Saturday, October 2, 2010

"1000 True Fans" for writers?

This seems like a good opportunity to link to a favorite blog of mine, The Online Photographer. If you're into photography and are a bit of a gear nerd, this blog is an excellent mix of artistic philosophy and technical discussion, with a very fine stable of regular writers.

I've been reading lately from a series of articles by artist and printer Ctein that are in reaction to this much-discussed article by Kevin Kelly, about the possibilities, in today's media market, for artists to support themselves through their work.  The idea is that all you need is 1000 "true fans," and enough time and energy to keep them interested in you.  Here's the latest installment from Ctein; he links to the previous posts as well.

All this sounds good to me, but every time I think about it I can't help but consider how poorly placed writers are to benefit from such a system.  Artists are selling physical artifacts, and can charge a fair amount for each; what we do is ephemeral, the kind of thing people are accustomed to being able to acquire for free.  This is true of musicians, too, of course, but as I've said before here, musicians can tour.  It seems to me that we're more wedded to commercial publishing than other kinds of artists are to their respective supporting apparatus.  Even Kelly, in his original piece, puts us last on the list.

Maybe everyone thinks they've got it worst, though.  I know that a few W6 readers (like Jon Frankel) have had some thoughts about this, and I would love to have them weigh in.  What do you think, can writers make a go of it on their own, without first becoming famous through conventional means (e.g., Radiohead)?  Or are we destined to write for free and make our living some other way?


Jon said...

I'm afraid I agree with you. I started out as a poet, so I've been thinking about this for a long time, long before there was an internet available. A writer for instance could make a single copy of a book, and sell it to one person for a lot of money, the way a painter does. But who would buy it? Back then someone like Charles Bukowski say, could make a living with a cult following and a dedicated publisher, who would indeed print limited cloth bound signed editions for a lot of money. But he had more than a thousand fans, and he had mass-produced editions as well. He also didn't make any real money until they started making movies from his books. The business of writing isn't analogous to the other arts. Commercial publishing served a wider field of authors once, especially at the bottom, when you could make a living of sorts publishing in pulp magazines. But these were still commercial mass publishing. You have to go to the modernists or the 19th century, with subscription publishing and the remains of patronage, to find a writer with a thousand fans and nothing else who could put food on the table. Writers can cut free from publishers, but they won't make a living. Even the idea that you can plunge into the internet and find a thousand non-paying fans is a dream. I feel lucky if I have 6! and that one or two of them haven't eaten dinner and slept at my house. The novel and commerce are inextricably linked (historically). Capitalism and the novel were born together in the reformation and the printing press. But for a long while now commerce has become a censor. So I think it's good, regardless of the money issue, that writers cut free from trying to 'please' the market. It's a painful choice to make in reality, but pursuing an aesthetic dream and not worrying so much about making a living from it is good I think. And thank you JRL!

christianbauman said...

I dunno...couple of things. Less than 2% of even published writers(made-up figure, you know what I mean) can make a real living or better off their work, but I'm not sure that statistic is much different now than it was 50 or 60 years ago. True, there were more venues for making money in the early and mid 20th century, but I don't know that the amounts were any higher. Wallace Stevens still worked at insurance, and most everyone else taught. I'm not sure there's a real difference between now and then: very few writers could make a decent living then, and very few can now. I've had three novels published -- one by a well-respected small publisher and two by a major publisher -- and the usual anthologies, Hollywood options, etc etc etc and never made enough combined to live for more than one very frugal year. Most everyone teaches. I'm in the #2 choice for writers, advertising. But...

Is it any different in any other art form? Is the percentage of those who can truly make a living at just their art (vs teaching their art) any different in painting? Not sure.

Mr London Street said...

I think it's highly likely that most writers will have to continue writing in addition to their paid work because they love it, without necessarily ever being able to make a living from it. People are writing in different and interesting ways that don't fit the traditional publishing model of novels, novels, novels. But there's lots of superb writing out there, even in blogs, which isn't any less good or valid just because it's a medium that hasn't been embraced by publishing yet. Maybe it will all change in the next ten years - thinking about everything that has changed in the last ten years I'm starting to realise just how little idea I have what the future is going to look like.

Sung said...

Anything's possible, I suppose, but considering how low royalties are, I really can't see a way how a writer like myself could make ends meet without supplemental income. Even if we were talking about 50% royalties (one can dream), 1000 true fans who'll buy your book at $25 a pop will net you $12,500. I think that's still poverty level.

I bet Christian is right -- I don't think it's ever been different. Artists of minor renown have always had to do something else to keep going. Personally, I'd like to talk to the idiot who invented this whole concept of "working" for a living and give him a piece of my mind.

- Sung

Franz Neumann said...

> Or are we destined to write for free and make our living some other way?

There's an opportunity for established writers to earn a living through self-published e-books thanks to the higher percentages e-books command.

But for writers without a large audience, yes, we write for free. And that's fine. The day job is for the money.