Putting a price on words

Like it or not, people want to put a price on your art. As a freelance writer it’s something I have to consider every day – how much is a hundred words of Andrew Knighton worth? What do I charge for an hour of writing? It’s an inescapable part of keeping creativity alive – writers need to eat, or they’ll stop being writers and become skeletons, or hungry cannibals desperately hunting their neighbours.

I tell you, that’s how the zombie apocalypse will begin.

But there are deeper consequences to considering this question.

Saving up for the Avengers boxed set
Saving up for the Avengers box set

With all the recent discussion of self-publishing, and Joss Whedon challenging business as usual in releasing his new film, the market for arts and culture is clearly changing. That has consequences for us as writers, as readers, and as a society. Because putting a price on something changes it and changes us.

So how does the market for the arts affect us?

Supporting artists

Lets start with the obvious. Paying for creativity gives that creativity an opportunity to flourish. The fact that many creators are paid for their work allows a huge range of creativity to burst forth. Look at the variety of art, music, literature and film currently available to you. Sure, the same bland stuff might be shoved down your throat by marketers and mainstream media channels, but there’s a rich range out there to be found, from Chap-hop to Afrobeat Joy Division covers, dark fantasy epics to silly pirate stories. And the market can reward good work. Sure it’s to blame for the ubiquity of Robin Thicke, but it also feeds Damon Albarn and 2CELLOS.

The downside is that the market doesn’t just reward artists for their creative merits. Factors such as having the right marketing connections can make a huge difference. Rewards drive behaviour, as any psychologist or manager can tell you, and if the rewards support negative behaviour – like self-aggrandisement and sexism – then we’ll get shallow self-publicity along with the real worth.

Shifting values

Market values – looking at an object in terms of its financial worth – are not neutral, nor do they leave other values unharmed. As Michael Sandel has convincingly argued in What Money Can’t Buy, market values displace other values. The worth we assign to paintings, films and books is affected by how much people pay for them.

If you’ve ever played the board game Modern Art you’ll know what I mean. That game has a deck of cards, all with pictures, but those pictures make absolutely no difference to the worth of the art in the game. It’s all about the cash value.

Putting a price on creativity does not just quantify the perceived value of a work, it changes it, and not always for the better.

The roar of the crowd

We can see this shift in the debate over best selling books and films. The very fact that they see such high sales and make their writers rich polarises and disrupts debate over their content and meaning. Would J K Rowling‘s most scathing critics be so harsh if she only sold a few thousand books a year? Would I get angry about Braveheart if it hadn’t made millions?

The noise, both of over-enthusiastic praise and over-compensating criticism, can drown out the signal of intelligent discussion in the mass market, and that’s a shame.

On the other hand, this noise also has a democratic element. The fact that a hugely popular book can provoke such widespread debate has the potential to create wider intellectual and emotional engagement with the arts, to enrich us as a society and as individuals. In this sense, all that noise adds some value back to the arts, for all the disruption it causes.

Think how you pay

Markets in the arts can be disruptive, but they can also be empowering. We should all think not just about what we consume but how we do it. Could you buy more books from indie authors or from charity shops, giving money to artists and good causes instead of big companies? Given a choice of two films maybe you could choose the one that directly rewards creativity and innovation, rather than big business and big marketing. Maybe you could join Goodreads and review the books you read, helping create a better signal and a healthy, creative debate.

Art as a market affects you. Affect it back.



Picture by Images of Money via Flickr creative commons