Toby Buckell has posted a great piece on "survivorship bias" and new models for electronic publishing. Survivorship bias occurs when we only hear about spectacular success stories, and not the vast number of modest success stories, and the titanic, unbelievable number of failure stories, and therefore conclude that spectacular success is the norm. This is a recurring problem in many domains, but as Toby points out, it's a major flaw in the way we think about the arts, a domain where, by definition, only stars rise to the level of most of our attention.
This is doubly true in the world of electronic publishing, where the stars' stories are inherently interesting and sexy, meaning they're even more disproportionately represented in our discussions of the economics of the arts.
The truth -- as Toby points out -- is that the arts are a terrible way to make a living, and always have been. Practically every person who sets out to make a living in the arts loses money; a tiny minority earn a small sum, a statistically insignificant fraction earn a full-time living, and a vanishing few meteor-strike cases get rich.
If you’ve been successful, good on ya. I’m thrilled when any artist breaks out to making a living. But genuinely understand that survivorship bias means there are plenty of people plugging the same formulas and not getting results that look even similar.
This is not bitterness on my part. I’m actually thrilled with where I am, which is far ahead of many. Over half my income comes from writing fiction (and if I weren’t in debt from having a medical crisis in 2008 I’d likely be able to make a living just on my fiction). I’ve been slowly building my career since 1999, since my first tiny sale. Each year my readership grows, my blog audience grows, the money I make off my fiction grows. I use eBooks, traditional publishing and crowdsourcing all as tools to survive. I’m playing the long game. And maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m pretty open to that, but I’m always happy to report on what’s going on. Each successful career I’ve seen, though, requires a ton of hard work, and many people I see trying any method with a focus on shiny and new and ‘beating’ some system often flame out and fall away. Lots of people who’re doing the right thing and working hard flame and fall away too.
Making a living off art is hard.
But that isn’t a sexy sell.