I wanted to post this for the aspiring deck creators to crush your dreams. I’m kidding. Sorta. Here’s the thing. If you’re aspiring to self-publish your own tarot deck, then I want to make sure you go in fully informed and with a very comprehensive strategic plan. Can you arrive at the other side of all this having earned some money? Yes, you can. If you’re smart. I’m hoping this post will help you to be smart.
A lot of indie deck creators kind of just wing it, forget to account for certain costs, and end up losing money on their venture. The rare success stories are lauded with such fervor that we start to believe that a financially successful tarot deck is the norm. Well it’s not. The norm is the deck creator who didn’t do the math right, and even though a healthy dollar amount was raised through crowdfunding, much of what was earned was inadvertently wasted, and the tarot deck never makes it past its first print run.
So if you plan on crowdfunding your deck production through a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign, then this post can help you ascertain how much you’ll really need to ask for. Or if you go the route of bootstrapping it yourself, what is that going to look like? How are you going to maneuver your budget planning?
To keep the topic streamlined, the only thing we’ll talk about here is money. Numbers. So we’re beginning the train of thought assuming you have a marketable tarot deck. If your deck is shit none of this matters. So assuming you have a product that can generate a healthy level of demand, let’s proceed.
In each of the tables here, you’ll see the line items are numbered along the left column. My notes will correspond with each numbered line item.
Let’s begin by itemizing your anticipated costs and expenses. How much money, in U.S. dollars, does it take to self-publish your tarot deck of 78 cards, packaged in a box, and accompanied by a little white booklet?
Also, don’t just look at the tables and end there. You have to read the line notes that explain where each expense description is coming from. Some line items you can probably cut out. Some will be cheaper for you. Though some may be more expensive. It all depends. So read the notes.
1. This is a ballpark estimate rounding up, but not by much. We’re talking a difference of cents. Also, this is for a higher-end collectible-level deck, custom-printed and sturdy keepsake box, and a perfectbound full color LWB booklet that goes inside the box. So it’s based on the specifications for deck quality I had chosen for my deck.
In my diligence, I got over three dozen price quotes and checked out different specification options. If you want to go deck-only with standard specifications and nothing fancy, you can probably get your unit price down to $1.81 for just a 270 gsm deck-only (no box, no LWB) no frills tarot product. Standard mass market quality tarot deck, again no frills, can probably cost you around $2.50 to $3.50 per unit.
On the other hand, if you want to customize the shape of your cards, opt for gold embossing, spot UV finishing, or anything out of the standard, then you’ll have to pay for it. The standard semi-gloss finish on cards will be more budget-friendly. If you want your cards to be an absolute matte finish, that can run you some extra chump change. So your per unit cost may be higher than what’s estimated here. The cheapest price quote I got for 350 gsm cardstock, deck, plus LWB was $1.75 per set, which was tempting, but when I saw samples of the decks that company made, it became clear that you really do get what you pay for. So be wary when the price quote sounds too good to be true. You may end up paying hard for it in other ways.
2. This is presuming order quantity of 1,000. If you order 2,500 units or more, your costs per unit are going to be exponentially cheaper. Personally I opted not to go more than 1,000 for my First Edition first print run. On the other end, many manufacturers have a minimum order quantity of 500, so you can probably get away with a print run of just 500, but all things considered, it’s going to be more economical for you to go with a 1,000 print run, that way they reduce your price per unit. You might not get that listed quote in #1 if you go with 500. All of these numbers is presuming a minimum 1,000 deck print run. If you’re only going to print 500, which tends to be more standard among indie deck creators, your unit cost will be a little higher than the unit cost you get for printing 1,000, but in general ballpark speak, your projected expenses will be a little more than half of the numbers you’re seeing here. Say that your unit price is $6.50 at 500 qty. and you forego physical sampling and push all shipping costs on to the purchaser. Then your cost is going to be about $5,100.00 before the contingency calculation. So don’t freak out by the fact all of this is keyed to 1,000. You can totally do just a 500 print run.
3. Yes, it is now standard and all across the board customary for deck manufacturers to charge you a sampling fee. You can skip this and then save yourself two grand, or you can opt for digital proofing and reduce sampling cost. These numbers are going to presume you opt in for physical sampling, but yes, keep in mind you can opt out and save on this line item.
4. This is the freight, import-export, and customs cost. This quote presume China to the west coastline of the United States. Freight for a different port of departure and port of entry will have different costs here.
5. and 6. You can’t just stick a stamp and mailing label on your tarot deck box, right? It needs to go in a shipping box and filled with packing materials. This is an estimate cost per unit for the shipping and packing materials, including printing labels, etc. Line Item 5 is going to vary a lot depending on what you want to put in to your packaging beyond just the tarot box. Do you want to add extra stickers, postcards, freebies, ribbons, confetti, tissue paper, colored bubble wrap, etc.? Do you need to buy a special postal label printer just for this venture because normally you wouldn’t have such a thing in your home? What extra supplies do you need to get to run this operation? The costs for all that needs to be accounted for here. Before you even launch a business around selling your deck, you need to envision what exactly your total packaging will look like, what you need to spend to make your packaging look like that, and then go hunt for some market average costs of that type of packaging.
7. and 8. These numbers assume you take on the cost of shipping and fold it into the flat fee for your deck. A lot of deck creators do not do this, but if you’re shipping from the U.S., you might want to consider this approach, given that you can get flat rate shipping or, if you apply for the permit, bulk mail shipping discounts.
9. As a deck creator, when you’re crunching numbers for costs, especially if you’re projecting estimates so you can figure out how much to ask for in a crowd-funding campaign, don’t forget to consider what it will cost you to market and publicize your product. Why does this number seem so high (i.e., $700)? First of all, it’s not. Second, this accounts for the out-of-pocket cost of decks and shipping for review copies. You’re probably going to have to set aside a dozen of your decks to ship, at your expense, in exchange for reviews and social media publicity.
10. It is standard business projections practice to account for a 15% to 20% contingency. This is the inevitable surprise incidental costs that come up in the course of ordinary business.
11. This gives you the total price tag for producing 1,000 tarot decks.
12. Doing the division, this is how much it costs you out-of-pocket per deck.
13. Don’t forget to account for possible returns and refunds. It’s bound to happen. And if you don’t account for it, you’re going to pay for it bigger than you needed to. I did a bit of digging around for market statistics and found that 10% seems to be the average rate.
14. and 15. SO…. ignore what we said in Line 11, because Line 14 is going to be a better estimate of your cost. That means Line 15 is the more realistic actual out-of-pocket projected cost per tarot deck you’re paying to self-publish.
Crowdfunding Notes: Remember that most crowdfunding host sites take around 4% to 5% of what you raise. And they also deduct for transaction fees, assuming backers pay with credit cards. Since I didn’t go the route of crowdfunding, I don’t have any experiences and insights to share. But what I can say here is if you go that route, your above projections table needs to account for that percentage and those transaction fees. In other words, if your project costs $25K and you only earn $25K, then you’re actually short the funds you need because $1.25K off the top goes straight to the hosting site and then who knows how much more gets hacked off for the transaction fees, say, another 5%? So watch out for those fees. They will add up quickly. A major reason why I didn’t go the route of Kickstarter and crowdfunding for Spirit Keeper’s Tarot is because it’s not cost effective.
YOUR PROJECTED EARNINGS
Tarot readers aren’t the only ones trying to forecast the future. If you’re in business, you better be doing it on the regular! Business projections are critical, vital. It’s a fine art and an esoteric craft of the financial analysts and accountants. So now it’s time to put some of that heightened psychic intuitive woo you’ve got going for yourself into your business projections.
16. I scoped out over 70 self-published indie tarot decks that were released in the last two (well, technically three, some right on that edge) years, to keep it recent and the numbers current. Keep in mind the numbers here are going to be problematic because quality and specs of the products run the whole gamut. (It was next to impossible to find 70 self-published decks of totally similar quality specs.) You have some using 300 gsm cardstock with no gilted edges in a tuck box or no box at all to the supreme luxury end where every spec was uniquely customized (all forms of customization in deck production costs extra $$). Nevertheless, the average is about $55.00. Unfortunately, the mathematical average here can be kind of meaningless, because the minimum was $30.00 and the maximum was $100.00, with a lot between $60.00 and $75.00. Nonetheless, just so we can keep going, and because $55 is actually reasonable if you’ve been collecting and buying indie decks and therefore are in the know, we’re going to keep with the $55 benchmark.
17. and 18. Assuming you set your sales price at $55 (for simplified math, we’re assuming this price includes domestic shipping and we aren’t accounting for international orders; obviously in real math, all that needs to be accounted for to the penny, but I don’t need to do that for you just for a blog post) you’ll need to deduct for sales tax, estimated income tax, and transaction fees, which is given in Line 17. Line 18 is thus your net sale: what you earn after deducting for taxes and fees.
19. In the first table above we established a ballpark cost of $25,938. If you make $50 per deck (selling retail at $55 and subtracting $5 for fees), then you need to sell about 519 decks before you break even and make back that $25,938. That means when you sell your 519th deck, you will have ended at 0. On the other hand, every sale after your 519th deck is money in your pocket! =) Remember: order quantity presumed here is 1,000.
22. and 23. Oops! I can’t count apparently. Sorry about the numbering typo. Okay let’s assume, to stay conservative, that you’ll sell around 400 decks after the 519. (That’s a total of 919 decks sold. Set aside the remaining 81 for you never know what. Like sending them out as review copies, for promotions and giveaways, to keep for yourself, give to friends, etc.) If you sell 400 decks (beyond the 519 to break even) at $50 net sales, you earn $20,000 after accounting for all fees and costs. So from self-publishing your own tarot deck and selling 919 copies, you can make $20,000.00.
24. and 25. I am not even assuming that you hire help here. I’m saying pay your goddamn self. What deck creators so often forget to account for is their time and labor. I’m not saying be shady about it and pay yourself like a CEO. Pay yourself minimum wage and do some simple math to get a sense of what your time doing the grunt work for selling your decks is costing you. Just because you’re doing it yourself doesn’t mean it’s free. So where I live, the minimum wage at the moment is $12.25. Let’s estimate around 500 hours accounting for just the grunt work– this is not including time creating your deck. This is the 500 hours it takes to stuff the boxes with your decks, print mailing labels, answer customer questions, etc. The minimum wage cost of those 500 hours is $6,125.00.
That means the more realistic projected net profit earned from self-publishing your deck is $13,875.00. Assuming it takes you the full calendar year to sell out, you only made a little over $13K in income for the year on a grand project that took you… how long? Took over how much of your life? Exactly.
NOTES AND COMMENTS
The problem with providing a line item accounting of costs and projections like this is it’s bound to be inaccurate. There are too many variables, starting with the very first Line Item 1. You can conceivably go quite cheap, skip the frills, forego the LWB, and don’t include a box. Or you go for all the bells and whistles and as a result, hike up your initial overhead. But if you’re keeping it to a market-competitive indie-published tarot deck, then this post offers some good baseline numbers.
In the projections I’ve provided, I do fold in cost of shipping to be borne on the seller’s end, rather than buyer’s. Again, you’ll see that customarily, indie deck creators by majority have not done that. Most of them pitch the sales price and then when you order and check out, the buyer pays an additional shipping cost. If you’re going that route, then you’ll have to tweak the accounting here.
Ideally, these are all conservative estimates, which means your actual costs are very likely to be just a smidge (and really, only a smidge…) lower. I prefer that you be conservative with financial estimates and to always leave room for unanticipated costs that almost always seem to crop up. That 20% contingency you set aside in Line Item 10? You hope that’s just for show, but the reality is almost every business proprietor somehow ends up blowing through the contingency fund. Shit. Happens. So do not omit accounting for a contingency.
I’ve seen indie deck creators with crowdfunding campaigns that offer what I would consider too many production options. Meaning if you back at X dollar amount, you get the deck only at lower gsm cardstock, no box or book. You back at Y dollar amount, you get a standard deck set. At Z dollar amount, you get the premium with gold gilted edges, higher gsm cardstock, and a big beautiful book.
Okay, what that means is this deck creator is ordering a different quantity for a whole bunch of different specs of their product with the manufacturer. Honestly, I don’t know if that’s the most economical route for a deck creator to go in. Because if you’re ordering weird quantities for a whole bunch of different specs (which would in business count as different and separate products), then how exactly are you advantageously negotiating the lowest possible unit price from your manufacturer? The larger the quantity you can order of one single item with your manufacturer, the better your price is going to be. If you try to go for all sorts of different things, you are just increasing your overhead and decreasing your profit margin. So please think about whether that’s really the route you want to go when you crowdfund.
Finally, while for sure it isn’t true for all because there are deck creators who are also savvy at business, by and large, deck creators are not savvy at business and don’t sufficiently plan their crowdfunding campaigns in a way that will ensure they not only recoup their costs and break even, but hell, maybe possibly make a little money off top to boot. However, they’re keeping quiet about their mistakes after-the-fact because, heck, wouldn’t you? There’s the embarrassment factor for starters. Also, the few who have dared to speak up have received nasty criticism that they’re just whining. So now purchasers of these indie decks have it in their minds that deck creators are rolling in all this extra dough… after all, their decks are so expensive so they must be pocketing it, right? Wrong. They’re so expensive because no one gives a shit about the artist, so everybody from the manufacturer to the postal service is getting in on the profits way before any of it gets to the artist.
What I don’t hear people talk about is the opportunity loss that ought to be accounted for (that I didn’t even account for above) that goes in to devoting time to sell an indie deck. For instance, back to the 500 pure-grunt-work hours (not including artsy work hours) that you can’t escape doing to pack, ship, log inventory, do customer service, etc. just to sell your deck. Most deck creators don’t even account for paying themselves minimum wage. Even if you do, you’re accounting for minimum wage. The 500 hours I spend doing the grunt work of selling a tarot deck is 500 less hours I could have spent billing for legal services. That means there is about 500 hours of legal work I have to say no to in order to make the time for selling a deck. The dollar difference between 500 hours x billing rate as a lawyer and 500 hours x minimum wage equals my opportunity loss.
Forget the lawyer thing. Let’s talk professional astrologer tarot reader. If I have to spend 500 hours putting tarot decks in boxes and printing mailing labels to stick on them, then that’s 500 hours I cannot spend doing paid professional tarot and astrology readings. You have to say no to about 500 hours of professional services you could be getting paid for just to spend 500 hours doing grunt work to package and deliver the ordered decks. That is the cost of your opportunity loss.
But… you are still making more money self-publishing your tarot deck than going the route of traditional publishing with one of the major deck publishers. Let’s say you traditionally publish your tarot deck and have agreed to a 15% gross sales royalty rate (I’ve heard through the grapevine that many of the major publishers start their opening offer at below 10%, so if you’re going the traditional publishing route, I hope you know how to negotiate a better counter-offer, and preferably one with a tiered royalties schedule) for a deck that the publisher is selling at $30 per unit.
At best you’re making $4.50 per deck, but let’s actually be more realistic and say you only did an average job negotiating, and got a 10% royalty term, which is more in line with the norm. So that’s $3 per deck, which means to earn $13,875.00 (net profit beyond break-even point from self-publishing your deck), you would have to sell 4,625 decks to make the same amount of money you would make from independently selling 919 decks.
Even if you negotiated a 15% gross sales royalty rate, you still have to sell 3,084 traditionally published decks to make what you’d earn from selling 919 decks yourself. Let that sink in for a minute before you read on. Even if you negotiated a 20% gross sales royalty rate, you’d still have to sell 2,313 decks to make what you earn net from selling 919 decks on your own. And if your publishing contract is talking about a royalty rate of net profit rather than gross sales, then your earnings are even bleaker.
Of course, there is the option to produce and sell your tarot deck by print-on-demand. Typically there is no initial overhead cost on your end with print-on-demand. When someone orders a copy of your deck, the POD service is paid, produces and delivers on your behalf, and then gives you a percentage of the sales price. Your profit margin in POD is shit, however. That’s how the POD service makes money. POD services also typically offer a limited selection of production specs. Your deck will need to conform with those production specs and there won’t be the wide range of customization you’re going to get if you find a custom manufacturer.
If you do your homework and run your calculations carefully, then you won’t lose money on your venture. Yes, you can do better than break even and earn money from producing and selling your own tarot deck, but for the 99%, it’s a far cry from being a lucrative business. You’re better off getting a part-time job at McDonald’s if what you want is money. I can all but promise you indie deck creators aren’t in it for the money.
So yes. Independently selling your tarot or oracle deck creation can be a smart addition to your entrepreneurial hustle. Do the math right, review what I’ve shared here, taking it all to heart, and you’ll do all right.
Worst case scenario you will break even but have this masterpiece tarot deck out there in the world to show for yourself. And that’s not a bad “worst case scenario” at all! Best case scenario, you make enough to continue bootstrapping subsequent production runs and if you can keep up a steady stream of revenue from the deck each year, that’s passive income you can fall back on each year.
So I hope I haven’t crushed your dreams, but rather, have motivated you to be strategic about how you plan the execution of those dreams.
By the way, my main motivation for sharing this isn’t to help the aspiring deck creators. I posted this for the consumers. In my discussion group lurkings, I’ve been hearing a lot of grumblings about how expensive indie-published tarot decks and who do these indie deck creators think they are charging so goddamn much for their decks. They are the reason why I decided to disclose this info. Because as a consumer, I think once you see what’s going on behind the scenes, I’m confident you’re going to be a lot more sympathetic to these deck creators.
Yes, the decks that soar to popularity are making good money (and again, let’s maintain perspective here; for every one deck you can name off the top of your head as having “made it big,” there are 99 perfectly amazing indie-published decks that tanked, and along with it, the artist’s savings). Even among the most popular tarot decks out there “earning profit,” the creators are basically earning enough to keep up their professional livelihood. That’s pretty much it. So have a heart and no more griping about how expensive that indie-produced tarot deck by that favorite artist of yours is, hmm? =)