Relative Pricing

Robin and I were texting about Arion Press yesterday, drooling over their edition of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales. I mean, just look at this thing:

A photograph of two fine press editions of The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde by Arion Press. Both are exquisitely bound in sage bookcloth with understated type and illustrations.



A screen shot of a conversation between Robin and Lucy. Robin says "Agh. Oh sorry, I was not scared by the themes of the book, but by the effing price tag. If I wince at the price of a book, you done fucked up." Lucy says "I mean it takes an unbelievable amount of time to typeset a book by hand. I get that. It's an interesting conundrum. Kind of like what would happen if...Oh! Oh! I have an idea." Robin says "Here we go. Let er rip. Get em."


Creative work is often priced on a bafflingly subjective scale of value—one which can deviate wildly from the amount of time invested in the piece depending on a variety of other factors (edition size, physical scale, desirability, intended audience).

With commercial art, the equation is often simpler—although of course we’re all raising our rates over time to compensate for increased skill and swiftness in execution (right?). We often bill more like tradespeople than “fine artists”.

But with a fine press book, there are two vectors: the status associated with the object itself, yes, but also the sheer enormity of time required to typeset an entire book by hand. This is the first example that’s really resonated in my head as a decent point of comparison for how long graphic novels take to produce.

It’s a lot.

I’m tracking my time on Seacritters! because a) I love data and want to understand exactly how long it’s taking me to do everything and b) I think it’s going to be really valuable (read: sobering) to sit with the reality of how long it takes to make a graphic novel relative to the money involved.

I’ve only roughed in 73 pages of a book that will likely clock in around 350 and it’s already taken 63 hours of labor. For roughs. There are still refined pencils, inks, and colors left to go. My guess is that it’ll be about five hours of work per page at least, which means we’re looking at 1,750 hours just to complete the art itself—not including time spent fielding notes from the editor or anything aside from pure drawing. (The average American fulltime (i.e., benefitted) employee works 1,801 hours per year.)

If I were to apply a freelance rate of $90/hr to that time estimate, I’d clock in at $157,500 per book. I’m guessing at an overall timeline of 2 years per book, so that shakes out to $78,750 a year. The publishing industry isn’t currently paying artists that kind of money, so where would it need to come from?

The fine press book market feels like one potential answer to this thought experiment.

What would it really take for cartoonists to be paid fairly for the work they do? What happens to the accessibility of my work if I’m paid what I’m worth? Would the cost be passed on to the consumer or shouldered by the publisher? Who could afford the resulting product?

I really believe that art is meant to be shared. I want to make things that people can afford. When I was just starting to learn about the world of fine presses and letterpress and Artists’ Books in college, I remember being deeply frustrated by the fact that these creators—many of whom were working with themes of tactility, interaction, and accessibility—were making work that got sold for hundreds of dollars to private institutions, who then kept it in small rooms known only to a small subset of people.

It all felt so prohibitive.

(Something I’ve always loved about McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is that they publish some truly batshit Artist Book-like objects, but they’re generally under $30 a pop. That’s accessibility.)

But wait.

A line drawing of setting type by hand. Right right hand holds an individual piece of type, the left holds a composing tray full of letters.

Do I really know how long it takes to typeset a page by hand? I text Glenn, because one should always have a letterpress nerd on speed-dial. He sets me straight: maybe a little over 2 hours per page by hand, but 5-10x faster by machine (Monotype). I dig a little deeper and find that the Arion Press edition is set in Monotype with some bits done by hand.

So maybe it’s not quite the same.

Still, this was useful.

Welcome, baby.

Hey look. It’s here.

A hand holding up a copy of Tell the Turning against a grassy field and sunlit trees and a blue sky. The cover of the book is simple white with a spiral of illustrated stones.

Working on Tell the Turning with Tara and Stefan over the past year has been such a gentle, eye-opening process. Historically, there’s been an element of exhaustion or overstimulation in the work I make due to it being tied in so many respects to social media. The energy of being on Twitter or Instagram bleeds into everything from the pace of production to the pressure to reach more people. Even if I’m enjoying making the art, there’s this extra stuff that I don’t quite know what to do with.

But this book felt different.

We took it at exactly the pace we wanted to. We didn’t share a great deal online as things came together. Instead, we focused on enjoying the process of building something as a team. We focused on enjoying each other. Mostly this took the form of writing many, many goofy emails, but there were other bits and pieces too.

I’m pretty sure we’ve only had one Zoom call this whole time.

When it was time to crowdfund the book, it funded. Quickly, and without much fuss. There was no need to hurtle towards stretch goals because we knew what we wanted to make and it was modest. Between us, we knew enough people who were willing to pitch in. We shared the load.

Time passed. The manuscript was typeset. I spent about a month in my new studio making paintings, settling in, texting Tara occasionally to ask about the identity of this or that plant mentioned in the book. We took a walk on the beach when she was visiting California in the summer. Stefan and his team sent the book to print.

And now all three of us have copies in our hands. In Poland, in Portland, in Ojai. And I guess a lot of other people are about to have copies in their hands as well, but a lot of this still feels local to that trinity.

Three friends who wanted to make something together, and then did.

A spread of white paperback books, all copies of Tell the Turning. There's a spiral of grey rocks on the cover, plus a few postcards scattered around. The books lie in a grassy field.

I like working this way. I hope I get to do it again sometime.

Artist Brain/Worker Brain

Still wrestling with how to write up this post demystifying the money behind my book deal. It’s unearthing some real discrepancies in how I want to talk about this stuff on the internet. I think the fundamental problem is that I have two brains. Or two selves. Two wolves. Y’know. Whatever you wanna call it.

The Artist part of my brain is drawn to gift economies, to trust-based models of community and mutual support, to play and movement and exchange. The Artist likes living in the space of thinking we already have enough, and that art can serve its highest role in society if it exists beyond the constraints of financial exchange. The Artist has also, so far, done a pretty good job giving things away for free and then managing to receive financial support for them in a roundabout way that feels almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Capitalism.

The Worker part of my brain, on the other hand, (especially the Worker that exists under Capitalism) is concerned with the business of enoughness, but that enoughness is often tied to needing more. The Worker sees how creative freelancers are getting the short end of the stick and is feeling utterly insane watching herself behave as if it’s all we’re allowed to ask for. The Worker wants fair wages and paid time off and benefits. Fewer barriers to entry and better conditions. The Worker wants unionization. The Worker is angry.

When I start talking about the ludicrously low amount of compensation afforded to creators through publishing’s advance system (even in instances where an author lands a “good” advance!), I feel like I’m operating from a place of lack. A world of scarcity. And it’s hard to tease apart how much of that feeling is productive. There’s a real sense of not wanting to sound ungrateful—or worse, petulant. But I also can’t help but be furious when I think about how many people—people without a decade of work behind them, or a relatively stable monthly draw from Patreon, or a forgiven PPP loan from the government, or a family to move in with (even if that move comes twinned with a new identity as a full-time caregiver)—cannot survive on the money publishing wants to pay them.

I don’t want to spend the next two years working on this book and nursing the bitter brew of this industry’s broken compensation system. I will probably—almost certainly—be okay. I built the scaffolding, I laid in supplies, I changed my life to accommodate this next season. It won’t be the golden field I’d let myself dream it might be, but I’ll do fine. The book might even sell enough to turn a profit down the line. But! But.

I want things to be better.