Being an Artist and Paying the Bills

I'm at this place where I'm looking for a new job, and also taking advantage of an upheaval of my plans to reflect and think as I collect myself in attempt to move forward. Continuing a trend that I started at the beginning of this year, I'm writing more. You've all noticed that I'm writing more for TealArt, but at the same time my writing load for school was much higher than it had been in the past, and since the summer started, I've also been writing fiction again, and I've taught a couple of knitting classes for which I've written what amounts to a book chapter on the topic at hand.

I've also been paying attention to, and thinking a bit about copyright and what it means to be a creator in the digital realm. I think I have a particularly interesting perspective on this, as both a knitter, and thus someone whose products are very material, and a writer whose work exists--at the moment--as exclusively digital artifacts, but I suspect that the worth of these ideas are for you to decide.

Seeing no better place to begin, lets start in the middle: Over the past few weeks I've been tossing around the idea of putting together an anthology of science fiction with a group of friends whose writing I quite enjoy. I enjoy editing and typesetting, oddly enough, and I think that there should be opportunities and avenues for new writers of science fiction to publish their work. Also, with the advent of really good print-on-demand options like Lulu, I figured that it would be easy enough to make a financially viable publication, that would hopefully be able to seed a volume two.

In short: this would be difficult at best. In order to keep the price of reasonable (12-15 bucks), the take from the publication is under 2 dollars, and I think more or less, that's what the authors take for a book sale is no matter how they publish it. (The advantage is that if you go with a bigger named press, they can sell more, which gives you more 2 dollar bits.) [1] Book length works do a little bit better, mostly because you don't have to divide the take, and some publishers can get away with selling books for prices that are frankly absurd.

The larger problem for people who write, is that "selling" pieces of writing to a consumer, a "reader," can never generate enough income to sustain even the sparest of lifestyles. Same, likely with knitting. You can't sell knitting for enough money to make it worthwhile (who'd buy a 1,200 dollar sweater, which frankly would probably still be a steal.) So writers, knitters, and other creative types: come up with other ways to generate income: master knitters teach classes, design and dye yarn, operate yarn businesses, design patterns [2], and so forth. Writers (by this I mean, fiction writers and essayists) either make money from bigger book deals, speaking engagements, and book tours if they're "big" enough, or get day jobs of various kinds, if they're not.

Thus it strikes me that the problem we need to be addressing, is not, how do we turn the two dollar take you get from writing a book about knitting, to 3 dollars or 4 dollars, or even 10 dollars (though that would certainly help), but rather how to expand the "byproduct" income from teaching and speaking, and even how to create new sorts of such "auxiliary income." There isn't one kind of monolithic "auxiliary," for a given kind of creative pursuit, but I if we think about it enough, I'm sure we can think about the many ways that creative types are able earn livings while still working on their creative projects.

I think the larger goal is to have the auxiliary gig be something that feeds the other, more important pursuit while still leaving enough time and energy to do serious work in what you really want to be doing. Consider academics, particularly say, academic physicians, whose real work is research (and writing for the humanities folks and writing), but whose money comes from seeing patients or teaching classes. Consider Knitting luminaries like Alice Starmore, Sharon Miller of Heirloom Lace who sustain their work by selling yarn and kits for their design. Similar I have to speculate that schoolhouse press makes its money, not on their excellent catalogue of books and patterns [3], but rather through their knitting-camp, and selling yarn. Let us also not forget that bands have always made more money from touring, rather than selling recordings. [4]

This theory, of using something like a design as a way to sell an auxiliary, I think is really pretty strong: if you tried have your take from things like patterns, or a podcast, or a blog (etc.) be "enough," no one go for it because it would be absurd (cite: 1200-1400+ USD sweater), but if it's sort of complex advertising, and you're willing to take a cut on profit so that more people see the book/story/pattern it probably works out. There is of course Tim O'Riley (a technology/computer book publisher,) whose oft quoted for saying "obscurity, not privacy" is the biggest problem facing writers today.

Now I've used the term "advertising" loosely, because I don't think that you need to be terribly proactive about it, in order for it to work, writing a good story with a tag that says "tycho also gives workshops on productivity and hypertext creation, and his most recent book is "..." is probably enough. The key is to be right on top of whatever the best next auxiliary is.

And before anyone goes of and says "it's a shame that there isn't a middle list, or that it's a shame designers aren't paid more, etc. etc.," I have to suspect that this is more or less how it's always worked. That's all, thoughts anyone?

Cheers, tycho

[1]On the side note this is why pay rates for short fiction are so low to virtually non existent: splitting 2 dollars between half a dozen people is virtually impossible.
[2]Pattern design is becoming a less and less viable option: designer fees from the major magazines haven't gone up in years, I hear, there are fewer options now (in the 80's, women's magazines would publish knitting and craft patterns, and free patterns on the internet are serious and legitimate competition), which makes it all the more difficult to make a living doing it.
[3]In a move that anticipates a lot of the work that pod-casters and bloggers do, using new media solutions as a way to get readers to buy other things that actually generate income, Meg sell their quarterly patterns and reprints at the rough production cost.
[4]This is why the RIAA and MPAA's flogged and deceased equine of "piracy" as hurting the artists is so foolish.
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