In response to yesterday’s blog post, the brilliant and insightful Dave Strom said:
Well, Hugh, my writing actually will cost me money.
I just sent a short story to an editor and a cover artist. They won’t cost me a lot of money, but I think it will be money well spent. Maybe I’ll break even?
Years ago, Harvey Pekar did a comic where he figured that with the money he would save by not collecting tons of old jazz records, he could self-publish a comic book. Hence, American Splendor.
This is a great way to look at the cost of publication, and I think it’s a point that doesn’t get made often enough. Where you once had vanity presses that suckered people out of tens of thousands of dollars for crates of books that would never get sold, you now have the ability to make professional-looking books that are in print forever at a fraction of the cost. And people still want to focus on the fact that “most authors lose money.” No shit. Most musicians lose money. Most painters lose money. Most photographers lose money. It’s art. Nobody is really losing anything. We are creating something. We are expressing ourselves. We are doing something positive and lasting with our free time. There’s no losing here, only winning.
The fact that some of us are then going on to make a living or are earning enough to fill up our car with gas is amazeballs. Musicians have always had this path to discovery. They could play small gigs, have a good time, earn a few hundred bucks in a weekend, improve their craft, and maybe build a local following. I lived with a drummer in a modestly successful band out of college, and I got to see what was involved with their lifestyle. It has a lot in common with what I went through as a writer just getting started. This is a huge and important development for our craft. We now have a path from the ground level that can take us as high as our ambition allows (and that doesn’t have to be any higher than just wanting to publish something for the experience of it).
Here is what happened in the past few years: The cost of book production and distribution has dropped nearly to zero. I want to repeat that and bold it: The cost of book production and distribution has dropped nearly to zero. This is a massive economic force, and it’s the reason the book industry is being upended. It’s the reason anyone can enter this field. It happened practically overnight. No other artistic endeavor has a lower barrier to entry than writing currently does. This is true for two reasons. First, practically everyone already has the tools necessary to participate; there aren’t any expensive gadgets or musical instruments or supplies to purchase; most everyone has access to a computer. Secondly: We all — to some degree — practice at reading and writing in our everyday lives. The tools and skills were both already handy when the price to participate plunged to zero. That’s incredible.
It’s incredible as a market force, which is great for those who enter this field to make money. It’s even better as an artistic force, as anyone with the inclination and dedication can write and enter the market similar to how a musician can play sidewalks, small bars, small venues, larger venues, etc. Writing is a pleasurable act. A creative act. The only ones who stand to lose a thing these days are those with a dream, a yearning, who don’t follow their hearts and plunge themselves into a story, just to see what they are capable of. If it costs you a few hundred bucks to make an infinite supply of your book, which will be available until humanity goes extinct, and anyone is going to claim that you lost something in this exchange, tell them to go talk to an amature photographer. Photographers enjoy a good laugh.