Art, commerce and the creative benefits of independence

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I’ve been thinking a lot the past month or so about the intersection of creativity and the marketplace.

(Cue the sound of everyone clicking away from the blog post.)

Wait, no! Don’t go. It’s an interesting discussion for both readers and writers.

(Eyeballs hover tentatively.)

See, this is something that affects everyone, because it impacts the art that gets made.

Who is allowed to make the art? Who gets access to it? See, all that stuff, the art—the distribution, the audience—is changing right now. Everything is in flux. How does this affect me, as a writer? How does it affect you, as a reader?

ursula_leguinUrsula Le Guin, who is pretty much an institution in science fiction and fantasy circles, received the National Book Award last month. During the ceremony, she gave a speech (as you do), and she had some really interesting things to say:

“Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art… I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”

And I was torn. Because while I understand what she was saying creatively, the person who makes my living with words says, “Yes, but the rewards need to include profits, too.”

And then I had a really wonderful and lively twitter conversation with a few other writers during which the ever-wise Ilona Andrews reminded me that this thing right here:

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was a commission. This was a work for hire by Michelangelo. This was the intersection of art and commerce. This is an important thing to remember.

John_Waters_2014_(cropped)Today I read this really interesting piece over at Flavorwire about the death of the mid-budget film, and how it’s leaving some of our most thoughtful filmmakers, people like John Waters, David Lynch, and even Francis Ford Coppola behind.

“But slowly, quietly, over roughly the decade and a half since the turn of the century, the paradigm shifted. Studios began to make fewer films, betting big on would-be blockbusters, operating under the assumption that large investments equal large returns. Movies that don’t fit into that box (thoughtful dramas, dark comedies, oddball thrillers, experimental efforts) were relegated to the indies, where freedom is greater, but resources are far more limited.”

And that article intersected with one over on the Globe and Mail that The Passive Voice linked to called “Are Book Publishers Blockbustering Themselves Into Oblivion?” It references a recent Publishers Weekly article about the recent rise in seven figure advances for debut writers:

‘There are a few other things in the Publishers Weekly article that don’t make any sense. The story claims that the fierce competition for new novels stems from “a dearth of great material.” One anonymous publishing insider is quoted as saying, “The whole pool of talent is shrinking.” He or she even claims that there are “fewer submissions” nowadays.

Come again? A shrinking talent pool? In the middle of the greatest explosion of writing in human history?‘

Art and commerce. Creativity within the market. We have to think about these things! They’re important. I tend to think writers who write with no thought to the market are one of these things:

  1. Very young.
  2. Very wealthy.
  3. Have no external responsibilities.
  4. Don’t really care about being published.

And I’m sure those things are not true for everyone, but for the most part, if you write something, you want someone to buy it because that gives you the incentive and money to write more. Time is money. If you’re writing with no thought to how you’re going to pay your bills, your lights are going to be shut off. That’s just life.

And that affects what kind of stuff you write. It’s inevitable. It’s inescapable.

Because while Le Guin is correct that the intangible benefits of writing are amazing and important, John Waters isn’t going to make the next Hairspray for free. He has employees to pay. And when the giant corporations who control studios and publishers are only interested in the next blockbuster, that means the midlist author and the mid-budget filmmaker are left behind.

And that’s bad for consumers. Readers don’t like the same thing. Neither do movie-goers. We are not a homogenous culture.

Whether we like it or not, commerce influences art.

When I see writers I love moving genres, I wonder: Did they want to move, or did their agent or publisher tell them it was a smart move because of the market? I don’t get to judge them for that, no matter how I might want to, because I’m not paying their bills.

But does it make me sad that some writers feel pressure to move to a more popular genre because their publisher isn’t putting as much money or promotion behind their books? Yes. Absolutely.

So what is a writer or any kind of artist to do? Do we get day jobs and make writing a hobby? Do you bend to the Corporate Art Distribution market? How far do you bend before you break?

Or do you just leave? After all, didn’t they say the talent pool was shrinking?

Yeah, no.

Here’s a heads up, Corporate Art Distributors: There’s no shrinking talent pool. Let me repeat that: There is no shrinking talent pool.

Your talent pool is moving.

They’re bypassing you. They’re funding themselves with Kickstarter and Patreon. They’re publishing independent of the corporate publishing culture.

We talk a lot about the economic benefits of indie art production, but we need to talk about the creative ones, too. Because they intersect in a positive way.

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And that brings me to a really upbeat post by the band Pomplamoose about their recent tour. I want to end with a quote from them, because it speaks to a beautiful reconciliation between art and commerce that I think is achievable and healthy for art producers and art consumers:

‘We’re entering a new era in history: the space between “starving artist” and “rich and famous” is beginning to collapse…

We, the creative class, are finding ways to make a living making music, drawing webcomics, writing articles, coding games, recording podcasts. Most people don’t know our names or faces. We are not on magazine covers at the grocery store. We are not rich, and we are not famous.

We are the mom and pop corner store version of “the dream.” If Lady Gaga is McDonald’s, we’re Betty’s Diner. And we’re open 24/7.

We have not “made it.” We’re making it.”’

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8 Comments

  1. Hi Elizabeth,

    Love this blog, and I do hope you and Pomplamoose are correct because this culture change is long overdue especially for writers/artists/musicians, etc. whose works don’t fit popular molds, i.e. genres and/or trends.

    Smiles, Nancy

  2. Nicely stated! I love supporting the indie authors because I think they need it and their work deserves it! Also they seem to be more focused on their readers and less on numbers. Although numbers are important to everyone, I feel the indie authors make an attempt to be more personal with their readers. And we readers appreciate it! 🙂

  3. Elizabeth,
    The truth in this post is evident across a variety of artistic mediums. Etzy, YouTube, TEDtalks, Vine, and many others get Art to the public more directly and more personally than through tradional means. As a musician and aspiring writer, it gives me joy and hope to know that even at 37 (with a full time job and family), I may not be a lost cause.
    We are at the beginning of a Renaissance, and it is beautiful!

  4. I agree with Melinda. I am an artist paint many things. I specialise in animal portraits. I find it really hard at times to get motivated. To be quite frank it’s been a nightmare. I try to sell my work but no one wants to pay the money for it. Most don’t realize how much work goes into what I do and it is demoralising. (I work by commission.)
    In order to make money I have had to resort to taking another route that will comply with what people are willing to spend. It’s really not what I want to be doing. It makes me mad that an artist can just slap some paint on a canvas, be called the next best thing, and sell it for extreme amounts because He or She is complying to fashion.
    I’m looking forward with anticipation to be able to reach the public with more ease. I am 40 and I am making it. X Nats

    • There is a fine line we walk as artists; the higher the level of success, the more often we have to make decisions that compromise our artistic freedom and expression, our pocketbook, or other areas of our lives. I quit performing because I wasn’t willing to give up everything for my art. While I still harbor hope that I may yet record and create as my children get older, the reality of paying bills and being a quality parent and spouse are still more important to me.

      Business and Art can live harmoniously together, but success is fickle in this arena. Much like the death of Music stores and actual CDs, the writing and art world will adapt. We as individual artists just need to start finding our niche and marketing ourselves in a way that balances our own standards and artistic needs (yes, I consider artistic expression a NEED) with the demands of the public. Opportunities are out there and the market is expanding!

      Natalie, I wish you the best of luck as you continue toward your dreams, and hope you find the balance you are looking for!
      -Melinda

  5. Great post Elizabeth. Although I am not nor ever will be an artist I really enjoy your posts about the other side of the books that I so enjoy reading. We are indeed in interesting times as far as art is concerned and books in particular. I now buy over 50% of my books from Indie authors and I absolutely love them. This is one journey that I am fully enjoying being along for. Thank you as ever.

  6. A few weeks ago, I introduced a patron program to my readers. I still intend to write, edit, produce and release books as I’ve always have. However, for the last two years of my four year writing career, I have been doing so at a loss. The patron program gives me the ability to keep creating content for those readers who value it most, while thanking them for their patronage with advanced copies, inside peaks, and other bonuses. It was, however, not an easy decision to come to. But when I looked at history, and I realized that this is the way art has been created for centuries, I felt more at east about it. Recent articles such as those you cited above further supported my decision. I love my patrons, and I am so indebted to them. It’s another way the reader-author relationship can evolve. And while I hope to someday have sales substantial enough to not feel the need to ask for this direct support, I am honored and humbled that it’s been made available to me. Thanks for discussing this topic!

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