That's a good question -- maybe the best question ever asked -- and you're the only person in 40 years who has ever asked it. It really has been one of the hardest parts about navigating this business. A concrete answer has been one of the most vexing things to come up with in my entire business life as a potter.
I could probably write nearly a book-length explanation, but to sum it up as well as I can, however incompletely: I've always had more market than product.
That's really being in the catbird seat of business, idn't it?
It's not. It's because I've always shaded toward the near side of the invisible but abrupt line in pottery that divides "appropriately affordable" and "Priced like precious art".
In my 40 years I have seen more potters fail by jumping to the wrong conclusion about their raised prices. That is, as they raised their prices the pots still sold.....but they never did the math to see if, in the long run they were:
1. still making an adequate profit from that pot in, say, a year's time (they were pricing the pot as a one-off rather than a product. They were looking at each sale as an auction, not as a retail product.) And because they weren't looking long term, they failed to detect the lost of income per item. It was hard to detect because they still sold the item. It didn't stop. It slowed. Maybe imperceptibly unless they had some device in place to catch such things.
2. Considering the differing markets that make up a typical pottery business. We sell in multiple markets -- not just regionally, but also types of market.
For example, almost every potter I know has to put together a show schedule of varied shows from "A" shows (those juried shows that are nearly impossible to get into, but when you do they afford a potter the very best in markets and a premium price is almost expected), "B" shows (those juried shows that a potter may not get into every year, but of which there are many alternatives such that doubling up on jurying for several on a weekend will likely net you at least one entry. Those are where your price is probably going to be more realistically set for a general public), and "C" level shows (maybe a local show that, due to the lack of overhead, they still are worth it for at least a few shows in a schedule. Sometimes these shows turn out surprisingly great. But often, just as the "A" price would prohibit sales at a "B" show, "B" prices would probably slow sales at a "C" show).
3. ....and then there's internet sales.
Anyway, as I saw the accidental attrition that hit my fellow potters as they started believing their own press, I decided there wasn't a season that I could really afford not to sell well. So my prices have always been on the conservative side.
Even saying that, though, I'm still fuzzy on it because I look at my current prices and, yes, most of the time my contemporaries think I'm underpriced (and some are even a little angry about it. Competition, you know. I outsell most of them most of the time)....but my prices are what I would have considered "precious" just 20 years ago. I'm priced at the level at which 20 years ago I saw the first exit of overpriced potters.
But it's mostly guesswork. And the hard and fast rules that apply to retail have a bearing, but they're not nearly as easily applied when:
1. you aren't just the retailer -- you are the manufacturer.
2. what you make isn't -- I never remember the word for something "duplicatable" as opposed to something made one at a time -- like the difference between being able to write a book (a one-time endeavor) but then getting royalties from the copies vs. making each individual pot one piece at a time.
3. you are in a field where notoriety (small group fame) can influence price.
It would be easy, for instance, to look at my situation of perpetually selling more than I can make and simply conclude that I need to raise my prices. And there's a cold-and-calculating aspect to that too. That is, if you aren't getting enough for the work then you simply shouldn't be doing either that particular body of work or that career.
Easy said. Not so easily done. There aren't a whole lot of other offers out there. I'm looking, but have been for some time now.
Some of the advice has been to take a job -- any job. I get that. Declare bankruptcy. Sell the house. Rent. Kill the dog and cat. Send the wife off to live with her sister. I get it. I've listened to Dave Ramsey.
Maybe it will come to that. I don't know right now. I'm navigating in the dark. Without a rudder. The other tough reality is waking up at 62 and realizing that my entire life has been dedicated to skills that don't make money -- even if I happened to be better at those skills than the average Joe. That's a tough one. Especially for a cocky guy like me. I'm suddenly the frat boy who is getting his comeuppance at the end of the revenge of the nerds movie. I don't know Jack, but I've always thought I was smart. Guess again.
Additionally, I know I'm going to have to sell this house -- in spite of the fact that when I lose this house, I lose the ability to make a living as a potter (this is where the kiln is).
And like most of my problems, it isn't quite a simple one. For instance, I may or may not be upside down on it. And not knowing that makes it difficult to know exactly how to approach selling it.
See, on the one hand I could paint the very best picture -- if this house was anywhere else in the county (any place other than the industrial park in which it sits) it would easily be worth north of $200K (rural Indiana housing market isn't like big city real estate prices. A million dollars really buys you something around here). And it is one of the most unique properties in the whole county -- it is zoned I-3 BUT it also has a variance for commercial...AND....it is grandfathered in as a residence. That means unlike almost any other acre in all of Warsaw, a buyer could come in here and do any kind of business they wanted AND live here.
Additionally, it is a very attractive property with its historical house, decorative fences, mature trees, nature conservancy across the street. It's got curb appeal.
Knowing that the next occupant of this property might very well be an industry that levels the buildings and rebuilds, we've felt somewhat hesitant to improve the place. Add to that the fact that the house is going through the 20 year thing -- needing new furnace, roof, water heater, kitchen....it's just not that attractive to look at as a ready-to-move-into residence.
I don't know how to solve that. Since I'm in debt I can't really do the improvements anyway....but if I can't then, sadly, I lose even more in the sale.
But, yes. We're going to have to sell the place. We can't afford to live here. If I owned it outright I wouldn't even be worried. In fact, if I'd gotten this place paid off before the crash of 2008, I'd be looking at a pretty comfortable retirement of making a reasonable number of pots per year and playing music at the Goshen Jam on the weekends. But that's wishful thinking. That didn't happen. The pots still sell well but the amount of money needed to maintain this level of debt load is just not possible.