Write (and Draw) Your Way To Greeting Card Genre Success!

Write (and Draw) Your Way to the Greeting Card Genre Success!

The greeting card industry is the perfect ground for both artist and writer. For the artist, it’s a good way to hone artistic talent; and for the writer, it’s the best genre to learn how to write ‘tight.’

Sandra Miller-Louden, a veteran greeting card writer and author of Write Well & Sell: Greeting Cards, summarized writing for the greeting card market best: “A writer can really get spoiled in this genre, because not only is it “fun, immediate” writing, it also pays quite well!”

Sandra was flipping through a greeting card catalogue, read one of the verses, and thought to herself, “I could do this.”

“I knew no one in the business and I made every mistake in the book,” Sandra confesses. “But even so, sold my first card to Current of Colorado Springs, the same card catalogue I was browsing through, three months later. It was a Halloween caption and even though I only netted $15 for it, I was thrilled that someone paid me for my words. Later that same year, I sold two more verses to Oatmeal Studios in Vermont, for $50 each.”

That was the beginning of Sandra’s writing career in the greeting card business. Since then, she has gone on to write for different markets and published in magazines and newspapers. She has also written for software companies, conducted writing seminars and workshops, and taught greeting card writing at Pennsylvania’s local community college as well as on the Internet. She has developed “The Freelancing Life,” a course that teaches her students to write for genres that aren’t as well known, such as book reviews, eulogies, step-by-steps, quizzes and fillers. “I knew I’d found my niche and never wavered in my desire to know the greeting card market and industry inside out and write for that market,” she shares.

Dan Reynolds, on the other hand, began writing for the greeting card market eight years ago when one of his works was accepted.

“First, I collected a lot of my best material,” Dan shares. “Then, I mailed card companies and asked for their submission requirements. I received back two responses: one from Oatmeal Studios and the other from Recycled Paper Greetings.

“Oatmeal was not interested. Too bad for them as RPG responded favorably and out of my first submission to them they had one of my cards finish number one in the country in their test market research. From there I was given a royalty contract and I’ve been with them ever since,” Dan reveals.

Donna sold some of her works to greeting card companies several years ago.

“When I first began writing, I researched a variety of markets,” Donna says. “I began with children’s periodicals and also did some writing for women’s periodicals. I sold some poetry to some small markets and then submitted some verses that were specifically oriented toward certain markets – Christian, children’s, humor, etc. I sold several things to greeting card markets almost immediately in the Christian market.”

Mary Emma Allen and Sherry Nardella, however, broke into the greeting card genre by writing, designing and selling their own finished cards. “Along with my writing, I was doing crafts and artwork. This included painting in oils and watercolors,” says Mary Emma who is a freelance writer and book author. “How could I combine my writing and painting? Why not produce greeting cards and note paper for some of the outlets that took my quilts, toys, and crafts. My mother operated a country general store and was always on the lookout for new items to sell. She encouraged me to produce cards for her customers.”

Mary Emma’s cards were made by hand, using water colors and pen and ink to create original designs.

“I will have to say truthfully that I could not afford to buy cards for anyone in my family,” Sherry relates. “I write good poems and I draw cartoons that best describe the words in the card. My family told me I should do something about it and write greeting cards for a living.”

The greeting card genre is different from all other types of writing, hence editors, when buying a potential greeting card material, look for the “me-to-you” voice.

“No, question – the vast majority of editors look for that ‘me-to-you’ voice in a greeting card,” affirms Sandra. “Note I use the word ‘voice’ rather than the more common ‘style’ used to indicate other genres. That’s because greeting card writing is unique in that it is an interactive genre; the greeting card writer is that anonymous third voice between two other people… the card sender and the card recipient. She is saying for others what they may be unwilling or unable to say for themselves.”

“Her words are there for all life’s basic happenings — a birth, a graduation, an illness, an engagement, wedding, retirement, funeral; not to mention those yearly occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries and seasonals,” Sandra explains. “Throw in those “just because” friendship (thinking of you, miss you, love you, let’s get together, sorry I haven’t written, etc.)… then add all those “occasions” we didn’t even have 15-20 years ago (coping, death of a pet, glad to hear you’ve quit smoking, Boss’s Day, Secretary’s Day, Nurse’s Day)… well, you can see where the ‘voice’ is vital.”

According to Donna, editors also look for originality, salability and appropriateness for their greeting card audience.

Dan shares that editors are different depending on the needs of the company. “Know your market. Make sure you query with a company. If you’re doing funny stuff like I do, be better than the next guy. If you’re doing sentimental material, make sure your sap runneth over.”

Sandra adds that editors look to see the writer’s understanding of the “rack impact.”
“How do you see most cards displayed? Either in a spinner or a rack. In either case, but especially in a rack display, each greeting card has 1.5 seconds to catch a reader’s (“consumers”) eye; if the card is too esoteric, has too many words, is obscure in any way, the buyer will move onto the next card without even picking it up,” Sandra elaborates. “Every editor has this concept, ‘rack impact,’ in mind and uses it as her basic criterion for buying a writer’s work.”

Saying It With Images

One of the more popular online greeting card providers is E-Cards. Instead of text, the majority of their content is photographic. This makes E-Cards a good avenue for artists.

Robb Waterman, CEO and Founder of E-Cards, shares, “Many of our cards might be better described as electronic postcards.”

“In judging photographic content, we look at image quality, scan quality, composition, gut appeal and subject appropriateness,” Robb explains. “Does the photograph fit one of these themes: wildlife, nature, international, educational?”

E-Cards also has a category for animated cards. “For these we look for tie-ins to holiday, occasion or sentiment themes,” Robb shares. “Animation quality is very important. A sense of fun must be present in these images.”

“We also try to select card images appropriate for a wide range of ages,” he adds. “And since our images are Web distributed, image size and download times are important concerns.”

Most of E-Card’s greeting cards are blank. They don’t contain fixed text.

“We let people come up with their own titles and text,” says Robb. “This is an area we have been re-exploring. We may add more ‘non-blank’ cards and are considering adding poetry cards.”

A Living, Breathing Industry

The greeting card industry is the perfect ground for both artist and writer. For the artist, it’s a good way to hone his artistic talent; and for the writer, it’s the best genre to learn how to write ‘tight.’

So, how easy or hard is it to break into the greeting card genre?

“There probably are not as many greeting card publishers and distributors as there are magazine publications,” Robb begins. “However, each greeting card house does have an appetite for a large number of cards.

“Like writers seeking a venue for their work, card artists should figure out where their artistic style best fits. A card that might not work for one publisher might be perfect for another,” he explains.

Sandra recently attended her first Stationery Show in New York.

“This is where most of the major greeting card publishers display their new products for retailers,” she explains. “Seeing the many booths and products out there only reinforced my love and enthusiasm for this industry.

“I love the greeting card industry. It is exciting, it moves with trends and it provides me the opportunity to use a cliche and that is, it is truly a living, breathing industry,” says Sandra. “If there is something on the news, whether it be faxes and computers (in the early ’90s) or Rogaine and Viagra (in the late ’90s)… if you hear about it on the news, you’ll soon be seeing a reference to it in greeting cards.

“I consider ‘breaking into’ any type of writing as submitting and selling one’s work,” Sandra continues. “I’ve had students do that with their first ‘batch’ of greeting card ideas.

“Depending upon one’s creative output, it is definitely easier than ANY other genre I can think of,” she states. “Many of my students/readers have sold their greeting card work in a remarkably short time. I can honestly say that when I developed the course and subsequently wrote my book, I was determined to save people those first 4 years of my writing, when basically I was learning the ropes and making every mistake I could think of.”

Sandra advises her students to submit their works to mid-size and smaller companies. She works with the premise that by doing so, her students have a bigger chance of receiving individualized attention, comments and feedback.

“Most beginners think ‘Hallmark’ or ‘American Greetings’ and sure, if that’s where one starts submitting work, then yes, the odds become less favorable,” Sandra explains. “I don’t direct my students there. They get their valuable experience dealing with editors, assignments, deadlines with mid-size companies; and many have accumulated quite an impressive portfolio of sales in only a year or two.”

Because there is generally less competition in the greeting card market, it’s a market that’s relatively easy to break into. “Many people don’t know how to submit their work to card companies,” admits Sandra. “They’re confused about whether or not to draw, how to physically submit a card idea, etc. That weeds out many people who, because they don’t know how, don’t bother to find out.”

To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme

So which type of material has a higher chance of getting accepted and bought by greeting card company?

“Overall, unrhymed has an edge,” Sandra answers. “But, having said that, I also must stress that rhymed verse has made nothing short of a dramatic comeback in terms of freelance writing in the past 4-5 years.

“Many of my students have sold, and continue to sell, rhyme,” she continues. “One big misconception, though, is equating personal poetry with the poetry that sells for a greeting card. I wrote an entire piece for Poet’s Market 2000 on just that subject; anyone who now writes poetry, don’t stop! However, you should understand the difference between personal poetry that tends to be ‘about me’ and poetry in a card that still MUST be ‘from me to you.'”

Mary Emma shares that when writing original greeting cards, one must create their own verses.

“Keep a notepad with you so you can write down bits of poetry, meaningful inspirational phrases, humorous incidents as they come to you,” she says. “Then you can draw upon these when writing verses for your own cards or creating verses to send to greeting card companies.”

A Definite Overlap

Writing for online and offline greeting card companies provides no real difference for Sandra.

“I’ve only just begun working with online greeting card companies and my work there has been more along the consulting line,” Sandra begins. “New card companies, whether on or off line, seek creative and marketing advice on how to start up. This is definitely an offshoot of my writing career, just as the teaching, lecturing and writing my book, Write Well & Sell: Greeting Cards. So my work with online card companies has not so much focused on writing actual verses (although I have done some of that) as consultation.”

“There is really not that much difference,” she continues.”I am finding that with ‘traditional’ offline companies, many of these now have web sites where the writer can write directly online and send her verses in that mode. Other companies will send me assignments and then will accept e-mailed submissions directly to the editor. So there is a definite ‘overlap’ if you will.”

She also states that the type of material greeting card companies accept and buy is not dependent on whether the company is an offline or an online one. Acceptance is based more on the company’s focus, whether their line of cards are traditional poetry, short prose, gentle humor, and risqué or salty humor.

Don’t Overkill Your Copyright

“I get the copyright question constantly,” answers Sandra. “For individual, unrelated verses, copyright is overkill and I do not recommend it.”

“Many times, too, beginners will write to me telling me they are new to the field but have this terrific line of cards they want to submit to a company,” she continues. “I always advise them to get their feet wet first, by submitting ‘cold’ to various companies, getting to know the editors, etc. They can always be working simultaneously on their ‘line;’ fleshing it out, getting it spruced up… and THEN once an editor has come to know and trust their work, they can approach this editor as they would an editor for a book proposal. They can ‘propose’ a line to and editor and have a shot at it being considered.”

“I advise them, at that time, to name the entire ‘line’ and copyright the name (meaning also the line), citing each individual caption in the line… in that way, it is one copyright fee, covering many individual verses,” explains Sandra.

For Dan, the copyright issue is a personal decision.

“I opt for NEVER giving my rights away,” he states. “A company will usually give you a royalty contract only if they think you are valuable material and you can produce on a regular basis. Some companies just plain won’t do a royalty contract.”

Blue Mountain, another popular online greeting card provider, buys exclusive and worldwide rights (publication rights) from authors.

The materials that Blue Mountain purchases undergo a 24-month market review. During that time, they have rights to publish, sell and promote an author’s work in all types of greeting cards, notecards or any other products.

Response Times, Payments and Contracts

E-Card’s response times to submissions vary. “Speeding response times is a major initiative of ours,” says Robb. “Currently, response times range between a couple of days and four weeks depending on other initiatives that are occupying our schedules.”

Sandra reveals that response time is generally faster online than the regular postal mail. “I think that’s just inherent in its nature,” she opines. “The fact that physically an editor can sit at a keyboard, just as I’m doing now, and respond quickly, rather than open an envelope, look at 3″x5″ index cards, deal with the return envelope, etc.”

“It sounds as if I’m making a big deal over nothing; but when you consider that even a mid-size greeting card company can receive as many as 250 envelopes per week, multiplied by 10-15 ideas in each envelope…well, you see why cyberspace submitting is faster and more conducive to quick turn-around time,” she explains.

“Again, payment and contracts have more to do with the individual companies and their policies,” she adds. “I don’t believe those are dictated by whether a company is in cyberspace or traditional.”

“The range of pay is anywhere from $3/line of poetry, which is considered low, to $150 per verse for a humorous caption,” says Sandra. “Humor pays generally more. In my own career, I’ve been paid as low as $15 a verse to as high as $150/verse. When you break this down to a ‘per word’ dollar amount, it’s often unbelievable. I’ve made as high as $50/word.”

A number of artists who contribute their work for E-Cards get exposure instead of monetary payments.

“We provide links beneath an artist’s card back to an artist’s website. This program has been in place for 4 years and has been very successful for us and our artists,” explains Robb.

E-Cards also pays artists who work with them regularly. “We contract these artists for special work,” shares Robb. “For example, we might contract someone to help extend our selection of St. Patrick’s Day cards.”

Blue Mountain’s payment range from $200-$450 per verse. The company’s contract states that authors are paid $200 each for the first and second upon an exercise of its publication rights, $300 for the third, $375 for the fourth, and $450 for the fifth and subsequent materials.

“As I think I mentioned before, a writer can really get spoiled in this genre, because not only is it ‘fun, immediate’ writing, it also pays quite well,” reiterates Sandra.

Writing Tight

Definitely one of the advantages of starting a writing career in the greeting card genre is the chance to learn how to write ‘tight.’

According to Donna, the greeting card genre allows a writer to experiment and work with language and various means of communicating an idea in a very short piece.

“As I’ve mentioned before, greeting card writing teaches a writer to ‘write tight,'” Sandra shares. “In my book and in my class, we go through specific examples of this. Also, again, greeting card writing is no different from conventional writing when it comes to working with an editor, an assignment, a deadline, a contract, etc. It’s just ‘shorter’ writing.”

Sandra also shares that most writers who think it more prestigious to write for magazines eventually come back to card writing.

“Because it’s more profitable and certainly time-friendly and ‘do-able,'” she explains. “They want a project that has a definite beginning, middle and end… something they can do to perhaps break up the monotony of a long article or a sticking point in a novel. So, perhaps, someone with loftier dreams of being published may find herself constantly pulled back into the writing world of greeting cards because of the conciseness of time and the terrific pay rate.”

Advice From Those Who’ve Been There and Done It

No doubt about it, the number one advice on how you can break through the greeting card genre is: “Study the market!”

From Donna: “Know your market! Look at at greeting cards that the publisher sells. Find out if they pay more for submitting and selling multiple cards rather than one at a time. Investigate a variety of markets and try as many as you feel fit your own writing style. Like most writing, finding your own niche is essential and won’t be accomplished without research and effort on your part.”

From Mary Emma: “Study the various cards on the market. Determine what type of market you like to write for… inspirational, sentimental, humorous. Try writing the type of verse you like to read and receive.

“Since I’ve not written for a greeting card company, only designed and produced my original cards, I can’t say for sure what leads to success there. However, as with any type of writing, check out the guidelines the greeting card companies put out. Learn what they’re looking for, study the cards they have on the market, and check out how they want you to submit your verses.

“There are also books on writing for the greeting card market. If you want to produce your own cards, begin practicing. Use your note pad to sketch ideas for pictures as well as greetings on the cards. Then notice original cards in various shops…how are they produced and packaged? How are they priced? Don’t copy them, but get ideas on the techniques and then try your original variations.”

From Dan: “Write/draw everyday. I compare card people wanna-be’s to those folks who say, ‘I want to learn how to play the guitar.’ Yeah, today, they want to learn the guitar but when they find out the hard work involved they fall quickly to the wayside. The only people who will eventually become a greeting card person is the person who REALLY wants to do it and who takes the many rejections they will get not defeats but a challenge. I get rejection all the time and I just think to myself, ‘They’re the ones that are losing out.'”

From Robb: “Build a portfolio and resume of work. Create a venue where your portfolio and your published work can easily be viewed — in our case, a clean, well-constructed website best accomplishes this.

“Target your publishers. Where does your work fit? How can you adjust your work to fit a particular publisher?

“Be persistent. As your work improves, add your best works to your portfolio and remove those that haven’t endured as well with time.

“For the web, learn your graphics tools. Know how to use these tools to render high-quality size efficient graphics, photos and animations. Adobe Photoshop and Image Ready, and Macromedia Fireworks and Flash are all great tools to be expert in.”

From Sandra: “Study the racks, not as a consumer, but as a writer. Don’t just look at the writing, look at the artwork as well. See the greeting card as a whole entity… study how artwork and text combine to form this perfect whole we call ‘greeting card.’

“Find as many mid-size and smaller companies as you can. Visit stores like Target, pet shops, florists, gift boutiques, sporting good stores, etc. Most stores have at least a spinner with cards. After the telephone, greeting cards are still the #1 form of communication.

“Also, read the books out there on card writing. Besides mine, Karen Ann Moore and Molly Wigand have books on the subject. They were former editors of card companies, so their focus is a bit different than mine, which comes from my ‘in the trenches experience’ as a stay-at-home Mom with no former contacts. If you’re so inclined, take a greeting card writing course.

“And of course, submit your work. You can’t sell what you don’t send in…  I can’t stress that enough. I have taught many talented people, yet only a fraction follow through and actually send in their work to editors.”

Pick up your pen or put your fingers on the keyboard and begin writing your way to the greeting card genre success with your verses!

Shery Ma Belle Arrieta is the author of Every Beginning Writer’s Guidebook on News, Feature and Creative Writing. She is also the creator of eWritersPlace, a site dedicated to helping writers succeed in today’s market.

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