I’ve been illustrating children’s books and various other projects for the best part of 30 years now and to some extent have grown used to the sporadic income of the freelancer. Actually I’ve never had a proper 9 to 5 salary plop into my starving bank account, ever. It can really be feast and famine, what’s worse is that the feast is often owed to previous famines. With this in mind I wanted to find a product that would generate some warming background income against the icy ravages of freelance famine. As I approach 50 other worries are starting to appear on the horizon, such as the very real thought that I may not want to work my ass off into old age.
The quick version:
So about a year ago my wife and I had the idea to design and produce an original range of children’s toys similar to plastic toy sets such as Playmobil™ and Sylvanian Families™, but made of card. Our idea was to design and manufacture our own series made up of cut out card characters and props presented in a simple A5 cellophane bag with a header. To control costs I designed all of the elements, including the header card, to fit in one SRA3 size (SRA sizes are standard A sizes with extra space to allow for bleed). We would then pack them to look as beautiful and enticing as possible on display in a shop. Head over to the Playrama website to view the results.
You may ask, why didn’t I take the idea to a publisher, and let them do all the manufacturing, marketing and distribution? Sometimes I wish I had, but I suspect that publishers just wouldn’t ‘get’ the idea as it straddles three different industries, publishing, greetings products and toys. If they did understand it they’d not market it, or they’d have it produced in the Far East, or they’d give us such poor return, or the more unscrupulous may even just steal it. I also figured that Jo, myself and our part-time helper, Sanna, had all the skills to do it ourselves, which it turned out we did, sort of.
For the past 30 odd years I have worked elusively as a freelance business with my illustration, and thought that going into business in what would be effectively manufacturing would not be easy, but with a few books on starting your own business, manageable. A year down the line if I’d known what was involved Playrama may have remained as a dream in my sketchbook. I would guess that doing the initial art equated to just 5% of the work involved. Little did I know that we would be effectively setting up an entire business with a small, but operating, distribution network into retail. Whereas I had always worked as a small cog in a much larger publishing process, we were now running the entire shooting match from idea to product on a shop shelf.
After spending a fair bit on print runs and picking up a handful of small single shop outlets at a local trade fair we were committed. Heck I’m making it sound rather negative when really it is far from that. We have learn’t a ton, no, a mega-ton about business, marketing, web design, distribution, customer psychology, etc, etc.. I could go on, but the big thing we have discovered is that we still have 10 times more to learn!
I’ll write more posts about the nitty gritty another time, but before I round off you’ll be wanting to know where we are now. We have 9 finished designs, all of them available, with a handful of others waiting in the wings. We did a small local trade fair in January and from that and a few afternoons phoning around have 30 small shop outlets with about 20 more strong possibilities. These are currently worth about £1K in orders. A definite coo is that we have a quite substantial order from Jojo Mamon Bebe, a small, but well regarded baby and toddler chain with 60 shops and a catalogue. Costs to date are somewhere around £8K. So we are some way off a profit, but the majority of time and money was put into building efficient systems (a topic for another post!) and the products themselves, all of which is a one-off cost. We have another trade fair in July where we expect to pick up another 20 outlets.
It doesn’t look great a start, but it is growing, and I can see that our initial goal, an all bills covered income of £20K or so, is within reach in a couple of years (that’s the extent of my business plan!). Why go through all this when I could put equal effort into gathering more freelance work? Freelance income stops as each job runs out, unless you get lucky with some amazingly successful royalty deal and best seller book. The Playrama should keep selling, and as word gets out slowly grow. Also the distribution network and relationships I am building with customers is valuable in itself, in that it will be easy to bring new products to them in the future. I can also see a time when the effort put in verses the profit out will improve, and we will continue selling from our back catalogue, so that the Playrama I designed last year will still be turning a penny when I’m a decrepit old man hardly able to hold a pencil. It’ll be my pension.
My conclusion is no conclusion. Playrama is an ongoing experiment, and looks like it will always be such. However, through constant trial and many errors we seem to have something working and just about on the road. It still remains to be seen if it will work as a viable supplementary income to my freelance work, or will the freelance stuff end up being the supplement? Watch this space.
This was essentially an intro as this is my new, refreshed blog, but over the coming weeks I will post on more detailed reports and experiences on the topic of self publishing as an illustrator. As you will have gathered from reading this post, I’m no expert at all, so they won’t be tutorials telling you what to do. Rather, I invite you to follow my adventures and laugh at me stumbling around in the world of business. A lot of this will also be very relevant to the business of illustration too, as now that Playrama is set up and running with less effort I’m turning my attention getting my freelance work back on track.
Some of the subjects I want to cover:
- Self publishing electronically.
- Self publishing to print on demand.
- Designing products.
- Product pricing, costs breakdown, profit margins, etc.
- The market.
- Trade and retail fairs.
- Why business when you are an artist.
- Marketing! That’s a big one!
- Agents, distributors and other middle men.
- Setting up automated business solutions.
- Books to read about business start-ups.
- Customer psychology.
- Tons of other stuff.