Want a Career Designing Greeting Cards?

Quick! Grab the Nearest Artist and Start a Support Group.

Special for CraftyChica.com
by Kate Harper

For years I worked in the Art Cave. You know that cave. It’s the place you go to be alone so you can create art. There are wonderful things about the cave: No interruptions, great intensity, messes that don’t have to be cleaned up, primal acts of drinking from milk cartons and never combing your hair. But there are also compromises: Working methodically on calligraphy all morning, only to find out later you misspelled the word “Conra-D-ulations.” That’s because there was no one around to say “Hey ding dong, get a clue.”
So one day, a couple years ago, I left the art cave to go to a weekend workshop on Art Licensing. There, I learned how I could “license” my 500 card designs for royalties, instead of doing what I’d been doing for the last 15 years: Manufacturing and shipping them to over 2,000 stores.
It was one of those “the sea parted” moments, light came through the clouds and I saw an alternative way to make a living. Being at the workshop was like meeting the underground cave network. They spoke my language and understood my challenges. THEY knew the best kind of tape to use on a trade show booth panel. After the workshop, some of us talked about continuing to meet on our own, to share information and start an “Art Licensing Support Group.”
That was the beginning of a major mental shift for me. Not long after, I quit my manufacturing business and acquired a licensing contract with a major card publisher for royalties. With great enthusiasm, I sold off all my stock, threw out mountains of paperwork, cancelled store rack shipments, said sad goodbyes to staff and sales reps, but best of all, I was finally able to get a divorce from that grumpy guy who was always late for our afternoon dates: the UPS man.
In manufacturing, you can find yourself having ridiculous conversations with supposedly sane people, who are 100% committed in trying to convince you to work for free. I call this the “card slave” syndrome. I got over it early in my business when a national bookstore chain accepted my card line, only to tell me later, “oh, by the way, if you want shelf space for your cards, you have to purchase all the cards currently sitting on shelf.” So, in essence, they wanted me to buy another artist’s cards, remove them from the rack, before I could put mine up. I thought: “Heck, they don’t need customers, they just need clueless artists. They can keep reselling their card space every two weeks and make a killing.”
So, I was happy to leave manufacturing behind and I looked forward to becoming part of a Licensing Support Group. As expected, our first meeting drew a mix of people: Some experienced, some not, some with a lot of great advice, some a little nervous to show their work, and some drove over an hour in bad traffic just to be there. As the meetings went on, sometimes we invited volunteer guest speakers, such as a copyright attorney and licensing agent, and as I write these words, three of our members have recently acquired agents, some went to their first trade shows, and even I came out of my art cave long enough to get six contracts without an agent.
But fundamentally, art licensing is a business. Supporting each other is about learning to prepare tear sheets, getting feedback on new designs, becoming aware of trends, protecting copyrights and learning how to do an elevator pitch, even if you’re shy. It’s also about being in a community of artists who are very serious about making a living from their art. And while we all have different styles and viewpoints, one thing we do all agree on, is that the group has helped us move forward very fast.
We are not hand holders, but we care about each other. At one meeting, a member named Lesli shared her anger and frustration at the costs she incurred, paying someone to put together promo materials that turned out terrible, and she was in a pinch because she needed them for a trade show.
I felt like she was ready to give up, not just on the promo materials, but possibly even on the show. After hearing this, another member, Dianne, offered a day of her time to help lesli throw these things together. I know enough about Dianne to know this is a very generous offer, since she is a professional product photographer, and would normally get paid a healthy fee for a project like this. But this is just the beginning of the story.
The next day lesli brought flowers to Dianne to thank her for her help, and Dianne put the flowers in a vase on the table and decided to paint a picture of them. In a spontaneous act, she sent the painting off to a national retailer, who immediately accepted it to use on a greeting card for royalties.
Dianne will probably make more money from the flower painting than she would have if lesli had paid her for her time, and I’m sure Dianne could have found flowers on her own and painted them, but that’s not the point. It’s about what happens when artists support each other. Do these women feel this was merely a business transaction? Probably not. I imagine they both walked away feeling something more important happened. They both planted seeds for each other, and those seeds grew very quickly.
So, if you want to move your art life forward, find another artist. Help each other. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, take risks even if you’re terrified. Magical things can happen. You might find yourself becoming a thankful recipient and great giver of many wonderful things. Yes, with enough commitment, you can make a living off your art, and yes you can expand your possibilities beyond the cave. I know. I’m doing it. And I’m doing it with a great bunch of women. So, quick, hurry! Look around, and grab the first artist you can find!
Kate Harper is a card and gift designer living in Berkeley, CA, and has taught classes and published articles on the Greeting Card Business. For more information you can visit her blog http://kateharperblog.blogspot.com/ or website http://kateharperdesigns.com/

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