I’m a Southerner, and we often speak in idioms or with phrases that have special meaning. You know something more is being said without vocalizing it when someone says “Bless his/her heart,” or “Oh, honey, it’s so sad”. That last one is usually followed by an awful story about someone else which should be a warning to you. Bless your heart. So here’s mine, for today: who wants to buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?
I just got back from my second Quilt Market, and spent some serious time discussing modern quilting and the industry with many, many people like Cristy over at Purple Daisies and her mom, Sharon Schamber, Ebony at LoveBug Studios, Sam at Hunter’s Design Studio (which is what originally got me thinking about this, when Sam wrote her post that started the We Are $ew Worth It campaign), and Maddie at BadAss Quilter’s Society, and I think it’s time to share some of the things that have really begun to make me think about where I’m going as a business. My word for 2014 is “forward”, after all.
Ebony over at LoveBug Studios has already addressed the new credentials at Quilt Market this year, and why they are a good thing. Before I go any further, I think that she’s totally right in her assessment, and it applies most particularly where the “modern quilter” is concerned. I want to expand on something that Ebony discussed, particularly about making things for a company in exchange for goods. You may have noticed that there is a dynamic in our modern quilting world between bloggers and various companies (and smaller or local companies too, but more on that in a bit) where the blogger gets sent a line of fabric in exchange for making something and writing about it on the blog. The idea is that the blogger gets attention and free fabric, and the company gets a “shout out”.
I will be the first to admit that I have done this. Not often, but enough to know that while there can be a positive benefit (supplies for my book, new-to-me products that I wouldn’t prioritize to buy on my own, but which I want to try out so I can provide things that I think are best for my projects that I plan on selling), it’s still a slope that can slide on you.
We all know this story, because it happens all the time: there are quilt bloggers to whom a company sends out free fabric, for which the cost to the company is minimal. The blogger then spends a great deal of time making something out of that fabric. Let’s say a minimum of 2-3 hours for design, 5-10 hours for piecing, and 5-10 hours for quilting. That’s a MINIMUM of 20 hours committed to a project. The company receives a huge return on investment, with that person doing all of the work for free. That blogger got a bump in her traffic, along with lots of fluffer comments that made her or him feel good, but oh honey, it’s so sad…those poor bloggers are mistaking the accolades of the public for money, can you believe it? But honey, it’s so sad, because modern quilters are all about getting “free” stuff, and giving away their work for free. And those comments that make a person feel good? They may be sincere, but they’re also part of the problem. They aren’t money, and unless they’re buying fabric from that blogger, that blogger won’t see a percentage of sales due to his or her hard work. Bless their hearts.
In all seriousness, though, these companies are making money off her work and her designs when people buy fabric from them to make something that SHE has created, and there is a good chance many of these bloggers won’t see a dime of that beyond the free fabric they’ve received. It’s not a fair trade.
You are doing yourself and others–professional or not–a disservice by giving away your work for free. This may sound harsh, but the reality is that we are devaluing our work and receiving less than a living wage because of it, and there is no way to maintain a viable business. If we do not start this conversation among ourselves, being open and honest about what our expectations must be AS PROFESSIONALS, then we are dooming ourselves as business people. Lest you think that this is just something that happens with big companies, it happens in local shops as well. Think long and hard about giving your work away for free so you can “get out there”. Your work still matters and still has monetary value. Don’t be a sucker, and give yourself the value you have earned with the time and money you have put into honing your art and craft.
This is the dark underbelly, and it’s probably scaring the crap out of some of you. To be honest, it scares the crap out of me. I don’t think it has to be this way, but it’s going to take a concerted effort to discuss it amongst ourselves, to keep discussing it, and also to learn from the quilters who worked in this industry before us; these women and men have things to teach us about getting on. They have contracts, they have protected themselves, and they also have made mistakes that we need to learn from, which only happens through talking with them.
I also want to point out that we in the quilt world are not the only ones who suffer from our egos driving our decisions. I really recommend reading some of the articles below and watching the video. Spend some time thinking long and hard about giving away the milk for free.
No!Spec is a website for graphics designers who face similar problems (“spec work” stands for “speculative work”, and is work you do for free, that may or not be purchased after you’re done. You can see the problems.)
I think we all need to read the book by Mike Monteiro of Mule Design called Design Is a Job, and there’s an excellent review of it right here at The Designer’s Review of Books, which I think you should read, too. You should really watch this video of Mike Monteiro putting it out there. Language is NSFW, but seriously, *make* it your job to see this. And then watch it again. And take notes.
And then think about your business and the decisions you need to make to make it a viable income for you and any dependents you may have. I know I am.
This post is going to be in its own category “Why Buy the Cow” and “Value Your Work”. I’m not sure if this will be a series, but I really believe it’s time for us modern quilters to start talking about this, often and openly, especially since so many of us are seriously considering making this a home-based business, or have already done so. I also want to add that I do know several bloggers and businesses who can and do make this work for them equitably, where the exchange between parties is reasonable and both parties benefit, and I hope they add their thoughts in the comments. I think, as Ebony says in her post, that in instances like this it is even more important to examine the give and take of transactions like this. It is also important to think about whether or not you should be a business and what that means for you and for those who are working to make a living from quilting. I am leaving open comments on this post, but please maintain a positive and supportive atmosphere. It’s a HUGE topic, and I have only covered a tiny portion of it. Thanks for reading, y’all.
ETA here are some additional links that have been shared in the comments, from other souces:
Added 5/19/2014: “Should Designers Be Paid for Their Services” at Craftypod (note the date on that post, friends)
Added 5/20/2014: Quilting in America 2010 (instant download PDF) If you don’t want to download this, essentially it breaks down the different aspects of the quilt industry by where people spend their money, and their demographics. In 2010, the quilting industry brought in $3.58 billion.
Added 5/20/2014: Part of the problem stems, I think, from the “heyday bubble” of blogging, which reached its height about 3 years ago. Many modern quilters read and saw the big names of people who managed to monetize their blogs with ads and posts, and think that is the way it works, always. This article on DesignSponge talks about just this problem, and I think those of us quilters who have dreams of using our blogs as a monetized platform (and I don’t make $ to speak of, and if I do, I disclose my monetized links) need to consider what this means for us.