WHY LOVE > $

SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin
SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin

WHY LOVE > $

Sometimes What We Want Isn’t Really What We Want*

So in math class, that title would read “Why “love” is greater than “money”.

I started reading a new book this week, called SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. Based on a series of interviews by Manjula Martin with well-known writers such as Cheryl Strayed,  Roxane Gay, Jennifer Weiner, Alexander Chee, Nick Hornby, and Jonathan Franzen, it is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

In these interviews, Martin encourages each writer to be totally honest about what being a “famous author” really looks like. The inside story is jaw-dropping.

Most started out making not very much money. That’s to be expected. But here’s what I didn’t expect:

Even when authors sign a $100,000 contract for their book, that’s not actually how much money they make.

Here’s how it works:

First, it takes years to get to the point where $100,000 would even be offered. Most start at $2,000. (That was the advance on my one published book.) If the book doesn’t generate stellar sales, there are no royalties. (I never got royalties.) I spent hundreds of hours creating the projects and steps, so I made….$1/hour?) (Of course, that would be $3/hour today, so there’s that.)

Let’s say you’ve climbed the ladder, and the deal is for $100,000.

First, your agent gets 10%. And a good agent is worth their weight in gold.

But the amount is also split into several payments.

There’s a payment for submitting the manuscript, one when all errors are corrected and the manuscript is re-submitted and approved, one when it actually goes to press, and the last when it is finally put out into the market.

This process can take years. Many of the authors thought, “I’ve made $100,000 this year!” But since the process can take from 2-4 years, they make a lot less per year than that. Like $24,000 less $2,400 for your agent.

So in the end, a writer who signs that lucrative contract isn’t exactly gonna get rich on it.

One book review says,

“…In the literary world, the debate around writing and commerce often begs us to take sides: either writers should be paid for everything they do or writers should just pay their dues and count themselves lucky to be published. You should never quit your day job, but your ultimate goal should be to quit your day job. It’s an endless, confusing, and often controversial conversation that, despite our bare-it-all culture, still remains taboo. In Scratch, Manjula Martin has gathered interviews and essays from established and rising authors to confront the age-old question: how do creative people make money?”

Sound familiar?

A lot of parallels to our art-making sector.

If we were to take a $100,000 commission for a work of art, here are some of the possibilities:

There would be the initial deposit for a custom order, usually non-refundable. But most customers wouldn’t give it up without a fight. I was at one of the top three fine contemporary craft shows in the country one year. One booth visitor placed a custom order at the show for a pretty major piece. Woohoo! I thought. A few weeks later, she called to cancel. Because she hadn’t considered the tuition for her son’s private school/academy he’d just been accepted into. (This, after sucking up 45 minutes of my time at the show telling me how rich she was, and about her amazing art collection at home.) When she called to cancel, she made the point (about 20 times) that her husband was a lawyer. I cancelled the order. (Fortunately, something felt “off” about her in the booth, and I had hesitated about starting the order. So, no loss.)

The person may even “forget” to tell you to cancel the order, like in my article about the Design Diva.

Consider the cost of packing and shipping a major piece in that price range. One local artist, a friend, even has to borrow my car to deliver their larger works to local buyers. (I’m happy, to do it, of course!)

Of course, if you work with a gallery, they’ll do that for you. But a gallery takes a 40%, 50%, or even (at the height of the market in NYC just before 9/11) a 60% cut.

Back to that book review quote: This is not a black-or-white issue. This isn’t us vs. the “bad people”. Maybe your bigger art sales aren’t this complicated.

But another interview revealed another side to that “success” we all crave:

Being locked into a “certain kind of fiction” or a “predictable best seller” can be suffocating. And fame can fall away in a heartbeat, with a bad review, with our own bad behavior, almost anything.

Several of the highly-successful writers said even in their “hottest moments” felt locked in, confined, discouraged by the category they found themselves stuck in. Deadlines may conflict deeply with life events. Touring for the book publicity can suck a lot of time and energy. Trying to top your last success can squeeze the creative juice right outta your system. “You’re only as great as your last success” can be a roadblock to creativity.

Most of the writers said they made a decent living three ways: Writing books (that get published.) Public speaking engagements. And teaching/workshops.

Sound familiar?

I highly recommend reading this book, even if you don’t read every interview. Most of these writers went out on a limb to be this honest and forthcoming about the realities of their success.

I wonder…..

If more artists felt safe to do the same thing, would we quit beating ourselves up about not making a good living out of our creative work?

Would we stop being intimidated by those people whose work sells for thousands, tens of thousands of dollars?

Would we realize that sometimes, those famous artists whose work sells for hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars, don’t actually make a dime from those auctions? Because they sold the work for one price, and now the new owner (or second, or third owner) is selling it for a heckuva lot more? (Publicity is helpful.) Or the artist is dead? (Publicity not so helpful. They’re dead!)

What I took away from the book is this:

We have choices. We have the power of our choices.

If we need to make a living from this work, we can do it. It will start to feel like “a job” rather than a calling, but for some people, this is what they have to do.

If we can be satisfied with SOME money, or even not much, we get to have complete control over the work we make.

We get to choose how much from each end of the spectrum we’re comfortable with. We get to choose what we are willing to do, or not to do.

We get to choose whether it’s full-time/well-paid/a lot more work and not as much creative freedom. Or whether it’s “it makes me happy and that’s all that matters”, or whether it’s “I can find ways to expand my calling into other lucrative ventures by teaching.” I know one artist who has expanded their skills into creating ways for other artists to offer workshops: They have the knowledge, the resources, and the audience to do all the funky work we’d normally have to do ourselves, so all the artist has to do is show up and be ready to teach.

There are no solid, sure-fire ways to make our work and share it with the world. There’s no 100% good side to any of our decisions about it–except what works for us. There’s no WRONG way to do it.

The only thing that’s “wrong” is believing we are doing it wrong, and believing that other people are doing it right. Believing that “success” looks the same to everyone.

It’s all about what’s right for Y*O*U.

On that happy note, I hope this gives you food for thought. If you’ve found the right combo for your creative work and income, please share! If money is our measure of success, it’s good to share information about how that happened for you.

If you know someone who needs to read this, to get clear on their own goals, please share!

If someone shared this with you, you can read more Fine Art Views articles here.

And if you like what I wrote, you can subscribe to my own blog here.

*I was going to call this article, “Be Careful What You Wish For” (You Might Get It!)” but I think that’s just too heartbreaking. It’s not stupid or wrong to want something from our art, including financial success. Go ahead and wish! If it’s not right for you, you can always change your mind.

THE GIFT OF RISK: Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Has Its Own Rewards

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

Rewards, Insight, Setbacks, and …K…K….courage, all this can be yours!

Painting on glass for an out-of-my-comfort-zone book project ultimately led to this new body of work.

As I typed the title to this column, I realized I almost had an acronym! But I couldn’t think of a “k” word except “kindness”. Maybe spell “courage” with a k??? Aw, what the heck, let’s put both in there!

Last week, I shared my story about “luck”, and how we can make ourselves ‘luckier’.  I told how setting aside my expectations of being paid for everything I do opened doors I never even knew were there.

I shared the rewards of that risk, which expand even into today:

  • I had my work published and made visible before the internet made that easy.
  • I created fun projects that not only were well-paid, but upped my own skill set: Using vintage buttons to make distinctive jewelry. Painting on glass, which (I only realized after writing that article) paved the way for a new series of work. I’m painting cave art images on my handmade faux ivory medallions.
  • I wrote and illustrated the first mass-market craft book on carving soft vinyl stamps.
  • I met amazing people, who were a powerful, wonderful presence in my life for years. And I continue to do so! (It turns out our dentist here in California pulled out her stamp carving book to make her annual handmade holiday cards, saw my name on the cover, and realized I was her patient!) (Yes, I autographed her copy.)
  • I’ve bought old copies of my book (which is now out of print) to sell to students who take my stamp-carving classes.

Another big reward from taking a risk deserves its own list: Insight.

  • We cannot control everything in life. Not even close! But “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is a powerful insight. Here’s my favorite joke about that, but be forewarned, there’s a naughty word in there!
  • If you look back to my previous article, where two Mary’s had vastly different lives, then you will understand the power of ‘framing’, what we pay attention to and what we choose to let go of.
  • I found out what works and what doesn’t work, when it comes to choosing shows. I have respect for the wisdom of “never do a first-year show”….!
  • Not all rewards in life are about money.
  • It takes courage to pursue your dream, patience for it to build into something profitable, and a sense of self-worth to keep it somewhere in your life, even if it doesn’t work as your paying job.
  • There will always be people who will be uplifted by our work—professionally, emotionally, spiritually.

Now for the downside: Setbacks!

  • Not everyone is your friend. There will always be people who are deeply threatened by us, and our work. It’s taking less time for me to suss them out, thank goodness! (Thank you, The Nibble Theory!)
  • Not all shows are as well-managed as others. After all, show organizers/promoters make money on a show even if vendor sales are awful. (Of course, they can’t continue to be successful if their vendors aren’t. Still, there are always people like me who are willing to try….)
  • Hard financial times (9/11, war in the Middle East, the dot.com crash, the stock market crash of 2008, etc.) are especially hard on art and fine craft markets. Art is considered a luxury, not a need. (Debatable, of course) It can feel very personal, like ‘we are doing it wrong’. Many, many people in the industry—artists, craftspeople, show runners, galleries, etc.—suffered mightily in those years, and many never recovered. Many folks took wild chances, shifted strategies, tried desperately to hang on, where sometimes just hunkering down and waiting out the storm made more sense.

The danger of setbacks is, it’s all too easy to give them a major role in our decision-making. Once burned, twice shy, etc. Yes, it’s simply good sense not to keep sticking your hand in the fire.

Otoh (on the other hand), not all failures are useless. As good ol’ Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

So here’s that word again: Courage! (I almost went off on a bunch of metaphors based on Tennyson’s poetry, but I spared you. You’re welcome!)

Courage was a relatively new concept for me, as a child. Oh, I had exercised it a few times as a young adult, but always in pursuit of a dream. Going back to school, getting a teaching degree, even traveling across the country looking for work in the 1980’s recession.

But when I took up my art in my forties, I exercised courage in a sustained manner for years, viewing each setback as a valuable lesson learned, and always, always continuing to move forward. Even moving across the country in our 60’s was a monumental act of courage. Sometimes I’m still surprised we did it, though I don’t regret it for a minute. (Well. A few minutes….)

It takes courage for me to write these articles. I get paid a nominal sum, far less than when I wrote for magazines even 15 years ago. But though it doesn’t bring in a big income, it fills my need to share what I’ve learned, and expands my audience weekly. (Thank you, faithful readers!!!)

In fact, all my writing comes from sticking with it, even when it felt like nobody cared. Because…

It mattered to me.

It’s a risk. When I put my work/words out there, I want them to serve someone else as it served me. I hope it reaches someone who needs to hear that story, today. I’m delighted when people say it did. I love it when people pass it on to someone else, who may also need to hear it.

And yet, there are setbacks, too. There is always someone who thinks we’re “doing it wrong”, and they never overlook a chance to let us know that.  There are people who are offended by my titles, fercryin’outloud.  There are those who believe there is nothing worth doing for free, and those who believe my writing is toxic.

Still, I persist.

And now, here comes kindness….

My art, and my writing, have taught me to practice kindness even…or especially… to the naysayers, the contradicters, the folks who seem to be looking for a fight.

It felt impossible at first. It’s obvious my work is not for them, and that’s okay. The kind thing to do, of course, is for them to simply stop reading, or to delete it, or move on to the next studio on the tour.

But I’m learning. Like the people who call pastels “just chalk”, or the people who claim fiber is not an art medium, etc. they are where they choose to be. Yep, maybe even doing the best they can.

By responding with as much kindness as I can muster, I can let go. I am restored to the person I want to be in the world. My risk—putting my work out there to be criticized or ridiculed, is offset by the knowledge someone else is grateful I did take that risk.

And that makes it all worthwhile.

In the end, the choice is ours. We can play it safe. We can avoid risks, ditch change, never step outside our comfort zone.

It’s up to you. I can’t even pretend to think I know better than you. As I always say, if this doesn’t work for you, don’t do it!

I can only share what’s lifted my heart, write what’s helped me move forward, what restores me to my better self.

What risk have you taken that’s moved you forward? What did you learn when it didn’t work out? Remember, both are valuable, and both are worth sharing!

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY Except When It’s Not

If money is the ONLY measure of your success, don’t read any further, please!

In my latest article for Fine Art Views, I shared how taking a risk (what seemed to me a very small risk), brought me many benefits (tangible and intangible) for years.

My intention was to share how even small steps outside our comfort zone can have big results. I wanted to share that what most people see is “luck” ignores what underlies “luck”: Preparation, persistence, and recognizing opportunity. If you don’t recognize the opportunity when it appears, you won’t reap the potential rewards.

What started out as a very small thing (submitting an image of my work for the gallery section of a craft book) resulted in an opportunity to write and publish a book.

Most people applauded that concept. But to my surprise, some people focused only on the money.

Exactly how much work did I do for “free”, and how much did I get paid? (In today’s dollars, it would seem modest, but not ridiculously so.)

Am I telling people to work for free for the “exposure”?? (NO.) I did not “donate” to the gallery sections of the book I was in, like charity auctions so many artists are asked to do. I just submitted a photograph for each.

Exactly what did I gain from that decsion? It’s alllll in the article.

Paid projects. Paid to write a book. Foundation for teaching classes. New product lines down the road, even fifteen years later. A reputation for unique work, and for being a reliable writer.

After my work appeared in several books, people started calling me “famous”. (I’m not, of course, but many, many more people were made aware of my work. And many more people recognized my name.)

During open studios, I always have the two dozen or so books I’m in available to new visitors. It always impresses them. (“Hey, working with half a dozen editors across two dozen books? She must be doing something right!”)

I got paid for each project I created. And as I said in the article, they all turned into new lines of work for me. They also became the basis of classes I offer (and I charge for the classes I offer.) So the project books, and my books, offer validation of my skills.

I received a good advance on the book, enough to make it worth my while.

Did I get rich? No. (Although my advance from that book was more than 10x than I’ve made selling my ebooks.)
Did my reputation benefit? Yes, both as an artist and a writer.
Did I get more opportunities to write for pay? Yes.
Did I enjoy it? Very much!
Did other opportunities follow? Yes! My resume was awesome!

Again, if it’s all about the money, and money is THE ONLY CRITERION for whether this risk was “successful” or not….

I have no idea.

My income has gone up and down over the years, as I constantly sorted out what was working and what wasn’t. So any additional income that was still within my skills and interests range was very welcome. One year, making products for a mail order catalog account kept me afloat during a recession.

If I would do it again? In a heartbeat! I listed the benefits in the article. I believe the most important one is how these “risks” broadened my horizons, and widened my world.

Should everybody do this? Of course not! The stamp carver who produced the little booklet on stamp carving would have loved the money. They just didn’t want to commit to a year-long schedule, the amount of writing, etc. They’d written their booklet, and they were done. She gave me her blessing. (Thank you, Julie Hagan Bloch!) My schedule was more flexible, and I love to write!

Do I work for free all the time? Nope. A couple years ago someone reached out to me to write an article for their online publication. They refused to pay me, though they sort of promised I would get paid when their site went viral. (Uh huh…) They used the usual “but you’ll get such great exposure!” But they also kept increasing their demands on what was expected, so I knew it wouldn’t end well. (I started the article but soon walked away. There are warning signs for projects that won’t work to our advantage.)

Do I get paid for everything I do? Nope. There are times where I do stuff for free. I have my own criteria for assessing that. But I never do it when someone demands I do it for the “exposure”, when I sense those warning signs, or when there is absolutely nothing in for me at all, AND I don’t want to do it, period. Give a presentation or talk to art students? Sure! Donate to a charity auction? Only if I get my wholesale price from the sale. And so on.

We all have our unique boundaries, our individual take on where we draw the line between work-for-hire, work-for-free, and the gray areas in-between.

If we insist on being paid for everything, every time, and that is our ONLY criterion for success, we may overlook opportunities that will work in our favor. That is YOUR choice.

But it’s not mine.

This has been one of the most controversial posts I’ve ever written, which surprises me. I have been asked to defend the premise of this story over and over. I have had my integrity, my life experience, and my veracity challenged. (Usually people complained vigorously about how long my articles are.) (So I’m gonna wrap this up!)

Now….Did you know I don’t get paid to blog? :^D

Yes, I do get paid to write for Fine Art Views weekly. (I have permission to replublish those articles here.) But it’s not nearly what I used to get for ONE article when I wrote for magazines.

So, if I ONLY did things I love when I’m paid for them, you wouldn’t be reading this today. :^)

IF my writing has meant something to you…

If you ever felt like what I wrote has inspired you, enlightened you, educated you, shored you up when you felt the world does not want the work of your heart…

If you love the fact that I’ve openly shared for almost 16 years, what I’ve learned by being an artist, writer, martial artist, dog owner, wall climber, hospice volunteer, teacher, mother, etc….and shared it with you, not only because I have to write…

Because I hope someone, anyone, will find joy, learn, heal, be brave, be heard….at no cost to you….

How would you feel if I’d never started a blog?

Er…You can send me a check in any amount anytime. It will most be appreciated!

ALMOST FAMOUS

Years ago, I ran into major star at an event. (We were in line for refreshments.) This was someone whose music influenced me deeply ever since my early college years, and I’ve followed them faithfully ever since–20 years at the time, almost 50 now.

I told them that. Even as I struggled to express how much they meant to me, I could see “that face”:

“Yeah, okay. I’m tired. I hear this all the time. I get it. Thank you. But I just want to get my effin’ drink here, in peace!”

They didn’t say that. But the numb expression on their exausted face was clear. I felt awful.

And I felt awful after I did it again recently.

I had an opportunity to meet a star. Another REAL star. A famous person. I got to go backstage, and meet them. And foolishly, instead of just saying “hello” and moving on, I once again tried to tell them how much their work means to me.

And I could tell, once again, how much I bored with my little story.

Again, this person was gracious. I am not complaining. I was embarrassed I’d done it again.

They’d just completed a performance. They get hundreds of those backstage visits a year. They were already exhausted, after working the stage for hours.

And here comes a perfect stranger who hopes to “connect” at the worst possible time. What if every person, the hundreds of thousands of people who love their work, did that? “I know you, you don’t know me, I think you’re wonderful, do you “see” me????”

I have a confession to make…

The older I get, the harder it is to remember, and recognize, my own fans/customers.

This is embarrassing, because…Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? You made the time to visit my studio/website/show, you had the sense of purpose to collect a piece, your purchase helps me stay in business so I can continue making, and our conversation lifted my heart.

So when I see you again, and you have to remind me who you are and what we talked so passionately about, I want to sink into the floor.

Most people are understanding. “Why should you remember me?? I was one of hundreds who visited your studio that day! Don’t worry about it.”

But I always remember that first “star” encounter, and cringe. The second encounter was totally on me.

Where am I going with this?

It’s about a creative person’s “dream”, our desire for fame, the need for proof that the world loves what we do.

I realize I don’t really want to be “famous” anymore. I wouldn’t be good at it.

Trust me, it’s not because I’m “more evolved” than these starry folks. They have talent, they’ve worked hard to get it out into the world, and I celebrate every measure of success they achieve. They work hard to be gracious and appreciative of their audience, even when it means putting on a happy face when they are drained and exhausted.

I just realize I would not be nearly as gracious as they are if I were in their shoes.

Do I love what I do? Yes. Do I want my work out in the world? Yes! Do I want my work to be seen, and admired, and respected, and loved? YES!! Am I grateful for the people who let me know, especially when they love it enough to actually buy it? OH GOD YES.

But I also believe my work has a purpose in the world. I feel compelled to connect with my followers, my visitors, my collectors. I’m honored when my work, our conversations, inspire them, heal them, encourage them on their own creative journies.

I can only do that when the encounters are “small”. Personal. Intimate (spiritually.) Enjoyable. I know I would not handle fame nearly as well.

It’s not a “be careful what you wish for, you might get it” thing.

It’s know what you really want, instead of what our celebrity-driven, limelight-lit world tells us what we should want.

Summed up beautifully, and with humor, in my all-time favorite cartoon  (Sally Forth) by Francesco Marciuliano.