Sometimes, when I haven’t been on Twitter in a while, I go look at my friends’ Likes instead of drinking from the timeline firehose. It feels slightly creepy (sorry, Robin), but often yields real gems outside the wind tunnel of my own circles. Sometimes it’s a whole new person to follow, sometimes it’s just a phrase. Today it was this:
our ever-present mutual responsibilities are more visible when we’re at sea […] seafaring makes obvious something that is always true.
HOMINA HOMINA HOMINA. That BINDING! The ILLUSTRATIONS! The DROP CAPS!
Also it starts at SIX HUNDRED AND EIGHTY DOLLARS!
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 full–time (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.)
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.
I know the title of this post sounds like absolute corporate hokum, but I tried tweeting these thoughts ages ago and then realized it was really more of a discussion for long-form writing and so I started a Patreon post and then forgot about it and now it’s many, many months later and I’m blogging again so here I am putting it in a blog post.
Last summer Wendell and I ended up talking about “service-agnostic environments” for online community-building, and the question of generating adjacent, overlapping communities centered around particular groups of creators.
The whole practice of being an Online Creator (i.e. A Charming, Hyper-Available, Vulnerable Internet Personality, or CHAV-IP, as I have just decided to call it) feels centered around siphoning people into these isolated social buckets where you can make demands on their time and attention and finances. But this doesn’t make for a sustainable and interconnected ecosystem. An audience member can only be a part of so many tiny silos before it becomes overwhelming.
For example: there are a lot of people who probably follow both my work and Shing’s work, but each of us also have readers uniquely drawn to our particular brand of BS (boat stuff and Bunyan statues, probably). We have both built followings on public social platforms and in more private, paid spaces like Patreon and Discord.
What would it look like to have a combined location where our overlapping readers could talk to each other?
My general obsession recently (and I know I’m not alone in this) has been more about getting audience members to connect with one another rather than singularly with me. I want people who enjoy my work to see themselves as part of an ecosystem—to cross-pollinate and experiment and build and play.
I brushed up against this when Shing invited me to begin playing in the Mercantile Gnome Universe (MGU?) they’ve built over the past handful of years. I became a representative of the Boat Gnome and started offering to trade pins with people through the mail. The game revealed a lot of crossover between our audiences, but it also encouraged more of my people to learn about Shing and vice versa. If I had been supporting a creator who did something similar, I think I would’ve found the experience exciting. It feels more like a treasure hunt and less like product placement. An invitation written in code, delivered with a wink and a tip of the hat.
It makes me think of Robin’s Republic of Newsletters—a section of his newsletter that used to keep up with other interesting and adjacent written projects as if they were physical outposts in a shared landscape. It’s webrings and blogrolls, cross-links and quotations. Everyone loves to feel the thrill of discovery, but it’s sweeter when the core of that experience is someone you trust taking your hand and saying “Wow, look.”
What is the landscape of affinity for my work? Who are the creators I find myself sharing fans with? Which subjects do we mutually gravitate towards? Where are we different? How is a creative community like a map?
Last month, while driving from Portland to Ojai, I stopped off in San Francisco for a distanced morning park walk with my pal Robin Rendle. After I’d got done screaming about how unbelievable it was to see the sun and be outside in short sleeves, we remembered we’d been joking about recording a podcast for a long time and figured there was no time like the present to give it a go. So I offer unto you:
A Robin Rambdle or I’m Sorry, You’re Welcome, Episode 1 or…
(You can download a transcript of our conversation here, if reading’s more your bag.)
This is broadly a discussion about unusual websites and trying to be yourself on the internet, but we also managed to talk about The Muppets, book design, 1970s British television, generative poetry, and at least two types of cheese.
We also watched a hawk building a nest in this tree the whole time we talked. Magical.
Here’s links to more or less everything we mentioned:
Tonight I opened Twitter, exhausted from another long day of menial tasks laden with outsized emotional significance because they all have to do with moving, to find this tweet from Beck Tench.1
The thread that follows? I love it more than words can express.
This is one of those moments where I wish there was a better way to share these little…presentations? Mini keynotes? What are Twitter threads, really? Especially with Beck’s delightful illustrations, this collection of thoughts cries out for something bespoke like Robin’s scroll-snap essay on newsletters or Other Robin’s tap essay on fish. Twitter doesn’t do it justice—jumbles the order, messes with the pace. The best I can offer is this version on Thread Reader which, y’know? It’s actually all right.
I appreciate you, Thread Reader. You’re doing a decent job.
A N Y W A Y:
I came to wonder if the sharks swimming in the waters aren’t fears or doubts, but rather they are actually selves. And if, in times of stress, it’s those selves we must stay true to.
1. Do you have those people in your circles who just consistently say and think and share the most lovely, considered, thought-provoking things? Beck is one of those people for me. I love her tweets. And blog posts. And just…her whole deal. ↩