Friday, January 11, 2013

Materials, Time, Creativity

For most of my life, I’ve been engaged in one hobby or another whose central focus is people building things. I build things. I buy things too. In fact, I recently opened an etsy store where I sell Homestuck horns, of all things.

Would you accept two dollars for a set???

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:

"why does it cost so much?"

Da Fuq?

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.

Cost of materials = none

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.

I got yer raw materials right here.

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.

Someone has got to pay this dude!

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.

She gets paid for her time. So should 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.

Try buying this for cost of materials.

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.

Their ideas and creativity have a cash value.

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.

Conclusion:
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?

35 comments:

Bill Doran said...

Great article Matt! Thanks! =D

CrimFC3S said...

Right to the point! Going to be sharing this. Thank you!

Greg Chase said...

Very well said Matt, and so true! I would add to that the inevitable query ...

Q: "Why does it take as long as 4-6 wks to get something that I know you can make in a weekend?"

A: "One, I am not sitting here doing nothing waiting for YOUR order. I have a job, a home, a family and a life that consumes the majority of my time. Two, delivery time is subject to current overall workload and there are typically orders ahead of yours. Three, delivery time is often based on things such as worst case availability of materials, e.g. if I run out of "X" that can take 2-3 wks to get from supplier"

Keith said...

Outstanding article and well said!!

Emily K said...

And you didn't even include the time and costs of gaining the skills to be able to create products of quality!

Great essay, Matt!

Barry John said...

Very nice Matt. I'm plastering this everywhere.:-)

Jacqueline Goehner said...

Haha you took the words right out of my mouth, my love! Your points are thorough and they certainly hit close to home with my own Etsy store. Excellent read, baby!

Will Morgan said...

Well said indeed! I'm definitely going to share this article!

Erik Powers said...

Amen, a thousand times over.

Mark Matthews said...

Well said sir well said.

Hero Dreams said...

I think one of the best "I could do it better" examples put on film is when Raymond Massey was in the process of hiring Gary Cooper/Howard Rourk (architect extraordinaire) to design him a unique, exemplary home in "The Fountain Head." He was even willing to "pay the cost" but wanted to tell Gary how to do it.

While Raymond was bloviating about the conditions of the design (basically, how to do it) Gary was doodling down all the instructions. When Raymond was done Gary showed him the freak design. And Raymond laughed at himself and said, "That's what I get for telling you how to do your job." And then Raymond gave Gary free reign to "create" according to his talent.

For me there are only two issues to a "commission/hire" - is the client willing to pay? And, once I have the basic understanding of what they need - are they willing to let me do my job according to my talents and capabilities?

Your article did a great job of "answering" the arguments. Cogent and well said.

Anonymous said...

While it's a great post, there's the part where you're not legally allowed to sell Homestuck-related items unless it's a printed commission.

superfreak1000 said...

Awesome awesome awesome! Thanks Matt!

Russ Krook III said...

Great points Matt! I figured out once how much I make per hour on some of my props... and it's less than half of what I make at my real job. :)

Shinju said...

Wow, really well written! So deffinitely sharing it! Thanks!

Stephanie Carrick said...

Love it! This is all so true and relevant :)

JDNerd said...

I totally agree that people deserve to charge for labour- and to charge however much they feel they deserve for it. There is far too much of a pervasive attitude that when you work from home, your time suddenly becomes literally worthless.

I do wonder, however, if it is always rude for a customer to inquire as to the cost breakdown of an item? When doing it to find information, of course, not as an opening to complaining. I would (and have!) done this to find out about an item. If, for example, a resin item seems particularly expensive, I as a customer have wanted to know if there is a possible hidden reason that it is so expensive (like they used some expensive materials like silver/gold flecks in it, or if maybe they used a resin technique that is time-consuming) or if that's all 'regular time' pay.

Complaining about the answer? Unconscionably rude, imo. But is really always seen as a faux-pas to ask? Isn't it a selling opportunity? To follow your earlier examples, if you went to a grocer and asked why organic items are more expensive, or asked at a restaurant why Kobe beef is so much more, they wouldn't just say 'That's what we charge' or 'there are hidden costs'- they would tell you what the hidden costs are- lower yields and prestige of the name (especially since there's no regulation on 'kobe' outside of japan). That becomes a positive selling point- it's flaunting your items worth, up to and definitely including the artisans skill level (IE- I charge this because it's hard to do and I am mad skilled).

The tl;dr version: I think that sellers absolutely have the right to charge as much as they want for labour, including saying 'I deserve an extra $xx.xx on this item because it took x time to make and my time is valuable' or 'because these techniques took a long time to master' without being complained at for it. I believe that is something consumers will often want to know (why its worth an amount) and also question if it is rude to ask it. If not being used as a prelude to complaining, because that's terrible. That information is often on sellers page infos, I've always been puzzled as to why some people don't include it, and would never have guessed it would be perceived as an insult to ask.

Johnny N'Junkers said...

GG Matt!

Anonymous said...

I think one of those reasons for the inquiries is probably because there is another etsy seller who sells the same horns for $10 less then you do. Granted that shop owner is using clay compared to your resin but the general consumer and cosplayer isn't overly interested in the material its made from or even the quality really but more concerned with how cheap they can get it.

Stopping to think that the average homestuck cosplayer is age 13-19 and most likely doesn't have a job or if they do its one they only work 15 hours or less at and they may have expenses such as food, gas for a car, and possibly insurance, perhaps even rent for some of the older ones, that would mean at the end of the day their budget for something extra like cosplay is very low or relies on their parents. So they are always going to go for the cheaper priced item or want to know why they should pay more for your item. A lot of the time you're not dealing with the kid who wants the item but the parent purchasing it who knows in 2 weeks their kid will be into something different and wanting a new thing before the old thing has even arrived.

I'm not saying that people can't be rude with questions when it comes to art but I think you also have to ask your self why you are getting these questions.

Also you might want to consider removing the picture's from your listings before you get a crazy homestuck fan who reports you for selling homestuck merchandise without having Andrew Hussies permissions. Your shop can be banned for using Homestuck imagery.

Sorenzo Props said...

Spot on the money! This is getting share like crazy. Well done sir.

Lane said...

I've had a couple people ask how much it would cost to cast items for them.

If it sounds like a fun project and they are reasonable I'll give a fair price. Maybe the RTV was near it's shelf life and was going to be wasted. Discount on labor because I worked while waiting on another project.

Other times I quote full retail on the materials in closest unit size. Labor is time and a half my day job wages. Labor alone scares most of them off.

fuzzyzilla said...

well-written, and something i deal with a lot... i have the hardest time pricing things because of a variety of reasons, and i do hope that people get it into their heads that i don't do this work for free (if i did, how am i supposed to keep on doing it? consistently in debt?)...

Anonymous said...

There is one thing that the essay left out. A critical parameter is what the actual item is worth. I believe that it was 2 years ago that the Kentucky Derby sold a mint julip that was sold in a crystal glass with a tiffany silver straw, made with water from a glacier triple distilled vodka from whever, etc. After all the creativity, craft, materials, etc was said and done they put a pricetag of $1000 on it. Yes, $1000 for a drink. A vast majority of the world would agree that there is no chance in hell that it is worth that amount.

While an artisan's skill sets are unique and honed, the items that they are creating may not have a real world value in line with the worth of the crafter. I true master painter may be capable of a masterpiece with a true value of a kings ransom, but doing sketches on a street corner will diminish the true value of the work due to what they are creating.

As was an example given about horns. Is there a true value other than a novelty to having resin horns vs clay? In most cases no, so in creating those items an artisan shouldn't be shocked that their real world value is lower than the artisan's percieved value.

So in addition to looking at all of the costs and values that the artisan puts into an item, they need to also look at the value of what they make when trying to assess a price. If enough people are looking in shock when the price is given, it's also very possible that their assessment of their worth is a little off.

Anonymous said...

There is one thing that the essay left out. A critical parameter is what the actual item is worth. I believe that it was 2 years ago that the Kentucky Derby sold a mint julip that was sold in a crystal glass with a tiffany silver straw, made with water from a glacier triple distilled vodka from whever, etc. After all the creativity, craft, materials, etc was said and done they put a pricetag of $1000 on it. Yes, $1000 for a drink. A vast majority of the world would agree that there is no chance in hell that it is worth that amount.

While an artisan's skill sets are unique and honed, the items that they are creating may not have a real world value in line with the worth of the crafter. I true master painter may be capable of a masterpiece with a true value of a kings ransom, but doing sketches on a street corner will diminish the true value of the work due to what they are creating.

As was an example given about horns. Is there a true value other than a novelty to having resin horns vs clay? In most cases no, so in creating those items an artisan shouldn't be shocked that their real world value is lower than the artisan's percieved value.

So in addition to looking at all of the costs and values that the artisan puts into an item, they need to also look at the value of what they make when trying to assess a price. If enough people are looking in shock when the price is given, it's also very possible that their assessment of their worth is a little off

Anonymous said...

While I do agree with you in theory..I think many "artists" value their time waaaaay too high and we end with crazy prices on stuff. If people are telling you that your prices (not you, but the royal you) then maybe they are. There is a fine line to walk and its tough to nail the perfect balance

Bill Meahan said...

An industrial accountant would talk about "direct costs" and "indirect costs." Direct costs are the labor and material that "touch the product." Indirect costs are all the related costs that make it /possible/ for the product to be made.

To use your automotive analogy. Direct costs are the folks on the line and the components which make up the car. Indirect costs include the designers, of course, but it also includes the engineers and technicians who test the design not to mention the other engineers and technicians who specify and test the characteristics of every part that goes into a car from engines to screws; the purchasing agents who buy the already-manufactured components as well as the materials for parts manufactured in-house; the IT folks who provide the infrastructure for the CAD equipment the designers use, the computers the accountants, purchasing agents and clerical staff use; don't forget the bean counters and paper pushers! There are also people who drive the hi-los to move stuff around the assembly plant; the maintenance people who keep the machines and equipment in the plant running; the engineers who design and refine the manufacturing process itself; the folks in shipping and receiving; the guards at the gates; the quality-control people who make sure the purchased components and materials meet specifications as well as the ones concerned with the quality of the cars themselves; all the skilled-trades like tool-and-die makers, machinists and others who maintain the tooling that touches the parts. Don't forget the costs of the building, the HVAC systems, the conveyors &c. &c. &c. Of course every manufactured component that goes into a car has its own cost structure. You think the engines are free?

Your artisan products incur most of the same types of costs, simply on a smaller scale and most of them come down to the same person to do them -- you. There are plenty of people who think cars are overpriced and the manufacturers are simply raking in the bucks at an unconscionable rate. In reality, the profit margins are quite small. People simply don't understand all that goes into making a car (or cast-resin horns). All they see is the people on the line and /maybe/ the body sculptors plus the steel in the doors and fenders. The person who made sure the starter motor has enough oomph to turn the engine over so it starts? Nah.

Great article.

Romy said...

This pretty much hits the nail on the head, will be sharing it on my blog and hopefully artists and those interested in the creative work will understand each other better.

Glenn Sheridan said...

This is so right... I have a sign on my workshop wall...

Please choose 2: Time - Cost - Quality

You may only choose 2



You get what you pay for!

Jackie said...

This is a fabulous article! I'm a cosplayer, and I buy all of my costumes from commissioners. I've seen a wide variety of prices on the costumes I've bought, though I always buy it at the asking price. XD

I agree completely with the "hidden costs" and the costs of creativity and time. I hate it when buyers try to rob their commissioners of money just because it's "something I could've made on my own if I wanted" or "the materials only cost like $10".

When I was originally going to make my Maka Albarn scythe, the materials would have cost me $40. I then realized it was out of skill level to make, and I commissioned someone to make it for $70 (which included shipping), but I didn't mind, because I knew I was taking someone else's time, as well as paying for their skill.

Great article!

Miniature Patisserie Chef said...

Excellent article! I am an artist myself and have never tried to haggle or bargain with other artists because I understand the time and effort of each and every handmade piece.

Pei Li

Mykaios said...

Thank you!

I made one myself: http://mykaios.blogspot.com/2013/05/cosplay-commissions-what-to-expect.html

But yours has pictures and touches base on other things I don't :)

Anonymous said...

Any item/service is worth exactly what someone else is willing to pay for it.

Erika Tanith said...

Brilliant article. As a photographer I get this all the time - "But you just click a button!" Artists get a tough ride and it's great to see someone explaining why it's so wrong. Thanks for sharing.

Divya N said...

great article - people dont understand that they are paying for an idea or an concept and not just a product. In a mass manufactured item the concept value gets divided over 1000s of pieces and its negligible but in a one off piece its bound to be high

Silentsword said...

Gotta disagree with the last question being rude ("Can I get a breakdown of costs for this item?"). It's not rude; it's the customer doing his or her due diligence. In any other profession, itemized billing is the norm, and it is expected that such will be provided to the client without his or her having to ask for such.

Not to say that you have to itemize everything. Overhead, sunk costs, amortization of equipment, etc., does not get itemized, since those costs should be incorporated into your hourly rate.