A reader commented on my last post, curious: "what is it about the rising prices in the book art world, that reduces one's interest is trading?" I wrote that I had "stopped thinking" about trading, and when I wrote that line I meant that I had forgotten all about it. I'm happy when the trade is a good one. But I thought the reader brought up interesting questions: Why did I forget? How do the rising prices have an impact on trading?
It's a risk when you ask someone to trade with you. And you are put on the spot when someone asks you to trade with them. It takes energy and thought. Questions lurk under the surface. You stop to evaluate these various uncomfortable questions: are you working at the same skill level? do the books seem to have taken a similar amount of time to make? are they both inventive and interesting? do either of you rely on sales of your work to make your living? how many copies are there? do you price your books similarly? And the basic questions: do you like the artist's work and do you want to own a part of it? Sometimes the answers aren't clear.
There is a risk and a cost in trading. Will it be worth it? There may be an assumption that the labeled price is what a book is worth. That high numbers equal high quality is not, unfortunately, always the case. But the numbers seem to be generally what people look to for guidance. Which might make the professional book artist pricing books for more than say, $150 or even $1500, less likely to want to trade, is that s/he may be fearful that it won't be an equal trade. The artist also may not be interested because s/he needs the sale of the book for income.
When I began making books in college I wanted the work to be accessible, to have art accessible to regular folk, so I priced it extremely low: a hand bound, multipage, letterpress book, perhaps with illustrations, for about $15 in today's dollars. Can't make any kind of living doing that. Can't hardly pay for your materials or your time, let alone your art. I eventually felt comfortable pricing in the $45-$65 range (about $80-115 of today's dollars). And I still prefer those price points under $100 for my simple folded or sewn or glued editioned works (multiple copies of the same book). My books stayed at a lower price for a long time, and I traded more often then.
As prices rose, I found I couldn't ask to trade because while I kept my books low, other artists' books went up. I saw how it might look unequal to them. The stakes seemed higher. As the field grew, many of the books themselves became more elaborate. (To me the analogy is that these more elaborate books are like novels, while I make the art equivalent of the poem and short story). Eventually, I raised my editioned book prices and also began making more complicated, one-of-a-kind box projects that I price around $750-$1250, but each is unique and hard to part with; the price somehow justifies the loss.
Having watched art galleries that featured book art close because they just couldn't make enough on those $80 books*, I understand why prices have risen to the $500-$5000 range. (Pricing books higher to gain respect or so that book art will be taken seriously, or to stay with one's peers is, I think, a related but separate issue.) Gallery owners are totally happy selling the higher priced books: galleries generally yield 50-60% of the sold work to the artist anyway, and it leaves them with a profit that might even help sustain their rent and operating costs. That's their business. Of course it is.
A couple years ago, a book artist remarked that $125 was the "sweet spot" for her, when she would almost always buy a book she was interested in. But what has happened is that book artists—some of the best buyers of book art—are priced out of the art market. This is where trading just might come back in.
Islam Aly and I traded books that we normally price in three digits, and we were both happy about it. It worked out. So I feel hopeful.
*during the 1980s and 1990s, these California galleries/stores existed solely to sell book art: Artworks in L.A.; Media in S.F.; Califia in S.F.