By Jay Stringer
I’d like to start off with two things. Firstly, a thank you. Mr Chuck Wendig did a great job of raising the level of discourse in this slot while I was off taking care of bidness. It’s good to have Chuck as part of the DSD family, and we’ll see him again.
Secondly, an apology; I had said that today would be a follow up to Russel’s blog about Batman. I’ll get to that in a couple weeks, honest.
So, anyway. I’ve had an issue scratching away at my noggin for some time now, we touch on it in our most recent podcast, but I’m like a dog with a bone when something is tapping away at me.
Today's furrowed brow; Making money as a writer in the modern age.
Firstly, it might be worth watching this video by Mark Thomas, a UK comedian and activist and someone I admire quite a lot, about digital laws. Plus it has Billy Bragg, just for you.
Okay? Quick recap; Mark is talking about the stand off between the film/TV industry and the Internet. Not news really, anyone who’s lived through the last fifteen years knows all about that.
There is legislation at work that will enable people to be banned from the net for illegally downloading content. There’s a clause in it too that allows the kind folks in charge a hell of a lot of discretion as to what content deserves a ban.
Billy Bragg raises the idea that the age of freely exchanged data and music is helping the ‘smaller’ artists. Its also helping the lineage, as he points out, when he was a teenager and heard Dylan was inspired by Guthrie, he had no options. In this day and age the same teenaged William of Bragg would type a name into a magic box and have a whole wiki history to read as well as a shed load of recorded music to listen to. Would this pimply balladeer have paid for anyone of it? Probably not. But would the artists message be getting out to new ears? Definitely.
Uh oh. Grey area alert. Move on, quick.
That great prophet of our time, the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”
But times are changing. Frank Turner, who is also well worth checking out, raised the question last year of whether musicians will soon be required to give away their recordings for free, making a living from touring and merchandise. Funny thing is that aside from the top 10% of musicians, the ones who sell enough records to actually make a dime from their contracts, you’d probably find that this version of business wouldn’t make that much of a difference to the income of the jobbing ‘smaller’ musician.
In fact, as Bragg suggests in the video, it’s quite easy to see the record industries mistrust of the internet as fear for themselves. Because the artists are still there and the customers are still there, its just the model that’s changing.
Okay, so, since I long ago gave up my attempts at being a jobbing musician, why is this scratching away at my noggin?
Well, music, film, TV…books. We’re ALL writers. A butterfly starts giving away recorded content for free in New York, and a writer may be expected to do the same in Glasgow. I’m sure some chaos mathematician said that.
If one industry moves to a new model, and the value of the content changes, what’s to say all content won’t follow suit? Who’s to say that we don’t need to come up with -pretty damn quickly- a way to be able to write to a professional standard AND still earn a living. I know I’m not alone in working full time at a ‘real’ job, and then coming home to spend all night doing the hard and rewarding task of writing. And I also know I’ll always being doing that writing, regardless of money.
I can’t speak for filmmakers or musicians (though I will, at length, if you buy me a drink), and I can’t really speak for any writer other than myself. But we’ve been conditioned that the films and the albums and the books are products. And that they are what the customer is paying for, and what the artist is being paid for. Again, don’t know about others, but for me that’s not what I’m looking for in my early steps to professional writing. I’ll always be doing that anyway, and in some possibly misguided way it’s my art. It’s not a job. So the books that I’m writing (two and counting, hey, how did that happen?) are not what I want to be paid for, they are not products that I want to wave at the world as a thing. They are something that I care about, and get a lot of fulfilment from. What I want to be paid for are all the things that I can’t do when I’m writing.
The jobs that would pay bills, all of that. It’s more of a sponsorship than a business deal, to my mind. Being sponsored to have the time to write, and to have ever more time with each passing story so that I can develop and change and hopefully entertain.
Having this time to give to the writing, and to social niceties like bathing and talking to my partner, would be my priority, and I do wonder if we need to start having more and louder discussions on how we’ll do that in the years ahead.
A case I’m paying close attention to is Steve Bryant over in the wonderful world of comic books. Steve writes the second best pulp heroine, Athena Voltaire, and she is his labour of love, in an industry that doesn’t really indulge such things these days. As he himself says on the website, he has to try and steal an hour here or there just to draw one panel, and a year can go by before he has a finished issue. Commercially that’s not viable, artistically it’s wasting and it just doesn’t put food on the table. He has worked out he needs $7,000 to produce his next mini-series. That’s the figure he has put not just on the printing and packaging, but also on the time he needs to devote to doing the work. He’s asking for people to sponsor the project and, as I understand it, he is working on ways to reward the sponsorship. So for he has raised 2,000.
This seems somewhat close to McFet’s Co-Op discussion, which you can go and join in on here. It’s not quite the same, but it’s along the same lines, trying to find a different workable model.
So what would be the model for us writers? And how will we continue to collaborate with the people we need; editors and agents? Sure, I could have stumped up some cash when I finished draft one of book one, and printed it up myself to sell my opus to the world. But I’m not sure that would have made me a writer. Opening myself up to the process of submission, rejection and advice made me a writer. Working with editorial voices that I trusted elevated my work above the mess that first tumbled out of my head. And having an agent in my corner who knows what I’m trying to do, even when I sometimes forget, is what keeps the books on track. So we still need to factor in the idea that, as much as writing is about sitting your ass down in a lonely room for hours at a time, it’s also about collaborating and needing guidance.
So here’s pretty much where I’m at.
We can’t go down the route that 90% of jobbing musicians may well find themselves in. Because the work and the material is different, even though the march of progress and the buying public might not agree. So where do we go?
What is the next step? Or is there some great advance in technology that we haven’t even thought up yet that will make all these questions irrelevant?
I’d like to see what you think. Let me know in the comments, and even better, head over to the Co-Op discussion.
“The revolution’s just a t-shirt away”