Bookbinders and Money: Inner Conflict

A recent discussion at the Facebook account of Huhu Hu (a bookbinder from Quzhou, China) has made me to analyze myself and to think about how I interact with my clients. It all started as a call for a bit of advice on repairs and restoration of a cloth-covered book (you should probably read that too), but soon we were talking about the rates and prices for bookbinding services.

Robert L. Angus, a bookbinder, and owner of the Octavia Book Bindery (Calgary, Canada), has put it very well:

The point is, artists will ALWAYS under-value their work, because they WANT the client to feel like they are getting a good deal, and because they are not convinced that the customers are willing to pay. But, if you set your prices, and stick to them, people will see the value in it eventually. What we do is a luxury business. If we undermine ourselves by charging anything less than luxury prices, our audience will never see the value in what we do.

Bookbinding is a rare art. Bookbinding is an exacting art. Bookbinding is detailed and FINE bookbinding is difficult. Set your prices accordingly.

This is exactly how I feel about my work. That’s exactly how I feel when I’m negotiating a price with a new client.

And then, I set a price twice as low as it really should be.

For a bookbinder in Russia setting the price has become even a trickier process lately. Two years ago, Ruble to USD exchange had plummeted almost twice. Now it stabilized a bit. However, everything imported (including many tools and materials) and all that travel, I like so much, became noticeably more expensive. However, the wages of the Russians have remained almost the same.

I’ve been able to raise prices on my workshops from 2500 rubles ($70 two years ago) to 3900 rubles ($60 today) for an 8-hour class. It seems to me that’s the highest price I can set at the moment.

It is almost the same with bookbinding work. My base fare for simple bookbinding and book repair is 2500 rubles ($40). It changed just a bit compared to the moment two years ago. However, even if I’d set a basic price at 2000 rubles, my potential customers would frown upon it, and most of them would decide not to use my services. The price seems unreasonably high to them!

To friends, who decide to order my services, I explain that even the simplest bookbinding job involves 2 or more working hours. I’m not ready to sell my hour cheaper than ten bucks (I’d make it twenty, really). That seems to be an explanation good enough. However, it is almost impossible to deliver that idea to a broader audience of customers.

For the more expensive box making or fine binding projects, I can charge my clients with $150-200. However, that seems like an absolute limit to me (or my clients). According to our Facebook conversation, looks like the situation is almost the same in China. I’m pretty sure it’s pretty similar in many other countries of Eastern Europe, or, say, South America.

I know there are professional binderies here in Moscow. To give an example, one of the binderies offers bookbinding courses, I decided not to go to, because it was cheaper to fly to Colorado for three weeks at the American Academy of Bookbinding. Prices vary a lot. However, it seems some people are more ready to pay $200-300 for services offered by a real bindery, not by a free agent like me.

Another quote from Robert’s comment:

To my clients, I have set a “Basic Binding” price of $85. Most simple repairs and rebindings in cloth are covered by that price. If the book needs to be resewn, or any other more detailed work, I’ll charge up to $300. If the book is to be sewn in leather, I start the prices at $200. Tooling costs much extra, and my books often go up to $500 to $700. I’ve become known for restoring old family bibles, which can go for up to $4000.

Looks like the “basic price” here in Moscow is half as much as in Calgary (at least my “basic price”). I’m not sure for the rest of Canada or the USA (I suppose it differs a bit depending on availability of bookbinding services and other things). However, I’m sure that prices in some Eastern European countries are even lower than in Moscow. Indeed, they are lower almost in all other Russian regions and cities, besides Moscow.

My other problem is that I tend to underestimate the amount of work. My recent book repair project appeared to take much more time than I’ve projected (like MUCH MORE). However, the price is already fixed. I think the reason is the same — I’m usually afraid that if I set a “true price” the client would go away.

It is always an inner conflict for me to find a balance between myself feeling right, setting a fair price, and making a client feel good. I know that bookbinding and book repair is an exceptional craft. Often it is even fine art.

Every time I set a lower price, I think: “OK, when I have a full schedule, I’ll be able to set a fair price for my work”. But then the other thought starts to haunt me: “What would I do with all my regular clients who are already used to paying half the price. Even not knowing that’s the half of the real price”.

A bookbinder really should set his or her prices according to the work complexity and hours spent on the project. I hope I would make myself to follow that principle. Someday =)

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