Friday, January 30, 2015

Getting Paid

There's been a recent kerfuffle over the question of when and how a writer should get paid. Some people even bring up the question of whether a writer deserves to get paid, and if our current system of publication (and all it's options) is beneficial or harmful to writers. I don't have all the answers, but I feel it's important to point out some truths.

First, I have never understood the sentiment that somehow artists are supposed to be above money. That we create because we're inspired by our art and that getting paid diminishes it. True artists would continue their craft regardless of pay; they do art because they must, not because it's a job. Sorry - I just don't feel that artists are a special class of people, better than everyone else out there who needs to work for a living.

Don't get me wrong, I think writers (and all artists) are wonderful people who do something truly special and contribute to society in a very necessary way. The ability to create a story out of the depths of your imagination, to take a blank page and bring it to life with characters we care about - that's amazing.

But to be able to take some grain, water, and a little yeast and turn it into a warm and filling bread that provides sustenance to the world - that's amazing. To be able to impart wisdom to the youth, to inspire children to learn, grow, develop, and become contributing members of society - that's amazing. To be able to forecast derivative prices by understanding the complex intertwinings of financial markets - well, I guess that's probably amazing too.

Lots of people do special things. Lots of people love their work and have a passion for it. The idea that those people shouldn't get paid while the people who do something they don't really like but need to pay their rent and provide for their family should get paid - how does that make sense? People deserve to get paid if what they do has value to society. If you think art has any value, that in some way it makes our world better and is worthwhile to have around, then artists deserve to get paid.

How much, how often, when in the process - those are all questions for the market to figure out. If people are willing to pay an author ahead of time for their work (like an advance, or crowdfunding) then that's fine. Lots of other people get paid up front. If you personally don't want to buy something until you can have it in your hands (maybe metaphorically) and look it over, then that's fine too. Each consumer has the option of how to spend their money and shouldn't begrudge someone else their choice.

Should writers get paid enough to make a living from their art? Again, the marketplace will decide. Right now there is a lot of growth in self-publishing and support from writers for the Amazon model of direct to consumer efficiency and egalitarianism. But it's important to note that if the half million self-publishers out there equally split up the publishing pie, everyone's going to be hungry. Except Amazon. Amazon is taking their cut from the whole pie, so they don't really care how the rest of it gets divided up. I do believe they want to keep growing the pie, which is good, but as fast as that pie grows I feel the number of people lining up with forks will grow faster. So who wins in this game?

It's a very important question to consider who ends up being able to write for a living. If writing doesn't make enough money to provide for a basic life, then lots of folks are going to have to do something else. The people who can afford to write will be those who already have money, those who can live off their inheritance or a wealthy spouse, those who can afford to pay for their own marketing up front in order to enhance their piece of the pie on the back end. Those who are generally white and privileged.

I see that as bad for the art. I think art thrives when it receives contributions from many viewpoints, from those who don't live in a world that consists of nothing but art. Great art doesn't come from it's own struggle to exist, but from its creator's struggles with life. Some of the best stories come from those who live the hardest lives, but to expect those books will rise above the fray on the strength of their words alone denies the realities of the marketplace (and our world). In publishing, like so many aspects of life, money screams louder than beauty. I want great art to be rewarded well enough to allow the artist to create more. An artist should be willing to suffer for their art - but perpetual suffering shouldn't be a requisite for it.

I believe that writers deserve to get paid for their work, and I hope the system continues to find a way to pay them enough to be able to write for a living. That's my goal. I don't need millions. I don't care about fame or celebrity. I don't even care if anyone knows my name. But I love to write and I want to put the many stories that fill my head down on paper. I want to be able to take the time to develop them, to improve my prose and hone my craft. I want to create beautiful things that other people will enjoy. But my first priority is to put bread on my table and create a good environment to raise a child. If I have to choose between the two, many of my stories will go untold. That may or may not be a loss to the world, but it will be a big loss to me.

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