Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Artistic Values -What Is The Value Of a Writer Today?

Okay I've been doing this self-marketing thing for 9 months now and I'm a little puzzled by the conclusions I'm drawing.

Marketing online is a great way to make contact with readers, but not necessarily a terribly good way to sell to them. (I think it's greater strength lies in a post-purchase service, by which they can come back directly to you and dialogue about the book and their feelings about it which is invaluable).

Why do I say it's a questionable way of selling product? I think because so much literature is available online. A canny reader can surf and trawl and find very good literature for free. The E-Bay hunting trove mentality is very much in evidence. By passing on your book, which they've probably sampled (for free as you've provided it as part of your marketing), it may not be any reflection on your writing, but on your pricing.

Which begs the question, should all literature be free? That the freemium model is the only way to go to maximise the chances of your book being read. After all, you've taken down one of the two major barriers to it being read (the other being visibility, pointing people in its direction).

Two contrary points of view arise from this. Firstly any writer just wants to have their books read don't they? So making them free must enhance the chances of a greater number of readers, as there is no economic impediment to them at least starting your book. But against this is that writers want to be paid for their artistic output. It takes anything from 6 months to years to write a full-length novel, a great investment of the individual and one for which he would hope to be partly reimbursed or rewarded for. The only way a freemium model could allow a smidgeon of recompense, is to have a sort of special edition, print version, maybe with some extras not otherwise available. This can be priced way above the current cost of a print book, as it is more of an artefact or piece of art in how it's to be regarded. Personally, I think this is unrealistic unless you are in the upper echelons of the literati, when your signature is akin to that of an artist's on a canvas. That is what inflates the value of the product. And just a brief note on the freemium model; something that is on offer online for free, tends to put the purchaser in a mindset that it's of no value, and therefore far less likely to buy a physical, priced version of the product. If you've got free tickets to a reading or panel discussion of a book, it's no loss if come the day you don't feel like going; wheres if you've paid for the tickets, you likely to be less disinclined.

But such issues lead to a far wider question to my mind. What value do we place on our creative artists in this early part of the twenty-first century? We being society as a whole. With the market and technology seemingly determining most of the options for distribution and promotion as laid out above, seems like the artist possesses very little value today. We are maybe being reduced to offering a service for providing reading material, rather than producing an artistic work which has some value over and above the cost of printing and distribution as in days of old. Artists are tending towards functionaries and costermongers in the open ended online market, with no special regard by society for being able to reflect it back on itself. In the current economic climate, with so many vital public services being cutback, it is really impossible to argue for any elevation of the arts through subsidy or other protections to be sought from government treasuries.

Am I wrong in seeing this as a decline in the status of artists? With the concomitant loss of creditable status within society, whereby we used to be able to reflect it back to itself? Does anyone still care what writers think? Have writers gleaned this and changed the nature of what they write? Going down populist, non-threatening paths as perceived to be market-friendly and therefore sustainable, of escapist literature such as "Twilight". Are writers unwittingly practising self-censorship as they try and reposition themselves within the market? Have authors lost confidence int their own abilities to wreak some sort of meaningful art, because it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to gain validation via a level of remuneration that acknowledges their worth to society?

If we give it away for free, we may get more readers. But they may not gain or give back any value from the experience. There has to be some sort of premium to any work of art.


  1. A few years ago I did some volunteer English teaching at a library in an area of Sydney that has a high proportion of migrants. I only took one class a week but there were two others to choose from. It was all completely free to the student, the logic being that the people who wanted to learn English in this way probably wouldn't have the money to pay.

    I had a great time, saw surprising progress in some students and met some wonderful people of all ages and nationalities. However, some weeks I'd have two people in my class, other weeks I'd have 12. Some students would arrive half way through, others would leave after ten minutes. On top of that, having no financial support meant the organisation surrounding the class was next to non-existent - some times there would be too many books and not enough worksheets, other times too many chairs and too small a table.

    When the classes came to an end, it was clear to me that the students needed to have some vested interest in the class, and the simplest and fairest way of doing this was to charge them.

    This was never going to happen but for the program to be successful, it had to. your ticket analogy is perfect for encapsulating the problem. Free is nice, in theory. But if I haven't invested in something, it makes it very easy to discard.

    I sincerely worry about the amount of fiction available on line. As I tend to actively defy trends (I still haven't joined Facebook, to the chagrin of friends, family and my employer), I also wonder if I should just stop dumping "literature" online, like, it seems, everybody else.

    But the thing that keeps me going, and interested, is that quality still stands out. I'm relieved that quality is still obvious and even if there are a lot of creatives busily creating, the best of that it is still rare and still something to inspire awe.

    No, Marc, you're not wrong in seeing the decline in the status of the artist. But this is the era in which everybody can be everything. If you've got a blog, you're a writer. If you've got a Flickr account, you're a photographer. If you've got a video of yourself on YouTube, you're a celebrity.

    That's oversimplifying the issue, but it's not far off.

    The modern artist's reluctance to "wreak art" is, unfortunately, a whole other, though not unrelated issue.

  2. Thanks TF. I agree with much of what you say. I think the artist's status is a much wider debate involving social economics and even how we adjudge the social quality of life. For example, the Tory Government here has just announced it is to abolish the UK Film Council which was charged with disbursing lottery funding to ensure the 'right' films get made in this country in such a way that developed our film industry and turned out good quality movies. Now there are all sorts of debates about how well it met its brief while it was in operation and plenty of people involved in the industry and raging and gnashing their teeth about its abolition, but it again prompts the fundamental question; should government subsidize the arts, especially in this current economic climate, or should art forge its own economic trail?

    I feel it's a longer piece to answer this.

    As to the welter of writing enabled by the Net, I suspect that as ever the cream will largely rise to the top. Art is in part elitist, because it relies on talent and some sort of individual vision. However, such art risks remaining invisible in the deluge, if it can't raise itself from the morass to secure a livelihood for itself, forcing the artist to give up. Then there has always been that commercially acute, possibly less artistically valuable art that muscles its way to the forefront, because it is great at marketing & PR. Maybe that tranche will be less forthcoming as it struggles to push its way through to the front of the queue, although the concept of going viral maybe offers it even greater opportunities - I'm not sure.

    Thanks again.

  3. Yes, I think you are wrong. Largely because I think all talk of decline in the value attributed to artists comes from a highly foreshorened historical perspective - the same as I think worrying about the fate of books does. The fact is that in the post-war there was a massive bubble of apparent opportunity (apparent because if you dig deep enough you will find it reinforced by plenty of institutionalised prejudices) for creatives to earn a living at what they did. But that was true across all trades, and was no more than a manifestation of postwar western social mobility. Is the decline of the artist REALLY more significant statistically than the decline of the butcher, the wheelwright, or any other former guildsperson? Is the fact that the butcher relies now on high quality locally sourced organic venison really different from the fact the author relies on beautiful high priced special eds? No, of ocurse it isn't. It's just that we happen to BE writers. And it's no acciednt that when we talk about how much better things are in France for literary writers (true, to a degree), we are talking about a society where you will still (for the time being) find great charcutiers and bouchers in most small towns.

    I think the great hubris of the artist is to see themselves as a special case.

  4. I'm sure you're probably right about comparative rates of decline between these asymmetrical trades and that kind of makes my point for me. We need food to survive and while we probably don't need art in the same way, would not the visual, ideational, associative and imaginative quality of our lives be the worse without it? Art is not the same artisan craft/TRADE as charcuterie. While I don't necessarily uphold that art should be supported by government on behalf of its populace, nor do I think naked market relations are necessarily the best way to source art either. Not that I have a solution to this particular conundrum. The commodification of all art in the 20th & 21st century has been a force for degradation of its quality. Not that a return to private patronage is any answer either.

  5. Ha ha ha Dan, my security word was PROMO - you couldn't make it up!

  6. The point I was making was that everything had become equally commodified - we need food, but we don't need Charcuterie - so we have supermarkets, in the same way we have Dan Brown and Katie Price. Do we really want to separate one aesthetic (the arts) from all others (the taste of fine iberico?).

    Certainly we each need to focus our efforts according to our talents, so it makes sense for us to focus on the arts - but always within an overall manifesto that's holistic in terms of what it is to be human.

    I also think artistic rabblerousing is more important than marketing - we need people to be excited about the arts (literature especially) - then they will pay. I know you don't share my optimism about whether this is possible - but if it's not, why bother trying to sell at all whilst pretending to have artistic integrity (unless one adopts Oli's approach of setting out to be a head-shaking failure which, incidentally, I think is a position of immense integrity and liable to make him more famous than all of us) - that is, if you don't think people can be brought round to high art, presumably you think they are just papaholics. So why try to sell anything other than pap? If you DO try and sell high art (which your work IS) then you are admitting people can be brought round (the "Oli Scenario" excepted), so why not focus all your efforts on the art?

    I think this is one of the things I went through a temporary disillusionment with Year zero about - there was a lot of talk of selling, at a time when we are making great headway as champions of art. That's one reason I set up eight cuts (still awaiting your submission, though what I really want is a high quality pdf of Feed Tube), although in the last week or so I've seen signs that we're moving right towards an artistic agenda - that's where I want to focus my efforts, because a breakthrough is possible. And we can be in the van for it. And then people will be prepared to pay for literature in general - which will benefit more than just us.

  7. I really don't make a differential between high and low art, or pap as you term it. I know what I like and what I don't like, but I would deny any of it its existence, not even YBA, though I do feel invited by its very nature to comment on. But something I have no knowledge or yen for, such as opera, I make no comment upon, nor do I want to see it pounced upon by a mob with lit torches to eradicate from the face of the earth.

    There's no point in reopening the rabblerousing efficacy debate, we just don't agree and I get twitchy when I see words like 'van' and 'vanguard'. One short of cadre, which isn't all that far removed from 'curator' in Scrabble, though the latter scores more points.

    Yeah I think I probably do want to separate out art from gustation. There is appetite, ambition and aspiration, moving along a spectrum of mental appreciation of sensations and rightly or wrongly, I think art enables you to reflect and interact with life/reality call it what you will, in far more of a potentially transformative way. I would read art criticism, but I wouldn't read food criticism. Palette over palate.

    As to artisitic integrity, I wish it was just left to the work to speak for itself, but in this day and age it certainly isn't; that's what I meant by the intercession and the (zero) value added to content necessitated by trying to place it in the market.

    And finally, as to champions of art, how do you measure the threshold? What makes us champions? Because we maintain our integrity? Counts for nowt if no-one is reading - I'm not saying that no-one is by the way, just curious to know where we even judge approaching a significant critical mass?

  8. Sorry, I'm using "champion" in its rather awful jargonese sense of someone who makes a noise about something (possibly closer to the original courtly meaninng though than simply "winner" is). That's the sense in which I'd like to be a champion - I want to turn people's heads - based on the content of the art. Turn them, that is, just enough that they can see the art speaking for itself.

  9. One obvious decline in the function of the artist is the artist as force. Perhaps foreshortened historical perspective does skew our/my perception of this, but the idea of the artist as important social critic - the voicebox of the people - is fast fading. This worries me, not because it's necessarily an aspiration of mine but because of who is hogging the microphone.

    Comparisons to the diminishing lustre of the concept of celebrity in these times are obvious, but they're not of much use - it's the way it is and it's the artist's responsibility to react, as you two gentlemen appear to be doing.

    Apologies for the late, brief and vague response.