Negotiating Your Prices

A visual artist who has had only a moderate number of sales and for whom each sale is a “big event” is likely to have a hard time negotiating higher prices and better deals. What can you do to make sure that you are ready to negotiate your prices?

Naturally fearful that if he doesn’t accept the proffered amount or deal exactly “as is” that he might lose the opportunity, he may agree to even outrageous offers, for instance that he take 20 percent of his usual price or do five paintings for the price of one. I have clients who have been offered precisely these sorts of deals, usually accompanied with the pitch that “being hung in this location will do wonders for your career” or “if you let me have this for a deeply discounted price I’ll send lots of business your way.”

Negotiating is a skill but it also a feature of the practical, psychological and cultural landscape that an artist inhabits. Some people need to drive prices up or down for psychological reasons, because, for instance, they frame everything in terms of winning or losing and to accept a price as offered feels like losing. You see this all the time on the television reality shows, as in the case of the “house flipper” who reflexively demands that every sub-contractor work for less than he or she usually gets. Similarly, the cultural “game” in a flea market is not the same “game” as in a grocery store: at the flea market you bargain, at the grocery store you do not.

Do you see the selling of art as more the one or more the other?

In addition there are the myriad practical matters that factor into each unique equation: “If I sell this painting for 50 percent of my usual price, that still pays for my studio space for the next three months, so although I may be doing myself some harm by undercutting my prices, at least I can pay my studio rent.” One artist will refuse to undercut his prices, reckoning that in the long run that is the wisest course; another artist will opt to pay his rent.

Putting all these important matters to one side, when you do want to negotiate, how should you go about doing it? First, you want to access that part of you that is not afraid to lose the deal. In fact, you are not at very much risk, as you can always agree to the original price or the original arrangement. If a potential collector asks if she pay $1,500 for the painting you have priced at $3,000, you can take a hard line and say that it is $3,000 and that is that; or you can negotiate without any particular risk of losing this sale, as you can always sink to $1,500 and “give in.” So, first, do not fear losing the deal. Let pop out of your mouth a figure that you are comfortable with — in this case, for example, “I can tell how much you love this painting and I really want you to have it, so I am happy to offer it to you for $2,500.”

Where do we think this negotiation will go? Our life experience tells us that the end point will probably be $2,000. Next she will say $1,750, you will say $2,250, and the two of you will settle on $2,000. So another aspect of negotiating is to hone your ability to quickly gauge where a negotiation is likely heading, so that you can consider in your own mind whether that end point will feel satisfactory to you or not. As soon as she says $1,500, you might get in the habit of thinking, “If I counter with $2,500 we will probably end up at $2000. Will that be a good outcome?” If that feels like a decent-enough outcome, you can allow your $2,500 to “sound flexible,” but if you feel that you must stake out $2,500 as your end point, then you make it “sound firm.”

There are many additional wrinkles that you might need to take into account at such times, for instance any contractual arrangements you’ve entered into with galleries about holding to your price, the singular importance (or lack of importance) of this buyer to your art life, your sudden, even urgent need for money, and so on. In one situation you may feel it imperative to refuse to negotiate, in another situation you may find yourself negotiating in a friendly and equitable manner, in a third you may feel a lot of internal pressure to accept whatever is being offered. Each negotiation will have its unique psychological, cultural and practical features.

If I am offered a book advance, I will ask (through my agent) for more and, by asking, almost always get a little extra. If I am asked to speak somewhere and the venue quotes a price lower than my usual speaking fee, I will always come back with a middle-ground figure (unless I actually don’t want to go, in which case I will stand behind my stated fee, which adamancy often prompts the venue to pay my full fee). When I get a book contract to examine, I will ask for six or seven changes —including, for instance, more author’s copies and a higher royalty rate than is being offered — and, as a rough rule, get two or three of them. I can’t recall ever being told, “How dare you negotiate!” It is expected; it is almost always better than just capitulating; and you ought not to fear it, even if you are holding every sale as precious.

If negotiating isn’t in your repertoire of behaviors, practice with a buddy. Have him play the role of a gallery owner offering you a contract or a collector asking for a significant discount. Have him play his role hard, medium and soft. Try out different responses. See what buttons get pushed in you; get feedback on your negotiating skills; and get better with practice. Add the skill of negotiating to your professional repertoire.

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