orders each month. But if that’s where you’re at, this article isn’t really for you. Maybe you’d like to read about selling plushies instead?

1. Setting up shop for free

I wanted my experience to be helpful to as many webcomic creators as I could. A significant fraction of the webcomics indexed at Comic Rocket use WordPress as their hosting platform. So I set up my new shop using the WooCommerce plugin for WordPress. Are you one of the many webcomic creators who use WordPress? This is a great option for you.

There are many paid extensions for both WordPress and WooCommerce, but I was able to put together a working storefront using only free (and libre) software from the WordPress Plugin Directory. I’d avoid any paid extensions when you’re just beginning to sell webcomic merch. If your products don’t sell as well as you hope, you may not earn enough to cover what you spent on those extensions.

If you aren’t already using WordPress, there are other ways to run your own storefront. However, you’ll probably have to pay monthly fees, which could cost more than you’ll make. Those fees either go to web site hosting, or to one of the marketplace platforms like Etsy. In this post I focus on what you can do if you’re already running your own web site.

Many webcomic creators I’ve talked with aren’t all that comfortable with the technology underpinning their web sites. If someone hacks your webcomic, that’s inconvenient but not the end of the world. (You have backups, right?) If someone hacks your store, that could be very bad. I recommend finding a WordPress expert to help secure and optimize your site, unless you feel confident that you can do it yourself.

One more note: you need to make sure your web site can send email without getting stuck in spam filters. I recommend the Post SMTP Mailer/Email Log plugin. You can configure it to send through your existing email account, at Gmail or anywhere else. It walks you through an easy setup process. It also keeps a record of what emails it sent so you can check what you’re sending your customers.

2. Accepting payments for free

Once you have WooCommerce installed, you need to set it up to accept payments from your customers. There are many payment gateways you can choose from.

I already had a Stripe account, so I chose the WooCommerce Stripe Payment Gateway. Other popular options include the Square and PayPal payment gateways. If you already sell webcomic merch at conventions, you probably already have a Square account. So that might be your easiest option.

When I say “accept payments for free”, I mean that you don’t need to pay up-front or monthly fees. It’s standard industry practice to charge a fee for each payment you accept. For US credit cards, the fee is typically US$0.30, plus 2.9% of the amount your customer paid. (Check with your payment processor for your exact rates. For example, PayPal’s fees are higher, effective September 2021.) Keep this in mind when you’re setting prices for your products later!

3. Sell digital goods for free

Now you have a place to sell webcomic merch and a way to get paid for it. It’s time to decide what products you want to offer to your readers. This is the fun part!

You now have everything you need to offer digital downloads for sale. If you do that, make sure you read the WooCommerce documentation on Digital/Downloadable Products. There are some important settings which depend on how your WordPress install is set up. You should consult with a WordPress expert if you aren’t comfortable with the instructions there.

I don’t have much more to say about digital downloads because I’m not offering any in the Comic Rocket Shop. The digital goods I make are all software, and I have an inconvenient preference for sharing my software freely with anybody who needs it.

You could also set up your store as your own alternative to Patreon, by offering recurring subscriptions yourself. But deciding whether this is a good idea for you is… complicated. Maybe I’ll write another article about this topic later.

4. Sell physical goods for free

T-shirts are the most popular kind of webcomic merch. Your fans were probably going to wear t-shirts anyway, so why not show off that they like your work at the same time?

The traditional indie way to sell t-shirts is to buy a bunch of screen-printed shirts at once, stash the boxes in your house, and handle shipping yourself.

This is a terrible plan when you’re starting out because you don’t know yet if you can sell everything you make. You’re on the hook for the price of the shirts up front without any guarantee that you’ll break even, let alone make a profit. And you have to make shirts in many sizes, which means when you run out of some sizes you’ll still have other sizes left over.

Print-on-demand to the rescue!

Instead, start with a print-on-demand vendor. These companies make a shirt for you only after you’ve received an order for it. They’ll even ship it directly to your customer for you. And you only pay for what you sell. That means you can offer as many designs as you want, in every size and style, without paying anything out of pocket.

For the Comic Rocket Shop, I chose Printful to make my products. (If you sign up with Printful using my links, I may earn a commission.) I wanted a vendor with facilities all over the world, because Comic Rocket fans are everywhere. Shipping everything from the US is expensive, and slow, and contributes to climate change. So I was happy to see that Printful has sites in every major region, including Australia and Brazil.

Printful also has a wide range of products. To start with, they offer an overwhelming variety of shirts, including classier styles like polo shirts. You can also put your designs on many styles of hats, or leggings, socks, even face masks and underwear. Many products can be machine-embroidered for that extra touch of style. Then there’s the non-clothing selection, such as stickers, mugs, notebooks, tote bags, canvas prints, and a lot more. If you’re going to sell webcomic merch, it helps to have one supplier that can provide every product you want to offer.

Integrating Printful with WooCommerce

Finally, Printful integrates with many kinds of online shops, including WooCommerce. I designed and previewed all my products using Printful’s Design Maker. Then I clicked “Add to Store” and Printful created complete product pages in my WooCommerce store for me. Their process helped me set prices, and generated mock-up images showing people wearing my designs.

Printful’s WooCommerce integration works best if you install more WordPress plugins. I recommend these:

Printful tips and tricks

Printful’s Design Maker is very easy to get started with, but it does not try to be a comprehensive tool for graphic design. I quickly grew frustrated trying to get my designs to look exactly like I wanted. So for all the fiddly design work, I switched to Inkscape, which is free software for vector graphics design. Then I exported a 300DPI PNG image to upload into Design Maker. After looking at mock-ups, I often went back to Inkscape for more adjustments.

If you’re already creating webcomics, you probably have your own methods. Just remember that you need print-resolution images of 300DPI, not screen-resolution images of 96DPI, or your products will look terribly blurry. Please don’t sell webcomic merch that looks crappy. Design Maker will warn you if the image you provided is too low-resolution for the area you want it printed on.

Printful’s “Add to Store” button always creates a new product. I haven’t found an easy way to modify the design on an existing product. So I saved all my products as “Product Templates” on Printful’s side first. You can edit those as much as you want, and download mock-up images to preview. Once you have a template you’re happy with, you can add it to your store or to a manually created order.

Make sure to check Printful’s “Availability” tab for any product you’re considering selling. Although they have facilities all over the world, not all products are available from all of them. For example, the Bella + Canvas 3001 unisex t-shirt is stocked in every facility, but only if you order it in a size between S and XL, and only in black, navy, red, or white.

Sample products

I recommend ordering samples of the products you want to sell. Samples let you do several things:

  • check that you like the result,
  • take your own product photos,
  • and enjoy having stuff you designed yourself.

Printful offers a 20% discount on sample orders and, in many cases, free shipping. In addition, when I created an account, Printful gave me my first sample order at 30% off as long as I placed it within 24 hours of signing up. So maybe work on your designs for your most expensive products first.

Printful’s sample orders are limited to 3 products per order, and at first you can only place one sample order each month. But as you or your customers buy more stuff, Printful gives you more sample orders. Even the money you spend on sample orders counts towards earning more sample orders. (I didn’t know any of this but happened to sign up on the last day of the month, so the next day I had another sample order available.)

5. Marketing for free

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to start a business selling t-shirts. In fact, Printful Academy has many free courses on the topic. But most advice assumes that’s the only thing you’re doing. If you’re already finding an audience with your webcomic, you don’t have to jump right into traditional marketing tactics like buying ads or running Cyber Monday sales.

Clearly, your first step should be to make sure your existing fans know that now you sell webcomic merch. For a start, place a prominent link to your new store on your web site. Also announce it anywhere that you tell people about comic updates, like on social media. And finally, edit the “Creator Only” settings on your Comic Rocket listing to add your shop to the links there.

As you roll out new stuff in your store, you might discover that some of your designs resonate with more people than just your fans. In that case, you might be able to promote those specific designs to a wider audience, which might draw in more readers for your comic. But that’s a lot of things which might not happen, so I wouldn’t suggest building your marketing strategy around this possibility at first. Focus on your webcomic and, if other opportunities show up, you’ll be ready for them.

Coupons

There is one aspect of traditional marketing which you might find valuable, and that’s coupons. WooCommerce has built-in support for offering coupon codes. There are many situations where you might want to use it:

  • Thank your most dedicated fans by offering them a discount.
  • Let people who can’t afford as much still get stuff from you, while charging full price to people who have more money to spare.
  • Offer different coupons in different channels, like Twitter or Patreon, so you can see where your customers are coming from.
  • Set limits on your coupons, such as “expires December 1st” or “only the first ten customers”, to encourage people to buy soon rather than putting it off.
  • Require buying some minimum amount before the coupon applies, to encourage people to put more stuff in their cart.

For example, to thank you for reading this far, I’ll give you a coupon for the Comic Rocket Shop. Use “sellmerch” at checkout to get 10% off orders of $25 or more, excluding sale items and stickers. From the above list, you can guess I’m trying to learn whether buyers came from this article, and also to encourage you to put more items in your cart.

If you offer coupons, make sure you don’t discount your prices by more than your markup. If you combine an X% markup with an X% discount, a little algebra says you’ll lose X²% on every sale. For example, a 50% markup together with a 50% discount means you lose 25% of the product’s price on every sale. I actually got this wrong in the Comic Rocket Shop at first, and I lost $2 on my first sale. But hey, it could have been much worse.

Conclusions

As long as you’re hosting your webcomic on your own web site using WordPress, you can sell webcomic merch today, even if you don’t have many readers. You don’t need to spend any money up-front, or pay any monthly fees beyond what you’re already spending on your WordPress hosting. You probably won’t make much money until your readership grows, but since it doesn’t cost you anything to try it, why not get started early?

If you liked this article, make sure to keep an eye on this blog for more like it. You can follow me using Comic Rocket or your favorite RSS/feed reader.

2 Comments on “Sell webcomic merch for free

  1. One thing to be aware of: I’ve seen WooCommerce come up with security issues more than any other WP plugin. If you decide to use it, make sure you keep it up-to-date.

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