Having just finished Freakangels, I’m in a delicate position with my work; my career is still quite young (I’ve only been self employed for 6 years) but having published 6 volumes of Freakangels, along with The Tempest and 3 shorts (over a thousand pages of comics) I feel like I’ve got a reasonable amount of experience behind me.

I’m now in the process of looking for new work, taking on commissions and working on pitches. It’s really exciting and really nerve-wracking all at the same time, but the one thing that is cropping up over and over as a theme in everything I’m dealing with post-Freakangels is “what am I worth?” It’s a bloody hard question.

As much as art is a career to me now, it’s been a hobby for much longer, and there are plenty of people around me (both at conventions and online) whose work I respect that do comics or illustration for pleasure or in their spare time. It’s a tricky industry to find work in, even if you’re talented, and I feel lucky to be in the position that I am – coming off the back of a long and popular series for which I was paid enough to live on, even in the middle of a recession. On the other hand, illustration (under which I include comics) is my job – it’s a skill I’ve developed that I’ve devoted my life to, invested my education in, and pursued full-time. There was just as much effort involved in earning the money I have as there would have been in any career.

So how do I define my worth? If I was in a “normal” career, my income would be classed as low for my level of experience and expertise. My sister (2 years younger than me, working in marketing) has already been promoted once, and earns more than I do. Something similar goes for most of the friends I had in college who went on to find jobs in their own fields. I earn under the average (both median and mean) for my age, my gender and my level of education. Financially, I’m bringing in just enough for a comfortable day-to-day life, but I can’t afford savings, investments or any financial security: my assets are limited to my personal possessions and my skills. In order to achieve this status, I’ve also had to work hard enough that the stress levels involved endangered my health last year, and I’m still dealing with the fallout from that.

This my sound like a litany of complaints, but it’s just the truth. These are all facts I have to consider when I figure out how much to charge for my work.

So when someone asks “how much will this illustration cost?”, “what do you charge for a workshop?” or “what is your page-rate?” They’re loaded questions!

Lets say that I thought my work was worth an annual salary of £20,000 which is a reasonable wage for my circumstances. Let’s say that in a year I would expect/aim to work 5 days a week and 40 weeks a year (to take into account moments when I either need to rest or can’t find work). The maths is very simple – 5 days a week for 40 weeks comes to 200 days a year. In order to earn £20,000 a year, I would need to earn £100 a day. That’s disregarding the loss from taxes or the time taken up with self-promotion and admin, but let’s keep this simple!

I managed to get 6 pages of Freakangels done a week because I hired 2 colourists, so in reality a comic page from beginning to end takes me about 2 days’ work. Illustrations are harder to pin down because of varying complexity, the time spent on revisions, talking to the client, and setting up the commission. Sometimes an illustration can take many days, sometimes only one day, so I charge accordingly. This means that in order to earn a reasonable salary, my page rate for comics should be £200, and my rate for commissions should be £100-£1000 depending on the time taken (I’ve never spent longer than ten days on a commission, or less than one day).

However, anyone who has tried to charge for their services or entered into a contract with a publisher knows that rates like those are extremely ambitious. It wouldn’t be hard for clients to find other artists who can charge significantly less because their art doesn’t fully support them financially, or because they work faster, or because they’re brand new to the profession. Also, the chances that a client is considering anything that I’ve mentioned so far in this blog post will be quite low – they’ll be assigning value to the art, not to my time and expertise. To many companies, comics aren’t worth much money, and to many people art is a trivial part of life with little intrinsic value. So when dealing with what my livelihood is worth, I’m dealing with my personal situation, the relationship that has to the situations of other artists, plus the perceived worth of my style and my medium.

There really are no easy answers, and the actions of everybody in the industry (commissioners, publishers and artists) have an impact on how much room we all have to negotiate our worth.

Charging less could get me more work, but will increase my stress levels, and there’s a practical limit to how much I could do this because I still need to support myself. One one hand, this gives publishers or those with budget a way to exploit artists, but on the other, it lets enthusiasts and fans with less budget afford what I’m producing. It also tends to produce work of a rushed quality because I’m forced to fit more work into less time.

Charging more will get me less work, but assuming I find enough, it will also give me a comfortable life with less long-term stress and perhaps the chance of saving for the future. It encourages an industry in which publishers spend good money for carefully produced art, but also one in which art becomes harder for casual fans to afford.

Ultimately, any decisions I make will be deeply mired in the economy that surrounds us and regulates our lives. The value of a life, the effort involved in skill, the usefulness of a trade, or the time invested in a livelihood are only secondary players when it comes to how much we’re each worth. Those factors are ruled over by the luck of the draw, the value of markets, and most importantly by the perception of value held by the many people who invest in those markets. Sometimes that system supports us, sometimes it doesn’t, but the thing that frustrates me most is the subtle way that it distorts our regard for human worth. We are naturally drawn towards bolstering our own worth in order to live more comfortably, but the more we do, the less accessible the things we produce become to people with less income.

All of the biggest assumptions we make about other people’s lives, the accuracy of class clichés, the value of various livelihoods, and even our political affiliations spring from how we attempt to explain why everyone isn’t financially successful. Those assumptions are in turn are the only things with which we can excuse ourselves for capitalising fully on our work, and cutting less successful people out of our immediate economic circle.

Of course, we all know that eventually the wealth “trickles down”, don’t we?

Comments

  1. Shaun says:

    Seems you’re purely focused on the income side here, and the “how much should the world value me at, financially?” question.

    I prob can’t help much with that, but another important and relevant question might be “how cheaply can I learn to live happily?” I’ve been living off £3,000-£6,000 a year since I went self-employed six years ago, and it gives me immense freedom to do what I love and believe in, and even to save.

    For me, comparing my income to others would be a depressing experience, but comparing my lifestyle (and its long-term viability)? Quite the opposite :)

    x

  2. @Shaun
    Good point! Lifestyle wise I’m pretty happy with what I have now, but all I’m talking about is the ability to continue that whilst producing work that’s meaningful to me and not working myself ill!

    Being honest though, I’m not sure how you get by on so little!

  3. Underpass says:

    A well written and thoughtful post Paul :)
    Getting by on what you love to do is a very difficult thing. I have never been in a position where I’ve ever thought music could support me viably, thought ultimately that is my dream. Despite the fact that a lot of my output isn’t necessarily music I like but library music for television and film, or comissioned pieces, there is still know way I can earn more than about $150 per month from sales and royalities combined.
    As far as CD sales and digital downloads go, I’ve always kept my CD prices down to a minimum and can only ever afford to produce them in limited quantities, which means that albums of my own material, whilst being the centre of what I want to make, in reality never do more than cover their own costs.
    I make them because I love having a physical release with art, and liner notes, and I keep them cheap because I want to encourage people to buy the CD/vinyl and see the art and engage with the relase in a way they just cant do with a 99p download.
    Market forces have at least decided what a song is worth. 99p. Per sale, per person. iTunes and market forces have set a value.I guess the advantage of a song is that no matter how many times you sell it, you still have it.
    Of that 99p I guess I am likely to see 45p per sale, maybe less depending on where it’s been bought from.

    As an experiment last year I released a 5 track ep, with a art and a sleeve, as a pay what you want release, to see what people were actually prepared to pay.

    Of the three hundred or so people who found it, two people paid for it. I’m fairly sure one of those might have been my mum.

    Music still remains an industry, but in my future I will always be working a full time job to pay the rent and making music because I love it, and I’m not sure how to stop.

  4. Mark. says:

    “We are naturally drawn towards bolstering our own worth in order to live more comfortably, but the more we do, the less accessible the things we produce become to people with less income.”

    You’ve produced hundreds of pages of exceptionally high quality work that are available to anyone with an internet connection for free.

    I’m certainly looking forward to seeing more from you, but I don’t think you’ve got any reason to feel guilty about charging as much as you can get away with!

  5. Lisa Grace says:

    It’s the same for authors. We can be worth pennies a word to much more. I just turned in a proposal (requested by the publishing house) asking what I wanted for an advance. What kind of question is that??? Make me an offer.
    It’s hard to make a living in the arts. But the other rewards are so fantastic.
    Congratulations on making a living doing what you love. It takes guts to strike out on your own.

  6. h4nchan says:

    I always enjoy reading your blog, Plau! The following is just my initial response, I’m quite sure you know and have thought about all of my points already :D

    I think the question of worth for something that’s as closed-off to public knowledge as a single piece of original art is a tough one, as you outline. Apparently even for publishers!

    How many people in society have bought a commissioned piece of original art? Not many. How many have bought a volume of comics? Many more. So it’s easier for them to know what a volume of comics is ‘worth’ commercially.

    If there are 200 full-colour illustrated pages in a book that costs £20, and each page is worth £100 of the artist’s time… there is a lot of complicated maths involved. And for the publisher to get to the final cost practically, that time-worth may not even be considered. The numbers seem made up, and they swim away when you look closely.

    So for an ordinary first-time punter to consider the cost of an original picture is difficult. It’s hard to even ask the question of the artist! They don’t want to be insulting but they have no frame of reference. They don’t konw the hundred steps that get between artist and printed book, so they can’t calculate based on the cost of one copy the cost of one image.

    This is all aside from the issue of how much a commercial buyer/publisher would pay. I’m disappointed to hear that the rates you outline aren’t considered reasonable; in dealing with graphic designers I wouldn’t expect to pay anything less than £25 an hour or upwards of £100 a day, and I think an artist should expect the same.

    I think there’s something odd about the merchandise model that’s emerging in webcomics, aka The T-Shirt Business. To slave over a comic but survive on sales of relatively trivial t-shirt designs (after all, we all know what a t-shirt is worth)… well, it makes you wonder!

    I think you just have to go out fighting, with a price structure that offers something for every budget (John Allison’s is nice) and stick with the high-end options for the high-rollers. Corey Doctorow’s book adventures are another good example of this done well: http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2010/10/25/130811846/doctorow

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