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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Business  >  Postcards

Selling Posters, Postcards and Calendars

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 4879
1 Introduction  (391)
2 The Quick Answer  (467)
3 The Long Answer  (620)
4 Approaching Outside Distributors  (888)
5 Home-based Distribution  (726)
       5.1 Home-made Cards  (228)
       5.2 Professionally-made Cards  (197)
       5.3 An Example  (733)
       5.4 The Smart Way  (300)
       5.5 The Payoff  (205)
       5.6 Summary (124)

This page has 13 images dated from
Jun 10, 1998 to Sep 11, 2010
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"Wazaaaaaap!"
(California, USA)
animals, dogs, sammy, vertical, yawn, photograph
Here's an excerpt from an email that I got from someone that might ring a tone of familiarity:

    "I enjoy taking photos as a hobby and have done some lovely work. I would love to be able to use my work on calendars and/or postcards, but I don't know anyone in the postcard companies, or anyone that can do this for me. What should I do?"

At one time or another, each of us has had exactly the same feeling. It's a tempting prospect to just shoot photos of beautiful landscapes or cute pets or children, and then sell them as postcards, greeting cards, posters or calendars. But, as illustrated by the above email, it's hard to know how to get started, or if it's even possible. It's not so much a question of whether it's possible, but weighing the pros and cons on two different strategies: whether to find someone else to do it, or do it yourself. The crux of the problem lies in that the costs for producing products like these are not much less than what people will pay for them. In order to make money, you need to sell a lot of them. Now, if you're thinking to yourself—as I did at one time:

    "I'm not that serious about making money; I just want to try."

Ok, that's fine. But the concern isn't about making money, it's potentially losing it. Reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite stock market investors:

    "The way to make a million dollars is to invest a billion dollars in an airline."
      --Warren Buffet

What major airlines and small-priced commodity products have in common is that they require a lot of investment just to keep from losing your investment. And you can't just do it in small doses; it's like feeding an elephant. You can't decide to just feed it "a little bit" because you don't want to have a large animal in the house. You either sign up for the big animal, or you decide to get a dog. This effort is going to require time and attention, or you'll end up with a large mound of postcards in your garage. However, it can be done, like anything else, if you go about it intelligently. So, don't let me talk you out of it... yet.

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El Capitán, Yosemite Valley
(Yosemite, California, USA)
california, el capitan, merced, mountains, nature, reflections, rivers, vertical, water, west coast, western usa, yosemite, photograph
There are three phases that you'll go through when entering into the postcard, poster or calendar business:

1 Sell the products yourself.
Once you go to the effort of printing and finding shops to carry your products, you may think it's gotten too costly, time-consuming, and frustrating. Go to step 2:

2 License your photos to a publisher whose in the business already.
This is a challenging effort, and while you may occasionally find a company that licenses an image or two, you may have learned so much about the inside of the business, that the remuneration they offer suggests has you reconsidering step #1.

3 Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
You can swap step 1 and 2 for a long time before you get a sense of which is really the better option. In so doing, each time thinking the other is better, you'll eventually settle into the one that feels more right to you. It's a classic case where the grass is always greener on the other side. Which side is actually greener depends on your finally nailing down what it is you want from photography (...which is probably where you should have started this process in the first place).

Getting back to basics, the secret to making a postcard effort succeed is one word: distribution. The cost of making postcards or calendars is close enough to the same price as what people will pay, that the profit margins (after you factor in unrelated costs) are slim. The only way to reduce overall costs "per unit" is to print a higher volume of units. And that's where distribution comes in. That is, you need to move this product through a distribution channel—a set of outlets (sales reps or stores) willing to take your product on an ongoing basis. This requires keeping in touch with them, checking on inventory, filling empty slots with new products, determining which products aren't selling, getting clients to pay their bills, apologizing for missing last Tuesday's appointment, and acknowledging that your idea for last year's Christmas card, "Santa Gets Sued," might not have been a great idea.

Let me be clear at this point: some people find this process very enjoyable. I'm not being satirical; it's true. And there's no shame in it. This is a very people-intensive business, and those who thrive best are those who love engaging socially. As long as you are clear in your goals and ambitions, achieving them is easier and more enjoyable, and this example is a perfect one. If you're not eager to do all this legwork, the objective is to find other people who'll do it for you. So, as you discover your tolerance for different things, you'll vacillate between steps 1 and 2 till you find your groove.

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Bathtub Fun
(San Francisco, California, USA)
bathtub, bubbles, california, horizontal, people, san francisco, tub, west coast, western usa, photograph
Ah, you're still here. Well, if you're still reading, I suppose I haven't scared you off yet. Good, because I never want to discourage the entrepreneurial spirit, and there is an opportunity for anyone that has the wherewithal to go through with the effort to have a tidy little postcard business. Of course, if you don't care about making much money because you just want to have the fun of making cards that you can send to friends and relatives, and sell in little corner shops in your neighborhood, that's great. You'll probably break even and get lots of praises.

Whether you do it yourself, or you go to another company to sell your work, there are two main barriers to entry in the postcard/calendar market that you'll immediately run into.

blue-bullet.gif Competition

First, there are millions of people trying the same thing. Professional photographers aren't the only ones that take great pictures. Amateurs have really good ones too, and although they may not take the business as seriously as the pros, their sheer numbers make them formidable competition. Photo buyers, whether they are publishers or small gift shop owners, have to sift through so much material, that it's hard to get to the good stuff, let alone yours. The irony of all this (or perhaps the reason for it) is that despite the quantity of images they get, there seems to be a large quantity of poor material for sale. This explains the next barrier:

blue-bullet.gif No Accounting for Taste

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Fourth of July Fireworks
(Whitefish, Montana, USA)
america, fireworks, montana, north america, united states, vertical, western united states, western usa, whitefish, photograph
While I'm sure you are convinced that your photographs are superior to everyone else's, everyone else often thinks the same thing. So, in a world where everyone's pictures are great, what matters is the taste of the person buying it. Because people's time is limited, they have to optimize what little of it they have to review submissions. This results in quick, decisions, which often "regresses towards the mean." That is, they end up making safe choices, which are similar enough to other products that have proven to sell. (You'll see how this concept affects your own decision-making later, when we come back to it.) One photo editor actually told me,

    "Even if I find something uniquely different, I look at statistics: they won't sell any better than the usual fare anyway, so why take the risk?"

Ok, it's not quite that depressing. When pressed, the editor also acknowledged that it is great to find something new and unique, but it's not a goal that they go out of their way to achieve. Cards that don't sell can drag on profits quickly.

Working with shop owners is much easier, because they don't get approached quite as often by photographers. They will often take more time to consider your work, but your competition is the same, although from a different source: the postcard companies you tried to approach before. Shop owners order batches of products in bulk from the big suppliers, so the same principle applies. Hence, the reason why the grass always appears greener on the other side: it sometimes seems easier to get into a store if you go through the publishing channels.

The one advantage you may have with the shop owner is: local color. Chances are slim that major, nationwide card companies are going to provide a whole rack of scenics from your local landscape (unless you live in a major national park, or heavily touristy city). This may be a potential "in" for handling it yourself.

Now that we've addressed the barriers to entry, let's discuss the two options more closely. First, we'll address approaching product companies, then we'll discuss doing it yourself.

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Lady in Red
Venice, Italy
(Venice, Italy)
color composite, color/bw composite, europe, gondolas, grand canal, italy, venecia, venezia, venice, vertical, photograph
Despite the difficulty in approaching card companies, it is possible. In fact, the process is simple:

1 Go to a search engine and type "postcard companies".
As I write this, I just went to www.google.com to perform this search. The very first link (which may not always be the same for you, remember), is a site that lists all the UK-based postcard companies that exist. For each company, it lists their website and phone number. Other lists come up as well. You have a huge supply of postcard retailers to choose from. Even if you're not looking for postcard companies, pick your product. The process is the same.

2 Contact the photo editors.
Ask them if they are accepting new photo submissions, and what are the submission guidelines?

Simple, just as I said! However, I didn't say you'd be successful at it. It's not that there's a "better" way; this is one of many, but almost identical methods: you have to search who's who, and then contact them. The hurdle to clear during this phase is the photo editor. (If it's a larger company, it's the assistant photo editor.) This person's job is like the goalie in a soccer game: to keep the photographers out of the net. Before you even get to other questions, you'll probably be told that their list of photographers is long, but that they are always interested in seeing fresh new stuff, so you should send it in. "However," the editor continues, "your chances are limited." You'll always get encouragement to send material, but discouragement that anything will come of it.

Here's where you can turn this to your advantage: ask what percentage of total submissions they accept? How many images do they usually take from a photographer? How often do they use the same photographer's work? This is all to help you learn what it's like on the other side of the fence and to set your expectations properly. If you're getting good, candid feedback, find out what the real pay scales are like so you can see just what it is you're missing... or not? What are the payments like? What kind of returns are their "best" photographers get? And what about the "average" photographer? Or even you if they were to take even one image a year. (This, with the longer-term sense of what it might be like to be the supplier for a dozen different companies.)

If you're still at it, probe further: try to get a characterization of what their typical photographer is like? Are they full-time pros, or average people that send in good shots here and there? At least you want to know who you're up against. If you get vague responses, like "they're all over the map," then you'll see that you're really just playing a lottery game.

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Jim in Ocean (4)
(Nassau, Bahamas)
bahamas, capital, capital city, caribbean, cities, horizontal, island-nation, islands, jim, jim lisa, nassau, nation, ocean, resort, royal bahamian, sandals, tropics, vacation, wedding, photograph
No matter who you are, everyone, even the top pros, dramatically underestimates the vast amount of work, time and (yes) money, required to get images in front of a photo editor's eyes. (The money often comes in the form of making portfolios, many of them, each better than the last, all in an effort to make an even better impression than before. And then sending postcards, and then more postcards.) If you get your photos selected, set your expectations for first-timers. One or two is typical. Three or more is unusual. How much you get paid is another question entirely. You might believe that "money is not the issue," because you'd just like to see some cards made out of your nice photos. But, by the time you've gotten to this point, you may feel differently.

Oddly enough, you may find that what you've done is build a small stock photo agency, and your opportunity to get published is much greater if you'd widen your horizons beyond just cards and consumer products. This is why it's very rare to find photographers that sell exclusively to card companies. Most have more generalized photography businesses, where a small percentage of sales happen to go to that sub-segment of the market. Accordingly, most companies that sell these products select from a wide cadre of photographers. I'm a good example of that; I've sold many images to postcard and calendar companies, but they account for a small percent of my overall business, just as I am but one of hundreds of their suppliers. While some photographers have gotten their "in" by approaching such companies, their numbers are a small percentage of those who've tried.

If by the end of this exercise, you feel compelled to continue, you have a stomach for the business in general, and I'd say you're a prime candidate to sustain a serious photo business than one simply focusing on cards. It may be that you start in this area, so I would certainly not discourage you from attempting it. My dim forecast for success in this business is a mildly unsettling honesty that must be expressed if for no other reason than most people who want to do this start out with unrealistic expectations. The bright side is that those who do have realistic expectations don't see this characterization as "dim" at all; they find it refreshingly challenging. If you find it's not for you, consider:

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Tulip Festival
(Washington, USA)
america, flowers, north america, pacific northwest, tulips, united states, vertical, washington, western usa, photograph
Producing and selling products yourself is fun and rewarding, but it requires a concerted effort and smart financial planning. Depending on the kind of product, timing is also a factor. For example, calendars are the hardest to sell because the window of opportunity to sell them is limited. Whatever doesn't sell during that time-frame is lost money. Posters are similarly difficult because they are physically bulky, requiring higher production costs, and considerably more space in a retail outlet to sell. Thus, fewer outlets sell them, opting instead to sell higher margin (and higher volume) products like greeting cards. Go to your local mall that has a poster shop inside and ask the manager what topics sell best. (This will be an eye-opening experience in itself.) The market for scenic posters is more limited than photographers would like to believe. That said, it can be lucrative if you find yourself already successful at selling cards within a certain target market... which leads us to the crux of the discussion: selling greeting cards and postcards.

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San Francisco Moonrise
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, cities, cityscapes, horizontal, san francisco, sunsets, west coast, western usa, photograph
The major challenge with all these products, cards included, is this rule of thumb:

blue-bullet.gif Production costs are not much less than what people will pay for them.

To keep from losing money, you have to sell enough cards to at least cover the cost of production and other expenses to get them onto store shelves. As it is with these products, the cost goes down as quantity goes up. It actually costs more to produce cards in smaller quantities than what people are willing to pay for them. So, you have to print in higher quantities to get the prices low enough that the retail price brings in money (or keeps you from losing money). This usually translate to about 2,000-3,000 cards. And that's for one individual card. If you're going to sell cards, you have to sell more than one image. To move that many cards, you've got to have at least 25-50 stores selling your work. So, the first thing you need to do is see if there are even enough places that can sell your cards.

If you haven't already done so, spend some afternoons going to a few outlet stores in your areas to get an idea of what's out there. What kind of stores sell cards? Gift shops, of course, but also pharmacies, grocery stores, gas stations, etc. The options may be limited or great, depending on where you live. If you're thinking of producing and selling cards strictly online to eliminate the distribution model, start by reading lark-web. (Hint: selling on the web requires getting traffic, which is another kettle of fish all together.)

Greeting cards (4x6 or 5x7) usually sell between $2.00 and $3.50 per card, depending on variables like size, store location, photo subject, and the physical materials of the card. Talk to store managers and ask which cards sell well and which don't. You will invariably hear how they were initially surprised on the returns, both positive and negative. (Again, there's no accounting for taste!) You don't want to end up with a garage full of unsold cards, so you need to go about this intelligently. The variables in your control are:

  • The photo on it (and any optional text inside, if it's a greeting card)

  • The type of card (greeting card, postcard, size, materials).

  • The places where you'll sell it. (Or rather, the shops that sell for you.)

  • The production costs and other business matters.

See Selling Photography Prints for a discussion on the kinds of issues involved when determining what kind of art sells, but also realize that selling postcards and greeting cards isn't like the art market. In this context, your target audience is the "consumer," as defined in that chapter. As general market data proves over and over, anything seems to sell well to the consumer if you position it, package it and price it right. (There are as many shrugging shoulders on why a product didn't sell well, as there are for those products that did.)

Similarly, there's no point in discussing where you sell your wares because only you know your local market. At this point, it's a matter of choosing your business model: which image, which format, and how you're going to manage production and distribution.

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Monument Valley
america, arizona, desert southwest, horizontal, monument, monument valley, north america, strike, united states, valley, western usa, photograph
There are two ways to produce postcards or greeting cards. You can make your own, or have them professionally done. Making your own requires making a bunch of prints at your local photo lab, and gluing them to greeting card stock. See Selling Photography Prints for examples on how to make prints cost-effectively. Assuming Wal-Mart style pricing (about $.24/print for a 4x6" card), half the battle is done. As for the card stock to attach it to, search the net for "greeting card stock" and you'll eventually find prices for quality products that range from about $.50 to $1 per card. You can make some extremely attractive and professional-looking cards this way—I've seen some from a classy a stationary shop that cost up to $2/card, but can sell for $6/each in the store with your pictures on them. Keep in mind that the higher the cost, the volume drops considerably (both in sales and production), which eat into your margins. The trade-off between high-margins and high-volume is not an easy nut to crack for any business.

You can usually buy the envelopes at the same place you get the card stock. Put them all together and you've got a generally salable product. (Getting them to retailers may require extra packaging, but those are details that you'll run into as you go through the process.)

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Hanging Laundry
(Venice, Italy)
europe, italy, laundry, venecia, venezia, venice, vertical, photograph
The other way to produce cards is to have them professionally made. I have used many card-manufacturing companies using a variety of styles, gift boxes, etc. Thankfully, most of these were produced for clients, who use them for invitations, Christmas cards to their clients, and other uses that aren't always for commercial resale. So, I have learned many lessons of production without assuming major investment risk of my own. At the time of this writing, I've found really good greeting cards (with envelopes) can be made for about $1.50 each, yielding about the same profit margin as making them yourself. As time goes on, the number of companies that produce the same quality is growing, with prices dropping just as fast. (This price drop is often lagged not far behind in the drop of retail prices, too.)

Choosing a company include the usual word to the wise: printing and service varies dramatically, so don't just go with the cheapest provider you find on the internet. Everyone will send you a sample kit of products so you can see what yours will look like, so you don't need to shoot in the dark.

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Lovers in Cloisters
(Patan Darbur Square, Kathmandu, Nepal)
asia, cloisters, kathmandu, lovers, men, nepal, patan darbur square, vertical, photograph
Let's assume some numbers to illustrate a real business scenario. For this example, we're going to produce ten different 4x6" greeting cards for distribution to ten stores in your local community. If you're going to have a rack where each photo has a stack of ten copies, that's 100 copies of one photo to cover all the stores. Using either manufacturing example above, if it costs $1.50/card to produce 100 copies, that's $150 for per photo, times ten different photos, totaling $1,500 just to make the cards. Stores often take 50% of the list price of what sells, which is where reality strikes. If the card sells for $3, you get $1.50 back, only covering your expenses. So, you're spending $1,500 just to get it back... and that assumes all your cards sell. Your best-case scenario is to "lose nothing." If any single card doesn't sell, you are now losing money. And I didn't even mention other expenses like the racks that hold the cards, the time monitoring the stores, seeing which cards need restocking, keeping your retailers in touch with you, getting them to pay you for what was sold (much easier said than done), and general accounting and management. If you go down this route, before you know it, you'll be running a real money-losing business! (People often wait till they're heads of very large companies before they make such catastrophically poor business judgments.)

And it gets worse from there: usually, ¼ to ½ of postcard inventory sells "well," leaving the rest to find their way to your next garage sale, where you'll be happy to give them away for $.10/each.

If you're thinking that postcards are less expensive, yielding a higher profit at lower costs, it's true, but only marginally. Besides, the math is exactly the same. The cost to make postcards ranges with quality and quantity, but this is a mature business, so I'll just jump to the end for you: The retailer is going to take 50%, leaving you with about the same amount of money it costs to make the darn things in the first place.1

If it isn't entirely obvious, the real key to all this is "volume," which brings us to Economics 101, as taught in every school that isn't found in a communist country: "to make money, you have to produce the product for less than it costs to sell it." As obvious as that is, it's astonishing how many people try to get into the postcard business without thinking through all of the actual costs. Alert readers may be chomping at the bit to say, "just charge another 10% on the retail price, which you share with the retailer, giving you a 5% margin." Oh, if it were that simple. Retail pricing is such a difficult and fickle art that moving ahead with this logic is more likely to produce wider losses than before because you mis-judged what the consumer is willing to pay. To illustrates this point, did you ever wonder why things are priced at $4.99 and not $5? That one little tiny penny has a huge effect on the perception of price and value in the consumer's mind, and despite the fact that we're smart enough to build things like rockets that go to the moon, years of studies have continuously proven that more people will buy a product that costs $4.99, not $5. If that surprises you, then you don't know nearly enough about retail pricing of consumer products. It's not that you can't learn (the easiest way is to copy other existing successful models.) But until then, don't just assume that you can just bump up the price by 10% and suddenly become profitable.

Now, you may be thinking, "Ok, wise-guy: why not print a lot more in one batch so reduce your costs of manufacturing per unit, yielding a higher profit margin?" The obvious retort is: that's precisely what you do when you've figured out exactly which cards will sell well, so you don't take such a huge bath on your early losses. Try to start out that way, and you'll lose too much money early on for you (or your spouse) to have the stomach to keep it going much longer. And this is what brings us to the next section, where I compound on the theme.

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Nursing a Healthy Business
(San Francisco, California, USA)
babies, birth, black and white, boys, infant, jacks, jills, nursing, vertical, photograph
The previous example illustrates how direct, indirect, and unrelated costs all add to the risky investment of a business model that you don't yet know. How do you minimize your loss, while optimizing return? The traditional answer is to look at the obvious: per-card prices drop with higher quantities, but reprints are even less expensive, which makes the per-card resale far more profitable. So, you want to virtually "jump" to the point where you can just have your proven images selling well, so you can be a supplier using mostly "reprint orders." How do you get to that point without losing a lot of money? Here's the counter-intuitive answer: be willing to lose a little bit of money.

Here's the logic: instead of printing 100s of each card, only print twenty of them. Instead of $1.50/card, the price goes up to $2.20/card, but you're buying 80% less. Instead of targeting ten stores, target one or two. You're buying 80% less again! Your goal isn't to make money, it's to lose as little as possible so you can figure out which products to really invest in later. Sure, you are guaranteed to lose money, but it's a controlled loss, thus, limiting your downside. Now, instead of your investing $15,000 and potentially losing $10,000, you're only investing $5,000, and potentially losing $4,000. As a percentage, your loss is greater, but in real numbers, you've "saved" $6,000 to learn a very important, and potentially profitable lesson: what products sell well, and which don't. As you gain this information, you can then widen your production and distribution to outlets where your success rate is much better known, and you can get to that coveted position of just refilling existing stock, at much higher margins.

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Tucson, Arizona
(Tucson, Arizona, USA)
america, arizona, cactus, desert southwest, north america, saguaro, sunsets, tucson, united states, vertical, western usa, photograph
Going out it "the smart way" is just an example to illustrate ways to test your market while limiting your risk. Your actual numbers may vary a lot, but the concepts remain the same. You might even use the same "test market" technique to experiment with new images while you're expanding in the known areas. This form of "interlacing" is how you use the profits from proven sales to finance the development of new products.

Hey, remember those calendars and posters I talked you out of earlier? Now may be the time to test those with less-risky images that you know sell well. It takes experimentation to know for sure for your particular photos, your market, and the demographic of your audience, which is why it takes an investment with a potential loss to gain the confidence to make a bigger investment.

Coming full circle to the beginning of this entire thread: if you're successful at doing this, there's a very high likelihood that some other, major card publisher would be extremely interested in not only carrying your work, but even acquiring your business! This is why it's wise that you set it up right back in Photo Careers.

Independent of all these factors, the real lesson you'll learn is what it's like to be a distributor. If in the end, you figure you might as well work with an established postcard company that already has inroads in doing this exact same exercise, then we've circled the discussion again, but in the opposite direction. The grass is always greener on the other side.

Despite the challenges you face in this business, the overlooked benefits are not those of financial return or even time: it's accomplishment. Add to that the feeling of doing something productive with your art, and you find potential value that shouldn't be discounted. Still, to do this without breaking the bank requires starting with good research and thinking ahead.

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