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.

Printer Porn

Tell the Turning (my illustrated collaboration with poet Tara Shepersky) went to press last week in Poland and our publisher, Stefan, has been sending the most delicious slew of process photos from the print house. I figured I’d post some of them here because I’m trying to get in the habit of using this space for visual stuff just as much as I use it for blathering in text about craft and money and comics and everything else.


Here’s our impressive and pristine stack of Munken Arctic paper! This is one of the few papers not currently suffering from extreme stock shortages in central Europe, leading to our unexpectedly-ahead-of-schedule print date. At a time when all sorts of publishers and indie creators are reporting a three-month average delay in production timelines, I’ll take it.

A towering pallet of pristine white paper.

Here it is all loaded into the printer. (I have an intense soft spot for the little vacuum plungers that lift the pages off one by one.)

A complex offset press housing a huge stack of blank paper.

And then of course comes the best part of any printing house update which is, naturally, the video:


That leaves us with a HUGE stack of printed pages…

A huge stack of printed pages.

…which will then be trimmed and sewn together to create the final book.

You can get a closer look at some of the illustrations (including the cover and the special Field Offering postcards I designed for Kickstarter backers) in this sheet:

A black and white sheet with several illustrations aligned with text, all pages from the book Tell the Turning. There are crows and owls and spirals of kelp—all pictures of things from the natural world.

Basically it’s going to be here before we even know it and I think it’s going to look and feel incredible and I cannot wait. What a joy.

(I should probably also mention that you can preorder the book here! It’s currently on track to begin shipping October 20th, which is just around the corner.)

This concludes the first installment of the “post more visual content, you coward” challenge. Thank you.