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Are cards all they're cracked up to be?

Are cards all they're cracked up to be? - There seems to be a card for everything these days but does this mean there's a photo needed for every card too? ePHOTOzine spoke to some photographers who are trying to make a living from producing cards to see if the demand is there.

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Card by John Kennedy
 Card by John Kennedy.

Walk into any town or shopping centre and you will, without question find a card shop. The greeting card business is huge and we aren't just talking about cards for Christmas and Valentine's Day either as organisations such as the National Trust and even my local post office have a range of cards specifically designed for them. With so many buyers on the market you may be considering venturing into this part of the industry but don't do it without some caution. ePHOTOzine spoke to some photographers and card companies and they have suggested that turning your photographs into gifts for tourists or as birthday presents for relatives isn't as easy as you may think.

"This part of the industry is now virtually impossible to break into and it's even harder to make a decent amount of money," said David Tarn a photographer who has made his own cards for the last three years. "It's overcrowded, everyone wants to do it, there's only so many cards a company needs."

Not very positive thoughts but it's an eye opener. You need to do your research well and really think if your photographs are A good enough quality and B if your genre of photography is needed in the card industry.

"The key to it all is selling the products. You have to remember you turn into a card publisher and salesman not a photographer," explained David. "If you don't know what you're doing it can be very hard work and you can waste a lot of money."

If you're going out to take photographs you need to do your research and breaking into the card business is no different.

"Unless you know who is going to buy them you will lose money. You need to know your market," said David.

Study the cards that are out there, don't rely on your own opinions and thoughts about what will make a good card.

Card by John Kennedy
  Card by John Kennedy.

"I started by doing web searches for card companies and calendar manufacturers," explained EPZ member Sean Sessions who got the idea for selling cards from his wife who sells home made cards.

"I'm a member of the BFP, (which is something I'd highly recommend). The industry book you get each year gave me all the leads and addresses of the companies producing cards and a lot more," said John Kennedy, another EPZ member who decided to try and break into the card market after speaking to a picture library owner.

The Freelance Photographers Market Handbook is another reference which gives you helpful tips and contact details of card companies. It also tells you a little about what each company requires, but don't take this for granted. If you really want to have a go at sending work to the big companies such as Hallmark give them a call first. Just remember you won't be the first person to have contacted them.

"I've just got my work into a book store called Boarders Books and they have Paper Chase within them and I thought they would be a good place to sell my work. I went on their website and in the frequently asked questions section of the site was the question: Can I send samples of greeting cards? When I saw that in the frequently asked questions I knew far too many people have approached them."

Paper Chases' website states: "Please forward a small selection of samples and enclose a S.A.E. if the samples are to be returned." But when ePHOTOzine contacted them for more details about what they look for and expected rates, Robert Warden from Paper Chase said: "We get sent numerous unsolicited emails and post from photographers. Regretfully we usually only use images purchased from photo library websites." Not quite what it says on the site now is it and that's why ringing them is a must. "I would always talk to them before sending out your work, if only to find out if and what sort of thing they are looking for," explained Sean. "I have had quite a bit of interest from calendar / postcard makers but no purchases as yet. I've had no real feedback from card makers so far, I've had more success with selling my own."

Starting off small and aiming at companies in your local area or at ones who are tailored to your sort of photography (National Trust and Landscapes for instance) is probably better than heading straight for Hallmark.

"There were no decent cards of the Yorkshire Dales so that's why I made them. The shops led me in a way, they asked for them. The key is to finding a niche, you need to check that there's a gap in the market before you spends thousands of pounds on designs, cards and envelopes," explained David.

By Roughburn Photographic
 Card by Roughburn Photographic.

Many have seen David's cards and have followed him only to find the door was shut in their face.   This was because the shops already had cards with pictures of the Dales from David, they didn't need any more.

"Be prepared to work a lot for little return which will hopefully get better in the future. Also be prepared for criticism and knock backs, you can't be precious at all. What you have to realise is that there's probably thousands of discs received every week at a lot of these companies, the researchers look at a lot of images and have to be critical in their choices. I've had comments like not interested to I like the way you capture light, but we don't have the need for images of your nature through to I like your work, can you re-submit a more location based set of images," added John.

David was lucky he already had a good base of shops behind him as he had previously created calendars for them but not all are so lucky. Persistence is the key and doing your own leg work and making the effort to talk to people may turn into a bit of a slog but as Sean found out it's most definitely worth it:

"I got my exclusive by talking to a prospective customer and offering them what I thought they wanted and by talking with them I managed to squeeze out the competition who weren't offering what the client needed. I also make sure I had some samples to show them when I met them and that the quality was spot on."

Knocking on the doors of local companies have helped David and Sean but even smaller places such as local craft fairs can help too.

"I did a lot of ringing around to organise events such as this and sometimes invites can come from people who visit your website," explained John.

The whole process can be extremely time consuming, which, if you have other commitments such as a job isn't a good thing. Sourcing places to sell your work, finding printers, packaging and folding the cards and putting them into envelopes takes a great deal of time and patience. The initial outlays can be a bit of a shocker too, particularly if you don't know what you're doing.

"Don't go to the big companies they get lots and lots of offers and will rip you off. If you're going to do it publish your own," said David

If you're going to publish your own cards you need a printer and these can be found on the internet on sites such as ours.

"Companies charge a premium for the printing of cards and when you consider you have to re-coup that in sales and make a profit your initial outlay has to be kept to a minimum," explained John. "It also helps the printer if you can lay your cards up properly. The turn around can be faster if you do this yourself, i.e. my current card run was produced over night by my printer on an Indigo press. The quality is superb and the card weight is heavy at 300gsm, giving the card a good quality feel.  Bags and envelopes can be sourced on E-bay for next to nothing too."

By Roughburn Photographic
 Card by Roughburn Photographic.

Remember that some companies will be looking for different cards at different times of the year (i.e. Christmas) and some will only accept cards when they are renewing their range and will only except a certain number so check this first.

"I have 64 cards at the moment in the range, you have to keep bringing new ones out but to do this you have to take the old ones out as the shops only have room for a certain number. It gets harder to bring out new cards and designs that sell," said David. "The first time I put my cards in the shops the sales were rubbish, the second was a little better and the third sold really well. This was down to changing the designs and research. You really need to understand the market to try and succeed."

The images that are technically correct or ones that you feel are the best are not always the ones that sell well either. David has a card which features sheep in the snow which he feels is rather naff but because it's cute it sells well. Keeping the insides blank is also a good tip as this will mean the card is open to a wider market. Selling them individually rather than sets may also be a good idea as even though they wont sell for as much money more people are open to buying a single card, particularly tourists or people looking for a card for an occasion. You can also make cards specifically for people which Sean promotes through his website.

Another person who sells images to card companies is Lee Iggulden, owner of Welshot imaging, a picture library dedicated to putting Wales in the Picture. She said: "Photographs for tourist cards should not be heavily manipulated or saturated and they must be an image the general public can recognise easily."

A photo library may not seem like the obvious places to make money from card companies but Lee says her company does get requests from them.

"We have requests from companies wanting tourists spots. I supply to a specific card company.  They come to me and tell me what they want, I find it for them. Or Eifion takes it if I can not source it. They are a family business that supply to WH Smiths as well as Sainsburys and other outlets around North Wales. Those photographers then get sent to me and I deal with them."

Even if you go down the picture library route sadly it seems unless you are very lucky and can put a lot of time and effort into the industry the profit margins you will make from cards is small.

Card by John Kennedy
 Card by John Kennedy.

For those of you who have plenty of time there maybe a small light at the end of the tunnel as one company who have managed to successfully grow and establish a large business based around cards, postcards and now other photographic items are Hedgerow. The company was set-up twenty years ago and they have sold printed products to businesses, the public and tourist outlets successfully ever since. The company is based in Sheffield and their products feature scenes from areas local to them such as Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. Naturally Ed Hunt, the owner of Hedgerow was reluctant to give up the secrets to his success but he did have a little bit of advice: "The company is well established, it was set-up in 1988 and I think this is one of the keys to it's success. You will find that this type of work is incredibly difficult to do and you have to invest plenty of money and time into finding ways to make it work." Something which Hedgerow have had twenty years to experiment with. 

If you don't have twenty years to spare and you're after making a quick buck fast it seems that this part of the industry may not be for you.

Finally David said:"Unless you publish your own cards you wont make any money from it. Having said that even if you do you will more than likely loose money at first. It's all about deciding if it's worth taking that risk."

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15 Oct 2011 7:13PM
Doesn't seem very encouraging, now does it.

If you think selling pictures to card/calendar companies is hard, try stock agencies. You pay for space, and they have millions of images for their clients to look through. 40 years ago, I worked with a small agent who sold ones pictures for a 50/50 split. I managed just 3 sales, and made $150 on each. Eventually, I just stopped submitting slides, and went back to taking pictures for myself.

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