On the heels of the previous post about money junkies it’s worth taking a moment to think about self-worth. The reason it’s an important topic is that if you’re not willing to set the floor on your own value, you can assume everyone else will set it at zero. In fact, only a few years ago there was a theory being floated that the smart play in the internet age was to give yourself away in every respect, including work you created.
Called the freemium pricing strategy, the idea — much like the overriding ethos of web development in general — was that eyeballs, marketing and branding are more important than anything else. Gather enough attention and you can cash in by monetizing your online celebrity. Now, if your product is celebrity that might be true, just as it’s probably true if you’re a money junkie and have lots of cash and employees to burn through. Likewise, if you have no compunction about abusing your own customer base, and in particular children and young adults, making free-to-play games can be profitable. Like street-savvy drug dealers, the makers of free-to-play games give their products away until users are hooked, then stick them with carefully engineered pricing strategies and deceptive promises that all but compel players to pony up real cash if they want to stay competitive.
Unfortunately, if you are an unknown, do not have a round of funding you can torch in order to attract your next round of funding, or you have a conscience, giving yourself and your work away will always yield exactly no money, which is problematic if you also like to eat and don’t want to live under a bridge. If you aspire to make a living doing something you love, or even doing something you hate, you’re going to have to give some consideration to your worth as a worker and as a human being. Depending on the state of the economy it’s entirely possible that the world will laugh in your face, particularly if the money junkies on Wall St. have blown the earning power of the average consumer to to smithereens and unemployment is through the roof, but still — at some point you have to draw a line in the sand.
Speaking of which, when you’re just starting out in your chosen field — or playing around until you figure out what you want to be when you grow up — it’s probably a good thing to be humble. Nobody likes a know-it-all or someone who is overly confident. If you’ve written a book and you’re sure it’s going to sell a million copies at $100 a piece — well, you get points for valuing yourself, but many more points off for being an idiot. By the same token, however, if you have zero confidence, even if only in your ability to bounce back from what will almost certainly be setbacks, you’re probably going to fail.
What is your work worth? I have no idea. When I put my short story collection together I did a lot of thinking about price, and I wrote a lot of goofy posts on the subject, but in the end I had to make a call. It’s not the choice most of the bright lights were advocating for at the time, but on the other hand many of those bright lights were advocating for freemium pricing in books that were being sold for real dollars. Meaning they weren’t giving themselves away.
As it happens, large-scale content owners are slowly waking up to that reality as well. In the music business all of the promises that have been made by streaming services are proving feeble at best, meaning musicians are being exploited not only by the streaming services, but by the money junkies in the recording industry who deserve nobody’s sympathy. What’s needed is a way to drive money from sales directly to artists, but that means a majority of artists have to own the rights to their work in order to have any bargaining power in the marketplace. While that’s not going to happen any time soon, it’s a reminder that whether you’re a musician or an author or a graphic artist, you should never, ever, ever give anyone an open-ended right to exploit your work.
Still, there’s a bit of good news. As far as I can tell, everything on the internet is now killing everything on the internet in the same way that it killed much of the analog world. It’s not just that online news sites are killing newspapers, they’re killing online news sites too. Take a look at any site you used to visit five years ago and you’ll see pandering content and desperate keywords. Look at the newer sites and you’ll see either the exploitation of free content or a homepage indistinguishable from a tabloid no matter how high-brow the pedigree. As for the tabloids, they’re dying too, despite having refined righteous indignation and ridicule to low art.
Granted, it doesn’t look like everything is dying, but that’s because the big-name sites are being propped up by shareholder dollars, and the startups are being propped up by the money junkies in the Silicon Valley fad factory. Google is worth billions, but it’s only product is advertising in a market that it has monopolized. Facebook is worth billions, but it doesn’t make anything and it’s already old news. Geocities is dust, MySpace is dead, and all around Facebook new social apps and sites are exploding. Vine, Instragram, Tumblr, Pinterest and a whole slate of startups are waiting for their chance to shine with the next generation of kids who wouldn’t be caught dead doing anything their parents were doing. Or their grandparents.
Yes, they’re fabulous time sinks all, and they bring people together to grouse and complain and bully and ridicule, but that’s not the business you’re in. Which means, if you do make an actual product, none of those sites is competing with you for sales. They may be competing with you for eyeballs, or even ripping you off, but on the positive side you can leverage those sites to carry a message about your products. It won’t be easy, but nobody said it would be. If you value yourself before you start, however, not only will your chance of success go up, if it doesn’t work out you’ll still have your self-respect.
And you’re going to need that for as long as you live.
— Mark Barrett