There are three key ways of valuing work:
- Monetary – either how much an individual work costs (e.g. a book that retails for $5 is worth less than one that costs $50). Or how much the work makes in total (e.g. a book that makes $500 vs. $5 million)
- Popularity – ‘bestselling’ books or most downloaded music (free or paid) are most valuable
- Critique – the most favourably reviewed works, either by the general audience, or professional critics, are most valuable
In this article, we’ll explore why none of these will tell you the value of your art – and what better measures you can use instead.
Money is a bad measure of a work’s value
Money means different things to different people – both qualitatively and quantitatively, as this video from Enrichmentality explains:
To some, money means ‘freedom’. To others, it means ‘security’.
To some people, $100 million is a lot of money. To others, $100 is.
Germans, for example, earn twice the income of Portugese citizens. This is why, even though geoblocking and region-based pricing can be unfair (such as Australians being charged more for videogames than Americans, despite earning less), as Smashwords points out, these measures can also be used to promote fairer access.
In Your Money Or Your Life, authors Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez suggest readers work out their true hourly wage and convert costs into ‘life hours’.
Let’s say Ana earns $50/hour (after all taxes and expenses). For her to consider a creative work costing $100 ‘good value’, it needs to be worth at least 2 hours of her life.
If Bob earns $5/hour, for him to consider a creative work costing $100 ‘good value’, it needs to be worth at least 20 hours of his life. Or half a work week.
Either way, the artist gets $100.
Monetarily, from the artist’s perspective, it appears Ana and Bob valued the work the same. We think of them as having allotted ‘100 points’ to this work. But from the buyer’s perspective (considering their ‘life hours’), the difference is enormous.
In The Courage To Be Disliked, Koga and Kishimi talk about the objective and subjective nature of measurements such as height.
To say a person is 160cm tall is an objective measure. Whether we view that as ‘short’ or ‘tall’ is dependent on the time they are born. Where they live. How old they are. What sex, etc. But to say whether being 160cm tall is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is subjective.
Some people tease me for being short, and it used to bother me. Now, I’m quite happy. I realize being short has many advantages. I can buy kids’ clothes when I want. And I have more leg room when traveling.
My height hasn’t changed. Nor have other people’s perceptions, the size of children’s clothes, or the width of seating rows. But I have ascribed a different value to my height.
The same is true of ascribing different values to your art.
Pricing your work at $1,000 doesn’t make it any better than if you priced it at $1, or free. It’s still the same work.
But it will make a difference to how people perceive the value of your work.
In Influence, Robert Cialdini recounts the story of an Indian jewellery store owner who had some slow-moving stock. She left a note for her staff to reduce the price by half (x1/2). But the staff member misread the note, and doubled the price (x2). To the owner’s surprise, when she returned a few days later, all the stock had sold.
Even though it was exactly the same jewellery, customers saw more value in it when it cost more.
Jewellery and painting and sculpture etc. may be more susceptible to this type of phenomenon than, say, books or films. You can see what you are getting.
With books or films, customers may have their expectations raised by a high price. Then, if disappointed, they react angrily.
In this way, the cost of a work makes us feel certain ways about its value. Even when it is the exact same work. Thus, price is an unreliable indicator of value.
Popularity is a bad measure of a work’s value
Expectations also play into a work’s popularity. When a film’s released, its results at the box office don’t indicate whether the film is good or not. It tells us whether people were excited enough by the trailer and early marketing to hand over money to see it. The same is true of book releases etc.
How a book/film does the following week may give a better indication of whether it was good enough to generate word-of-mouth. But even a lousy book or film can have continued success on the basis of early marketing. People see it is doing well at the box office or at the cash register and try it out. Even if none of their friends have recommended it.
As we have seen, the price of a work influences its popularity.
An app that is free will attract many more downloads than one that does the exact same things but costs $1.99.
Both apps have the same value in entertaining or assisting the user. But their popularity will differ, based on price alone.
Meanwhile, attaching a price to something can also make customers value it more. There is a difference between acquiring users and actually converting them.
Company A may release a free app that attracts 10,000 downloads. But only 8,000 downloaders ever actually run the app. Just 6,000 make an account. And only 3,000 ever use it even one time (to buy something, share something, whatever its purpose is). Only 500 become active, committed users.
Company B may release an app that costs $1.99. It attracts only 1,000 downloads and is far less ‘popular’ by this measure. But 990 downloaders run the app. 700 of them make an account, 600 actually use it at least one, and again, 500 become active, committed users.
The apps are equally popular in terms of active users. But one app might appear on the charts, and the other not.
Which is more important? The ability to attract a lot of attention, or the ability to convert a higher percentage of users? Both have the same end result in this example.
Because popularity is so influenced by price (an already flawed measure of value) it, too, is an unreliable indicator of value.
Reception is a bad measure of a work’s value
Sites like Rotten Tomatoes demonstrate how widely the views of an audience and professional critics can diverge. Who is to say which is more important? The critics’ or the audiences’ opinion? Amazon reviews or literary awards?
There’s an interesting phenomenon when it comes to book and movie sequels.
Most people agree that sequels are never as good as the originals in a series.
While this seems paradoxical at first, it actually makes a lot of sense. If you didn’t enjoy the first Harry Potter book, you won’t waste money and time on the second. So the people reviewing the second book are only those who already enjoyed the first.
Book one’s reviews will include those who picked up the series for the first time and didn’t like it. (It wasn’t their genre, they thought it was over-hyped, didn’t like the style. Whatever.) Book two’s reviews will pretty much only include those who like the genre, are fans of the series, and like J.K. Rowling’s writing.
In other words, in a series, the first book or movie is always consumed and rated by a broader audience. Then, subsequent installations are only consumed and rated by a smaller subset who are already predisposed to enjoy the work.
The first two books in the Twilight series are rated 3.5 on Goodreads. Book three is rated 3.6, and book four, 3.7 – even though most fans agree the earlier books were better. Those who disliked book three enough to give up on reading the series simply didn’t stick around to review book four. So, the further along you get in a series, the more enthusiastic the average reviewer is, simply because the less enthused ones opt out.
Likewise, Harry Potter #1 has 4.4 stars on Goodreads, but book #7 has the highest score of the series, at 4.6. Yet while the first book has close to 6 million reviews, the final one has just 2 million at time of writing.
Are we meant to believe that sequels are better because they generally get high ratings? Or are the earlier books better because they get more engagement and a larger audience?
Another measure: the artist’s judgement
The Courage to be Disliked gives the example of a stone rolling down a mountain. If we react too much to other people’s opinions, our work ends up like a stone which has had all of its unique points smoothed away. All that remains is a tiny fraction of what we originally created. A little round ball indistinguishable from every other smoothed away rock.
We can bow too much to what will sell well. Or what we can charge a lot for. Or what a lot of people want. Or what will get good reviews and not upset anyone. And when we do this, we make nothing original.
Real freedom, Koga and Kishimi state, is the freedom to be disliked. If you’re relying on your art to feed you, you cannot be free. And that goes for both feeding your ego through popularity and favorable reviews, and more literally; feeding your stomach by providing you with an income. Either way, you cannot be free.
This doesn’t mean that riches and fame might not be enjoyable bonuses. But a free creative does not rely on their art to provide them with personal or monetary value.
Finding the right audience
None of the usual measures (price, popularity, or prestige) are a good indication of a work’s value. But the seeming paradox of the reception of sequels is instructive.
Sequels are rated better because they have found the right audience. The people with whom the work resonates.
This can be achieved in various ways. Consider the apps that do the same thing, and end up with the same number of active users.
One found its right audience by casting the net wide. It attracted lots of people with a freebie, then waited to see who liked it enough to stick around.
The other found its right audience by, among other tactics, choosing a price that indicates “value” to its audience. The right audience for this particular app might consider 99c too “cheap” but $2.99 too expensive.
The first of these models is the funnel or “Ascending Transaction Model” described in Daniel Preistley’s Entrepreneur Revolution.
The second is the sort of scalpel-like precision involved in Ryan Holiday’s “Growth Hacking” model.
These methods can be combined to great effect.
For example, you might give away the first book in a series (casting the net wide). Then, charge a price that communicates value for the second book. Those who have already enjoyed book one will be happy to pay for book two. And they’ll go on and recommend your work to others. Because book one is free, others will be more likely to give your work a shot. Those who find it’s not for them won’t be as angry since they haven’t wasted money on it. Those who enjoy it will buy book two, and recommend your work to others… And so, the cycle begins again.
In short, putting a monetary value on our work (or choosing not to) is just one of the tools we have as artists to help us find our right audience.
The point of being a free creative unconstrained by the need to make money off our art to survive is to have the complete freedom to do this in accordance with our artistic goals.
We should not primarily judge our work by what others think of it. Whether that be how much they’re willing to pay for it, how many people are willing to engage with it, or what they say about it.
Nor can we expect to be able to make a living off of our creative work.
We need to feed our artistic work – not expect it feed us.
Even if we end up in a utopic future where everyone has ample leisure time, we can only fairly expect to sell as many books (or paintings or films) as we ourselves consume.
As Ryan Holiday says in Growth Hacking, it is more important to have happy customers than many customers.
As artists, we need to find the right audience for our work. Pricing is one way we can communicate something about the value of our work. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Nor is there a single permanent answer. A book, for instance, might have a free promotion to gain reviews and generate buzz, then be priced at $8.99. It might then go on sale for $4.99 to boost sales when they’ve dropped off after the initial lift. And when an author has a second book coming out, the first book might be made free again to attract new readers to the new offering.
“The most important distinction between price and value is the fact that price is arbitrary and value is fundamental”Forbes
Putting a price on our work is nothing more than a tool, like a word processor or a paint brush. The price is not the value. The price you put on a work of art may affect how people see it, but it does not change its inherent value.
Your work has intrinsic value, regardless of whether it sells a million copies or one, regardless of whether the price tag is a million dollars or free, regardless of whether its average rating is five stars or one, or whether it never attracts a review at all.
The only measure that really matters is how you value your work in respect to fulfilling your goals.
Write down now what success means to you. Display it somewhere prominent. This might be scrawled on a pretty card taped to your mirror, framed next to your computer, or painted inside your guitar case.