Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Hidden Costs of Storytelling

Storytelling seems to be a simple enough craft, doesn't it? All that's required is to learn a few stories, go out and tell them, right? As with many things that look easy on the surface, the truth is a different story. Every storyteller I know loves their work, and most do a certain amount of ree or cut-rate performances. But it costs money to be a storyteller, and that is why we must charge for what we do. Some expenses are apparent: having a vehicle, travel costs for getting to performances, producing CDs or publishing books, telephone, computer, and publicity materials such a business cards and brochures. But there are other costs that might not be as visible to the person asking for a free performance.

For example: to learn stories, one must find them. To find stories requires research and time. Time costs nothing except the loss of what might have been done with it. And where are the stories? In books, online in databases, in people's memories. Hidden cost: the price of books, online access and travel expense to visit people for interviews, time (even figured at minimum wage, it adds up to a large amount per story).

To tell stories, all one has to do is find an audience, stand up and talk. Not. Telling requires practice and even training to learn about all the possible ways to tell, problems that could be encountered, best practices, voice care, and time management to name just a few potential topics. Most storytellers who are serious about their craft will attend conferences and workshops, be part of online discussion groups, and buy (more) books on storytelling techniques. Hidden cost: the price of (more) books, conference registration fees, travel.

There is also the storyteller's wardrobe. I can, of course, simply wear whatever is in my closet. Some storytellers do. But I think that those who hire me expect me to look a certain way--like a storyteller. That doesn't mean elaborate costumes (although some wear them) but it does mean that I need specific items in my wardrobe for storytelling. And for various seasons and settings. For example, when telling for an autumn event, the weather might be cool and rainy, dead cold, or 90 degrees. I have to have appropriate clothing for all possibilities, and even pack an alternative set just in case conditions change or the venue shifts to another site (supposed to be outdoors but a sudden storm sends everyone into an overheated building). For Christmas season performances, I want to wear something a little dressy and some shade of red or green; for October, fall colors and a lot of black fit my wordrobe scheme. In summer, I try to select what I wear to go with the libraries' summer reading theme. It's the same as a work wardrobe for those working in more traditional fields, but those who hire performers might not realize that the performance wardrobe, at least in my case, is separate from the other clothing in the closet. Hidden cost: clothing I would not ordinarily purchase, including acccessories.

Some storytellers travel light, and I do too for some programs. For others (library summer reading programs come to mind) I like to bring a display and often I use puppets and other props for children's programs. I also bring my sound system, even if it might not be needed. It's better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Hidden cost: puppets and props, display items, portable table and table covers, sound system, and suitcases, tote bags and carts to haul it all.

House space, electronic equipment and furniture: my storytelling business takes up a lot of room in my house. I've bought cabinets, shelves and storage totes for my books and other materials. One room is about half storytelling stuff and the books spill over onto other shelves in the house as well. I bought a laptop so I can keep up with things while on the road and upgraded my cell phone to have internet access. Hidden costs: furniture I would not have needed otherwise, heating and maintenance of house space, and additional electronic equipment expense.

After reading this list, you might be thinking, why even do it if it costs so much? And you probably already know the answer. I love what I do and cannot imagine not doing it. And I would bet every artist and musician would give the same answer.


9 comments:

FOLKWAYS NOTEBOOK said...

Sue -- having had a business years ago I realize the hidden costs of doing business. But, like you say, folks that love what they do will not let that stand in their way. I bet you are an excellent storyteller! -- barbara

Granny Sue said...

I suppose this list is on target for most home businesses, Barbara. You'd be surprised at how often storytellers are asked to perform for free, though. We all do some, for causes we support, for friends or for local organizations, etc. I also cut my rates significantly from time to time when I know a place can't afford me but needs to hear stories. But I need enough other performances to cover my costs, and to make doing this worth the time, effort and expense.

I hope I am a good teller; it is something I work on every day :)

Priscilla said...

Excellent post, Granny Sue!

There's also the cost of health insurance and the fact that we self-employed pay higher taxes (nobody else kicks in for us, as an employer would).

Stories by Julie said...

Granny Sue,
Well said and very true right down to loving what we do.

Mark Goldman said...

Granny Sue,
(Posting this to FB too)
Very nice post! I agree that as artists, we all have costs that the average person or client doesn't see or understand, or feels are not as relevant as other providers of other kinds of services. There has been much discussion of this topic on several groups and list-serves on the internet. How do we respond to low-ball offers, or requests for freebies?

I have a slightly different approach (or response) when people seem to balk at my pricing. I simply say, "This is how I make my living."

If people think the fee is too much, depending on who the client is, I may just let it go, or I may counter with some other questions like:
“What do you want the people to learn or get out of this session?”
“What per-person value would you place on that objective?”
Telling to approximately 100 people for one hour would break down to $3 per person for a fee of $300. "Would it be worth $3 per person if they all walked away feeling good, having laughed and having learned how story can enrich their lives and help them communicate?"

These are just a few examples. I don't talk about what MY costs and expenses are. I only talk about what the VALUE to the client or their constituents is. If they still have difficulty with the fee, (or truly don’t have the cash in the budget) I may attempt to discuss if there are alternative ways that they could compensate me. NOTE: I rarely do gigs when they say, “You will get great exposure.” Exposure only gets you sunburned, or arrested.

The organization might have space that I could use for free for a workshop or seminar that I could charge for. They might have an in-house printing department that could print marketing material for me. They might have products or services that THEY sell that they could offer me in exchange for my services. I usually lead this brainstorming and I still maintain control of what I will or will not accept as compensation.

In the end, we all make individual decisions about who, what, where and HOW MUCH. I try not to price myself out of the market, but I also place a value on what I do. In last summer’s workshop, Elizabeth Ellis made us all repeat several times, “I am an artist, and what I do makes a difference!” This has become my mantra.

Sue said...

I'm grateful for storytellers like you. It's a wonderful legacy, and I hope it continues forever...

=)

Nance said...

I think any/all self-employment ventures are less profitable than we all would like to think. My husband and I were DBA an privately owned grocery store in the 1970s in a small community of 300+ souls. Every organization, school class, sporting event, town celebration committee asked/needed donations of cash or food. We were honored to help, and obligated (had 4 children in school) but it did cut down on the profit margin. And as you self-employed know, there was no health insurance, paid sick days or vacations. They were good times tho. Good days.

Storyteller John Weaver said...

Wonderful, thought-provoking reasoning--and may all the right eyes see it! I hear so many time each year, "we are a non-profit," but of course, I do the majority of my work for non-profits! And I do, as you do, donate or discount performances for worthy causes when I can. The thing is, though, we DO need to make a living, an no one appreciates being undervalued. Great post!

Mimi Foxmorton said...

I would love to add to your list....but I can't. Well done, luv!

"Not!" *hee-hee* Indeed!

Garb! hahahahahaha
My entire townhouse is a museum of garb and props and papers and books and....and....and........ ;)

But I wouldn't trade the opportunity to keep the spoken word alive......not for anything in the world!

Carry on..........

*hugs*
Mimi



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