The Price is Right: On Haggling, Piracy and the Value of Art

Last week, a couple of things of note popped up on my social media radar. One was this excellent article by Miranda Campbell, Culture Isn’t Free, talking about how expecting artists and creatives to work for “exposure” leaves the creation of culture largely in the hands of those who hold the money. The other was yet another “paganism on a budget” Tumblr post collecting links to sites where you can download free, pirated pagan ebooks, still under copyright rather than public domain. That post had over 2,000 likes/reblogs, if I recall correctly, and likely has more now.

The first one I read and appreciated, then shared on Facebook. The second I forwarded to the publishers whose books were listed so they could file DMCA takedown notices with site hosts. The difference? Ms. Campbell had an agreement with Jacobin as to how her writing would be distributed and how she would be compensated (if at all; I’m not privy to their arrangements). Such websites want links to their content to go viral, and I thought it was worth sharing. But with the website that was linked on the Tumblr post, there was a violation of the terms that the authors of the books had originally agreed to. Part of the publisher’s job is to maintain the terms of the contract, to include fighting privacy; they have more resources, on average, than a single author does.

The publisher-author relationship isn’t perfect. Ten percent royalties is still only a couple of bucks per book, and most authors don’t make a living on their writing. But the author still has the choice to negotiate a contract, and then sign or not sign it. It’s their decision to make their work available through a particular, if often imperfect, avenue that will at least get them some compensation for their effort. And in an economy where creatives are increasingly asked (or told) to work free of charge, some compensation (protected by contract) is better than none.

And to be fair, the publisher does a lot of work. When I sign a contract with a publisher for one of my books, I’m getting free editing, proofreading, layout and distribution, along with a certain amount of promotion. With my artwork, on the other hand, I’m carrying almost all of the burden, from materials acquisition and design creation to actually making the art to selling it in person and online. Either way, each sale of a book or piece of artwork funds far more than just the item itself.

Fang and Fur mediumSo we have to put a price on that time, effort and investment of resources. One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen artists (especially newer ones) face is how to price their art. A price is not merely a number. It’s a statement of value. What is this item worth, not only for its content, but the human resources that were poured into it from start to finish? What costs were incurred in its gestation and birth? And, more importantly, what is the value of the human life that was invested in it, time that needs to be measured in dollars rather than breaths? It’s a difficult thing to determine, and even after almost twenty years I still struggle with pricing my work. (My publishers make the job easier by setting the price on my books themselves, gods bless them.)

Eventually a price is determined, and placed out for the public to view. That price says “This is the amount of money that I will accept for this product of my work.” It’s the same as a contractor saying “I want this much per hour to fix your sink” or a pizza place stating “Here’s how much a large cheese deep dish pie will cost you”.  It is an invitation to an economic contract that is signed when the money is passed over. A simple agreement, sure–you give me that thing, I give you this thing, we consider it a fair trade, we go on with our lives.

There are always people who try to weasel their way out of that agreement. Some of them steal outright. I’ve lost track of how much of my artwork has been shoplifted from my booth at events I’ve vended at over the years. Only once has anything been brought back, by a tearful preteen girl flanked by her angry mother. The rest is spirited away by malcontents and children who don’t seem to understand the damage they do by their actions. But books get stolen, too, and far more often in the digital age. Every person who downloads a pirated .pdf of a copyrighted book is a thief*. It’s not the same as a secondhand paperback bought new and then sold used later on; that’s a single copy that was fairly compensated for, and it will never multiply into more copies (at least not without the help of Xerox or a scanner.) But a .pdf multiplies by its very nature, and within seconds. Whereas a paperback can pass from person to person in a circle of friends, and perhaps circulate among a dozen people in a month if they’re all fast readers, a .pdf can go to thousands of people in a day, and they get to keep their copies no matter who else they pass the book on to. Either way–art or books–the creator is the person who loses out in piracy.

But that’s not the only way the “I offer you this in exchange for this” agreement can be damaged. Allow me to present to you: the haggler. This is that person at events (or via email) who, dissatisfied with the numbers on the price tag, and weaned on Wal-Mart’s “Low Price Guarantee”, decides that they should have the privilege of paying less for a creation than its creator has valued it at. And so they approach said creator and, holding up a piece of art like a yard sale discard, ask “Will you take five bucks for this?”

To be honest, I consider it somewhat offensive when someone asks if I’ll accept a lower price on something I’ve created. I know it’s likely not meant as an insult; the person asking just wants to save a little money. Who doesn’t want that? In an economy where big box stores lure people in with ever-bigger sales and price slashes supported by government subsidies and slave labor, consumers have been trained to get bargains and they never think of who actually pays the costs for their savings**. It smarts more personally, though, when they try to do it to an individual artist. It’s not just that they’ve asked the creator to take less money; it’s that they treat the creation like it has no personality, no love poured into it. It’s just a thing to them.

Haggling, shoplifting, piracy–all these are symptomatic of a bigger cultural problem: the devaluation of art. I have yet to meet an artist who hasn’t at one point or another heard some variation on the following:

“It’s just art, you have fun making art, so it’s not actually work.”

“Will you make me this thing for free, or the cost of materials?”

“It’s exposure–it’ll get you more customers, really!”

“Oh, my aunt/kid/friend made something like that!”

“I bet I could make that!”

“It’s easier to be an artist than a scientist/real estate agent/hotel manager so you shouldn’t expect to get paid like one.”

adaptable4Sure, lots of people make art as a hobby, and even for those of us who do it for a living it can still be fun. But as I wrote last year, Art is Work. If what you do for a living is fun, then you’re doing something right. But that doesn’t take away the amount of effort you put into it. And only you can truly know the value of that work, and decide whether the compensation you’re getting is worth it or not.

When someone shoplifts your art, or pirates your book, or tries to haggle you down from your prices, they are saying that they don’t think your work has as much value as you say it does. And in that moment they are insulting you and your work. Any compliments they have given “Oh, I love this piece, it’s so pretty” is tainted by their unspoken follow-up “….but I don’t think it’s worth all that much.” It’s up to you as to how you want to deal with them, but don’t for an instant think that your work isn’t worth what you value it at, no matter the words of thieves and hagglers.

We are artists and writers and creatives. Our work and our time have value, and we deserve to be compensated for our effort, and to be able to decide how our work will be distributed and offered to the public. Nothing less is acceptable.

* For those pagans on a budget who try to justify their piracy by saying “But I’m poor/young/etc. and can’t afford to buy these books”, most authors have blogs wherein they share their writing for free to anyone who will read. Many also write for websites, again for free. Some will even happily answer your questions via email. With all that free writing available, you have no excuse to steal their books. Save the books for when you can at least get secondhand copies, and honor the value they put on their work.
** It would take an entirely separate post to get into the problems of not putting the full value on mass-marketed items like made-in-China clothing, or a farmer’s crop of wheat. We may give art more aesthetic value than these things, but the human effort behind them is no less important or deserving of value. And those low, low prices ignore the human rights abuses and environmental destruction that result from the manufacturing process.
11 Comments.
  1. That’s such an obnoxious thing to say! I’ve “tried to make” my own Tarot cards and they didn’t turn out quite like yours or those of Ellen Lorenzi-Prince. But I’m one of those people who spends all my money on art to the point of not being able to pay my bills–but I pay full price and it had not occurred to me to haggle and still won’t.

    • Part of the joy, for me, of buying art is being able to have something that I either couldn’t ever create myself, or more importantly something which was created through someone else’s imagination. It’s a crucial tie between me and that other creative that I value.

  2. Virginia Carper

    I saw the same thing going on in a vacuum cleaner store as well. Several people walked in and said that they could get a vacuum cheaper at the K-Mart up the street. So would the owner sell them a fancy cleaner for the K-Mart price? Owner told them to continue shopping at the K-Mart then. If they wanted his high-quality vacuums, they would pay his prices. Angry, they left, cursing him out.

    So this entitlement at a cheap price attitude occurs in all places.

    I have found it at Pagan venues where I was asked to do readings, etc for free, since we were all fellow Pagans. And the people doing the asking didn’t have the money to pay, as they were in need (or so they said).

    As for need, people can budget for the art, save, and choose what they want.

    • *nods* It’s sad how much the “low prices” mantra has infected everything. Yes, people have always wanted more for their money, but the level to which they stoop to do so is astounding.

  3. By and large I agree, but my experiences with haggling (on both sides, and both lowering and increasing the price, actually) have been pretty much entirely positive. Admittedly this has been almost exclusively within the province of commissioned digital artwork, so I imagine it’s different with physical items.

    That being said, I think there’s a world of difference between someone you know trying to haggle and a complete stranger, especially if there’s a decent reason. If I was asked for the same piece of work from a friend and from someone I’d never heard of, I’d certainly be inclined to give the friend a better rate.

  4. kiya_nicoll

    In my experience, there’s a question lurking behind all those comments that creatives here, and that’s, “No, but what’s your real job?”

    • kiya_nicoll

      Sigh, that moment right after one hits “post” where one finds the Annoying Homophone Word Error in one’s comment. Heh. 🙂

  5. Lielqa

    The folks who always buy the cheap goods at Walmart forget all the time that whatever it is will probably break a couple of weeks later. Happened to me with some ‘athletic’ ear buds that were a real steal (rolls eyes). Disposability gets you back to the store. Luckily, my husband gave me his old spare ones, and they didn’t get me a second time. Art is not disposable.

  6. I don’t mind people sincerely expressing that a piece moves them but they can’t afford it, and can we work something out, but that’s not quite the same tone as “haggling”.

    I know it’s also a cultural thing, and I try to take that into account, but it’s one thing to say “Hey, this is how much I can afford and that really calls to me” and quite another to say “Hey, that doesn’t look like it was hard to make, I shouldn’t have to pay so much for it.”

    -E-

  7. Daniel Pomeroy II

    Had something like this happen. I make hand made jewellery, and the majority of them are one offs using things I can’t easily get more of, (hand carved petosky stone pendants, and such)

    Had a woman drive up in a brand new SUV and try to haggle me down on price. Now granted, it was a yard sale…but this was a bracelet I normally would have sold for $35.

    She’s lucky it wasn’t one of the mammoth ivory ones…I’d have laughed in her face.

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