I Set the Price

05 Feb 2016 | Guest Poster

Guest article by M.C.A. Hogarth, a writer of anthropomorphics, science fiction, and fantasy. Her fiction has variously been recommended for a Nebula, a finalist for the Spectrum, placed on the secondary Tiptree reading list and chosen for two best-of anthologies; her art has appeared in RPGs, magazines and on book covers. She is also Vice President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

This article was originally published on her blog (Part 1, Part 2).

Let me say this first: Yes, I am the vice president of a professional association of writers. And yes, I believe that artists should be paid, and not a pittance, for what they do. I take that as given.

Having said that, though: if I want to give my work away, I have that right. If I want to sell a $1500 painting for a dollar to someone without the money to buy it at full price, that's my right. If I want to exchange a piece of art for the opportunity to pet a puppy for half an hour, if I want to jack the price down because I like the editor, the venue, the issue, if, basically, for any reason I want to hand my work over for less than people think I should, I'm allowed... and no, I don't think you're in the right when you tell me I'm "de-valuing" art.

You know what de-values art? Pretending that it can be bought for money. You cannot put a price on a book that saves your soul, or a painting that gives you joy, or a piece of music that makes you run faster for sheer elation. There is not enough money in the world. When we put a price on art, we are doing something utterly arbitrary, something that has more to do with what the market will bear and what we need to buy groceries than on the value of the work.

Do I think I have an obligation to my fellow artists? Yes, absolutely. But that obligation is not to maintain an artificial price floor like some kind of union member. My obligation is to educate my audience on why art (all art, not just mine) is worth paying for. To do that, I need to understand the value of what I'm offering (see above: priceless). I need to understand that what I do, as an artist, is important: not easy given a society that gives artists mixed signals. And I need to understand business principles, so that I understand how to price my work and what the market will bear.

I understand the drum beat of "don't undervalue yourself" is intended to combat a lifetime's worth of conflicting signals received by young artists about whether their work is worth remuneration. And absolutely, I agree, we need to teach each other that we deserve to eat. But not by vilifying non-artists and not by reprimanding each other for our pricing choices. The answer to this conundrum is not "Have every artist set their prices the same." The answer is to respect the intelligence and sensitivity of your audience, and give them the tools they need to make informed choices. I can't count the number of artists who have sneered about "everyone wanting to steal art instead of paying for it" or who have told me that if I trust people to tip me for work I give away for free I am being naive because "no one pays for stuff they get for free." (Ignoring even obvious examples of this being untrue in the existing world: people pay to get into museums. They don't buy anything with that ticket except the ability to go in and see the work.) I can't imagine the world these people live in, where they labor to give the work of their hearts to faceless masses they imagine waiting to starve, rob, or betray them. They must live in dark and terrible headspaces.

Because people do pay me for things I give away, generously, joyously, and eagerly. They do it apologizing for how little they have to give, or happily, sharing their own bonuses, paydays, and windfalls with me. And they do it because I tell them: "Look, this is how the art is made. Let me explain how wonderful it is, how long it takes me, how I make the choices I do, why it took me so long to learn that particular trick. Come into my world. Understand this with me. Experience it with me. And if I have given you joy of it, and if you have the money to buy me bread, I will accept it with a grateful heart."

You do that, and you will be surprised how many people suddenly look around and say, "All this art is made by people, and now I care about the people as well as the art. Because they cared about me."

That is the duty I have as an artist, to my fellow artists, and I do it faithfully, every day. If you really want to change the culture, if you want to see more of us earning our livings and fewer people "stealing," then this is the work you must do.

Art is a communion between maker and audience. If you don't think the audience is capable of valuing that communion, I question more than whether you're hurting other artists. I question whether you should be making art at all.

No one is obligated to pay me to do what I want. We all need to work for a living. But what people need might not be what you want to give, and forcing them to pay you anyway is coercion. I don't hold with it. Is it a sad thing when the world won't compensate you to do something you're brilliant at because what it really needs is someone to do data entry? Sure. But complaining about it is childish. If I don't get paid enough to live off the work that I love, then either I make it without compensation—because I love it—or show people why they should pay for it until I can live off the proceeds. Or both. But I am not moved by artists who think that they should make a living on art because it's what they want to do and, like Bartleby the Scrivener, they'd prefer not to do anything else. We'd all prefer not to do things we have to do. Doing them anyway furnishes us with the experiences that teach us discipline, duty, patience, and strength.

Taste is subjective. The number one complaint I hear from other artists is, "I don't know why they earn more than I do/got the contract/are more popular when my work is so much better than theirs!" I hate hearing this. It is demeaning to the person saying it, the person it's aimed at, and all the people who enjoy that person's work. Art by its nature is subjective. Your "better" work might not speak to the same people who enjoy someone else's, and you know, that's okay. It's okay for people to like "stupid books written for the masses" and "trash movies" and "cartoons with broken anatomy, why have they never studied a real animal argh." Your tastes and their tastes don't align. That's good. It takes all kinds. Cherish the people who love your work; because the people who like the work you hate aren't going to magically shower you with their money if that other artist goes away and leaves you the spotlight.

If you want people to understand the value of art, you can't tell them to value only yours, because they might not be suited to your work. Tell them about all the art that matters so that they can find the work that speaks to them... and your peers will start sending you the people who need your work. Be generous. Any other attitude is poisonous.

Sacrifice is relative. When I was a student I saved up for a year to buy one limited edition print from an affordable artist whose work I really liked. Seven years later, as a tech worker at a software start-up, I made that much "play money" in half a month. If you looked at our relative expenditures on art, it would have been easy to assume that Tech Worker Jaguar was the more dedicated patron of the arts. Yet it was Student Jaguar who sacrificed the most for her print. When someone offers me a dollar, or five dollars, and tells me that's what they have to give, I believe them. I remember that I once was that person who hoped that someone else would pay for a serial episode to be unlocked so she could read it, or who had to wait four months for the library to finally get me a copy of the book everyone read when it was new. And I remember that the artists who made me feel like my $5 mattered to them are the artists I came back to when I was plump in the pocket. "You understood then. Now it's my turn to give back."

That cycle never ends, by the way. I have been Jaguar of Little Means and Jaguar of Significant Means, over and over. The wheel turns. Be kind to people trudging through the dark part of that cycle. If they give you their money, no matter how little it is, it matters.

Ignorance is an opportunity. I said earlier that it's our duty as artists to explain to our audience why art is worth paying for... because I don't think artists realize how enigmatic the process is from outside our heads. People think 'well, they like art, how can they not get how much work it takes?' But you can enjoy the fruits of something without understanding how it works. Do you need to know the ins-and-outs of surgery to benefit from an appendectomy? Do you have to learn how to farm, catch, or sell fish to enjoy eating one? Construction? But we live in buildings. Languages? But we speak one all the time. So it shouldn't be a surprise that people enjoy art without knowing how it's made.

There is nothing wrong with being ignorant; there's too much to be known in this world for any of us to learn it all before we die. Don't sneer at your audience for not understanding your vocation. Think of it as an opportunity to share your love and enthusiasm for what you do with people who are eager to hear about it, and be grateful those people are willing to listen.

Anyway. I don't talk about these philosophical things much anymore, but every once in a while I see a cluster of things floating around the internet and I feel like something has to be said. Here it is: The work is sacred. People are awesome. Conduct yourself like someone worthy of a gift. Be grateful.

That should do it.