Photography: Carol Ross
They’re among the biggest users of photographic images and yet they’re rarely the first firms that photographers think of when they start looking for buyers.
Greeting card companies generate around $7.5 billion in retail sales from the 7 billion cards that Americans purchase each year. While not all of those cards will be photographic, a quick browse along the card racks in a stationery outlet or bookstore reveals a generous ratio of cartoon cats and saucy jokes to photographs of cute dogs and muscle-bound hunks… as well as the images of flowers, romantic scenes, cars, sports players and just about every other subject that could appear on the cover of a card.
Even if photographic images make up a fraction of the greeting card industry as a whole then, just a small slice of a pie that large should still be enough to make any photographer happy.
But shooting for greeting card companies isn’t easy. The two giants of the greeting card industry, American Greetings and Hallmark Cards, swallow up 80 percent of the market alone, and they tend to use in-house photographers for their images. Selling cards through firms like these usually means choosing a career, not landing a customer.
Protect your Rights
That still leaves around 3,000 independent publishing firms though, and at least some of them are willing to take on freelance photographers. Fantus Paper Products works with freelancers, for example, as does Avanti Press, which has been selling photographic greeting cards – largely, although not exclusively, of animals — for almost 30 years, accepting around 200 new photos each year. CardMakers is about as old as Avanti Press and also says that that it’s on the lookout for new talent. Its guidelines state that the company pays around $250 for each design.
But Cardmakers also says that in return for that sum, it expects to receive exclusive greeting card rights and to be able to copyright the published work under the CardMakers banner. In fact, it’s not unusual for a greeting card company to make some fairly stringent demands for the images it purchases. While “greeting card exclusivity” is practically a standard (and for lengths of time that can range from five years to perpetuity), it’s not unheard of for a company to demand full rights to an image.
For professional photographers expecting to continue to make money out of a photo then, licensing it to a greeting card company can look like a very bad deal, depending on the company they turn to.
One alternative is to publish and sell the cards yourself. You won’t have to compete against thousands of other photographers pitching their products to card companies at the same time, you’ll be able to decide what you want to do with those photos and, no less importantly, you’ll get to keep all of the royalties for each sale, rather than relying on a one-off payment for the photo.
You’ll need to find independent stores that have the flexibility, space, style and willingness to take on your cards, and you’ll need to do the math to make sure that the production costs still allow you to sell the printed product at a competitive rate, include a cut for the retailer and generate a profit. But even those tricky bits could be the easy parts. It’s the marketing that makes the real difference.
Proprietary Marketing Methods
Carol Ross, for example, has been a professional photographer for about fifteen years. She shoots events and her images have appeared in books but she’s perhaps best-known for her range of romantic greeting cards which she publishes, sells, markets and distributes herself. She currently offers around 500 images, selling about 100,000 units a year. Some of those sales come through licensing to publishing firms such as Papyrus, and Carol also has an agent, receiving 5 percent of net sales and paying the agent 30 percent of that amount.
Photography: Carol Ross
It’s only because Carol’s images are known though – and known to sell – that she’s able to land those licensing agreements, she says.
Her cards are also easily recognizable, and her pictures of flowers and rural scenes fairly timeless, allowing her to avoid being left behind by changing trends. To keep her line fresh and provide additional choices for loyal customers, she adds new Valentine and holiday cards each season.
When Carol started marketing her cards, she did what any photographer is likely to do: she created a sample box and went from store to store. It was her husband, who has a background in sales and marketing, who added the level of sophistication and professionalism to her business that allowed her to really generate revenue.
“That is the breakthrough,” she recalled. “When I reflect on how all of this came about it was through sales and marketing that opened all of the doors for me.”
In fact, those sales methods make such a difference that Carol regards them as proprietary and while she was happy to talk about her photographic style, she refused to explain in detail how she managed to persuade sellers to take her cards.
One clue though might lie in the approach taken by Northern Cards, a Canadian greeting card company which focuses on small businesses ignored by large suppliers and attempts to make the retail process as simple as possible for sellers. All retailers have to do, the company says, is supply a small amount of space and pass over the profits to the supplier during a regular service visit. That might require a small investment in display material but it could make the marketing easier too.
According to the Greeting Card Association, a trade body, if the rise of e-cards has affected sales of printed cards it’s only been to increase overall card-sending. Senders, the organization argues, tend to use e-cards for informal moments, keeping the printed cards for holidays, anniversaries and birthdays.
That means that $7.5 billion industry is still an opportunity for photographers prepared to shoot the kinds of images that customers want to buy and who can present them to retailers in a way that makes it easy for them to offer. As Carol Ross put it:
“They would be good photographers, they should be good business people as well.”