Seth Godin just summed up part of my uneasiness in hearing other potters talk about charging for their work based on the time it takes. Seth puts it like this:
Most professionals ought to charge by the project, because it’s a project the customer wants, not an hour.
Surgery, for example. I don’t want it to last a long time, I just want it to work. Same with a logo or website design.
Or house painting. The client is buying a painted house, not your time.
One exception: If the time is precisely what I’m buying, then charging by the time is the project. Freudian therapy, say, or a back massage.
Seth has a good point, but as the artists ourselves this is a hard lesson. When you make something you stand inside that process and you can compare what you are doing to your other projects. No wonder we see the differences and that it seems reasonable and fair that we get compensated correctly for the time it takes. Quick projects should be cheaper and more elaborate and involved ones more expensive. Its not just that the quality built into something is more realized the more time we take, but that its our time, and we deserve something for it. From our own point of view this does make sense. Seth simply makes the point that the people paying for our work are NOT paying for our time, and that our charging prices based on the time it took is not necessarily an easy reconciliation.
But I have other issues with artists justifying their prices based on compensating for labor. For instance, what is the difference between how long it takes a novice to do something and a practiced professional? The more experience we have the quicker we do things. Should professionals be penalized for being more efficient? Is there an incentive for mediocre potters to not learn efficiency? Or should we say that a new professional’s work is worth x dollars an hour and a more experienced potter’s work should be worth some multiple of x$/hour? 2x$/hour? 3x?
But isn’t this just an attempt to quantify a qualitative difference? In what universe would a beginner’s pot ever be worth as much as that of a qualified professional? Would 5 beginner mugs be worth one good one? Fifty? Could 100 bad handles ever be worth as much as one excellent one? Somehow selling ten beginner pots at $5 a piece does add up to one professional pots worth $50, but that seems to only work on a quantitative level. Its an illusion of comparison. Apples and oranges can cost nearly the same thing, and if you want apples or you want oranges any difference in the cost is simply irrelevant….. The sameness of the money involved merely casts an illusion that what we get for our money is comparable and potentially equivalent. You can get ten cups of coffee or a decent handmade mug. Is this a quantitative decision?
So there is an issue with quality that charging for our time can’t fully embrace. For instance, if we try to push time=money in our own work, never mind comparing experienced potters to novices, are all details equally worth our time? And that’s not just an issue from our own qualitative perspective, but to our customers as well. Will they pay more for one type of pot than another? Will they pay for a certain surface treatment and mostly ignore others? Is it worth our time to give them what they want? You see, its not just that more time is worth more, but that what we are doing is either worth more or less. And that is an issue for both the success of our pots in our own eyes and for their acceptance with an audience…..
Tony Clennell puts it like this:
There is certainly a different skill set to throw a nice teapot. You have to be able to make a nice form, a fitting lid, a spout that pours, put a decent handle on it and it has to function without dripping. This is what I call hard money. This is not an item someone makes right out of the starting gate. It is also harder to sell at prices over $100.
On the other hand there is the slab tray. I call this easy money. You could probably hire a high school student to make them for you and very easy for the beginning potter.
In what sense is it better to spend more time working on a detail that no one will ever notice or fully appreciate than it is gobbing on details that are in the audience’s face and obvious? The audience will pay for what it can see and what it likes, and perhaps not for what it doesn’t. If its a matter of the ‘right’ product in our audience’s mind, then clearly our labor can be well spent (financially) or not. A pot we labored over that no one understands can sit on our shelves for years while the generic stuff flows out the door. Not to mention that customers have budgets and sticker shock (as Tony suggests) can be a real disincentive to some.
So we get to ask: A pot that never sells is worth how much? In other words, it can be more cost effective/efficient use of our time to give them what they want. Supply and demand. But sometimes you’ve just gotta do what you’ve gotta do. Shadow May asks, “Imagine all the mugs I could’ve made with this.”
Which is to suggest there are plenty of reasons to put prices on pots. And that is exactly the point. Time is quantitative and sometimes its qualitative. The pots we make are quantitative and you hope they are qualitative. And when we reduce them simply to one or the other we quite possibly miss some important aspects. Pricing according to our own investment of time says nothing what so ever about whether its a good pot or a bad one. We can even spend more time on our failures than our successes, but does that justify charging more or them? Is it more important that its a good pot we are selling? Pricing your pots merely by the hour is as reasonable as expecting to get paid for picking your nose. Some things we do are not worth much at all to other folks, so how can it be justified in terms of the time it took? If we take a stand that “My time is worth x amount” are we essentially turning our back on the audience?
Time is NOT money, unless it really IS, and we are actually doing something it makes sense to charge for by the hour. Seth Godin was right. (And amazingly I don’t get paid for either the work I do to prepare these essays on my blog or the quality of the questions I ask.) Artists sometimes have an awkward but understandable ambivalence about charging for the things we make, and that simply means that the easy answers are never entirely right. But if we are interacting with actual customers and hope to make sense to them, we may need to learn to ignore the temptation to price simply by our investment of time…..
For anyone who has been paying attention over the last few years, one of the things I have pointed to repeatedly is how very different things can seem from the inside and from the outside. Everything from quality to our motivations either makes sense or not depending on the way things are being framed (Hint: This is very important). Pricing pots could never be as simple as merely getting paid by the hour for our work. Its always a factor, psychologically speaking, but there are so many other things to consider.
Things to think about, at least.
Make beauty real!