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?”
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.
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.
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!
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*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.