Why I Must Charge People Fees for Their Own Art

January 25, 2012 | 14 5 min read

I sell rocking chairs. I love the curve of the rockers, the feel of the wood, the stain, the spindles, the splat. America wouldn’t be America without the rocking chair. I sell them because I love them.

Truth be told, I don’t sell very many of them. People don’t want to buy rocking chairs anymore. I can’t explain this. Rocking chairs seem to be as useful now as they ever were, as enjoyable as they are essential. I don’t understand why there isn’t one — or seven, or twelve — in every home. Sure, there are the unfinished ones lined up for the masses at Cracker Barrel, but I’m talking about serious rocking chairs.

The lack of sales doesn’t stop people from making rocking chairs. They make them like nobody’s business. More people make them than want to sit in them. I have so many people who want to supply me with rocking chairs that I don’t even have time to look at all of the rocking chairs they try to send me.

As a result, we rocking chair sellers have come up with a solution. Anyone who wants me to try to sell their rocking chair must first buy a rocking chair from me.

We call this a contest. The fee to enter is completely reasonable, given the fact that, as sure as I sit in a shop full of rocking chairs, I have no other way to make money. None.

Chances are, if you enter, I probably will not sit in your rocking chair myself. There are just too many. Someone on my staff will do it. I pay my staff nothing. If I paid my staff something, then I’d probably have to make people buy two rocking chairs to enter the contest.

But my staff never complains. They sit in rocking chairs simply because they love to sit in rocking chairs. I think they must have other jobs, but I have no idea how one of those works. I pay my staff in love, and it’s kind of beautiful, if you ask me.

My staff does not have nearly as much experience as I do in terms of gauging the quality of rocking chairs, but looking at so many rocking chairs is too much work for just me. They pick their top twenty rocking chairs. I’m pretty sure that they’re picking the twenty best rocking chairs, but if they don’t, it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s going to buy the winner, anyway.

Once our volunteer staff has narrowed down the field, we send those twenty rocking chairs to a national celebrity judge of rocking chairs.
Half of the fees we collect goes to rent, the other half to these celebrity judges. The judges are incredibly popular. At least, among rocking chair enthusiasts. Outside of that small set of people, nobody even knows their name. But people like me think they’re just about as famous as you can get.

Why? Because they once made fantastic rocking chairs. Some of the best rocking chairs of all time. Hardly anyone has sat in those rocking chairs, but still, there is universal agreement that they are the best rocking chair makers alive. (The very best makers of rocking chairs are all dead, of course, so we can’t get them to judge. But sometimes we put their name on the contest so that people think that their rocking chairs are sort of associated with the all-time best rocking chairs.)

Those celebrity judges still make money from other sources, but not from their rocking chairs. They go on a tour, called a Visiting Rocker Series, where they take their rocking chair with them and sit on stage and rock in it. Who doesn’t love watching old people rock? They sit there and rock, and talk about how they made that chair. People can’t get enough of it. Some of them don’t even have to make new rocking chairs. They just truck out the same ones and rock in them, and talk about all the same things.

Yes, organizations will pay significant money to have these celebrity rocking chair makers come and rock, and people will turn out to see them. All that is true, but for the life of me I can’t figure out how to get people to be interested in other rocking chairs. I once thought about it for a whole afternoon, and have concluded it just can’t be done.

Of course, I make rocking chairs myself. That’s how I started out in this business: I couldn’t get anyone to sell my rocking chairs, either, so I opened my own shop. My rocking chairs are as good as anyone else’s rocking chairs, so I’ve offered them for sale in my shop. No one buys them, either, but at least they’re in a shop.

Getting your rocking chair into a shop is important. It gives a person license to teach others how to make rocking chairs. It doesn’t matter if nobody buys your rocking chair or sits in it; what matters is that it’s in the shop.

Since the goal is to just make it into the shop, it makes sense to charge a contest fee. In my contest, everybody gets a rocking chair, so entrants get something for something. In fact, some of my colleagues run contests where people don’t even get a rocking chair for their fee. Is that unfair? I don’t think so. This isn’t about selling the rocking chairs. It’s about selling the idea of rocking chairs.

As a result, I only open my contests to people who have never made a rocking chair before. We want the very first, most primitive effort. Leaving the celebrity judges aside and the undeniable popularity of their work, we believe that people don’t in fact appreciate the rocking chair of an experienced maker. What people enjoy is youth and promise. They like to predict who will eventually become a master craftsperson, no matter how crappy a first effort is.

I don’t even care anymore if the rocking chairs in my shop are comfortable. In fact, some of them are intentionally uncomfortable. Some of them don’t even rock. I have one that will break your pelvis if you move so much as a hair.

I’ve heard people complain and say that a rocking chair is not meant to punish you. Those people are ignorant. A rocking chair is a piece of art; it’s an experience. Just looking at it and experiencing its essence enlarges your life. So what if you find a leg where the seat should be? Maybe you need to find a new way to sit.

Look, do I think everyone should have more rocking chairs in their home? Of course I do. But I’m not making the rules. I can’t convince someone to love the same things I love. I can’t tell someone hey, I think a rocking chair is a perfect place to wind up at the end of the day and, I don’t know, curl up with a good… a good… well, okay, I have no idea what you could do in a rocking chair.

You see the problem now, don’t you?

In fact, I’m thinking of giving up the rocking chair business altogether. I think it would be fun to start a restaurant. I think I could offer a real service to people. The problem everyone always has with a restaurant is attracting customers, but I’ve got that figured out.

All kinds of people like to cook, right? I’d get five hundred cooks and have them each prepare a meal. Then I’d charge all of them twenty dollars for the chance to serve their meal in my restaurant. I’d find some waiters who really love being around food to work for free and they’d sample about twenty of the meals, then I’d pay a real professional eater to decide which of those twenty meals is the best, and I’d pay the winning cook.

See? Make the cooks the customers. Everybody eats their own, and some people even get paid! I don’t know why someone hasn’t thought of this system before.

Now, if I could only get rid of these rocking chairs…

Image credit: Kezee/Flickr

teaches undergraduate writing classes at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His own writing has appeared recently or is forthcoming in places committed to paying writers including Arts & Letters, Grasslimb, The Grove Review, Blackbird, and The Hollins Critic, as well as a couple of places which have since begun charging fees for submissions. He was recently named the winner of the Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Prize (no fee!) by Seneca Review. He edits Wake: Great Lakes Thought & Culture, which does not charge fees for submissions, and pays writers for their work.


  1. Great analogy. I often wonder about the scruples of those behind literary magazines. Paying a reading fee or a contest fee to look over my hard work, and then having them get paid for it is disgusting… That anger has nothing to do with the fact that I have 50 rejections e-mails in my inbox right now.

  2. I somewhat admire the form and execution of this piece, though it is not without flaws, but its implicit argument would be more convincing if Chris Haven hadn’t written for the Huffington Post, which does not pay writers. Is he not also a member of the affiliate (adjunct) faculty at GVSU? When he writes for free and works as an adjunct, he at least partially condones the wider system under ridicule here. To not explore the relationship between writers of short stories/poems and academe-as-patron is short-sighted.

    The writer (a winner of a national book contest, one who travels to various creative writing programs and writing conferences each year) who lovingly linked to this, her former student’s piece, also touts Wake, the journal Haven edits, because it pays. Yes, it pays. It’s affiliated with the university at which Haven and many, many other capable people teach for smaller salaries and less job security. They have the money to pay.

    “Half of the fees we collect goes to rent, the other half to these celebrity judges,” Havens writes, conveniently ignoring the fact that a significant percentage of most fees generated by contests go to the winning writer. A lot is ignored here for the sake of simplification and a tiresome joke.

    I’m not the biggest fan of contests for a single story or poem, but even then, the journal usually includes a subscription with the entry fee, some kind of tangible product. Contests for story collections often provide a first platform for writers who do go on to publish and earn money from larger contracts. HuffPo promises a larger platform for no pay. They get a pass merely because they don’t charge an entry fee?

  3. @Michael P: “[Haven] has paid the occasional contest fee in the past but, like other bad habits, he is trying to quit doing that. He edits Wake: Great Lakes Thought & Culture, which does not charge fees for submissions, and pays writers for their work.”

    It’s satire.

  4. @Adam,

    I think it’s a bit unfair, not to mention unrealistic, to expect that the author of a satire be entirely removed from the industry he’s satirizing, for a few reasons.

    First, satire almost always comes from within. Someone who had never experienced the contest-fee or no-pay system would have a much more difficult time coming up with an apt analogy. Second, part of the reason satire works is because it’s unafraid to look critically at something endemic. The more inescapable the problem is, the more worth satirizing, even if the analogy sometimes has to be simplified to make for smoother, funnier writing. Parts of “A Modern Proposal,” I would venture to say, would also have been criticized as an over-simplification of the issue, had Swift been the subject of any comments forum.

    Third, a writer’s got to write, doesn’t he? We expect every satirist to go on a hunger strike? I think Chris’ bio does a pretty good job of acknowledging his participation in the problem.

    (And, finally, Chris is an associate professor — not adjunct faculty — at GVSU. The adjunct system, while its own beast, worthy of its own satire, is a different issue entirely.)

  5. I only wish that Chris did, in fact, sell rocking chairs. I would buy one.
    Even though I already have one.
    Which I carried home eleven blocks because I didn’t have a car.

    There might be something to this analogy.

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