Where do independent commercial theme authors go from here?

After reading Jake Caputo's post that went nuts, Matt's comments there, and Collis' reply on WP Daily, I'm left feeling lost. If individuals want to stay involved in the community, but also want to sell themes, what do they do? Are they forced to sell only on their own sites, and forego a large audience an existing marketplace can provide? Will a new marketplace come about? Should WordPress.org showcase commercial themes? What is the way forward?

The WordPress Foundation and Envato seem ready to hold their positions long term. Meanwhile, we have to choose whether it's a bigger priority to get involved with our local meetups and WordCamps, or not distribute our work on the biggest marketplace in the world. So I ask you, what's the best way forward for people stuck in the middle?

Maybe we can not yell about whose fault it is anymore (I'm guilty of this too), and instead we can discuss what the options are. I'd love to see a mature conversation, with input from people selling themes already, people that may want to in the future, or people that have a better magic 8 ball to predict the future than I do.

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37 Comments

  1. I’m not sure why you should feel incredibly lost – it’s quite obvious that selling your theme directly or in a more “formal” business does in fact work.

    Now you must just be all the more careful as to where you sell it IN ADDITION to your direct sales strategy – if you work with WordPress.org … then you are under their care and policy. If you go Envato, same difference.

    I don’t think there’s much to forgo as there’s opportunity everywhere… time for innovation to be central again and for a newer perspective to rise.

    I’m actually quite excited about the future!

    1. I agree innovation will be important, but it’s impossible to deny that ThemeForest offers as an enormous spring board for new authors.

      The same authors that want to be involved in the community.

      I’ve thought about selling themes many times, and I go back and forth as to whether I should do so on ThemeForest or my own site.

      When two entities are so large and influential, and are at a relative impasse, I tend to feel “lost” as to what is the right decision when my decision impacts my relationship with one or the other.

      1. I think you should do it on your own site — keep 100% of the revenue, don’t be forced into exclusivity that hampers your economic independence down the road, provide a great support experience for your users, control your branding and marketing, and don’t be forced into choosing a non-GPL license if that’s not what you want.

        1. Thanks for the advice, Matt.

          My preference license wise would be MIT or GPL or whatever is the loosest possible. I have no qualms with GPL at all. The only driver for TF is that it’s so massive. I’ve seen lots of peers do very, very well there given the audience.

          So, in that sense, it is extremely tempting to sell on TF. But from a licensing standpoint, I much prefer a fully GPL setup.

          I probably would sell on my own site, but I’m sure I’d also lament very slow growth, etc etc that could come with that, and the “what ifs” in regard to if I posted a theme on TF instead 🙂

          1. It’s definitely a tough decision given ThemeForest’s market share. That’s why it’s especially important that these big players play nicely and give their authors all the options available.

        2. No one is forcing anyone to do anything.

          People are free to decide where they want to distribute their work.

          They can do it on the WordPress.org directory, where they must use the license dictated there (completely GPL); they can do it on ThemeForest, where they must use the license dictated there (GPL compliant split license); they can do it on their own site using whatever GPL-compliant license they like; or anywhere else.

          If we’re going to say “ThemeForest force authors to be non-GPL”, then we must also say “WordPress.org force authors to give up their rights to their own work”. Neither are true.

        3. I agree with Matt. While the lure of a marketplace primed with buyers feels nice, the commission they take from authors is tantamount to stealing. Build your own site, with your rules, and do a little SEO/marketing work and provided you have a good product, will do just fine.

  2. My initial thought seeing this pop up was wishing that Theme Garden was still around. I’m not sure how many people remember it, but it was a 100% GPL marketplace started by Jason Schuller that worked great, except didn’t have anywhere close to enough attention to thrive the way authors can thrive on TF, etc.

    Maybe there is room for something like that now? Or would a new one likely go the same route… nowhere fast.

    1. And there was Wonder Themes too. Somehow I imagined they would shoot straight to the top because their concept was so good and free: full GPL and set your own price. But hardly anybody (really, like five cats) submitted themes to them and those that were were mostly unappealing (possibly rejects from ThemeForest and MOJO Themes). A challenging circle: No buyers, no authors; no authors, no themes; no themes, no buyers!

      So now I find it hard to imagine anybody without a big audience already at hand (or some big time investor willing to buy such an audience upfront) being able to compete with ThemeForest because not many will submit their themes to a place that can’t even compensate them for the time they spent making a theme when they can submit to ThemeForest where it’s easy to see that many are pulling in five figures a month, some even from their first submission alone.

      So as donnacha suggested on Jake’s post, Automattic is the only obvious party that could setup a full GPL theme marketplace and win. They already have some experience selling and supporting third party premium themes to wordpress.com users.

  3. I wonder if something like WP App Store (all plugins/themes sold/distributed via it are fully GPL) would begin to get more traction?

    I agree that direct sales should always be part of the concept (using something like the Easy Digital Downloads plugin), but even StudioPress sold, until now, on ThemeForest to help them increase their reach.

    One big advantage of ThemeForest, to me, versus WP App Store (ignoring user base) is that it has non-WordPress content. I would think a fair amount of sales are from people trying to build a *website* and not locked into a *WordPress site*.

  4. I think developers should sell through their own site and provide support and documentation through that site. IMO, a marketplace should just be a “client” for developers to showcase their products side-by-side with other developers for the convenience of consumers. That is my vision for WP App Store. I’m not a fan of Envato’s exclusivity contract preventing developers from selling products from their own site. I think that’s wrong.

    1. WP App Store could be in a very good place for this concept. I honestly don’t know much about it. I don’t buy much new stuff and haven’t sold anything. Is there a web version or is it only in-dash?

      1. I remember them being (or thought they were) in-dash only, but went to confirm before posting that as a suggestion… website tool. For me (installed it on a site already), it was a pretty slick process. Not sure if you’re a first-time user.

    2. You can browse the products from http://wpappstore.com, but need to have the plugin installed to buy and install the products. We’ve been considering allowing purchases from the web site as well, but haven’t convinced ourselves yet.

    3. Hey Brad – is everything WP App Store fully GPL? Didn’t see it specifically state anywhere and was just curious. Based on the conversation here, it sounds like it is.

      I love the concept, by the way.

      Have you submitted it to be listed Commercial page on WordPress.org?

        1. Excellent! I think I’ve just found my new go-to for discovering plugins and themes. When I finally start writing stuff to publish, you agreement has me sold.

  5. bradt
    I’m not a fan of Envato’s exclusivity contract preventing developers from selling products from their own site. I think that’s wrong.
    Up 1

    I did not know about the exclusive part. Hrm, I was thinking about getting some stuff with Envato, but no more.

    1. Right, I should have been clearer on this. I guess since you only get 33% commission on sales when you’re non-exclusive, I don’t see that as a serious option.

  6. Also, if you don’t currently use WP App Store, I’d love to hear why and suggestions on what is needed so that you would use it.

    1. Brad:
      What sort of reach do you see? My one WP.org theme sees a decent amount of traffic from the .Org theme repo. What would be the benefit of offering its successor on the App store?

    2. WP App Store is still very young so we don’t have a lot of reach just yet. But why not list your theme with us? It’s another channel where people can discover your theme and there’s no exclusivity contract.

    1. I know one theme shop owner that considers being listed early on in the commercial page of WP.org a big reason for their success. People definitely go to that page. And it could definitely do with some tweaks / enhancements. Could be a good place to start for an official WP org distribution center of commercial themes though.

      1. I’m sure that certainly helped!

        In all of my questions / arguments (though I’m really trying to not be ‘argumentative’ in this situation), I’m not trying to support Envato at all. As I’ve said several times, anything I release is/will be GPL. My concern is simply writing off a large portion of potential community contributors. I say, try to show them the light of GPL, if that’s your goal, but completely turning them away isn’t going to win anybody over, is it?

        That said, I think we should all get behind the marketplaces that dedicate to doing it 100% GPL. Good for them.

        1. Plugins are tougher because, no, there isn’t a space for commercial plugins on WordPress.org. However, I’ve talked to George from PressTrends, and he’s told me that the most effective model for selling premium plugins is to have it free on the repository and sell upgrades/extensions — so, like what Woo does with WooCommerce and Pippin with Easy Digital Downloads.

          1. Having had experience selling on CodeCanyon and obviously being on the WooTeam I would recommend the loss-leader/freemium approach as well. It’s not necessarily easy though, the product needs to be top notch to gather users/momentum.

  7. FWIW, my thoughts here: http://www.jazzsequence.com/2013/01/wordpress-and-the-gpl-round-two/

    And WordPress.org does showcase commercial themes (shops), just not in the repository: http://wordpress.org/extend/themes/commercial
    This is in addition to WordPress.com selling select commercial themes from GPL theme devs (like Woo and StudioPress).

    As a theme developer, I chose to go it alone and that definitely makes getting started much more difficult than hopping onto ThemeForest — especially after having spoken to some theme authors who sell on TF. That said, the reason behind the decision was all about the GPL. I have to side with Matt on this one that the real issue is TF taking the choice away from the theme authors.

    1. That’s one of the most thoughtful posts about the whole thing I’ve read so far, including the mainstream tech press coverage, thank you for taking time to consider all sides of the issue.

      1. Thanks, Matt. I’m glad you thought so. It’s really easy to get swept up in the debate and miss the larger picture. The GPL is bigger than WordPress, bigger than Automattic, bigger than the community. The whole “grrr Automattic vs. the rest of us” this is aggravating and vastly oversimplifying the issue.

  8. I´ve never bought a theme from Themeforest (yet). But I did think about some very good developers selling through that marketplace, and what I thought is that if I bought a theme from Themeforest I would feel sorry for its author getting paid what to me looks like just a small percentage of the sale. Why are these guys giving away such a high percentage of their well deserved earnings and signing up for an exclusivity business relationship? And, as Brat said above about the non-exclusive option, getting paid just 33% for your hard work shouldn´t even been considered an option. To me that 33% for not loosing your marketing freedom is not just ridiculous, it is even insulting.
    And I didn´t even know about the non-GPL license stuff, which makes it even worse than I thought.
    Isn´t the Internet the place where we should be getting rid of the abusive intermediary commisions? I mean, let´s be serious, we´re not talking here about the high costs associated with selecting, buying, stocking, storing, refrigerating and transporting fruits!
    So, in case you didn´t noticed before, I think that theme authors should sell their themes on their own sites, I totally agree with Matt on that.
    Don´t be afraid to go on your own, Brian. I believe the only reason why people sell through Themeforest is because they are afraid about nobody knowing them. You´re a reputable person, many people like you already, so if you make themes and they are alright, you won´t have any problems selling them. And besides , you will be happier to know that you´re the one who decides about licensing terms, pricing, affiliate programs, discount campaigns and everything that is related to your own work.
    Now, ladies and gentlemen, let me throw just the seed of an idea:
    How about a group of people getting together to launch a new and open theme marketplace, thus sharing marketing and maintenace costs? I´m pretty sure that if the right guys do it, many others will join them quite soon, even developers that are right now selling their themes through “slave trading” markets.

  9. In practice, this (sort of) separation is actually good for the commercial themes business. More submarkets, more opportunities . Some would say “but this is so detrimental for the WordPress community!”. No, such clashes are tightening the community.

    A theme author should ask himself:

    1. Is some fast cash a top priority or I prefer to sacrifice some short-term comfort for my long-term goals?

    2. Speaking about long-term, what kind of brand am I going to build? Do I want my name and business to be associated with someone else’s business? Do I want to control my business or I’m willing to pass that control to someone else.

    There is no right answer I guess. Some developers don’t want to run business – they just want to create stuff.

    But an (already) active and recognizable member of the WordPress community should have no fears of selling his products at his own place.

    1. Do I want my name and business to be associated with someone else’s business? Do I want to control my business or I’m willing to pass that control to someone else.

      Excellent points & things that contributed to my decision to go solo. But I also totally get not wanting to run a business.

  10. .org must rival the exposure of TF. Use that to incentivise theme authors to set up their own stores rather than sell on TF. It’d be interesting to see the commercial theme section become more like an Etsy store, pulling in the latest themes from all independent retailers who fully support the GPL.

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