Can you afford a monoculture career?

by Suw on April 13, 2011

Last night there was an interesting discussion on Twitter between Cory Doctorow, David Hewson, Nick Harkaway, Baldur Bjarnason and, towards the end, me, about whether or not it’s reasonable to expect fiction writers to have to do something else as well as writing in order to keep the lights on. (The as-full-as-I-can-manage collection of Tweets is after the break.)

The discussion was prompted by a blog post of David Hewson’s, Why I don’t take career advice from Cory Doctorow, in which he basically says “A publishing model that works for Cory Doctorow will never work for me”. This was in response to comments on a previous post of Hewson’s in which he got understandably cross about people digitising is work and then selling it despite not being licensed to. Some commenters pointed at Cory’s model as one to adopt as it is predicated on sharing (although not the unlicensed sale of Cory’s work, I’d add).

I understand why David, and other authors, get angry about people taking their work without permission, and especially when those people then profit from it. Such behaviour pushes some fundamental buttons concerned with fairness that are rooted deep in our monkeybrain. Many animals, like monkeys and dogs, have a built-in sense of fairness which kicks in when they see a peer getting more than they do. So it’s entirely rational for humans to get cross when they see others acting unfairly.

The problem is that stopping people from acting unfairly on the internet is incredibly hard. Yes, you can notice-and-takedown, but in all honesty, you’re playing an infinite game of whack-a-mole which may well end up costing you more in time and effort than you’re actually losing in sales. And there’s no guarantee that you actually are losing sales at all; the evidence is not at all conclusive.

So let’s put that bit to bed and focus on the discussion that sprang from those beginnings: Should an author expect to require more than one income stream?

The nub of David’s argument appeared to be that the majority of professional authors are not able to do anything but write in order to earn a living, and that Cory is an exception. But in pretty much every conversation I have ever had with publishing professionals, they tell me that it is incredibly difficult to earn all of your income just from writing, even if you are a professional with a publishing deal. It’s the same across all creative endeavours. Graphs of income show a small spike of very successful people, and then a very, very long tail of people who get a bit of money, but have to supplement it with income from somewhere else.

This is not new. I doubt it has ever not been the case. When I worked in the music industry, I saw plenty of musicians who had the goal of living solely off their music, but I met very, very few who actually did. Lots of them had a day job and the majority would never be able to afford to drop that day job. For the small number that did, their income from music was not enough to see them financially secure for the rest of their lives, so they were destined to return to a day job as soon as their music career ended.

It’s the same in writing. In photography. In art. In all the creative fields: Most people simply will not earn enough from their creativity to live.

But things have changed, and changed dramatically. For a long time, creative types would have to work outside of their field to make ends meet, as waitresses or brickies or office workers. The internet brings with it an opportunity to make money from things that are related to your writing. Instead of holding down a 9 to 5 job whilst working on your latest project, you can get a bit of money in from talks, a bit from journalism, maybe even a bit from merchandise. You can boost your income whilst at the same time also building your brand and increasing people’s awareness of your work.

Yet both David and Nick made the point that Cory, who really is the poster boy for new and innovative publishing strategies, is in some way different. Not everyone, they say, can do what he does.

This rather reminds me of when I went to Australia as an 18 year old. “Aren’t you lucky?” everyone would say, much to my annoyance. I was not lucky. I worked hard for a couple of summers to save up enough to pay for my flights, got a work permit, and then got jobs in Australia to bankroll my trip. You could argue that I had indeed been lucky to have family in Australia, but although my trip would have been different in nature and possibly shorter, I would have found a way to go even without family to stay with. I made a decision about what I wanted and I worked until I got it.

Cory is not lucky. He has not just suddenly materialised out of the ether with a bunch of books and some weirdo business model. He has worked hard for his success, developing his writing, speaking and fanbase over many years.

This casting of Cory as somehow different, weird or lucky is fundamentally the same as people telling me I was lucky to go to Australia. By casting me as “other” in some way, people could abdicate responsibility for their own experiences. Because I was “lucky” and they were not, they could not be responsible for the fact that they hadn’t gone to Australia, because it was out of their hands, down to fate or karma or an accident of birth.

By casting Cory as “other” we can absolve ourselves of the responsibility to examine his business model in detail and learn new things that we could do to add to our own income. By saying that it’s about personality and secondary skills, we can avoid having to learn how to do things that perhaps we feel a bit iffy about.

The truth is that anyone can learn to speak in public. It might help if you’re naturally outgoing, but it’s not impossible for shier people to learn how to conquer their nerves, how to structure a talk, how to read an audience. I am certainly not the world’s most gregarious person, but I have learnt over the last six years or so how to stand up and speak in front of large crowds and not completely suck at it. We can all develop the skills we need to explore additional income streams. (And for some things, like the design skills that I wish I had but don’t, we can hire them in.)

Now, I know that it’s not just the author that has an impact on how successful these additional income streams are, but also their audience. I’ve heard over and again that SF is different, that Cory’s tactics wouldn’t work in Crime, for example, or Romance. Certainly some crime writers I know say that crime readers are a lot less focused on the author and a lot less interested in hearing the author speak or in signings etc. I think what that indicates to me is that there’s a need for market development – a whole post in and of itself – rather than that it’s fundamentally impossible for Crime or Romance readers to respond to a strategy like Cory’s.

If you are in the position to be creative and earn enough to live purely from your own creativity, you are in a privileged position. But it can only be a good thing that there are now alternatives to working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, alternatives that also serve to actually boost your creative career’s chances by bolstering your profile.

I sometimes think people confuse what is possible with what they want, or don’t want. One may not wish to become a public speaker, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to do so. One may not wish to have to supplement one’s income by writing columns or giving talks, but that does not mean that it’s impossible to do so. And equally, one may not wish to do some hardcore market dev work in order to make your secondary incomes viable, but that does not mean that it’s impossible to do so. Equally, just because something is possible does not mean it is also easy. But then, nothing worthwhile is easy.

UPDATE: John Scalzi has written a great blog post, Multiple Revenue Streams, Revisited, where he discusses the wisdom of not relying on just one source of income. Well worth a read!

UPDATE 2: David Hewson has written another blog post to more fully explore his thoughts on the matter: Don’t give up the day job (until the time is right).

UPDATE3: James Marckaw joins in and imagines a few revenue streams for romance and crime writers. As he says, “Just because someone hasn’t done it yet [in romance or crime], and I don’t stipulate that they haven’t, doesn’t mean that they couldn’t.”

(After the jump: lots of Tweets! There are more on Keepstream, so for the full picture, do click through.)

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