Monday, April 29, 2013

Pixelated Visions

The world around us is continually changing, but in few areas as strikingly so as in the world of publishing. One of the issues up in the air is the definition of what it means to be a professional writer.

I've met people for whom the definition of a professional writer or artist, musician or other creative, is someone who makes his or her living through that work. The Romance Writers of America defines its Pro writers as those seriously seeking publication (querying agents and publishers qualifies.)

I know people who make their living through a day job but devote themselves whole-heartedly to writing or art or music, who have established names for themselves and identify themselves by their artistic work. Their recognition may be in a limited arena and their monetary reward small, but as far as they are concerned, this is their life's work and their contribution to human culture.

This article* came to my attention lately, telling how the Minnesota Department of Revenue is currently auditing Venus DeMars and Lynette Reini-Grandell, (subjects of the 2004 documentary “Venus of Mars,”) musicians who have achieved some recognition, tour regularly, and sell recordings. The auditors claim that these musicians are only hobbyists and their costs can't be claimed as deductions because serious professional musicians would be doing more to make a profit. For instance, they should sign with major recording studios.

Seriously? When the big name publishers of music (and books) are becoming fewer and fewer? When it is increasingly difficult for any artist, no matter how talented, to win one of the limited niches offered in these limited venues? When more and more artists are reaching audiences through the internet, through small publishers, through crowd-funding, or independent publishing? When the whole model of how artists reach their audiences is in flux and no one knows what the future will bring? When books published by the Big Five have limited shelf lives and authors with backlists can self publish and keep their works available forever? Who is to say where the most reasonable expectation of profit lies?

One of the many cool things about the internet is the opportunity it offers for all varieties of niche-interest artists (artisans, writers, musicians and creatives of all sorts) to connect with audiences who will appreciate their work.

Traditional media venues are looking for artistic products that will appeal to the widest audiences – and turn a profit despite the huge investment needed to produce and distribute hard-copy works on a national and international scale.

Major record producers will not put out albums of filk** songs. Big NY publishing houses won’t publish Brony poetry or Star Trek slash fiction. The audiences are too small, too specialized (even aside from copyright issues) – but the audiences exist, and it’s now possible to fulfill those creative inspirations and share them with the people who will appreciate the work.

As a creative-type myself, this last comes closest to my definition of what it means to be an artist. It's much more about connecting the inspiring vision to the audience than it is about making a profit. Profit is nice. We all have expenses, and all want to know our work is valued, but creative work is about much more than that.

The vision some of us grew up with – of earning a living as a creative professional – may not be in the cards for those with small or specialized audiences – but if one can earn a living by other means, sometimes it’s enough just to have the audience that 'gets it' - that recognizes the special quality of one's creative efforts.

As long as I’m doing creative work for an appreciative audience, I can be happy -- even if it means I’m earning my living working some not-too-arduous part-time day job. My experience includes many temp jobs: clerical and customer service-type positions, as well as more creative gigs. I have no problem with doing honest, useful work for which I'm suited, as long as there's room in my life for my creative work.

I don't believe the practice of the arts is meant only for those in the tip of the creative iceberg who can find ways to make their livings exclusively through their artistic work. I believe it’s important for as many people who have a creative inspiration or vision as possible to fulfill these inspirations, and to find an audience for them.

Artistic careers can take many forms. Some artists can continue growing over time in craft and in appeal to broader audiences; some may find satisfaction in much smaller spheres.

There’s a place for work with broad appeal – even a national or worldwide forum – and there’s a place for smaller, more intimate creativity of specialized appeal in village- and family-sized forums. Some artists start with the small and move into broader arenas, others remain in the niche fitting their interests.

Artists, writers, musicians are professionals if they are making the effort to reach an audience appreciative enough to offer some financial reward. If the audience is small and/or has little reward to offer that does not lessen the seriousness of the artist's effort.

Some people may believe that it doesn’t matter whether the ‘lesser’ artists ply their work, fulfill their inspirations or not. The reason I believe in its importance may sound starry –eyed and mystical – but I see the successful communication of many individuals' inner visions as something that will make us wiser and better as a species.

Think of an iceberg: ninety percent lying below the surface. The greater the number of the ninety percent of unknown artists, the higher the ten percent rises above the ocean of obscurity.

Think of those mosaic-collage images in which many disparate photos are placed side-by-side like pixels in a larger image. Looked at from a distance, they create a larger image, one that may or may not be related to the smaller images comprising it.

photo mosaic
Consider the work of every creative artist in the human community as a pixel in some vast meta-work, revealing to us the state and nature of the larger human soul – or the human portion of the world soul.

We learn from the arts what it means to be human, what matters, what is important enough to move us to action, or to tears, or to strive beyond hope.

The more of our creative-types who fulfill their work, the higher the resolution of the meta-image, the more clearly we can see, the more clearly we can understand, and the greater our wisdom – as a species. The profit here is not one to be measured in dollars.

**filk music is music specific to science-fiction & fantasy fandom

Naomi Stone's latest release: 'Spirited!' from Champagne Books:


Big Mike said...

Welcome aboard Naomi. Glad you joined the team.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Glad to have you here, Naomi. As to professional versus hobby, technically it has to do with being published by a traditional publisher of whatever size. Or winning a place in a juried art show, or... In other words, it is determined by others.

I agree with your philosophy. The arts are where the spirit is nourished.

Rita Bay said...

Welcome, Naomi. Great post. Amazing that people can sit at home, collect all sorts of benefits from the government, and do NOTHING. Yet when "artists" want to claim expenses for the cost of their art, the government wants to treat them like criminals. Shame!

Ute Carbone said...

Welcome to the Vineyard, Naomi. The world needs artists. It seems our society has trouble recognizing this.

Jody Vitek said...

Very well said, Naomi. I would love to for my writing to cover what I spend on promoting my books. Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it all, only quick to to quiet my inner self and say, "Yes, it's worth it."

LizbethSelvig said...

Hi Naomi,
What a wonderful post. So much today is judged by the eye of the BIG beholder (corporations, the IRS, the masses) and we lose sight of what makes us artists in the first place--that spirit inside that won't let us stop creating no matter what the IRS says! Well said!

Naomi Stone said...

Thanks for all your comments!
Julie - different 'others' have different criteria on what constitutes professional status. As a member of RWA, I'm going by theirs.

Rita - you said it!

Ute, thanks! The need for artists is like the need for air and water - we tend not to value them until we have to go without.

Jody - Most writers never make much profit, but we can count it as 'paying forward' for all the wonderful stories that inspire us.

Hi, Liz! Glad you could stop by! I, for one don't count corporations as people, so don't want them as the judge of what makes an artist.

~ Naomi

Helen Henderson said...

Good post, Naomi. After making a living for decades as an on-staff writer/editor/columnist and freelance feature storywriter, I recently was slapped with the hobbyist classification. And the reason? My income dropped below a certain level because I changed from writing non-fiction to fiction because the dozen publishers I worked for shifted to the non-paying, only print free submissions paradign.

What's next? If you're not published by the Big Five or a New York Times Best Seller then you're a hobbyist? Oh well, at leat my mother is happy with her print book with my name on the cover. Savor the little joys.

Naomi Stone said...

Helen, that strikes me as a real shame.

What will it take for the IRS to recognize the fact that success in the arts isn't defined by profit? We'd all like to make a profit, but many very accomplished artists don't.