Expectation vs. Reality: The Value of Creative Work
A seriously spectacular meltdown by self-published author Payne Hawthorne got me thinking about the value of creative work. Ms. Hawthorne went nuclear when people criticized the GoFundMe campaign that would allow her to quit her job and write full-time. Of course, a lot of self-pub authors don’t make enough to write full-time and she’s only been at it for about five years; the criticism came from people thinking that she might be jumping the gun on asking for patrons (and from people saying she should have used Patreon instead of GoFundMe, and from people wondering why they’d pay her $5 to write and get nothing when they could just buy one of her books for $3). Also, she claimed that writing is a “thankless” job, and that pretty much rubbed everyone the wrong way.
Hawthorne isn’t the only one frustrated with the level of pay for creative work. Many authors, self-published or not, feel the squeeze; musicians, too, rail against things like streaming music because they only get paid fractions of pennies per play. Aloe Blacc and two other writers “only”* got paid $12,359 from one streaming service for the plays for one song. I get that artists work hard to develop their skills over time and that it would be great to be able to earn a living off of their product.
But, but, but.
Forces in creative economics work against most creative endeavors culminating in a living wage. Believe it or not, non-creative people also work really hard for their money, even if it’s a job that doesn’t necessarily require visionary talent. Because we are consumers rather than art patrons, most creative work becomes subject to good ol’ supply and demand even if you don’t think you can really put a price on art; your work might be priceless to you, but if you want anybody else to part with their hard-earned cash for it, it has to be commercially viable in some way.
How does one tap into the zeitgeist–or, even better, change it with something entirely new? If you find a manual on that, let me know. While it is perfectly possible to have commercial success following a formula, it’s also the easiest path and the way of the most competition (those pesky market forces again–formulaic = lots of people already doing it). To wrest something never-before-done out of the ether and then also have it be appealing to a wide market of people happens quite rarely.
Of course, even if you write a bestseller or a hit song, you don’t exist in a bubble. You still have a lot of bestselling competition out there, which keeps prices down even with efforts to inflate media prices; the fact is that someone could go the whole rest of their lives voraciously consuming media and never pick up a new novel, a new album, a new movie. The supply for media consumption is giant and our attention spans are limited. It’s a buyer’s market.
What that means: in the grand scope of things, your work probably isn’t worth that much in a financial sense.
I’m not trying to be mean. I know it takes great effort to write books or make music, but effort doesn’t always translate to huge money. Consumption doesn’t even necessarily translate to huge money; see above the whole point about competition. In starting any other business, these are key points that an entrepreneur would have to consider: how much competition is there in the market? How much do we have to invest and will we recoup our investment in sales? How much will consumers realistically pay for a product? Are there factors that will prevent us from charging as much as we need to in order to turn a profit?
Somehow, creatives often seem to think that their product is worth whatever they feel like they should get in return, yet that is not how it works when you sell things for money. You feel you should get x amount in return for your creative work, but I feel that I deserve y amount for my money. I already have money because I perform a service that someone else finds of value, so I’m secure in my cash flow and have the power in a situation where I have money and you want money.
“Ugh, you do not have all the power. I could just stop writing books/making songs/etc! Then you won’t have anything to buy!”
This, right here, is the key in taking back the “value” of creative work. I mentioned before that the market is glutted with things to consume and people produce more and more every year. The only way to turn this back into a favorable market for sellers is to cut supply. That means one or both of these things would have to happen for someone trying to make money off of their art: 1) the creative producer needs to begin producing a product that is highly valuable and few people or nobody else can produce (either through skill level or copyrights, should you happen to strike it big with the next Twilight or Sookie Stackhouse or Eve Dallas) and/or 2) a lot of people need to drop out of the creative industry.
The first option is a long shot, frankly. It’s not easy to create something that people want in volume and be one of the few people who can do it. You either have to be crazy talented or take your skills way to the next level through lots of time and practice and then also have the taste level and understanding of your audience to be able to create something that speaks to them. The odds of success there aren’t great. So that leaves the second option; the sorry news there is that it’s unlikely to happen due to the nature of humanity. There will always be people who think, “Hey, other people make money doing this and it’s a minimal financial investment so I’m going to give it a try!”
The allure of possibly striking it rich with little investment is too great. Now that people can reach audiences directly with the internet and produce their own media, the creative industry will continue to overproduce. Gate-kept traditional media companies already overproduce, so once you add self-publishers in various media on top of that, it’s obvious that that market will continue to compete at high levels and put the potential of earning a living wage off of writing or creating out of reach for most people.
It’s like opening a coffee shop on the same block as ten other coffee shops. At some point, there’s too much coffee shop and not enough people to keep them all afloat. Even if your great passion in life is coffee, too many other people had the same idea and acted on it. One or two coffee shops will survive and the others will eventually peter out. Only in our scenario, it’s not just ten coffee shops–every time a few coffee shops close, other people come along and open new ones. It’s wave after wave of new coffee shops all the time.
So we come back to the arguments about streaming music and low prices on ebooks (well, we say low ebook prices–they’re actually quite high for tradpub books, aren’t they?). People say, oh, my creative work is worth more and people should pay more for it than Spotify or Pandora or ebook customers or Amazon will pay for it. One solution is to stop using those services if they aren’t willing to pay enough. I rolled my eyes when Taylor Swift took her music off of Spotify, but she did the right thing, ultimately; the only way to make your work more valuable in a buyer’s market is to induce rarity. If Taylor Swift is in high demand and irreplaceable to her fans, they will pay more to get her music.
If. (I mean, I’m sure she is. But I’m making a point.)
This can be a double-edged sword: removing your music from a popular streaming service may mean that you earn more per track**, but it may also limit discoverability or it may mean that listening revenues are shifted to more convenient artists, whose music will become more valuable as Spotify has fewer choices when other artists drop out. Refusing to sell digital books also creates rarity, but it concurrently takes away the ereading part of your book’s market share. Stephen King can get away with that because he’s irreplaceable to most of his fans, but most writers probably can’t. Creating rarity by limiting platform can work against consumer demand. We want to listen to Spotify; we (some of us) want to read digital books; we want to watch Netflix, so you need to be damned special to opt out or we’ll just read/watch/listen to something else.
The best thing that could happen to the profitability of creative work is for most of the people trying to make a living off of it to stop producing creative work. When the publishing crises arise, when publishers claim they’re about to go under, the best thing would probably be for one or two mega-publishers to actually go under. It’s not that there’s not demand for books; it’s that there are so many books that they well exceed demand. Like most other corporations, big media is pushed to grow financially year by year, which has resulted in more and more production; however, this isn’t good for artists and this, more than any other thing, is what “devalues” creative work. If only six thousand copies of five titles came out a year, readers would pay top dollar to get our hands on one; the reality now is that many books literally can’t be given away, that publishers purposely make many more copies of projected bestsellers than are needed so they can stuff displays, books that later get pulped.
There’s no logical safety net for industries that overproduce; there’s no moral or financial reason that they should continue to make more than people want to buy and that every person participating should get paid handsomely. Creative media has been cheapened by the industry itself in a constant bid for all the market share and all of our attention.
So, no–most people don’t actually deserve to make a living off of creative work. I’m sorry. It must be said. You’re in a luxury industry with huge competition, rampant overproduction, and low success odds. That’s something you need to know before you go into it and it’s something that you need to hinge your decision on. You can’t go to the consumer and demand to be paid more because you want to live out your dream or because you value your own work more than what the market will pay. We’re under no obligation to part with our money; your realistic choices are to live with what you can make in the market, to find a new dream that pays more if you can’t earn enough off of your creative work, or to change the workings of the market (good luck with that one).
I know you have feelings on this. Tell me off in the comments.
*I admit, I’m a little dubious about “only” making $4000 from one service for one song. Exactly how much is one song worth? How many hours did each person spend writing the song? If each writer spent 100 hours on the song–way more than many songwriters say they spend on a song–that’s $40/hour–not too shabby, as that would be $83,200 annually for someone making that hourly wage, not even including the other sources of income for that song. How much money did that song make from other avenues? How much do they make off of radio play? How much do they earn off of exposure on Pandora?
**Of course, that all depends on how often you listen to an album. If I pay, say, $12.99 for a CD with 11 tracks, and I listen to it ten times, that’s almost 12 cents per listen per track. If I listen to that same album a couple hundred times over its lifespan, which I certainly have done with CDs, I have then paid .6 cents per listen per track. If I buy a single track for $1.99 and listen to it an average of five times a week for a year, I pay .8 cents per listen; if I listen to it three times a month for ten years, .6 cents per play. The more I listen to a song, the less it costs me over time each time I play the track; at what point does it become more profitable for an artist to receive money from Spotify per play than for me to pay a flat fee for the track? I do all that math just to point out that, unless you buy an album or single and listen to it only once or twice, artists have always earned partial pennies per listen.