How do you know what your work is worth? If you’re just starting out as a creator, it’s not easy to put a price on something that feels priceless, whether it’s your time, your ideas, or the art you create. And sometimes, that can result in undervaluing the work you do.
In our series on creators and the passion economy, we’ve been looking at how creators are finding their niche, attracting true fans, and staying inspired to sustain their passion. Many have reported ways that they’re using new platforms—including Etsy, Patreon, and Dropbox Shop—to connect with the people who most value their work. But if you’re a new creator, knowing how to set the right pricing to attract buyers isn’t an exact science.
There are now more creator-supporting apps than ever, but less certainty about how to leverage them to make a living—especially at a time when revenue from brand deals seems to be waning, but direct-to-follower engagement is on the rise. We spoke with veteran creators about learning to negotiate, the power of raising your rates, and the value of collaboration over competition.
Negotiate when your work is in demand
When Jenny Meassick first launched her Chocolate and Lace blog, it was only meant to be a fun, creative hobby while she was on maternity leave from her job as chief marketing officer at a major American financial services company. “When you have a newborn, you have a lot to do, but I needed some sort of outlet,” she recalls.
After posting photos of her meals to Instagram, she began to get requests for her recipes and her following grew organically. But she quickly saw the opportunity to expand her scope from food to lifestyle. As she began sharing more content about herself and her life, she found an even broader audience on other social media platforms. Then she learned how to adjust her content on each to cater to the different expectations of the audiences.
“Being authentic became a really important part of being able to establish a community,” Meassick says. That’s when she began to see the potential to turn her creative outlet into a new source of income that was more than a part-time side hustle. “This is not a $10-an-hour business. This can attract significant contracts, from six months to a year,” she says. “That really helped, especially during the pandemic.”
Meassick also found she was able to leverage her experience as a CMO in her life as a creator.
“One of the biggest advantages I have is that I understand how to negotiate a contract,” she says. “So many people don't understand that side, and unfortunately what happens is, people either work for free because they're excited or they give the farm away.”
With digital content becoming a multi-billion dollar industry, she says it’s crucial for creators not to underbid themselves, especially when working with brands. When other creators reach out for advice, she says they’re usually shocked at what she recommends. “I think a creator vastly underestimates what they should charge,” Meassick says.
She remembers when a well-known car company reached out to offer a contract that required exclusivity during the holiday season.
“It was a gamble because if another car company came across my plate, I couldn't work with them,” she recalls. “So I asked for double of the original arrangement—and I was really nervous, but they didn't bat an eye. The response was ‘No problem—I'll update the contracts.’ That taught me so much. I was like, ‘Wow, why have I not been doing this?’ It was so easy. Just making the ask is really powerful and I don't think people do that enough.”
Lean into the power of perceived value
As a photographer and creator of how-to, educational videos, Taylor Jackson's path to success began not behind the camera, but in front of one.
Just as his experience on the slopes influenced his work in snowboard and ski photography, his experience playing guitar in bands trained him to have an insider’s point of view as a concert photographer.
“I'm always trying to create from what I would want if I was on the other side of the camera,” he explains. When he began taking on wedding assignments over 15 years ago, his uniquely empathetic approach made him a sought-after photographer.
“Just making the ask is really powerful and I don't think people do that enough.”—Jenny Meassick
But at the time, there wasn’t much educational content available to show him the details of the business. As it turns out, the lack of step-by-step instructional information was by design. Many veteran photographs were reluctant to reveal the technical aspects of their shoots, which they considered trade secrets. But that gap became an opportunity for Jackson, and an important step in finding his niche as a YouTube creator who’s attracted over half a million subscribers.
As more educators appeared online, he started to develop his own style based on bits and pieces from the videos he watched. Eventually, he felt he’d gained enough expertise to start paying it forward and giving back to the community with his own how-to videos. Part of what he wants to pass along now is advice for determining the value of your work.
“Regardless of what I'm trying to sell, I always take a realistic look at the market,” he says. “If you just add up all of your business expenses, and you're like, ‘I need to charge this much to go to a shoot,’ then that doesn't align with what the market is doing, you're gonna find a lot of rejection. It won't be the rejection of people emailing you and being like, ‘That's too much money.’ It'll be rejection in the sense that no one's gonna be contacting you—which is, I think, far worse.”
Because he had hunger to do as much work as he possibly could, he kept his rates low at first.
“Every couple of weeks, I bumped my prices up a little bit,” he recalls. “It's scary to go from the bottom entry level of the market to weddings where you’re charging $2,000 per day. The scariness quickly resolves itself in the sense that now you have a lot more perceived value. You're not that low-budget photographer anymore. All of a sudden, you’re somebody that’s seen with a little bit more professionalism. There's so much implied value when you actually get to a proper price.”
Jackson says having the income of a full-time job may give you a tendency to discount your services more than you should in the beginning. But there’s a downside to discounting.
“If you build your entire client base in that lower sector, it's very difficult to move out of there,” he says. “[You] have to price to get started, but quickly scale up as fast as you can to get to the people that really do truly appreciate your work and what you do.”
Foster community, not competition
“A lot of stuff started happening at once—superheroes were becoming more mainstream and superhero movies were starting to happen,” they recall. “Manga was starting to be localized in North America to a far greater extent. The internet was becoming more accessible, too. So the world of web comics was starting to get really interesting, diverse, and fun.”
“[You] have to price to get started, but quickly scale up as fast as you can to get to the people that really do truly appreciate your work and what you do.”—Taylor Jackson
As they went through high school and college, they started learning more about the craft and making their own stories, eventually dabbling in online comics. “That’s when I started serializing my first big work, sharing work, and developing a community and a readership.”
Around the time they started their comic O Human Star in 2012, social media started to open up more opportunities to reach readers who were seeking the kind of content they were creating.
“I primarily use Twitter. I use Tumblr as well—I feel like it says a lot about me and my work,” says Delliquanti. “It gave me a lot of new realms of potential readership to explore while still remaining consistent with the kind of work I like to do. I feel like a lot of my work was right place, right time. A lot of readers were starting to get interested in queer-focused narratives.”
Their readership soon began snowballing. “I just found a like-minded community of readers and fellow creators,” they explain. “I didn't have to desperately advertise in a bunch of places. It developed naturally in a way that might’ve been difficult five years earlier—but also might’ve been more difficult five years later, because social media became more of a broad platform.”
At the same time, they started freelancing and participating in comic anthologies where they became known as a valuable pinch hitter who could reliably deliver strong contributions to large group collaboration projects such as anthologies. “That reputation allowed me to get consistent work and get my comics out in that community in a way that supplemented my personal projects,” says Delliquanti.
In their first few years of freelancing, they tended to calculate their project pricing based on an hourly rate and an estimated number of hours it would take to finish.
“I found that often helped save me from undercutting myself or quoting a rate that was, unbeknownst to me, well below industry standards,” they say. “That was something that I got a feel for over time, something I'm frankly still getting a feel for. I will play it by ear. If it's a smaller project I'm more passionate about, I will low ball a little bit.”
For comic artists just entering the creator economy, they recommend approaching it as a community, not a competition.
“In certain creative industries, like concept art or editorial illustration, it can often feel competitive,” they say. “But with comics, you can't think that way. It’s not conducive to doing well or learning. It benefits everybody if we’re all on the same page in terms of rates and making sure you're advocating for fair contracts. That's what I try and foster in younger people who get into comics.”
For their personal work, their online comics are typically available to read online for free in perpetuity through a browser, but they also offer self-published print versions and PDF versions available to download and save. For creator-owned work, they have three points of sale.
Delliquanti says Patreon has been a means of consistent financial support. “There are exclusive things I only make available to patrons. So I think of that as a storefront that I consistently keep fresh and keep updating.”
Those exclusives include a monthly sketchbook and access to monthly live streams where they answer questions related to their process. their other storefronts include Big Cartel, where they sell physical merchandise such as print books.
“I've offered stickers and magnets there and within the last year,” they say. “I’ve consolidated all of my PDFs for sale on itch.io. I foresee that’s where all of my pdfs will live going forward.”
Delliquanti says creators shouldn’t be shy about reaching out to others in their community, whether that means recommendations about rates or requesting references. Consider them an extended support system of like-minded peers who have valuable lessons to share. “Because it’s already a difficult place to make a living. It helps to have friends, allies, and peers.”