Time to Regroup ...
Each year in the spring issue of the newsletter, it is usual for me to include a few 'Report' type stories - one on recent media coverage, one describing the annual exhibition that was held in January, and one reporting on the previous year's business results.
You've already seen the first of those, but for the other two, it seems perhaps better to combine them this time. It's not that there is nothing to report on those two topics - it's that the reports can be summed up very concisely: both the exhibition, and last year's business, were pretty much a disaster.
The exhibition was the nineteenth annual event, but the first one in which no new subscribers at all asked to collect my prints. Luckily, a half-dozen previous subscribers came to the show and let me know they would like to join the new series, and a couple of former collectors also placed orders for back-number prints, so I did not come home at the end of the week totally empty-handed, but there is no question that it was quite a disappointment.
The problem - again - was lack of publicity. For the past four or five years now, I have pretty much struck out with the media at exhibition time. Any number of times during the year I get magazine stories, or chances to appear on TV programs, but these don't bring in new collectors. For that, I need crowds at the exhibitions, and the only way to bring in crowds is to get enthusiastic media coverage. It is of course totally out of the question financially for me to purchase advertising for the exhibition, so all I can do is send out plenty of promotional material to media outlets, and then hope that they will 'bite' and cover the event. But as I said, this year again I received next to no coverage, so the gallery was mostly deserted through the week.
The opening Sunday was an exception, as this is the day that many of the regular collectors come, and it was very enjoyable. Surrounded by supporters; challenged by questions; if only every day could be like that!
The room in the Kotsu Kaikan costs just about 9,000 yen per hour to rent, so the rest of the (very quiet) week was a fairly frustrating time, highlighted only by the occasional visit from one of the collectors or supporters.
After getting home from Yurakucho and cleaning everything up, the next job waiting for me was to finish the bookkeeping from the previous year, in order to prepare for filing my tax return.
I knew, of course, that the numbers were not going to be anything to write home about, but I was not really prepared for just how bad it was. The graph here (click it for an enlargement) tells the story in a single glance. (vertical scale is 1,000's of yen)
After a number of very successful years following the completion of the long Hyakunin Isshu series, my print sales income has gone into freefall, and the numbers for this past year have been nearly identical to those for 1993, about which I wrote in this newsletter 14 years ago, "It has been a long and difficult year."
This chart shows the details; sales income was far lower than the previous couple of years, and was completely wiped out by business expenses, taxes and insurance. As you can see from the bottom line, I myself had no effective income during the year, and only managed to pay for groceries and suchlike through the constant postponement of paying other bills.
Creditors and helpers have been - for the most part - understanding of the situation, and there has actually been very little stress along the way. At the moment, I have a few unpaid bills on my desk, but nothing dramatic, and other than my quite manageable mortgage (at only 2.3%), I have no debts.
But at this point there are obviously two questions that need to be addressed: (1) what has caused this slide? and (2) what am I going to do about reversing it?
The first question is easily answered. During the years of steady income on that graph, I was making prints that were of interest to many potential collectors, and which were within my ability to get out the door on a reasonable schedule.
This 'slump' began two years ago when I took on the scroll project, which fit neither of those two criteria. I suspected when I took it on that it was 'not for everybody', and I was right. I suspected that it would be a difficult project to complete, and I was right.
Looking back now, it was perhaps not the best idea to immediately follow that complex project with one even more difficult and complex - the 'My Solitudes' series. Perhaps 'Hanga Treasure Chest #2' would have been a more practical choice! But what's done is done, there's no backing up, and now here I am, in rather deep water!
As things stand at present, the Solitudes series is about 1/3 subscribed; I am making 200 copies of each print, and there are currently 76 subscribers. Based on how long it has taken me to produce the first four prints in the series, it seems as though I should be able to issue another five or so during this coming year.
On top of that there will be a smattering of sales of back number print sets, and there are also still some people working their way through collections of the Hyakunin Isshu poetry series. Mokuhankan print sales helped me a great deal this past year, and will hopefully continue to be an important part of the picture.
But when I add up all these things, for an estimate of the prospective income for this coming year, things still don't look good. Something has got to change.
Well, the thing I would most like to change is the '76 subscribers' that I just mentioned; I'd like it to become '200'. That would solve all the problems! Unfortunately though, that's easier said than done. About all I can do at this point is continue to try and create interesting prints; if I succeed in that, then the prints and books will eventually fly away to find good homes ... but that is for the long term.
Another thing that would help a great deal would be an expansion in the Mokuhankan catalogue. There are actually quite a few people who have purchased all the prints there, and who have let me know that they are just waiting for more to appear, so that they can order them! But with neither time to work on such prints myself, nor money with which to order them from other craftsmen, I can't easily move that publishing project forward at present.
So what to do? With my days eaten up by the very time-intensive printmaking work, and absolutely no financial resources available for any kind of new investment, how on earth can I improve my situation?
Well ... all is not lost! I can indeed identify a few areas that I think can be worked on.
The first of these is the Japanese side of my internet website. More than half of last year's income came through internet connections, but almost all of that was from the English side - from overseas. A few years back, purchasing things over the internet was not common in Japan, but that has changed, and many people are now comfortable with using their computers this way. I have not kept up with these changes though, and as a result, am missing out on quite a bit of potential business.
So I have spent many long evenings over the past few weeks programming and building a much more useful and attractive Japanese web presence for my prints, including a shopping facility that includes both my own print sets and the individual Mokuhankan prints.
The new website (in Japanese only) can be found at http://mokuhan.com ... a domain name which is the direct translation of woodblock.com, my long-established English site.
In addition to the new site itself, I have established a new affiliate program to go along with it (and with my English-language Mokuhankan site also). Anybody with a blog or website of their own can run small ads that I have prepared, and which carry an affiliate code. When a potential customer visits my site after clicking on one of these ads, my software recognizes where they came from, and if this person makes a purchase, I pay a commission fee to the person hosting the ad.
It's not very 'big business', but I'm hoping that it can grow bit by bit, and perhaps become an important way to help bring more visitors to the site.
Now these improvements are all very well, but they can only help put food on my table if they are successful at moving prints out of my storage drawers!
And some of my drawers are so full! In the years immediately following the completion of the Hyakunin Isshu poets series, I did a complete re-printing of the entire set, and - as I mentioned above - some people are collecting these one by one. But it has been many years now since I received any new orders for these prints, and it has become painfully obvious that my policy of accepting orders only for the complete set of 100 is completely impractical.
I like making beautiful prints, but if they just end up sitting in my drawers, then there isn't much point. So, after quite a bit of internal debate, I have decided to open up that series, and let people select their favourite poets.
Here's how it will work: the prints will be available as singles, in sets of ten, or of course as a complete set of 100.
- - single prints are mounted on stiff paper, packaged in clear envelopes, and will be 20,000 yen each.
- - sets of 10 have the prints mounted in acid-free folders and stored in a latched case with slip cover. I created 10 such sets, each with a balance of different types: 1 emperor, 2 court ladies, 1 priest, and 6 courtiers (3 standing, 3 seated). The price for each of these sets is 150,000 yen (15,000 per print). If you prefer, you may mix and match the poets to create your own sets - but you must follow my pattern of types: 1/2/1/6 as described above.
- - of course the full set of 100 poets is still available for purchase. The prints are mounted in acid-free paper folders, in the same latched cases, 10 prints to each case. The price for the set is a million yen (10,000 per print).
I think these policies should provide protection for the people who have collected these prints in past years, by not underselling them, and will help finally spread these prints out where they can be enjoyed by as many people as possible. Purchase information for these prints is here.
I would like to emphasize that although this story has plenty of 'bad news' about my finances, I am in no way beaten down by my current temporary circumstances! I'm still making a living purely as a printmaker, and when one considers that as a 'new artist' I have in my first year already sold more than 300 of my original prints, I think that is quite a respectable accomplishment.
But look at this - I've used up nearly the whole issue talking about money and business, and have said nothing at all about the new prints! Take a look at the back cover of this newsletter to see the latest one ... isn't it beautiful!