This is a short speech I wrote several years ago, while living on Gabriola Island, in the San Juan islands near Nanaimo, BC. Watching art and books in revolution, and surrounded by indie artists, I saw a parallel between my own work as an indie author and their work as independent artists, each selling from their own studios on a small rock in the middle of the ocean. The impression of those vibrant artists has not waned in the years since, and I found this essay while clearing out a file cabinet last weekend. I hope you see a similar revolution happening around you.
As a young fine arts student studying to be a painter and sketch artist, I was coached by well-meaning teachers and professors who wanted all of their students to achieve commercial success. There’s nothing more rewarding for an art teacher than to witness their student actually pay a mortgage with the revenue from their creative efforts. But now, as an adult with a generous amount of business experience behind me, I can now see where Artists, and Authors, are being ripped off.
I often compare the current traditional bookselling system, where a big publisher buys work from a writer and distributes it through large chain stores, to the way art sales are managed by galleries. What I call “The Gallery System” is how a gallery finds marketable painters, sculptors, and other visual artists that fit the commercial definition of good art (whatever that means), and put their paintings on display in the well-lit large front window of a gallery. Passers-by feel confirmed in buying work they don’t have any deep feelings about, because of the artificial validation that buying from a large gallery gives them. We are robbing the next generation of the ability to think critically about art and literature.
Here’s the really naughty part: when the painting sells, the artist only takes a small portion of the profit. I know many wonderful artists that have altered their work to make it more palatable to this market, thereby not only sacrificing their own artistic integrity, but also denying a hungry art-buying public the opportunity to discover and experience something new.
Galleries (read: bookstores) plunge the work of the artist directly into an extremely competitive market, often without the benefit of additional insight for the consumer. Try attending a gallery exhibit opening sometime, and notice the similarities between that and a book signing. But now, living in an “art-friendly” community, I’m extremely pleased to see that the art (and book) buyer recognizes the cachet of visiting the studio of a working artist – and buying direct.
This revolution is well underway in the arts community. And more than the way money changes hands is being affected: a wider variety of mediums are gaining mainstream recognition, and artists are spreading their creative wings. A previously-unidentified audience for non-traditional work is clearly out there doing some serious shopping. The line between art and craft is more blurry than ever. And the art of the people, folk art, is no longer segregated into a movement.
It is very clear that self-publishing, and the selling of books directly from the author to the consumer, is the manifestation of this same spirit in the publishing world. Authors now have access to the same tools that large publishing houses do. They are thinking of their books as tools for marketing their businesses and other products. Fine printing gives credibility to their statements. And they are receiving equal critical recognition to any other author.
What about balancing business needs with artistic integrity? This is achieved more easily now than ever, because the author retains all the control. Their work is no longer subject to commercial critics that stifle creativity early in the process. The way this works is because of and old axiom, which I see proven again and again: art cannot exist in a vacuum. We must write so that others can read. Otherwise, our writing is a purely selfish act. Outside of writing for self-exploration, which makes us better writers regardless, we must write for an audience. By considering our audience, which is the second rule of quality writing*, we automatically satisfy the needs of an increasingly clever book buyer. The integrity of our writing is inherent, and intelligent readers will buy all they can get their hands on.