Saturday, 16 May 2015
You get what you pay (not very much) for ...
I've been party to several interesting discussions this week on the subject of value for money. The first was prompted by the T shirt vending machine I told you about a few shedposts ago. I was speaking to some people who are 'crafters', for want of a better word. They make beautiful hand-made items ranging from crocheted shawls to tweed dog coats to embroidered cushions. When I joined the conversation, one of the group was being berated for selling her goods too cheaply. 'It's all very well you saying that I'm under-selling myself', she said, 'But these things take me hours to make and, even if I allowed myself just £5 per hour as a wage, it still means that the cushions are going to cost between £40 and £50 each. Who's going to pay £40 for a cushion?' (If you're a crafter, read this excellent piece and also the follow up piece by Sam Hunter.)
It's a curious quirk of modern life that we happily ... okay, not actually happily ... pay tradespeople like plumbers, car mechanics, carpet fitters, electricians etc. a decent living wage for doing what they do but we don't do the same for artists. As was widely reported this week, car repairs have hit an all-time high; one garage in Twickenham charges a staggering £141 per hour labour costs. Conversely, the cheapest found was £44 per hour in Orkney. Let's face it, even that's a desirable hourly rate. And what do you get for these huge sums of money (Oh, and the cost of parts on top)? A car that works ... until it doesn't. And yet, a cushion that's decorative, pretty, expertly made and will last a lifetime - maybe several lifetimes - doesn't justify £5 per hour? Really?
I've been guilty of under-selling myself, as most arty people have. I regularly sell paintings that have sometimes taken me over 100 hours to complete. And I've sold them for £200 because people have said to me that anything over thet is 'too steep'. That's me earning £2 an hour there. £200 wouldn't get you two hours of a car mechanic's time in south west London.
And then there are books. Another discussion with some author friends brought up the issue of how to get people to buy them. My latest book, Why Did the Policeman Cross The Road? is nearing its funding level (95% as I write this! Excitement!) but it's taken nearly a year to do so. It went up on the Unbound site on the 30th June 2014 and, since then, it's ticked along slowly with occasional spurts of growth but also soul-destroying plateaux where the percentage didn't move for weeks on end. All I've been asking from people is £10 for a digital book and £20 for a beautifully made special edition hardback and yet I've heard people say, ''That's a bit expensive'.
Is it? It's taken me eight years to pull this book together. That's eight years of travelling around the UK interviewing people and thousands of long, lonely hours spent researching the data and doing the physical work of nailing the words to the page. And all for an hourly rate of £0.00. Imagine a plumber doing that.
So why is it so hard to get people to part with their money when it comes to the arts? Yes, money is tight. Times are hard for many people. But that doesn't seem to have affected the sale of luxury non-essentials such as booze and cigarettes and there are more nail parlours, tattoo shops and tanning salons than every before. Online casinos and High Street bookies have never been so abundant. People are spending money ... but not on books. Why not? I don't know the answer. If I knew that, authors would not be some of the poorest paid workers I know. The average wage for professional writers in the UK has now fallen to under £11k. If you consider that the legal minimum wage is £6.50 per hour for over 21s and then multiply that by 8 hours per day, 5 days per week, 48 weeks per year, that adds up to £12,480 - even that's more than the average pro writer gets. 11k is also well below the £16,850 figure the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says is needed to achieve a minimum standard of living. The typical median income of all writers in 2013 - the most recent figures available - was a pitiful and distressing £4,000 per annum.
Naturally, my new book won't appeal to everyone. But in a country of 63 million souls there will be a percentage of people who will enjoy it. So you'd think that raising just a few thousand pounds to get the thing published would be easy. But it really isn't. It's been a long hard struggle involving me literally begging people several times a day to part with their money. And, once the book is published, I'll need the energy to do it all over again to get people to buy it. All I'll be asking for is the price they'd pay for a pizza or a Chinese meal. As I pointed out in a number of tweets recently, a single £10 pledge on my book equates to four packs of fun-size Mars Bars, or four bottles of Peroni lager, or four Melton Mowbray pork pies, or 20 Benson and Hedges Gold (Yup, £9.30. And that's at Tesco prices). A book doesn't make you gain weight or damage your heart. A book doesn't give you cancer or fill your lungs with tar. Food and drink are ephemeral pleasures; a book can stay with you forever. What else can you buy for £10 that, in some cases, can change your life. Not that I'm claiming that for my book, of course! But some books do have a profound effect on people's lives.
I don't have to tell you lovely people about the value of books because, chances are, if you're reading this you've pledged on my new book. And maybe other Unbound books as well. For that I deeply, humbly, thank you and hope that you'll enjoy it/them when it/they arrive/s. It probably won't be long now in my case. But my book would have got to you a damned sight quicker if we could somehow persuade others that writers are as deserving of a living wage as anyone else. I appreciate that what we do is intangible and not as essential as unblocking a sink or replacing a starting motor. But is it worth less than an Indian meal or that new spray tan? Without artists and writers, poets and songwriters, dancers and musicians, photographers and designers the world would be a much poorer place. Imagine if there were no music, no ballet, no art galleries, no poetry. No Wind in the Willows, no Fawlty Towers. No Pride and Prejudice, no Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. No Wonderwall, no Brandenburg Concertos. No Game of Thrones and no Citizen Kane.
You can keep your pizza and fags. I'm going to re-read my copy of Three Men in a Boat.