Friday, May 24, 2013

Know Your Value

Next week I will start a series of entries pertaining to getting work in a creative field. So many people have great potential to be very profitable in this arena, and I thought a good introduction to becoming a paid professional might be to first discuss individual price. After all, I imagine if you’re an artist (or writer, or other type of creative) you have likely asked yourself this question: “How much is my stuff worth?”

There are obviously no easy answers, here. What you’re worth is based on several factors, including the time you put into your craft, your experience, the cost of supplies needed, who you’ve worked for in the past and the list goes on. It seems the only way you’ll know for sure what to charge is by sticking your neck out there and seeing who buys. That can make for a tough reality check on both ends. If you’re pricing yourself too high and people aren’t buying, then you either need to lower your price or up the quality of your work to match. If you’re too low, then people will be slow to offer you more money when you come asking for it later, or you’re just plain risking burn-out on things which don’t afford you much incentive.

As I said, there’s no singular easy answer to the question of what you may potentially be worth, but you should know that you can decrease the risk of missing your mark in terms of pricing, by taking a good hard look at your value.
So, first, I might as well explain what is meant by the word value: It is not simply the base price that someone is willing to pay for your work. It is not how many things you can do, how many hours you can work and certainly isn’t being everything to everyone. Value is specific to your area of expertise. It’s what makes you marketable. It is your unique selling proposition.
Some of the things which could be seen as valuable are found in the quality of work you provide, but others are less tangible and are based solely on perception. Here are but a few examples:
·         A carpenter spends all of his extra cash on supplies to make designer cabinets. He buys fine woods and custom-made hardware which he imports from Italy. The separate parts of the pieces he creates are, on their own, worth large sums of money and he only carves very simple designs into each piece so as not to distract from the delicate nature of their already-present details. He finds he can charge more for his work than it costs to make it, even though his art has value largely because of the pieces used and not necessarily the craftsmanship which goes into it.
·         An artist works in an exquisite style uniquely her own to craft necklaces. The pieces she uses to make the necklaces aren’t particularly expensive, and in fact the cost to make one is likely to be under $20 a piece. Still, she is able to sell them for hundreds of dollars, all because of the fine work she and she alone is capable of producing. In this example, the unique style and attention to detail are what give our artist the most value and are the reason she can charge more than the $20 it costs her to make the necklaces.
·         A writer has a regular column in the New York Times. He has published several best-selling novels and currently works as a freelancer and ghost-writer, charging top-dollar for commissioned pieces. He has a unique style of writing, but has been paid well for writings of under 100 words which wouldn’t necessarily show this. His name is well-known and he is able to command a higher salary because of it.
Value can give your customers more than what they’d get when paying for average work, and because of it you should expect a reasonably higher price for it. But what about the opposite? Far and away, offering a discount has become the norm when it comes to being competitive in any given market space, but you should be aware that in today’s world and yes, even in a crummy economy, people can and do respond negatively to discounts. It’s human nature to wonder what’s missing or wrong with something offered at a discount, while value, on the other hand, is almost always respected, even if a decision to purchase isn’t made as quickly.
It’s also important to note that value is in the eye of the beholder. Not everyone will think your stuff is worth the money, but that’s okay because you shouldn’t be marketing to those people in the first place. If you’re an artist who paints beautiful portraits of family pets, you would certainly have more success seeking out dog and cat enthusiasts than you would people who build model airplanes. Effective marketing not only helps your customers get the most for their money, but it helps you by assuring your client list is full of people who love what you love to do, and not just anybodies looking to get a piece of art done on the cheap.
If you know your value, then you can better assess your price even in a market which seems to be competitive in terms of discounts, only. Take the time to find out what the basic model is going for and instead of lowering your costs, raise them based on your value.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Tips for Getting a Kickstarter Fully Funded

The following blog entry appeared on Dan Miller's site, where I am but one of many hundreds of members. It's a great place for creative people to meet and discuss ways to further their careers and I highly recommend checking it out if you haven't, yet. Anyway -- I was delighted by the response to this post so much that I've gone ahead and made the entry public. You all might also be happy to know that among other things, I'm currently writing a book about this subject. More on that, soon!

In February, I launched a Kickstarter for my newest comic book endeavor, "Sylvanna". I was only seeking $3,000 and with the work I'd already put into the project, I fully expected it to be successful in the end. What I didn't expect, was for the project to be funded in less than 24 hours from its start, and to more than double its original goal by the end. Here, in a nutshell (hey, I have to save some of this for the eBook!) is how I did it:
  • I built up some hype. Before the Kickstarter launched, I told everyone I knew about my intentions. I made a website, I posted on forums, and I engaged everyone on my social media networks, letting the masses know that I was on the verge of crowd-funding my new comic series. I did this for about a month before launch, in fact. Some people make the mistake of launching a crowd-funding project and then reaching out to potential funders. Understand that you lose precious time (and therefore backer money) when you do it this way. Give your audience time to get their finances together and to budget so they can get behind you 100%.
  • I used my "unfair advantage". I'm a known artist. Well, almost! I'm known to a very select and elite group of people who grew up in the early 2000's reading Archie's Sonic the Hedgehog comics, which I was a penciller for. This audience, for as young as the people were when they first saw my published work in those books, is very loyal. I have fans who have become friends, and some whom I've never met, who are excited to support whatever project I'm doing and especially if it taps into the same reasons they loved my work on Sonic. Needless to say, these fine folks were more than happy to contribute to my Kickstarter, and all I needed to do was make them aware of it and give them time to contribute (see point one). You may not have this kind of background yourself, but it's worth asking -- what is your specific unfair advantage? Understanding that there truly is no such thing as an unfair advantage (unless you are acting unethically of course!) is sometimes the first step towards taking the best advantage of it.
  • I considered my audience. Knowing that the people whom my project appealed to most were very likely to be young and unable to afford the bigger rewards, was key in not only considering what rewards to offer, but at what level of investment they should be offered at. To that end, I had rewards as low as the $1, $5 and $10 marks, where each was guaranteed a very cool set of prizes for their contribution. This also played into how I advertised, and where. I set up some banner ads before starting my Kickstarter, which were posted on forums and comic sites that people of this age group were known to frequent. It's been said before but bears repeating: Knowing your audience is everything, so make sure you're doing your research so you can market effectively.
  • I set a reasonable funding goal for my project. I didn't need a million dollars to launch a webcomic. Frankly, I have had webcomics launch on zero dollars, before. Most people who came before me in this arena, in fact, were looking for far less than $3,000 for their Kickstarters to take off. I risked being called out for this in the worst way possible if I'd asked for an insane amount of money -- and that was people not backing me because they saw me as funding my wallet and not the project. Be aware that the modern consumer is savvy and will check to see that you're not being unreasonable with the amount of money you claim to need for your given venture. Too, Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have rules that prohibit "fund your life" projects. Do your research by checking out similar projects, first, and determine exactly how much you absolutely need before you launch. Don't forget to factor in such things as shipping and hiring costs.
  • I had some great rewards... And when I say great rewards, I mean desirable on all levels. Sometimes people who crowd-fund only throw the bare minimum of rewards, or irrelevant rewards at their backers. Things like buttons and bookmarks don't cost a penny, sure, but do they offer much incentive to back the project by themselves? Of course not! You can beat the crowd by giving out cool stuff that people will actually use, and not the least of these is the finished product itself. You should not be afraid to up your costs by throwing in extra value, either! Offer scarce items, or limited editions. Some of my most popular prizes were in fact, those which cost very little to make, but came autographed and personalized. People love things that are once-in-a-lifetime offers so don't be stingy in promoting those!
  • I made all of my channels aware of the launch date. And when I say all of my channels, I mean all of my channels and all of my team's channels, and all of my friends' channels and all of my family's channels! It's not as much work as you think! If you have a place where people gather to interact with you, you simply must put out the APB on your upcoming project. Post to those forums, send out social media updates, and alert your real-life friends of course! Since I'm an artist, I did a number of "promo pieces" which were viewed in my more popular galleries online, which happened to mention I would soon be launching a Kickstarter to fund a project which the given piece of art centered around. This drew tons of interest! If you're a writer, you may consider doing the same with your blog, or a musician could easily promote through a Youtube video! It's wide open, and you should leave no stone unturned when it comes to letting people know that you're in crowd-funding mode.
So if you're considering a crowd-funding project this year, or sometime in the near future, I hope this helps you! I encourage you to go for it and I shall keep you all posted on the progress of my new eBook in this arena, as well. Best wishes!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Making Comics: Artist Tools

When I was younger, getting comics wasn't something I'd say was a chore, but it was certainly a task. When you're in small-town Pennsylvania, your nearest anything is often a good half-hour drive out of town, so getting a hold of anything as exotic as a new issue of a comic book becomes something of a ritual. These days, if you want a new issue of something, it's often as easy as opening iTunes and waiting for it to download. If not, then you can go online and read a webcomic or find a synopsis within a review if you're particularly lazy and/or broke.

Things certainly have changed when it comes to how we access and consume comic books, but the same can't really be said for how the comics themselves are created. And that goes for digital comics and webcomics, too.

Here then, is a run-down of some popular tools needed to create comics then and now:

The Canvas - Your basic 11x17 cold-press bristol board was the standard comic book sketch pad back in the day, and for many of us old-heads, that's not changed. In the olden days, publishers would sometimes send you complimentary boards if you were working on one of their books, but it's certainly more common to request the artist purchase their own. I like Blue Line Pro boards which you can order online, but Strathmore makes tablets of 24 boards, some pre-lined, specifically for comic books, which you can purchase in stores.

It's worth mentioning that these days, it isn't necessary to have a physical canvas to work on at all, if you have a drawing tablet and know what you're doing with a graphics program such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. Indeed, and especially with the increasing trend of publishers requiring artists learn to be pencillers, inkers and colorists all in one, some illustrators prefer to work entirely on the computer.

The Drawing Tools - Pencils and pens were the order of the day back when I started doing comics professionally (and that was a decade ago, already. Yeesh!). Not much has changed here either, when it comes to yours truly, at least. As I've said in countless blog posts before this one -- I am a pencil snob. I like a .05 lead in a mechanical pencil the best, and I prefer to work with Staedtler Mars pencils and graphite. For pens, I like Pigma Microns and the oldschool Rapidograph pens you have to load with ink. Some inkers prefer working with brushes and quill pens, as well.

Naturally, techniques aren't staying exclusively traditional in this arena. Vector programs like Adobe Illustrator are excellent for making sleek lines when inking, digitally. Here again, all you need is a tablet, a computer, and the program itself. And, bonus, with Illustrator's pen tool being so versatile, I can say from personal experience that it's not impossible to do some inking with a plain old mouse and forego the tablet requirement entirely!

The Colors - I knew more than a few colorists, back in the day, who were having great success painting colors onto their comic boards using gouache and watercolors. I knew far more who were using Photoshop to color their comic boards, however. It and programs like it are still standards to this day for this reason.

What's interesting about colors, to me at least, is noticing a trend of artists going back to the old ways of coloring a piece of artwork, and this sort of resurgence into using paints, markers and inks. The reason for this is, I think, better scanners, software and printers capable of picking up and recreating the delicate nuances of such media. Many artists, I'm sure, simply prefer to work by hand as much as possible, and some stories just lend themselves better to this more analog approach.

The Typography - One of the many points of fascination within my portfolio comes from the abundance of old Sonic pages that contain hand-lettered text. These are wonderful little treasures, and I would go so far as to call them relics of an age gone by. You simply don't see hand-drawn type any more as computers have become quite good at making good-looking typography.

It wasn't until I was acquainted with some exceptional letterers that I myself started to pick up a few things about the nuances of typography within comic books and how those things should be handled. It's unfortunate, but with the ease of  creating text in the computer age, we've lost a bit of the art. So while it's a simple task to put words to comic these days, it's by no means easy to do it well. Checking out a few comics printed some years in the past with hand-drawn letters is, I think, essential to achieving great results with text created by computers.

Whatever your personal preferences and tastes, doing artwork and incorporating design that is both nice to look at and fitting of the work should be your goal. Don't be afraid to try new things... or old things, for that matter!

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Worst Things Good Parents are Teaching Creative Kids

This past week on Twitter, I lamented the fact that I might soon have to place a banner on the Gloryhound Website that read, in big red letters and 72 point font:

"Don't Go to College!"

I think that would be a pretty huge tragedy. Still, with the costs of education rising to out-of-control proportions and ill-prepared students walking into interviews without the stuff they should have gotten in school to show for all the money they spent, I wonder. And I worry.

Having looked at the issue as someone who's been in the art industry both as an illustrator and a designer for the last decade, I think we need to rearrange some of the common misconceptions out there about taking a job in the creative fields. I believe some of that starts with teaching parents what kinds of conversations are okay to have with their kids who want to get into industries that involve visual art, writing and music.

Here are but a few things that I've heard well-meaning parents tell their kids:

  • You need to go to college for art and the opposite: Art school is a waste of money. These are both very narrow viewpoints on art school in general. Speaking as an art school graduate, I can say if you have a child who is skilled at drawing -- and pay attention to the word skilled, here, because your kid can't just draw every once in a while on the margins of his books at school and be expected to get an enjoyable career out of it, then art school is an excellent resource. Please don't be that parent who sends their child off to art school because they needed to go to school for something.
    And that's another horrible misconception - if you're telling your kids that they have to go to school, then it's on you if they don't end up doing anything with their lives, mom and dad. Sorry. The fact of the matter is, art school is not a waste of money for kids who have real potential to become artists. Be careful, because college recruiters are some of the craftiest salespeople out there and will gladly tell any schmuck he has what it takes to be the next great designer. Don't buy it if the child doesn't love it, because it is expensive.

    And that brings me to my final point on this matter: If you've got a gifted kid and they deserve a good school, make sure they can afford it. As it is with any field, school doesn't guarantee a job. It's the work you put in, after you get the degree, that counts. It's the portfolio you've put together. It's the drive you have to go out job-seeking and doing freelance. It's not glamorous for those first few years and creative jobs are often some of the most competitive. But if there's hustle, a job will be found.
  • You will never make money with your art and/or you will make money after you're dead. It can seem to be a scary thing, especially to parents with kids fresh out of school who are still lingering around the house. It's important not to get into this mentality that says there are no good jobs to be found in creative endeavors. I've been working for 10 years and the whole time, the economy was never good.

    Aside from landing 9 to 5 jobs, artists have a unique and excellent opportunity to become freelancers, which is in my opinion, where all the money is, anyway. It just takes more work than landing a job. I encourage every artist who is new to the game, to take a hard look at their portfolios and then take time to fill them with pieces representing the art they'd love to do. It's especially true with art school students, that a portfolio could become cluttered with any old assignment to show off versatility. But versatility can sometimes be a crutch. Showing that you know how to do one thing and do it better than the competition is at the heart of any business, and when you sell yourself, your portfolio should always be reflective of that one thing you can do exceptionally well. Maybe it's illustrations of pin-up girls, and maybe it's laying out postcards. Whatever  it is, seeking work you love and doing it to the best of your ability is how you make real money as an artist.
  • You should do that project for Aunt Sally for free. Yes and no. I find it interesting that many of the people who proclaim artists aren't marketable are the same ones who request artists work for free.

    Look, there are a million websites out there which already cover this problem far better than I could. Here's the bottom line: If you're an artist, and even if you know someone, and yes, even if they're family, you should probably be charging money for your services. In the end, it's always up to them, but it's good practice for the kid to start setting expectations to be paid for their hard work. And more than likely, Aunt Sally will be only happy to pay.
  • If you do art as a job, you will hate it as a hobby. Simply not true. If anything, you should be encouraging your child to look at what they're already doing as a hobby, and as a parent, help to guide them into a path that will use the thing they find themselves doing for hours on end, as a means to earn a living.

    I hear you saying, "But Dawn, where will my kid find work as a concert pianist?" and I truthfully don't know. But I do know that concert pianists make a bunch of money and some might even be doing it right in your home town. Seek people out who can get the child started in that direction, and let them know what to expect and how to go about it as a career. An apprenticeship is ideal, if you can get one.
Perhaps if we start here, there will never be a need for me to put that banner up on my website. And that's good, because I sure hope there never will be.