About a month ago I finally got around to working out how to make g with my profession. Yeah, I'm flower picker.
I took herbalism/alchemy because the buffs are free and almost essential for a warrior. Probably for any class, actually. But solo'ing as Warrior is tough early on if half your bag isn't full of healing potions. When I started playing WoW I had no idea how to make money, so this looked like a free way to get my character a nice boost. Hell, you just pick it up off the ground!
Making money at it, though, requires some work. Except for selling excess herbs, I never tried very hard to "make a living" with it. And you should make g with your profession. That's kind of the point of having a profession.
The Professional Alchemist
First thing an Alchemist/Herbalist has to do is install Auctioneer. Ya need this to be able to quickly mouse over an herb or pot (and by pot I'm referring to potions, elixirs and flasks) and see its average auction house price. Without it, you're gonna spend way more time than necessary comparing prices, and/or make a lot of bad investments.
Regardless of level, always use Auctioneer's Bottom Scanner to look for cheap herbs. Doesn't matter if you can use them or not. When combined with what you're picking, you'll either level alchemy faster, or save them and resell them. There might be one or two pots you need for your class, so keep making those. Otherwise, pour all your pickings into leveling and then selling. This makes leveling alchemy almost free until you get into the much higher ranges.
The problem is, unlike mining or skinning, the initial herbs you pick aren't going to sell for much. No wants 100 more Peacebloom or Silverleaf. You can't walk through a starter area without tripping over those weeds constantly. Since people level so fast now, there's also a limited (or no) market for low level pots. Use Auctioneer to check pot prices, at any level, for your Realm.
Our number one rule for alchemists and herbalists: NEVER PASS UP AN HERB. With the exception of a few situations where you're in a fast moving group with a timer and a specific goal, you should grab every herb that pops on the mini-map.
Farming herbs is pretty easy once you get up to higher levels, too. The mobs don't bother you as much and you can run through an area and grab up as many flowers as you can carry. I'm not fond of the herbalism add-ons I've tried that supposedly help this process. They populate the mini-map with so much crap that you can't see where you are or where you're going. I much prefer the run back and forth and use the built in "Detect Herbs" feature. Try the add-ons, though. You might find one you like.
As you get toward level 30+ you'll probably pick up a few drop alchemy recipes or buy the BoE recipes in the AH. Certain vendors also sell recipes that many alchemists may not be aware of, and you can pick up new recipes and transmutes in Outland from reputation with certain factions. It's around this time that you need to start comparing the price of the base mats versus the cost of making a pot. In many cases, between 20 and 60, the herbs themselves sell for WAY more than the pots you can make out of them.
This is an economic factor tied to the faster leveling. People get way up the level ladder and realize the herbs they need are way behind them. Farming them would take forever, so they run to the AH to buy the herbs needed to level their skill. Goldthorn, for example, is a fairly rare herb, but not terribly high level. At various times, though, it sells in the AH for big g! Ghost mushrooms are another favorite. But you have to watch the price versus making Ghost Dye constantly. Which one makes more money flip flops occasionally. Look for these situations using Auctioneer.
Around level 50 many people start raiding. The 5-mans at that level start requiring a great deal of preparation, as well. For both, people need pots. While many guilds have an alchemist for this purpose, there's plenty of times when that alchemist isn't available prior to a run. Of particular need are any elixirs that boost immunities (fire, frost, nature, arcane, and shadow), called guardian elixirs, as well those that boost damage for the schools of magic (battle elixirs, in particular). This is when selling pots is often more worthwhile then just selling the base herbs. The AH is the main source for this, but selling direct is sometimes better.
Pot Master. Dude, Where's My Flask?
Once your Alchemy goes past 300, you can start making a rep for yourself, as well. You can start earlier, of course, but demand will be lower. You want to hook up with players, particularly those in instance and raid guilds, that constantly need pots. Be nice, friendly and helpful, then ask them to add you to their Friends list and whisper you when they need more. Most of the time they will supply the mats, you mix up the pots, and then give you a nice tip (see tipping, below).
When transmutes become available, hook up with a couple of blacksmiths and make Arcanite for them. Blizzard recently made this an "unlimited" transmute, so having a few clients that need it constantly can be a steady stream of tip income. (It killed the AH sales, though.) You can also sell your daily transmute to the highest bidder, but it's better to have clients that know its worth and whisper you when they need it. Not too many, because you don't want to be saying "I already used it" too much, but enough that you're burning off your transmute every day.
The bigger and better the transmute, the more you can charge (or get tipped). You'll be surprised how much people will pay for your daily Primal Might transmute or Earthstorm or Skyfire Diamond. If Primal Might is running 150g, and they already farmed the mats, paying you 10g or more is a bargain. (I've sold my transmute for as little as 2g and as much as 100g!)
Offering alchemy as a service is a great money maker, if you're into sales and customer service. You do have to be helpful and nice. If you're an ass, people won't come back. Repeat business is where the g is for services. You want people adding you to their Friends list with a "great alchemist for pots" note.
Supplying pots as a service is the best way to level past 300. You just offer to make pots for people by posting something like:
"Alchemist making [pot name(s)] free with your mats. PST!"
to the /Trade channel. Always advertise the pots you need to make to level your skill. Most people will tip as well!
Keeping certain pots "in stock" works, but you have to be really on top of what will sell. Browse the raid and pvp forums and see what guilds are "requiring" their tanks and casters to have. Check where they are in the raid progression and prepare pots for their next step by checking damage abilities of bosses. See which instances are most on farm and make pots for those raids. Opportunities like this just require a little creative thinking and anticipating customer need.
Content players, raiders and PvPers need different pots. Tanks, for example, probably don't buy huge quantities of healing potions because they rely on their healer to get the job done. Most I know carry five at a time for emergencies. Knowing that, though, you can probably make a good business brewing up high end mana potions, pots that augment healing spells, and spirit and intellect buffs. If you know certain people need it, you can make it ahead of time and have them ready. Makes a good impression.
Flasks are particularly good for this, because they are in high demand and incredibly expensive to make. I only make flasks from mats I've gathered, or get at 50% minimum market price for the AH, and carefully compare the mat price to the pot price before hand. The market changes quickly. However, having that high end stuff ready on, say, Thursday and Friday for the weekend raiders and PvP arena teams can be worth a small premium. Pay attention to what people are really using.
Show Me The Money!
Should you make pots for free? Well, yes if you post "Making all pots, free with your mats, tips appreciated" then you have to do them for free if someone comes to you with mats. After you've used this method to level, if you're getting a lot of free loaders, you might need to set prices.
There's also the issue of what is an appropriate tip. From the alchemist's point-of-view, it's whatever anyone gives you. :) Never, ever gripe about a tip. Say "thank you" to the bad ones and move on. Then don't do business with that person, of course. Bad tippers will figure out eventually that no one wants to do stuff for them because... well, they're bad tippers.
The "tip" guide below is a good place to start for tipping and for service charges (remember this is with THEIR mats):
The first method, you take a percentage of the skill level required to make the pot and convert that to silver/gold. Say, 1% to 5% and round. So, let's say you have a pot that requires a skill of 275 and you want 20 of em. 275 X 3% is 8.25 silver (8s rounded) per pot. So the tip/price on 20 would be 1g 60s. The higher level the potion, the rarer the recipe, and more difficult it is to make, the higher the percentage should be. Weigh it against the cost of buying the pot outright and the cost of acquiring the mats. Some transmutes and flasks might get as high as 20% or more.
Tune into trade and see what other people are charging. You want to adjust your prices to be competitive, but not so low that you wreck the entire market. If you're offering alchemy services for 50% lower than anyone else, you may soon find yourself with a new career... sitting at the computer making pots full time! Yuck!
Selling in-stock direct is easy as well. You want to calculate it based on the current market price, using Auctioneer, for the mats. Don't forget the cost of the flask. Then markup appropriately. You do have to check the AH, though, for the going price of the pot. If the cost of making the pot is more than the price is the AH, you're not gonna make any money.
Finally, research the recipes available carefully and go out of your way to acquire the rare ones. Most of the very high level ones are earned by rep with various factions. There's also a selection that drop fro mobs and are BoP (meaning you won't see the in the AH). Few people have those. Obviously, being able to make something few others can is usually worth the time and expense.
Blizzard definitely needs a slightly more robust economic model for professions. But using the tools available, a good hippy flower picker and can be a happy hippy flower picker in no time.