Over the last week or so, there's been an illuminating conversation happening in one of my author forums. The topic is one that's been fairly omnipresent over the years for authors, but I've never seen it discussed quite so bluntly, by writers with a variety of time & experiences in the publishing world.
The thread was sparked by an article discussing the value of literature, and how the digital world and the race to the bottom in pricing (freebies and 99c books used for marketing) has created a blend of entitlement (to any story, any time, for free) and devaluation of the work ("Why should authors get paid? They should just be glad someone's reading."). One author recounted a reader comment along the lines that she was only going to read the book once, so why should she have to pay for it?
(Okay, as an aside, that's what libraries are for! Piracy is theft.)
Circling within this conversation was how much harder it has gotten to earn even moderate income from our stories. The combination of an over-saturated market, scammers dominating the bestseller charts and pumping out "new" (often recycled) content every couple of weeks, prices (and traditional advances) being driven down, visibility requiring serious marketing investments, and other changes in the industry has meant I've been reading the stories of so many who—like me—have yet to earn enough to cover the cost of production on any of their books. Forget actually being "paid" for the time or effort of creating the story.
Inevitably in these conversations, the question of production comes up: to earn more, write (and publish) more. "A million words a year is totally doable," they say, for the "serious" writer. Publish a new story at least once a month to keep the algorithms in places like Amazon in your favor, invest heavily in marketing—in terms of both time and money—and just keep writing. Find a way to write faster. Find and exploit new outlets, like Radish and Wattpad. If you want to make money at it, if you're willing to work hard, then you will succeed.
Or so the message goes.
One thing this recent conversation has brought to light for me is that I am not the only one who's seeing that messaging and feeling like a failure. I can't create content fast enough, I choose not to decide which stories to write based on market trends, and my marketing endeavors fail even when following expert advice (or hiring someone to do it for me).
A recent article in the Romance Writers Report (RWA's magazine) mentioned something else that has been swimming around my mind: there are commercial writers, and artisanal writers.
Neither is necessarily better than the other, but commercial writers do make decisions about their creative work based on the business side. They focus on pumping content out quickly because that's what the market demands—and for many, because they can write their stories that fast. But they also write the stories the market wants, not necessarily (or not ever) the stories they want to write. There are entire courses on this: evaluating market trends, choosing a list of tropes in the genre, and writing a story to match. This also includes the writers who do things like buying premade concepts and outlines—sure they still write the story, but the characters and plot are developed by someone else. Some financially successful authors advocate not even using editors, and while it clearly works for them, I will never be on board. To be clear, this is not to say that stories by commercial writers aren't also good; many are, many aren't, like with everything in publishing.
Artisanal writers approach the whole thing differently. While we may want to succeed in terms of the financial side, we write the stories of our hearts—the stories that explore themes which matter to us; the stories we want to read; the characters who don't let us go. We write as much for ourselves as for you, believing that those things that resonate within us will also resonate with readers. We agonize over word choice and character development, and we can spend months or years polishing a draft, waiting until it's as close to the story we want it to be as possible (no story is ever perfect) before actually publishing.
Yes, I'm using "we" intentionally, because that is very much the type of writer I am. I don't write because it's a good way to make money (really, it isn't; most authors would be financially better off working an easy 9–5 admin job somewhere). And I don't write to a formula of tropes—again, not that there's anything wrong with that. Part of this is the simple fact that my health means I absolutely could not write a million words or even close to that in a year, a number which is doable for many writers (for some, that amounts to 1000 hours of writing a year, or even less). But even without my medical limitations, I'm not a fast writer. I can type thousands of words in an hour, but I can't write thousands of words in a story in that same hour.
As I mentioned, the RWR article placed writers in two groups: those who see this as a business, and their stories as a product; and those who see their stories as their art. While the article's author was clear that she doesn't believe one path is better than the other, the underlying message was equally clear: only one path has a shot of succeeding financially.
Now, I would not go so far as to call any of my books art. But in terms of approach, I definitely don't see my writing as a product I'm creating for a market. I try to shift my approach when it comes time to sell the books, but I don't write according to a business strategy.
The other recurring thread in all these conversations are the writers who quit, or perhaps more accurately, who are driven out. Millions of books are available through storefronts like Amazon, nowadays about a million new ones are published each year, and unlike in the past, those books will never be taken off the shelf (unless by the author's choice, but that would still leave millions). Some people stop writing because the industry is hard emotionally (bad reviews, piracy, shouting into the void, etc.). Some because they lose their passion, or realize they can be equally fulfilled doing other things. Others because the messaging that if you aren't succeeding it's because you're not working hard enough leads to crippling burnout, inescapable feelings of failure, and even depression. Others still, because they need to dedicate that time & energy to earning a living, being present for their families, or both. In all cases, their voices, their works, get lost before they're even created. There are those who would say such writers didn't want it badly enough, that their potential stories weren't really worth telling anyway (often phrased as: "real writers find a way").
I don't want to be one of the writers who quit (my health may have other ideas). I also can't be one of the writers who see their books as simply a product to be created and pushed to market.
So what's left? The support of people like you.
Patreon was built on the idea that the old model of creative work being supported through patrons (not sales) was still applicable in our times. I'm saying it's not just applicable, it's necessary.
There are many ways to support authors, from free options like sharing posts on social media, to writing reviews, to, yes, purchasing our books. But the way to keep authors who otherwise may not be able to writing those books in the first place is to support the writing, and not only the sales. To treat our work (the time & effort) as valuable even when there isn't a constant flow of shiny new products to consume.
This matters on both emotional and financial levels, which is why I am so grateful for those who can support me with higher dollar contributions, but I love my patrons equally at any level of support. Any single patron's financial contribution may not be a huge piece of the puzzle, but every single patron's choice to lend that support is unquantifiably important. Authors like me literally couldn't keep writing without people like you.