A Golden Age for the Creative Arts?

For every J.K. Rowling or Robert Jordan, for every Andrew Wyeth and Thomas Kinkade, there are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of writers and artists with skills far above those of the average educated individual who cannot make a living at their art. For every Pavarotti, there are hundreds of tenors with good, if not great, professional voices whom no one will ever hear except in small opera houses or singing restaurants — if even there. For operatic sopranos, it’s even worse, and how many struggling writers have had their hopes dashed in the past year?

I’m not talking about people who “want” to be writers, singers, composers, and artists, but about people who’ve devoted years to education and training, not to mention more years underpaid or unpaid work in their field.

Now, there’s a feeling among some in these fields that there once was a time when artists were more respected and compensated for their expertise. I’m not certain when this “golden age” happened to be, because in the early 1800s, the print run for a wildly popular book was something like a thousand copies, and most successful writers came from financially secure backgrounds that allowed them to write. Most of those that did not, such as Keats and Poe, struggled with poverty and illness their entire lives, despite a certain amount of popular acclaim. In the late 1960s, Isaac Asimov [as I recall] calculated that there were only about 50 F&SF writers who supported themselves entirely on their writing. Recent figures published by various sources suggest that the number of overall fiction writers in the U.S. who can do so today is somewhere around 900, with a range of 400-2,500 cited.

The market for composers has never been wonderful, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth century only a handful of composers and musicians made more than survival wages — and those only if they had wealthy patrons. Mozart was dogged by financial problems his entire life. Bach supported himself as a church organist, and today almost all modern classical composers are either academics or support themselves in other music-related specialties. Even in the pop music field, songwriters like Willie Nelson and Barry Manilow became singers because they made so little from songs they wrote that made the singers millions.

Van Gogh, whose works now fetch tens of millions of dollars, never sold a painting in his own lifetime, and historically, most painters supported themselves by doing portraits, a practice that dwindled dramatically with the introduction and growth of photography.

In writing, the numbers are fairly clear. Comparatively, very few writers finish and sell more than a book a year. In the F&SF field, standard royalties start at ten percent for a hardcover, but a “successful” hardcover must sell a minimum of 4,000 copies and 30,000 copies subsequently in paperback. According to publishing figures, something like two thirds of all books published are not “successful.” But let’s say the struggling author manages to be successful and sells 5,000 copies at a hardcover price of $24.95, and a year later, 35,000 copies in paperback. That’s $12,475 on the hardcover [not deducting the 10-15% to the agent] and approximately $14,000 on the paperback. If this writer can manage to keep putting out a book a year at the same level he or she might make $25,000 a year out of combined paperback and hardcover sales. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, because if the writer’s sales don’t increase above the minimally profitable level, the publisher won’t buy the second or third or fourth book. And yet… looking at the comparative numbers, it’s likely that the past thirty years through the present are possibly the best time for writers in history.

A golden age for the arts? Like many myths… it’s just that.