Petty Literary Money Grubbers
The two most prominent non-performing arts are painting (a genre term that includes all the fine art forms) and writing. An art gallery is a vital business that links the artist to the buyer. Almost all galleries are for profit, paying the artist a percentage of sales. The more well known and desired the artists, they naturally get a larger percentage. The other type of galleries are either not-for-profit, or collectives, with different structures of remuneration. Some artists feel that galleries take an inordinate share of earnings. Many artists resent the semi-closed world of galleries that do not readily accept new artists. This is a relatively traditional arts business, since artists ceased being artisans in the second half of the 19th century and acquired agents, rather than patrons to promote their work. Of course, except for dealers in old masters, a gallery’s selection of artists to represent is purely subjective.
Writing, until the advent of electronic publishing, was not entirely dissimilar to the art business. Publishing houses issued the books of their writers and paid them royalties. Invariably, except for successful commercial fiction writers, it became difficult for serious writers to earn a livelihood by their craft. This certainly urged many of them to seek refuge in hospitable academic environments that offered a modicum of security and captive audiences. Then came the proliferation of emags.
In an amusing historical note, in the 1970’s, the eruption of Off- Off Broadway theater ventures allowed, for the first time, inexperienced youngsters to start their own companys with little or no professional or business know-how. At this time, the average life span of a new theater company was three to four months. This confirmed the good sense of the National Endowment of the Arts that required a group to be in existence for at least two years before requesting funding. Then they would face the standard of artistic excellence, and if they were denied grants, they believed it was for not belonging to an old boy’s (or girl’s) theater network.
Then the children of the publishing arts multiplied. And no longer had to serve demanding, underpaid apprenticeships at traditional publishing houses to learn the publishing business. While everyone else is struggling in America in the twenty first century of economic malaise for the diminishing middle class, the liberal arts college degree finally had its era of utility. Formerly, the most useless preparation for the future, now the lib-arts grad could use simple computer skills, simple art skills, simple writing skills to start a magazine. By 2015 there were over 5,000 emags, most of them run by well-meaning, but ill-prepared dabblers.
Many of the nouveau arrivistes pressured their writers to subscribe to their magazines, thus hoping to pay for their new business. At the same time, tens of thousands of new writers, urgent for publication, collaborated with their new publisher by paying for subscriptions. In the 1930’s, if a writer self-published, or was published by a vanity press, it was either a joke, or an embarrassment. Now this phenomenon, a torrent of writers and a host of epublishers, formed a low-yield symbiosis. This was a union of true ignorance. The publishers believed they were entitled to money from the writers. The writers thought it was normal to support the magazines that published them.
The worst offenders in this pay to play arena are the contest sponsors. Even the well-established, supposedly responsible literary magazines and the university publications reap income by offering contests with an entry fee, that attracts participants hoping for recognition far more then prize money. Many of them also yearn for the cash. The practice of charging writers to be published is unprincipled, exploitive and deleterious in the effect on the mentalities of writers and publishers alike.
In an era of dominant visuals in entertainment, and unrestricted access to the internet, the performing arts are fading. Painting (including all the other facets of fine art) has become so diverse in form and technique, that it is no longer accessible to the basic culture seeker. Writing has expanded more then any other art form because it requires the least skill, the least investment in materials. Great writing has faded away in the publishing climate of mass market sales. Throughout history, culture has arisen and departed, often linked ot the life and death of empires. It is no tragedy that opera, ballet, classical music, classical theater are fading away in our society. Change in cultural values is inevitable, despite the reluctance of certain participants to accept the new reality.
It is appropriate for writers to realize that they should be paid for their work, rather then paying to be published. There should be some kind of standard to determine remuneration. Certainly the merit of the work should be considered. The reality is that very few of us know the difference between good and bad art, let alone good and bad writing. Liberal arts graduates, deluded into assuming they are educated, do not comprehend that if they want to be publishers, it’s like any other arts venture. It’s a business. If someone wants to be a publisher, they should learn how to finance their business, not expect to be funded by writers. Writers should learn not to participate in publication’s allurements, where they pay to be in print. It is improbable that either group will have the common sense to reverse their erroneous behavior patterns, but they should certainly be made aware of the impropriety of payment for publication.
An amusing afterthought. In semi-professional and community theater, where there is scarcely any money to pay artists, musicians insist: ‘Musicians must be paid’.
Jane Doe has an M.A. in poetry from an Ivy League University. She teaches English and writing at a community college. Her poetry has appeared in a number of literary magazines. She recently ended her association with a magazine over the issue of charging fees for reading submissions.