Giving it Away for Free

Putting a Price Tag on Your Work

(hopefully using one of those nifty price tag guns because those are awesome and inevitably add to price tag wars)

There is an immeasurable number  of people who would self-classify as “struggling artist,” and for those immeasurable artists, there is an unending repetition of the question –
What is the worth of your work?

It’s not just the despairing cries of doubt in our dark-night-of-the-soul-periods that inevitably plagues artists, it’s the literal monetary value of our work that we have to question. It’s about putting a price tag on our time and work, and asking for a dollar amount for the things we make.

In creative fields, it’s a standing mantra that for the first few years (or decades), you won’t make any money doing what you want to do, and will have to work your way up the ladder. Exposure is the name of the game, which is why so many people turn to self-publishing and social networking, but in those mediums, the strict lines between CREATOR and CONSUMER begin to bleed into each other. There’s no publishing company, or studio standing between an artist and their audience.

So now the acceptability of asking for free art is in this nebulous, undefined place. Noelle Stevenson, who goes by gingerhaze on tumblr and won my eternal love when she created first the Broship of the Ring and then an abundance of Avengers art, got flak earlier this week for saying it’s rude to ask for free art, and in fact rather offensive. One of her critics lectured many artists don’t hold to the “US Capitalist Code”and make art to make money.

Here’s the thing –
A lot of artists need their art to make money so they can continue to make art.

Even for established and successful artists, like best-selling author and member of the royal geek family, John Scalzi, the idea of not getting paid for things you create is absolutely, batshit crazy. And in fact, if someone asks you to, the only proper response should be Fuck You, Pay Me.

What these artists are getting at is that, for a lot of people, writing, drawing, filming, creating – it’s not a hobby. It’s a vocation, even a major determining influence in life choices. Expecting creative stuff to be free strays dangerously close into the realm of your work has no intrinsic value. And if that were true, struggling artists everywhere would need to seriously reconsider their chosen vocations (cue dark night of the soul doubting despair).

It’s difficult for someone like me – who would just like to be paid for the things I make so that I can make more things rather than working in an office all day – to judge the propriety of monetizing art. Of course I want to get paid to make stuff. But it’s been drilled into my head that I can’t expect anyone to pay me when I start out, and so the idea of asking for money cues terrifying scenes of catastrophic anonymity and wasting away as the best writer that no one ever read.

So where’s the balance supposed to be? Do we only judge the worth of art based on the notoriety of the artist? If you’ve never heard my name before but you love what I do, how is that supposed to factor into what is ultimately an arbitrary dollar amount slapped on something that is arguably impossible to price out?

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  1. “A lot of artists need their art to make money so they can continue to make art.” This is absolutely true, and I believe, your key point. Also “Do we only judge the worth of art based on the notoriety of the artist?” gave me something to think about. I’ve often reprimanded myself for not supporting the local, starving artist more often. Supporting local musicians, visiting local art galleries, seeking out local writers from my small bookshop. I definitely judge art on its content, not the creator’s notoriety, but at the same time, I’m an iTunes, Barnes and Noble consumer.
    Also, as a poet, I wonder how wise it is that I self-publish first drafts of my poems for free on my blog without polishing them and seeking publication from print journals first. But I enjoy the instant gratification of seeing my fresh poems published online. Bit of a dilemma.
    Great post! I’m now a follower.

  2. novellyderivative

     /  December 12, 2012

    I can’t resist going into a Barnes & Noble, though I do like small and used bookshops more. But I figure that buying new books written by new authors drives up sales, which will make publishers more likely to keep taking on new authors.

    And as far as self-publishing for free – I think the major thing at least gingerhaze was getting at is that putting stuff out there for free has to be our choice. We shouldn’t feel like we HAVE to in order to succeed. But it is difficult to figure out ‘where to put stuff’ in the first place.

    Thanks, and thanks for the follow!

  3. I really appreciate you putting this out there. As an artist, I am always struggling with questions of worth as far as what I do, and how to get my work out there without feeling like I am just giving things away without actually gaining anything substantial for myself.
    I think it can also be discouraging because the actual “how” of successful marketing is often very abstract – you see or hear about these successful “entrepreneurs,” but how did they get there? In the art world, it is sometimes assumed “well, if you’re good enough, you’ll make it,” but I don’t think that’s really true. There is more to it than that. But how to tap into it, I don’ t know.


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