Art for the Price of a Cocktail
Originally I was going to write about something else for the first blog post on my professional author’s webpage: some sort of introduction, explanation of how I got to where I am, maybe something about the book I have coming out. I even wrote a first post, and when I went to publish it, the internet had gone out at my house, and I lost it somewhere between the draft page and the publish page. Lesson learned! (This is being written in a Word document offline and will be copy/pasted when I finish.)
Instead, what I’m interested in tonight has to do with a meme a friend of mine posted. The post has text at the top and says: “Why do you charge for your art? Being an artist is a gift, and you should share it with others as a free service.” Underneath is an image of a man with an exasperated and angry face gesturing to his empty refrigerator.
It invokes the ethos I was introduced to from Chuck Wendig, John Scalzi, Seanan McQuire and more. In the truest terms: Fuck you. Pay me.
Perhaps I should couch it in more socially acceptable terms, but if my children can hear me curse when it’s appropriate, you can stop clutching your pearls and deal with the truth as it grabs you by the throat and refuses to smile. The truth is, art is too often taken for granted by … everyone. People want to consume brilliant visuals, movies, and stories without being asked to pay for the privilege. They’re used to it. Our culture uses gorgeous advertisements full of photography, artwork, and poetry, and never ask you to pay a cent for it. Media companies are constantly throwing every enticing piece of art and entertainment at you in the hopes that you’ll stick around to make their advertisers pay for their bottom line. They’re all hoping that the stories that move your soul, the art that captures your fancy, and the photography that stirs your loins will convince you to spend money on the crass commercialism that drips from the edges of your art.
The poorly kept secret is, for all the free and cheap art you’re getting, someone is always getting paid. The product producers get paid when you buy the products you associate with the art that you enjoyed so much. The advertisers get paid by the companies they place in the public’s view. The disseminators of the art get paid. The middlemen who negotiated the art for the products strategic placement in the art get paid. The artists who brought you there in the first place are paid last.
The tragic thing is, those are the people who have invested the most in the final project you have delivered to you. They not only invested their creativity and immediate time in producing the content. They spent years learning how to present that art to you in a way that you could engage with. They spent years on projects that are never going to come to light because they weren’t good enough. They spent their days and nights polishing and scrapping, crafting and trashing, creating and destroying. Just so that, in the end, the creation that is presented to the world is finally good enough for consumption.
And most people will consume art without a second thought. We’re all guilty. I will devour books and movies and TV without a second thought to the process that brought them to my greedy eyes. I’m a culture addict and will throw hundreds of dollars at my local bookstore if I’m given half the license to do so. I will give up meals out, I’ll make my coffee at home, I’ll learn how to cook a decent meal (gods forbid) rather than give up my addiction to books, movies, music, and TV.
But I forget how long it took to create the thing that I, with my insatiable appetite can devour within a few hours or days. I forget how many people are involved with every incredible project that stimulates my imagination, transports me for a time, and gives me something to care about outside of this world with all its messy challenges. Artists give me a contained whole to love, invest in, and emerge with a better understanding of the world around me. And I constantly take for granted the magic they have engaged in by creating this art.
My friend equated what I’ve done in selling my debut novel to “winning a substantial chunk of money from a single lotto ticket.” She immediately amended it to say, “It’s probably close to the rarity of nurturing a startup to profitability. Some advice I got at ATDC that really helped me during my brief startup stint was: “you probably won’t make THE MOST money off your first idea, even if it’s the best you ever have.”
I have a privilege and a burden that most startup producers don’t get to enjoy. My privilege: it’s just me on this side of the story at this point. No one is relying on me, and I can use my spare time to actually make something of my dream of being an author. Plus, as a writer, most people can dismiss the time I dedicate to my job as a hobby. It’s a passion I’m pursuing, not a job. The burden? It takes so so so much longer to become a viable novelist than it does to launch a startup from a brilliant idea.
Entrepreneurs usually give themselves between 3 and 5 years to launch their idea and gain profitability. Otherwise they let down their investors, lose their window, or simply must give up and move on to something that will put food on the table.
I started this novel in 2012. The first notes I started to take, the first inklings of ideas began seven years ago. I didn’t finish my first full draft of this until 2014, the first final draft in 2016, and I still engaged in SUBSTANTIAL rewrites in 2017 before querying agents through 2017 and 2018 and small publishers this year. My book doesn’t release until 2020. That’s 8 years. For a single project. That doesn’t take into account the fact that this is my fifth full novel.
Yeah, I’ve written four full novels, start to finish, before I got to this one. No. You won’t see them. Not anywhere close to their current forms anyway. Do you want to know why? Because learning to write a novel takes time. You have to learn how to read novels, to analyze them, to understand character arcs, match them to plot arcs, fit them into settings, and still keep readers engaged. Crafting stories takes years and years of practice and learning before you’re ever ready to write the book that will actually be worth reading. And then it will take several more iterations on those stories to bring them to the point that they’re even readable.
So, when people ask “Why do you charge for your art?” They are asking why I think my time is worth anything. They are asking why my years and years of research and trial and error are worth anything. They’re asking why this finished product that has gone through multiple hands to make sure it is top quality entertainment, is worth paying for.
My book took me YEARS to write. Not only the years I took writing this single story. This book is the result of dozens of false starts. It’s the result of horrible stories shelved, trunked, and burned. It’s the result of countless nights of research, of reading other novels, how-to books, structure, plotting, character, and story guides to learn how to write a better book. It’s hours taken away from my husband, my kids, my friends, and my own precious sleep as I worked to turn my ideas into books with conflict, stakes, character, and ideas that would stand up.
I don’t control the price my publisher puts on my book. It could be $5 for a promotion. It could be $20 for a paperback. At this point, it’s not my call, and I trust them enough that I sold the publishing rights to my debut novel. However, if my readers are not interested in spending money at all, if they want to pirate my book or ask for free copies. If they are waiting for discount days or waiting to borrow the book from a friend, then they are sending me a message. They are telling me that the YEARS it took to write this book, to edit it, to find someone to publish it are not worth paying for. They are saying that the time I spent learning how to actually produce a book as good as this (and I just edited it: it’s damn good), that the years, the months, the countless days giving up nights out, watching the latest Marvel movie, or reading the brilliant other books out, are not worth the cost of two burn coffees from the local Starbucks. They’re saying my book isn’t worth the cost of a single meal at a chain restaurant. My years of investment in this story isn’t worth the cost of two cocktails at a decent bar.
If you feel that way, okay. We’re probably not already friends, and you don’t owe me a damn thing. But you’re missing out. And my next book? It’s going to be even better. And it invests in all of the things you’re not paying for. I’m going to keep building on my experience, my dedication, my obsession with getting to be a better writer. And my next book? It’ll be worth at least your next craft cocktail. Cheers!