How To Get Paid For Your Art

“Just because a person sounds like they know what they’re talking about, doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.” - Aristotle

This newsletter is my process of writing a self-help book, tentatively titled How To Make Money: Financial Advice For Poets.

Years ago I was on a panel called The Intersection of Art and Commerce. Or maybe it was just Art and Commerce? The room was completely packed.

There was a lot of talk about respect for artists. And how other people are compensated for their jobs. Maybe someone pointed out that the real winners of the gold rush made jeans and built hotels. The quickest way to make a dollar is to sell people their own dreams with a markup.

In fact the Associated Writing Programs Convention where the panel was held was a giant event that took in millions of dollars, getting writers to come together and talk about writing. And even if you were on a panel you weren’t getting paid, and you still had to purchase a ticket. The AWP had the market cornered. The irony of giving advice on making money from art while not being paid to give advice on money and art, was not lost on me.

There’s an old saying in Hollywood: You make your money on your next movie.

Each person on the panel was given time to share their thoughts in front of the audience of maybe 500. I liked all the other panelists with the exception of the one that grew up with servants, went to a fancy boarding school, and then Yale, and complained a lot. But not because they were rich, which was a detail kept carefully hidden from their biography.

When it was my turn I said simply there was no intersection of art and commerce. I didn’t have any more to say than that. Some people booed. I think the host ignored me. The famous poet sitting on my right whispered in my ear, “I’m going to eviscerate you,” which I promptly repeated to the audience.

I was wrong, obviously. I usually am. I was right, too, in a way.

If you don’t ask for money you’re unlikely to get paid. You’re most likely to request money when someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do, which is one definition of work: Something you don’t want to do, that you do for money.

To be an artist is to care about quality and loose yourself inside the process of the work. There are plumbers who are artists and there are journalists who are plumbers. There are artists in every profession. Poetry is open to everyone.

Years before that fateful panel a New York writer asked if we could have coffee and talk about publishing. She thought I was more successful than I was, or I thought I was less successful than she did. I didn’t know at the time that writers are not particularly good people. Cowards in general and conformist by nature. As Joan Didion put it, “Writers are always selling somebody out.”

I should have charged her, but I didn’t.

She wanted to know the secrets for selling articles. I told her that I didn’t pitch articles or books. I wrote them and tried to sell them after, which is a terrible way to do things if you want to get paid. Even then I knew I was doing things the wrong way. People will pay you more when buying a pitch, because they’re trying to convince you to write the story, then they will after you’ve already written it. But I don’t enjoy writing stories when I know how they end. And if I’m interested in a subject I don’t want to wait for an editor’s permission to get started. I see my life generally as a race against my own enthusiasm. Inspiration is the only thing that matters to me and I’m more worried of never being inspired again than dying alone.

Though that’s not mutually exclusive.

I didn’t study writing. I sold my first four books without an agent. And all my earliest publications were blind submissions sent to a slushpile. I was clearly the worst person in the world to ask about getting paid for your work.

Of course the writer I’d agreed to meet denounced me when the opportunity arose, which is the only reason I wish I’d charged her. But the point I was making was that if she did things the way I did them she would never get much money for her writing and I was incapable of doing things the proper way, even after learning what those ways are.

Allen Ginsburg, who was an accountant or something before devoting himself to poetry, said he didn’t want to work; he just wanted to stare at the clouds. And that always seemed like the best definition of the artist to me. The choice the artist struggles to make. As a writer I believe the reader is doing me a favor, so I give most of my writing away for free. The artist is an artist specifically because they care more about the work than any other consideration.

In order to make a living, like most literary writers, I pursued writing adjacent income streams. Like teaching and giving lectures.

The hard thing to remember is that teaching creative writing is not writing. Making money is not making art. The people who get paid most for their work, in my experience, usually come from money, and so they value themselves, and their time. Any people reflect the way we value ourselves. There’s not much you can do about it. More than once in my life I’ve noticed a friend getting paid more for doing the exact same thing as me. A book that sells the same number of copies, consulting on a news show, throwing events. I understand why that happens. I’m a money repellant.

When you run short term rentals there is software you can use to make sure you are always charging the most in response to market forces. To get paid for your writing you need to do something similar, but without the software. In a game of poker you don’t make money by getting lots of great hands. You make money by making the most available in the pot as often as possible. Pocket aces aren’t worth much if everyone folds before the flop.

You have to ask for the most possible. And retain all rights to the work. Don’t give away foreign rights, don’t give away film rights. Don’t sign contracts without professional advice, like a lawyer or an agent. Intentions mean less than contracts, especially over time. I’m not one to practice what I preach, but you can learn from my mistakes.

Sell to the person offering you the most. Always.

Do the thing you enjoy, because it really is better to get paid less and enjoy the work. But only if you’re making your basic nut. At a certain point poverty is unbearable.

For me, I’ve often found that the key was not relying on my art for my income. But if your hustle takes up all your creative space your work will suffer. So that’s a balancing act as well.

If there is no intersection of art and commerce, and yet there is, how do you make money focusing only on the work you love? And what if you are not charging enough? If poetry doesn’t pay, should you become a children’s author, or write for Pixar?

The best way to make money is to be born rich. The best way to get paid for work you enjoy doing is to enjoy doing work that is really popular and pays well. It’s OK to be bitter if what you enjoy is obscure and hard to understand and only has a small audience.

It’s OK. It’s important, actually.



p.s. If you’re a new subscriber please check out earlier issues, like How To Fix A Sink and How To Publish A Book.