How Much to Charge for a Puppet?
Is it double the cost of the materials? Minimum wage? Artists have always had trouble pricing their work. Part of the reason is because it uses the other side of the brain. From a creativity standpoint, a business mindset and an artist mindset couldn’t be more different for most people.
But having a little bit of both is important to a successful artist instead of a starving artist. How much does a puppet cost? We will cover all of this and more.
In the Puppet Nerd Facebook group I asked if anyone had any questions about pricing their puppets. There were a ton of great responses and I want to give some advice that’s worked for me and some recommendations that I think will work for other people that might be in a similar situation.
If you disagree with something, that’s okay! But I would hope that you disagree and respond in a way that furthers the conversation. I’d love to hear about it.
How To Figure Out What Your Time Is Worth
The first question that came up was “how do you figure out what your time is worth?”, or in other words, “what your hourly rate as a puppet builder?” Is it based on experience? I think experience can be a big factor. One of the biggest mistakes I see a lot of new puppet builders do is they sometimes overvalue their time.
That’s where the debate kind of gets sticky because people are such sticklers on what they think their time is worth. I think it comes from the idea of how most people are paid in jobs they had in the past and growing up. There’s so many jobs in the world that are paid hourly. If you worked at a fast food restaurant or department store, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a busy day or a slow day, you get the same amount of money.
How long it takes for you to make a puppet? If something takes a long time is that because it was actually a more intricate and tedious of a task? Or is it taking you longer because of a learning curve on new techniques you are trying to figure out. That’s where the skill comes into play.
Puppets take a lot of time to make, a lot of buyers seem to think it just we just slap it together using a “puppet building kit”. That is not the case. There are a lot of sourcing of materials and hidden expenses we have as puppet makers that are not obvious to the average person.
Another thing to think about is about how speed affects value. Does working faster add value or decrease value? You might think more hours should cost more.
But if you were at a restaurant you wouldn’t think that. What do you think has more value? Waiting two hours for your food or waiting 20 minutes?
Having a quick turnaround can add a lot of value if you are able to maintain high quality. Graphic designers are a great example of this. If a graphic designer delivers their design to a client and the client asks how many hours they put into it, that makes me wonder what the client values.
Is it in the hours the artist spent or is it in the final product? Would spending more time make it more valuable? Maybe. But we don’t typically think that at a restaurant. If a cook is taking hours and hours to dish out your meal, you don’t think, “Who they must be putting a ton of care into making my meal.”
No. We think something must be wrong, or even that they forgot about us.
Now, that’s not to say that our time isn’t valuable, if anything this is an argument that our time is even more valuable. All the years of training and practice of our craft are the hours they are paying for. That is the time we spent that makes it possible for us to work as efficiently as we do. This is reflected in a higher rate.
At the end of the day, graphic design is different from puppet building. There is that golden amount of time you need to spend on making a puppet that is unavoidable. This is because of the physical hands on nature of building anything with your hands. Sewing, carving, and gluing take time.
If someone claims to have made a professional puppet in an hour, how good can it really be? It’s just not enough time. You need to discover what the appropriate amount of time is for your skill level. And this will change over time.
On the other hand, if someone claims they put a hundred hours into making a puppet and the result is just a fur tube with arms… then I would highly question their skill level. Learning these building skills takes time, if you are learning basic skills on the job, that time is less valuable (but still has value).
An experienced puppet build has a good idea of how long a project will take them to complete. That is something you only figure out by making a lot of puppets. If you’re still questioning how long a puppet will take to make based on looking at a design, then that is likely a sign that means you need more experience which you get by building more puppets.
MANY people accidently overvalue or undervalue their work. Unfortunately, there is a difference between what your time is worth and what you think your time is worth. If no one is buying your work, then the price is too high.
If you are getting a ton of work and can’t keep up, you are not charging enough. At the end of the day, regardless of how much time you put into it, your work is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.
Calculating Your Hourly Rate
To find a starting point on what your time might be worth, I have a little experiment you can run. I call it “The eBay Test”. Here’s what you do.
Make a puppet and make sure to keep track of the hours it took to make it and material cost. When you are finished, list it on eBay. I recommend setting the auction to 5 days and make the starting price equal to the cost of the materials.
Then be sure to share the link on all social media sites that you use. For your own sanity, try not to watch the auction, it can be stressful. Generally, 30% of the bids will come in the first hour and 70% come in the last hour anyway.
At the end of the auction, take that total, subtract the material cost and divide the remainder by the number of hours you spent. If it’s a number you are happy with, CONGRATULATIONS! But, most people will have a disappointing number.
But hey, this number could be a fluke, for best results you should do this test 5 times and take the average as a starting rate as a middle ground of what to charge for the style of puppet you make. Be sure not to post all 5 at the same time. I would spread them out by at LEAST a month.
Puppets for Commercial Use or Personal Use?
What is the puppet for? There are different rates for different clients. This may sound strange, but it is the truth.
It almost sounds dirty and not fair but it is actual standard business practice. How the puppet will be used affects the price.
Graphic design a great example for this again. Let’s say the artist is designing a logo for a small “mom and pop” coffee shop around the corner from their house. The rate for that logo is likely to be very different from the price given to a place like Starbucks. A huge chain coffee shop that has franchises locations all over the country.
Generally speaking, the logo for a local coffee is less important than the logo for a huge brand like Starbucks. What’s most important to a big brand is customer awareness. Being identified anywhere in the country with that familiar logo is a pivotal part of their business.
For a local coffee shop, it’s likely that the most important aspect of their business is also awareness, but that’s often not done with a logo on a local level. It’s being involved in the community, and sure a logo can help with that, but it’s not the reason most people are coming.
Point being, the right logo for a big company can translate to major financial returns, but for a local coffee shop a really good logo is more of a “nice to have”. Designing a logo for a huge company would probably pay thousands and thousands of dollars because of the potential gains for the company. A local shop would probably pay just a few hundred dollars, if that.
How Does this Relate to Making a Puppet?
If I am making a puppet for a television show or any commercial use, the production company will make a LOT of money off of this character. But if I’m making the puppet for an individual, it’s likely they will be using the character to make an audition reel or to practice their performance craft. In a way you are charging for the potential, which can be hard to gauge.
There is also an in-between, and that’s a self produced show pilot (often a young filmmaker). An independent film is going to have a different rate since these situations often have a small to zero budget.
Should you work on an independent film? Trust your gut. If it feels right and you can take the hit on low to no pay, do it. But you can still arrange the deal it in a way that could result in future profits.
Always research your client, sometimes you are lucky and there’s a lot of information about them and their past work, but sometimes you’re not lucky and have to make a judgment call.
An independent film can have potential, so it is important to negotiate terms. I like to arrange it so that if the show gets picked up as a series, that I would get paid on the back end. I also like to ask for the right of first refusal on rebuilding the puppets for future projects. If the show is redone with a bigger budget, it’s not uncommon for the puppets to be rebuilt after the show gets picked up.
If the project gives you a good feeling, sometimes it’s okay to take the risk. I’ve only been burnt once or twice, but a few times I put myself out there and it turned into really great opportunities later on.
Don’t Sell Puppets!
If you are planning on making puppets and selling them, I would not recommend that. Puppets DON’T sell. If they did you would see WAY more puppets for sale at toy stores. Instead they tend to be on one rack pushed to the back of the store.
What you DO want to do is custom builds for clients. That is different from “selling puppets’ ‘. That is where the artistry is, and that is where the money is.
Furniture is a great example for this. Custom, hand made furniture will be at least ten times more expensive than furniture from a big box store. It’s basic supply and demand.
If you sell puppets that means you have a stock of puppets, the more you have the less they are worth. When you are making a custom puppet, that means it is “one of a kind”, or in other words… PRICELESS.
If you have hundreds of people asking you for a puppet, then you are not charging enough. And if you have nobody asking you for a puppet then you are charging too much.