This post originally appeared on WPCandy on May 3rd, 2011. Head over there to read the commentary that followed.

Your site has those fancy drop-down menus you always see around the web. Not just the one that drops down, but the one that drops down and then out, and down and out with the really slick fading transitionsIt took you zero hours to code.

Your homepage features a really unique display of your portfolio items, sliding and zooming them in and out with a custom effect (designated in a custom theme options panel, of course). Adding your portfolio items was as easy as sending an email.

Your site also has 20+ custom page templates, 50+ layout and styling shortcodes, color options, video support, custom twitter widgets and working contact forms. Not to mention it is professionally designed, coded, validated and supported by some of the best talent on the web.

Your site is absolutely amazing and it cost you a total of $35. Less than an oil change, especially if you have a coupon.

What are you paying for?

Themes definitely aren’t what they used to be. You used to get a zip file with a few PHP files and a brief help file telling you how to modify code (by hand, mind you). These days, even the less advanced commercial WordPress themes come equipped with custom options frameworks, template builders, advanced Javascript usage and extensive theme documentation with installation videos. Oftentimes, buyers don’t even have to touch the theme’s source files. Modification and customization can be done right within the WordPress admin panel. How convenient.

The problem is, price adjustments have not changed proactively to reflect the evolution of these newer, Skynet-like super themes.

And then there’s theme support. Support isn’t required on somemarketplacesThemeForest included, but it’s the best way to stand behind your product. Many authors, including yours truly, even go as far as setting up their own support forums. Some even outsource theme support out of their own pocket. Remember, not a requirement. So aside from spending 10+ hours designing a theme and 40+ hours coding, we spend countless hours providing support for every sale we make. This “extra” effort simply cannot be reflected in a $35 download.

ThemeForest, the theme marketplace where I sell exclusively, currently sells WordPress themes at the $35-$37 price range. These days, most other theme shops are selling for an average of $65-$100. Some shops provide the PSD, some provide support, some provide neither and still charge upwards $75. On ThemeForest, most authors provide all of the above (and more) at the $35 price range. Now, a lot can be said about why independent theme shops like Press75 and WooThemes can survive at $75 per themes, but today we’re just looking at the value of themes, not their business model. That’s a conversation for another day.

It’s also important to remember that just because this discussion is revolving around ThemeForest, that doesn’t mean this is some kind of witch hunt. ThemeForest is where I sell themes and where I share experiences with other theme authors and buyers. They are definitely not the only marketplace selling at $35.

The price of doing business

The problem is, price adjustments have not changed proactively to reflect the evolution of these newer, Skynet-like super themes. Since my first sale on ThemeForest (in early 2009), WordPress themes have only seen one, seemingly random, price jump from $30-$32 to $35-$37.

Personally, I think high-end commercial WordPress themes should run about $125.

Jonathan Atkinson, a long-time top author at ThemeForest, would like to see theme prices raised by $10, which would place them at $45-$47. This seems like a pretty solid price increase, right? Buyers wouldn’t be too devastated and there would surely be a huge increase in sales for a lot of theme authors. But even with a $10 increase, you’re still only looking at a $45 theme, which high-selling authors will only see 70% of.

Personally, I think high-end commercial WordPress themes should run about $125. Compare that price tag to $125 in any other industry and see how far it gets you. Forget the cost of the actual theme files, the support alone for a year is more than $125. Will we see a base price of $125 for WordPress themes? Very doubtful. Definitely not on ThemeForest, but very likely not anywhere else for years to come.

What everyone else is saying

WordPress industry folks like Jason Schuller and Brian Gardner, top theme authors like Orman Clark, and theme buyers have all spoken up recently about the $35 price point for commercial themes. Everyone is in agreement that it’s simply not enough and that $35 themes could be devaluing the commercial theme market.

Obviously, one of the main issues with raising prices is how buyers will be affected. After all, they dictate the success of theme marketplaces and ultimately decide what kind of themes are going to sell. But have you actually talked with a theme buyer lately? The twist: they want to pay more for these themes. Yes, you heard right, theme buyers actually want to pay MORE for our themes.

Christopher Averill, a theme buying stud on ThemeForest, is one of the many buyers who recently spoke up about theme prices: “I couldn’t agree more. I don’t develop WP Themes but I consume them like mad. Authors need more for their work!” So if theme authors and buyers are on the same page, what exactly are we waiting for?

The simple fix

There isn’t a simple fix, friend. At this point, there’s no easy way to raise prices to reflect what themes are worth without causing some serious friction. Prices have been stuck at $35 for so long, that’s just what buyers have come to expect. You can’t just raise prices from $35 to $75 overnight without crippling the marketplace. Unless a more creative solution is put into place, we’re most likely looking at a slow price increase over the next couple of years. Let’s just hope those price increases reflect how themes will continually evolve so we’re not in the same situation in two years, selling themes at 2011 prices in 2013.

Even if that’s the case, raising theme prices at ThemeForest would only be a slow and temporary fix for a much bigger issue. The value of commercial themes as a whole seems to be in a perpetual state of confusion. Selling themes for $35 that are worlds better than most $75 themes makes no goddamn sense. Not for authors, not for buyers, not for marketplaces, not for our industry. Let’s try and set a standard of what commercial themes should be worth. It’s also up to the respective marketplaces to make more aggressive price increases to keep up with industry prices and standards.

It’s not just up to the powers that be. We are all responsible for educating buyers about what they’re getting. Not just from our themes, but from the WordPress solution as a whole. You aren’t just getting a template anymore. You’re getting a stunning, infinitely scalable website solution for pennies on the dollar. You’re are getting a website for $35-$75 that would cost $2000+ to have custom made. Probably even double that just a few years ago.

The good news

Within hours of this initial Twitter conversation, Collis, Overlord of Envato, spoke up tweeting “I must admit the amount of effort going in has changed since the early days of TF. I’ll put it to the SM team to review.”  It’s a good sign when you can tweet the CEO and get a constructive response almost immediately. And I expected nothing less from Collis.

Envato has always been active in the WordPress community: early adopters of the GPL, sponsoring various WordPress events, providing endless tutorials on Nettuts. If you’re reading this, I can almost guarantee that you’ve benefitted from the Envato network on numerous occasions. And it probably cost you nothing.

Envato pays my bills, and I pay theirs. And because we share this partnership, I feel like it’s important that we visit the various concerns that are going around the community that maybe they aren’t fully aware of. I really hope a public discussion like this can generate some fresh and creative ideas that the entire industry can benefit from.

We work in the greatest niche industry on the web. I wake up every day, design and code whatever I want, converse, conspire, and share ideas with some of the greatest minds in the WordPress community, and I’m able to make a living doing it. I am still truly grateful and lucky to have stumbled onto WordPress. You know, even if I’m stuck selling themes for $35.