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KNOWING YOUR OWN WORTH: setting prices and why I never haggle out on the Smut Stand

Getting set up on Grassmarket in Edinburgh. Photo by Marc Seestaedt, getting

Getting set up on Grassmarket in Edinburgh. Photo by Marc Seestaedt.

I saw an article the other day, about a guy with a typewriter who sets up at a couple of different places in New York State and writes short stories for people. He had a tip jar and a sign that said, "10-cent stories."

I was conflicted. On the one hand, I always like to see reminders that I'm part of a tradition, adjacent and intersecting with the street typists of Mexico and India, a tradition that is also increasingly being accepted as a street art form. The literary busking community, as it were. Most of the year it feels SO LONELY out there. I like to know there are other people doing the same kind of weird shit.

On the other hand, when I saw this writer's advertised/suggested rate—TEN CENTS—I wanted to tear my hair out and shriek like an irritated three-year-old.

This happens so often, in so many artistic fields, this ratcheting down of the art's market value thanks to hobbyists and beginners not asking for a damn thing, relatively speaking. I've seen it in mainstream writing, burlesque, photography, you name it. Beginners start out low because either they think their work isn't worth more, or because they know that it is, but they want to low-ball their competition and get a foot in the door. And hobbyists, bless 'em. They're just out to have a good time, they do it because they love the work, they feel a calling, money's not what it's about, man, there are way more important things than money.

I daresay there are, but not when you need money.

One could argue, of course, that if one needs money, then surely there are more stable and lucrative fields to go into than literary busking. Yes, of course there are, if you haven't already been out of the mainstream job market for over six years, engaged in such disreputable "professions" as phone sex and Fringe theatre. I hate it when people actually say things like this to me in person: "You're such a good writer! You could be doing better things!" I believe that you can look at most people doing something for money and you can assume that this is their best choice, made with the information and resources available to them at the time. I want to accord people the dignity of this assumption, that they have considered their options and this is what is working for them right now, for reasons I may not know or understand.

One could also argue—and I have seen discussions veer in this direction—that taking money for this work dilutes the value of the work, that somehow handling filthy lucre and typewriter keys with the same smutty fingers muddies the outcome, and we should be doing it for love of the art alone. This is patent bullshit. I love what I do out on the Smut Stand, but love does not pay the rent, nor is it accepted in major grocery and department stores.

So I look at this writer and I grit my teeth. I wish I knew what his pitch sounded like, if he asks for tips or suggests a donation level, or what. I have heard my New Orleans poet-comrades pitch their product, and while they don't ask for money up front, as I do, they do generally have a suggested donation range. I respect that. Even though they have way more spiritual/artistic detachment than I do, they still understand the worth of their work in societal terms.

So do I. God, do I ever. I tried the post-production tip route to start with, and dumped that after two days, when I had customer after customer who wanted the thrill of talking about sex with a woman, and then never came back for the finished product. From there on out, it was always payment up front, cash on the typewriter table. I have adjusted my rates just about every summer. I have trained myself to utter the prices smoothly, no stutter or upward uncertain lilt at the end of the sentence. And when it happens that people repeat, in a disbelieving tone, the rate I gave them, I simply say yes, and close my mouth and wait, staring at them. If the next word that comes out of their mouth is "but…" I interrupt: You're not trying to haggle with me, are you? They will rush to deny it, and I simply say, Good, because I don't haggle.

Once in a while I will give away a warm-up piece of micro-smut to an earnest gutter-punk, because they meet my eyes and their gaze is clear and their soul seems to sing out at the prospect. Occasionally I will swap a piece with a fellow sidewalk typist, when business is slow and I've seen their work and respect their attitude and might as well have someone else's sex life for a prompt, to keep the typewriters rattling, rather than my own.

But in general… I set my price relatively high, and I don't haggle. i know the intrinsic worth of my work. It is worth more than I can charge. So it is also accurate to say that I know the market value of my work, and while I think that's still lower than it should be, it is definitely worth more than a dime.

*****

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