Wednesday, July 15, 2015

the cost, the price

I'm in recovery mode from the Palo Alto Clay and Glass Festival. It's always a good show for me and this year was no exception, though Sunday was one of the worst days ever. So it was way out of balance-- Saturday was excellent, Sunday was not-excellent. It is very strange, how the energy of a show is set and how it affects everything. The energy of Sunday was downright lethargic, and by noon I was limped out in my chair, wondering if anyone would notice if I just crawled under one of my tables and slept for a little while. People were nice enough, but few were in the mood to buy anything. Though they were still in the mood to come into my booth and touch everything, which believe it or not, sucks up a lot of energy.

Early on the first day, one of my fellow exhibitors came into my booth to check out my work. He's a glassblower, older than me and very experienced with the whole making-a-living-at-making-art thing. He picked up a few pieces, and then got blunt with me. "Your prices are too low."

I was blunt right back. "I hate it when people say that to me." And I do. I take it personally. I feel like what is being said is that I don't value myself enough, and that makes me feel defensive. I think I value myself but also, maybe I don't sometimes and that makes me embarrassed. Also, I hate it when people try to tell me what to do. That's my goddamn job.

"This bowl," he said, pointing to a giant bowl, "should be at least $475. It's way too cheap." (It was $250.)

"Okay, " I said. "It is my favorite bowl." (And it is. It's fucking amazing.)

"There you go," he said, "at least leave yourself some room to negotiate. How are you going to feel when that bowl walks out of here for $250?"

I changed the price to $475.

Later, we had a more in-depth conversation about pricing. It was good for me to have the conversation even though it was pushing some of my little buttons. I realized that I have been letting my prices stagnate or even drift down, much in line with the wage stagnation of low and middle income Americans. 

For example, 8-10 years ago it was very common for me to sell vases and other vessels for $400 and up. It wasn't a stretch, I did it all the time. Most of my work was well over $100, I made very few pieces for under $75. The work I was making at that time was very labor-intensive. I was always pushing the price as high as I could, and I had no problem with it.

But I also wanted to develop less expensive pieces to broaden my market reach, so I did. Then my etsy shop took off, and over time the only things I was making were the less-expensive pieces, cause that's what was selling like crazy. I literally did not have the time or focus to make more elaborate, more expensive work. And over time I basically painted myself into a corner with the $44 item.

Oh, and bored myself to death too.

And now I've gotten more cautious about pushing my prices higher. I did do a nominal price hike on most of my smaller items last year for the first time in ages, but I've been reluctant to take a hard look at the way I've been pricing my newer items. I think it's underpriced-- I know it is-- but I also want to get it out there. I'm still developing and learning a lot and quickly moving up the learning curve so I don't want to get overstocked on work. I want it to move. But then I have to think about setting the expectation. If I underprice too much for too long, it makes it harder to get the prices up to where they belong later.

Pricing is tricky for artists, it's one of the most common struggles we have. My glassblower friend made the point that when you get into a certain market-- the high-end market-- price is not the first thing that is considered, and usually doesn't represent a barrier at all. Even in the lower-end market a price differential of 20% will not stop the people who really want the thing you are making. And pricing too low has the unintended effect of making people value the work less. Even wondering what is wrong with it.

I walked away from the conversation realizing that I cannot continue to be passive about my prices, that I have to think about what the work is really worth and price more appropriately. What about you? If you are an artist I know pricing is something you have to contend with, what are your thoughts? And if you are a buyer of art and craft, what do you think about when you are considering the price of an item? I would love to hear your thoughts.


  1. Anonymous9:41 AM

    Hey Whitney! Great to read. I'm am keenly aware of the recession's impact on my prices and sales. 10 years ago, I could also easily sell work between $200-420 (and even a couple $1200), and made few cups (which were priced at $55 then). Since the recession, folks want to spend around $100 or less from me. I've almost completely quit making larger pieces because smaller is what sells. Selling on Etsy hasn't effected the prices for me, it feels across the board as galleries and exhibitions now want small, lower priced items because that's what sells for them too. I've been able to push the prices of my cups playing with what demand will bear. Since 2008, I too am not able to get what I know things are worth, and also have the annoying comment from time to time that my prices are too low. My pieces at $300-550 languish, so why would I hike up others. Maddening, but trying to adapt. I appreciate the dialogue! Best, KK

    1. My business grew exponentially during the economic recession-- weirdly enough-- but mostly based on my lower priced items. Sometimes I think Etsy is what forced me into a lower-end market, but if I take a step back it was more likely the recession. I did say to my glassblower pal, "Sometimes it's a matter of do I want to sell the piece, or do I want it haunting my studio for months?" I used to sell every single thing I made within a matter of a few months. Right now, I have pieces that I have had for years. That used to never happen.

  2. Interesting post! Pricing is so hard. For years people told me I priced my work too low, so I took a risk and hiked it up, now I see my sales slowly declining. Its frustrating and hard to know how to do it right! That bowl is beautiful though 475 seems right to me!

  3. There are so many different ways to look at this, from our own perspective of how much we have invested in the making, how much we need to be payed to sustain our work, pay bills, etc, how much we like particular outcomes and what counts as our best work in our own opinion, but also how our audience sees things, what they are looking for and why they should care. None of these things match up easily. Its not bad enough that we can legitimately be conflicted about our own values, but once we stop to consider our audience we can see how the perspectives on value and worth multiply depending on who we are talking to and even where our work is being found.....

    Seth Godin ran a post last month that a few folks in arts advocacy circle are discussing. Well worth a read, but here is the gist:

    "Thirty years ago, I asked the fabled rock promoter Bill Graham a question that I thought was brilliant, but he owned me in his response. "Bill, given how fast a Bruce Springsteen concert sells out, why don't you charge $100 a seat and keep all the upside?" (In those days, $100 was considered a ridiculous sum for a concert ticket).

    "Well, I could do that, but the thing is, I'm here all year round, and my kids only have a limited budget to spend on concerts. If I charged that much for one concert, they wouldn't be able to come to the other shows I book..."

    Bill wasn't just spreading the money out over time. He was investing in a community that could develop a habit of music going, a community that would define itself around what he was building."

    That has to be insightful. He ends the post with this observation:

    "The promise of our connected economy was that it would reward the good guys, the long-term players, the people who cared enough to contribute. The paradox is that this very same economy has become filled with people who are easily distracted, addicted to shiny objects and too often swayed by the short-term sensation or by short-term profit.

    The extraction mindset leads to intelligent short-term decisions. If it costs too much to exploit a resource, move on. The network mindset values the long-term impacts of co-creation.

    The network (that would be us) then needs to decide if it will continue to reward short-term thinking in order to enhance extraction, or if we care enough about the long-term that we'll act up in favor of sustainability, raising the costs of short-term (selfish) action so it becomes ever more profitable to focus on the long-term instead."

    You can find his post here:

    1. I get a lot out of Seth Godin's posts, I missed this one. There's a lot to chew on here. I'm also thinking about Warren Mackenzie, who is so well-known and respected, but does not charge what his work could command because he wants people to be able to buy his pots, and use them. I do see other people cashing in on his legacy on eBay. He also doesn't regard his pots as artwork, he is very grounded and pragmatic about what he makes.

      I think it's really the culture we live in that has an extraction mindset, and it wants to extract as much out of its artists as possible in the short term without thinking about long-term sustainability. I just wrote recently about how Oakland is pricing out its artists in order to bring in a more affluent population, who want to come here because of the contribution artists have made to make the city livable and beautiful. Talk about short-term thinking! I don't want to emulate the very same behavior in return, it just creates a death spiral.

  4. I get you about people coming in and picking everything up! Makes me want to put up a "you break it, you buy it" sign, and yeah it sucks up all your energy because you are ready to jump up and catch it at any second.

    I recently sold some things wholesale, and now when I look back at it I cringe at my low prices. And then the customer tried to "extract" my stamp and therefore copyrights. Um.. No.
    I got to say "address all further questions to my lawyer" tonight. Feels good to stand up to a bully with an awesome lawyer friend backing me up. And boy have I learned a lot this summer about the art biz, contracts, pricing. But now, I know the exact direction I want to go in.
    Learning what you don't want leads to rocket ship speed in the direction of your real dreams.