Some time ago, I offered insight into how to create your own oracle or tarot deck for your own purposes. I promised a follow-up article that explored the world of self-publishing and had a recent request for this information, so here it is! This article starts where the last one left off–I’m not going to talk about creation, intention, or media in this article but rather share the aspects of taking something that you have already created (or are in the process of creating) and sharing it with the world. While there are certainly a number of considerations at play, creating an oracle or tarot deck that you release to the world can be a fantastic experience. I realize a lot of people don’t need this information, but I’d like to put it out there for those who might find it helpful in bringing their own project to realization.
I’m writing this article from my 10+ years of experience as being a self-published tarot and oracle author and illustrator. My first self-published deck was the 1st edition of the Tarot of Trees, painted in 2005-2008 and self-published in 2009. 11 years later, we’ve just released a 10th-anniversary edition (the 4th print run) of the Tarot of Trees that was fully redesigned (both deck and book). I’ve also released the Plant Spirit Oracle deck in 2019, and hope to release my upcoming Tree Alchemy oracle in late 2021 or early 2022. Currently, my sister and I work together to produce and release these decks (I handle art, design, layout, and printing and my sister handles marketing, sales, shipping, and customer relations).
Benefits and Drawbacks to Self Publishing a Tarot or Oracle Deck
I want to start by sharing some of the benefits and drawbacks of self-publishing so that you have a sense of what you might be getting yourself into!
Benefits: There are several significant benefits to self-publishing your own deck. The first benefit is that you have full creative control of all aspects of your project. This means everything from the card size to the cover art is in your control. When you involve a professional publisher, you relinquish a good deal of that control and you can end up with something that is very different than your vision, depending on the publisher. That doesn’t always happen, but I’ve heard enough firsthand stories to know it does!
The second is that you can decide the timeline for your project to be released to the world. If you are seeking a publisher, it may be several years until you secure a publisher to print your deck. Most publishers take 6-12 months to respond to you after you prepare a submission packet (for example, my first book, Sacred Actions, is coming out in 2021 but I finished it in 2016–it took 4 years to find a publisher). With that said, your timeline might be quite a while: both of the decks I have out took several years to finish, even with me working on them regularly–doing 40 or 78 high-quality paintings simply take time, finding a printer takes time, etc. So while you control the timeline, it is unrealistic to think you can do this quickly.
The third has to do with return on investment. Typical contracts with a publisher often offer 5-8% of the profits back of the deck to the creator. Thus, depending on the deck, you might not see much of a return on your time investment even if you sell a lot of decks. If you self-publish and people like your work, you receive 100% of the net profits. You will be able to create an additional income stream from your project, which can fund other projects, donations, and more. With that said, producing Tarot decks are not get rich quick schemes–they are labors of love that require years of dedication and work.
Drawbacks: Self-publishing certainly has its drawbacks and most of them are centered around doing everything yourself. First, you have to have–or learn–the right set of skills to self publish. This includes art and design skills. Specifically, you must be able to learn scanning, editing, and layout. Most people use the Adobe Creative Suite (namely, Photoshop and Indesign) for this, but, those programs can be expensive, so you can also use Gimp or other open-source options). These skills aren’t particularly hard to learn but do require some investment on your part. Reaching out to friends or others who may already have some of them and can teach you is certainly a good approach.
The second potential drawback is that you are running your own business, which includes handling all taxes, bookkeeping, and everything else. Some people might be good at this (again, this is another skillset to learn) and some may not. Some people may want to do this and some may not.
The third potential drawback is that you will be serving as your own distributor (e.g. you are packing and shipping orders). This requires a time commitment each week, access to the post office, and so forth.
The fourth potential drawback is that you will require thousands of dollars, at a minimum, to invest in your venture. If you already have a good social media presence or way to reach people who might support your deck, and you can launch a successful crowdfunding campaign, you can raise a good deal of what you will need to invest. But if you don’t have this avenue and haven’t built a social media presence, you might have to front much of the cost. The first time I published the Tarot of Trees, I invested all of my own funds, which was terrifying. For the more recent release of the Plant Spirit Oracle, we did pre-orders through a crowdfunding campaign on Indegogo and were able to earn what we needed. We offered discounted decks, book and deck sets, along with handpainted and handmade art that people could purchase.
To give you a sense of the costs to launch a self-published deck and boot set, I’ll use the Plant Spirit Oracle as an example. The Plant Spirit Oracle required a $4000 print run, the $1000 in shipping and import costs, the funds to ship out all decks people preordered ($1000), packaging and shipping supplies ($150-200), professional editing ($500), an ISBN and Barcode ($250), and as many books (printed on demand) as we needed (at about $6 each). We set our goal at $8000 which was able to cover most of our costs. I will say that you always will need more than you think–because things come up. For example, the shipping prices went up quite considerably between the campaign and the release, and we had other odds and ends we forgot to account for.
Self Publishing: The Process and Considerations
If I haven’t scared you off based on the above discussion, we can now get into the business of talking about the actual process of self-publishing a deck. I’m going to walk you through my own process, step by step.
Have a good idea. People are always looking for interesting and unique oracles and tarots to add to their collection and there can be a very good market for this work. Start with a solid idea and make sure that your artistic skills are up to the task. If you aren’t sure of your artistic skills, take a few classes and practice–art is like any other skill. You can improve drastically with patience and persistence, as I’ve discussed here in terms of my own work. Once you think you have an idea, complete a few initial cards and sit with the idea a while. If you have people who you trust, share the idea, and talk through it with them. Do some Internet searching to see if your idea is unique. Do some planning and thought, as I discussed in my first post on this topic.
Decide on your name and register domain and social media names. Since there are a lot of oracles and tarots out there today, you might want to make sure that your idea and name is unique and not too close to other names. Spend some time naming, as it is a critical part of your project. Once you have a name, you will want to register your domain for that, establish a hashtag, as well as establish a social media presence. You could create an entirely new social media presence, or, if you already have one, use that with hashtags to share your project (for example, all of my artistic pursuits run under the Instagram handle @druidsgardenart but I’ll tag #Tarotoftrees as I work on that project).
Decide on the size of your work. You have to make sure that you are producing your work in a way that will be easy to transition to a print run. Consider the following: what size do you want the final cards to be? Do you want your cards to have a border? Will your cards include a card name on the bottom? What shape might you want your cards to be?
One of the ways to get really crisp, nice artwork on a card is to produce the artwork larger and then reduce it when you lay out the deck. For example, I painted the Plant Spirit Oracle at 11×14″ each with enough for bleed (so I could produce these borderless), and they were 3.5×5.5″, which also included space for a title and key meanings.
As you are making this decision, there are some things to know (and I’m not going to describe them here because there are lots of good tutorials out there and this post will already be long). First, you need to learn about aspect ratios, so you can produce your work at a size that will work for your end product. That is, you have to learn how to successfully reduce a larger piece of artwork to the size of the end card. If you are planning on borderless cards, you will also need to research and understand the principle of bleed in printing so that you can plan accordingly. Borderless cards offer some advantages–one of the biggest challenges I’ve had with printers over the years is getting the cut right on my borders so that they are all consistent. Both my 2nd and 3rd edition print run was unfortunately plagued with this problem and we ended up having multiple decks we could not sell. You can get a good and contentious printer to make your borders perfect (the 10th Anniversary Edition of the Tarot of Trees is a great example of this) but this is one area that is easily messed up by your printer. Finally, you can look up common die sizes that printers have (round, square, oval, etc) and that might spark your own creativity for producing your work. These vary by printer, so when you inquire (see below), you can ask what card sizes they are able to print in.
Build a presence and share your process. I would suggest building an online presence and inviting people who might be interested in your deck. Create an Instagram account, share stories, create a website, and so on. If you expect to take 2 years to complete the art on your deck, start sharing it after you have a few cards done and have a sense of the look and feel of it. Create a unique name, get yourself a hashtag, and as people like your work, they will follow you. Get yourself a mailing list so you can keep people who are interested in your work. The key here is to start to create a buzz before you finish your project–consider it part of your process of creation–to build the audience for your work. Then when you want to release a crowdfunded campaign, you are ready to go.
I’ve often been asked at what point do you start sharing your work in progress. This is a tricky question as I think the answer is dependent, in part, on the kind of artist you are. For me personally, I like to get a bit along in the project before I share. My oracles and tarot decks usually take me 3-5 years to complete (as I also write full-size books with them), so I don’t want people hanging forever waiting for it to be done. I might start sharing about 18 months from the time I expect to have the project released to the world. For example, in the last month, I just started sharing on my Instagram about my upcoming Tree Alchemy Oracle deck (#treealchemy and #treealchemyoracle). I just finished the artwork for that project, and I have six months of writing and layout left to do before that project will have a crowdfunding campaign. I didn’t want to share that work too early–it was a learning process over a number of years where I basically taught myself eco-printing and I had no idea how many years it would take me to complete. A lot of my projects are like that–creating an oracle or tarot is a journey into the unknown and is a process of deepening and unfolding that takes time. My own take on this is to share once you are ready and have a firm idea of what your project is, your size, your look, etc.
Finding a Good Printer. I cannot stress the importance of finding a really good printer and taking the time (often 1-2 months or more) to do so. There are lots of printers out there, and their prices vary considerably as does their quality. Begin by inquiring to a number of different printers and ask for A) their quote for your print run and B) mailed samples of their work. Get a quote and also find out if there are charges for setup (a good printer shouldn’t have one), shipping, and any hidden charges. A good printer will respond promptly (within 48 hours) with questions and/or a quote and will be happy to send you some samples through the mail. Talk to them about your project and your needs.
So a request for a quote might look like this: I am looking for a print run of an 80 card deck, size 2.5×3.5″. I would like a rigid tuck box, full color. The deck is full color on both sides. I would prefer 300gsm paper, recycled cardstock if at all possible. I also will require a printed proof mailed to my address.
Now I’m going to go through some of the key aspects of your print run.
Dies / Sizes. Larger printers will have more dies (sizes) to work with and will be able to print and cut any common size of the card. If you see a “die” charge and your quote is higher than expected, it is likely because they are charging you $1000-$2000 or more to create a custom die–if that’s the case, just find a different printer who has your die already made. If you chose a common size to lay your cards out in, you shouldn’t have this issue. If you want your cards at a really strange size, you will have to pay to have the die to cut them out made, which can considerably add to your cost. Realize that dies also can come in oval, circular, or more–but you have to find a printer that can cut to that size.
Printed proof. Something that printers will resist but I 100% insist on is a printed proof copy of your deck. This may cost you $100-250, and it is money well spent. A printed proof will let you see exactly what the project will look like, adjust colors, fix errors, and offer feedback. Do not be fooled by a “digital proof” and them saying it will accurately print to the digital proof–this is often not true. If they are unwilling to do a printed proof, look elsewhere.
Number of cards. Most print runs of a “small” nature run 1000 decks, so that’s usually the minimum most printers will run. So you want to probably get a quote for both 1000 or 1500 depending on your budget. The more you buy, the cheaper it is. That is, 1000 decks may cost you $4.50/deck while 2000 decks may cost you $2.25. Of course, the question is, can you sell 2000? Can you afford that print run? There are print on demand options, like makeplayingcards.com. I see these options as a viable printing a one-off of your deck to test out or mock-up, but I would never go with this option for a larger amount.
Environmental impact. Additionally, when working with your printer you should consider the environmental impact of your work and the print run. You will have to talk to them about recycled papers, soy-based inks, and other aspects to make your project more ecologically sound. For example, in the 10th Anniversary Edition of the Tarot of Trees, we eliminated all plastic in the print run and went with a paper sleeve (I love how the sleeve turned out!) in addition to soy-based inks and recycled cardstock.
Deposit. Most printers will require a deposit (50%) to start working on your print run. If you are crowdfunding, you will want to think about your timeline so you can have the deposit available.
Timing. From beginning to end, you should expect to spend 3-5 months finding a printer, working with them to get your cards the way you want them, printing them, and shipping them. The printing usually takes a few weeks and then shipping can be extra time, especially in uncertain times. The printer may also have several jobs ahead of yours, so talking to them about when they can run the print run is important. Also realize that if you are getting your cards printed overseas, you should budget a minimum of two months for printing, shipping, and delivery.
Once you have your printer, you can ask them for the templates for your deck and begin the layout process.
Layout and Design. Layout and design is another important part of the process and another that you have full control over. Once you have selected your printer, your printer should give you a basic template for your cards (both what will be printed as well as the cut lines and bleed) and you can use this to start laying out your deck. They will also produce a custom template for you for your box, sleeve, or whatever else you are printing with them. For a charge, you can also find someone to do the layout on your deck–although I will say, if you are willing to take a few days to learn the skill, card layout is not particularly hard and there are plenty of tutorials out there that will help you.
Once you’ve finished your layout, export your cards into a JPG format and ask two other people to proofread and make your cards do not have any errors (it is so easy to miss things or misspell something!) As I said above, layout and design require both programs and skills, so learning these as you go is certainly do-able. Your printer will also send you a digital proof before your printed proof, but I like to do proofing at multiple steps.
LWB: Little White Book or Larger Book. Another consideration for your oracle or tarot is whether or not you will include a small book of meanings (usually called a “little white book” and packaged with the cards) or if you will write a larger book to include bundled or sold separately. I will say that regardless of the option that you want to use, getting larger books printed is infinitely easier than getting your deck printed. Several good options for print-on-demand options exist (Kindle Direct, Lulu.com) and you can download templates and work with them to effectively and quickly print your book, using their online tools. There is less risk than getting your deck printed because you can order any amount of books you need at any time or fix an error before you order your next batch of books. There is less risk because it is cheap to order a preview copy, look through, and then fix anything before ordering however many copies you need.
A final thing I will say is that you should always, always hire a professional editor to proofread your book. Even if you are a good writer, it pays to have someone go over your work who is not you to catch all of the errors.
Sales, Marketing, and Wholesale
Sales and marketing are an art form in and of themselves. There are a lot of different avenues you can go here–I can share mine and my choices. Some people choose to sell their work through the big distribution channels, like Amazon.com, which certainly will get you lots of sales and exposure. I do not sell my work through Amazon because they are horribly unethical and because it becomes unprofitable (they take over 60% of the profit). My work has primarily been sold through my own websites (www.tarotoftrees.com and www.plantspiritoracle.com) as well as through sites like eBay and Etsy. In terms of websites, if you have enough sales, it might benefit you to invest in a website sales platform like Shopify. We have used primarily Paypal’s tools and Etsy over the years, and that works fine for us. I do have a good following on social media and on my blog, so a lot of that contributes to how I can avoid Amazon.
You should also consider whether or not you are willing to do wholesale orders. For both the Plant Spirit Oracle and the Tarot of Trees, we have always had this option, and it is exciting to work with small businesses in this way and support other entrepreneurs. Having a wholesale option allows you to sell to bookstores, metaphysical shops, and other places. We have a wholesale sheet where we specify our rates for wholesale ( rates are usually 50% of retail). You might require a minimum wholesale order (e.g. you have to purchase at least 3/decks for wholesale rates) and make sure your wholesale rates are only available to brick and mortar stores. If you go this route, you want to make sure your prices on your website or online match those that the retailer will be using so that you do not undercut in-person retailers who are selling your deck. If they are local, see if they are even willing to do an event with you!
Conclusion: Have fun and offer your gifts to the world
Creating and producing something that goes out into the world can be a wonderful experience. It amazes me that almost 5000 of my decks are out there in the world, being used, touching other people’s lives, helping them in some way, and offering a message of honoring nature and regenerating the land. I am humbled when I see people posting about my work on social media and speaking about it. To me, being able to share a good message and reach others is worth all of the work of doing these projects.
I think I’ve covered all of the important details, but if you have additional questions or there is something I missed, please let me know so I can add it. Blessings, everyone!