Should you license or self-publish your designs?

A lot of card designers ask me this question.  Based on my experience of self-publishing for 15 years and licensing for about 5 years, I can say they are completely different ways of working in the greeting card industry. Here are the main differences I've found between the two. My opinion comes from running a full-time, self-supporting business in both industries.

Studio Space
The amount of space you need to run your own self-publishing business is dramatically larger than licensing.  When you manufacture cards you need a large space for storage, packing, shipping and possible staffing. In licensing, at bare minimum, all you really need is a computer for sending digital images.

Decisions Over What Gets Published
When you self-publish, you have complete control over what gets published. If you want to create edgy, bohemian cards, you can do it. It is easy to design, print and sell a new design in as little as 2 weeks.  If you try to license those same designs, you might not be able to get a publisher to take a chance them, especially if the topics are controversial. Also it might be 18 months before the card ends up on store shelves.

When you manufacture cards you take a financial risk.  It’s possible you could spend several thousand dollars printing your own designs and not be able to sell them (that’s why you should start small with local stores), whereas in licensing there are very few costs other than buying a computer and a graphics program (which you probably already have).  I do not count trade shows and advertising as an expense because I have not found them to be a very significant factor for success in either businesses.

Time Investment
Manufacturing cards is very time consuming.  If you are successful, you will find most of your days involve the movement of card stock and packing boxes.  In the evenings you will probably be doing paperwork, paying reps, tracking orders and other details. Also, employees, sales reps and stores depend on you, so you can’t just stop working and take a spontaneous vacation. In Licensing, you can work as much or little as you want, but the less you work, the less you will make. Also, when you submit cards for licensing, you don't know how many will be selected, so you may spend time creating several designs that are never published.

I found self-publishing to be a more profitable and reliable income, mostly because I could respond to trends and steer the direction of my business. For example, the odds of my cards selling good one day in 2,000 stores, and then suddenly failing the next day was pretty slim. I could rely on those accounts, and I could add sales reps slowly as my business expanded. In licensing, an artists does not have control over what gets published or how long cards will stay on store shelves. Therefore, it is hard to predict income.  The upside is that it is satisfying to create one piece of art and continue to get royalties from it several months or years later.

What is your experience licensing or self-publishing? Share your comments below or on the Greeting Card Designer Facebook Group.

Books on Art Licensing

Here are some book on licensing. Some were published years ago, but still relevant in how to create designs for licensing, royalty percentages, contracts, etc.