You get what you pay (not very much) for ...

Saturday, 16 May 2015

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.

Sources:

The Most Expensive Car Repairs in The UK - Daily Express 14th May 2015

UK Population

National Minimum Wage Rates

Authors' Incomes Collapse to Abject Levels - The Guardian 8th July 2014

What's it Worth - Sam Hunter

What's it Worth Part 2 - Sam Hunter

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Comments

Chris Emerson
Chris Emerson says:

For what it's worth, I tend to only get digital copies of books these days, because I have an e-reader and I don't like to waste paper if possible. I think the price is very reasonable though, I can't see anything wrong with charging £20 - and I have in fact upgraded to hardback on this now.

The environmental cost of getting an e-reader doesn't outweigh the savings you make on the book of course, but since I have one I do try and stick just to digital only these days. It's nothing to do with the cost!

May 16, 2015

Stevyn Colgan
Stevyn Colgan says:

Cheers Chris. Any help is welcome. As I've said all along to people who've felt guilty that they can't afford much - don't be; your goodwill is enough :)
I too have an e-reader - a Kindle - and I buy most of my fiction purchases for it. But books that I'll come back to time and again, in particular large format art books, will always be paper for me.
Plus the arguments over paper versus electronic are still confusing. Is the energy required to build and power an e-reader greener or less green than paper production? As one green economist I read recently said, if it wasn't for paper we'd have far fewer trees. And lower paper production might mean cutting down existing trees rather than planting whole new forests for paper. Worth a read: http://www.treehugger.com/clean-technology/being-pushed-towards-a-paperless-existence-not-as-green-as-we-might-think.html

May 16, 2015

mark standley
mark standley says:

The point is creative arts are pleasurable pursuits and a luxury "hobby". Having a working car or a dry house is essential for all of us.
If I start a business and it does not pay me enough to live on I have to reappraise my business, why should that be any different for an artist or writer?

May 23, 2015

Mark Vent
Mark Vent says:

I agree completely - I've been to several fetes craft fairs etc where people are clearly underselling their time and skills and have offered to pay a fair price for the items - I feel good about not ripping someone off and hopefully they feel happy that someone appreciates their craft and the time they've spent.

I default to the hardback on Unbound and have several amazing outstanding Unbound books, now on their own shelf!, I support to the level that I am able to afford .

Commenters claim the arts are a luxury pursuit - I could not be more opposed to that view - I believe the arts and culture are VITAL, one only has to look at those sections of society that have 'never read a book' to understand why.

In truth nothing is truly 'essential' in so much as what is essential to one is trivial to another.

Cars are luxuries as there is public transport, as are white goods there are launderettes to wash and dry, small shops to buy groceries on a daily basis to prevent wastage.

People choose the 'easy life' over the 'better life' every time.

we should all remember 'nothing worthwhile was ever cheap won'

May 23, 2015

Andy Hatton
Andy Hatton says:

A question I have often pondered myself but having been involved with artists across several media, writers, painters and musicians... and as someone who has himself said on many an occasion "yes I like that... but I don't like it enough to pay £xxx for it!" I guess I have a perspective from both sides of the fence.

I understand exactly what you are saying. My wife is a science fiction writer, currently working on her 5th and 6th novels so I know how much effort it takes to write a book... alongside running a business and looking after two children (three if you include the big one sat here writing this...) Her first four novels, approximately 370,000 carefully crafted words, span 6 years of hard work... so I was dismayed to see at a science fiction convention we attended recently, another independently publishing author selling his works... a set of 3 novels, for only £5 for the set... and he still barely sold any. I've seen this guy before at other conventions selling his works at full price... now for whatever reason he's dumped the price to try and shift some stock.

Part of the problem has already been touched on... may of the professions cited, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, are people/services that we need in order for our lives to function smoothly. These are skills that must be taught and learned and can take years to reach a professional standard and for that acquisition of skills we are expected to and indeed prepared to pay in order to keep our lives running smoothly... in contrast anyone can pick up a brush and some paint, write some words, bang away on an old guitar.... whether they're any good or not is largely irrelevant... 'eye of the beholder' and all that. Whether a plumber is any good will determine whether or not he stays in business.

Another aspect is that there are a great many artists across all media who do it simply for love of doing it and are prepared to sell their work for anything they can get for it which devalues the market.

If every plumber did it for fun and just charged a tenner here and there you'd soon see the market for highly paid plumbers disappearing.

A couple of times I've hosted art exhibitions at my office building for a local arts college with the idea of introducing youngsters to people who buy art but I have said to all of them over the years, if you want to make a living out of art then you need to do commercial stuff... just doing the stuff you love will leave you awfully hungry. The same goes for writers and musicians... If you want to make a living it's a numbers game.

There's also the 'aspirational' aspect... I don't know anyone who has sought to 'make it' as a plumber, seeking adoration from fans or to be recognised at the equivalent of the plumbing worlds Oscars... whereas many creative types are always hoping that their 'big break' is just around the corner... and will throw heart and soul and 100+ hours into every piece they create... the plumber wants to get in, get out and get as many jobs done in a day as he can invoice for.

May 24, 2015

Stevyn Colgan
Stevyn Colgan says:

Interesting comments guys. And also, a bit depressing.

'Creative arts are [...] a luxury "hobby"?

Ouch.

Not many luxuries to be had on £4k a year.

Best I re-train as a plumber.

May 24, 2015

Stevyn Colgan
Stevyn Colgan says:

Nope. It's no good. I can't leave it like that. I may live to regret this but I have to shove my oar back in.

Books are NOT luxury items. Ask any kid from the Third World who would kill just to own one. Cars ARE luxury items. They allow you to gad about in some comfort. But you can always walk, as people did for thousands of years and many millions of people still do. And there are buses and trains and trams and cab firms. A car spends 90% of its life parked and is probably the second most expensive thing anyone will ever buy. THAT is a luxury.

And how do you learn to drive a car? By reading a book. Or by going online. And by having lessons. All of which, at some point, involved someone sitting down and putting words on paper. All the science, all the technology we enjoy as luxuries began with people writing stuff down. Writers.

Look back over our history and you'll see that writers have contributed more than any car mechanic ever will to the sum of human knowledge. And a gazillion times more than any nail bar will. That was my point; there's money for luxuries like cars and painted nails but not for 'luxuries' like books.

And that, in my opinion - for what it's worth - is very, very sad.

May 24, 2015

Andy Hatton
Andy Hatton says:

I don't think you can really compare the 'creative' roles with the 'functionary' ones... it's trying to compare apples with oranges... if you get into the 'luxury items' argument and reduce it to its fundamentals then anything that is not food or shelter is a 'luxury' item.

Do we need cars to exist? At the most base level no, of course not, but neither do we need books, art or music... ask any amoeba what they they think of Tolstoy, Turner or Tchaikovsky and you'll probably be greeted with pretty blank expression...

One thing I have learned in business is that no matter how good something is people will only pay what they perceive the value of something to be worth... and either consciously or sub-conciously are asking themselves a myriad of questions when they consider whether or not to part with their money... "Will this enrich my life?", "Will this make me feel better?", "Will this get from A to B faster?", "Will this make me more money?"... etc. etc.

The money they have in their pocket is in turn the result of an identical transaction conducted in the opposite direction, someone has given then monies in exchange for a thing that they have made or a service they have performed and the person giving them that money has given them only as much they perceive the value to be of the thing or service... and so we find ourselves into 'hourly rates' and pricing structures for mundane items and negotiation and bargaining for the more unique ones.

Getting back to the luxury items argument, in our modern lifestyles is a car essential? I'd bet 95% of everyone who owns a car would say yes... because it is essential to their modern lifestyle... and so therefore are car mechanics. Is a book an essential item? Will it get the kids to school on time? Will it get me to that meeting? Can it transport a weeks worth of groceries between store and home?... obviously not... but I think it's also a little unfair on car mechanics to say they have not contributed to the sum of human knowledge... if it wasn't for her car my wife would have to walk everywhere... and generally, although she'll write on the back of a bus ticket if she has a light bulb moment (and has done on more than one occasion)... she'd never get a novel written if she couldn't get from A to B at 30mph rater than 3mph...

The great writers, artists and musicians throughout history have only been able to do what they do because other people are doing what they do... and all of those things are governed by the exchanges and transactions that take place between them.

You do have a point though... I'm not entirely surely myself where Nail Bars fit into the equation... but even the Golgafrinchans paid the ultimate price for getting rid of their telephone sanitisers ;)

May 25, 2015

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