Friday, September 2, 2011

We must love it or something

Why would anyone get into the arts? Well, if you are a detractor of artistic endeavour (such as a member of the current government or pretty much anyone I grew up with in small-town Manitoba) you might think it’s so they don’t have to do any “real work.” Artists get to nance around at glorious galas and events, sipping ice wine and nibbling moldy cheese (mold added with purpose, rather than the mold that grows on its own in your fridge). They have no bosses to answer to, no schedules to keep, and no dress code. Who wouldn’t want to laze around and be an artist? Slap some paint on a canvas that ends up looking like a kindergarten finger-painting and call it a job. Sounds pretty good.
Obviously that’s a load of crap. While I will not deny that there is a difference between working as an artist and working in a Pennsylvania coal mine, the same can be said of doctors, lawyers, accountants, and virtually any other trained professional. Even the poor wage slaves at Tim Horton’s don’t grub around like coal miners. (The image of a coal miner is tattooed on my brain as the ‘nastiest it can get’ because of the silly scenes from Zoolander. Yes, I realize there are probably plenty of nastier jobs out there. Coal miner still works as a good comparison, though.) Sure, some artists don’t work up a big sweat, but dancers do, and they have such restrictive diets they can’t even unwind afterwards with a case of beer like construction workers can. Would you accept a bargain where your workload (whatever that might be) is reduced by 25%, but only if you gave up alcohol, dessert, fried foods and you had to work out three hours a day? Not if you’ve got a brain in your head you wouldn’t. (This even assumes a dancer works less hard than the average person, which I think is ludicrous.)
You sure can’t say they do it for the money. A lazy artist is a broke artist, and even the ones that work really hard are most often broke, too. It is ridiculously hard to make a living in the arts. It is even harder to make  a good living, the kind of money that allows you to buy a house, car, Blu-Ray player, and all the other toys and trinkets we love here on the Good Ship North America. While the upper limit in the arts community can be pretty high (Hollywood movie stars, for instance, or Neil Gaiman), the lower limit is pretty far down there, too: namely, zero. Even less, because you maxed out your credit card for head shots, art supplies, or postage to send your manuscript to Not A Chance Publishing House.
I bring this whole topic up because of some calculations I was doing regarding my “career” as a writer. It takes the better part of a year to finish a novel, and that’s working on it more than forty hours a week. I can produce two pieces of short fiction in a good week, which sounds pathetic until you really look at how much writing that is. Sure, a short story is only 3000 words or so, but it needs to be invented, outlined, researched, fact-checked, written, re-written, tweaked, re-written again (and maybe a few more times), then read aloud to make sure it doesn’t sound retarded (and then re-written again), and finally copy-edited. Three thousand words is only a 10-12 page research paper, no big deal, but your short story doesn’t have a snowball’s chance unless it kicks ass... so it needs to be the equivalent of an A+ paper. It’s easy to produce a B paper, tricky to churn out an A, and almost impossible to get an A+. Let me tell you, the market out there is fussy—no “easy profs” in the editorial world, alas.
Now what kind of money can a fellow expect for all his time? A starting author is looking at between 3 and 10 grand for their first book. Unless your book sells like mad, you’ll probably never earn out that advance to start getting royalties. Pro markets for short fiction pay around 5 cents a word and sometimes less. If you try to live on short fiction, and sell everything you write (HA!) you’re looking at a little over 15 grand for a year’s work. Of course, no starting author sells every short story—far from it. They say 99% of writers never sell a single thing. Of that percentage, 9 out of 10 sell one novel or a handful of short stories, then nothing more. Most writers practice their art/trade/craft in addition to a regular job for a very simple reason: they have to. If you sell 20 stories a year in the short fiction market, you’ll probably be breaking a record of some kind. Twenty stories at 150 bucks a pop doesn’t buy a lot of cat-food.
If you do any research into any of the other arts, you’ll probably discover similarly depressing numbers. No one—and I mean, NO ONE—becomes an artist in the hopes of an easy life. You are better advised to set your sights on playing professional sports: there are over 400 Canadians in the NHL alone. Or maybe winning the lottery.

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