The Redbubble Bummer

Redbubble announced, at the tail end of April, starting now in May, that they were going to charge a flat fee for people who make money on their site. This sucks and here’s a thousand words about how this sucks and how I may stop making stuff to put up on Redbubble, which, also, sucks.

Now, you may not be aware of how things work on Redbubble. Right now, if you buy a shirt off Redbubble, which costs like, $30, I get like $3, for making the design. They get the remaining $27, which I assume covers manufacturing, transport, all that jazz. This isn’t a great deal for me but that’s okay. I understand that’s the economic realities of print-on-demand services, and it also is up front and honest about these things. If you sell something on Redbubble, you get a very small margin out of it. This makes Redbubble a bad site to use for, for example, charities or promotions. The main thing Redbubble offers is a way to get extremely niche things made at all, rather than made cheaply.

The realities of Redbubble production are pretty low stakes. I make a new product regularly, release it to Redbubble, and promote it via my existing networks, which are very low-impact. The result of this is, acros all of the designs I sell, I get something like $20 to $40 a month, usually in the middle, in commissions, and that’s after over five years of constant production and promotion. The most popular thing I’ve ever made is the Friend of Blahaj sticker, so it’s probably some of those.

The new flat fee system from Redbubble indicates that they’ll be taking a flat fee of around $13 from that $30 a month, which takes my monthly income from ‘a pizza’ to almost half that.

But the fee’s not fixed! See, if you’re a power user of Redbubble, in a data driven way, then they waive the fee. There’s no clear way to become a power user, but they talk about promoting the site and driving engagement with the site as ways to do it. If you do that, they say, you’ll get access to new services that I don’t have access to, don’t want, and don’t care to want. I don’t know what they are, they can’t possibly incentivise me to become a power user. The power user incentive for me is to get rid of the flat fee.

What the hell then, does a power user look like?

I’ve been talking about and promoting Redbubble for over five years. I’ve been using it regularly. I’ve sold hundreds of things, regularly. I’m not a power user. I have no idea how to become a power user, and that, I think, is insidious. I think it says something worrying that they don’t know for sure what might possibly get me out from under this fee, and I don’t know how to find out. It gives the impression that this is not data driven as much as it is arbitary, and looking for metrics I do not understand nor can I manage to.

This fee also hurts unconsolidated presentation. I put all my designs up on the Talen Lee Redbubble. Fox puts her designs up on the Fox Lee Redbubble. But now, that means both of those accounts get the same flat fee; if we were posting together on the same redbubble account, then we’d pay one of those flat fees, rather than two. Our combined income from these sources is small, and now, Redbubble’s new incentive system makes it hardly worth the effort for Fox to upload at all.

Right now, Redbubble have instituted a fee that feels to me like a way of punishing people like me, specifically, people who are making enough money to notice the loss of half of it, but not enough money to make pushing into Power User status a meaningful proposition. There are still going to be people uploading zero effort stuff and stolen art to get a copy of for themselves, and maybe leave it up in the hope of scoring a few dollars, whatever. There are going to be those power users who have enough social media reach and marketing space to demand the attention that means they don’t notice this, and that’s fine. That’s probably the thing you do if Redbubble is your job.

It also feels like a hack to my shins personally, because I used to advocate for my students to use Redbubble as a creative front-end because it was so close as to frictionless as could be for a business-level demand. There wasn’t any ‘if you advertise for us, we’ll give you more of your money.’ Because that’s the way this fee feels. It’s not framed as increasing costs or inflation, and quite frankly, if they’d just said ‘yeah, rate increase on everything, sorry, can’t help it, economy’ I probably would have just sucked it up and accepted it. I’m pretty passive, and I’m sure they’ve done it. When they ding fanart I do and tell me that hey, we can’t host this any more it’s too infringey on a brand and we’re not going to fight for it, then sure, whatever. I guess that sucks but I can deal with it.

I can’t really be a good-faith advocate for this company more, and that sucks! It sucks because I recommended this site to people, and, in the posting hopper, there are other posts coming that are about Redbubble material that I made months back. And I’ve complained and hey, maybe the complaints are going to do their job and that’ll be okay and I won’t have to feel bad or worse, consider relocating my entire online merch production to some new, better way of doing things, and maybe I’ll finally go completely wild and invest in the materials needed to make my own merch and sell that at conventions (this is not going to happen it just feels more viable at this point than relying on another online front-end that can just decide to do this stuff to me later). I may just stop doing these t-shirt designs because now they don’t even have the theoretical application of ‘maybe a few people will buy some and I’ll get a few bucks out of it.’ It’s entirely possible that I may not make enough money in the new structure to cover the fee!

Instead, they present this new fee addition and then show me how to get out of it by being a good social media promoter of their brand, and it’s very hard to not see this as an economist trying to outwit me into doing a new job.