In the quotes used in the post below, both Johanna Drucker and Lucy Lippard point out that artists’ books “failed” as a democratic multiple not because they weren’t affordable, but because they weren’t accessible in terms of content. The “general public” could not understand the books. So then there are two kinds of accessibility we’re talking about here, and we need to be clear. We will call economic accessibility “affordability,” and we will call content accessibility just “accessibility.”
Affordability is definitely an issue, and though it can often be dealt with in concrete economic terms (this book cost this much money to make, so therefore the price is this much) those terms, strict as they are, don’t always give a result acceptable to the artist and/or the market. The books might end up costing more to make than people will pay for them, so the price has to be dropped in order to sell them. Or they might cost more to make than the artist/publisher wants to sell them for, and so the prices get lowered, oftentimes resulting in a non-existent or very low compensation for the time involved in making the book.
The NewLights low prices are a result of both those things. The books often circulate within a “literary” market, where small, handmade books are generally cheaper than trade books. Most people won’t buy them if they’re too expensive. So in order to get them to be bought by people (not just by collecting institutions) the price needs to be at a place that is easy to accept, that matches up with the audience’s idea of how much the books should cost. This is why I maintain a commitment to making books that will sell for $20 or less (not all the NewLights books, but most).
So if the artist/publisher wants to keep their work affordable they have two basic options: 1) figure out how to make making the work cheaper and less time-consuming. Depending on the kind of work this could compromise it considerably. 2) Subsidize production by having another job. This can compromise the work by placing serious drains on the artist’s time & energy. Having a second job (which one is the “real” job?) is probably the most common solution, the one that I have used since I finished my BFA. It is fairly effective—as long as one has lots of energy, determination, and focus. Most working artists do, because if they did not, the work just wouldn’t get made, whether they can afford it or not.
The trick is, I think, to make sure that the production-pricing-selling process doesn’t lock the artist into a cycle of diminishing returns, where each piece becomes more difficult to make than the last. Not only will that slowly bankrupt the artist, but it will also eat away at their spirit, causing them to burn out, pack it in, and sometimes stop making work period. That needs to be avoided, at all costs.