Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
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by Shery Ma Belle Arrieta
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"A writer can really get spoiled in this genre, because not only is it fun, immediate writing, it also pays quite well!" said Miller-Louden.
I Could Do This!
Miller-Louden was flipping through a greeting card catalogue in February 1986 when she 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," Miller-Louden said. "But even so, [I] 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 Miller-Louden's writing career in the greeting card business.
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, 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," Reynolds said. "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 1992."
Mary Emma Allen, however, broke into the greeting card industry by writing, designing and selling her own finished cards. Allen makes her cards by hand, using watercolors and pen and ink to create original designs.
"Along with my writing, I was doing crafts and artwork. This included painting in oils and watercolors," said Allen. "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, 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."
Voice and Rack Impact
The greeting card genre is different from all other types of writing, hence editors, when buying 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. 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," said Miller-Louden.
Reynolds said editors have different needs for each line of cards. Once you determine that need, strive to really be the best at it.
"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," said Reynolds.
Rack impact, according to Miller-Louden, is something the greeting card writer should understand.
"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 (consumer's) 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," said Miller-Louden. "Every editor has this concept, 'rack impact,' in mind and uses it as her basic criterion for buying a writer's work."
Breaking Into the Industry
So, how easy or hard is it to break into the greeting card industry?
"I consider 'breaking into' any type of writing as submitting and selling one's work," said Miller-Louden. "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. Many of my students/readers have sold their greeting card work in a remarkably short time."
Miller-Louden said writers should submit their works to midsize and smaller companies. She works with the premise that by doing so, they'll have a greater 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. I don't direct my students there. They get their valuable experience dealing with editors, assignments, deadlines with midsize companies; and many have accumulated quite an impressive portfolio of sales in only a year or two," said Miller-Louden.
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," Miller-Louden said. "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 purchased by a greeting card company?
"Overall, unrhymed has an edge," Miller-Louden said. "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 four to five years.'"
Allen suggests that writers come up with original greeting cards by creating 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," Allen said. "Then you can draw upon these when writing verses for your own cards or creating verses to send to greeting card companies."
The Business of Greeting Cards
Miller-Louden reveals that response time is generally faster online than using the regular postal mail.
"I think that's just inherent in its nature. 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 3x5 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 midsize greeting card company can receive as many as 250 envelopes per week, multiplied by 10 to 15 ideas in each envelope...well, you see why cyberspace submitting is faster and more conducive to quick turnaround time," Miller-Louden said.
"Payment and contracts have more to do with the individual companies and their policies," Miller-Louden 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/verse for a humorous caption. Humor pays generally more. In my own career, I've been paid as low as $15/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."
The greeting card industry is the perfect honing ground for writers. It's the best genre for learning how to write "tight."
"As I've mentioned before, greeting card writing teaches a writer to 'write tight,'" Miller-Louden said. "In my book and in my class, we go through specific examples of this. Also, 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."
The most important step to breaking into greeting card writing is to study the market.
"Study the racks, not as a consumer, but as a writer," Miller-Louden said. "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.'"
Allen suggests writers study the specific guidelines for each company when making a submission.
"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," Allen said.
Tenacity is what Reynolds believes is needed to launch a successful greeting card writing career.
"Write/draw every day. I compare card people wannabes 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," Reynolds said. "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 [as] defeats but [as] a challenge. I get rejection all the time and I just think to myself, 'They're the ones that are losing out.'"
Once you've studied the markets, and prepared a few ideas, take the next big step.
"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," said Miller-Louden.
So pick up your pen or put your fingers on the keyboard and begin writing your way to greeting card success.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Shery Ma Belle Arrieta is owner and publisher of The e-Writer's Place (http://ewritersplace.com), a resource for aspiring, beginning and even experienced writers.