On Business: Charging Your Customers

By | Monday, December 14, 2015 1 comment
My buddy Frank Page draws the Bob the Squirrel comic strip. He's been at it for about a decade now and has, by and large, been pretty happy doing it. It's never been a hugely popular strip in the way that, say, PvP or Penny Arcade has become, but he's okay with that. He's met some really cool people through his comic, and he gets some touching responses to his work. Like one guy who tattooed Bob on his arm. Or the other guy who sent him a replica Apollo space helmet out of the blue.

But Frank's got a day job he enjoys and, perhaps more importantly, pays the bills, so he leaves the strip intentionally as a side gig. He's got some strip collections available through Lulu, and some t-shirts through CafePress. He's got a Patreon campaign, and he sometimes takes commissions and sells his originals. Every now and then, I needle him about his work. Not the work itself, as he's quite talented, but how he markets and sells it.

His originals are dirt cheap. Last I checked, his Squirrelosophy originals were going for $40 each. I'm not sure what his Bob strips are going for, since he doesn't have any indication on his site that they're available for sale. I commissioned a piece from him as a Christmas present for a relative -- pen and ink, a realistic representation of two people, 14" x 17", cross-hatching out the wazoo... $100. Like I said, I've pestered him about this, but his response has always been that he'd rather undersell his work so that it gets out to the widest audience possible.

Now, let's turn to Chris Schweizer for a moment. Probably a more well-known name, so his work's probably in higher demand and he can charge more for it. He reminded folks recently that he's got a variety of originals and prints available through his online store. I checked it out (as I have before) and noted that the original of my favorite page from his Crogan series is still available... for $450. He noted that it's probably his priciest work, in part because it's apparently everyone's favorite page, "so I wanted to make sure it goes to someone who likes it enough to consider spending that much on it, if that make sense." Schweizer is basically taking almost an opposite tack. If you want his work, he's going to charge a higher amount essentially as a way to prove that you really want it.

Of course, a key difference here is that Schweizer is trying to make a living at cartooning. Frank is getting paid, too, but he's got a day job to fall back on. He's less concerned with income with regards to his comics work because he can afford to be. If Schweizer charged the same rates Frank did, I suspect he'd be living out of a 1978 AMC Gremlin.

I know a number of people who work in comics who used to charge like Frank does, but don't any longer. In most cases, it was almost out of necessity. They had a day job and did their comics on the side... until their day job went away. There were cut-backs, or the company closed down, or -- in one instance -- they just stopped paying everyone. The creators then looked at their options and decided that, given the economy and job market in general, they had a better shot at making a living if they dove into creating comics full-time rather than bust their ass trying to find another day job that really didn't have any more security than the last one. That's probably not an set of circumstances to alter your approach to pricing under, but sometimes we don't make changes unless we have to.

Sadly, being a cartoonist has almost never been an easy road to fame and fortune. While you can certainly point to huge success stories like Milt Caniff or Todd McFarlane, those are the exceptions, not the rule. For every Jim Davis out there, there's a couple dozen V.T. Hamlins -- guys who did good, solid work for their entire lives but never really achieved a particularly high level of financial success. One can't help but wonder, though, if they would have had better luck just by placing a higher monetary value on their work.
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BK said...

Hey Sean. I know VT Hamlin wasn't a multimillionaire of the stature of Garfield's Jim Davis, but I thought he had a good life. Over 800 papers, Florida home, constantly travelled, yacht-owner, speed-boat racer, racing-sponsor, T-bird owner, hit-song royalties. His character a beloved household name. Not too shabby.