Writing: Career or Hobby?

I was driving home from the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 midnight release one night (my husband’s airsoft team always does an appearance at these things) and we got talking about creative pursuits as a career vs as a hobby. It started out, I think, with a discussion of the music industry. Individual recording artists are often upset about the low royalties being paid out from services like Spotify. They get a fraction of a cent for each time their song is played, meaning they have little chance of gaining any kind of real income from these plays. And so they decry the industry and these services, and say they’re what is killing the music industry.

Independent movie producers say the same kinds of things. They only make a few cents (if that) whenever their movie is streamed via Netflix. Unless their film is viewed millions of times, they won’t make much money off of it.

I hear the same kind of thing coming from a lot of authors. If they’re forced to sell their ebooks at $.99, they’re only making $.35 on each sale. They have to sell thousands of copies to make any money. (The same things are said at $2.99, $4.99, and pretty much anything under the price of a mass-market paperback.)

Part of this has to do with the number of celebrities we see in each of these fields, and pretty much every other creative field. We see the J.K. Rowlings, the Stephenie Meyers, the Stephen Kings, of the world, and we think that that’s what success looks like. We think that all we should need to do is write something great (or not so great, depending on your opinion) and the riches should follow.

Part of this, I think, comes from the bottleneck that happened in popular culture during the 90s and early 2000s. People had more access to the arts than ever before. Cable TV was a mainstay in most (American) households. Most people had CD players and purchased CDs on a regular basis. We went to the movies regularly, as opposed to just for special occasions. We consumed these things at levels that were unheard of before. And because of this, there was a lot of money flowing into publishing, the music industry, and the movie industry.

But at the same time, the cost of producing all these things was still relatively high, and so there was a lot of money for a relatively small number of professional artists. Your average joe musician couldn’t produce a studio-quality album without spending a lot of money (which they often didn’t have), and so there was a definite difference in quality between your indie artists and your mainstream ones. You could pick out an indie film or a self-published book or an indie album from a mile away in most cases. And not for positive reasons.

Then, in the past half decade or so, things began to change. It became even easier to consume the things above as these forms moved online (both to legal and illegal sources). But it also became infinitely easier to produce these things. Cheap video cameras have made it possible for almost anyone to make a film (an the technology has only gotten better, making it possible to make a film that’s indistinguishable in many ways from anything coming out of the big studios). Consumer-friendly software and prosumer audio equipment have made it possible for anyone to record a decent album. Ebooks and POD have made it affordable for anyone to publish a book. And social media has made it a million times easier to get the word out about all of these things, even if you have no marketing budget.

But, the problem is that we’re not really consuming much more than we were ten years ago. There are more people, so consumption is up. But there’s also a lot more (legal) free content available, so we don’t have to pay for things like we used to. I don’t have to go buy an encyclopedia (or go use the one my library bought), because I have Wikipedia. I don’t have to go buy the latest Stephen King bestseller, because I can read a new indie author who’s getting great reviews and releasing their book for free.

So we have no bottle-neck anymore. There’s a lot of money exchanging hands, but there are now a whole lot more hands on the receiving end of these transactions than there used to be.

So what does this mean for creatives?

The thing I’ve seen over and over again among writers, musicians, and, to a lesser extent, filmmakers, is that they just want to focus on their art and forget about the business side of things. This is why they spend so much effort on finding an agent or a publisher, to manage the business side of things (or a manager, recording label, etc.).

But what more and more artists are finding is that even if they find the agent/publisher/recording label/studio/etc., they still aren’t making much money.

The thing is, there’s just not enough money to go around for everyone. So the creatives who really want to make it, need to think of their “art” as a business. If they’re not willing to put the time and effort into it, to figure out diverse ways to bring in income from their art, then they’re better off just treating it as a hobby. Something they do for fun, but that isn’t ever going to pay the bills.

If you’re serious about it, then treat it as a career. Think of it as a business. Consider all the ways you can make money from your creative endeavors, and pursue the ones you can. Don’t whine about there not being enough money to go around. Go out and earn your share of it. Provide value and you’ll make more money. If you’re not making money, then look at what you’re doing wrong. Look at what’s wrong with what you’re doing, and how you can fix it. It might not be that there’s anything inherently wrong with what you’re doing, simply that there are others out there who are doing it better. In that case, figure out how you can do it better.

The same things that have made it possible for you to get your work out there without an agent, manager, etc., are the same things that are making it harder for you to earn a living from it. Stop blaming it. Without it, you’d be stuck with the old system, and might not be making any money at it.

I hear people who aren’t taking advantage of all the independent options out there complaining about the indie options that are taking away from their opportunities. To those people, and this may sound a bit harsh, but all I have is this to say: get over it. It’s not anyone’s fault but your own if you’re not taking advantage of opportunities that are out there. And if you’ve honestly looked at those opportunities and decided they’re not for you, don’t blame the people who have decided they are the right option for them.

If you want to go the traditional route, then that is entirely your right and your prerogative. But don’t blame others because you choose not to pursue opportunities. And don’t complain when you don’t get the results you wanted. You chose your path, now live with whatever that brings.

I’m sure that some people will find this offensive. Some people will find it harsh. That’s fine. Feel free to respectfully disagree in the comments.

I’m pursuing my goals of writing in the ways I see that are most likely to get me to where I want to go in my career. If I were writing for a hobby, then I’d have a regular 9-5 job instead of freelance writing and editing. But I’m not ashamed to say that I’m in it for the money. I’m in it to earn a living. I’d probably do it even if I weren’t, honestly, but I’m certainly not going to complain about the people who do it for a hobby and give their writing away.

That’s fine. It’s their right to do so. I’m not going to bitch about them devaluing the entire market. My work stands on its own merit. Just because one thing is free doesn’t automatically mean everything else needs to be free. I don’t not pay for movies just because I can watch videos for free on YouTube. I do both. And I think most people do both. We need to get past this all-or-nothing mindset.

What next?

If you’re a creative, look at all the options out there. Think about how each one fits in with your overall goals. For some, it’s all about prestige, and they’re not going to be happy unless they pass through the gatekeepers that are legacy publishers. That’s fine. For others, it’s about the money, and those might pursue both traditional and self publishing options. For still others, it’s all about the audience, and for them self-publishing for free online might be their best bet.

But whatever path you choose, don’t disparage those who have gone down their own path, and who don’t hold the same goals as you. I don’t think anyone is in this to make it more difficult for other writers. No one is choosing a path specifically because it interferes with your chosen path. They’re doing it because it fits with their aspirations in relation to their art.

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