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July 26, 2011

Two Creators' Takes On The State of Creating

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

I've been reading a bunch of things lately written by and about people who do creative work for a living (I blame Gaiman's long silence). Here are a couple of articles I think Copyfight readers will enjoy:

First up, The Independent had a feature earlier this month on Steph Swainston, titled "I need to return to reality'. The story covers Ms. Swainston's decision to give up a job as a published fantasy-novel author and start teaching chemistry in school.

That's sort of the reverse path of a lot of authors who work at traditional jobs while they write part time or after hours in the hope that one day they'll make enough from publishing to be able to give up their "day jobs". In reality, of course, you exchange one day job for another. One thing you see repeatedly in authors' blogs is the clear statements that writing is a job, a job you work at a lot during standard work hours, and it's hard work. It seems to be this latter that has motivated Swainston to bail halfway through a two-book deal.

There's just too much stress on authors [...] The business model seems to be that publishers want a book a year. I wanted to spend time on my novels, but that isn't economically viable.

In this vein let me also commend to your attention a blog entry from John Scalzi on the pace and page-count of releases. Both Scalzi and Swainston are making the point that writing - even though it's a job - still requires a potentially long and certainly unpredictable amount of time to go from signed contract to publishable state. And while almost every editor and publishing house I know is very flexible and frankly expects authors to miss deadlines the related point in Swainston's interview is that missing a deadline also means no checks getting deposited in the bank. Bill collectors tend to be a lot less forgiving than publishing houses when one is missing their deadlines.

Swainston's other point is complex and potentially more touchy - writers, she argues, end up writing inside a bubble. Divorced from other contact with the world writing can not only be a solitary and lonely activity but this lack of contact can leave an author feeling a loss of meaning in her life. Swainston's decision to teach chemistry is no accident - she finds it "feeds that sense of wonder" that all authors need.

The second artistic item is musical: Bob Ostertag writes in the August issue of The Wire (available early online) about his experiences going from a standard CD/catalog-sales musician to giving away all his music for free online, an act he called "professional suicide."

His article titled "Collateral Damage" is about where he is in this experiment. Five years ago he reckoned his sales at a mere 1-2k per CD. Many were released on small labels and when those labels went away the CDs became a form of orphaned work. Most importantly for Ostertag's calculations, he wasn't getting any money for them.

Compare that, then, with the experience of giving his music away for free download online. He reports that downloads are now 10-30x what sales numbers were, but on the downside people are not using his site's mechanics to donate money voluntarily in recompense for what they choose to download. Ostertag notes that this feeds his soul and motivates him - just as Swainston was seeking her own motivation. But also like Swainston, Ostertag has real bills to pay. And like Swainston, Ostertag pays those bills with a teaching gig.

Ostertag's column goes on to discuss structures and changes. Echoing points I noted last May, Ostertag agrees that music listeners never had it so good. Compared to five years ago, tens of thousands more albums are being released, millions of band pages are going up on MySpace, and (I would add) thriving efforts such as blogs run by DJs, musicians, composers, and bands reaching out directly to their fans and potential fans.

The question that remains unanswered, sadly, is whether something that is this good for music lovers must remain not so good for music makers. And really, how do we want to compensate people who are making all this music?

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