This has brought into sharp focus the topic at hand, and a few emails I’ve received have prompted me to write this essay. But don’t get me wrong, this is a long standing issue, and a prominent one among hobbyists and artists who attempt to turn their passions into a business.
An overwhelmingly common criticism of artisan made pieces is this:
There are many variations on this theme, such as the following:
- Aren’t materials only about three bucks for that item?
- I could make that myself at about a third of the cost.
- I can afford to pay about half of that price. Can you work with me?
- Can I please see a breakdown of costs for this item?
Warning to potential consumers: all of these questions are not only rude, but will often be perceived as insulting. In this article, I hope to explain why. I believe that the core issue with these questions is that the buyer does not understand or appreciate all of the factors that go into the creation of an artisan item.
In particular the two that I’m labeling Time and Creativity. Just like when you go to purchase a car, or a bag of groceries, there are tons of hidden costs that make the item worth more than the sum total of its parts.
The organic matter it takes to put together an apple has a street value of a fraction of a penny, but bringing that delicious, edible apple to your table is what you are paying for. Let’s break down these three categories into what I believe are the salient points.
Materials – This is the easiest one for people to wrap their heads around. These are the hard costs of the stuff used to make the thing you’re looking to purchase.
If it’s a car, you’re talking about some metal, some leather, some plastic, some fluids, etc. If it’s a resin casting of an item, you’re looking at a few ounces of liquid resin. THIS is usually what people base their assumptions about pricing on. So many times have I heard someone say “Why does your item cost 100 dollars when it only uses about 2 dollars in resin?” Read on, true believer, and I’ll attempt to answer.
The first club out of the bag in this discussion is related to the hidden costs of materials. When I purchase resin, I usually have to drive somewhere to get it. That takes gas. It also takes a car that I pay for. That car requires insurance payments. If I order it online, there are shipping costs. I have to pay for an internet connection in order to do it. There are those that would say “yeah, well those are things you’re already paying for anyway, so you can’t charge me for that”. Au contraire, mon frère. I can indeed. Just as when you go to Target to purchase a DVD, wrapped into that price is the cost of transportation, taxes, licensing, etc… you’re paying for it all.
Even worse, there are extra costs involved in production of the item that are not direct materials costs. Things like plastic cups, rubber gloves, popsicle sticks, baby powder, etc or whatever things are needed to produce the item in question. You know… SUPPLIES! All of these things cost money out of pocket. Even more subtle is the cost of electricity for the workspace, gas for heating it during winter, etc.
You can see how there are not only hard, measurable costs that go directly into creating the product, but also a wide variety of hidden or uknown costs that are indirectly related to the total production cost of an item. Though not always simple, I believe it is far easier for a customer to comprehend these costs than those involved in the next category.
Time – Contrary to what you may believe or understand, the time of the artisan is worth something. Just as you would not do your job for free, it’s a bit short sighted to expect an artist to do their job for free.
When someone spends five hours working on that thing that you just ordered off etsy, that’s five hours of WORK that they did. You know, like at a job. That you would normally expect someone to get paid for. I don’t know why the value of time is so often dismissed by customers, but believe me, it’s important to the person doing the work. Just as you getting paid for putting in 8 hours a day at your job is important to you.
It’s up to the artist to decide how much their time is worth, and it’s then up to you to decide if you’re willing to pay it. This is just like at your job. When you went in for the interview at your current job, the person doing the talking probably said something like “This job pays so-and-so dollars per hour”. That was them telling you how much they think you’re worth. If you then say “that sounds great”, that’s you telling the hiring manager that you agree with their assessment. If you say “no thanks, I think I’m worth more than that” you then head on your merry way… but without a job. See how it works? If the price isn’t right, you end up with nothing. Same is true for artisans. If you don’t like their price, and they are set on their value but you disagree, then you end up with nothing.
But there’s more to it. The actual time it takes to manufacture an item for you may only be the tip of the iceburg in the total time investment the artisan makes. As mentioned above, they probably need to purchase supplies. Which takes time. Driving back and forth to buy supplies takes time. They probably put some time into developing the product also. A lot of the stuff I make includes making a master (using raw materials) molding it (using expensive silicone and related tools/supplies) and then casting it. This is a much bigger time commitment than is simply involved with producing a single casting of an item that I’m going to ship to you.
Creativity – And here we reach what I believe is the toughest pill for a potential customer to swallow. The idea that the product you are creating has some value all its own, independent of the materials and time used to create it.
There are a few different topics that fall under this category. Things like talent, intellectual property, specialized skills, stuff like that. The basic idea is that I have created something that you did not, and that fact gives it value. I like to pick on the automotive industry as an example, as people seem to have a much better intuitive grasp of how that works.
There are many reasons cars cost more than their raw materials, and nobody seems to have a problem with that. Nobody walks into a car dealership and asks if they can have the car for the cost of materials. When you buy a car, you’re paying for the guy who designed it, the guy who assembled it, the guy who drove it to the lot, the guy who washes it every day, the guy who is going to sell it to you, the guy who owns the dealership, on and on and on.
The people in that scenario that are relevant to this discussion are the guy who designed it and the guy who assembled it. Nobody would argue that those people don’t deserve a fair days pay for designing or building your car, as we intuitively understand the value in it.
So why is it that this all falls apart when it comes to an artisan item? Do we not owe the creator and builder of the item a payment for their ability to design? To generate in their mind a vision of a real world item, and then through a series of creative miracles, bring it to three dimensional life? Does that skill, that process, not deserve financial recognition? Nearly every form of commerce we enjoy in the free world says yes, yet when it comes to artisan creations, people seem to think no.
The real message here is that when someone puts a price on an item for sale, it is a combination of the costs of materials (hidden and hard), the value of their time, and the price for their creativity. As a customer, you are free to purchase their product or not at the price they are asking. Heck, you can even haggle or make an offer on a product. But to suggest that time or creativity have no value and should not be factored into the price of an item is insulting to the artisan. You are telling them that all of the hard work, effort, and specialized creativity that they put into bringing an item to you is worth nothing to you. You’re saying that creating that item must be child’s play, since it’s only worth the cost of materials.
And if all of that was true, why don’t you just make it yourself?