Monday, November 13, 2017

Art and Money in Manjula Martin's Scratch

Art and commerce have been intimately intertwined throughout history, but it seems that public acknowledgment of that relationship has been scant.  For quite some time, the system of patronage was in play, where a rich individual, the church, or some other group would monetarily support artists, musicians, and other artisans in their work.  To a small degree this still happens in the US, but the more likely incantation nowadays are those artists who come from wealthy families and/or have a trust fund at their disposal.  There are also for-profit and non-profit groups like the MacArthur Foundation, who disburse sums of money for recipients who show promise in various fields.  But for those who are not artists, or working in the realm of patronage, the necessary relationship of art and money might be foreign territory.

Writers, just like any other workers, need to be able to support themselves in their craft, which means that they need to be paid enough to be able to pay rent/mortgage, healthcare, bills, necessities, etc.  But how much does a writer make on a book?  If a hardcover book costs $30, how much of that amount actually goes into the author's pocket?  Can an author really afford to live and work in America today, with writing as the only source of her/his income?  To attempt to answer this question, Manjula Martin started the online Scratch Magazine, which explored the worlds of commerce and writing.  After the magazine folded in 2015, Martin compiled some of the work in that magazine to create the collection Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.

There are a total of 33 pieces in the book, including many well-known authors such as Roxane Gay, Jonathan Franzen, Alexander Chee, and Cheryl Strayed.  The entries are divided into three sections: Early Days, The Daily Grind, and Someday.  "Early Days" features authors at the beginning of their careers, including what would be their Big Break, and how money factored into their lives at that point.  Some of the authors were working day jobs, some were living paycheck-to-paycheck (alone or with a partner), and others were racked with credit card and/or student loan debt.  When they finally got a book deal, they received an "advance" amount of money that was paid out over the course of the publishing process.  For example, Cheryl Strayed received $100,000 when her first book, Torch, was sold.  This seems like a wildly large amount of money, until she realized how it would be paid - NOT all at once.  The first $25,000 installment was paid out initially in 2003, but after her agent took 15% for commission, that left her with $21,000 -before- taxes.  The next $25,000 (really $21,000) installment came two years later, when the revisions were completed.  The third $25,000 ($21,000) check came in 2006, when the hardcover edition of Torch was actually published.  The final $25,000 ($21,000) check came when the paperback version was published in 2007.  She admits that she was very lucky to even receive this amount of money, but is very honest with discussing that, although it's helpful, it's not enough to live off of on its own.  To support her family, she and her documentary filmmaker husband took teaching jobs, freelance journalism assignments, and any other kind of work that would pay.  Even now, after her second book Wild was commercially popular and adapted into a movie, she isn't rich.  She is able to pay her bills and "buy boots NOT in a thrift shop", but she isn't living the Scrooge McDuck kind of life.

In "The Daily Grind", authors share the realities of being a writer, and how these realities differ from romantic notions of Literary Life.  As the editor herself writes, "Any artist who produces work for public consumption must navigate a tenuous balance of ambition and pragmatism.  Ambition requires dreaming; sometimes dreams veer into fantasy...The Writing Life is one such fantasy; another is quitting your day job."  While she pursued her writing, she also worked as a waitress, in retail, as a personal assistant, a receptionist, a reporter, and various temp jobs.  She has had to find time to write, rather than making it her one and only profession.  Such is the case for most authors, the rare exceptions being mega-stars like Stephen King, John Grisham, and Joyce Carol Oats.

The final heading, "Someday", examines what happens to authors after they've had a Big Break and how their lives have or have not changed.  In particular, how the term "New York Times Bestseller" brings with it the connotation of massive wealth for an author, when it really is closer to being meaningless.  Austin Kleon, author of Show Your Work and Steal Like an Artists, among other published works, is interviewed in this collection by the editor.  Although he's been a NYT Bestselling author, he still works a day job.  Before, it was through web designing and copywriting,  Now, it's as from books, speaking engagements, and art pieces that he sells.  As Kleon puts it, he's just "swapping one day job for another".  He gets real about the advice that many people give aspiring artists, that if you do whatever it is that you love, then you'll be able to make a living at it.  He freely admits that that is horrible advice; just because you love doing something doesn't mean that you'll be able to earn any money from it.  It sounds too good to be true, because it is.  He isn't discouraging ambitious artists from pursuing their craft, just to be real about having a day job to pay the rent and put food on the table, and letting the art feed their creativity and their soul.

For anyone interested in being a writer in America, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living is an invaluable read.  It will destroy the fantasy that you can quit your job/drop out of school, write The Thing and make millions off of it and never have to work a "real job" ever.  It lays bare the realities of life as an author, and really the creative life in general.  There are fewer and fewer patrons out there in the world, so artists should be prepared to support themselves by something other than their art.  Even wildly famous, NY Times Bestselling authors may not make nearly as much money as you'd think, and have to take teaching jobs or speaking engagements to make ends meet.  This book is eye opening and speaks its truth with conviction, but is ultimately very hopeful - art must continue to be put out into the world, but artists should be prepared to scratch out a living.

Librorum annis,