This is going to be long.
A comment from a visitor to my plush head poll got me thinking about selling fanart, why people do it, and what it really means to be selling drawings of characters I don't own. When I started taking commissions in 2007 or so, I was mostly drawing people's fan characters. It was kind of a natural transition from the requests I had done for the 7 or so years before. I started taking commissions because I thought I could get paid for my art and it seemed like a reasonable step to take even though I never considered illustration to be my focus as an artist. It always nice when someone wants to pay you for your art no matter what art it is - really, it's always a great feeling. In the long run, it became a sustainable way to expand my Sailor Moon collection without having to negotiate and nag my husband about how much money I'd spent on toys (I will get to that later).
Around the same time as starting to take commissions, I started going to anime conventions. I really admired people who were in the Artist Alleys at conventions. They were artists getting noticed, selling their work to people who really liked it, and making money doing what they loved. They seemed to be having fun and making friends. I was excited to see work in the alley with which I thought my work was on par. It gave me the early inspiration that someday, maybe I could get a table in an alley and sell my drawings, too. But at the time I was so enamored with conventions that I didn't want to give up the freedom of wandering the con, seeing the costumes and attending the events. Being tied to a table all weekend seemed like such a bore even if you made a few bucks.
When I was considering my first Artist Alley at Anime Boston this year, I really wasn't sure what to expect and I had no idea what I should be bringing to sell. I was really nervous about it. I looked around at my friends and other artists I knew to see how they did things. I saw a lot of prints, mostly digital, and other small things like buttons, keychains, bookmarks and magnets. I didn't really know how to go about making buttons or keychains and I didn't have a laminating machine for bookmarks, so I decided I would just stick with what I knew.
For my first convention, I had mostly originals for sale and a few prints. The concept of prints was pretty foreign to me since I'd never sold copies of anything I had made. My work, being traditional art, has an original form on paper whereas digital art is all prints. (How can one own an original or a digital painting? Can one? One can own an only print, but it is still a print after all. Another topic for another journal.) I made four of five plushies to try and sell. In a last ditch attempt to have some inexpensive stuff for sale, I snagged some key chains from ACMoore and plopped some Sailor Legs into them.
My prices were too high for most things. I actually lowered them within an hour of setting up the first day because I realized my mistake after walking around the alley and seeing other people's prices. That weekend I made most of my money on clay items (mainly Dark Moon Earrings) and the raffle I had to win a custom plushie. I did sell a few originals with some painful (on my part) haggling and I sold a few prints (mostly Sailor Moon because that's basically all I had). I did two commissions at the convention and I booked one for later. I also booked 2 or 3 plushies. The keychains nearly sold out.
One lesson I learned was that commission rates do not apply for pre-made sales. I wasn't going to sell a hand made plushie for $55+ to some random congoer just passing by. I wasn't going to sell a full page colored pencil original for $75 (even if it took more than 20 hours to color). It was a struggle to even get people to understand they were looking at originals and not prints. "This is colored pencil!" I'd say, and they'd stare at it blankly for a while, then say, "Like, actually drawn on the paper?" Yes, actually drawn on the paper, one of a kind, the original, actual drawing. You figure there are enough people in the alley doing markers and stuff that people would get it, but time and time again I explained it to people in awe.
The other lesson I learned was that inexpensive things like stickers, key chains and the like would sell a lot faster than an original drawing of the same image. That's when I started to understand the pins and magnets; this was how people were making their money! It's not an art gallery, it's an anime convention. Get your head out of the lofty fine art bucket and into the quick and cheap one Sakky! These people don't want your ART they just want STUFF with your art on it!
Eventually I started feeling like it was probably a waste of my time to be pushing the original works. It was much easier to make a dozen prints of something and sell them for $5 each. I bought more key chains. Also: no more pre-made plushies. I learned that lesson and I had enough commissions in that department to not have the time before the next convention anyway.
For the next convention (Animazement) I skipped the deluge of original work and went straight to making oodles of prints, key chains, and stickers. I made extras of the prints I thought would sell well (Super Sailor Moon was popular at AB and sold out on the second day, so I thought perhaps more would be needed at AZ even if it was a smaller convention). Because AZ's rules on raffles were different, I couldn't rely on that to make much, so I decided to give away raffle tickets with any purchase. To make it easy for people, I had $1 stickers that they could pick up to get a raffle ticket.
The system worked. Per person, I made more at AZ than I did at Anime Boston. Prints and key chains and stickers were the way to go if I was going to be any good at this. So I started looking into getting nicer key chains and making better prints, MORE prints! MORE MONEY! MORE TOYS!
Can you see where this is going?
I got so wrapped up in how I could make more money at these conventions that I pretty much forgot what I was doing. What was I doing? Drawing a bunch of characters that I don't own and selling them willy nilly on any trinket I could slap them on.
I don't want to get started into the whole legality of fanart debate because I know it's a big messy pile of turd. But I do want to reflect on my motivations and my means because, right or wrong, I'm up to my eyeballs in it now.
I often read comments from people who are against the sale of fanart not necessarily on moral or legal grounds, but because they feel that artists should be able to stand on their own work to make money and not have to rely on someone else's reputation to sell their work. In theory I agree with this, but then again I run a dual life as an artist. I illustrate fanart for fun, but I make "serious" art too. And I sell it. For a lot more money. Fanart was a hobby and a fun way to pass time, but somewhere along the lines it's started to become a bit more than a hobby. Now it's a hobby with a goal: a dollar.
I do feel like I can and should get paid for commissions for people of their own characters, but I also feel like it's okay for me to get paid for drawing copyrighted characters on commission because it's my time and my work. I don't think it would always stand up as legally okay in all circumstances, but I don't seem to have too much of a moral issue with it. Maybe it's the culture of anime and manga that makes me feel this way, maybe it's because "everyone else is doing it." But I think I know that it's often technically wrong in the sense that I avoid as much as possible doing work of characters from notoriously legally heavy-handed syndicates like a certain mouse-mascoted company.
I try to justify it in various ways. The aforementioned Sailor Moon collection is a big one. "But all the money I make I spend on official merchandise! I'm supporting the industry!" I don't even know how that makes sense. I'm buying second and third (and seventeenth) hand from people on eBay and LiveJournal. it makes me feel good, but it's not really a justification.
Plus, having someone say or imply through my reading of their words that I am not an artist capable of selling my own work strikes an insulting cord with me. I think things like, "Well, they just don't understand that this kind of stuff is just a hobby and I'm actually a Serious Artist with Serious Work that I show and sell, and blah, blah, blah." No one cares. All they see is an over excitable Sailor Moon fan, mass producing her doodles and pushing them off to make money for herself. So is that what my art should be about now? Illustration has never been about being original for me, it's always been about the fandom. Do I care enough to change it? Do I even WANT to make original art in this field to try to sell and make a 'name' for myself past "that girl who draws a lot of Sailor Moon fanart"?
I don't even know.
I don't know what I'm doing anymore. But I do know that when I go to AAC this month I will still have Sailor Moon drawings and prints to sell, and I will still be asking people to pay me for work I've done on art of characters that I don't own. Why will I do it? Maybe because my morals or my artistic principals aren't strong enough to care. Maybe because I want more toys. (this) Maybe because I can't seem to figure out what else I would do. But I think maybe there might be something else I bring with me. Maybe a character I design myself. And maybe she will sell, and maybe that will make me very happy. And maybe I will see a new doorway, and maybe things will change.
Thanks for reading.