Archive for November, 2011

5 Reasons Starving Artists Stay Starving

Art, to the non-artist, is a funny sort of business.  Your basic self-identified artist wears clothes with holes in it and has a lot of really creative recipes involving ramen packets, but an art gallery on your street basically tacks another zero onto the property values (and rents)

So how does that happen?

Supply and Demand, Part 1

Without getting fancy about your economics, you can basically assume that any product gets cheaper as more people or company manufacture it, and gets more expensive as more people or companies demand it.  Lots of producers in a small market — low prices.  Few producers in a demanding market — high prices.

The person who buys an artist’s work is usually not the end consumer.  Most artists are selling to a distributor:  a gallery curator, a publishing house, a periodical, etc.  Those distributors have access to everyone who wants to produce the kind of art they deal in.  Hint:  there’s a lot of those.

So because more people grow up and say “hey, I want to be a painter” than grow up saying “hey, I want to spend all my time networking and going to auctions so I can sell paintings successfully” you end up, in any given field, with curators and publishers and so on who have their pick of a lot of talent, and all that talent has to make itself both known and competitively priced to those few purchasers.

Supply and Demand, Part 2

Now flip to the other side of the equation.  A gallery owner or publisher isn’t selling art.  He/she is selling his/her taste and authority on the subject.  The product for sale is basically the stamp of approval saying “this is real art, not street fair junk.”

There are a lot of people out there who want to feel like they appreciate art.  Demand is high.  Since many of those people also don’t trust their own taste or ability to tell “real” art from “junk,” they don’t have the ability to go directly to artists.  The vast supply that dealers can take advantage of isn’t useful to them.  They’re limited to gallery selections, which means supply is low and prices rise accordingly.

The Pay It Forward Problem

How do you bake the perfect loaf of bread?  Bake a thousand bad loaves.

The same principle applies to art.  It’s a constant process of refining skills, and the end product of a lot of those refining experiments isn’t saleable.  A writer might spend years perfecting a single manuscript.  A painter might fill a folio with sketches before finding a workable subject.  And you aren’t getting paid for that work.

This is why most creative artists have a day job, as in “don’t quit your.”  The process of “making it” is a process of paying it forward, often for years at a time, and the reality is that almost no one ever makes so much in the long run that it was worth passing up a salaried career.

Material Costs

Sometimes it’s good to be a writer.  Graphic or three-dimensional artists have it much, much worse on material costs.  You’re back to supply and demand with a little history thrown in:  there aren’t that many companies making high-quality art supplies.  They don’t have a lot of incentive to bring prices down.  And the graphic arts in particular have a serious historical association with the upper classes, meaning art supplies have been a big-ticket item for generations.

The Inevitable Crap-Shoot of Public Taste

Monet couldn’t get into contemporary art shows, but we hang his paintings in museums now.  J. K. Rowling will never work another day in her life, but no one’s even heard of Maria Susanna Cummins, who achieved comparable success with The Lamplighter in the 1850s.

That’s just how the game works.  You never know.  The rules that at least sort of apply to more structured careers — show up on time, work hard; be nice to people — might get you ahead in art or they might not.  But either way you won’t see anything like the same steady, upward progression in personal worth, and it’s entirely due to factors beyond your control.  Frustrating, right?

None of this adds up to guaranteed failure.  The important thing to take away from all this is that artistic success takes time.  Public taste and knowing the right middlemen have to intersect with you having not only inspiration but also time to produce work and money for supplies.  It’s a formula with a lot of variables.

Persistence counts for a lot.  Being an artist means being willing to pay it forward and accept little or no profit for a long time.  Figuring out whether or not you’re really in for that long haul is the first thing any aspiring artist needs to do.

And after that, start thinking of creative ways to serve ramen noodle soup.  Would you like some of my recipes?

Wait, Why Are We Laughing?

There’s an old joke (that you can’t tell in polite company) about why people have angels on top of their Christmas trees:

Supposedly the tradition got started up at the North Pole one year, when Santa was just having a terrible time of things with elves on strike, heartworm in the reindeer, Mrs. Claus talking divorce; you name it.  And in the middle of it he’s got this cheerful little helper angel who finally tracked down the big Christmas tree for some city’s tree-lighting ceremony, and she sticks her head in at the wrong minute and says “Hey, boss, where do you want me to put this tree?”

And that’s why we have angels on top of our trees.

Get it?

I share this joke with you because it’s context for the family ritual of decorating the Christmas tree.  We’re very good at eyeballing the right tree height for our ceilings, to within a scant inch or two some years, which makes propping that damn angel up there a real adventure.

It is my father’s adventure, specifically, and I don’t think he has ever put together the reason that my mother and I sit there and giggle helplessly at his running commentary:

“It’s just a little bit of a stretch this year.”
“Our problem is that it’s a little too wide for her.”
“I’m not sure it’s going to fit.”

And so on and so forth, while we kibitz and drink eggnog (with a little more emphasis on the “nog” than the “egg,” in my household) and slide gradually lower in our seats from giggling.

We’ve never been able to explain the hysterical laughter.  It’s not like the Cubbage household is so refined that the phrase “It’s funny ’cause it sounds like you’re talking about putting things up her butt” would be entirely out of place.  There’s just never been an adequate way to express why this particular butt joke is so hilarious.

Dare I say that this is what we’re all striving for?  The right combination of comforting familiarity, unpredictable improvisation, and of course butt jokes to turn an amused grin into hysterical “it’s nothing, it’s nothing!” fits of giggles?

I don’t have a magic formula for it, unfortunately.  But I will say that eggnog doctored heavily with rum helps, so…maybe write a foreward for your books encouraging the reader to drink first; read after?  Let me know how that works for you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I just thought up a really great display window for my friends at the sex toy shop.  I’d better head over to their website and get it up.

…what?

Computer-Generated Comments: Monkeys and Typewriters

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I think there’s an element of genius here.  Something Joyceian about it — perhaps that’s why it was on the Irish authors post?  “Why visitors still use to read news papers when in this technological world everything is presented on web?”, indeed.

Great stuff.

So that’s the exciting news from today.  The less exciting news is that, as I was writing this, someone called to remind me that I’m supposed to be working holiday hours at the Day Job starting this week.  And guess when my holiday hours started!

Yep.  About half an hour ago, while I was writing this.

I’ll, uh, just see you all tomorrow, yes?  But feel free to leave a draft of your new post-modern novel in the Comments section.

That Does It, I Need a Smartphone

I’ve bemoaned my lack of a smartphone before on this blog, always in the context of seeing some entertaining and doubtless vulgar thing that I would like to share with you, but this Thanksgiving walk clinched it.

Out and about in my parent’s neighborhood, which is a nice one, we saw one of those cutsey clay tile signs with painted flowers around the border and a heartwarming message hand-written in the middle, you know the type.  The message, this time, was “Back Door Friends are the Best Friends.”

So after I was done giggling about that I checked online to see if anyone else had seen one of those and been lucky enough to have a camera shoved carelessly in their pocket, and I found a sampler with the same motto photographed for the blog Sarah and the Goon Squad, whose author had much the same reaction as me.  Here it is:

In defense of my (our?) sophomoric interpretation, the first page of Google results if you search “back door friends” takes you right to Amazon.com:

Apparently they still sell books.  Who knew?

So suffice it to say, I’ll be shopping around for an iPhone this post-Thanksgiving shopping season.  And on that subject, has it really been a year since my chart-topping Black Friday Special:  How to Shop for Your Neurotic Writer post?  Consider the list unchanged, then, except for the added item of “a smartphone or other conveniently portable way to take pictures of cheesy innuendo.” And if you haven’t read it, do!

And if you have a side in the Droid vs. iPhone war, why don’t you tell me a little bit about why down in the Comments section?  I’ve got some shopping to do…

Turkey Day Traditions

I love Thanksgiving.

It’s my favorite holiday of the whole year.  No costumes, no extensive decorations (just a gourd or two, liberally scattered), no presents or cards or figuring out who gets a present or a card and who doesn’t; just eating and not working and maybe a few bars of “Come, Ye Thankful People Come” once you’ve had a few glasses of the good stuff.

But it helps that I’ve always had a nearby family for this.  Walking is an important part of the Cubbage Thanksgiving tradition, originally as a necessary way to go to Grandmother’s house (yes, literally, and we did in fact go through a woods, though I don’t believe there was ever a river involved — when you grow up in Des Moines you sort of take for granted that your holidays will be just like the songs say).  Later on the walk simply became an aid to good digestion, and I’ll be off on one of those shortly.

It’s a holiday of feel-good traditions.  I can get behind a day like that.  So congrats to the Presidentially-pardoned turkey, enjoy your cranberry sauce (and think of #1 cranberry producer Wisconsin as you eat it!), and if you want to share your own turkey day traditions with us, leave a comment.  Stories of Thanksgiving dinner disasters are, of course, also welcome…!

Randomness, On Twitter and In Writing

In the last 24 hours I’ve used Twitter to mock Anne McCaffrey’s legacy*, imagine the murder of a porpoise, and send pictures of my sex toys to a young woman who I’ve never met face to face.  Somewhere in there I also gave straight-faced advice on the proper and improper uses of Twitter.

I try not to let these sorts of glaring hypocrisies bother me.

They give people something to talk about, if nothing else.  Call them conversation-starters.  They lack the sort of tangible, career-related impact that, say, linking to my blog or a piece I’ve written brings, but frankly a feed full of nothing but those is about as interesting as earwax.

Actually, earwax is kinda interesting some time.  Mine always gets thick and black when I’m sick with a ‘flu or throat bug or whatever.  Why would it even do that?

Anyway.

The point is that this isn’t actually about Twitter.  It’s about writing in general, and the value of the absurd insertion.  People like it when you surprise them.  Not in the sense of dramatic plot twist surprise, just in the sense of someone saying something completely unexpected.

Don’t be afraid to do this.  It doesn’t have to be in dialogue.  Your narrative voice can spend a sentence noticing something completely absurd and only barely related to the subject and hand, and remarking on it.  Our brains do that all the time:  “Huh, look at that big guy on the subway car.  I bet he could really mess me up.  Jeez he looks angry.  I wonder what’s for dinner?”

Let a little of that shine through sometimes.  I think it adds spice.

Just don’t tweet any naughty pictures of yourself to strange women.

Especially not with a face like that. Jesus, Anthony, what were you THINKING?

*Before you get indignant, it was only the playful suggestion that they could build her a tomb out of her own books without having to use a single title more than once.  The woman did write.

Twitter: “Social Media,” not “Pyramid Marketing Scheme for Your eBook”

Soapbox time.  Just a teeny-tiny bit.  Bear with me.

I am, of course, on the Twitter.  There’s even a helpful little widget in the upper right corner of this blog that shows my latest post, or at least the first few words of it — you can click on the link there if you want to read more of my random,  less-than-140-character thoughts.

So it’s safe to say that I do the networking thing a bit.  I follow other writers on Twitter, if they post something I like I re-tweet it (just to keep that ol’ karma good), and yes — I tweet links to my blog posts, most of the time.

I won’t claim to be a social media expert, but that mix of your own personal thoughts, helpful links for other people, and a bit of tactful self-promotion is basically the goal.  Twitter is a social media tool, and the important word there is tool; we all know everyone’s going to be doing a bit of work on their own behalf with the tool.

I'll let you all pick your own tool (and associated verb) for this metaphor.

But here is what Twitter is not:  it is not a pyramid marketing scheme wherein you buy ten shares and then get ten of your friends to buy ten shares or else a terrible curse befalls you and you get hit by a truck.  Or at least it shouldn’t be.

(It occurs to me that the chain-letter, pyramid-marketing scam with hints of dire misfortune to those who break the chain might be a little too dated for my audience.  If you never got one of those letters in the ol’ snail-mail please just take my word for it that they existed, and were obnoxious.)

If you are going to use Twitter to promote your own writing — and by all means do so — do it on the merits of the product.  Shout to the heavens that your book is the best thing ever put down on paper, or, as is often the case,  not actually put down on paper but still downloadable for a modest fee.

Because the fact of the matter is that asking someone to buy a book “and retweet to all your friends so that the author hits Kindle’s top 100 list!” isn’t promoting the work.  It’s asking for charity.  And your work either deserves better than that or is so crappy that you shouldn’t be pushing it on us at all, so have a little faith in yourself and assume the former.

Talking about sales goals and stat rankings isn’t talking about your book.  It’s talking about your business and personal finances, which has always been and still remains a tasteless subject for public discourse.

There are lots of good ways to promote yourself without begging.  I’ve seen some very imaginative tweets from people who read this blog, and it always warms my heart.  So consider this your challenge for the day:  how are you going to sell your book, in 140 characters or less, without begging people to push the work on all their friends in the name of your financial gain?

Dignity is the hot new internet meme.

Success, and the Guilt It Brings

Okay, I feel a little guilty here.

I missed a post on Friday.  A big part of that was out of my control and involved some work-related insanity, and the brutal triage just didn’t include the blog.

But I should have said something.  Posted some fuzzy pony pictures, as I’ve done in the past when our internet has gone out or, like Friday, life just gets out of hand.

But here's a pony, at least.

Mea cuplas out of the way, I’m going to brag a little:  the blog’s doing well!  Lots of people are reading it.  So thank you all for that.

The catch there is that missing a post feels like it’s letting down more people.  Is there ever a point at which you’re so successful that you don’t even feel bad for failing to deliver on something?  Where you’ve got so many adoring fans that treating them well ceases to be a concern?

Because as soon as I hit that point you can forget about fuzzy pony pictures, for serious.

So once again:  my apologies!  It’s the first post I’ve missed since switching to a five-days-a-week schedule back in September and I’ll try to make it the last for a while as well.  And if you have thoughts on success, guilt, or fuzzy ponies, take a moment to let us know in the comments!

After all, the more active commentors I have the guiltier I’ll feel for slacking off.

The Reminder You Sometimes Need: Writing Is Actually Fun

Okay, guys.  I’m not gonna lie.  I’m actually kind of enjoying this.

I know, I know.  The whole NaNoWriMo thing.  It’s gimmicky and kind of pop-culturey and I can’t ever quite get myself 100% on board with it.  I’ve been, if not a skeptic, at least a kind of hiply ironic douchebag about the whole thing for years.

But I did it before it was cool. So, y'know.

And yet, it’s been a good excuse to do the part of writing that I really like — the part where you’re actually making things up and just putting them down on paper, rather than selling words to people or working on your contacts and profile or whatever.  To say nothing of editing and re-editing web content for better SEO!

It’s good to be reminded that that’s the dream:  writing your own stuff, long-term, sustainably.  And that it’s fun, and that it’s doable, and that when the parts of “being a writer” that aren’t “writing” feel awful and tedious and like nothing you ever wanted to do there’s a point to it all so cowboy up and get through.

Yee-haw.

Barnes & Nobles as NaNoWriMo Sponsor — Slighty Creepy

This is sort of shaping up into a NaNoWriMo week, isn’t it?  I apologize to those readers that aren’t big fans.  My own feelings on the program, as you all know, are a little mixed too.

But I’m doing it and that’s good fun, yadda yadda yadda.  Not the point today.  Today I’m a little squicked out by something from NaNoWriMo’s front page:  a “sponsored by” section that, today (and maybe other days too?  I haven’t been looking, but will start now) features Barnes & Nobles’s “PubIt!” offshoot.

Nothing against PubIt! in particular; it seems roughly comparable with most other major booksellers’ self-publishing outfits in terms of pricing (standardized), royalties (passable), and rights (lousy).  I wouldn’t make a case for or against it as far as going the self-pub route goes.

But something about a self-publishing enterprise hanging out on the front page of an amateur novel-writing contest just seems a little…predatory.

Maybe I’m being a little too skeptical.  Maybe I should have a little more faith in my fellow word-count-pounders, who are certainly capable of educating themselves about the self-publishing industry and its various advantages and perils.  It just seems a little too easy for someone who’s producing their first manuscript to see the (very slick) PubIt! webpage and think Oh, man, I could be getting like six bucks for EVERY SINGLE COPY PEOPLE BUY?

I suppose my problem is with the ease of it all:  three or four clicks and an upload, and your book is now Barnes & Nobles’s book.  A lot more could have happened to make it a better book, and to make it a profitable product for yourself rather than a drop in their rather large bucket.  And I’m not sure that people who’ve just this November gotten to the very first impulse of “hey, it would be fun to write a novel” know that.

It makes me want to run around shouting “no, no, no; read some self-published authors’ blogs first!  Know what you’re getting into!”  Which I’m sure lots of people will do.  I shouldn’t worry.

But I can’t help feeling a little iffy about that particular sponsorship.  Anyone else see it, or am I just crazy?

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