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If you were my 'manager' : Part Three

Posted by Dave Bull at 12:14 PM, December 20, 2009 [Permalink]

Continued from [If you were my manager : Part Two] | Starting point of the series is [Part One]

Well, now that we've 'settled' the question of how I should handle foreign exchange, let's move on to bigger fish. Very big fish!

With the My Solitudes series scheduled to come to a conclusion sometime in March, I have to begin preparing for what comes next. Here in Japan, April is the month when most things 'get going': the school year begins in April, as do employment contracts for those who graduated in March. Companies and institutions do all their major internal shuffling on March 31st/April 1st, and this is when promotions take effect, when people retire, and when many people are re-assigned to new positions. For me to have a new series beginning on April 1st is - in Japan at least - perfect timing.

Now all I need is a perfect idea!

There are a great many considerations; more this time than ever before. With more than twenty years of subscription prints now issued, the choices still keep multiplying.

(For readers who are not so familiar with what I have issued up to now, this recent story in my newsletter gives a good overview.)

Here is a rundown on the previous work, with some comments on relevant points:

1989~1998 : Hyakunin Isshu (poetry) series (sets of 10 @ 10,000 yen each)
For me:Excellent challenge at first, less so in the later stages. But overall - ten years! - a wonderful accomplishment.
For collectors:Main interest was the content rather than the printmaking.
Sales, etc.:Very slow going at first, fully subscribed in the later stages (necessitating a reprint).
1999~2003 : Surimono Albums (sets of 10 @ 6,000 yen each)
For me:Excellent challenge start to finish. Huge amount of work: 200 copies each, many colours, a new print every five weeks ... incredible achievement. (Never again!)
For collectors:Mixed. The 'scattergun' approach left many of them feeling a bit 'lost', although others enjoyed the constant surprise when opening the packages.
Sales, etc.:Well subscribed at first, tapering off as the years went by. After five years, I myself was thinking of going for ten, but the market said 'no way'. As 'back issues' since then: slow but steady.
2004 : Beauties of Four Seasons (set of 4 @ 12,500 yen each)
For me:Excellent challenge start to finish. My best work, probably never to be surpassed.
For collectors:Mixed. Three of the designs (Spring, Autumn, Winter) were of subjects not considered 'beautiful' by contemporary Japanese women, which left many collectors feeling disappointed. And the Winter print met with huge resistance (including a few people who were so upset, they have yet to pay for it, and one who actually wrapped it up and sent it back.)
Sales, etc.:Poor. More than half of the sets are still here on my shelves, even five years later.
2005 : Hanga Treasure Chest (set of 24 @ 2,000 yen each)
For me:Excellent challenge start to finish. Hugely exhausting (one every two weeks!), but very satisfying.
For collectors:Very well received, and by a very wide 'variety' of people, not just print fans.
Sales, etc.:Excellent. More revenue than I needed, thus allowing a build of savings that would help feed me during what came next. As 'back issues': steady since then (now nearly all gone).
2006~2007 : Scroll Project (single item @ 50,000 (since increased to 80,000))
For me:A very good challenge, although the final result was honestly not as good as I had hoped.
For collectors:Mixed. It's a pretty esoteric item, not one that would appeal to a wide audience. Those who like it, really like it.
Sales, etc.:Very poor (I had anticipated this.) Low subscription rate, combined with my slowness at getting it out the door, left my finances in bad shape.
2007~2010 : My Solitudes (set of 12 @ 8,000 yen each)
For me:Very good challenge (and how!) The first series I have ever begun without being confident of being able to pull it off. The jury is still out on the ultimate worth of this work, but I think that in general I have 'acquitted myself honourably'.
For collectors:Not sure how to answer. Again, those who like it, really like it. Others are silent.
Sales, etc.:Glass half empty/half full. As I write, there are 79 subscribers, meaning that more than 800 of my original prints have been sold ... my first original woodblock prints. I doubt there are many people around who can match this achievement. On the other hand though, only 79 subscribers, at the low price that I set for the series, and at the rate of one print going out every three months, means that it is not enough to make a living. I have been on the very edge now for over a year. Every $ that comes in goes straight out to expenses.

It's been quite a ride!

I have to mention something else - something that doesn't show in that chart. When the poets' series began, I was living in a rented apartment, teaching English classes in one of the rooms. As the printmaking developed, the English classes became history, as did the apartment. I now sit here in a 4-story home/studio/workshop, with only a few months left to run on the mortgage. My baren has provided my income for twenty years, and has bought me a home.

I think I'll say that again ... it just sounds so good : my baren has provided my income for twenty years, and has bought me a home ... in Tokyo, one of the most expensive places on the planet.


But back to business! What should I do next? It has to fit well with those three criteria: personal satisfaction, collector satisfaction, and sales (food on the table). Keeping me happy is easy - I have so much fun with this stuff that honestly speaking, it doesn't much matter what the project is. I'm the least important point of the three. Getting the collectors happy is also not too difficult; as long as the project is 'interesting' there will be a bunch of people who will come along for the ride. That much I've learned in twenty+ years.

It's the third one ... $ ... that causes the problems. When the price goes up, subscriptions go down; that is absolutely clear from the table above. And not just the 'raw' price - it's the 'perceived' price. For example, the Treasure Chest, the Beauties, the Scroll, and the Solitudes (as planned) were all the 'same' price: 50,000 yen per year. But the Treasure Chest had 24 prints, the Beauties 4, the Scroll 1, and the Solitudes 6. (My Solitudes was planned at one every two months, but that slipped to one every three months as time went by.)

And as we move still further into what is perhaps going to be the worst recession of my lifetime, price is surely certain to be the over-riding factor in any decision to become a subscriber. This next series has to be 'easy to buy', no doubt about it.

So when looking back over the list of previous work, the only thing that seems to be a practical model is the Treasure Chest; I had fun, the collectors had fun, and I ate well.

But do I want to repeat myself? Do the collectors want a repeat? And can they still afford 50,000 a year? And that ridiculous two-week schedule!

OK, this is getting kind of long, and I think that's enough for one evening ... I do have some thoughts on how to move forward with this, but before I talk more, I would be very interested in hearing ideas from the 'armchair' managers out there.

(And I see that I didn't even bring up the (major) question of whether or not this next series should be original work, or reproductions!)

The series continues in If you were my manager : Part Four ...


Following comment posted by: Michael Kohne on December 20, 2009 10:00 PM

The Treasure Chest was the first of your series that I subscribed to, and I loved it. It drew me in, and the price was low enough (per print) that I could feel good about spending that much money so often on something so unknown to me (I really know almost nothing about woodblock prints, other than I like them).

The My Solitudes series (which I am subscribed to) is probably about my limit for per-piece pricing. I don't think I could afford to subscribe to anything more expensive.

If you did something like the Treasure Chest I'd certainly subscribe (assuming continued employment on my part). Would you consider something mid-way between the treasure chest and the solitudes in terms of print size and price? You could perhaps do one per 3 or 4 weeks?

Also, at one time you had talked about making a box available for purchase to hold the 'My Solitudes' prints. With only 79 subscribers you wouldn't want to invest a large number of boxes, but if you found someone to make them, perhaps you could sell them on a 'pre-order only' basis (we could commit to buying, you'd only order as many as were called for), so that you don't get stuck with a stack of boxes no one wants to buy.

Following comment posted by: Dave on December 20, 2009 10:42 PM

Would you consider something mid-way between the Treasure Chest and the Solitudes in terms of print size and price? You could perhaps do one per 3 or 4 weeks?

That's exactly where the Surimono Albums were are sitting - an intermediate size, and at 6,000 each. They originally went out on a '10 per year' basis, and that was touch and go (time wise) - only possible because there was no time required for design (they were all reproductions).

But that particular 'formula' means that the collector pays 60,000 per year, which I suspect is too high in the current climate. At four Solitudes prints per year (8,000 each), you have been paying 32,000 annually ... This whole question of whether collectors are thinking in terms of the cost of each print (the 'cheques' they have to write), or of the overall annual cost, is pretty much completely opaque to me. Does it matter? I have no idea ...

a box available for purchase to hold the 'My Solitudes' prints

Michael, as you will see when you open the Solitudes package that is now on the way to you, the box issue has been settled. I finally gave up on Japanese makers (typical price : 8,000 yen per box ... my cost) and found a maker in China who was able to come up with a satisfactory sample for me (after three iterations). I've put an order in for a batch of 100, which is far fewer than their normal minimum. It seems that they are hungry these days too ... (And don't ask how much I've spent on getting samples made over the past few months!)

It's an option for current subscribers (an order form - @ 4,000 yen - is included with the print that was just shipped), but I'm going to make it an included part of a Solitudes subscription from now on (those people who will be purchasing the series as 'back numbers').

If you did something like the Treasure Chest I'd certainly subscribe

What about theme though? Does it matter at all to you what the content of the prints would be? Or it would be OK as long as they were 'something interesting'? This is a very curious point ... where is the interest - in the print as an object, or in the content? You know, I suspect that I'm not really making 'art' at all ...

Following comment posted by: Jacques on December 21, 2009 7:55 AM

I simply cannot believe that the Winter issue of your Beauty of the Four Seasons series met with such resistance: I still find it one of the most wonderful and lovely prints you ever made.

All things considered, I guess that my personal preference would go out to your Surimono albums concept, leaving it completely up to you to decide which prints to include in any one album.

And why not combine this with the yearly publication of a "David's choice" eBook in which you show the original prints you are reproducing, and "audio include" your comments on why you decided to include these particular prints in the corresponding album?

Whatever you decide to do, please know that I will continue to support your woodblock printing efforts as long as I can, irrespective of the amount that you charge, and in whatever currency you decide to charge it!

Following comment posted by: Mark Mason on December 21, 2009 10:51 PM

I was thinking just the same as Jacques regarding the 'David's Choice' ebook and a set of prints. What a nice combination.
Again, the Treasure Chest was my first full subscription, and I'm now working my way through the back issues of the Surimono Albums.
The pricing on the Treasure Chest was perfect for me. I could equate the cost per print with what I know other people may spend on beer or make-up, but what I was getting for the same price was beautiful artwork.
I do like the reproductions, and I like to be surprised and informed, but would reproductions (or 're-creations' as I prefer to call this kind of work) be enough to satisfy the new artistically unleashed Dave. Perhaps the set could include a few pieces designed by Dave, but influenced and inspired by his collection.
Dave has quite often taken an existing print and redesigned it (B&W into colour etc) maybe this is a way to introduce some new creativity into producing re-creations.
24 prints in a year is a lot of work though, so maybe reduce it, and hit a mark in terms of print size, number and cost somewhere between the Treasure Chest and Surimono Albums, 16 perhaps, 4 per quarter, with one per quarter being a 'Dave' original.
I'm also a sucker for a nicely made slipcase/box which is a decorative piece of craft work in its own right.

Following comment posted by: Serge on December 22, 2009 1:59 AM

Hello Dave,

A few days off and I'll get your new print in the new year....
I am very happy (and somewhat proud) of being a subscriber and have "budgeted" 10,000 yen per quarter or 40,000 Yen per year (providing my current employment does not stop....).
I like Jacques' idea of linking your work to a David's choice E-book.
And you can already count me in for one of these boxes
All the best.......Serge

Following comment posted by: Julio Rodriguez on December 22, 2009 5:15 AM

I am in sort of agreement with most of the statements already made...e-book Yes !

For me the Surimono & Beauty series were favorites. The rapid pace of the Treasure Chest was a bit too much I think. The printmaker 'wannabe' in me wants to see some challenging prints ( ha ! I can almost hear Dave LOL saying.... but Julio for you ALL these prints are challenging !!!).

Do you have a theme picked out ?
I think surprising us and altering format sizes or era from print to print might keep things interesting... throw in a pilar print in the bunch and also some original David Bull designs.

Following comment posted by: Dave on December 22, 2009 11:15 AM

the yearly publication of a "David's choice" eBook in which you show the original prints you are reproducing

Actually, this sort of thing is very much 'on my list', and I'll be talking about it in an upcoming part of this 'Manager' series, tomorrow or the day after.

The pricing on the Treasure Chest was perfect for me. I could equate the cost per print with what I know other people may spend on beer or make-up ...

At some point, I thought about making this kind of comparison on the subscription pages, "xx cups of coffee per month will buy you a handmade print!" ... that sort of thing. But I backed off, feeling that it sort of cheapened what I am doing. But yes, it's absolutely true ... I think these things are fantastic 'value' - what you get for the money.

the new artistically unleashed Dave.

Dave certainly doesn't feel 'unleashed' at all ... All he's done so far is take a tentative walk around the neighbourhood. Don't want to run too far ... the dogcatchers might come after me!

24 prints in a year is a lot of work though, so maybe reduce it ...
The rapid pace of the Treasure Chest was a bit too much I think
Would you consider something mid-way between the Treasure Chest and the Solitudes

Been playing with these thoughts, and while talking with Sadako about this, a sort of idea started to bubble up ... I'll post about it later this afternoon when I get back from the Post Office ...

altering format sizes or era from print to print might keep things interesting... throw in a pillar print in the bunch

Big problem here is of course packaging. Kind of by definition, the items in any given set have to be the same physical format.

A set of pillar prints would be very interesting I think - especially if they were scroll-mounted. There could be a paulownia box with (say) four slots, and each slot would have a tall-thin print mounted in scroll format. Bring them out and hang them up according to the season/etc. Everybody has some kind of thin wall space that would be suitable, I'm sure.

Expensive though, no question ... special laminated paper, all the mounting, etc. etc. Can't possibly think of such a project this time around ...

Following comment posted by: David Caudle on December 23, 2009 4:21 AM

It seems to me that you are starting to find your own confidence in terms of artistic style as demonstrated by your Solitudes series. I just listen and enjoyed your enthusiasm in David's Pick's Vol 1'. Combining the new David style with the very trick's, techniques and subject matters that you talked about has always been the mark of good artists. You have arrived in your craftsmanship. As always its your decision because it reflects your finances, but its time for David Bull to make use of his technical skills and prove as you did in your Solitudes your inner Artist! Just my 2 yen, Best Regards, David

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