Monday, August 26, 2019

Art, Entertainment, And Money

     You can make money by entertaining people, if you’re good enough at it and are noticed for that. Quite a lot of Americans strive to build careers as entertainers. If the entertainer observes the usual legal and ethical constraints, it’s as acceptable an occupation as any other.

     Part of the reason many persons pursue one of the arts – fiction, poetry, music, drama, painting, sculpture, athletics, what have you – is to make money. Indeed, artists who hope for financial remuneration from their work are almost certainly a large majority. But what would predictably, reliably make money isn’t always what the artist would like to do, or what he’s best equipped to do. It’s a tension that’s existed since we first deemed certain pursuits to be arts.

     That tension can warp an artist’s mind, to say nothing of the effect on his bank balance. But it arises from effects that no one can undo.

     When Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press in 1439, his immediate aim was to produce and distribute the Bible. The Bible was the one and only book of general importance. He who owned an actual copy of it was fortunate indeed. But an invention as versatile as the printing press would not long be confined to the production of Bibles. There were other books people wanted reproduced in volume, and the rich ones among them offered incentives for doing so.

     Thus, patronage, long a key factor in the support of the visual and musical arts, became a part of the written arts. But printing presses and those skilled in their operation remained scarce for a long time. Those who wanted their works reproduced had to bid against one another for the press owners’ efforts. That’s how the first publishing companies were born.

     A lot of water has passed under Mankind’s bridges since then. There are still vanity presses, of course. They don’t command a lot of respect, but they’re out there, available to the writer who wants to see his name on the spine of a book and is willing to pay for the privilege. Respectable publishers are in business to make a profit by selling books to readers, rather than by selling them to their authors. But to do that, they must solve a perennially difficult problem: accurately predicting which books will sell in volume.

     This is so difficult a task that to remain in business, most conventional publishers – i.e., those that concentrate on producing and selling hard-copy books rather than eBooks – must be supported by a larger, more reliably profitable organization. Indeed, owing to the proliferation of genres and sub-genres, accurate prediction of readers’ tastes has steadily grown harder. The pressure on conventional publishers is at an all-time is the pressure on a writer who looks to his fiction for his principal income.

     The explosion in eBook publishing has complicated matters still further. Publication in electronic format was at first regarded as the lowest of publishing’s slums, suited only to writers who have neither stories to tell nor skills for the telling. That lack of prestige caused conventional publishers to shun the eBook for a long time – far too long for their financial health. Readers, once they got used to their Kindles and NOOKs, found the eBook an adequate publication medium with several advantages that compensate for its limitations. The coalescence of eBook formats around two dominant ones, each easily converted to the other, helped to resolve matters of availability and eReader compatibility. The sale of eBooks swiftly rose to equal and then surpass the sale of conventionally published books.

     Conventional publishers, desperate to shore up their finances, belatedly got into the eBook act. Unfortunately, they brought baggage with them that impeded them despite the advantages that could have accrued from their institutional prestige. The eBook hasn’t served them nearly as well as it’s served the legions of small, eBook-only presses that cater to “independent” writers.

     But the flood to eBooks is not an unmixed blessing for writers. It’s so easy to produce an eBook, and so easy to make it available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, and several other online retailers, that getting attention for one’s works is harder than ever. So many writers are “talking” that any individual one must “shout” to be heard at all. Making a living by writing fiction remains a tough challenge.

     A few indie writers have succeeded, especially in the speculative genres. The best known ones emphasize relentless productivity. Their novels arrive in barrages, series of a dozen or more volumes with a common setting and protagonists. It’s difficult to criticize this approach, if the end in view is revenue. Nevertheless, there are drawbacks, especially for their emulators.

     Since the releases of the various volumes of the Futanari Saga, a number of my fiction readers have written to ask a common question: “Why did you write this?” (Most of them go on to say “I mean, I liked it, but...”) I wrote that series for the same reason I write everything: to explore certain ideas in a fictional setting. One of them – transgenderism – has ignited a great deal of public controversy. So I decided to delve into it from a skewed perspective: the fictional existence of women born with male genitals, whose condition is involuntary and irreparable.

     While I wouldn’t turn down big revenues as long as they come without strings, it’s more important for me to write about the ideas on my mind than to pursue big bucks. It’s a personal choice that not all writers make. Indeed, not all visual artists make it, as we can see from the large amounts of schlock that decorates so many living room walls.

     One of the downsides of the eBook explosion has been what I think of as “The Forty-Niner Effect.” The discovery of gold in northern California caused a lot of people to flock thither in hope of great riches. A few of them prospered mightily, but far more of them were bitterly disappointed. Some even starved to death. Of the unfortunate ones, how many could have prospered more and lived better by “staying home” and plying some more conventional trade?

     Writers in the age of the eBook face the same sort of temptation. The fabulously successful ones inspire emulators. The emulators are usually disappointed by their results. A lot of them become bitter. But far worse by my lights, among those who fail to prosper financially are some gifted storytellers who’ve sloughed their own, unique ideas to pursue the big bucks. There’s a tragedy for you.

     Of course, it’s the Curmudgeon Emeritus to the World Wide Web saying this: a writer so obsessed with originality that he won’t set his fingers to the keys unless he’s certain that what he has in mind has never even been attempted before. So as usual the proper seasoning is cum grano salis.

     Still, I personally know two highly gifted writers who’ll tell you from dawn to dusk (and all night long if you have the staying power) that they only do it to make money. They have yet to make much. Yet both of them have broached exciting, fictionally unexplored ideas to me that they’ve “left on the shelf:” in one case to turn out a series of formulaic space operas; in the other to produce (shudder) vampire novels. And I look at my Kindle, and fret over the lack of anything fresh and original to read, and I sigh.

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