The Value of the Work we Create

The idea of offering something for free suggests that you’re getting a bargain, that you’re getting something for free that shouldn’t be. Yet when the same things, or the same types of things, are routinely given away for free that message changes. Those items lose their value. People start expecting those things to be free; they don’t see why they should pay when they can get something similar for free elsewhere.

Giving something away for free is a common sales tactic. Commercial yarn companies have forever given patterns away for free to drive sales of yarn. They devalued the patterns their staff were paid to develop because they never saw the pattern as the product, only a tool to drive sales of tangible goods. And it’s a problem that hurts indie pattern designers, authors and teachers the most, especially those of us who aren’t comfortable financially. How can we make a living when folks have been taught that a pattern, article or tutorial doesn’t have any value of it’s own?

When the ‘ink to link’ revolution came to the yarn industry it opened up whole new options for customers. It meant that those designers could manage book errata and keep knitters in the loop about revisions. It meant knitters could have the choice of both to suit their needs – a hard copy for the bookshelf and a digital copy to print and make notes on, or use on their device when out and about. There are many upsides to offering the digital alongside the tangible because there are many benefits to the digital product itself. Yet it wasn’t without drawbacks.

Some concerns speak to the wider issue of classism in the fibre industry, in terms of not having the financial privilege it takes to invest in your business or new trends and therefore fail to grow at the same rate as your peers; and in terms of expectations from customers and being compared to other indies when those privileges, or lack of, aren’t acknowledged.

Those issues aside, I couldn’t help but wonder why these books were being promoted as coming with a free PDF when we’d spent so much time and effort building up the notion that our PDF patterns were a product of value in and of themselves. Why undo all of that work and make it harder for the rest of us? I’m sure that wasn’t the intention but that was the impact all the same.

When it boils down to it, despite the differences in preference and the logistics of using each, the fundamental difference between a digital book and a physical book is the amount of paper one has. The content is exactly the same, yet one is considered more valuable than the other because of it’s tangible qualities.

In my mind it comes back to the same thing that yarn companies build on – tangible items are considered more important than intangible items because of the materials and direct costs involved. The work involved in creating and developing and designing goes largely unseen, and therefore undervalued. We know the materials cost money because we’re told that all time, but we’re not told the same about the actual work. It’s a default position in many industries but it seems particularly prevalent in creative industries.

As indie designers we don’t design patterns to sell yarn, we design patterns to sell patterns. We don’t write books to sell paper, we write books to sell the content of our books. Our work provides hours upon hours of entertainment. It teaches new skills and techniques, it provides insight into different perspectives and helps us grow as a community.

Our work absolutely has value so how do we shift this perspective? How can we as an industry and community support our talents without relying on privilege?

One thing we can do is change our language and reframe how we present our content, or for want of a better phrase, our intellectual products or digital goods. Each time a pattern, article or tutorial is given away for free, that emphasis on the “free” makes it harder for us to ask a fair price for our work.

Instead of saying that a book with a download code has a “free PDF”, start stating that the price is for both. Give the digital item the same weight as the tangible item. The ordering of items can have an impact, too, as we subconsciously expect to the see the more important items listed first.

I long since gave up on print as I’ve never been in a position to pay for a print run on one book let alone all of them, and I’ve been a big proponent of POD – print on demand – because of this. When I set my book prices through Magcloud whenever possible I get it set so that I earn the same on a print book as I do a digital book. Why should I earn less on those sales purely because paper comes into it?

I’ve a lot of free patterns and tutorials on this website, a LOT. Yet without the support of my Patreons I wouldn’t be able to continue producing them let alone host them. On each blog post you’ll see a message that publicly thanks my Patreons for their support. That message also serves as a reminder that these patterns and tutorials aren’t without cost; that they’re paid for, and are paid for through patronage.

This is something that can be used by folks who want to continue providing free patterns, tutorials or articles because they don’t feel that they can, or don’t want to, charge for them for different reasons. Patreon may not work for everyone, and different business models exist. The vast majority of folks who give this kind of content away for free know it isn’t free to produce so why not say that? As I said in my recent Twitter thread about this it’s all well and good for companies to say their staff have been paid fairly for their work, but that does little to give an actual value to our time and skills when it’s routinely given away for free.

Language that could be used along these lines might include “this free pattern is sponsored by sales of our yarn” or “this article has been supported by our club members”. These simple statements add transparency and bring some of the hidden costs to the forefront. And I think for this to really be of benefit it doesn’t want to be said once on a mission page or similar, it wants to be said each and every time. It needs to be implicitly tied to the actual content that’s being consumed.

If you want to give back to the community, rephrasing that as “in exchange of the time and skills shared with me by my fellow knitters, I’m offering this pattern without charge” or “as a thank you for the invaluable knowledge shared by this community, I’m donating this tutorial” might work. Or how about “as a thank you for the time and skill it took to write this pattern, can I ask that you make a charitable donation?”. I’m not the greatest wordsmith, numbers and sequences are my thing, but it seems wise to me to not conflate ‘cost’ with ‘charge’ if you’re happy to give your work away for free. Words such as ‘exchange’ or ‘donate’ carry implications of value that ‘free’ doesn’t. This is something each of us can think about and add our own spin to, yet these little changes could go a very long way.

If you’re a yarn company or yarn store, instead of offering a pattern free with a yarn purchase, perhaps stating that the price is for both would help make it clear that there’s more than one item of value in the purchase, or maybe reframe it as a kit. It’s that idea of giving the pattern equal weight at the point of sale again. Instead of “buy this yarn and get this pattern for free!” could “$9 discount when you buy this pattern and yarn together!” work? If you’re thinking well, I’ve already factored the costs of the pattern into the yarn price, maybe don’t? Maybe consider the yarn and pattern as separate items with costs and charges of their own?

For this to work on a larger scale folks are going to need to start thinking of the intangible as equal to the tangible. Yet we can bring about the changes needed by thinking about the impact of our own actions and words. There are many ways to present our work and say a similar thing without continually devaluing our ideas and skills over and over. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we, as a community, got to a point where folks could openly and confidently question whether a designer, teacher or author has been compensated fairly when they see something offered for free?

eta/ I don’t particularly like the word ‘content’, although I’ve used it here as it’s the current catchword and it seems relevant in these discussions right now. I’ve even changed the post title and main image as the word was grating on me. Can please lift us all up by calling our work what it is – designing, writing, teaching, editing, creating?

Woolly Wormhead

Woolly Wormhead is an internationally reknowned knit designer, specialising in Hats, technique and construction. Their patterns and techniques have been used by thousands of knitters worldwide. Join The Woolly Hat Society to be the first to learn of their latest projects and special offers!


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