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If you were my 'manager' : Part Four

Posted by Dave Bull at 12:21 PM, December 23, 2009

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

So far in this little sequence of posts discussing some business aspects of my work, we've looked at some currency issues, and begun to think about the next project. I mentioned three factors that would be important considerations in making that decision:

  • my own satisfaction
  • customer satisfaction
  • economics

But before I get too deeply into trying to work out a future project based around those things, I want to try a little 'thought experiment'. If there were no such constraints in place; if I had a completely free hand to do whatever I wanted ... what would I do? What would I make?

Now that's actually not an easy question to answer. If you think about it for yourself (with respect to your own life and work), you will find that, although any of us can quickly come up with suggestions on this and that, it's by no means certain that such suggestions would actually make sense in the long term. The classic example of this is the guy who 'wins the lottery'. Sure, it's easy at first; quit your job, buy a big house, take the great vacation, etc. etc. But then what? Having unlimited resources doesn't help you, if you don't have some kind of motivation or structure to what you are doing.

If all my constraints were suddenly removed, and I became free to make (say) a project that wouldn't have been feasible because the result would have been too expensive, what happens next? I make the thing, it sits there. What do I do, give it away? What would it mean to have made it? Sure, maybe it would have been a technical achievement for Dave, but without the integration with society that has been stripped away by the 'magic wand' support from 'outside' ... so what?

I'm perhaps being clumsy in my attempt to express this idea. There was a Dilbert cartoon in my newspaper just the other day (very strange timing, actually) about this.


"It's not really art if no one likes it."

Now I don't believe that particular phrase is true, but the point Wally was making - the stuff this guy is producing must be of no value to society, as demonstrated by the fact that he can't make a living from it - does come close to my own thinking.

Some of you might fire back, "What about examples like Van Gogh? His work was not 'valued' in his own lifetime, yet we now recognize how good it is ... etc. etc.," but I think that's kind of a red herring. Sure, we can find such 'special case' examples if we look for them. But I'm talking about normal people, in normal daily life. If nobody can/will 'consume' the thing that somebody is 'producing', then - by my particular definition - this is an indication that the person on the production side is out of line.

It's not that what he is producing is 'no good', but if he can't find - or make (which is where Van Gogh failed) - a place for it to fit, then there has been no point. The book that goes unread might as well not have been written.

I fully recognize that I may be 'wrong' on this. But it's the way that I have approached my work for all these years that I have been making prints. I want/expect my stuff to be valued by people, and it seems that the only real method available to measure that is to put it on the market. People buy it ... hey, it must be worthwhile! Nobody buys it ... oops, you're on the wrong track ...

So, to return to the question I raised, "if I had a completely free hand to do whatever I wanted ... what would I make?" I'm going to try and answer it, keeping in mind that I don't want to work in isolation, exempted from market forces. I want people to be collecting/using my stuff!

Here goes (in no particular order, just as they occur to me ...):

  • Publish another couple of books on the techniques of printmaking, building on the 'Your First Print' that I issued a few months ago. One each, on printing, and carving.
  • Make a replica/reproduction of one of the astonishing Utamaro books published by Tsutaya Juzaburo in the 1790s. Maybe the Insect Book, or the Gifts from the Ebb Tide, or Ginsekai. They each have about 12 plates, cut and printed with exquisite skill.
  • Take some of the designs from my current My Solitudes series, cut them on much larger blocks (at a scale that actually matches the perspectives inherent in the designs), and work with Numabe-san the printer to create some editions, issued under my Mokuhankan brand.
  • Work out a print series reproducing some of the Meiji stuff published by Daikokuya or Akiyama Buemon. Again, an astonishing level of craftsmanship.
  • Get a bunch more prints into the Mokuhankan catalogue. That venture has been very successful, but is being crippled by the slow pace of additions to the catalogue. There are designers all over the planet who would love their stuff to be issued as woodblock prints.
  • Building on the Mokuhankan project - get off my butt, get downtown, and start lining up shops to carry those prints in their stock. There is a huge potential business there, completely untapped. (And of course, not just in Tokyo, but in galleries, etc. all over the world.)
  • Surimono reproductions. During the course of producing my 'Surimono Albums' I included a few reproductions of actual Edo-era surimono. These are a perfect 'venue' for my particular skill set, and I'd love to make more of them.
  • Figure out where to take my own 'original' printmaking. Although I think the My Solitudes has come out pretty well, I'm not happy with the way that the designs have skated too close to realism.
  • Thinking of Paul Jacoulet's 1942 print of two court ladies with a goldfish bowl ... an absolutely stupendous achievement, that leaves me gob-smacked (excuse the Brit slang) every time I look at it; I have to have a go at making something like that!
  • Expand the David's Choice eBook series that I started a couple of months back.
  • Think about producing some reproductions of some of the wonderful shunga prints that were produced in the old days. This would have to be done discreetly, but would be a very interesting project.
  • Get 'into print' with books representing all my work to date - hundreds of prints. As RichMedia eBooks and/or as beautiful physical books.

OK, I think that's enough for now; if I sat here longer, I could extend such a list indefinitely, especially if I continued including more of the reproductions I'd like to tackle.

Now that's a chaotic list of stuff. (And an excellent demonstration that the worst thing that could perhaps happen to me would be to 'win a lottery', as I would end up completely paralyzed into inaction, unable to decide which way to go!) So, Mr. Manager - if you are still with me - I can guess that your advice may be something on the order of, "Hey, just grab one of these things and run with it!"

Can't be done.

Why? There is nothing on that list - as interesting and 'useful' as they all may be - that will pay the bills at the end of next month; the mortgage, the medical insurance, and ... you know ... food and stuff.

Somehow I have to find a way to combine this 'want list' with what I learned from the kind of replies people made the other day:

If you did something like the Treasure Chest I'd certainly subscribe
I guess that my personal preference would go out to your Surimono albums concept
I am very happy (and somewhat proud) of being a subscriber and have 'budgeted' 10,000 yen per quarter
The pricing on the Treasure Chest was perfect for me.

And ... I think I may have it.

First, some numbers. Sorry again, to keep coming back to the $ stuff ... There is just no way around it ... :-(

During this past couple of years, 4 Solitudes prints have gone out each year, at 8,000 yen each, to around 75 collectors. Doing the math, that means my subscription income (all averaged out) has been 200,000 yen per month. And I'm still here.

So let's put that down as a base to start with. If I could get a new series up and running - at a 'no worse than that' level - then I could swing it. Well, the Treasure Chest prints were 2,000 each. When I did that series I put out one every two weeks, to somewhere around 140 collectors. (The number slowly climbed during the course of the year.)

But what if I were to do a similar set, at a pace of only one per month? I would need 100 collectors to get to that minimum level. I think I can do that. The subscription price would be (with postage) just around $25 monthly, for a beautiful little woodblock print, in the interesting storage case. Maybe again 24 prints in the set, subscriptions running for two years. I think I can get 100 people interested.

And here's the kicker - I could take a month off every two months! Eh?

Sure! Here's how it might work. When I made those Treasure Chest prints, I made them in pairs, like this (cutting them apart after printing was finished):

The pace was one finished print out the door every two weeks, so I made a pair (200 copies, start to finish) every 4 weeks (slightly less, actually).

Given that same pace - making a pair every four weeks - but issuing them at the pace of one finished print every month, I would have one month free every second month! Not 'free' as in 'time on the beach' of course, but free to work on items from that 'impossible' list I just laid out.

Now this really sounds interesting ... On the one hand, it's a bit dangerous - I'm shooting pretty low for the potential income; I can't actually live here on 200,000 yen per month. Mortgage, taxes and medical insurance alone take almost that much. It would need supplementing with other things (Mokuhankan sales, subscriptions to 'back issues', eBook sales, Gift Prints, etc. etc.). But that's exactly what has happened anyway this past couple of years. No reason to think that all those sources would suddenly dry up to zero.

And on the other hand, surely whatever work I get involved with during my 'month off' would also turn out to be at least somewhat remunerative, wouldn't it? And as the previous Treasure Chest garnered far more than 100 subscribers, might not this one do the same - especially as it would be 'cheaper'? The more I think about this, the more I like it.

Could this really become possible? Running a successful print series, paying the bills, and having a month available for personal projects every second month? I'd better get my calculator out and run some of these numbers again ... there must be something I've overlooked!

Somebody pinch me - tell me what's wrong with this plan ... No, don't!


Following comment posted by: Serge on December 23, 2009 5:46 PM

Hello Dave,
If Van Gogh had access to internet and had an attractive website (like yours), he would have had success. Your own venture would not have been possible without the modern technology, so this is a wrong debate....
In any case, it is obvious you cannot live on 200,000Yen a month... On the other hand, I personally would prefer less prints but of bigger size than the "hanga" postcards. Oban may be too much in the current situation, so Chuban, even if more expensive would be a better fit.
One additional reason for this is that value of the prints may get higher over time if larger, thus possibly attracting additional collectors (not to mention speculators). When I show your prints to my kids, they tend to dismiss the small image as trinkets of lower value, vs. larger prints. This is a wrong perception of course, but nonetheless, I think you should factor this in your decision.

All the best........Serge

Following comment posted by: Jan Kellett on December 23, 2009 11:52 PM

Dave, I was going to suggest something along those line, but slightly different - do a print a month like your Treasure Chest (but maybe a bit more themed, eg animals, birds or whatever) and then another series of say 4 prints, bigger and more expensive, maybe dealing with a theme (say nautical) as it has been represented in 18th, 19th, 20th centuries, and the last one to be an original of your own work. That way you would be satisfying lots of different markets. When I started making books I was advised to decide how much money I needed to make and work back. It didn't quite work as health and life intervened, but it is another way of looking at it:-)
Best wishes,

Following comment posted by: Leslie on December 24, 2009 12:59 AM

Dave, do you offer single prints for sale? While I understand your concept of the series, as a buyer and not an artist, I have a large collection of block prints and prefer to buy only one or two prints from each artist so that I have a wider variety of styles, skills, & techniques represented. I also like to support lots of artists a little, as opposed to one artist a lot ;-) Would love to buy one or two of your prints, but more than that would not be possible for me. Just my thoughts on the matter.

Following comment posted by: Jennifer Martindale on December 24, 2009 3:01 AM

Have you ever thought of applying your skills to a contemporary take on the traditional themes? For example modern Tokyo beauties, seasonal landscapes with todays people and places etc. Your Japanese as well as the wider collectors could find these of great interest. I agree about wanting images larger than postcard size. Is there not perhaps a keen University student studying marketing that could take on identifying and selling your prints into a wider market as a project? Good fortune go with you.

Following comment posted by: Mark Mason on December 24, 2009 7:18 AM

I really like the Treasure Chest idea, Dave.
I'm sure there are a lot of people, like me, who can't afford 'big' prints, however much we'd like too. Smaller prints, once a month enable people on more modest incomes to collect a range of great prints. It enables us to budget for a little a month to go towards art, and I think that's great.
If your figures work out and you decide to go ahead, then count me in as a subscriber.

Regarding your comments on the value of an artist being measured by how much he sells, I'm not sure I fully agree. What a big, juicy worm of a subject to dangle in this pond. Too large for a message reply and more suited to an evening around a table, favourite drink in hand.

Following comment posted by: Jacques on December 24, 2009 8:02 AM

I double-checked your maths, and couldn't find any fault with them.

According to my calculations you would actually have a future revenue of about 230,000 yen a month, that is, IF you send out one Treasure-Chest like print to your subscribers every month of the year (by way of doing double-printings), IF you charge 25 US dollars per print, and IF you are able to get one hundred subscribers interested in this new adventure of yours.

So fortunately: no pinching required from where I stand!

From the list of ideas that you mentioned you could possibly work on in the off-months (instead of lying at the beach, and pretending you suddenly had become very rich by winning the lottery), here are my preferences, in that order:

  • (Utamaro books) : What a wonderful idea!
  • (Meiji stuff published by Daikokuya or Buemon.) : Yes, again a wonderful idea, at least if they are in the style of this print!
  • (shunga prints) : Yes: great!
  • (... another couple of books on the techniques of printmaking) : That, I'm sure, could further help to draw in people getting involved in doing their own woodblock printmaking (although I have to admit I am a sucker at that!)
  • (Expand the David's Choice eBook series) : Yes, please do!
  • (Jacoulet ...) : About reproducing that Paul Jacoulet print, however, I am not so sure. Although I find most of his prints to be absolutely brilliant in a technical sense, - and you may be surprised to hear this from me - most of them do not appeal to me in terms of design. Actually, apart from those five that I was able to obtain so far, for me there is only one left that I'd like to get, which can be seen here. After that, I do not intend to purchase any one of Paul Jacoulet's prints anymore.
  • (... my own 'original' printmaking - too close to realism.) : I am glad you're mentioning this yourself. As you well know, I'm much more in favour of the 'not so realistic (i.e., stylistic) designs'!

Following comment posted by: Dave on December 24, 2009 9:00 AM

Just a couple of quick one-point replies to start:

I personally would prefer less prints but of bigger size than the "hanga" postcards.
I agree about wanting images larger than postcard size.

I do see this point, and I myself feel it too - I want to make something substantial. Just how much freedom I have to do that though - considering the situation that surrounds us at present - is debatable. Do I 'hunker down' for the next couple of years, and stick with something that is more 'safe', or toss caution to the wind and try something on a larger scale (as I have been doing for the past four years ...)

Dave, do you offer single prints for sale?

I don't break the sets, no. But individual prints from 'out-of-print' series (Surimono Album #1, for example), are in my Mokuhankan shop.

About reproducing that Paul Jacoulet print, however, I am not so sure.

I see Jacques, that I wasn't clear about that. Although Jacoulet's copyrights fall into the public domain (here in Japan) in another year, I have no intention of making any reproductions. I simply pointed to that print as an example of the 'kind of thing' I would like to try making. Those Chinese prints that he published - and during the war years! - are astonishing creations.

Following comment posted by: Jacques on December 25, 2009 7:48 AM

Sorry for the misunderstanding!

But then of course I wonder: if it is not a Jacoulet design, what sort of design do you have in mind (using like fifty blocks and one hundred impressions for example)?

Following comment posted by: Dave on December 25, 2009 8:40 AM

Nothing at all, at this point. It's just that whenever I think of those prints, I get a huge desire to do something like that! I don't mean in the sense of 'climbing on top' and doing 'better'. Simply I would like to make something in that league. I think I've got the skills, and although finding wood and getting paper would be very much a problem, I think it could still be done ... given a good design.

How about something like this for example? She has beautifully embroidered clothing, with a kind of neckpiece made of transparent glassy objects hanging on top of it ...

(A Tangerian Beauty : ca. 1876, by José Tapiró Baró, 1830-1913.
Watercolor on paper, 66 x 47 cm)

Following comment posted by: Jacques on December 25, 2009 10:00 AM

Yes, I can see where you are heading now. Adapting the background of this photograph (I'd say by turning it into some kind of flat surface giving the woman a free-floating effect), a design like this would give you a wonderful opportunity to deploy all of the technical woodblock printing skills you have developed so far by using mica, blind printing, bokashi, and much more. And I firmly believe you'd come out with a beautiful print!

By the way: is this really a watercolour? That's almost unbelievable!

At the same time, the amount of work and material needed would be astounding, and I'm not sure potential subscribers would be willing (or able) to pay for the result, as reasonable I expect the price you would be asking for this undertaking would be ...

So where does this leave me: hell, I don't know!

Following comment posted by: Dave on December 25, 2009 10:06 AM

I'm not sure potential subscribers would be willing (or able) to pay for the result

Ah, but that's the point - this sort of thing wouldn't be a subscription print! Going by the 'plan' (hah!) I laid out above, I would have a subscription series running, but one that left me with 'free' time for other projects - projects that didn't make sense economically. So I would work on this print (for example) bit by bit during those free 'windows'.

Once it was done, I would put it into my Mokuhankan shop, priced at whatever seemed sensible for a single item. And maybe do it wholesale also through dealers, much like Paul Binnie does with his prints.

By the way: is this really a watercolour? That's almost unbelievable!

Well the people who own it say so ...

Following comment posted by: Dave on December 27, 2009 11:35 AM

As a bit of an aside to this discussion, the final story in this year's series of 'A Story A Week' touches on some of the points raised here. Please have a look ... the story is here.

(Or just listen to the .mp3 version ...)

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