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Episode 22: Oracle and Tarot Deck Creation, Part 2, with Coleman Stevenson of The Dark Exact
Coleman: (Preview clip over theme music.) I get to do what I want. Every decision is mine to make. Flip side of that: every decision is mine to make.
Coleman: (Preview clip over theme music.)You wouldn't make your kitchen faucet design without going and turning on and off a bunch of kitchen faucets!
Coleman: (Preview clip over theme music.) You're not just making art. You're making a tool that is going to potentially have a major impact in someone else's personal wellbeing.
Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Word Witch Podcast, where we talk about tarot, magic, and belief, and try to bust our thinking out of the binary through conversations with folks making magic from the margins. I'm [00:01:00] Charlie Claire Burgess, and I'm the creator of Fifth Spirit Tarot, the witch behind The Word Witch, and your tour guide on this queer hayride to tarot town.
Today we have part two of my interview with Coleman Stevenson, the creator of The Dark Exact Tarot, the Personal Oracle, the Vitriolic Tarot, and the Fairy Tale Oracle series. In this second half of our conversation, Coleman and I get into some of the aspects of being independent deck creators and micro business runners. We get into some of the really helpful, I hope, logistics of what all goes in to creating independent decks and carrying them from start to finish.
If you haven't listened to part [00:02:00] one, I highly recommend that you go ahead and do that first, because Coleman shares some wonderful, wonderful stuff about the actual creation, like the concept, the art, the organization of tarot and oracle decks.
And in this episode, we get more into the practical side of things and talk about production, talk about the responsibility of the decisions that you make when you're creating these decks. We talk about, uh, I talk about opinions that I have about certain deck features! (Laughs) It is a fun and enlightening and I hope helpful conversation for anyone who is curious about making their own deck, or who is just a fan of indie decks and wants to know more about what goes on all the time on the back end.
Coleman also stuck around to answer a couple more questions for me that will be, or that already [00:03:00] are available on my Patreon page, patreon.com/thewordwitchtarot, where you can support the podcast, because it’s a free podcast with no advertisers, and you'll get some cool, free, exclusive things there. Also, I am starting to offer transcriptions of all of these episodes. I'm starting with the new ones, newest ones first, and I'm going to try to keep up with them as they come out while working backwards to transcribe the backlog of The Word Witch Podcast episodes.
You can find the transcriptions that are available so far, which are literally just of these two episodes with Coleman at the moment, at my website-- it's under the podcast tab, you'll see transcripts there -- in order to make this offering more accessible to people who are hard of hearing, or people who just, you know, [00:04:00] don't like podcasts and would rather read things.
And so if you would like to support that effort because transcription costs money -- like literally, like I use like a software to do it because doing it all by hand is even more time consuming, so we use a software, the software costs money, and then I have to go through and edit it, even with the transcription software, because no transcription software I have ever found yet can ever transcribe the word "tarot" or the word "divination" for that matter.
So in transcribing these episodes, It's spelled “tarot” as anything, uh, anything from, you know, just T A R O, just “tarot” without the T on the end—that’s easy. But then like really weird hilariously troubling ones like "terror" instead of tarot or "desperation" instead of divination. So I have to actually go back through and read the thing [00:05:00] to make sure that it all makes sense and the correct words are there.
And so if you want to support that effort, please, just, yeah, join my Patreon. You can do it for two bucks a month. It's less than a cup of coffee. It's probably less than what you should be tipping your baristas. So thanks so much!
And without further ado, let's go ahead and get straight into part two of my rich conversation with the incredible Coleman Stevenson of The Dark Exact. Please check out the show notes for the places that you can find Coleman and buy her decks and see her artwork and read her poetry.
Here you go!
(Transition music plays.)
Charlie: Okay. So this leads me into questions about being an independent deck creator. So [00:06:00] Coleman and I are both independent deck creators. Coleman has way more experience with it than I do-- I don't even know how many. Is it half a dozen, a dozen? Like, I don't even know how many decks you've created.
Coleman: I mean, it's the little Fairytale Oracle decks are so small that, you know, they don't have a lot of cards in them, although that doesn't really change--the whole production process is exactly the same if you have 13 cards or you have 79 cards. So yeah.
Charlie: And so I was thinking that it would be nice to talk about what it's like, what all goes into being an independent deck creator and the process of that. And then running your own business, shipping these things, just all of the parts. Especially cause people don't know. They don't know what goes into it. And so to share that for the folks out there and for anybody interested in making their own or publishing their own decks.
So I was wondering, Coleman, what are some of your favorite things about being an [00:07:00] indie deck creator, and what are some of your least favorite things about it?
Coleman: You know, I was thinking about this to prepare for today, and everything I thought of, I realized, it's both good and bad. Right? So for instance, doing it all myself. It's great because I get to do whatever I want. Well, I mean, within reason and resources, but I get to do what I want. Every decision is mine to make. Flip side of that: every decision is mine to make.
So the, just the fear involved in making the wrong choice, or having a typo, or just anything like that, getting something wrong. The fear over, you know, cause I ship every deck myself. Right? I don't have helpers. Like my company is me. I work with a production company--a printer, for the books. I work with a printer for the decks. I worked with a [00:08:00] box company here in Portland for the box this time, for the new edition.
But like when it comes to putting them all together and sending them to people who order them, I'm doing that myself. And so every time one of those goes out in the mail, I'm just like, oh my God, it's not gonna make it. Oh my God.
Charlie: And that does happen sometimes.
Coleman: Oh, it happens. Yeah.
Charlie: And then we have to deal with that.
Coleman: And it just, I just live in fear of all of that, because it's up to me to handle it every time. And I want people to be happy. I want them to like what they got, or at least have a good experience in getting the thing, not have there be any kind of impediments because you know that these things are not inexpensive. They're not cheap products.
And I respect that people are finding ways to participate in this thing that I am doing as an artist. I really appreciate that. So I want to do a really good job with customer service [00:09:00] because, one, I know what it feels like when that doesn't happen. And two, you know, I just really, really mean it. I am making this thing for you and you and you and you, so you actually wanting to have it? I need to make sure that that goes as smoothly as possible.
You know, I also worry a lot about the longevity. Like what is the lifespan of any one of these deck projects, right? Like, is there a point at which these cards become irrelevant. Like they're not what people need anymore, you know? So every time I print, it's this question of, okay, is this last printing? How many should I get? I don't want to get too many because what if they don't sell?
Also, I can't get too many because I literally have no place to put them. I live in a small apartment. Where are they going to go? I mean, you're like, you built furniture out of your boxes. Our friend James from Pixel Occult, oh my God, like a path through the boxes in his place. Like it's -- mine are all stashed very cleverly. [00:10:00]
You can't see them. Can you?
Charlie: You're looking at the closet, so I'm thinking--
Coleman: They're not in there.
Charlie: Are they behind all of your books?
Coleman: They're not.
Charlie: Where? They are.
Charlie: Where are they?
Coleman: I don't know.
Charlie: Are you sitting on them?
Coleman: Uh-uh. No.
Charlie: Did you put them in the wall? (Coleman cackles gleefully in background.) Do you have to, like, punch secret holes in your wall to like get them from behind? Are they up there?
Coleman: Mmm-mm. Nope. (Coleman cackles again.)
Coleman: So anyway, to illustrate the point that like it's an issue!
Charlie: You have to get clever!
Coleman: So it's-- yeah. So the good and bad, like every bit of it, too, like, so the outreach even, the positive of that is that, when I'm doing marketing for lack of a better word, when I'm getting the word out about these decks by myself, it becomes this communal thing in that I'm building community through doing that. I'm reaching out to people, I'm collaborating with people, we're helping each other out to [00:11:00] spread the word. I really love how that feels.
However, that's limited scope. So if I was working with a publishing company, they'd have a whole marketing campaign. Also just their distribution is massive. I cannot possibly touch that as an independent maker. I can't also, I don't like the sales aspect of any of this. I just want to make these things, right? But I also have to make a living because this is the only way I live. This is how I survive. You know, I teach also here and there. But this is my life.
Charlie: Same. All of, all of my, I mean, I have a partner and he has income, but all of my income comes from the sales of the deck and the book and the altar cloth. And then a little bit also from teaching. But like, that's the bulk of it.
Coleman: What people don't realize, too, I think is that we're not just saying, like, okay, I'm making these things, this is my job, so how much can I possibly mark this thing up [00:12:00] so that I can make a living? That isn't what we're doing. And the unfortunate truth is that when we're operating at the level that we are, so that we aren't walking on decks because we've got so many to get the price down, right? We're doing small batch printing, which means the decks cost a lot, several dollars more per unit. Like they--
Charlie: Oh, not even several, I would say like at least $10 more per unit. Like, the base price of deck would have to be in order to sell it for $20? Like you can get a lot of decks from large publishers?
Coleman: Yeah, you'd be ordering like six to 10,000 at least.
Charlie: Oh, at least! I think probably more than 10,000.
Coleman: I've not even looked at those kinds of numbers because it's so out of the realm of possibility for me.
Charlie: I would have to have a warehouse.
Coleman: Yeah. Also just the, so yes, it makes them less per deck, but still, the amount of money you'd have to have upfront to order that quantity in the first place? Is like--
Coleman: It's unknowable to me. I mean, I don't, you know, that's not my life.
Charlie: It's “pay for your house in cash” money.
Coleman: Yeah, right? Exactly. Yes, yes, yes. So trying to keep it small, trying to keep it under my control means that printing costs are high. And then, you know, I want to have a nice box instead of a tuck box that falls apart after you open it twice.
You know, the new edition, the box for this was a real treat. Like I waited six years to get to have this box, this ultimate beautiful, incredible box. Right? And I found all the other ways to cut corners to not do that up to this point so I could keep prices down. But at this point I wanted to see what I consider to be the ultimate version of this deck. It's my baby.
So anyway, it's just all the things, the printing costs, making sure that it's actually good quality. So, we're not wanting to just simply reproduce these. We want to make them feel like [00:14:00] cards. We want them to be heavy enough, but then they've still got to shuffle, right? So like, my newer addition is on the thicker side, but I can shuffle it. I mean, I shuffle it and still do a bridge with it, but it shuffles good with a side shuffle, you know? So yeah.
Charlie: All of these things are considerations that like, I mean, from what I've noticed personally, just for myself, is that most of the indie decks that I own, the card stock is better. And I'm not talking about super-duper thick card stock, because there is a line where the card stock gets so thick that it's unusable. And like, you know, sometimes you buy a deck and you're like, I don't think that the people who made this actually have used it. Because it's really hard to use. It's either really thin card stock or it's super-duper thick or it's made out of a material that's just like weird--
Coleman: Right, like or it feels too plastic or it just feels like a piece of paper. [00:15:00]
Charlie: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Coleman: No, I don't like that.
Charlie: Or it's like a piece of cardboard or something? Like I've had that, too. And I'm like what? It's like a particle board or something.
Coleman: Some of that, I like. That chipboard, I have a deck, a vintage deck here, that is on that chip board. This was, these used to be more common in earlier decades of printing.
Charlie: Can I touch it? Oh, see, I'm not even talking about that. This is nice. This is nice. I'm talking about some newer decks that I, I'm not going to name.
Coleman: Okay. Will you tell me later?
Charlie: I will tell you later. I will tell you later. Um, but yeah, on an indie deck, you usually are going to get better card stock than on some of the mass produced decks, cause they're trying to price it to sell quantity, you know. To sell quantity, which is how they and the creator of that deck makes any money because they get royalties and stuff, and that's a whole different ball of wax.
Coleman: You don't make much when you go with a publisher. What you get paid per deck is really, really small. So like, yeah, if they weren't selling thousands and thousands and thousands [00:16:00] of them, you would make no money on that project. You couldn't, you couldn't live as an artist, unless you've really made it and negotiated some kind of wild contract. A couple of people come to mind for that in our realm. But yeah, for the most part, that isn't what happens, which is why I've been trying to keep it independent.
Charlie: Yeah. And so, you know, I just think it's nice to know that when you are buying an independent deck directly from a creator, all the things that that's supporting from start to finish. You know, like the often sometimes years of work. There's a lot that goes into it. The editing, the revising, the shipping, the finding the printers.
Coleman: Yeah. Yeah. It's true. And now with, you know, like Etsy, for instance, is trying to follow suit with Amazon. And so they've been [00:17:00] strong arming us into offering free shipping for everything. So, you know, that means prices are going to go up, because I literally can't afford it.
Charlie: Yeah. Shipping is expensive. I feel like I want to lean into the mic. Shipping-- shipping is a lot of money, and I don't have an Etsy. I just have my own website and so I do charge shipping, extra shipping, that's not included in the price of the deck. And like, sometimes it's like $10, which seems like, which is a lot, a lot of money, especially on a deck that's already $55. But also, like, that's literally what it costs. And that's not even including the cost of like the actual box that I ship it in, or the packing material --
Coleman: There are a lot of hidden fees, and then there's taxes, and then there's the listing fee. There are just tons of hidden fees. It's an expensive business to be in.
Charlie: And also great!
Coleman: And great! It sounds [00:18:00] like, you know, I'm not trying to complain. I'm not complaining. I just, it is. I think that people-- you're right to bring this up because I think that people don't realize what's really going on behind the scenes and the amount of stuff that we as creators are making decisions about and juggling to produce a product that we can be proud of, but that is still in an affordable price range.
And it is a tricky, tricky balance to strike. I mean, I know there are indeed decks out there that I would love to have and I just can't afford them.
Charlie: Or like I have to wait, like I have to sort of ration.
Coleman: Yeah. Budget it out. Yep. Same.
Charlie: It's not bad to have a budget. That's a totally, that's a totally normal, good thing to have.
Coleman: It's fine. Like just set a little aside for tarot and eventually it'll accumulate.
And, yeah, it [00:19:00] is tricky and it can be disappointing. Like I get a lot of good feedback, but there are always reviews that come in here and there where, you know, somebody doesn't think it shuffles as well as it should, because they're comparing it to a deck of cards, made in China or whatever. That's not where I print. So it, no, I don't have that super fancy coating and I don't have the, um--
Charlie: Oh, gilded edges, foil edges.
I'm sorry. I just have to say something. I hate foil edges. If you're a deck creator listening to this and your deck has foil edges on it, I probably, I might even own your deck. Like I own a lot of decks that have foil edges because that's like a hot thing to do right now. And I still love the decks, but I hate, I get so sad whenever a deck on Kickstarter reaches its stretch goal for foil edges. I mean, I'm happy for the creator. And I'm sad for me. Cause I'm like noooooo!
Coleman: I've got mixed feelings about [00:20:00] that. Like, if the foiled edge, whatever color it is, goes with the art on the cards-- beautiful. But if it's just, oh, I'm going to foil the edges because I can, or because it's a trend? But then it, you know, I have a couple of decks where the edges they're foiled, and they just don't match the art at all, and it's just this baffling thing.
I also got a deck, a deck I really, really like, by the way, this Oracle deck and it has gold edges. I shuffled it and all the gold stuff just went up into my face. So like I had gold in my eyes from this stuff.
Charlie: Oh that's awful! I hate glitter.
Coleman: That's not supposed to happen. My eyes were burning from--
Charlie: Ooh, that's not good!
Coleman: From these cards. No, that's not good. So anyway, again, you know, remember you're making something that people have to [00:21:00] actually use. So.
And I'm not, I'm not flawless at this, you know. There again, revisions because it hasn't always been perfect. I used a local printer for the first edition of the deck and, you know, I didn't know anything about printing. I didn't know who to who to ask. I was trying to keep it local if possible. I'm still printing in the U.S. but it's not in Portland anymore for the decks.
But, oh, the coating! The coating that they put on the cards was sticky. So like, you'd have to crack the deck, and peel them apart from each other. Once you've done that, you know, and they'd been touched, they didn't stick together anymore. But just like, oh, it's just disappointing.
The thought of like, oh, I finally made this thing and I think I have a great solution. And then like, oh, yeah, it's not as great as I thought it was, this could be so much better. But you just keep going and the next time it is better. And then the next time it's better still.
Charlie: I, so on that [00:22:00] note, do you have any advice to give independent deck creators, like anybody who's thinking about making and publishing their own deck, what would you tell them?
Coleman: Start saving money because even if you do a Kickstarter and get it funded that way, there's always something you didn't account for. If you don't have it, you're going to be hurting. Really just think about the art and the system, how those things go together. Consistency, logic, there needs to be a correlation between what the visual is and what it's supposed to represent within the tarot system.
It's, I guess, intentionality. Like, be intentional about everything you do. Don't be arbitrary. And that has to do with some of these finishing elements as well. You know, like edging, or [00:23:00] even the thickness of the cards. All of those things: be intentional, no arbitrary decisions.
And also do your research. See what's already been done. You know, that bright idea you think you have? Maybe someone else has already done it, maybe you're in a lineage you're not even aware that you're in. What could you learn how to do better by experiencing other decks that have come before you? If you are working in an existing vein, what are you doing to either honor it or improve it? Right? Like things like that are important to me.
And acknowledge that. Acknowledge what you're working with, you know, what you stand for, what you've studied. And I don't mean this in the sense of prove yourself, but locate yourself. Right? Like what do you care about as a [00:24:00] maker and as a practitioner?
Also, if you're an artist who wants to do tarot? You better learn how to do tarot or you better work with somebody who knows how to do it. That's a, that's a pet peeve of mine. Like if you're making a deck in order to teach yourself how to read, I think that works. But if you don't know anything at all about tarot and you're just like, oh, I'm gonna make a tarot deck—it's just big pet peeve. It's disrespectful.
And also, you know, if you haven't done that research, if you don't even know more than just the fundamentals of what you're trying to make, you have no business. Ugh, I got really extreme. It just really bothers me. I was a reader first, and a deck maker second.
Charlie: Same, same.
And I wish everybody could have seen your face when you were saying that. Like the struggle happening on your face. I think home Coleman was holding back. (Charlie laughs.)
Coleman: I don't want to discourage anybody is what [00:25:00] it comes down to. I don't want to discourage anybody cause I want people to be participating, but like, you know, same as how you touch a deck of tarot cards or you leaf through a little white book, that does not make you a tarot expert who's ready to go do your own readings. And I just feel as a deck creator, study has to happen.
Charlie: Yeah. I mean, and like you said, I think that's a matter of respect, like just having respect for the form, the art form, the long lineage of people who have come before you that have made contributions.
I also think about what can you-- and I think that you were getting at this too-- what is the thing that you have to, the thing that's uniquely you?
Coleman: Yes, absolutely. Right? Why does this need to exist when there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other decks out there that exist and more coming still? Why this deck? Why does it need to [00:26:00] exist?
And also like just the whole thing about, you know, doing your research too, just: functionality. Again, remembering you're not just making art. You're making a tool that is going to potentially have a major impact in someone else's personal wellbeing. I mean, these are, these are tools for people to use for spiritual purposes, for psychological self study, for very practical decision-making, and we're all just trying to have better lives, right?
So, you know, for the same reason that if you were, say, designing a kitchen faucet. You wouldn't make your kitchen faucet design without going and turning on and off a bunch of kitchen faucets, or any other product that exists out there! Right? Like any designer will tell you that research comes [00:27:00] first. This is no different. Sorry.
Charlie: I love this example! (Charlie cracks up laughing.)
Coleman: I also really like my kitchen faucet. I think that's why this is coming up.
Charlie: Did you do so much research?
Coleman: So. Much. Research. To find it.
Charlie: Yeah, I bet you did. I bet you did.
Absolutely agreed. I just want to underline the immense responsibility and also the immense privilege it is to create something that people are going to use in that way. Like, that's just, that's just something that it put me on my ass making Fifth Spirit Tarot. Like, and I was conscious of that when I was making it, which influenced a lot of the decisions that I made.
Coleman: Well, even more so because you actually feature human beings in your deck. I do not. For many reasons.
Charlie: So that's actually, that's a good thing to note, too. If you're, if you're illustrating humans, thinking about, like, what kind of humans are you illustrating? Are they all skinny? Are they all [00:28:00] able-bodied? Are they all white? Or, you know, just like--
Coleman: Like, yeah, Cause so many decks, I mean, talk about doing your research. Y'all that's covered. In spades. That that has already been covered.
Coleman: Y'all don't need to do that anymore.
Charlie: And you know, just getting out of your own sort of bubble, you know, to think about those things and think about how they may be perceived, or the effect that they may have on the person who's using it.
Ah, but yeah, when people, when I started seeing pictures of people actually using the deck for readings? I. Was. Floored. Like I, ah, and I just—it was a feeling of awe, but also of terror. Cause I was like, oh, holy shit. Like I hope I did this right.
Coleman: I know! Every one of these, that leaves here and goes on its way to someone's home, I'm just thinking, oh, [00:29:00] please, please like it. Please let us have a legitimate place in this person's life. Please let this help them. Or at least, you know, not hurt them in any way. It's a huge responsibility making things for other people. And yeah, it wears me constantly.
Charlie: Actually that makes me think of, I'm thinking a lot about with the Oracle deck that I'm making now, because I'm not, it's not just like another, it's not an existing system.
Coleman: Yeah. So no one's telling you "this comes next."
Charlie: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And so that is in some way, like the responsibility's even amplified because then it's the responsibility of choosing, like which cards are you choosing to put in, et cetera.
We're getting, we could talk about this for forever. So Coleman, I want to ask you-- I've got a few more questions that I want to ask you that we'll probably just save and put on Patreon or something, if that's cool.
Coleman: Sure, yep.
Charlie: So that, I mean, I guess people would probably be fine if we talked for like two hours.
Coleman: Yeah, [00:30:00] but also this way you can ask me that really juicy things.
Coleman: So not everyone can hear them.
Charlie: Um, and then you have to pay me money so that you can hear them. Sorry. (Both laughing.)
Coleman: Which people should!
Charlie: Independent creator!
Coleman: Exactly. Exactly.
Charlie: Okay. So actually but first, before I do that, is there anything that you want to add or comment on that we haven't touched on yet that you would like to say or address?
Coleman: Well I just want to thank everybody who, well, thanks to everybody who's listening to this. And just a huge thank you to you for inviting me to come and have this conversation today. It's been really fun.
And also thank you so very much to everyone, over all these years, who has bought a copy of any of my decks, but especially for, you know, keeping the original deck alive for this long. It means [00:31:00] so very much to me. It's so bolstering. It, I just, I'm so happy to be in this world, in this realm, to have people's trust in me to make things that they are going to interact with. And I hope that I continue to live up to that in all my future projects.
And I appreciate the opportunity to talk about some of the ins and outs of that, that I don't normally get to talk about with people.
Charlie: Thank you Coleman so much for being willing to come on and talk about these things, because, I don't know, I like-- just let it be known that I don't know if I would have actually made a deck if I didn't have you in my life to be an inspiration. And also to point me to your printers. (Coleman laughs.)
[00:32:00] And resources, and, like, you know, give advice on all of those things that are really hard to figure out when you're doing it on your own, without that knowledge and without anybody to point you in the right direction. Which Coleman did it all on--like you figured it out all by yourself.
Coleman: A little bit at a time.
Charlie: And so I have benefited greatly from Coleman's knowledge. And so everybody should go check out Coleman's work and buy all of your decks and yeah, I mean, seriously. And so where can people find you online?
Coleman: Oh, sure. Well, they can find me in general online at colemanstevenson.com. That's kind of my catch-all site that has my fine art, visual work, as well as Dark Exact stuff. Um, and books, poetry publications, things like that. And then that has a link there to the Etsy shop, but on Etsy, I think it's just at [00:33:00] etsy.com/shop/thedarkexact.
Charlie: I will put the links in the show notes.
Coleman: I should really probably have my own web shop, but. Uh, yeah.
Charlie: And on Instagram?
Coleman: And Instagram @darkexact.
Charlie: Okay. Thank you so much!
(Theme music plays.) Thanks for listening to The Word Witch. The show is produced, edited, and everything, all entirely by me, Charlie Claire Burgess. Our theme music is "Counting Rice" by Bitches in the Beehive. If you like what you hear, you can support this show on Patreon for as little as $2 a month at patreon.com/thewordwitchtarot, where you'll also get to hear extras from this very conversation that didn't make it into the show because we talked for an hour and a half. Please check me out on Instagram @the.word.witch or at [00:34:00] my website thewordwitchtarot.com, where you can find my tarot deck, Fifth Spirit Tarot, along with other goodies and cool things. Thanks for listening, and stay magical.