Sunday, 3 September 2017

Bean Counter

Back in May I responded to a question about how many elements go into a typical collage/composite with the post Frankenstein Formula. In it, I described the typical process by which I take the raw materials (usually my own photographs) and construct something new out of them – in that case the picture above – much like a composer playing around with riffs, chords, and little bits of melody.

What I failed to emphasise was the element of time. That original version was the result of one evening's work, using photographs taken on a couple of rainy Welsh afternoons in April. But the version below was made yesterday evening, and this is an image I have been tinkering with, off and on, ever since May. It has something, but has never seemed quite right. I think it's more successful now – I'm keen on that "Georgian Navy" aesthetic at the moment – but no doubt there will be further versions.

Now, if I were to make a realistic estimate of the time invested by me into this one image, so far, it would have to include those original afternoons in Wales (say, 4 hours), and then one evening of around 3 or more hours for each of the (so far) nine saved versions: say, 30 hours. I don't want to exaggerate the value of my efforts, but my garage charges £60 per hour for labour, and I'd be happy to peg my hourly rate around there. Which means that, setting aside the cost of materials and the cumulative cost of the skill-set I have acquired over the years, a basic cost-recovery price for a copy of this picture ought to be around £2000.

Of course, that's not the whole picture, so to speak. If I were to sell it as an editioned "multiple" of, say, 50 copies, I should probably divide that price accordingly: £40. But if I actually wanted to make a living from my sales – let's say the target is a modest £25,000 p.a. – and hope to sell just five such editions of 50 prints in a year, then each copy needs to make me £100 on top of that cost-recovery price of £40: let's call it £150 per print. But that is to forget that a gallery, typically, takes 30% or more of the sale price, so I need to add that on: let's go wild and call it £250. Also, print editions rarely sell out – it may even turn out that most people hate that "Georgian Navy" aesthetic – so a substantial "failure factor" needs to be added on. I reckon a price of £350 or even £450 for an unframed, signed, limited edition print is not unreasonable. Obviously, where your prices go from there depends on the name you make for yourself and the lifestyle you want to support: but the ambition to be able to sell somewhere between 50 and 250 pieces of editioned work each year at something north of £450 each ought to satisfy most people.

Why am I being so bean-counterish about this? Mainly because I was intrigued by the price-tags on the prints for sale at the Royal Academy Summer Show. Now, I knew my own prices were ridiculously low. Calculatedly so: I had every intention of selling a few prints to cover my costs, although I hadn't anticipated the first-day buying frenzy that quickly ensued. Obviously, it's an interesting question how many I might have sold at £350 each rather than £75, although it's a matter of simple arithmetic that (taking into account the RA's "30% + VAT" cut) the pecuniary benefit of just ten sales spread over the three months of the show at the higher price would be equal to an edition of fifty sold out in one afternoon at the lower. If rather less gratifying to the ego.

In the same room as my two pictures there were about 100 other editioned prints for sale, with prices ranging from the insane (Jim Dine woodcut, edition of 6 at £16,800 each) through the expensive (Tracy Emin lithograph, edition of 50 at £1,400 each) to the affordable (I regretted not buying a copy of "The Old Deer Park" by Martyna Raczka, edition of 100 at £180, or "Collecting on the Strandline" by Neil Bousfield, edition of 50 at £300, before they sold out). But the majority seemed to cluster between £350 and £750, and not a few of these seemed to be selling well, despite being by unknowns like me.

Which, as you can imagine, gave me pause for thought, and I reached for my calculator. Next time – if there is a next time – I may put these calculations to the test. We could certainly do with a new car (that £60 an hour plus parts to keep our 2002 Scenic on the road starts to add up). In the meantime, I have some more tinkering to do.


Anonymous said...


if I were you, I would start my business plan from the opposite direction: What would be the highest price I could demand from my customers before sales drop too much?
People tend to associate value and quality with the price asked (within a reasonable margin, of course). Thus, if you sell your work short, this might even hurt sales.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


Wise advice, and I'm sure it's true. However, by means of a little experiment (market research doubling as a "blind" auction) I think I have established what that price is, and curiously it seems to coincide with the "bottom up" version!

Obviously, unlike some struggling 25-year-old, I am in the privileged position of not actually needing that income. I suppose you might say I now have the luxury of trying out one of the alternative lives that lay down a path not taken 40 years ago... It certainly beats playing golf, volunteering at the local library, or watching daytime TV!


Martin said...

I like to tinker about with layers and masking in Elements, from time to time. But I've got to be in the mood. Your images are always a pleasure, not to mention thought provoking.

Mike C. said...


Thanks. Luckily for me, I've been in the right mood more or less continuously for several years, now!