Jim and I have given a seminar we call “The True Value of Indie Pens” at our last two pen shows — Baltimore and DC. Both sessions were well received, and we’ve been asked if the information was available anywhere for reference. At the DC show, I promised I’d create a blog post, so that’s what I’m doing — perhaps a bit late. If you’re interested int eh actual presentation, I’ve made it available on Google Drive. Be aware, I removed the examples, as I didn’t ask permission to make that information available in such a way.
So, where did the class originate? Jim and I heard one to many conversations along the lines of, “For that price I can get [insert mainstream brand name here],” or “I don’t think it’s worth it,” with regards to indie pens. We want to help spread awareness of how special indie-made pens are, just how much you’re actually getting for the price.
But what makes us qualified to give that class when we aren’t penmakers? Excellent question! Between us, we have over 10 years in the pen community. Jim even makes and modifies nibs. We’ve both been makers since we were children — easily 50+ years between us. And we have many pen-maker friends, several of whom I reached out to for information. I promise we built this from factual information, not just our general feelings.
Ultimately, what I’m hoping you’ll take away from this post is:
- Indie Pens are a great deal.
- Just because a pen isn’t for you or isn’t “worth it” to you doesn’t mean it’s not worth its price.
You’ll have to let me know in the comments if I’ve done my job and given you the information necessary to agree with those two items.
As you read through this post and consider the information, I’d like you to keep a couple of things in mind.
First, like mainstream brands, not all indie brands are created equal. It’s possible to find problematic indie brands. Thankfully, they’re few and far between.
Second, for this particular topic, I’m discussing small, respected brands where the maker is creating for the enjoyment of the craft. I’m not referring to the larger brands like Franklin-Christoph and Edison that have a team of people.
As I said earlier, Jim and I developed our class from data. We surveyed 14 indie penmakers — I know, it’s not a huge sample set, but there was a decent variety in it. Allow me to provide a snapshot of the demographics:
Years as penmaker: Between 3 and 25
Maker Employment: Part-time: 10; Full-time: 4
Maker Location: United States: 9, Europe: 4, Africa: 1
Ignoring the actual cost of an item, we mentally — consciously or otherwise — justify the cost of any purchase, regardless of what it is. Brands set and justify their pricing in a similar manner.
When setting prices, mainstream brands take into account manufacturing costs, marketing, name, and reputation. Manufacturing costs may include employee salaries, materials, facilities, and equipment maintenance. Marketing is fairly self-explanatory. Reputation is, ultimately, a company’s recognized skill and quality — whether positive or negative. And, finally, name is about admission to the “club” of people who own that brand. It offers a sense of belonging for many to be able to say, “I own one, too!”
With mainstream brands, the name and reputation will likely have a heavier weight in price justification for both the company and consumers. Manufacturing costs are likely second, and raised when precious or semi-precious materials are used. However, larger brands do have the benefit of bulk pricing discounts.
Small indie brand pricing starts with similar manufacturing costs: materials, facility, equipment maintenance, and, sometimes an employee salary. However, it also includes the maker’s salary — even makers creating pens as a side job should get paid for their time — and profit to keep growing the business.
Where it starts to really differ from larger brands is skill development. Makers put in years of practice and application to master their craft. Hand-turning or CNC lathe programming and use, sanding, and polishing are needed for even the most basic of pens. Then you have specialty skills like pen design, resin work to create blanks, engraving, metalwork, painting, lacquer work — the list of possibilities is endless. And all of them need to be perfected by a single person. Small indie brands aren’t hiring a person for every step of the process. The maker is having to research, learn, and practice each one. They deserve to be paid for the value of their years of experience and the skill mastery that comes from them.
And if that isn’t enough, now we (as a community) are asking indie makers to become novice nibmeisters to check and tune each nib that goes out — without charging extra. Pro nibmeisters charge $25 or more for that service! But I digress.
It’s the fringe benefits that truly increase an indie pen’s value, in my opinion. To begin with, you’re supporting an artist. In some cases, you’re supporting a dream. It’s something you can feel good about.
Second, it’s a labor of love. Indie makers are making pens because they love it. There are certainly easier paths to take if they didn’t. And when you make something with love, by hand, you put a part of your soul into it. That’s something to be cherished.
Third, you know the provenance of the pen. You know who made it and when, what the inspiration was, where the material came from. You can ask all of the questions that you can’t when buying from a mainstream company.
Fourth, most makers have some kind of warranty on their pens. And it’s much easier to contact them about a potential issue than many of the mainstream brands. I’ve heard insane horror stories about mainstream warranty work.
And last, but certainly not least, you have the opportunity to get your perfect customized pen. By choosing your maker carefully, you can get the pen of your dreams. Want metal work? Reach out to Greg of Hardy Penwrights or Tim of Hooligan Pens. Engraving? Troy of Country Made Pens or Brian of Iron Feather Creative. Unique Shapes? Dennis of Den’s Pens or Ben of Mayfair Pens. Someone pushing the envelope? Di of Stanford Pen Studio. Interesting material mixing? Eric of Atelier Lusso, Rich of River City Pen Co, or Ash of Rockster Pens. Wood work? Ryan of Ryan Krusac Studios. Urushi art? Michal of Tamenuri Studio. Machined pens? Ian of Schon Dsgn or Ben of Gravitas Pens. The list goes on and on. You can take a look at my list of indie pen makers. To those I didn’t specifically name here, I’m sorry, I can’t name everyone.
You have a much wider range of materials, shapes, trims, etc. than you do with mainstream brands. And many makers can create a pen around your favorite nib, so you aren’t limited to Jowo or Bock. While “building” your perfect pen, you get a chance to develop a relationship with the maker. And they give you a personalized experience. What’s not to love?
Just try to explain why all of that doesn’t justify the price of indie pens. I’ll wait.
The Difficulty of Pricing
Something that’s difficult to understand if you’ve never priced out your work is that it’s hard. The price has to be high enough to sustain your business and cover costs, but low enough to sell.
Most makers, not just pen makers, underprice their work. They prioritize selling over fair and/or accurate pricing. This is understandable, making money is important, but they shouldn’t have to do so. There is also the struggle between making what they want to make and what will sell. Those two things are not always the same. For some makers, they may rarely be the same.
Let a maker know when you think they’ve underpriced their work. We advocate for raising minimum wage, why not help skilled artisans earn more, too?
When you’re looking at a pen — or anything handcrafted by a reputable artisan, really — think about all of these different factors. Restructure your thinking and help others restructure theirs. Remember, just because a pen isn’t worth it to you doesn’t mean that it’s not worth it at all.
Considering all the options available, and everything you get, indie pens are a bargain!
An indie pen is more than the price tag: it is a story that begins with making the pen and continues to evolve with you and all you create with it.
Thanks for reading to the end, I hope you enjoyed this post. Do you own any indie pens? If so, from whom? If not, has this post made you want one (or more)? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.