Finally, as promised, here is what was supposed to be the last post in this series on creating your own tarot deck. What I realized while writing this though is that it won’t be the last post, there is just too much info to share, so this post will cover the major issues of printing, and the next one(s) will cover the other stuff like the copyrighting, bar coding, ISBN numbering, little white book, full size book, box design, delivery packing and postage, web stores, and tax and customs issues.
While the biggest step post artwork completion is hiring a printer, there is a lot more to it than that. But we have to start somewhere, so let us start and go from there.
Choosing a professional printer
This was probably the most difficult part of the process for me, being a complete and utter n00b in the world of printing and publishing, and having heard so many horror stories out there in the tarot world about people like me getting burned. So I was nervous; after all, I was well aware that this step was going to cost me a significant amount of money, more money than I have ever spent on a thing I can’t live in. It was either going to completely drain my savings, or be too much for that to even cover and require getting a loan to do it right (it did). I started, as most people do, with two avenues to begin the research: word of mouth, and searching the internet. For the word of mouth option, I had a few friends and acquaintances who either had hired a printer before for some part of their job, or who used to work in the industry, etc. So I started there, getting names of printing companies they were familiar with in the local area. I also searched online, but that proved extremely tricky as it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. But, I did find a couple of printers that way who were definitely capable of doing the job, gave good samples and quotes, and had a good reputation when I asked around, so it is difficult but possible. I also asked a few others who have self-published decks for recommendations, for who they used for theirs, and got a couple leads this way (one of which turned out to be The One).
So, you want to have more than one company to start with, so that you can compare their pricing, service, and product. The ideal scenario would be for them to be within driving distance of your home, as then you could rent or borrow a truck and pick up your product rather than paying for shipping. But, it may not be possible to find one in your area, or, it may be that even with the shipping, you get a better price from a company that is not local to you, so don’t limit yourself to one area only.
For my deck, I stayed with printers within the US only. While I was aware that I could probably get the decks printed for less overseas, there were enough reasons to not do that too. First, I am a big believer of buying local, so I wanted to be able to say that they were printed at least as local as the US. Second reason is that I was not sure that I could reasonably afford to print, and manage to sell, the quantities that would have made that a feasible choice. It would have been likely to require a run of 3000+ decks, and I could neither afford the costs nor be confident that I could sell that many by myself. Lastly, I just didn’t think I could deal with the language barrier and the anxiety of sending that much money to another country, with no recourse if things didn’t turn out well.
At some point, I had a list of seven or eight printers that seemed able to do the job. Of course, do not be surprised if some printers actually don’t respond to you. I was surprised! I just didn’t get how a reasonable business person could ignore potential business. Then I began to feel badly and second guess myself. Was it me? Was I so obviously an annoying n00b that I wasn’t worth a reply? Nah, don’t take it to heart. I found out at some point in the process that many print shops are just not equipped to deal with what it takes to make a tarot deck. There are many steps, and if they do not own the equipment in house, they would have to farm out that part of the job, which raises the cost, and at some point they realize it prices them out of the market. So if they think you are doing your homework, they won’t bother to do the work of pricing out a quote for you. Personally, I think it is only polite and good business to respond to an email inquiry, even if the answer is not in the affirmative, but that is just me. Some of them were too rude or too busy to do even that, so don’t take it personally.
Of this initial list of printers, five made it to the next stage, and these were the ones I got formal quotes from. To get a quote, you can call and speak to a sales person, or do it via email. I hate talking on the phone as a rule, so for all but one of those I opted for the email route. Some companies have very good online quote forms that you can fill out with all the necessary info, and when you fill out one of these, in most cases anyway, you receive a quote within a day or two. The pluses of getting the quotes via email (besides not having to talk to anyone!) are that you can get very clear about what you need and not stutter and stumble through it. (If you learn the terminology, in the initial email or online form at least, you might even sound like you know what you are doing!)
Now obviously I didn’t know what I was doing, never having done it before, but I obsessively researched, thanks to the overwhelming waterfall of data that is the internet. So I knew what to ask for, sort of. Though I am acutely aware that I probably drove my printers crazy with my endless neurotic questions! I share everything I learned to spare both future deck creators AND future printers the agony of all that!
What to ask for during the quote process
Let’s just start with the decks only, and leave the card boxes and little white books out of it, as those will be separate quotes.
Color options – My deck is full color both sides. In the printing world, they call this “4/4” (four-four). This is because most printing processes use four basic colors to combine to make the spectrum. (So if you have a deck that has a range of colors on one side, but only two colors on the other, say a deck that has color illustrations but a back design that is a yellow and black pattern, then that would probably be called “4/2”)
Finished size – You also need to let them know the finished size of the cards, for example 70mm x 117mm, which was the size of the Rosetta Tarot. Some may convert that to inches, it doesn’t matter though what system you use as long as you are clear about the finished size.
Corner rounding – Next, if you want the corners of the cards to be rounded, they need to know that, too. It will cost more, but most customers of tarot decks want and expect rounded corners, though I am sure there are deck exceptions.
Collation and shrink-wrapping, or bulk packing – The cards can either be collated and shrink wrapped, or bulk packed. Bulk packing will cost less, but will mean that it is up to you to collate (sort, count and put all 78 cards in order) and shrink wrap or otherwise package each and every deck. I recommend springing for the service if you can, as I know that doing hundreds or thousands of anything is a LOT of work to take on, not to mention prone to human error, while they have machines. Unless you don’t have a full time job already, and want to have one that doesn’t pay for awhile, let the printers do that if you can afford to!
Cardstock – You can either go in knowing what you want, or ask them for samples and prices, or ask them to quote what they think is appropriate (what I did) but make sure to get a sample. Keep in mind that true playing card stock is the Holy Grail – highly desirable, but very costly. I personally upon reflection (and seeing the heart-stopping cost of it) decided against it. The reason I decided it was not necessary was that the thing that makes it a true playing card stock is that there is a thin carbon layer sandwiched in the middle of the paper layers of the card. While this probably gives the cards strength and snap to some degree, its true purpose is so that when gamers are playing card games like poker, it creates an opaque layer that you can’t see through even with light behind it, preventing someone from seeing what card is in your hand. Not needed for tarot cards, as they are laid face down, and have complex imagery rather than flat solid pips on a white background that might show through, and no real gambling use for the most part! So if money was no object, I would have got it for my baby as I wanted it to be the best it could be, but I couldn’t and didn’t and it turned out great anyway.
For the record, a card stock can be expressed in different weights. The Rosetta’s card stock is 120# gloss cover, which has been received very well to date. I also got quotes for something called 11.5 Pt Stop-Lite C2S cover (expensive playing card carbon layer stock), 12.0 Pt Carolina Cover, 300gsm casino quality paper (another pricey carbon layer stock), 12 Pt Tango C2S Cover, and Superluxe 320 2 ply playing card stock (another ritzy one), among others. I think the key is that it is coated on 2 sides (that’s what the C2S means) and the right weight. By right weight, I mean heavy enough to not be flimsy feeling and easily bent, but light enough to be flexible for shuffling and to not have the final deck size be too thick. The thicknesses as you can see from the examples are expressed differently so it gets confusing, but the 120# was certainly sufficient as was the 12 Pt. and the 300 gsm, if that gives you some idea of where to begin. You could go a little heavier, but not much and not more than 14pt, and I would not go lighter unless it was the playing card stock with the carbon layer, one of which was 11.5 pt.
Aqueous coating – IF (and this is a big if which we will talk about) I say IF you are going with offset press printing, than an aqueous coating is a must and you need to specify that you want that. If you go with digital printing, don’t ask for that. It isn’t necessary and it could confuse the issue as they might add it to the price of your quote accidentally (happened to me) and then later realize that for the digital option you don’t need it/can’t do it and have to remove it.
Offset vs Digital Printing – I struggled SO much with this issue that I almost hate to even mention it. I mean I agonized over it. Who doesn’t want their creation to be the best it can be? But there was so much conflicting information on the internet about what the best is, and what the differences are. So while I am by no means an expert, I will share my experiences here with you. Like I said, I agonized over this choice. I googled it obsessively and was just spinning my wheels going nowhere. The problem is that most of the information out there, and most people in the printing industry, will ever so slightly (or not so slightly) favor offset printing. Why is this a problem? You would think then if you want the best, you should go with offset, right? Well, digital printing equipment has made such huge strides the last couple of years (and I mean literally the last two or three) that it is no longer actually true, though the info on the internet and in peoples’ minds has not yet caught up. Originally, I had my heart set on offset, as print quality was the one area I would not compromise on. But this is what I came to understand, that offset did not equal better anymore, and that in some cases, digital is better. I talked to my printers about this, and they hemmed and hawed and beat around the bush like crazy. What they said was that because they were in the printing business so long, that their minds were prone to favor offset, the old school way. But that they had to admit that the quality of the digital machine they had was so good, that not only could some people not tell the difference, but that some of their customers who could tell actually preferred the digital prints. I still was not convinced at first. But I ended up going digital (for the decks, but not the boxes which I will explain), and here are the reasons why:
The number one reason why is that after a long drawn out process I finally eeked out of my printer a reason why someone might like digital printing better. (This was the tipping point at which I became a digital convert for my deck.) They just happened to mention along the way that with digital printing, the colors sit on top of the paper, and are sort of baked on, to my mind almost like enamel, and not coated. To contrast, offset inks soak into the paper, and then need to be aqueous coated. The result is that the digital inks, sitting on top of the paper rather than sinking in, are more vibrant in color than the offset. SOLD! Anyone that knows my artwork knows I am all about vibrant color, I think it is obvious when you look at the Rosetta Tarot.
So that was reason #1, but there were other factors. Probably the most important factor to most people is that while offset IS very much cheaper for large print runs (3000-5000 decks) but digital is cheaper for print runs under 3000, especially runs under 1000, which my deck was.
More important to me was that with digital, your printer will not have a problem with sending you an actual deck of your design as a proof – but with offset, if you are an unknown self-publisher, they are not likely to set up the press to print you one deck, you are going to get an electronic proof via pdf – I just fail to see how that is useful, with monitor differences and all that. With an actual proof then you can see, hold and feel it, and see the quality of the product. No way, man, no can do, I am not shelling out thousands of dollars and taking it on faith just looking at the cards on a monitor – I can do that at home!
The other thing that went in favor of digital printing for me was that the colors are just so much more consistent. With offset, everyone says “Try to be present, on press, when it is printing, so you can approve of the colors and make sure they are right, yadda yadda…” But how is one supposed to do that when the printer is far away from you (and may not welcome that)? This is not an issue with digital, the colors sit on top and go on the way they go on, but with offset, they sink in and blend and morph. I realized this after the fact, because I could compare. I had my decks done digitally, but the boxes for the decks done offset. Why? There is a good reason for that! For tarot card boxes, offset printing is superior to digital because of the fact that the ink soaks into the paper. This is because the tarot card boxes get scored and folded. Digital inks, which sit on top, would crack slightly on the folds. Offset inks, which sink in, don’t do that. So opt for offset printing for your boxes, even if it costs more; I did.
And because I went digital with the decks and offset with the boxes, this is what I found. The color of the decks was super consistent, they were identical in hue and tone and vibrancy when comparing them all side by side. But I noticed with the boxes, some of them were just slightly different in color in a very subtle way. Half of them, the gray of the box background was what I’d describe as a warm, yellow toned grey, and the other half, the gray was more coolly blue toned. A very subtle difference to be sure, and it didn’t bother me at all, they all looked good, but honestly, I would hate to have that same situation on the artwork for the decks – now that would make me crazy!
Shipping – Just feel I should mention this, as the quotes you will get will probably not mention the cost of shipping, even if they mention the method. If the decks are getting shipped to you, don’t forget to leave something in your budget to cover the cost of shipping. I had 777 decks plus boxes plus little white books made, and 500 full size companion books, and the shipping cost me around $600 – but it should have been a couple hundred more, the printers kindly gave me a break as they had told me verbally it would be much cheaper in error and I think felt bad for misleading me. Plus postage rates have recently gone up since then, even though this was only in October/November 2011.
Quantity – Obviously you need to let them know how many you want. For a digital print run, you might ask them to quote you for 100 decks vs 250 decks vs 500 decks vs 1000 decks…(you get the picture; for an offset run you might want to get higher numbers quoted, say 500/1000/3000/5000, but it likely won’t be cost effective for anything under 3000). That way you can see for yourself how as the quantity goes up, the cost per deck goes down, and try to find a happy medium between cost and what you might reasonably charge. Don’t be seduced into having too many printed at first to keep the cost per deck down, as what happens if you print 1000 but only sell 250 decks in the first year, but meanwhile have a printing loan to pay off? No profit, and potentially a loss. Try to be reasonable. I have no idea how many is the right number, but for a self publisher without the marketing resources of the big guys, I think that the safe number is in the hundreds, not the thousands.
Little white books – I’ll talk more about those later, but you should know that the stapled booklets that one usually sees are called “saddle stitched”. Helps to use the lingo!
Box stuffing – If you order shrink wrapped decks, little white books, and boxes, you will either have to have the printers fold and assemble the boxes and insert the decks and little white books, or you will have to do it yourself. Because of the cost versus the value, I recommend doing it yourself. It’s not hard to do, it just takes time, so have a deck box assembly and stuffing party if you can. I luckily had two people volunteer to help with that, so we got them all assembled, folded, stuffed and then the boxes shrink wrapped on the outside over a period of a few days. (We were interrupted in the middle of the process by a freak end-of October blizzard that dumped two feet of snow and deprived my house of power for four days, leaving the kitchen and living area looking like a bomb went off in a tarot factory in a limbo period in the middle.) If you do this yourself, and opt to shrink wrap the outer boxes (which I recommend to keep them from being damaged in transit to your customers by scratches or moisture) then you will need to purchase shrink wrap bags, a sealer/cutter and a heat gun. None of these are very expensive.
Important Notes – If you do not have white borders on the cards, and the color extends to the edge of the card, be aware that you will have to have what is called a “bleed” built into the design. A standard bleed is around 3mm all around all edges of the cards. Which means that the artwork you submit for a card 70mmx117mm will have to be 76mmx123mm, knowing that 3mm will be chopped off all the way around.
Your files will have to be no less than 300dpi in order for the print quality to be good, so when you scan your initial artwork to use in the cards, make sure the scanner is set to at least 300dpi. (While more is certainly ok, the files will be very large if you go more than that. I used 600 dpi, but the original artwork was card sized, so I could reasonably do that.)
You want to save your files as uncompressed tiff files (.tif). While jpeg and gif files are fine for the web, they are prone to loss of data and image degradation and don’t print as well.
Every printer will be different as to how they want you to submit the files. Some may provide die lines for you to insert the artwork into. Others may want all of the cards in one large pdf, one card to a page, in the order in which you want them collated; with either the first or last card in the pdf to be the card backs. They will probably have a file upload site you can use as the file will be too large to email. And of course, they won’t tell you any of this stuff about file types, dpi, uploading or bleeds until you ask repeatedly, as they will assume that like most of the commercial people they deal with, you already know what to expect when dealing with a printer.
What to consider once you get your quotes
Well, price is the obvious thing, but it is not the only thing. Quality and responsiveness are high on the list of things to consider. When you ask for a sample or samples, are they willing to send various samples for you to consider? Will they respond to your emails in a timely fashion and answer your questions? Do they treat you with respect?
Don’t be surprised if they all take more time than you would like to answer your emails. In this day and age, and having a desk job myself, I have grown to expect that when I send an email, I get a response right away, like within 24 hours. But I found not everyone is like that (especially printers). It was very frustrating, as I am one to answer emails right away out of consideration, and found that some of the printers I was dealing with were much less responsive than others. I might send an email, and wait days or a week for a response in some cases! (Grrrr…how do people stay in business like that?!) Even the printers I went with, while very considerate, often took longer than I anticipated getting back to me for simple things. So keep in mind, this process will take longer than you think. From the time I finished the paintings, until the time the deck was available for sale, spanned almost six months! (an eternity as far as I was concerned, though in reality, that was way faster than if a major publisher took it on, which could take YEARS) I would not be surprised if there were more than one hundred emails in my inbox and sent box, just dealing with various printers, most especially the one I settled on.
And I found sometimes, that after waiting far too long for a response, that these busy people just dashed off a cryptic reply that could be read two different ways and was totally unclear, resulting in the need to send another clarifying email, and waiting days more. (This was a very evident problem with a “big” card-printing company, who shall remain unnamed.)
Remember too when you are frustrated, that what to you is a big deal, may just be a drop in the bucket for them. Even if you print enough to make it a big job money-wise for them, it is one big job out of an endless stream of jobs for them, and while it is a huge chunk of change for you, and the culmination of months or more likely years of work and effort, for them it is just another day making the donuts. No one cares as much as you do; even if they want to do a good job, so don’t expect them to treat it like a priority even if you are anxiously climbing the walls waiting to hear from them, with your own deadlines to meet.
Decide how many to print, again, don’t bite off more than you can chew! Can’t stress this one enough, as I know I had grandiose ideas when I started that I am glad I toned down a bit. Also, if you are doing companion books to be sold separately, you are going to have to guess how many of those to print versus how many decks, knowing that some people will purchase just the deck and not the book. I did 777 decks and 500 books, and it seems to be working out well at that ratio so far, though I suspect I may run out of books at some point, but YMMV.
Once you know how many you are going to print, you have an idea of your cost (not including your little white book or box or bag if you have them) and you need to start thinking about what is an appropriate markup. What price will the market bear? How many do you need to sell at that price to break even? How long do you think it will take to sell them? If the price is too much, you lose customers. Too little, and you may have a loss when it is all said and done, and nothing to show for your effort. Ideally, you make a profit to finance a future project or printing.
Get a printed proof whenever possible. The decks should look exactly like they will when you get the finished product. For the boxes, don’t be surprised if the proof you get looks way crappier than the finished product will be though. This is because the box proof might have the printers die lines on it, which won’t be on the final boxes. Also, the box proof in my case was digitally done rather than offset, as they didn’t want to set up the press for a proof. (Remember that for box printing, offset is better as the score lines may crack with digital.) And last, they will be scoring and folding the single box by hand, which looks way crappier than the machine will do. When I got my first complete proof, the decks and little white books and full size books looked amazing, but I had an unpleasant scare over the box, until I talked to them and they explained the die line thing and the scoring issues. (This is a good example of how communication could be lacking, it seems printers are used to dealing with professionals who already realize these things and they don’t think to let you know what to expect ahead of time. So, now you know, so you don’t look as dumb as I did!)
Last thing I will say for now is that depending how many you order, you may need a significant amount of room to store them in once you get them. I ordered decks, little white books and boxes for 777 decks, plus 500 5x8ish companion books, and here is a picture of how much room it took up. (I have an extremely small house, so this was something to deal with! It doesn’t look like much in the picture, but that is basically taking up my entire living room there, even with it completely devoid of furniture as you can see.)
(With large Boxer dog shown for size comparison)
So that is all for now, this post is getting too long and I can’t write anymore. I think I covered the bulk of what will help you. Next time (maybe) will be the last post in this series, covering all the other stuff that I bet you may not have even considered besides the printing. Stuff like, copyrighting, bar coding, ISBN numbering, “little white book”, full size companion book, box design, delivery, websites, storefronts, tax issues, shipping and postage and packing considerations, customs, and more stuff if I can remember it all! (I may be optimistic that it will be only one more post, but I will try!)
Hope this has been helpful so far for anyone who wants to make a deck! More to come when I can find the time…