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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 yourselfas 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
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.
The Quick Answer
There are three phases that you'll go through when entering into the
postcard, poster or calendar business:
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:
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.
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 channela 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.
The Long Answer
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.
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:
No Accounting for Taste
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.
Approaching Outside Distributors
Despite the difficulty in approaching card companies, it is possible.
In fact, the process is simple:
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.
Contact the photo editors.
Ask them if they are accepting new photo submissions, and what are the
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.
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
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
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,
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.
The major challenge with all these products, cards included, is this
rule of thumb:
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.
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 wayI'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.)
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
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.
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.
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
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