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The Price of Paper

Most of you know by now that I started my career in music, and more specifically classical music. I was a trombone soloist, whatever that means, and one of my first jobs when I was in high school was working for my private teacher, David Marlatt, who also ran a music publishing business called Eighth Note Publications (ENP Music). I learned a lot from David, both about music and performance (since he was my private teacher) and about business. Over a number of years, I had many different roles at ENP Music, from doing general tech support stuff, building some automation pipelines for things, copying sheet music paper into the computer (probably still the most mentally tedious thing I’ve ever done….), and working on my own arrangements to learn about publishing music. Funny enough, I found a bunch of them for sale, proof!

Why paper?

I think one of the most interesting things I learned from him was about the price of paper. The price of paper is kind of the lofty name I give the memory from many years ago, which to be honest, the memory is fuzzy and could have gone down in any number of ways! The essence is what is important! We were talking about the price of sheet music. He asked me something along the lines “How much should sheet music cost?” to which my 17 or 18 year old self had no real answer to. He then went on to explain the physical cost of sheet music, in terms of expenses related to the production of it, ranging from a piece of paper being a few cents per page, a cent or two for ink, a few staples, maybe a harder piece of paper for the cover. What does all cost? Less than 50 cents? Maybe you can factor in some of the time it took to enter the music, but that’s kind of intangible.

Charge it

The reality is you charge whatever you want for it, and in most cases you’re trying to charge as much as people are willing to pay. That was what he was telling me. Sheet music usually sells for anywhere from 99 cents to $100 for a single piece of music (not talking about orchestral sets). Why such a big range in pricing for essentially the same kind of product? Is it quality? Sometimes. Is it scarcity? Sometimes. Celebrity status for some composers and not others? Sometimes. Here’s two copies of the same piece of Mozart, one of them is free because Mozart is public domain at this point, and the other is the same thing but costs ~$40 CAD.

Is there a quality difference between the two? Maybe, but unlikely. Mozart’s horn concertos are so popular the IMSLP public domain one is probably accurately notated and ready for production. Is it scarcity? Nope, I can print Mozart and you can print Mozart. Celebrity status? I mean I’ve never heard of Presto Music (in fairness I’m not in classic music biz anymore), but I doubt their name as a publisher makes people giddy like Leo Di Caprio. So do you want to know the real reason?

They just can…

It’s really that simple. They think they can charge ~$40 for a public domain piece of music that you could print off. They feel they have put together a nice package, have nice sales materials, have a quality advantage in terms of having checked for types, and have a nicer feel than your print out at home. When they think about all of that, they thought to themselves “You know what we should charge for this? Let’s try $40. Let’s make this feel premium and sell it as such.” That’s it. I imagine if it has been $40 for a while, someone has bought, likely more than one person at this point. I know that feels anti-climactic. “They charge that much because they can” is not really something scientific you can take to the bank with you but it’s an important lesson when you start to think about who you are, what you do, and the field you work in.

Looping it back to you (and me)

What’s your rate? Is it a static number? Has it changed in recent years? Has it grown or decreased over time? Why is your rate your rate? This is the fundamental question that comes back to the price of paper. When you think about developer rates there are so many intangibles such as

  • years of experience
  • number of programming languages known
  • size of portfolio
  • size of companies they’ve worked with
  • attitude
  • speed of development
  • creativity

The list goes on but one thing remains the same, most of these are kind of intangible at the end of the day. I can guarantee the 8-9 years of experience I’ve had in the field are equivalent to many more of the average developer, because I’ve spent 14+ hours of a day working on my craft for those 8-9 years at the expense of other parts of my life, and there aren’t that many people that can make that claim. So that’s kind of out the window. What about number of languages known? I could say a small handful, but do I really know them as well as someone who just knows GLSL and has only done GLSL for their whole career? Is it more beneficial to be the deepest GLSL developer or to have a well rounded knowledge of a bunch of language? Again, these questions don’t really have definite answers, so when it comes to creating a definite rate, they don’t really help.

What does help is the price of paper. You need to ask around your peers, figure out who’s charging what, and then you need to set your rate at whatever you think you can sell. Personally, our rates always start at $1,500 USD a day, and we’re quite flexible to negotiate rates based on length of project, difficult, etc etc because we know there are lots of factors that make some jobs easier than others. So while maybe someone who hires us for 2-3 days of consulting pays $1,500 USD a day, if there’s a gig that will take 30 days of time but isn’t too intensive, we give that person a break and bring the rate down maybe to $1,100 USD or $1,200 USD or similar. But the key to all of this is, I know I can sell my rate. I have set the price of my own paper and can defend it. My years of experience both in development and on-the-ground deployment, my portfolio / pedigree, depth of knowledge, understanding of different locales and customs having spent years traveling, good attitude and stress-resilience are reasons that I justify the price of my paper. And thus I can charge that much. That’s really all there is to it.

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Figure out your paper price

Sadly, at the end of the day, one of the most important parts of being a freelance developer is your sales ability, which usually go under-developed and under-practiced. But it’s important to spend some time to figure out your price. Price it like sheet music, charge the most you think you can charge. There’s no reason you shouldn’t do that. Your bills and you making money are no less important than anyone else. There’s no reason some agency should make 6 figures from a project and you should only make a few thousand dollars.

Make a list of all your good qualities and features and turn it into the strongest sales pitch you can. Then ask around to friends and other developers what they would suggest in terms of rates. After hearing them out, you have to ultimately decide for yourself what the highest rate you think you can sell is. I’d recommend always going higher than you think, and then making sure the client knows you’re open to negotiations. And then practice on your friends! Most of your colleagues will be fine with talking you through it.

Wrap Up

The moral of the story at the end of the day is this, rates are always changing, charge whatever you can (usually as much as you can!) to make a living and keep paying your bills. If you keep your ear to the ground and talk to fellow peers about rates, you’ll always have a sense of what the general “price of paper” is and then you can decide what the price of your paper is.