Can You Put a Price on Art? (You’d better, if you want to sell it!)

I was listening to a conversation the other day about setting prices for ebooks. One of the things that came up was that a particular author had said that she doesn’t want the audience you get at the $0.99 price. The reason isn’t that they’re somehow less smart than a reader who pays more, it’s that they complain a lot more and want a lot more for less. She had a novella out for $0.99 and people were complaining that it was too short and should have been free. She raised the price, people still bought it, but the complaints stopped.


It got me thinking about a similar phenomenon that happens to… any kind of artist. I know a few people who paint who are afraid that they will overprice their work and no one will buy it. So they go cheap and people start to try to haggle or just complain that the price is too high. What you can’t give away at $15 can make someone incredibly happy at $400. I’ve seen it happen.

Same thing happens to craft makers. You can sell a paracord bracelet for $30 and no one who buys it will bat an eyelash, but try to do it for $5 and then it’s “well, it only cost you like a dollar to make it”, you should charge that.

Video games aren’t exempt either. People can spend $1.99 on an app that gives them hours of enjoyment and then feel “ripped off” if there are paid features, or if they feel it’s too short. Meanwhile, they spend $60 for a console or computer game that isn’t good and the bad reaction isn’t proportionate.


Pricing your work is such a hot button issue that there are nearly endless articles, columns, and books relating to the work. Throw in forums and “Yahoo Answers” and related services and you’re swimming in a sea of conflicting ideas.


I think that a big part of it is that people want to be right. You’ll feel a lot more stupid if you pay $14.99 for a book you don’t like than you will for paying $0.99. After all, other people are paying the higher price too. Does that mean you just didn’t “get it”? Do you really want to broadcast that to the world? I don’t think most people do. (I also don’t think most people want to pay 14.99 for an ebook, but that’s not really related.)


So here’s my take on the things you should consider, whether it’s a book, a painting, a scarf, or anything else.


Are you in it to make money? There is nothing wrong with wanting your art to support you. There is also nothing wrong with it being a hobby that you want to share with the world for free. If you really just want to make up for the cost of supplies, then set a low price point and be done with it. If you get complaints, you can tell them where to stick it, you don’t need their business.


Is it the real price or a promotion? If you have a book that is temporarily $0.99, and will soon go up to $4.99, it can get your numbers and reviews up so that people will pay for it. On the other hand, people need to know about the promotion and that it is a promotion for it to be effective.


How good is it, really? You can probably judge the difference between a well-made, carefully crafted piece of art and some s*** you threw together and are trying sell. Whether it’s a book, a painting, an item, or a game, you know the difference. So does everyone else. Unfortunately, not everyone is good at judging themselves. This is where crafts and painting have the advantage. You see what you get before you pay. For games and writing, you need a really well written description as well as a well written and well-made product.


How much did you spend on it? This one seems like it should be a given, but too many artists do charge $15 for something that cost them $20 in materials. If you are a writer, did you pay an editor? (If you’re self-publishing and that’s why you set your own prices, why didn’t you?) Did you pay a cover artist or use a cheesy template? How much time did you spend on it? This is a little easier to use as a pricing tool for a painting or a craft, where you have one to charge for. With writing, games, movies, etc. where there are basically limitless copies to sell, you won’t want to factor in your hourly rate.


How good is it, really? Like, seriously. If you want to charge $30 for a bracelet that everyone else makes for $30, is it really the same thing? Are your materials the same (or better) or are they using parachute buckles while you expect the customer to slide a knot through a loop?


What’s its purpose? If it’s promotion, the lower price point is almost always better, as it will lead the consumer to the higher priced “real” product. Maybe you wrote a 6 book series and you wrote a novella that introduces the world from another characters point of view or at another point in time. The novella wouldn’t be worth as much to you as the series and a low cost intro to your style and world can go a long way to getting people addicted and buying your $6.99 Book 1.


How much does everyone else charge? This is actually where artists such as painters are at the most disadvantage. The range is so great that there’s no way to get a real answer. If you try to price like the person your style most closely matches, you might be setting yourself up to look like a knock-off artist. If you think about where you are selling, it might be a little more helpful. If you are at a craft fair where certain sizes go for $80-$150 with a few more expensive pieces mixed in, then it’s safe to follow that model as long as it fits in with everything else (materials and your idea of the value).


Anyway, those are some of the things that I think you should carefully consider when pricing something. It’s daunting and confusing, but I think it’s worth a lot more thought than pulling a number out of thin air and calling it a day. It can ruin things for you and for everyone else to do that.

The most important thing (in my opinion) is that you don’t undermine yourself by charging too little. If you want to be taken seriously, take yourself seriously. Don’t be cheap just because some guy on the freeway can mass produce paintings of the sunset and make a living selling them for $20 each, or so-an-so got their fame with the stuff they released for free. (However, if that’s the goal of your piece and you feel free is the price to achieve that, free is fine.)

You are worth something, your work is worth something, and people are willing to pay for it. If you find that they aren’t, then you’re probably fishing in the wrong market and the price has little or nothing to do with it.


Like all advice, it’s easier to tell other people what they should do than to do it yourself. So what do you think?


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