The Greeting Card And Calendar Industry: Hidden Markets For Your Photos?
Photographic images make the card or calendar work better than any drawing or illustration. There is something about a beautiful sunset or cute kitten that makes this a $7.5 billion industry, according to the Greeting Card Association.
A great market for photographers just starting out or changing direction, greeting cards and calendars also make excellent promotional pieces. Tread carefully, though, as this is also a market reputed to have serious business issues as far as payment schedules or production requirements. Look at submission guidelines very carefully and check out the publisher’s reputation with other photographers. And though it may not be the highest paying work, it is worthwhile if you have the time, patience, and persistence to pursue these clients.
That said, in this column we look at how to find these publishers, some of the pitfalls to watch out for, and where the market may be heading. My thanks go to this month’s contributing photographers for their insights, tips, and techniques: Marc Muench, Joseph Pobereskin, Carol Ross, and Mike Shipman. Check out their work on the websites listed at the end of this column.
Shutterbug: What are the best ways or places to find clients in the calendar/greeting card market? How do you usually approach or submit to them?
Marc Muench: The most important thing to remember is that most publishers want someone with a depth of work. This means you will have a much better chance of getting business with thousands of totally different publishable images. I know there are opportunities for photographers with exceptionally unique images to get work with a limited variety but the chances are very slim. If I were attempting to get business with these publishers for the first time I would send promo cards to the art buyers/editors, call and request submission guidelines, and begin submitting as many images as I can produce. If you are prolific your chances are much better.
Joseph Pobereskin: I’ve scoured the stores where calendars and cards are sold. I looked at the design and print quality and then took notes on how to contact the acceptable publishers. I always carry a small notepad and a pen so if I stumble upon anything interesting, whether a calendar or card (or a location!), I can write it down. If a postal address isn’t available I record the name and/or URL and then look them up on the web.
Mike Shipman: For national clients, I’ve used the Photographer’s Market resource book. [Author’s note: published by North Light Books, the 2013 edition is available now for pre-order.] Locally, I looked at some of the materials produced by other local photographers and researched the publishers of those materials. I also inquired at the more popular souvenir, travel, and tourism shops about the publishers that they purchase from.
Carol Ross: I do not participate in the calendar market. From my prior experience I have found they simply don’t pay very well and will take their images from stock photography. Submission guidelines for the major greeting card publishers require all pertinent business information such as UPC, ISBN numbers, federal ID number, and business references. For example, the UPC and ISBN numbers are from Carol Ross Greeting Cards and can be scanned by all companies that I sell to. For smaller retailers, I write a personalized letter to the buyer, send my most popular samples and a catalog. I send this package by mail and then follow-up with a personal phone call.
SB: What have been the best experiences working in this market? What makes it worthwhile?
Mike Shipman: Basically, I use the paper products market (postcards, calendars, greeting cards) as a passive marketing tool rather than a money-making venture. It’s a way to keep my name out there (mostly locally) and at the same time bring in a little income here and there, but it’s a very small part of my overall income stream.
Joseph Pobereskin: I think the best experience and what made it worthwhile was obtaining free product (in the calendar market I insist on it) or at-cost product (poster market) to use as promotional items or year-end gifts for my clients and prospective clients. I always insist on my name being on the product so this works out according to plan. I simply won’t do a generic poster or calendar—my name must be prominently displayed.
Carol Ross: The value of seeing my work appreciated. I love getting a note of appreciation from customers telling me how much my photography means to them and how well my cards are selling.
Marc Muench: We all want attention for our efforts and being published in calendars is not only profitable, but also gratifying. I have been chosen to be the featured photographer for different photo company calendars, including Canon and Minolta.
SB: What surprised you the most about this market? What have been your worst experiences or difficulties?
Joseph Pobereskin: What surprised me most was how small the budgets are. My worst experiences were not being able to trust a publisher to print only the number of pieces that I licensed; and, in another case, a publisher told me that my images were “too artistic” for their calendars. I thought that was funny. It was disappointing, too, as they published several projects with another photographer’s work that I thought was very artistic.
Marc Muench: Not being paid is the worst! Calendar publishers have had bad times over the years as they get greedy and/or caught up in expanding lines that don’t work and using the actual photographer royalties to pay bills. What is surprising right now is how many printed calendars are still being purchased; I guess they will be around even in the digital age!
Carol Ross: The past few years have been a more difficult time due to the national economy. My surprise has been that I have been able to hold my own, my customers have remained loyal and I have even been able to grow the business. The worst experiences have been to take customers to court when they refused to pay their bills. I won both court appearances.
Mike Shipman: I haven’t had as good an experience in this market as others may have. Fees paid are pretty low and some publishers have exclusivity terms that, for the already low fees paid, aren’t really worth locking up images for such an extended term (three to five years or more) when they could be sent to a stock distributor, for example, where they could potentially bring in much more on the income side over the same period. If a publisher has a set of images that works for them they tend to not add new images. Non-typical (artistic) images tend to be rejected and some publishers go to a group of photographers they are familiar with and don’t take on new contributors.
SB: I understand nature and travel images are very popular with these publishers, so what have you found to be the most marketable or best-selling images?
Marc Muench: Typically calendar publishers want bright, sunny, and colorful scenes. However, there are some publishers that want more ethereal and even more moody, dramatic images. This is great for me as I love creating images with mood, crazy light, and clearing storms. Having said this, the most marketable subject in all of calendar and greeting card publishing is flowers!
Mike Shipman: Generally, images that seem to sell best are the ones that are instantly recognizable, location specific, similar (but different) to the other images on the postcard rack (for example). Usually the typical “postcard” or “calendar” shot you would expect to see on a product like a postcard or calendar; kind of generic, the view a tourist would see when they stand on the same spot. Often when I see an updated version of a location image, it’s nearly the same composition but the scene has been updated so the image is more accurate. Usually, it’s the same photographer. There is a limited avant-garde market for quirky, retro, even artistic images, but it’s a much smaller market.
Joseph Pobereskin: Hands down, the most marketable images for calendars are those of horses and cats, with dogs being a close third. Everything else is a small run.
Carol Ross: My floral images are very popular and have been for the 15 years since I have started my business, but I have to say that I have found that people love dog images and they sell very well. I have also taken regional (travel photos) and sent them to their specific markets, e.g., New York, Boston, California, etc.
SB: What do you think of the state of the business of calendar/greeting card photography today—maybe images used for “e-cards”—and what do you think it will be like five years from now?
Joseph Pobereskin: I’m not fond of current market conditions. Nobody seems to be willing to spend a decent (and I guess “decent” is subject to my frame of reference) amount of money for the artwork they’re using.
Mike Shipman: I haven’t had any licenses for e-cards yet, but it’s probably going that way, especially if the use of the U.S. Postal Service continues to decline. The rise in popularity of smartphones with high-resolution screens, tablets, and similar electronic devices not yet invented will change the way greeting cards and calendars are presented. It will probably be a while before printed cards and calendars go away, but use the book industry as a foreshadowing. That shift will probably alter license fees and I’m going to guess it will be in the downward direction, not upward.
Carol Ross: I have to admit that I personally would prefer to receive and also to send a greeting card through the mail. I have a wonderful friend who is going through cancer treatments and when she was first diagnosed I decided to send her a card each week with an inspirational message. How delighted I was to see them all sitting out when at her home recently. That has a very special meaning for both of us. I find it very sad that so many messages are sent by e-mail—it is so impersonal. I hope that five years from now my cards will still be selling to people who want to send a beautiful card with a meaningful message written by them, as my cards are not greeted.
Marc Muench: It seems printed calendars will be around for another 10 years or so. There will always be walls and printed calendars don’t need batteries or a power plug. I believe the same goes for the printed greeting card. I know it is far more respectful to receive a printed, mailed, and personally inscribed note from someone than anything digital!