From bestseller to bust

bestseller to bust

British author Rupert Thomson

This article from The Guardian was an interesting, if somewhat misguided read. British author Rupert Thomson, along with several others, were interviewed about the financial struggles they face as full-time fiction writers. From the article:

“Thomson is not yet broke, but he’s up against it. The story of his garret is a parable of literary life in Britain today. Ever since the credit crunch of 2008 writers have been tightening belts, cutting back and, in extreme cases, staring into an abyss of penury.”

And that is where it started to fall apart for me. If it’s about the credit crunch, and not something writer-specific, than everyone is in this boat, not just writers. So where is the story?

The article does go on to list several other woes to befall writers, such as book review sections cutting back, advances decreasing and so on. But hasn’t every industry faced equivalent woes? I know the most recent survey my own professional organization has done indicated that almost 45% of new graduates are either unemployed or under-employed. I know many (myself included) who moonlight on the side. The reality is—for everyone—that if your chosen job doesn’t make enough money for you to live on, you have to supplement it with something else. Why should writing be the only profession immune to this reality? And why should the two profiled in the Guardian piece—who, as astute commenters pointed out, both make or have made at least enough to afford to own their own homes in one of the most expensive markets in the world—expect a lowly working stiff renter like me to feel sorry for them?

One commenter made a particularly apt point, comparing writing as an art form to photography as an art form, noting that most working photographers, with the exception of a handful of super-famous ones, often speak of doing weddings, baby photos and so on ‘for the money’ and then working on their passion stuff on the side. It’s like that in most creative businesses. Unless you reach that top echelon, you can’t expect the passion stuff to be your only thing. Again, why should writers except to be immune from these realities?

Writers are as subject to market forces as everyone else is. They are as subject to commercial realities as everyone else is. They are as subject to the principles of time management as everyone else is. Nobody is saying they shouldn’t be allowed to write whatever they want to, and that we should live in a world where only genre best-sellers are allowed. But if you do choose to sell work that is not commercially popular, the flip side of that is you have to have another job, or a rich family to support you in doing your poorly paying one. In spite of the ‘changes’ in the industry, that has always been the way.

1 Comment on From bestseller to bust

  1. Nice to see that Jaron Lanier is making the rounds again :: roll eyes ::

    Here is a quick economics lesson that will explain why the class of journeyman artists that existed from about the 18th through the 20th century are on their way to extinction and why society at large shouldn’t care.

    1) Public Goods are those goods for which the typically free market system does not work. Think the air or local roads. Public Goods are non-rival (my consumption does not limit your consumption) and non-exclusive (there is no feasible way for me to stop you can consuming the good). Thanks to the Internet all forms of media now meet the definition of Public Goods. We can try to literally create the copyright police to try to kill the non-exclusive bit or we as a society can face reality and take appropriate measures to ensure sufficient production of “art”.

    2) The cognitive surplus combined with the notion of “good enough” and falling marginal costs of production will ensure a sufficient quantity of art. Jaron Lanier is constantly complaining that all his musician friends are out of work and we need some sort of system that can reach out and grab nickles from people who listen to their music so said musicians don’t have to go and find other forms of employment. The problem is that for every professional artist there are 10 amateurs that will make something 90% as good for free and will be thrilled that other people are even taking the time to appreciate their work. This is the idea of cognitive surplus. Thanks to modern technology humans have far more leisure time than they use to and humans find fulfillment from creation. So even if you could somehow magically enforce copyrights unless you also prohibited people from giving away their work for free all the old style journeyman artists will still be SOL.

    Yes the future will have less professional artists, but the truth is that won’t matter. The the present don’t have as many buggy whip makers as it used to have either, but I’m happier to live in the 21st century than the 19th.

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