The Costs of Creation, or “Would you like fries with that?

Seen on Facebook recently:
It’s a useful analogy, and one I’ve used often as a consumer. I balance my desire for small luxuries in terms of how many lunches I would have to miss, or how many treats I would have to give up in exchange for a thing that I want. Item versus ingestion.
It’s a useful comparison for artists too, because it throws the relative worth of ephemera and enduring goods into sharp focus. It’s a tidy binary. Either/Or.

The problem for artists is that it’s also wrong– the analogy is inherently flawed. Comparing service-added consumables to durable goods always makes the durable goods look good. The drink’s price contributes to the existence of a restaurant and all its available services, whereas the book is what it is, to name just one of several problems with the superficial comparison.** This issue gets raised every time artists use the analogy to explain why their works are not, in fact “over-priced.”

“Stop comparing,” people say. “It isn’t a fair comparison. There’s a whole production chain behind that cup of coffee, and the cup, and the physical plant of the store…” Etcetera ad nauseum.

Here’s the critical point: flawed it may be, but it’s still RIGHT. Those who insist on pointing out the production costs of only the one side…are ignoring the costs of the other side.

If durable goods were priced by the same cost structure as service-added items, no one could ever afford handmade durable goods.  The costs are just too high. Labor hours alone, priced at the same level as any other skilled labor, would make the price skyrocket.  So…we don’t do it.

The tradeoff is invisible, but it’s real. Above and beyond the basic production costs, there’s the element of creation. A book (or a song or a painting, or a handcrafted dresser) is a singular unique creation. Crafting art is making a miracle happen. How do you price miracles?  The blunt honest answer is that you can’t. There’s no fair way to put a monetary value on something essentially priceless–and yet artists must do so. We need to eat. So, we price our art to the market.

Historically, artists in culture after culture have made the economic choice to devalue creation costs to the same sweet spot of supply and demand as consumables with a dispersed cost structure. Despite substantially higher individual investment by creators, it’s the only way to make art into a salable craft. Nevertheless, the cruel reality is that consumable commodities have their controllable costs built into their prices, whereas created works do not

Every time you spend $5 on a book or a graphic novel or a musician’s work — or on a cup of coffee –  you choose between an ephemeral experience that adds to the collective spirit of humanity in some tiny, entertaining way, or you spend it on a jolt of caffeine and sugar that you’ll piss away in a few hours. Both uses of your money absolutely have appeal.

The fight to find a balance between price and worth won’t be ending any time soon.Think about the costs you don’t see when you make your complaints about “high prices.”  That’s all artists are asking when they make the point about coffee versus created works.  If you budget carefully and skip a meal somewhere else, you can even have your coffee and read a book or three while listening to some indie music.

(Why yes, I can pound a topic into the dirt and bury it. Often I do it while having a nice hot drink.)

**Don’t bite the re-reads bait. It’s a specious distraction. A reader only gets one first read. The future reads are irrelevant to the purchase price, just as the ability to pass on a couch to a grandkid has no role in the original sale. The supply-chain bait is just as invalid an objection. Yes, the coffee and the water and all the rest had to get there, plus the paper industry for the cup etc. But if that’s going to come up, then the hours of labor at a minimal wage, the investments in editing and cover and marketing, the electricity consumed and the physical overhead of the artist have to come into play too…and the art will again prove far more expensive. By. Far.

6 responses to “The Costs of Creation, or “Would you like fries with that?”

  1. Rachel Bostwick Avatar

    A million yeses.

  2. K.M. Herkes Avatar

    I think we are in agreement on this. 😀

  3. trailerdiva Avatar

    I love when people tell me I must be making some money when my band has numerous gigs. Hardly, it is a hobby that barely pays for itself.

  4. K.M. Herkes Avatar

    The same people will say a CD or a book is “too expensive” when priced under ten dollars. :/

  5. Patricia Lynne Avatar

    I have seen plenty of gifs with that argument. You make a good point too. I make handmade jewelry and knitted items. People tell me all the time my prices are good and I should charge me. The thing is if I did charge my time, then the prices would be sky high and people wouldn't buy. I found my sweet spot with my crafts. My time may not be compensated, but I'm usually watching TV as I do it, so it's not like I'm slogging through it like the day job at times (don't tell my boss I said that.)

  6. K.M. Herkes Avatar

    Your secret is safe with me and the intent. ;). It's all about that sweet spot.