The Value of Creative Work

by Mike Shea on 31 July 2011

30 second summary

Our creative work holds value and only one person decides what that value is -- you. When I decide to do a new project, it must meet one of the following criteria:

Most important, it has to be something I want to work on.

What value do you place on your own work?

Hard decisions

This spring I had the opportunity to work on a high visibility project. It sounded cool. Some friends of mine had worked on it, it was for someone I knew and respected, and it was a project I was interested in. After a few emails, however, a few things became clear. First, I wouldn't be paid for it. Second, I wouldn't hold the rights to it once I was done. These restrictions didn't come from greed or malice. The project was tied to some intellectual property that wasn't owned by the project lead but he had an agreement to use it for these projects as long as they maintained the rights. It was also a project that wouldn't end up generating any money so they wouldn't have any ability to pay.

I had to make a big decision. At that point I had gotten paid for about three freelance articles already and had two self published books that generated income every month. Through affiliate links, my website also generated a modest amount of money. I wasn't ever going to get rich, but this small income at least helped me pay for my hobby.

Luckily, the decision came more easily when another large freelance project showed up in my inbox and I had to choose between the two.

Still, at that point I made a decision.

Valuing my work

I determined a new value for my work and it came down to a single rule.

My work isn't free.

This doesn't mean I won't give the result away for free, but I won't write it for free. I expect a return for my work. Sometimes that might be a fixed amount of money. Sometimes that might be a percentage on sales. Sometimes it's a product that helps me promote my other work and my name value.

More specifically, however, my agreement to work on a project comes down to one of two things. Either I retain the rights to the project so I can use it how I want or I get paid for it.

Most of all, it has to be something I want to do. This is, after all, a hobby. I have a day job and I never plan on leaving it. Writing Running Epic D&D Games won't pay for a colonoscopy later in life.

RPG freelancer Robert J. Schwalb wrote a series of excellent articles on the nature of freelancing including a favorite of mine, Crapping on your Dreams, Freelancing 101. He wrote another one earlier called I can't help you that draws his line in the sand when it comes to helping people for free. It reminded me a lot of another favorite of mine, Neal Stephenson's Why I'm a Bad Correspondent.

Why not set our own declarations? Declarations help focus our work where it has the highest impact, keeps us happy, and keeps us productive.

On gift giving

Seth Godin talks a lot about giving gifts and I don't see my mercenary ways getting in the way of that. I want to give away gifts as part of Sly Flourish. I have two adventures and a DM Cheat Sheet I give away as gifts. They may not be totally selfless as I expect the gifts to help promote my site, but they give away valuable stuff (about $2 each if I sold them) for free.

When it comes to creative projects, however, unless I'm paid for it, I want the freedom to choose if, when, and how I give it away as a gift.

Undervaluing your work

I have another friend who had an excellent idea for a project. He spent a lot of time on it and eventually shipped it. In my opinion the price he chose undervalued the work. I haven't had a chance to ask him if he was happy or not with his initial price. I thought he ended up selling it for about half of its true value. Maybe he was worried about how it stood next to similar products but for this particular product, he had, as far as I know, a unique product.

Unique products give us the freedom to determine value. There are other fantasy novels out there but George Martin has a corner on the market for A Dance with Dragons. He could have charged double for that and people would have bought it. There are millions of books but each one is unique and, if it differentiates itself enough, you can charge what you really think it's worth. When I read news articles like The Rise of the 99 cent Kindle e-Book, I don't worry too much. They aren't all the same books. If your book is really unique, people will pay $4 or $8 or $12 for it.

Writing for visibility

What about writing for visibility? I'd ask the disgruntled Huffington Post bloggers about that. I don't know what agreement they originally made on the rights to their posts. If they retained the rights, they have little to be angry about. If they signed them away for visibility, giving Huffington Post the rights to redistribute indefinitely, they made a choice and probably a bad one.

There are other ways to make a name for yourself than handing the rights over to someone else for free. Build your own brand. Engage with people interested in your topic. Build your own site, write your own articles, and make a name for yourself without handing it to someone else.

You determine the value of your work. If you give away the rights to your work for free, you're setting the bar pretty low.