One of the most exciting days in my life (aside from having my daughter) was the day US Games sent me an email informing me that they wanted to publish my Crow Tarot. It was a pivotal moment in my life, and after over a year of feeling regret about quitting a steady day job to become an artist, I finally felt like I found my calling. I found hope.
If you have created a Tarot deck, you know the hours and hours it takes to thoughtfully design or illustrate 78 cards—a complete body of art with a soul purpose to seamlessly weave esoteric stories that offer guidance and advice to those who are willing to listen. It is truly a labor of love.
You may have created your deck for yourself as I initially did with the Crow Tarot, however, your friends love it and want a copy, and their friends are interested as well. Maybe you posted some pictures on Facebook, and before you could say Major Arcana, you had a flurry of inquiries about where to get your deck. Well, you have options! What you desire your creation to become or how far you would like to see your artwork travel depends on what you are willing to put in or in some cases, give up.
It can be exciting, downright thrilling to know that someone wants to publish your work, and the feelings run the gamut from pride in knowing that your hard work is appreciated to eagerly anticipating your first check. I can say without a doubt that it is because US Games published my first deck that my Wise Dog, Grimalkin Tarot, and future decks will be better than my first independently produced Crow Tarot. I was as green as could be when I created the Crow Tarot, and the US Games version of that deck showed me how to elevate my artwork.
What is the best way to get your work out to the world, licensing to a publisher or independently publishing your work? It depends...
Pros of working with a publisher:
For those who need validation (which as an artist most of us want some form of this...), having your work published by a reputable company is quite a boost to the ego and can help give you the confidence to keep producing more art.
Large publishing companies have the resources to attend tradeshows and have representatives all over the world; because of this, they win BIG at distribution. IF there is a demand for your deck, they will be able to swiftly get it out to the world. Creating the market or demand for your deck, however, will fall in your court—but more on that later.
A big pro here is that a well-known publisher like US Games knows how to make a quality product, and your artwork will look even more fantastic thanks to their team. I can't say it enough that US Games did a stellar job on printing the Crow Tarot!
Most reputable publishers will offer you an advance towards your royalties. This infusion of resources can really help if you are feeling stressed about money. In my case with US Games, I received $1,000 upon signing my contract, then $2,500 a few months later when all the artwork was complete, and finally $1,000 when it went to print. Overall it was about a year from the first check to receiving the last—totaling $4,500.
Cons of working with a publisher:
Handing your work over to a publisher does not mean you should quit your day job and expect to make a living from your creation. First, it can take at least a year for your deck to get printed, and because of this, the only money you will see from your creation will be in the form of the advancement to your royalties. Second, you need to pay back that advance before seeing any royalties.
It may be different for more seasoned or well-known Tarot card artists, but if you are new, expect a pretty low royalty rate. My royalty rate for the Crow Tarot is pretty standard at 7%, and with the majority of publishers selling your deck wholesale, this roughly translates to about 60 cents per deck.
It may take a fair amount of time to start receiving any royalties at all as your advancement will come out first. Also, some publishing companies pay royalty fees only twice a year. If you are planning on using your first royalty check to pay down bills or the expenses you have accrued over the year... think again.
Tarot card publishers are dealing in A LOT of decks, it is your job to keep up with social media and promoting your work. For the most part, advertising, getting the word out about your deck is up to you. If you want to make a living or even vacation money from your work, It will be your ability to drive sales and create the demand for your deck, and this is something that you will want because at 60 cents a deck, you need volume to make enough to pay back your advance.
For example, the initial volume anticipation for the Crow Tarot as a result of my promoting the deck was about 10,000 decks the first year, this roughly translates to $6,000-$7,000 in royalties. Not bad, right? But also not an amount you can live on (especially after paying back the $4,500 received the year before.) Designing one tarot card deck will most likely not lead to a living wage via royalties, however having your deck published can lead to name recognition and credibility for your next deck!
Independently creating a deck initially provides more money to the artist, but there are drawbacks there as well.
If you choose to independently produce your deck plan on wearing many, many, so many hats, you may have a hard time seeing some days. You will be in charge of it all. The creation of the art, the marketing, the sourcing of a good printer, the shipping, the questions that come in via email or social media. It can be without a doubt mentally and physically exhausting—but at the same time totally and utterly rewarding as you are in control, and each sale of the deck goes to you (minus all the expenses it takes to create the deck, but I will go into that later.)
Pros of independently producing your deck
Your art is your baby. You have complete and total creative control. The work you put into creating a 78 card deck is no small feat, and you will have the final say in how the finished product looks and feels.
You have more flexibility. If you want to make a change to one of the cards, you can just go ahead and change it, easy peasy light and breezy! There is no one there to tell you no.
Your deck will get out into the world much, much faster, as chances are you aren't publishing a slew of other decks!
You get to choose the printer. For my Grimalkin Tarot, I am looking at printers in the USA, whereas most big publishing companies work with printers in China. As I learned with the Wise Dog, with the new changes going on here in the US, working with printers abroad can become cumbersome. Independently publishing your deck gives you more flexibility in which printer you use.
You set the price for your deck, and because of this, the artist is better compensated. With a publisher, it is the artist that is at the bottom of the chain.
Cons of Independently producing your deck
The work. If you want to make a living from your artwork, plan on working—a lot. Of course, for some of us, working on something we love is akin to breathing, we notice when we stop and feel as though we are going to die.
The hidden and not so hidden expenses can really take a big cut. You probably aren't going to be able to order enough decks like the publishing companies to get a low enough cost per deck to compete with their retail pricing. They order about 5,000 decks at a time, and this cuts down their printing costs significantly. If you are ordering 500 or 1,000 decks, plan on paying more. Also, don't forget the shipping cost as shipping 1,000 decks is not cheap and will need to be factored in the total cost per each deck. In addition to the actual deck cost and shipping, is the advertising (not necessary, but it does help, especially if you had to order a minimum number of decks that you now need to sell) as well as the office supplies, shipping supplies, utilities, etc.
When you work with a publisher, you don't have to do anything in regards to shipping or customer service as they handle all of that stuff so that you can create. (Of course, if you need to work a day job to pay your bills, you may not have time to create anyway...)
The time spent managing all the tasks adds up! Procuring shipping materials takes time, even if its just 30 minutes ordering online. Bringing in the boxes, unpacking, and inspecting takes time too. Also, you will need to have a place to have everything delivered and stored while you are shipping. If you live in an apartment (or like us during the Crow Tarot, in a small basement apartment), you may find yourself lost in a sea of boxes.
Then comes the actual shipping... this can be a long and exhausting task. We live on the third floor and carrying boxes up and down the stairs can take its toll! Take a cue from the Three of Cups and find some kind-hearted friends who want to help as it can make the process a lot easier!
Deciding on reaching out to a publisher versus going it alone comes down to what you want from your creation. If you created a tarot or oracle deck as a hobby and aren't relying on what you receive financially to survive, I would say having it published is a wonderful way to go as there little to no stress involved and any money you receive is more like a bonus.
However, if you are an artist who requires a steady source of income to pay rent, bills, feed your family, etc. you may want to consider if you are giving away your work instead of getting the most out of it. There are many avenues out there to get your work in front of people who will appreciate the time and effort you committed to your project such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and it is totally possible to make a living. I can attest that there are pluses and minuses regardless of which decision you make, and while not every day feels wholly fulfilling if creating art is something that you are passionate about the right path for you will unfold. The most important thing you can do is to make art. Make it for yourself first. Make it because you need it like you need to breathe.
My latest project, the Grimalkin Tarot is currently in production and will be 100% independently published in 2020.
Learn more about this project as well as my other tarot decks, The Crow Tarot and the Wise Dog at www.mjcullinane.com
Update: Since writing this post I have gone on to self-publish 3 more decks! The Guardian of the Night, The Urban Crow Oracle, and my latest project ROAR. All of these have been independently published by me, the artist and printed in the USA.