Show Me the Numbers: Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing of a Tarot/Oracle Deck

While so many of us are still sheltered in place during the pandemic, I’ve noticed a spike in interest for creating a tarot or oracle deck and selling it. This is particularly relevant to artists and spiritual creatives who are looking into a stream of income that might help them stay afloat through uncertain economic times.

For you, we’ll talk numbers in self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. If this subject matter is really of interest to you, then read on. Don’t just watch the video, because I left a lot out of that video, which I’ll get to in this companion post.

TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING

Addendum to the Discussion on the Advance

The reality is most deck creators are not going to be receiving an advance.

If and when they do, it’s well below the $10K figure I used for hypothetical purposes in the video.

If you have no history of publication and no established platform to prove your marketability, the opening offer a publishing house gives you in the contract is not likely to contain any terms for an advance payment. As I noted in the video, the advance will be something you’ll need to have thick enough skin to counter-offer for. However, $10K advances for decks most certainly exist.

Is the advance even important? Earnings wise, no. An advance is nothing more than a pre-payment on the projected royalties you’ll earn. If you receive an advance, that dollar amount is deducted from your royalties check and you won’t even receive a check until you’ve earned out your advance. If you don’t receive an advance, your royalties checks begin immediately.

But when a publisher pays an advance, they become more invested in the success of that project, so they’re more likely to make you one of their frontrunners. They’ll put in more promotional and publicity efforts. They’ll send out more review copies of your deck. You’ll get more of that VIP experience.

The down side to receiving a big advance is if you do not earn out, you can kiss a second publishing deal goodbye. So a lot of strategic thinking needs to go in to deciding whether or not you even want an advance.

Revisiting the Numbers: Trad. Pub. vs. Self-Publish

Right now the mass marketplace of decks is so saturated with so many niche decks that it’s getting harder to stand out and sell big as a deck creator. Most decks will only sell about 3,000 to 5,000 copies in its first year. And unless it’s popular or has a timeless, classic feel to it, it’s going to go out of print a couple years after that.

Let’s say you were really savvy at negotiating your royalties and you make on average $1.50 per deck sold. For all the reasons explained in the video, that figure is misleading because you won’t get that amount if a deck is sold at discount. But to keep the math simple, let’s make assumptions, and then understand that actual dollar figures will vary.

If you produced one of those very niche decks and you don’t have a big following, and there wasn’t enough marketing and publicity power devoted to promoting your deck, then let’s say you sell 5,000 copies. Multiplied by the presumptive $1.50 and you’ve made $7,500. That is including any advance you might have negotiated into your contract.

A mid-tier relatively popular deck creator can probably sell 10,000 copies in the first year. After your first year, the numbers dwindle, even for perennial decks that stay in print. The decks that are flooding Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube can probably rake in about 20,000 copies sold in the first year. Even with those projections, here’s what your earnings look like as the creator:

  • 20,000 decks x $1.50 royalties = $30,000 in earnings to the deck creator in Year 1
  • 10,000 decks x $1.50 royalties = $15,000 in earnings to the deck creator in Year 1

I mean, like… I think you can earn way more working part-time shifts at Starbucks.

What the numbers are telling me is this: You can be top ticket talent in the tarot world, a phenomenal artist at the top of your industry, and you are making about $15K to $30K per year for your talent. Whut…

Now if you are a top ticket talent and an incredible artist, you already command incredible marketing and selling power. Why would you literally GIVE that power away to a publishing house?

See, that’s the catch. If you need a publishing house to give you marketing and publicity power, then it makes sense to go traditional publishing, because they have something you don’t.

If, however, you already command robust marketing and publicity power, then now you have something the publishing house needs. If you don’t negotiate an aggressively advantageous contract for yourself, you are giving away your power. Fill a giant bucket with $30,000 in cash and now light it on fire. Because that’s exactly what you’re doing.

Now let’s go back to that deck creator who has the potential to sell 20,000 decks in the first year with a traditional publisher. If you’re that good, then you can easily self-publish and sell 3,000 decks on your own. Let’s assume you didn’t get a very good deal on your production costs or you’re a good Samaritan selling your deck at low retail price points. Thus, you are only making $30 net profit. 3,000 decks x $30 net profit = $90,000 in earnings to the deck creator.

Did I say burn $30,000 in cash? Sorry. What I meant to say was go ahead and light $60,000 in cash on fire.

The advantage of going with a publisher, even in that scenario, is that they do all the work for you. You just sit home and collect the royalties. Right? Not really. Because you cannot be one of those top-ticket deck creators if you’re not doing a whole lot of genius marketing and branding on your own already. So you are already doing the work and deciding, nope, I’m not going to get paid for my hard work; I’m going to give that money away to somebody else.

“The work” you’d have to do to make that difference of $60K per year is less than part-time hours for that year. So you are basically taking on a part-time job, in addition to what you’re already doing, for an annual salary of $60,000. If you want to walk away from that, you do you. =)

Focus on the Royalties Schedule

Focus on the royalties. If you believe you’ve got what it takes to promote your own deck or you know you’ve got enough clout via your platform that you can bring in the sales, then focus on negotiating higher royalty percentages, or a multi-tiered schedule, as noted in the video.

Is the “12,000 decks sold” figure for a mass market deck unrealistic?

Maybe. I don’t know.

I’m only a mid-tier content creator, and when I was selling Spirit Keeper’s Tarot, had only about 10K followers on YouTube and just a little over that figure on Instagram. I did not advertise my deck at all. Zero advertising.

I sent a circular out via my e-mail newsletter, on my own Instagram feed, on this blog, and on my YouTube channel. That’s it. And I sold 3,000 decks in 6 months, and the only reason I didn’t sell more than that in 6 months’ time is because my print run was capped at 3,000. Based on my conservative projections, I could probably have sold 2,000 more within that period, but I just didn’t have decks to sell. I underestimated the demand for my supply.

So a major publishing house with worldwide distribution channels who can get your decks on the shelves of all the bookstore chains and metaphysical shops around the country should certainly be able to sell 12,000 decks in 12 months if I can sell 1,000 decks through social media posts only in 7 days (that’s how many days the First Edition SKT was up for pre-orders before I sold out).

For hypothetical calculation purposes, I set the time frame for one fiscal year, but even if you don’t sell 12,000 decks through a traditional publisher within Year 1, selling 12,000 decks over the course of a few years is certainly reasonable.

SELF-PUBLISHING AN INDIE DECK

Production costs vary wildly

To calculate overhead, I used standard indie specs: 350 gsm, standard finish, no special bells and whistles, though I included cost of gilding (gold edging), standard tarot size of 2.75″ x 4.75″, a standard 1200 gsm two-piece box, plus a small little white booklet (not a full-on full-color guidebook, but just one of those flimsy LWBs that fit in the box with the deck).

If a deck creator deviates from that standard in any way, costs begin to fluctuate. Any customization at all is going to hike up your overhead costs. So you cannot compare the production cost of, say, my SKT decks with an oversize deck featuring a whole bunch of customized finishes, metallic gold and silver stamping, ribbons and charms stuck on the box, with unique, proprietary, custom-size packaging, etc. Those two different deck specs will be in entirely different ballparks of cost.

Business earning secret: focus on Net Profit

At the starting point, the first thing you want to do is project your sales earnings and focus on the net profit you want to earn per deck. Ignore gross sales. Gross sales is meaningless to you.

Yes, be realistic about what you want your net profit to be, but also yes, be optimistic and confident. It’s got to be a healthy balance, and yes, that takes some skill, acumen, and high-level intuition.

Decide, in a committed way, what you want your net profit per deck to be. Is it $40 net profit? $30? $20? Once you decide on what your net profit should be per deck sold, tinker with everything else so you can maintain that net profit per deck.

That may mean you need to cut back on some of those crazy customization specs you had wanted in deck production. Maybe you need to raise the retail price of your deck by $1, or $2. If you raise your price, you have a whole set of considerations and factors to work through– will buyers still buy if you raise the price? At what set point will you start to lose your buyers?

I’ll give you a real life example of how focusing on your net profit can save your business. Read: “When 8 mm = $5,000 and Other Tarot Deck Creator Musings.”

And that was for 1,000 decks. Had it been for 2,000 decks, it would have been $10,000. 3,000 decks– $15,000 projected loss.

Short summary of what happened: I had wanted to make one teensy, tiny, what I thought to be a totally minor change to my product design. But because I made it a rule to filter every decision through the net profit lens first, I was able to catch the problem: that minor change would have ended up costing me an additional $5,000 in expenses for 1,000 decks.

Another example: After completing the black and white line drawings for the First Edition SKT, I sincerely did not think it would sell well– not because I didn’t think it was a spectacular deck, I mean, every artist thinks what she’s created is spectacular. But I understood the nature of my deck’s design would probably not be popular. I thought even 500 decks would be a stretch. So I didn’t want to front too much pocket money and risk losing out.

If I had focused on how much money I had to spend, I would have gone with a print run of 500 decks instead of 1,000 for the First Edition. My overhead for 500 decks would be higher per unit than if I went with 1,000 decks, because the higher your order quantity, the lower your cost per unit with your factory. Since I did not focus on how much money I had to spend but instead, focused on the net profit consideration model, even if I could only actually sell 500 copies of my deck, it still made more sense to order 1,000 decks and technically “spend more money” than to order 500. I hope I’m making sense.

When you commit your focus to the net profit number, you make smarter business decisions in everything else. When you go to get estimates for packing material costs, for example, you’ll run it by your net profit number to see if certain tiers of costs change your net profit. Maybe you realize you need to add more content or features to increase the appeal and marketability of your product so that you can charge a higher dollar amount and maintain the net profit set point.

You’re just less likely to make bad business calls if you commit to maintaining that net profit number. That said, the cap holding you back should be your ethics. So you also need to start with an established code of ethics and commit to never breaching your own code of ethics. Your code of business ethics is what will keep you in check between net profit and losing yourself.

Is self-publishing a deck really a viable stream of income?

Well obviously that depends.

In my Launching a Tarot or Oracle Deck course, I really get into how to critique your own product and how to tweak it so it’s marketable, without compromising your artistic vision.

The good news is what becomes a hot bestseller is not necessarily contingent on how talented of an artist you are. And… that’s also the bad news. =)

Concept matters, a lot. Marketing strategy matters even more.

I would never misrepresent by saying anyone at all can become a successful indie deck creator. What I am saying is if you are already an artist with some basic know-how in graphic design and you can write complete sentences about cartomancy, and you’re willing to do a lot of work, then you have a very, very good fighting chance at hitting the net profit figures I mention in the video.

Context matters, a lot

Without context, these numbers seem magical. They’re not.

Take into account the number of hours an artist works on deck art, the hours writing any companion texts, the hours spent on graphic design, product design, layout, and formatting, the hours of research and communications to get all your ducks in a row for the production ball to roll, the hours spent writing up marketing copy and trying to promote and publicize your deck, the hours spent on accounting and business admin, the hours you spend doing quality control, packing decks, printing mailing labels, filling out forms for international shipping, checking international shipping rates, hauling boxes of packed decks into the trunk of your car, driving to the post office, handling customer service, and stalking lost packages for customers who report that their order is missing.

Take all of that into account and suddenly the earnings feel abysmally low, not high. Because if you account for the sheer quantity of hours worked divided into those net profits, you are making about living wage, and that’s it.

Earning $90k as a small business is very different from earning $90k at a 9-to-5 desk job. With the desk job, you’re working 40 hours a week, with vacation days, sick days, and paid time off, healthcare benefits, and a 401k. Earning $90k as a small business, you’re working closer to 100 hours per week if not more, no sick days, and no healthcare.

And then think about deck projects that are joint works. What if you’ve hired a professional artist? Or a professional graphic designer to help you with the layout and formatting? What if you’ve hired someone to write your companion guidebook? What if you need to consult a lawyer, or a CPA?

This was just about the numbers

Please bear in mind that the scope of this video was limited. I just wanted to focus on the numbers. I didn’t focus on the intangibles.

In addition to the factors I mentioned toward the end of the video, when you self-publish a deck, you are full-on running a small business. It’s no longer about your art or spirituality. The moment all artwork is done, you can no longer think like an artist. You’ve got to think like an entrepreneur.

And because you are a sole proprietor, you are the CEO, you are the CFO, you are customer service, you are the marketing director, you are public relations, the communications director, all the way down to warehouse manager, data analyst, bookkeeper, administrative assistant, personally packing and shipping every deck, and runner, having to make frequent trips to the post office. You need to know international import-export regulations. You need to understand tax. You need to understand relevant laws. You’re going to get a lot of papercuts. You’re probably going to do some permanent damage to your eyesight and if you’re packing every deck while stooped over with hunched spine, you’re probably going to throw out your back, too, while you’re at it.

When you’re under a traditional publishing house, your publisher is a bit like your gladiator. They fight a lot of the fights for you. When you’re an indie deck creator, you have to roll up your sleeves and fight your own fights. And that’s while and in addition to doing everything else that needs to be done!

“Okay Bell, but these numbers do not apply to me.”

Mm… I have some thoughts. If you’re saying that because you think these numbers are too high for you, why do you believe that? (On the other hand, if you are saying these numbers are too low and conservative, then fair enough. You’re better at all this than I am, for sure.)

Nevertheless, fair enough. There are a ton of factors for consideration, so I get it. To start, if you are self-publishing your deck with a print run of 500, unless you’ve got some insider connections with a factory, you won’t be able to make $40 net profit. That cannot be your set point because at a print run of 500, you don’t have enough negotiating power to get a good deal on cost per unit. You’re going to be looking at the $20 net profit set point instead.

(This is why earlier I said a business secret is to focus on the net profit set point model and run every business consideration through that filter– you’ll make savvier business decisions that way. See, if you order 500 copies with $20 net profit and you sell out, that’s $10,000 you’ve earned, i.e. 500 x 20. If you order 1,000 copies with $40 net profit and you only sell 500 copies, 40 x 500, you earn $20,000.)

If you go the traditional publisher route and you want to run projection calculations for your royalties, follow the math formulas provided in the video. I showed you all my work so it should be pretty straightforward to repurpose with your own numbers.

For self-publishing, in the course I offer, I give you worksheets to help you with the math. That way you can calculate your production overhead and realize your net profit set point. Then, from there, do the math to estimate or forecast your own net profits. =)

IMPORTANT NOTES

In the discussion on traditional publishing contracts, we’re focusing on negotiated deals for tarot or oracle decks, not books. Book contracts are different from deck contracts.

In the discussion on self-publishing, I’m referring to production costs for a bulk purchase order with an overseas factory, and I’m not referring to print-on-demand services. The figures for print-on-demand will be very different from what’s covered in this video.

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FURTHER READING & RESOURCES

4 thoughts on “Show Me the Numbers: Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing of a Tarot/Oracle Deck

  1. "phoenix" desertsong

    Really cool stuff! I wish I had the artistic acumen to create a self-published oracle deck 😀 Congrats on your success.

    Like

  2. Excellent video and article, Bell. I self-published As an Indie Mystereum Tarot in 2008 with only 125 copies, what I could afford from a production standpoint, and then re-tooled to transform it into Tarot in the Land of Mystereum that Schiffer published mass market In 2011. For purposes of discretion I’ll simply convey that your video and this article is worth people listening to.

    Like

  3. Pingback: How Makers and Creators Might Price Their Work | Letter from Hardscrabble Creek

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