It’s prediction time: The Premium WordPress Theme phenomenon has approximately one year left before collapsing entirely, leaving a rather large hole between completely free WordPress themes and custom themes $1500 and up. If you’ve got a “Premium” WordPress theme waiting in the wings I advise releasing it sooner rather than later. As in, now.
Before I explain myself let’s get one term straight: Premium. I’d rather use the compound “pay-for-use” because more often than not “Premium”, when it comes to WordPress themes, simply means “it costs money” and not “of superior quality”. This isn’t true for everyone of course. But it is certainly true of some (and will increasingly become true of more as the market becomes saturated).
Oh, and Options has one more feature. It signals the end of the Premium WordPress theme market.
The End of The Premium WordPress Theme Market
You see, options has pretty much every feature you’d ever find in a premium theme, including support, with one stupendously major difference. It’s free. And that’s not all. While there are premium themes out there with slightly different feature sets that Options doesn’t have, how long do you think it will take before those too have been brought up to the free-theme level? I give it two months.
This development hasn’t been without controversy. Options was briefly de-linked from Weblog Tools Collection for copyright concerns and spawned two follow-up posts on WPDesigner, and Adii.co.za. All three posts have somewhat heated comments sections and are all worth a read.
My Stance on The Decline and Fall of the Premium Theme Market
My stance is easily summed up in one word: Good. When I started ThemeShaper one of my eventual goals was to release a free WordPress theme that would pull the rug out from under the Premium theme market. Partly because I enjoy making mischief but mainly because I saw it becoming saturated and I wanted to clear some room for new ideas. As you can imagine, I’m quite happy to have Justin clear the road for me (in a far grander way than I could ever have done).
Plus, WordPress themes, technically, have to be free.
As it turns out, WordPress themes are likely covered under the GPL license that WordPress ships with. Matt Mullenweg seems to think so and I bet he’s looked at this issue somewhat thoroughly. Any work that builds off of WordPress and contains some of it’s particular code would inherit that license. That’s how the GPL license works—apparently—I’m not a lawyer. But note that premium theme designer Adii (I’ve also recommended his work) mentions having “no legal rights” in his recent presentation on the premium WordPress theme market. He seems to suspect Matt is right.
For more information check out WordPress themes are GPL code, a post that does an excellent job summarizing the debate around this issue.
But there are other ways to make money theming WordPress.
Other Premium WordPress Theme Ideas
No one yet, to my knowledge, has made a premium WordPress theme that has the polish and flash of the best Joomla themes. Take a look at RocketTheme and Yootheme if you don’t believe me. There’s one idea. Take the Premium Theme Market to a whole ‘nother level—until someone catches up again. And, of course, the flashiest WordPress theme still inherits the GPL license. But not everything does. Figure out what doesn’t inherit that license and monetize that.
There’s theme clubs offering support and early-bird access to novel themes, like the aforementioned RocketTheme and the WPDesigner Themes Club (currently giving away 20,000 memberships—small potatoes think big). But it doesn’t stop with Themes clubs.
Designers could team up with developers and offer custom WordPress installs—you get a highly specialized theme that works with a highly specialized version of WordPress supported by custom plugins. This would be a great idea. It would allow for more experimentation and take much of the burden off of the theme. An appropriate price and level of complexity would scare off pirates. And even if the free market offers your ideas and theme structures for free there’s no way they would want to compete with the kind of service and support this model would have to offer.
The WordPress community is huge and ever-changing; I know there are even more great ideas out there.
Whatever happens to the Premium WordPress theme market in the next year it will certainly be interesting. Myself, I’m going to continue releasing enthusiastic experiments in WordPress theming. One of those experiments may just be a “premium” theme—with a left field way of looking at monetizing it. This won’t happen anytime soon, if it happens at all, but it’s been in the back of my cluttered mind for a while.
Let’s see what happens.