Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Observations For Eddie

• If you are a potter who is working alone and you don’t sell wholesale (thereby necessitating a restructuring of your prices so that they don’t undercut the prices of your gallery/reps) then your pricing may technically be “retail”, but in reality your prices are neither retail nor wholesale. “Retail” and “wholesale” describe pricing that is based upon the manufacturer not being the same entity as the marketer. As solo potters we are both.

• Since, as solo potters we are both (maker and marketer), then we also need to face the reality that at least some of the savings we gain by cutting out a middle man marketer, we lose in the change of hats from maker to seller. It takes time away from the making to do the selling.

Still, it may be to our advantage to finally recognize that art fairs and internet sales allow us an enviable position of spending less of our time wearing the marketing hat. And the more attractive we make our prices, the less time we have to spend marketing our pots. If our prices are attractive, we don’t need to beat the bushes to find willing buyers – it is that “beating the bushes” that requires the inordinate amount of marketing time.

I, for one, would rather be making than marketing.

• The value/price of a given piece is not exactly what someone is willing to pay me for it. Not if I intend to make a living and a business from the making and selling of pottery.

No, the value/price of a piece is the price at which I can consistently sell it (or pieces like it). And adding a time factor to the equation roots this concept into an even more accurate footing.

That is, the price of a piece is the price at which I can consistently sell multiples over a year’s time. This means that if I want to determine the value of, say, my pitchers, it is to my advantage to find the highest price at which I can consistently sell pitchers over a year’s time. Thus determined, my annual pitcher income should meet my need to make income from pitchers measured against my desire and ability to produce pitchers at that rate per year.

So if I LOVE to make pitchers and can do so at a rate that allows me to make what I need from a year’s worth of pitcher production, then I’ve arrived at a do-able price for that pitcher. If, on the other hand, I cannot keep up, or I really don’t like making pitchers, I need to alter my prices.

• Potters have one foot in each of two conflicting worlds. We have one foot in the art world and one foot in the craft world. This would be fine if we were more keenly aware of which foot we were standing on at any one time. But I don’t think we are. Why are they conflicting? Because the marketing concerns and models are almost completely different. And at odds with each other.

There is a chart that is making the rounds of the internet that illustrates an interesting reality that I believe affects the pottery world like few realities have of late. The chart illustrates that 90% of America makes $31,244 annually. After that, 9% make between that $33,244 and $164,647 annually.

I find those numbers to be quite enlightening, especially when I toss them into the salad of these other considerations:

I shouldn’t be TOO surprised by the numbers and the implications that those numbers cast on the reality of making and selling pottery. After all, even when I have done VERY well at several of the biggest art fairs in the country (Ann Arbor and St James Court, for example) out of the 200,000 people in attendance at those shows, when I'm selling extremely well, I will still only sell to maybe 500 of the attendees. That’s 500/200,000 or .25%. That's not 25%. I said “POINT 25%”. That’s only one quarter of a person in every 100 passing by my booth. One quarter of a person is not a very big person. I bet he limps. Or, if he walks normally, I bet he doesn’t have a head, or is missing both of his arms – either of which would make it hard to hand him a bag with his pottery purchase inside. Even if that bag has handles.

Anyway, those are daunting numbers -- but made even more so when considering that the 200,000 people in attendance at those shows were already culled from the general population by their love of arts and crafts in the first place. That means that of a subset of the general population already predisposed to like the arts and crafts, I STILL only appealed to .25% of them. And I was selling more pottery at those shows than nearly every other potter (they used to publish the sales results from those shows, so I know).

I bring up those numbers to come back full circle to my statement about having one foot in the art world and one in the craft world – and not knowing which foot we’re standing on at any one time. I think that those numbers represent the marketing reality that faces most working potters. I believe that most working potters are creating work that will be marketed to the 90% of Americans making $30,000 a year and a better percentage of those in the next, $164,000 category.

So, as potter/craftsmen we have the numbers on our side – the bigger pool in which to market – but we have to face the reality that that pool’s income is going to put severe pressure on our pricing.

I think that the art/potter is marketing to the smaller share of the 9% making the $164,000. I believe this is so because the higher the income, the less likely that the purchase of pottery is going to be made in a direct-from-the-potter relationship.

It is my guess that the very wealthy aren’t even in the equation – they no more buy their own pottery than do they do their own decorating (or buy their own groceries). But I think a large segment of the 9% follow that same model. That is, the greater the income, the more likely that status-seeking will require vetting by the “right” gallery so as to keep one’s social standing intact. Of course we all know exceptions. Bless them.

And as art/potters we fall easily into the model of allowing such vetting. That is, if we come through some academic training, we are very likely to accept an academic and gallery model that we know better from our art textbooks than from the reality of our day to day lives.

And even if we don’t come through the academic training ourselves, the “famous” potters to whom we are exposed by the periodicals we subscribe to are even more intimately part of that academic/gallery/vetted model than we are made aware. Marketing? What…are you kidding?

If we do become vaguely aware of where income connects the ceramic/art world it is in the other ways in which that academic world follows the Old World academic and art world. It is the model of the wealthy patron supporting the arts. It’s almost a peculiarity, the level to which – probably because of our admiration of the particular potters involved -- we overlook the obvious conflict that occurs where this Old World model clashes with the way potters can ACTUALLY make a living in our culture.

Back in the latter years of the ‘80s, Ceramics Monthly ran a couple of interesting articles. The first article was how the NEA distributed grants of $15,000 - $5,000 to some of our fellow potters. I think most of us cheered the awards – given as they were to some of our favorite potters (including my very favorite at the time). We wished them well and I guess we figured that they were playing a game to which we’d all been invited to participate and they'd simply won fair and square.

Then, in a subsequent issue of the magazine one of the most famous potters in America took some small exception to these NEA awards. Oh, he wasn’t arguing principally against the NEA granting such awards for exploration in ceramics that might be hard to finance otherwise – but rather, that these specific potters were the ones being awarded. He was pointing out that among the recipients, a good number were tenured professors whom one might assume already had an income structure in place – not to mention public facility – with which to explore whatever they might wish in the ceramic world.

And, to his point, these awards were not specified toward projects – nor were they even specified as requiring a ceramic project as the end result of the award money. Heck, one recipient was even so bold as to have publicly stated that he put the majority of the award into savings. Another put a roof on his house.

But that’s the art model. The art model (as opposed to the craftsman model) makes no pretense at income derived directly from the finished product (much less upon the sale of that product) – rather, it is dependent upon income derived by any manner in order to pursue one’s art.

But to the extent that this art world DOES depend on the sale of art product it does so on a scale steroidal. Because the available pool in which the whole market swims is so relatively small, it requires a completely different system of values by which to define that product. The marketers become as important as the producers because the value is so often in the presentation.

So why is having at least some perspective on the two worlds of value to the working potter? I don’t know. I think it’s because we working man potters have a tendency to watch those who are participating in the art world and the art market and draw the wrong conclusions about pricing as we try to translate the art world values to the craft world market.

• Because we are playing a numbers game (remember the “appealing to the .25% at the art fairs?) I am almost shocked as I watch fellow potters who are willing to jeopardize their internet marketing presence – the success of which is so heavily dependent upon social network media – by participating publicly in political or religious debate with their facebook and twitter accounts.

The current form of Facebook is an interesting sociological macrocosm -- a study in current human relationships (though a study from which I doubt that concrete conclusions can be drawn). It's the ultimate in realizing how far we've come from a social norm of not discussing religion, politics, or not farting in public places.

Every solipsistic person on the planet feels free to bare his incredibly ignorant soul about any and every controversial subject -- subjects in which the wisely silent who dwell among us hold doctorates (some real, some conferred by life experience).
”In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” - Bertrand Russell

People whom I admire professionally (my facebook page is equal parts musicians and potters) are obviously quite swayed by the opinion mills of the day – boldly making pronouncements transparently forged by hours of Jon Stewart or Rush Limbaugh -- or pop science or pop religion –- or Glenn Beck or Rachel Maddow, than by any serious education. And I’ve no doubt that these people believe that such pronouncements clothe their online persona in great erudition. All the while they are totally unaware of the degree to which they are actually wearing hospital-style gowns and their backsides are hanging out quite unflatteringly.

On the one hand, maybe it’s admirable that those facebook potters wielding political posts believe in something with such conviction that they are willing to say...

“The heck with sales! …I don’t need to appeal to my .25% share of the 50/50 politically polarized population to survive. I can get by while alienating half of my potential customer base. I can survive with only .125% of my share of the pottery-buying public!”

But on the other hand, I’d have to admit that, from my perspective as an admitted life-long politics and theology junkie – there’s just not that many issues that come along in the ongoing public political scene that I believe I’m going to sway the outcome by a facebook post. And if I did choose to so participate, I’m certainly going to run the additional risk of being misunderstood in the mere 500 words Facebook would allow me to voice such an opinion. Maybe it’s short-sighted of me, but I see no upside – only downside – in using the same social media I’m depending on for marketing to air my political views.

Oh, I am a Pottercrat and a Ceramitarian with Guitarican leanings. I have also dabbled in Mandolinia


  1. There must be something in the spring air, because I was just noting the other day how some of my friends (some potters, some not) are getting really vocal about politics. It made me wonder the same thing about sales. I can't imagine that someone really thinks that venting their political views will win them sales, so what other purpose does it serve? I've actually 'hidden' people on FB because every single post is political/religion based. It gets old after a while.. there's more going on in life.

    P.S. I sent you a friend request on FB, and I promise I won't litter your news feed with politics or my religious views. ;) (Rebecca Brandow)

  2. Oh, don't go deleting it by tomorrow. Agree or disagree, you've brought up interesting points to consider.

  3. Excellent article. I struggle with the art/craft thing a lot. I seem to like making low fired decorative things that you can't drink coffee from, or serve soup in.
    I wouldn't be so discouraged on your conversion rate. Sure, 20,000 people passed your booth, but how many came in? I'll bet your rate for people that came in to your booth, that were actually interested in pottery (not wood, metal, or fiber arts), is much higher. I wish I'd have found you back when I was living in Plymouth. Had clients in Warsaw regularly.

  4. No deleting this, please!!!

    Nothing wrong in saying what a lot of us are thinking, you have put it all together as I couldn't do.

  5. worth the read and worth the thoughts.
    I am short on words and long on thought- don't delete!

  6. Banjoism....stay away from banjoism...Banjoists hang around the edges of Mandolinia circles to lure perfectly sane people into a cult of five string madness.....

  7. Yes, I wish someone could explain to me why, when I hang a plate by a renowned potter on the wall, it's perceived value is greater than if I serve my vegetable on it.

  8. Great post John! Plenty of food for thought. It may also be the longest pottery post I have ever read! I think it is totally encouraging that folks can stay with you on topics like this. Pottery blogs just don't offer this kind of serious thought with much regularity. I am so grateful that you have decided to challenge us to think harder about some of these issues. Keep up the good work!

  9. I'll be coming out with a comic book (graphic novel) version soon.

  10. damn john, i made it through... now i know what i'm putting my faithful readers through with these long posts. first, i had seen the graph about wealth distribution in the US floating around somewhere and although i was mired in parsing the level of injustice it represented, i hadn't really applied it to my own pathetic income. coincidentally, i have recently come to a similar conclusion, especially as it relates to etsy. i only 1 out of every 400 (or was it 1000?) actually purchases a piece then, from an online perspective, i've got to get the work in front of a lot more people. i came to this because i have noticed an accumulation of "friends" on FB and people who "favorite" on etsy, so it's a numbers game but also it's a time game where diligence and resisting the urge to throw in the towel (and stop spending so much time writing blog posts) are paramount in this amassing of viewers. the other thing about airing political, or heaven forbid, religious views on social media just seems counterproductive to me... i even got a tinge from even saying that and went back and changed the word i had to counterproductive. i guess the challenge of social media if you are interesting in remaining a potter is to present an accurate persona without major pieces, politics, religion, health, etc. that being said, i think you're doing a great job. i think you accurately portray yourself as a silly, thoughtful, dog-lovin', guitar-lovin', excellent potter and did i mention silly. and i agree with MH, those banjoists are the worst.

  11. jim,

    'nuther epic novel on numbers. The numbers make blogging seem to be TOTALLY ineffective as a marketing tool for selling pots. The numbers are just not there.

    I've kinda looked into the numbers -- looked at others blogs -- and have determined a pairing of strikes against them:

    1. I can't find an example of a blog that extends an internet presence into anything that would translate to a meaningful pool of buyers...and that is made doubly true by...

    2. In every pottery related blog I've run across so far, the only people reading the blogs are other potters. That's great fun -- meaningful exchanges other than merchandise are taking place (though a discussion forum would facilitate this exchange much more efficiently than blogs with little connectivity). But in reality, I don't know about other potters, but I couldn't make a living selling to other potters.

    Have you (or has anyone who might read this) ever known of a pottery blog to "go viral" even with just one post?

    I believe that those of us who do blog, blog for the simple joy of expression. But if we do hold out some marketing hope, it is that somehow (as one might buy a lottery ticket because, between buying a ticket and not buying a ticket, the odds exponentially improve with the buying option), someway the blog may have a viral moment.

    I've experienced such a moment. Not with my own blog but with A blog. Suddenly I went from 100 or so hits a day to 1500 hits in one day. I also sold about $2000 worth of pottery in a three week period because of that "going viral" moment. So I know it's possible. But it wasn't my blog that caused it. As such, I'm still aware that I don't actually hold the keys to driving that car again.

  12. Food for thought, yes indeed. I read the whole damn thing and now want to sign up for the advance copy of your upcoming graphic novel.

  13. hi john,
    i'm in total agreement and when i said that i needed to get in front of a whole lot more people, i meant on etsy as opposed to the blog because within the etsy realm, most of the people are already there shopping. my blogging venture was, as it turns out, ill-conceived but as time went on it became something else that seems worthwhile still. my only divergence would be the compartmentalization of online activity. i recently was approached with an opportunity that is really good for me and i had the luxury of asking how this person became aware of me. it turns out that a potter i know was testing different ^6 clay bodies to make a switch and i suggested (in person) the one i use and he was doing blog posts that were a series of critiques on the bodies and on the one i suggested he linked to me. this person who approached me was selecting a clay body and during her search went to his blog and saw a picture of one of my pots. i'm only belaboring this as an example of the interconnectedness of the online marketing/social media activity. it's the connectedness of all one's online activity that has the potential to reach the most people and maybe even go viral as you pointed out. if we didn't have to make pots and we could spend half of every day online writing blog posts, commenting on other blogs, sending emails, chatting on etsy, interacting on FB, the web of activity would continue to grow. the only problem is when the new connections checked out what your work was like, there wouldn't be any there because of spending all the time online. i have a feeling this is going to seem "rambling"

  14. Not rambling, Jim, and my thoughts exactly.

    I've had similar things (to the interconnectivity you had with Jeff's blog). Just when I was ready to give up on facebook, I "friended" a potter...only to find that my pots had been the conversation between her and friends -- friends who, as it turns out, had been buying my pots due to that connectivity.

    So I understand. And, like you I'm simply trying to find a balance. I find that I won't read blog or facebook offerings that simply "phone it in". It's one reason I read yours. It's one reason I read Jeff's. Ditto Dan, Hollis, Meredith, etc. And so I try to put a little thought into what I do as well.

    And like you, I find it rewarding for its own sake....though I find it utterly confounding at times to be talking to nobody.

    So, I'll keep it up, and I'll keep enjoying your blog.