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

Lessons learned from Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy

Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets might sound like an unlikely source of inspiration for a fiction writer. It’s a book about the influence of market values as they intrude into every corner of our lives, a challenge to accepted truths on the subject. There are no exotic locations or exciting events as you would get reading a book on history or mythology. And yet, having finished it this morning, I’ve found that it’s given me much to work with when writing.

Images of Money 2


The way we assign value

Often in books, especially those focused on action and adventure, objects and events are given much the same value by all involved. The Holy Grail is a thing of huge importance to all who encounter it because of its power. Not everyone might care about the core maguffin for the same reasons, but they value it in much the same way, and its value remains the same no matter their reasons for valuing it.

But something Sandel draws attention to is that the way we value objects changes their value. Once corporate boxes were put into football grounds they became less egalitarian places. High and low alike weren’t crammed together on the terraces, and the wealthy looked down on the masses from behind protective glass. People were attending who valued their status above the sport, and that changed the place.

The way we assign value changes our behaviour, and that can change our world.

Hidden ideologies

Sandel, like many other commentators, challenges the neutrality of certain assumptions. He argues that using market forces to assign services and goods changes those things. Modern economic assumptions aren’t the universal truths many treat them as – they are ideological assumptions.

Whether or not you agree with Sandel it gives you something interesting to ponder when creating a fictional world. What are the assumptions its inhabitants take for granted? What are the religious, social, political and economic ideas they never even mention because they are so fundamental to their lives? Taking that in new directions has potential for creating unusual fantasy and science fictional societies, like Iain M. Banks’s Culture.

The Dan Brown effect

There’s also an interesting lesson for those of us trying to work within creative industries. Sandel argues that placing a commercial value on something can squeeze out its other values in our minds. So a work of art with great merit might be far less successful than a mediocre one if the mediocre one is seen as easier route to profit and so pushed by big companies. This can warp our culture, and raises a challenge for both writers and readers in cutting through the business to put cultural value first.

Looking for the unexpected

As writers we need to be eclectic, to take lessons from all fields, to give our worlds depth. Sometimes that’s about basing a character on a real person or gaining inspiration from a painting. But sometimes it’s about reading books on economics.

So, any thoughts on this? Have any of you read books that became surprising sources of inspiration? Where have you got good ideas and new perspectives from? Leave a comment, let me know.


Picture by Images of Money via Flickr creative commons