Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why It's Hard to Make Money at the Arts

Pick one of the arts, it doesn’t matter which one, and you’ll find that it’s hard to make money at it. O, you’ll find a few people who do well, but the vast majority struggle at it. Writing is a form of art and most novelists struggle to make money at it. Painting is an art and most painters struggle to make money at it. But ironically, a skilled house painter can make a steady living without too much trouble. How do we reconcile this disparity? And why is it that it’s easier to make money with non-fiction than it is with fiction?

This won’t be popular with some people, but part of the problem is that anyone who wants to do it can do it. It takes no special skill to complete a painting and call it art. Other people may look at it and say that call it ugly, but they can’t say you didn’t complete the painting. Contrast that to a house painter. If he finishes his work and he has paint on the glass windows and the old paint is still showing through the new, we can say he didn’t complete the work. It takes a special skill to reach completion. There are many people, who can paint a house, but it is far more labor intensive to reach completion, so many people are unwilling to put in the effort and are much more willing to pay someone else to do the work. Now, suppose we look at another way of getting the same job done, but in this case we consider someone designing metal siding. Rather than actually painting the house, this person is calculating how much paint should go on the metal. Far fewer people have the knowledge and experience needed to complete this task and those who have it get paid more for it. In the simplest of terms, the more people who are able to accomplish something, the less they get paid.

Looking at books, anyone can write a novel, but not everyone can write a book about how to program a computer. If you are the expert on a subject, the artsy part of writing goes out the window. Because you are the expert, you can complete a task that most other people can’t. With a novel, it is much more subjective. There is no difference between a well written novel and a poorly written novel; they are both complete. With thousands of completed novels competing for readers’ attention, the supply outweighs the demand and it becomes a popularity contest.

Millions of people have the ability and the willingness to tell a story through writing. If we hope to have people pay us for the effort, we have to have something more than the ability to write a story. We may need some of that magic fairly dust we hear about. Maybe we should all take up house painting.

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