Forging a viable, sustainable writing career is a combination of the two prongs inherent in the term: art and commerce. The latter demands we find a monetary way to value the former, a concept that’s easy to stumble on in a squishy, subjective area like creative work.
How much should you charge for your writing and other creative work? How do you determine what your art is worth?
Part of the calculus of how to value your writing and creative work is external and largely out of an artist’s control: how the work is valued in the current market, whatever that is specific to your situation and artistic product, and what that market will bear.
But the other side of that equation is personal to each author, based on her situation and goals. (I talked about this in part in last week’s post, in using those individual considerations to determine what to spend on which hired services.)
Read more: “How to Be a Working Writer”
Determining and considering each of these prongs can guide you in putting a monetary value to all aspects of your creative work.
Determine Market Value
As a creative, you may be selling your product and a number of different markets. The buyers in that market may fall into a variety of categories; for instance:
- publishers, who will be buying the right to your creative fiction and nonfiction, including journalistic outlets like newspapers and literary magazines, and sometimes blogs;
- writers’ organizations and conferences, which rely on creatives in various fields to offer programming that draws registration;
- readers and fans, to whom you may market directly, as in self-publishing or with subscription models like Patreon;
- other creatives, to whom you may market classes or presentation programming you create.
In each case, understanding the realities of your target market and the buyers within it will help set realistic parameters for the value you may expect or negotiate for.
A large publishing house may be able to offer more money than a smaller one, for instance. A publication with higher circulation may have a bigger budget for content than smaller ones (although depressingly frequently that may not be reflected in the rates they offer content providers).
Read more: “The Happy Harsh Truths of a Writing Career”
You can likely expect and negotiate for more money from a for-profit organization than from a nonprofit, or from a larger one than from a smaller one, or a higher-priced event or venue than from a more modestly priced one.
Direct to consumer, you may need to do some market research and testing to determine what your particular market will bear. For instance, many sources suggest Patreon-type contributors are more willing to offer small regular amounts to a creative whose work they appreciate than larger onetime or fewer ones.
Pricing your self-published work, classes, presentations, and other direct offerings will depend on production, printing, and presentation costs as well as what people will pay for your work, and part of your math may include whether fewer sales at a higher price suits your business model, or it’s a numbers game of selling high volume for low unit cost. You may want to factor in the costs you bear, but those matter only in so far as the market is willing to absorb passing along those costs.
If you don’t learn or know what these market realities are, then you don’t have a solid basis of consideration to determine how to value your offerings when considering the second prong of valuation:
Decide on the Work’s Value to You
Any business market consists of supply and demand. We considered the second half of that equation above, the external part beyond your control. What you do control is the supply, and the costs and subjective values associated with it for you.
For instance, in the current market the average book advance is commonly said to be somewhere between $5,000-$20,000. That’s average market value, and of course results may vary, but it’s a starting place to consider whether that feels worth it to you considering the personal costs and value of your art.
Considerations for that metric may include what the time and energy demands of creating that product are worth to you. If you can assume the likelihood that you will get something close to the average advance if/when you sell your manuscript, that helps you plan a business model that works for you, considering your personal “production costs.”
For instance, if this is your only income stream, clearly you will need to find other ways to support yourself in addition to selling this story. Does your balance sheet allow sufficient time for you to do that as well as create this work? Do those time demands suit your other personal goals, like time with your family, or for other pursuits, or rest and downtime? Are there value-adds beyond the monetary valuation that may influence whether it’s worth it to you?
Read more: “Why Do You Write?”
Market realities being what they are and publishing being something of a monopsony, you may not always (or often) have negotiating room in market value. But you can determine how you value your own time and energy. Beyond money, what are the other considerations, the value-adds for your personal career goals?
A publishing contract with a major house, for instance, may not offer the money you hope for, but may come with other benefits worth considering, like marketing, distribution, exposure, or even perceived cachet that may open up other related avenues of income, like garnering you higher speaking or teaching rates, or broadening your platform.
Offering workshops and presentations for free for a writing conference may not meet your financial goals, but might offer other intangible values: exposure, ré sumé credits, legitimacy, contacts.
Keep in mind also that your personal and business goals will probably shift over the course of your career. Early in, when you are building a reputation and résumé, for example, you might be more willing to accept less value for your work than you might be as you begin to establish yourself, and nonmonetary considerations may be less important to your business model at that point. The content you once offered for free or low cost may no longer be worth what it costs you in time, effort, or lost work.
That doesn’t make you a primadonna or too big for your britches. It simply denotes a change in your career goals and priorities. This is a business, and it is not incumbent upon you to devalue what you feel your product is worth.
Take Ownership Over Your Work’s Value
Which brings up my last point, and one of my personal pet peeves. In businesses that grow up around creative product, it’s often the creators who see the least financial benefit from that work, and are often asked to provide it for far less than it may actually be valued.
This may come in the guise of several seemingly persuasive points from potential buyers: that costs have skyrocketed, or there have been budget cuts, or an organization is barely breaking even in an event, for instance.
If you want to accommodate some of these concerns, that is a personal choice. In my career I have been happy to donate countless hours and effort to give back to a community I love or an organization I respect or simply want to work with.
But do keep in mind that other product and service providers would probably not be asked nor expected to cut their rates to accommodate. Even a nonprofit will likely face fixed market-value costs for things like AV equipment or space rental, and those are simply line items in the budget that they plan for. You are also a value add–these buyer markets don’t exist without the product you are providing.
You may not be able to come to a middle ground where how you value your work fits what a particular market will pay for it. But that doesn’t mean you have to adjust how you value your work unless you want to for reasons that suit your priorities and goals. There comes a point where you may say no—and that’s okay. That’s how writers create a sustainable, viable business, and take ownership and autonomy over their own careers.
Over to you, authors—have you struggled with putting a price tag on your work? Have you thought about why, if so? What metrics do you use to determine it? Do you feel pressure to adjust or devalue your work in certain situations, and if so what—and how do you handle that?