Thursday, February 27, 2014

Stop Calling Me A Starving Artist

I made the decision to become an author when I was 14. I won my first poetry competition at 16, and when I was 19 I fell victim to my first publishing scam. I remained undeterred, and when I was 24 became a freelance writer working for newspapers, magazines, websites, and anyone else who would pay me to create the content they needed. When I was 28 years old in the year 2012 I hit my stride as a fiction author and got my first taste of success. Since then I've had short stories featured in seven different anthologies, I've had four stand-alone stories published, and I've even self-published an additional three stories. If all goes well I'll be releasing my first book in 2014.

You wouldn't know it to look at my royalty checks, though.

This is $10 and one gun more than I made in royalties last year.
Whenever I start talking about the financial realities of being an author, people feel the need to give me advice. "Why don't you get a day job?" is probably the most common tip I get, in case the idea didn't occur to me. "You just need to write something that gets popular," is another one. My least favorite, typically accompanied by a slap on the back and a hearty laugh, is "Well you're just doing your time as a starving artist."

We need to stop using that phrase. Why? Well, I'll tell you why.

The Double Standard

Calling someone a starving artist or a struggling artist might be accurate, but it's also putting them in a box. If someone is a painter, or an author, or a steel sculptor there's no need to put a qualifier before it. Defining someone by the art form he or she practices is enough. By calling attention to the person's lack of financial success all the speaker is doing is invoking the double standard of the art world.

The who with the huh?
The double standard artists are forced to contend with is pretty simple. On the one hand artists are told their art cannot be defined by a price the way other work can be. Because art is judged subjectively, there's no way to put a universal price on it. On the other hand artists are judged directly in proportion to how much money they make from their art. The Catch-22 here is that an artist's success justifies the price of the art, but if you can't sell the art in the first place you can never achieve that kind of success.

If an artist does get noticed, and manages to achieve success that can also lead to self-sustaining cycles which are referred to by laymen as "the Big Break". Artists which make a lot of money like rock stars or bestselling authors are judged to be "good enough" for their success because if they weren't then why would so many people pay them for what they produce?

This reasoning shows up in bookstores all the time. People buy bestsellers not because they like the author, or even because they know what the book's about; it's the idea that a book which sold 100,000 copies must be worth something. This logic flaw goes both ways though, which is why if an author hasn't sold a lot of books people may make the assumption he or she simply isn't good enough. We assume an author's previous sales reflect his or her talent, and it's why no one feels bad judging creative professionals they see as struggling.

The True Secret to Success

What really makes an author successful? What puts food in the pantry and pays the rent check every month? What's the big secret of success that divides the struggling from the commercially successful?

You. Readers.

Yes, even this guy.
This is where those cycles I mentioned earlier come in. If a writer gets on the bestseller list, or wins an award, that writer is going to get time to promote to the masses in traditional media, genre magazines, and a dozen other places that "struggling" writers simply won't be able to reach. People see an author and think "wow, he's on TV. Guy must have written something pretty sweet to land this day time spot." By getting his or her signal boosted an author finds an audience, and that audience grows. They visit the author's blog, come to events, buy copies of the book, clamor to see a movie get made, buy merchandise, etc., etc.

You want to know how quickly that can happen? How fast someone can go from a struggling nobody to a celebrated master in a genre? The answer to that is Clive Barker.

Today people know Clive as a painter, a director, an author, and a master of horror. Once upon a time though he was a fairly fresh author with a book of short stories that was tanking badly on the British market. "The Books of Blood" is famous now, but there was a solid chance it was going to fade into total obscurity. Except that one reader thought it was pretty goddamn good, and he said so.

That reader was Stephen King.

Practically overnight the sales of the book skyrocketed, and what had looked like a half-sunk career with maybe one or two more books in it became a titan in the horror genre. Did King's opinion change the words in the book, or alter the intent that Barker wrote them with? Did his approval magically transform a struggling author into a bestseller?

No. The readers did.

The Moral of the Story

The point I've been trying to make is that all of us are authors. We put words on a page for the enjoyment of readers. By separating us into successful authors and struggling authors we are being labeled in ways that can and do affect our careers. Do people want to read the latest release from a "struggling" author? Probably not. Would they be interested in a "local" author? How about a book written by a "horror" author, or a "science fiction" author? That sort of labeling plays less on the heart strings, and more on a reader's curiosity.

Secondly, just because someone isn't on the bestseller list doesn't mean there isn't a great story waiting between those covers. I'm not saying you should just throw aside your favorite writers to start snatching up everyone you've never heard of, but just keep in mind that the number of 0's on a check doesn't necessarily mean what you're buying is a well-written story. Not that you didn't already know that of course, but it bears repeating.

Third, if you really want to help then take a lesson from Mr. King. The greatest compliment you can pay to an author is to tell someone else how great his or her book was. Leave a review on Amazon, make a post on a forum, put up your favorite quote on your FB page, or just talk to your mom and dad over coffee about this fantastic tale you couldn't put down. By doing that, and doing it honestly, you might be the first pebble of an author's own, personal avalanche.

Thanks as always for stopping by the Literary Mercenary. If you'd like to help keep this blog going feel free to donate at the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son" button on the upper right hand side, or stop by my Patreon page. Feel free to follow me on Facebook or Tumblr. Interested in some of my books? Check out my Goodreads page.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, yes and yes again!!

    To add to that comment about $35 books, if you bought ebooks, you could've gotten 5 or 10, maybe more, books for the same amount!!

    And while we're ranting, don't suggest to your artist friend that he/she do some business cards to make money. Staples and Kinkos provide cheap cards for the masses and people expect an artist to work for 25 cents an hour -- or free "for the exposure". Are you kidding me? I went to school and learned how to do it right, and you think I'm going to just give you my time and work for free? Screw that!!

    Yes, if you want to help your artist and writer friends, then post the links to their art and/or books. Link to the blog. Make a comment. Write and submit a review. DO something to get their name out there.

    And invite them to dinner, with other friends/coworkers/family members, and introduce them as "my friend, so and so, who wrote blah, blah, my FAVORITE book."

    Dang, if you can't do anything else, feed the man (woman)!!