Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
While on hiatus I landed on this interview with David Byrne, which, though he talks primarily about the music biz, struck me as apt for writers as well. The bottom line is that it is getting hard to make a living as an artist. Why? Because people don’t want to pay for the things artists make anymore.
As everyone who writes about this stuff points out, with music-streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and Grooveshark making the consumption of music as cheap as the user wants it to be (free), the incentives to buy a new album — if they’re even still called that — are completely absent now. Sure, an audiophile might want a CD or vinyl record to add to the collection, but average consumers by the millions opt for the cheap/free approach and listen to the “work of art” on crappy earbuds or nasty little laptop speakers. Much of the craft and creativity that went into the making of the song is lost in translation as a result, yet the user is getting what he/she expects to get out of it so, as the kiddies say, it’s all good.
Oh, except that the musician isn’t getting paid. Or at least isn’t getting paid much.
Byrne asks, “Do you really think people are going to keep putting time and effort into this if no one is making any money?”
The same dilemma faces those of us in the fiction game, particularly self-publishers. Let’s see, do we price a novel that took more than a year to write at a ridiculously low $2.99 or, in the hopes of attracting more potential readers, at a criminally low 99 cents? Or do we give the goddamn thing away? Marketing sites like BookBub and Booksy list deeply discounted titles exclusively. And recently, The Fussy Librarian advised in a newsletter that if you only have one or two novels, or fewer than 10,000 career sales, you ought to be pricing at 99 cents. This is the building phase of your career, you see. Nobody will risk three bucks on you if they’ve never heard of you before. God forbid they should sacrifice the cost of a car air freshener on something as pointless as a book.
You see the problem.
There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re in a transition period. But, interestingly, there are no glory days to compare this with. (Maybe for the cream of the crop there were, but for us mid-listies? No. We’ve always been fodder. I can remember Thomas McGuane saying that he didn’t make a living on his books; he lived on his quarter horse business.) Looking back, we can see that artists have always been taken advantage of, tricked, abused, undervalued, and promised the undeliverable. We’re just starting a new model now. It’s the age of art for art’s sake — literally — and, get this, almost everyone’s an artist!
So it’s become a labor of love, and the payment for a labor of love is the love of laboring. Byrne is right to ask the question he asked. The real issue is, Will music/fiction/painting/sculpture/drama/dance become, in the end, hobbies, and the artists who can’t help themselves, obsessives?
Or will they (we) evolve somehow to accommodate the new model? With musicians, at least, the option to do live performance is viable, but for writers? — I’m not sure we have a way to earn money that’s not dependent on selling the books themselves.
But hey. For now, I’m sure as hell not in this for the money…