Once Upon A Time In Egypt?
Desert Siren -- Part 1
The Art of Sidney Sime
Guilt and the Artist
Making Green Art & Staying Healthy
EMG news for June 2008
Supply and Demand in the Art Marketby Ellen Million
A list once made the Internet rounds not-so recently - I saw it posted in a dozen journals and blogs for a short flurry of time. It's a very good list, and it says very wise things about how art has worth, and we should never sell ourselves short and how doing so is a terrible crime against our own self-respect, as well as harming other artists trying to scrabble a living out of the dry soil that is the art market. You'll find this opinion echoed in many places, in varying degrees of defensiveness, and there are many, many published discussions about this topic.
You'll find folks on the opposite side of the fence, too, protesting that art needs to be free, as if it's some kind of oppressed country. When I first started Portrait Adoption, I submitted it for review at an RPG-related reviews site. The reviewers did not actually take the time to judge the site itself at first - they got sidetracked on the idea that I had the gall to charge money for the portraits posted, and asked in astonishment 'are those prices in US dollars?' One of the reviewers said condescendingly that they could just get someone to do draw their character portrait for free.
What each of these vehement parties misses is the fact that the system is self-correcting, and that there is perfectly serviceable middle ground.
All work, whether it is a grueling, suffering, soul-sucking day job or a grueling, suffering, muse-ridden creative jag, has worth. That worth is not driven by unions or monopolies, and it isn't set by committees of people who decide that a published page of art is worth exactly $100.
It is, very simply, driven by the market demand.
A publisher has a lot of expenses, and they have to weigh those expenses against their expected returns. Frankly, a lot of start-up publishers are not very good at this step, so I'm not going to say that it's always an accurate estimation.
The system, on the whole, is self-balancing. The publishers who budget too much expense and get too little return, go under. The publishers who balance their income and output - they're the ones who stick around and are able to hire people again, with more knowledge under their belts about what they can realistically afford to spend on each aspect of their projects. The long-lasting, successful publishers are fully aware how important it is to offer quality art and writing content, as well as physical quality. They also have the advantage, as they grow, of economy of scale. Smaller, newer publishers, as savvy as they may be, cannot compete in this arena. To offer a product to the market that is in the ballpark of price as their bigger competitors, they often have to cut corners where they can - and because printing costs are not generally negotiable, generally it's the creative suppliers that end up on the short side of the stick.
The important thing to take from this is: they may simply be entirely unable to afford the 'industry standard' prices. So, they get what they can afford, and find someone willing to work for less. In general, this will be someone less skilled, less professional, and less experienced, without a fanbase of their own, so that there is no weight to having their name on the cover. (Smart publishers know that a known quantity in terms of an artist can often move product all by itself.) Publishers scraping the bottom, in general, get what they pay for, and are usually willing to cough up more once they realize the importance of the product and the professional behavior of an artist.
Publishers aren't the only people who hire artists; much artistic business comes from individuals seeking something special and personal, and they are often willing to pay for it. Sometimes, they aren't willing to pay very much, and sometimes, they are. They are a market, and it is not always that they are horrible, disrespectful people for seeking for a $20 portrait. They have pre-determined what they are willing to pay - it is up to an artist to determine if they are willing to cater to that market.
One of the things that you'll hear long-time artists moaning about is that artists willing to provide the supply for this low-pay demand are 'ruining it for the rest of us.' They will argue that a publication won't pay what they are able to if they can get it for cheaper, driving down the prices on available jobs.
But see, supply is self-balancing, too.
My first commission was an $18 portrait. I probably spent 40 hours on that sucker, which, if you do the math, is $0.45 an hour. I also didn't charge enough for shipping, so it probably came out to about $0.05 an hour in the end. Was it worth it? Strictly financially, no. In terms of learning? Absolutely. The work wasn't that good, it took me a long time to do it, I was awfully unprofessional, and it was for a close acquaintance. Given my life to do over, I'd do it again. And again, I wouldn't stay at those starting prices. And no $50/hr artist lost any business over my $18 commission.
This is how most artists get started. And, generally speaking, they look at what they got paid and say "guh?!" If they are savvy and actually interested in doing art for a living, they charge more the next time. And the time after that, even more, especially once they start realizing how much self-employment taxes are sucking out of their profits, until they are actually charging enough to make their investment of time worthwhile. In the self-correcting way of the economy, as their skills increase, as they see what other people are charging for the same job, as their profile increases, an artist will raise their prices to what the market will bear.
Artists are not idiots, despite our reputation as muse-ridden flakes. No self-respecting artist, knowing that they could be charging $20.00 an hour, will be charging $2.00 an hour. As a student, doubling a commission as a class project, an artist might be happy to get any compensation, but as a professional with years of experience under their belt, it's likely they'll be choosier; artists outgrow their low initial prices and their willingness to cater to the low end of the market.
What about 'hobby artists?' Hobby artists are usually self-named - they don't need their art to pay their bills and they aren't interested in fame, fortune and elbowing anyone else out of job. They may not be interested in raising their rates as high as they are able. Generally speaking, however, they aren't going for the same jobs as the 'professional artists;' they aren't looking for the stress of deadlines, the hassle of professional correspondence, or the mind-boggling complications of self-employment taxes and business licenses and contracts. They may even deliberately keep their rates low so that they don't end up on IRS radar; they do art because they love to - money is a distant secondary to their motivation to create.
Hobby artists are not 'ruining' anything. They are meeting a market demand that more financially-geared artists are simply unwilling to acknowledge or respect, and they are generally not getting that work by applying for jobs and sending out portfolios in competition with the professionals. A vast majority of the time commissioners come to hobby artists, because of their desirable artistic style and the fact that they are in their price range; hobby artists are rarely out there snapping jobs away from job-seeking professionals.
I will not contest that the economy is tight, and that the market for art is one of the most difficult and demanding. I will not offer any defense for commissioners who cheat their artists, treat them without respect or have unreasonable expectations. I will not give any love to publishers who expect things for free or offer empty promises without credibility and honesty. I will certainly not condone people who try to define what art is worth in absolutes - on either side of the spectrum.
The market of art, like any market, is vast and self-balancing. You can do your part in keeping it balanced by being honest with yourself; your work is of worth. How much worth? You define that, and you earn it, by being proactive in the market, professional, skilled and involved. You cannot expect to be paid what you are worth if you do not prove what you are worth, and worthwhile jobs rarely, rarely fall into your lap without effort. If you want high-paying jobs, go get them, and deserve them. Have self-respect, respect others, and others will respect you, too.
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