I’ll Teach You, But I’ll Have to Charge: Valuing the Creative as Commerce

A few months ago, I posted about a potential publishing client who wanted me to do her book marketing, and editing, for free, in exchange for a (nebulous) percentage of upcoming sales. The theory being that I would hustle to get her book in the public collective, which will in turn fatten my own pockets. This was clarified when said client stated that she’d already spoken with a marketing firm earlier but could not afford that firm’s fees. After further conversation with my potential client, I figured that it may not have been a question of affording that firm’s fees, so much as not wanting to pay the fees.

Yesterday, my potential appearance at a book club gathering, in another state, was cancelled when I asked about compensation. My contact balked, as her book club was one of the potluck-and-discussion variety, and the members would likely not contribute to any fees regarding my appearance (despite the fact that I was travelling specifically to their book club meeting–again, from out-of-state). My contact also informed me that in the past, authors had appeared at their book club for free.

Which brings me to the subject of this post. For some reason, our society has gotten into the habit of devaluing any type of creative work. No one would expect a physician to do free exams in exchange for future good health on the part of the patient. Attorneys are normally not expected to work pro bono, unless it’s a specific part of their contracts or corporate culture. Why, then, are people in creative fields expected to work for free? And, as a corollary, why are those of us who work in creative fields expect fellow creatives to hook us up for little or nothing?

A lot of this involves the overall low perception of the labor value of creative work. We are a society that was initially agrarian/agricultural, then switched to industrial, and is now technological. The first two industries required hard, physical labor; the latter, more mental labor and creative thinking, but within the parameters of science and math. Creative fields, which can be equally laborious from a physical and mental standpoint, are still seen as soft options because they don’t make an immediate contribution and/or impact on society…unless one makes money and/or receives recognition or fame. As a capitalistic society, America is all about the bottom line. If it doesn’t make money, it doesn’t make sense. Or, as the rap group Wu-Tang Clan once noted in their popular song “C.R.E.A.M.“:  “Cash rules everything around me/C.R.E.A.M., get the money/dollar, dollar bill,  y’all.”

Case in point: I do not blame my book club contact at this particular venue for the tight pockets of her fellow book club members. I do, however, blame the author(s) who have placed so little value on their work and time, that they agree to make appearances for free–which devalues the process for the rest of us authors. I didn’t understand this until I published my first book. As a self-published author, this is my livelihood now. I am at the point where if it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t really make sense for me.

As Kelis once sang in her song “Milkshake“: I’ll teach you, but I’ll have to charge.

Perhaps it’s because authors are seen as yet another venue of entertainment, much like professional athletes and reality TV shows (but minus the payoff). We should, I supposed, be grateful that anyone wants to read our work at all–this gratitude should, in turn, extend to appearing somewhere–anywhere–that will have us, because hey, we’re just people who wrote books for entertainment. It’s not like we’re doing brain surgery, right? Our profession is not on par with those who heal, or provide legal services. This is especially true of self-published authors–we are often not seen as “real” writers because we do not have a contract with a major publishing house, for whatever reason, and the author advance and PR push (if you’re lucky) that usually comes with it.  Our gratitude should be doubly ample, because we really are seen as long shots.

Plus, creative types are seen as dreamers, livers in the ether, “woo woo” types of folks. This usually is a code for a lack of intellectual firepower. Ergo, any advice given or work performed would be on par with asking a toddler to do the same, since contributions allegedly don’t require much energy or many brain cells. Perhaps we creative folks should be grateful to be consulted at all, to let our society at large tell it. This may be a reason why arts and music programs are the first to be cut from public school funding, but I digress.

All that being said, and despite the more publicized contributions of our white- and blue-collar folks, being a creative person is a lot of hard work. Not only do we have to deal with narrow-minded perceptions, we also have to deal with the struggle to quantify work that is not normally meant to be quantified (e.g., monetized), since our work is usually subjective. The energy it takes to write, draw, dance, paint, etc. is just as valid as slogging in a trading pit on the New York Stock Exchange, or arguing a brief in front of a judge, or performing heart surgery (I just wish is was as lucrative in the short term!). In fact, in this age of digital media, marketing is an extremely difficult job, especially when it comes to social media: that’s a full-time job in and of itself. Asking your creative friend to create, for free, continues to perpetuate the notion that creative work lacks value–because we only value that which we pay for and the higher the fee, the more value ascribed.

Creative people, we are contributors to the problem as well. We have helped create our perception of being a bit “out there” because we don’t pay attention to business. Yes, we want to be left to create and leave the tedious stuff like setting rates, submitting invoices, and the like for other folks, but that’s not going to help us eat. We also want people to like us, and like our work as a result, and buy it, and recommend it to others who will, in turn, buy it as well. But the old adage is very true: people do not value what they can get for free. That whole cow-and-milk thing? It’s gospel. Like it or not, we are in a left-brain world and we need to adjust accordingly. If someone asks you to do work for free, don’t cave and agree because you don’t want to hurt any feelings, or you’re so desperate to be put on that you’ll do anything for recognition. Politely refuse the request and counter with a list of your rates for the services requested. The requester may be a bit peeved at first, but in the end they will respect you for respecting yourself, your time, and your work.

It’s always tempting to ask someone to do you a solid when your funds are low, but it would do you well to remember that time is money, even the time of someone who isn’t perceived as doing “real” work. So do THEM a solid and pay your way. Your pet creative will thank you for it.

Thanks for stopping by.