Monetising conlangs

I have a small idea about how to use a conlang to get money. It's not something that I have done, but it is something that I am capable of doing in a technical sense.

This is more a random collection of thoughts, and not really a proposal for a business plan or anything. Additionally, this is entirely a pragmatic approach and I make no statements over whether any idea discussed here is ethical, even the act of making languages to sell itself. How it is done is entirely orthogonal to whether anyone should do it.

1. The usual practice.

The traditional method of making money out of the craft of conlanging is simply building one for hire:

1. Someone contacts you to make a conlang.

2. You make one for him.

3. You send it off to him, with some additional conceits regarding ownership going forward or similar.

4. You are done.

This is highly satisfactory for virtually every case, but is labour-intensive for the craftsman, and also expensive for the customer. According to the consensus rates, this ranges roughly from about 8 lunches* in an average restaurant, in the extreme minimal case, to about 150, in the average high-end case.

But perhaps there is an appetite for somewhat less effort, or at least a "try before you buy" – or more "buy a sample before you commit" – approach to buying a language from someone.

2. Languages For Hire, or a White-Label Language.

If you're anything like me, you would have built a corpus of conlangs that are of many different shapes and sizes, and there's one for most purposes. What if you can lend one to a prospective author?

So the idea is fairly simple:

1. Have a bunch of conlangs. 20 is good, but if you're particularly good at being diverse with your conlanging options 10 is enough.

2. If someone is interested, you can show him a catalogue of them. Say he's interested and picks one of them.

3. Then you can enter into a consultancy agreement in the most literal sense: he calls you, asks you questions ("consults", in other words) about your language, and you answer or work it out with him.

4. You can make some small alterations for whatever purposes the customer wants, for an additional fee. Perhaps he wants a few extra names, or he wants to relex it, though work done in this capacity would approach the action in the usual practice. As a reference I'd consider 1 lunch's worth of money for maybe half an hour's worth of support, more if I have to dig out a whole bunch of stuff or make things up on the spot.

5. Bill for time on call or whatever similar.

Additional details such as crediting, whether the name of the language stays, and what changes are considered to be permissible in this model are left for definition in a case-by-case basis.

As the heading of this title suggests this is similar practice to many other industries – a company specialises in making prefabricated items so that some middleman can come in, buy a copy, and then stick their own name on top. Typically, this is called a "white label product".

White label product on Wikipedia

But it also resembles a particular model of free-software and -adjacent monetisation, where ultimately the thing you are to use is free to use, copy, study and modify, but you can pay for support on top of what you can read off the documentation.

3. A few comments.

Obviously this requires quite a lot of up-front effort in the conlanger's side. There's no going around it but the up-side is that you can use whatever sketch you have. You will have to build languages outside of pay as well. I happen to do this but this is clearly not a path that is viable for everyone. However if the language is not developed fully, you can use this as an opportunity to build some more right there, on the spot.

In my case, the documentation is entirely free, and while this is not tested in court I strongly believe that languages cannot be copyrighted in any case, so there's no stopping anyone from just reading the documentation himself and trying to piece things together without the help of the craftsman. But it is my experience that my documentation is... not the best, and I have to clarify things to people as I post my pages (though a lack of context may be additional reason why this is the case).

I consider it essential to have open documentation, to ensure that everyone – including whoever would ultimately be exposed to the language-for-hire, which in the usual case is story reader, given that the demand for conlangs for hire is mainly in the form to embed in some story – knows what they're getting, before any money changes hands. If the customer wants it kept to himself, he should revert to using the traditional method.

The rate cannot be much lower, so as not to tempt the general public, who still have relatively little idea of what the value and worth of a conlang is, to default to it. Setting it equal to the price of making a language from scratch however seems sleazy, because this is after all a prefab job.

Languages made deliberately to be white-labelled in this manner shouldn't come with their own setting, but they can anyway. Their lore, should any exist, can be ignored, or integrated into the story if that's preferential.

Like with any other method of selling a conlang, there's a whole lot of other details here that cannot be substantiated except on a case-by-case basis. It is still a creative work, and therefore some level of customisation is inevitable.

One small kink is that if you have customised a language in a non-trivial way, you would probably wish to charge extra for that, just because you have to keep track of those modifications. This goes double if, as in the usual case where the language is ultimately to fit in a story, you agree that the fans of the story can contact you to help with their documentation (but why would you do that?)

4. Conclusion

If you have many conlangs, and maybe some of them are a bit of a meme, you can white-label it and sell ("sell") it that way. Unlike the usual method, this would be more of a consultancy job where you bill for support, not for the effort of building the language per se (but obviously you still want to charge for the effort you put in making that language in the first place).

It's a bit of a renting agreement, in that you will ask for payment on a recurring basis rather than it being a one-and-done. The model resembles many other ways that one can make money off of something that is nominally free or otherwise hard to simply sell or rent out.


*To normalise against currencies, we're going to take a Big Mac index approach and refer to things according to how many lunches they can buy. The exact dollar values, which I have taken from the Language Creation Society (LCS), are converted into a number of lunches according the going rate of lunches where I live. That works out to be about 70 HKD, which we're going to round to 10 USD for reasons of making the arithmetic easier.

Suggested pricing levels from the LCS

Big Mac Index on Wikipedia

(It seems like all the Wikipedia mirrors are down!)