Once upon a time on an older website and blog, I explained some of the factors that influence deck prices – not just for independently produced tarot and oracle cards, but for mass market decks as well. I've been in marketing for more than 20 years and my dad is an award-winning author, so I understand how printing and publishing work. I thought it might be helpful to explain the differences between a deck that costs $24.99 and one that costs $80, based on my understanding of printing and publishing.
A lot of different factors drive deck production costs, which ultimately influence sale prices:
- The size of the deck
Bigger or more cards? More materials = more cost. Fewer or smaller cards may translate to lower costs. Expect to pay more for a standard-sized 78-card tarot deck than you would for a 44-card oracle deck with the same size cards, with comparable stock and packaging. Card shape can influence costs, too – standard sizes are easier to print without equipment changes, where other sizes and shapes can require custom cutting which – you guessed it – drives up the price. Round or square decks are a great example.
- Card stock, ink and coating
Different card stocks have different weights – and prices. Paper is often described in terms of GSM, or grams per square meter. It’s exactly what it sounds like: how many grams does a square meter of a particular paper stock weigh? The heavier the weight, the denser or thicker the card stock. Cards may also have a core, or middle layer, which prevents light from passing through them. Most indie tarot and oracle decks range from 300 GSM (lightweight cards) to 400 GSM (heavier cards) though some decks, like the Cosmic Whisper Rune deck, fuse multiple layers together to create thicker cards – Cosmic Whisper cards are a whopping 1000 GSM and feel like cardboard.
Paper sources influence price too. Using recycled or FSC-certified paper can increase costs.
In general, the more colors used, the higher printing costs go. Black and white or two-color printing costs less than full-color (also known as four-color). Beyond simply taking more ink to produce, it’s more challenging for printers to ensure all color reproduces correctly in a four-color process. Special inks, like metallics or foil, and gilded edges also add cost and complexity.
Finally, coatings that protect cards and make them easier to shuffle factor into cost. Matte laminate or anti-scratch coating is a popular choice. It may increase cost, but coated cards will last longer and suffer less wear and tear.
Let’s start with the box. You’ve got your basic tuck box, two-piece rigid box, two-piece rigid box with thumb cutouts, clamshell box, magnetic closure book-style box, wooden box, oversized box designed to hold a large guidebook and split the cards into separate compartments… Some deck creators opt to skip a box entirely and go with a canvas or velvet bag, or even a tin.
Square decks usually come in square boxes. Round decks may come in a square box with some sort of special insert to keep the cards in place. Again: more materials = higher cost. Details like printing on the inside of the box or foil accents can also add costs. Beyond that, most deck makers choose to have decks shrink-wrapped in plastic. While this can protect the deck (and typically signals to buyers they are getting a new deck), there’s also a price for this option.
Some decks come with no guidebook. Others have a simple fold-out sheet with a few keywords, or a card or two listing interpretations for each card. Maybe there’s a PDF guidebook with a QR code inside the box or a postcard with a download link included with each deck. For decks with more detailed guidebooks, size and binding drive cost – is the guidebook stapled or perfect-bound? Full color or black and white? Does it fit in the box, or is it oversized? Paperback or hardcover? More detailed guidebooks = more expensive decks.
- Extra services
Some deck creators opt to manage all aspects of creation themselves. Others may hire outside resources to complete some of the work:
- a graphic designer to create art for the deck, translate original art into a print-ready format, or lay out the guidebook
- someone to write/edit/proofread the guidebook
- models for deck photos or sketches
- a photographer to take pictures the artist can use on Kickstarter, their website or social media posts.
These add costs – but can also ensure a better product.
- Print volume
Printers offer price breaks for higher volume/larger orders. While the total goes up for printing more decks, the cost per deck decreases. Not everyone can afford the initial outlay for 5000 decks as opposed to 500. Let’s do some math: based on current prices on MakePlayingCards.com, the per unit price for 1,000 78-card standard tarot-sized decks on S30 stock with a rigid two-piece box is $8.21. Increase the volume to 10,000 and the unit price drops to $4.66 - but it’s $46,600 up front as opposed to $8,210.
Storage space is a concern as well – do you have room in your home for pallets of decks? Great. Live in a 500 square foot apartment? Maybe not. In that case, you may have to rent a storage unit – which costs money, as does transportation back and forth to the unit to pick up decks. Mass market decks cost less because publishers buy in volume. They have huge warehouses and fulfillment centers dedicated to storage.
I hope this helps you better understand deck pricing and costs (and see that most indie deck creators are not trying to rip you off by charging more for their decks than their mass market brethren).