The #1 Artist Problem

As I was reading the most recent article of Garden & Gun Magazine (Yes, you read that right, and the brilliant juxtaposition of the title was precisely what hooked me into trying it the first time – in a what in the world? kind of way), an article by Roy Blount, Jr., stuck out to me: “Traveling Salesman: The not-so-glamorous life of an author on the road.”

It’s about his latest book tour (as you may have guessed) and the frustrating fact that although people would come and laugh hysterically as he read excerpts to them, most of them would walk out without buying. This is an all-too-common tale, and to me, the heart of the problem is expressed beautifully by the perspective of the author versus that of his daughter.

Daughter: “You give them joy.”
Roy Blount, Jr: “I want to sell them some joy.”

Doesn’t that epitomize the problem with society’s perspective of the arts?

Writing is a job. Painting is a job. Musician, entertainer, actor, seamstress – these are job titles. The people who have these jobs can’t afford to work for free any more than doctors can afford to take only charity cases. If a doctor was complaining that people always told her what a good doctor she was but never booked any appointments, would you even think to tell the doctor that at least they respect her? No. The doctor was talking about her business. Talk isn’t going to put food on the table unless it’s backed up with cash.

And neither will joy.

Yes, the doctor probably likes that people think she’s a good doctor. And the writer is probably very happy that his book makes people laugh. Neither one of those facts is helpful in a business sense.

That’s where the difference between the doctor and the artist kicks in. The term “doctor” refers to a respected position in society that people recognize as a profession. A career. It is something you do for the purpose of making money. The term “artist” can mean any number of things to people in society, and, unfortunately, many of them involve the impression that you should do things for free or at the same prices as a big box store. Too much of society has this idea that the art itself is so fulfilling that artists should be happy with that and not need paid (which goes a little with the selling out conundrum).

When even family and friends have trouble understanding that you’re running a business, it can be hard to stay motivated and not get frustrated. It can undermine your confidence in your work and affect your ability to price it appropriately (and not way too low to continue the business). It can affect almost any aspect of your life and your work whether it’s finding the time to hang out with friends (their business stuff counts as conflicts but not your work) or simply getting credit for the hard work you do (When are you going to get a “real job”?).

That’s why I consider this the number 1 problem for artists. Getting work, getting paid – those are serious issues, but everyone faces them. Plus, this attitude affects both. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know if it can be fixed. But I definitely empathize with Roy Blount, Jr.

Yes, writers want people to like our books, but nothing shows appreciation for your writing quite so well as book sales. As the old adage says, “Say it with cash.”

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