It's almost entertaining to talk to non-writers about the publishing industry. They have such charming ideas about the business of writing because they imagine all authors following the career trajectories of J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. It's not their fault; the public perception of writers is far more glamorous than the reality.
Hardly any writers are getting checks with enough zeroes that they can quit their full-time jobs, much less live in mansions. Yes, even if their books are popular. Even if they're bestsellers.
I tried to explain this to someone recently, and she replied that it's all about going on tour. Well, I countered, a lot of authors have to finance their own tours unless they've signed with major publishers, and sometimes not even then. It's another expense, even if it does have some benefits. She then suggested that the best thing would be to sell movie rights. Just look at E.L. James, she said. I tried, probably in vain, to explain that E.L. James is a major outlier when it comes to the author experience.
Writers who pay their bills with books are either tremendously lucky—which is to say, those statistical outliers who have sold millions of copies worldwide—or are selling many books a year, every year. Or, more likely, they have supportive family members or spouses with full-time jobs (and healthcare).
It's not the general public's fault that this misconception exists. If it frustrates me, it's not because others are willfully ignorant, it's because these conversations are a grating reminder that society chronically undervalues artists.
I've met plenty of people who don't like to read, but I've met far more who do. And almost everyone on the planet is consuming some sort of writing, even if it isn't novels: Newspapers, magazines, movies, television, music, and advertisements all rely on writers to exist. They rely on other types of artists too: Actors and cinematographers and photographers and singers. Everyone's seen a play or gone to a museum or enjoyed the graphics on a video game. Art is all around us.
I've heard the argument that STEM career fields pay so much because we as a society need doctors and engineers and programmers. We need people to design space flights and cure sicknesses and develop new apps. We need people to care about science and technology. And I won't dispute that for a minute, because we do.
But if STEM jobs are about making society run smoothly, about helping us survive and advance, art is about what we do once we've survived. Art, whether it's visual or film or writing, is how we process everything around us, how we express ourselves, how we entertain ourselves, how we connect with others. (How many ice breaker questions have you encountered about your favorite books and songs and movies and TV shows?) Science may be why I'm alive, but art is why I want to be.
Art is important. Not just for me, as an artist, but for everyone. We are all experiencing art, all the time, whether we recognize it or not. It's central to our lives.
And yet, artists so frequently struggle to pay for essentials with their skills that we have a name for the phenomenon: "starving artist." It's often a punchline.
But every single person who makes a joke about the financial woes of artists has benefited and will continue to benefit from the output of artists. And everyone who mistakenly assumes that all writers are well-off—and argues that if I just try hard enough and want it enough, I can be too—is also benefiting from a system they haven't bothered to question.
In college, the expectation is that STEM majors will rise to the top tax brackets and those of us studying the arts and humanities will sink to the bottom. This is probably true, but let's challenge the idea that it's because the STEM majors will be contributing anything inherently more valuable to humanity. It's because our society doesn't value artists proportionally to its consumption of art.
Art is worth so much to us. So why are artists apparently worth so little?