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Freelancing in the Greeting Card Industry

If a company has commissioned you to design a card, you'll be told the type of card they want you to do. But if you're working on "spec" the way most freelancers do at first, stick with the more popular and saleable categories like Birthday Cards, Christmas and Valentine’s Day Cards.  By concentrating your designs efforts on high-volume cards, you increase your chances of making a sale.

The designs you create need to look good not only on your drawing board, but in the stores as well. Because many card stores still use racks which obscure the bottom half of the card, it is important to get the message - "Happy Birthday," “Merry Christmas", or other text into the top third of the card. If your cards don't have words, try to place the strongest design element where it will be seen. Also be aware that most racks do not accommodate horizontal cards, so if you are designing speculatively, try to make your designs vertical - you'll have an easier time selling them that way. If you're designing on spec, 5” x 7” is a fairly standard size. Always leave some bleed or margin room around the designs and don't cut your artwork to the finished size. This allows space for handling during the production process.

Outside verse should be created on a separate layer, not written on the illustration. When creating work on spec, it's not necessary to design the inside of the greeting card. The cover illustration is enough for the art director to decide if the look and feel is appropriate for the company. Learn as much as you can about printing, and how your design will be reproduced. Being able to scan and manipulate your artwork (in PhotoShop or InDesign) gives you a definite advantage. The type of art materials you use are important. Be especially careful not to use fluorescent or metallic colors, because they are hard to reproduce and tend to muddy a printed piece. Be aware that the finished printed card will not necessarily match the colors you used. If you want to see how the color you are using will be reproduced in four-color process, the Pantone Process Imaging Guide is a useful tool to have.

Developing Your Greeting Cards Portfoli

Your portfilio should show the best of what you can do. Think in terms of open-face spreads—what’s on the left page should have some relationship in terms of design motif, color and style to the right page. If you want to license your artwork for greeting cards, it’s best to show them in a greeting card format. If you’d like your illustrations to be used for multiple products, it can be helpful to develop borders, backgrounds, frames and supplemental icons which can be used in combination with the featured illustration to create an entire collection.

Marketing Your Greeting Cards

The first decision you will need to make is whether you want to market your work yourself, or work with an agent. The advantage of agents is that they have contacts with creative directors at a number of companies, and can get your work seen by the right people. They should also be able to help guide you as you develop your portfolio—suggesting motifs and styles that they think they can sell. An agent will handle all the marketing, billing and paperwork, leaving you free to spend time at the drawing board.The disadvantage to working with an agent is that they generally take a 40% to 50% commission. Often times, however, a good agent can negotiate a better deal than you could negotiate for yourself, making it a profitable partnership.  If you want to hire an agent, look for one who specializes in representing artists who design gift and paper products, and be sure to speak with some of the artists they already represent to get an idea of what you can expect from the relationship. To find an agent, you can contact LIMA, the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association.

If you choose not to use an agent, you'll have to market your own work, which involves a fair bit of time and expense. The first question is—which companies should you show your work to? There are literally thousands of manufacturers out there, and although not all of them work with freelancers, a lot do. So who do you choose? The best way to select a company is to see their complete product line. You can do this easily by attending one of the national or regional stationery and gift shows, like the National Stationery Show which is held in New York City every May, or the Atlanta Gift Show which is held in January and July. If you can't get to a trade show, surf the web, read trade magazines like GREETINGS, etc., (the official publication of the Greeting Card Association), and shop retail stores to see whose products you find most appealing. Look for a company whose products you like, that doesn't currently have anything EXACTLY like what you do. If you do realistic flowers, for example, and they already have a line of realistic flowers, chances are they won't be looking for someone else to do the exact same thing. By the same token, you need to target your submission appropriately.  A company that only publishes cartoons also wouldn’t be interested in realistic flowers.

Before making a submission contact the company to request their artist's and/or photographer's guidelines. The guidelines will tell you what to send, who to send it to and when to send it. For instance, some companies prefer to look at e-mail submissions, some prefer a CD, some request color photocopies. Some companies will review any work at any time; some look for Christmas submissions in September and don't want to see Valentines or birthday ideas then. If you submit your work in their preferred format, there is a greater chance that it will be reviewed.

Presentation is important. Pack your designs neatly and professionally. Any method that protects your artwork, and shows that you take your work seriously is fine. For a first submission, follow the submission guidelines and send a small package—if you have had any work published, send a few printed samples along with 6 to 10 pieces of available art.

Each piece you send out should have a design number, your name, contact information and the copyright symbol. You should keep a photocopy or digital file of the design, both so you have a record of the design and can discuss it on the phone if someone is interested in publishing it. If you want to have your work returned you should include a SASE.

Many art directors keep samples of styles they like on file, so if you don’t need your submission back your cover letter can mention that they are welcome to keep the samples. It is okay to send identical packages out to several companies at the same time. If there is a company that you especially want to work with, a larger, customized submission would be appropriate.

Keep in mind that marketing your work requires a bit amount of traveling.  If you are on a limited budget try to find an alternative accommodation instead of staying in a hotel.  For example, exchanging your home when attending a trade show could cut your accommodation cost by at least a few hundred dollars.  

For Greeting Card Designers to Remember

Treat your career as a freelance artist as a business; learn as much as you can about the business of doing business. For example, when you start licensing your work, it is extremely important to keep a ‘rights database’, so you don't license the same design or idea twice. The database will also tell you when the design becomes available again so you can license it to another company. And how do you learn these things? The best way is to network with other artists (joining an online group like that focuses on greeting cards is a great way to find other artists). Stay on top of the trends by reading industry publications and attending trade shows. Take a workshop on designing and marketing cards. Set aside separate times to design and to market your work.

There are numerous opportunities to freelance in the greeting card industry, but it often takes a lot of time and effort to find a greeting card company that wants to publish your work. If a company expresses interest in your work, but doesn’t actually commission or license anything, you can ask the art director what would make your designs more suitable for greeting cards. Many art directors will be happy to give constructive criticism, especially if they like the style. Getting that first company to take a chance on you is probably the hardest part of the business. Consider approaching small companies; especially those who are just starting out or expanding, and don't have a regular stable of artists.

Be willing to work for a small fee and lots of samples at first. The smaller the company, the faster they tend to go to press, and the faster you'll get your samples. Having printed samples establishes credibility, which is important in getting more work. Once you've been published and have the printed designs to prove it, it's much easier to get another company to license your designs.

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