Card Publisher Talks about the Digital Shift

Mike Rhoda is the product director at Leanin' Tree and I first met him through linkedin. I thought this was a perfect example of how social media is becoming the new way people do business together. I asked him to answer questions about new media, the digital shift and how it affects the card industry.

When one pulls back the curtain and talks to someone who works for a card publisher, often you will find a very creative person behind the desk. This is also the case with Mike Rhoda. He entered the greeting card industry as a sentiment writer, became a product director, and now also illustrates cards for Leanin' Tree. I've included some of his art in this interview.

What is your role at Leanin Tree?

As product director at Leanin’ Tree, I am charged with overseeing the product development of our card and gift lines, working with teams of product managers, writers, and in-house designers in the process.

Generally speaking, Susan January, our vice president of product management is usually the first contact an outside artist will have with Leanin’ Tree. If she believes that an artist’s work might be a good fit with our product lines, she will get with me and a few others in the creative department to gauge our interest level. Once it has been established that we would like to work with the artist and contractual matters are settled, I enter the artist’s world in a larger way, becoming the primary contact with him or her regarding the specifics and execution of the project planned.

I am also a part of the Leanin’ Tree writing team, and more recently, I have been allowed to do a little illustration work for our western humor line.

We first met on linkedin. Tell me your story of how this came to be.

I met you, Kate, through linkedin shortly after I became a member of that network. My motivation for signing up was to keep up with what was going on in the greeting card industry in general rather than using it to source art content. Nevertheless, I quickly became absorbed in all of the conversations that were taking place in the various groups in which I became a member.

Whenever someone said something of note, I would then click on their profile to see what their background and experience level was—sort of as a way to gauge how much weight to give to what that person was saying. Your name popped up frequently as you are actively involved in many conversations. When I drilled a little deeper to find out who you were, I landed on your website, recognized that I was already familiar with your work in the marketplace, and decided to make an introduction. And the rest is history.

I tend to be a bit of a “lurker” on websites like these because, as mentioned earlier, I’m not really the first contact artists should have for working with Leanin’ Tree. And, besides, I would probably be turned off a bit if I got a hard pitch/request to review someone’s art on that site because, unlike the Surtex show and other venues, I’m not really there for that purpose. Most of the interaction I have had with artists on linkedin has not been visible to the general audience. Instead, I have communicated through private messages as I did with you. In fact, as I recall, my initial message to you was a simple compliment on your work and not a business proposition.

If I were an artist hoping to “shop my wares,” I would tread carefully on linkedin. I think an artist is better served by participating in conversations and being helpful to others. Make sure your personal profile has links to your website or to places where your work can be seen.
Having said that, I try not to be too much of a snob, so if a fellow member of a group I have joined sends me the linkedin connection request, I tend to accept it and will generally review that person’s profile to see where they fit in the social expressions world.

Can you tell me any other stories, about things you discovered on linkedin, that really surprised you?

What has surprised me the most about linkedin is the simply the number of little groups that have been formed that have relevance to the social expressions and licensing industry. I am particularly pleased to see the amount of support groups, blogs, etc., for artists of varying experience levels that are open and available to all.

Anyone willing to do a little reading and research can find pretty much everything needed to jump start his or her career. This is only possible due to the kindness and generosity that exists in the artist community.
I think new artists should search thoroughly through these sites to find answers before asking a question that’s been asked and answered a thousand times before…kind of like asking how to spell a word when you have a dictionary on your desk. Just because the art community is benevolent, that doesn’t mean you should test its patience.

Do you ever go to other online sites to look for art? Where do you think licensing artists should publicize their work?

There are a number of individual artist and art agency websites we go to that serve the various niches covered by our product lines. Stock photo sites are places we review from time to time.

Whether or not an artist needs an agent is a totally separate topic worthy of its own discussion, but one of the advantages of having an agent is that it provides a degree of one-stop shopping. If I’m looking for wildlife images, for example, an agency site that reps a number of wildlife artists will be an efficient way for me to review art by animal type or theme—if the site is set up to do that.

If I’m representing myself and I were a new artist wanting to submit to Leanin’ Tree or another manufacturer, I would do my homework and make sure that my work fit into their lines, both in terms of the quality level of the art and the subject matter covered.

It’s disappointing to receive art samples from someone who clearly didn’t do any research whatsoever. But if your research shows that your work may be a good fit, then you should send your best dozen or so designs with a cover letter pointing to a website where more of your work can be seen. If your samples are good, there will be sufficient motivation to get the art reviewer to click through to your website.

While I don’t think we have discovered anyone through Zazzle, Etsy, and similar websites, I don't see a major downside to having exposure there. There may be other manufacturers who do review those types of websites for art content, so those sites should be considered.

In this new digital age, what are some things you wished all artists knew? And how might they go about learning it?

Digital may be greener, but it’s not always faster or friendlier. Think about this: If you were charged with reviewing fifty pieces of unsolicited art, would you rather have fifty tear sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper to flip through at your fingertips, or would you prefer to get five disks containing ten illustrations each that load at varying speeds depending on file size?

And with each file that loads, remember that you have to print the illustration and then document the artist’s name and illustration title on each sheet before you can share it with anyone else involved in the art selection process. (Which basically brings you back to where you’d be if the illustrations had just come to you on the tear sheets to begin with.)

Now up that fifty pieces of art awaiting review to a few thousand and you have a typical week of submissions we might be faced with here. I’m not saying we all shouldn’t be green or that digital is bad, I just think the artists need to consider how user-friendly their submissions are.

Update since the original publication of this article:
As part of a plan to concentrate more time and focus on his own art licensing, Mike will be transitioning from his present position as product director to working as a home-based, full-time writer for Leanin’ Tree. Therefore, all future inquiries regarding licensing opportunities with Leanin’ Tree should be directed to Susan January.


File Formats
Keep your submissions low-res and make it so that the artist name and title prints with the image so the review doesn’t have to do that work. Of course, you don’t have to do any of those things—only if you want to be considered easy to work with. So whether you’re sending in disks, emailing with jpeg attachments, or whatever the digital form your submission might take, just think about the person at the other end of the line.

You still need to invest in a scanner. Many manufacturers no longer have designers on staff or they’ve cut that staff dramatically, so anything you can do to make your art production-ready is a good thing. Scanning your art and saving it into a digital format will help you in that effort.

If you’re a traditional artist, you still need to know a little Photoshop. You’ll also find that Photoshop layers are a wonderful thing for artists who want to reformat and resell their work. Information on this is already out there in great detail on sites you can access through the linkedin artist community.

Submitting to Leanin' Tree
We don't need art submissions at the moment, but as the economy changes, our needs will likely change, so please check back with us via our website. Having said that, if we come across an artist who happens to fill a perceived need that our current network of art sources cannot provide, then we would consider bringing on a new art partner.


Unusual website you like: http://www.duncanbeedie.co.uk/ I’ve never met this artist/animator, but I came across his website one evening and got quite a chuckle out of it.

Last book you read: The TV Writer's Workbook: A Creative Approach To Television Scripts (Paperback) by Ellen Sandler. It doesn’t pertain exactly to what I’m doing now, but I think it will help me as a writer.

Your favorite Trade Show: I love the New York Stationery/Surtex show because I get to see what the competition is doing, I get to review updated artist portfolios, and I get to reunite with friends I haven’t seen in a year. I have one artist friend who lives in the same small Colorado town as I do, but I only see him in New York.

The last thing you laughed about: The great thing about my job is that there are so many opportunities to laugh. More often than not, I’m laughing at something one of the writers wrote that will never see the light of day—at least on any card or gift product we produce!

Last podcast you listened to: Last night I listened to and watched a podcast explaining a surfing technique that I am not able to do.

Best event you ever attended: My son’s birth.

The next thing you want to learn: The surfboard podcast technique and Flash Animation.

Your path into the card business: Regarding my art, I am self-taught. In a previous life, I daydreamed of getting into the greeting card business. I naively thought that one person did everything—the art, the lettering, and the writing. So I approached it that way.

Years ago, I was fortunate enough to develop a friendship with an artist at Current in Colorado Springs, and I showed him my card concepts. He kindly told me that my art showed promise, but that I needed to polish it up a bit. But then he asked me who did the writing, because he thought it was good. He then introduced me to the editorial manager at Current, and I managed to enter the business as a writer. I have just recently started to illustrate cards for Leanin’ Tree.
(Sample card illustrations included in this interview. Photo of horse: Leanin' Tree Sculpture Garden)


Joan Beiriger said...

What a great informative article. I'm so glad that Mike shared information about Leanin' Tree, how he uses linkedin and how he entered into the licensing industry. His cards are really funny and I wish him all the success in the world in licensing his own art!

Lesley Breen Withrow said...

What a great interview Kate and Mike! very informative and fun.


sue z said...

Thanks Kate & Mike!
What a great interview. How exciting about his cards, they are really funny!!

Chuck Ingwersen said...

Thanks for this interview, Kate. Mike provided very insightful and helpful advice. And his cards are great. (I especially like "Round up them doggies.")

Deb said...

Kate & Mike - what a wonderful interview! Mike's experience & advice to artists seeking partnerships with greeting card manufacturers is right on the money! And by the way - those new Western cards Mike is working on are gonna be a big hit! Thanks so much for this blog post!

Leyla Torres said...

Thanks Kate and Mike.

In this entry, I learned a few things that I will keep in mind when submitting work to manufacturers: "Digital may be greener, but it’s not always faster or friendlier."

I loved the best event Mike ever attended!

Terri Conrad said...


wonderful insight - wicked sense of humor Mike offers on his cards and in the interview. Thanks for sharing.

Mike Rhoda said...

Thank you, everyone, for your kind comments!

Kate Harper said...

Joan, Chuck, Deb, Leyla & Terri: Isn't it wonderful to get some nuts and bolts insight from a product director? So many of us want to know this kind of information, yet it's hard to find. I like Mike's perspective on what it's like to receive art from so many people. I never thought about making sure your name is on everything you send digitally. Now I am going to reformat all my submissions so my name is attached! I learn something new all the time.

Karyn Servin said...

Kate thank you for yet another great post. Although I don't intend to take the greeting card plunge, I do find information that is useful for any artist who embarks on licensing their art.

Deb said...

Thank you, again, Kate! This is, indeed great stuff! I too, will have to rename my digital files! There's always something you don't KNOW you don't know! At least in my case. Mike was indeed generous to share this with us, and you are always so willing and helpful in your blog posts & this forum. I really appreciate it.

Wendy Paula said...

Thank you Kate.
A very helpful interview, it is interesting to hear about the selection process from a publishers point of view.
Mike's experience is most helpful and he has a wonderful talent!