After showcasing our timeline album over at IMGUR of The Mutational Alchemy Tarot a few people asked me to cover the publishing process from start to finish. I’ve seen a few Kickstarter projects asking for absurd amounts of money for low runs so in my opinion transparency is a good thing here.
Publishing a tarot is easier than you might think, especially with the ease of access to resources via the internet. While in the past hand cut decks were popular, they are very time consuming and thus they are very limited in distribution, numbering between 15-100 copies. Large factories can handle tens of thousands of copies as long as you can pay for them, and offer a wide array of services like gilding and different paper types.
The first thing you need to make sure of is that your art is of a high enough DPI, or resolution. The bigger the image the higher the quality of the final printing.
If you are painting or constructing the images digitally you’ll need to make sure that you’re painting with CMYK in mind, the inks that a printer uses. The computer you’re using has access to a lot more colors than a conventional printer, and more than even some of the advanced industrial printers you’ll possibly be sending your images to.
If you are painting traditionally you will need a good working knowledge of cameras, lighting setups and have the equipment itself, either rented, borrowed or owned. If you don’t wish to deal with this you can also hire a photographer to take pictures of your work. Expect to shell out at least $20 per photo for the photographer’s time, if they are professional. Make sure you get a high DPI digital version, and not prints. You can put this images in a photo editing program to make adjustments later on or send them directly to the printer.
I shouldn’t need to mention this, but under no circumstances should you ever use someone else’s images in your work. Whether it’s the likeness of a celebrity or a photo you cut out of magazine and painted, it’s stealing. (see http://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/cards/heart-of-stars-tarot/ for an example of what not to do – this is literally a crime and could never be picked up by a publisher or printer legally) If you use photo manipulation please make sue the image has the proper creative commons release or is in the public domain. There’s nothing wrong with that and it doesn’t hurt anyone’s livelihood or infringe on their individual rights. If you put a likeness of your friend in the tarot, make sure they’re okay with it first.
Getting it Published
Finally when all of your images are done and they are in digital form, (JPEG with at least 300 DPI resolution.) what do you do now? You can send it to a local printer if they have the equipment to handle a tarot deck. Most printers in the USA do not – they will print a sheet for you and you have to cut it yourself. There is a niche market for such handmade decks. Other times you’ll find that the quality is lacking and it can get expensive testing one printer after another.
Tarot cards used to be exclusively hand pressed and painted, so it is definately a real option for one-off’s especially, and well done lithographic tarot can become extremely sought after.
Some go with the publishing route, but if you do this you need to widely publicize your work on the deck during its creation and target a niche audience that represents the common occultist – highly advanced or innovative decks will not do well and publishers will rarely take a chance with them. As an example, we wrote to two publishers before deciding it would be in our best interest to retain all ownership rights. US Games told us outright that while they could see it was based on the Thoth, the nudity would offend their customers.
Llewellyn just ignored us despite writing to them twice.
Small Local Printers and Hand Cutting
Our first real option after this lull of publisher rejection was offered by a student of m1thr0s’s, MythMath who already had a lot of experience making homemade games and had made playing cards before using a corner rounder. We had been working on the pack for nearly five years at that point and he wanted to get The Mutational Alchemy Tarot printed right away, and ordered some difficult-to-source poker paper to get it done locally. The paper was luxurious, durable and flexible but the images were noticeably off center. The printer wasn’t equipped to handle cards and it was extremely cost prohibitive. To make one deck would require an investment of $200, and I knew there had to be a better way, considering companies churn out decks for $15 a pop over and over again with few major problems with centering.
If you want highly professional service dedicated to tarot printing alone, on state of the art machines, you will have to go to Los Angeles, New York, or…Asia.
The TwinStar Orders Us Around
In 2014 that taskmaster the TwinStar began pushing me hard to get the deck published en masse. Its urgent demands were something I knew could not be ignored, nor would it be overly difficult for me to obey them as it probably already had a printer lined up. You have to work with the TwinStar for a few years to begin to understand just how perfect it is in action and conversation – it’s never wrong, it always has your best and highest interests in mind, and it’s not worth arguing with it, as you will lose, badly!
I started researching possible companies to self publish, and found Make Playing cards.com, which was very expensive at $15.00 per deck and while the colors looked good the paper stock was flimsy like a run of the mill massmarket deck according to other users. I uploaded all of our images and ordered a test copy to see if it was worth ordering a big batch. They wrote us back stating they had a policy against nudity! I couldn’t believe it. There was no other option in the USA for wholesale printing jobs.
Ali Baba and the Forty Tarot Factories
Asia was a labryinth, but m1thr0s and I absolutely wanted to get our cards printed in China for magickal reasons. Navigating the maze of trade liasons, importers, manufacturing companies and factories however, was daunting and indimidating. Sending thousands of dollars halfway across the world is even scarier, since it was a business loan and there was no way we could afford to do it again, especially since we wern’t sure if it would pay for itself. It was an investment in the long term for TAI itself, so that the website, annual taxes and licensing would begin paying for itself at least, and m1thr0s and I could gift the ownership of the MAT to TAI to help any future leaders of it.
I did some research and found out that dealing with factories directly was more cost effective, while the alternatives such as importers who go to factories on your behalf are more expensive, but supposedly more reliable.
After reading an article on the topic of doing business in China I decided to seek out factories. I started on Ali Baba, the trade hub of the world for everything from handbags to 3D printing machines sold wholesale. I hung my signpost out that said I was looking for a publisher for high quality art cards with nudity “not porn”, hoping to avoid any surprises later on.
I got quite a few responses and had to take days looking at all of them, talking to agents about what I needed and what they were willing to do. I sorted them out by weeding out people who seemed to abrasive or hasty, people who didn’t represent the factory directly (they call these importers or trade liaisons, and while they can be very helpful I was trying to cut all of the extra costs to put everything into the decks) factories that seemed to focus only on poker cards instead of oracle and tarot, and finally I was left with my choice, Shenzhen Wanjing Printing Co. They had a very nice website on Ali Baba with lots of photos of their staff and factory, a very responsive and polite agent as well as lots and lots of details about what they could do. The pricing was up front and they took the time to give me quotes based on what I asked for, instead of just throwing a cheap number at me without any details on the weight of the paper and packaging options.
I was lucky in that I didn’t have to make any compromises, except for paying more than I would have going to another company. We got exactly what we wanted, from the neat tuckbox to the black bleed-to-edge border. We did have to resize each image very slightly to fit their template, which was a little bit bigger than what we had planned, although this was actually a plus. Everything cost about $5,000 for 500 decks. It can go a lot lower for lower quality paper such as the kind you find in mass-published tarot decks which are seemingly never more than 300 gsm. (ours are 350 gsm art paper)
firstname.lastname@example.org is the email address of our contact Fanny Yeung at Shenzhen Wangjing and they are the best. If you decide to use them tell them The Abrahadabra Institute and Izi sent you. They are very reputable and are used by big publishers as well.
Even if you can pay for it, can you afford it?
We hadn’t been recieving very much financial support for our work on Abrahadabra even though people would come to us constantly with questions and requests for advice. This was very upsetting to our local busines advisor and she told us to stop doing it. We had to put the entire amount on the credit we had built carefully over the years. m1thr0s was on disability since he was hit hard with COPD around the time I was familiarizing myself with his work. I had been working on the deck for 5 years while doing customer service and freelance on the side at very low paying jobs to support him and the entire Institute, so we didn’t have any savings to put towards it. There just isn’t enough time to work on these important scholarly subjects and work at a full time typical career job, that’s the bottom line, especially with m1thr0s needing more and more assistance physically at home due to his poor health.
Both m1thr0s and I are highly skilled artists, so I knew we would be able to sell them once they were published. I know a lot of occultists want to publish a deck but if your situation is fragile like ours usually is you shouldn’t dump everything into publishing a deck that might not sell. I knew all of these risks and the reality of the situation well before I started on the project, but after talking with others involved in the Abrahadabra Institute I knew it was important to have a graphical representation of the kind of ideas we are always going on about in a fun form factor.
Shipping is very expensive from China for heavy boxes and you should expect to tack on at least a thousand dollars for every 500 decks. They initially wanted to send it to a port but I couldn’t get any of the ports here to explain how to pick it up, so the easiest option was by air with UPS. The best part of choosing Shenzhen Wangjiang is that they reassured us and guided us every step of the way, and we ordered everything sight unseen without sending a quality controller. This is very risky but I had to trust that since things were going so smoothly my spirit lodge helpers were managing everything as they always do.
m1thr0s is way more marketing savvy than I am having been the chief director of marketing at the Anarchist-Chaote publisher Loompanics for years before being hit with COPD. First he had us notify our clan at Abrahadabra, asking them to check out the deck and give us reviews at Aeclectic which one person did. The rest of our loyalists who had eagerly been awaiting the deck to hit purchased one and we rewarded them with signed cards from the first printed copy as well as free shipping.
We posted ads on Facebook, Reddit and locally and received quite a response. A customer asked for us to do a video review and I did so using my smartphone which wasn’t hard. It’s pretty easy to do marketing like this, we could probably go harder at it by advertising in magazines and such but I don’t feel like it’s necessary at the moment due to selling them pretty quickly as it is. The biggest tarot site on the internet is Aeclectic Tarot so we felt like we should put the pack in the directory there, and generated quite a bit of activity surprisingly. Aeclectic tends to be a Rider-Waite crowd but it is inexpensive and important to register there as they are basically the only directory of tarot on the internet aside from Amazon. If you can’t afford anything else at least get on Aeclectic.
Whether you are looking to publish your own oracle deck for personal use, or you are an artist looking to make a name in tarot, I hope this article has been useful for you. As always feel free to ask questions in the comments and support us by buying your copy of The Mutational Alchemy Tarot!