Monday, August 6, 2018

56- The World Does Not Owe Us a Living Wage for Our Art

Recently, a post has been making the rounds on social media in which the author of said post complains about people who tell struggling creatives that they should move into another field. The author sets up a very specific scenario:

-An artist is struggling financially, and is apparently complaining to others about it.
- Someone not only suggests that the artist should have gone into a another field, but in the author's scenario, this imaginary person specifies "tech or something useful."
-The author then leaps to the conclusion that this imaginary advice-giver therefore believes that artists are "drains on society and unworthy of life" and should be forced to go without art for thirty days.

Obviously, even with the very specific word choices in this imagined scenario, it's quite a leap to equate "you should have chosen a field in which you can support yourself" with "you are unworthy of life" but my issues stem more from the various contexts to which this post has been applied, and the commentary added to it by various creatives. So, I thought I'd share some thoughts related to this issue and some of the arguments I've seen it elicit.

I don't buy the scenario as it is presented.
I have never experienced or witnessed a scenario like the one the author has concocted. When I first became a full-time author, a couple of people close to me asked privately, and out of genuine concern if I was able to get by on my income, and I was able to reply with a resounding "yes." I made the choice not to work in the arts on a full-time basis until my earnings from my write had consistently exceeded my "day job" income for several months. On rare occasion, when a creative has publicly complained about his/her inability to earn a living, and has blamed it on society, I've seen someone make a snarky comment about the arts as a valid career path. I've never seen anyone say that someone is "unworthy of life" because they pursued the arts as a career path.

No one wants to hear us complain that we can't make a living in our chosen field.
When somebody complains about not being able to make a living in their chosen artistic endeavor, my first thought isn't, "This is society's fault!" My initial reaction is to feel sympathy. I've been broke. I've had books flop. it's a terrible feeling. I also feel a little sad, because I know that all the sympathy in the world won't improve that person's financial position. But quickly my thoughts turn to all the people who are making a living in that person's particular niche, and wonder what separates them from the person doing the complaining. If someone is complaining that their indie mystery novels aren't selling, I don't wonder why nobody reads anymore. I wonder what Jana DeLeon is doing that this author isn't. Finally, I begin to wonder what steps, if any, this person is taking to earn a living, since art isn't getting the job done. In any event, it never improves my opinion of someone for them to complain that not enough people want to buy their art.

Art for art's sake is great, but if you expect to earn a living, you're subject to market forces.
Understand, I'm not talking about people who make their living in one field, and pursue their art on the side. I'm addressing people who expect to receive sufficient recompense for their art to maintain a minimum standard of living. As soon as we put our art up for sale, we must accept the fact that the economic value of our work is determined by how many people want to buy it and how much they are willing to pay for it. When it comes to commercial viability, intrinsic value doesn't matter. Artistic merit doesn't matter (Dan Brown, anyone?) except to the degree that it adds the work's commercial appeal. How hard we worked on it doesn't matter. When it comes to earning a living, the only thing that matters is whether or not we've created a product that enough consumers wish to purchase.

Just because you aren't selling doesn't necessarily mean you aren't talented or that your art is of low quality.
As noted above, it's about economics. Maybe your work takes a long time to produce, and there aren't enough buyers out there willing or able to pay the per-unit cost required for you to make a living. Maybe your work is niche, cutting-edge, mold-breaking, challenging. Its intrinsic value might be great but its very nature limits the size of your potential audience. It's your choice to work in that narrow commercial space. Society didn't force you into it.

Not all of the things we love to do are viable career paths, no matter how good we are at them.
My grandparents loved to make apple butter. They did it old school: outdoors over an open fire in a big cast iron pot. It tasted amazing! They started out making it for themselves and our family, but word soon got around in the community, and people started buying it. My uncle even sold it out of his barbershop. It was a nice validation for them, but they didn't try to make a career out of it. The did it because they loved it, appreciated the praise and the extra income, but they earned their living another way, and they never complained that society just didn't appreciate home-made apple butter anymore.

Sadly, this is also reality for many artists. Regardless of the branch of the arts, most of us won't earn a living in our chosen field for a variety of reasons. That doesn't mean some of us won't make it, but the odds are stacked against us. This isn't a secret, as the many "starving artist" jokes, memes, and public rants can attest.  We all know it's tough out there. That leaves us with a choice: have an alternative means of earning an income while we pursue the arts, or not. Either way, we bear the full responsibility for that choice.

Society is not responsible for our economic and career choices.
If I choose to pursue a career in the arts without a backup plan or a second source of income, and I can't make a living, that's my decision and thus my responsibility. If my partner wants to support me while I pursue creative endeavors, that's our business. If I choose a specific branch of the arts that offers very little possibility of reasonable economic return, that's my choice. If I quit my job to pursue my dream, and I don't make it, that's oneme. If I'm not as good as I think I am at my chosen art form, that's not society's fault either. (Watch a few American Idol auditions or read certain self-published books to see what I mean.)

Just because someone doesn't want to support you financially doesn't mean they think the arts are worthless.
Don't get me wrong. I'm sure there are some people out there who do think the arts are of little or no value (and they're wrong) but I don't believe that's very large cohort. There are people out there who don't think the government should take their money away and give it to artists. (I'm not taking a stand on that one. Just sharing what a lot of people have said to me.) There are people out there who are also struggling financially, but don't choose to blame it on society, and don't understand why artists and creatives get to pass the buck in that regard. There are people out there who are experiencing the consequences of their own career path missteps and have no patience for creatives who appear to be unwilling to accept the consequences of their own choices.

The arts aren't going away just because some of us can't make a living.
If I crash and burn and have to go back to my day job, plenty of other authors will fill that niche. If all the artists who can't make a living stop creating, the others who are making a living will keep creating, and new creatives will throw their hats in the ring. Yes, it would suck. The world would miss out on a lot of great art (and a ton of mediocre and bad art) but the arts would survive. Conflating the struggles of some artists with the disappearance of all art from the face of the planet only serves to make people respect creative types less.  It makes us appear irrational and not tethered to reality.

Publicly complaining that we can't make a living in our chosen creative endeavor only hurts us. 
"Eat at Joe's. Nobody else does!"
"New on DVD! The movie no one wanted to see in the theatre!"
"Buy the book that hasn't sold a single copy!"
Did you find any of these pitches enticing?
If an author publicly reveals that  no one is buying her books, human nature is not to assume that this person is an undiscovered genius who is a victim of society's devaluation of the arts. Instead, it's more likely that people will assume the author isn't selling because her books aren't as good as those of her contemporaries. It's a shame that the arts (in general) don't promise as much economic certainty as some other fields. It sucks that many incredibly talented people produce great art but can't earn a living, while a mediocre pulp writer like me is doing okay. But that's reality. All the complaining in the world won't change it. Bemoaning the way society devalues the arts won't change it (or else it would have happened long ago. The starving artist thing has been around forever.) I'd argue that such public displays only further the stereotype of the arts as a poor career choice, and make us individually look like failures.

What does this mean for indie authors, or was this just a rant with no useful application?
Honestly, this is mostly just me sharing my reactions but here are a few thoughts for indie authors:

-Go in with your eyes wide open. Understand the realities of the indie space. Do your research. Know what's selling in your genre. Know what's working in terms of marketing. Be prepared.
-Have a stable economic situation. Maybe you or your partner have a reliable income. Maybe you indie pub "on the side" until you can live off of your earnings. Have money set aside for production and marketing. Don't put yourself in a position where worry over how you're going to pay the bills impedes your ability to write.
-Know that you are ultimately responsible for every decision you make, every strategy you try, every dollar you spend.
-Always keep learning and growing.
-If your books aren't selling, don't throw a pity party and don't blame it on society's lack of appreciation of literature, or Amazon's bullying ways, or the advantages enjoyed by trad-pubs. Even if some or all of those things are true, it won't change your reality, and the couple of sympathy book sales you might make won't balance out how bad it makes you look.
-Find a safe space to vent. Maybe it's a private Facebook group of authors. Maybe it's a circle of trusted friends. Maybe it's your dog.  Absolutely share your struggles and let others support you, but don't do it in a place where you're going to look bad in front of readers.

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