Matt Gemmell, patronage, and Vincent Van Gogh

January 20, 2015

Yesterday, Matt Gemmell made a great case for patronage as a way to support the long-term survival of the creative works we enjoy:

The reality is that creative output involves cost - whether it’s at the professional end, with staff and materials and print runs or editing suites, or in the spare-bedroom office of the independent artist, where the cost is time, and what else might have been accomplished during it.

If we don’t support the things we love, with actual money, those things will go away. If we ignore the kickstarter campaigns, and block the ads, and read the content without supporting the author, and pirate the apps, sooner or later we’ll lose those things altogether.

Matt made the jump last year from a successful career in software development to an uncertain career in writing, and that is terrifying. I know, because I’m doing it, too. The uncertainty of not knowing if you’ll make it is by far the most difficult thing to deal with on a daily basis, at least for me personally. And by “making it” I don’t mean fame and fortune, mind you. I mean earning just enough to pay the bills and keep the lights on. That’s how high the stakes are for most creative people.

I’m sure Matt will make it, he’s just too good a writer not to. That’s what my instinct as a discerning reader tells me. However, a more troubling thought is that his future is not entirely in his hands anymore. We like to think that the creative industry is a meritocracy: great apps earn millions, bad apps don’t. Great authors get published, and bad writers don’t. It’s a comforting notion, but reality is seldom that clear-cut. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of great artists before Matt with talent to spare, who never actually managed to make a living out of their creative work. You’ve all heard about Van Gogh, but there are millions of Van Goghs out there today: great artists with passion, dedication and creative vision that are completely devoid of any means of support, to the point that they can’t afford to pursue their creative goals anymore. That’s tragic, and it’s largely on us.

We all love reading success stories. It’s inspiring to see how someone can have a successful career by doing what they love. But for each story we see, there are hundreds more we’re oblivious to. In the real world, Van Gogh is still struggling to sell his paintings.

The good news is, it doesn’t take much to make things better, but we all need to do our part. I’ve been supporting the work of my favorite authors for a long time, either by becoming a patron or a member, or by buying their books whenever I can. It’s not always easy but I try to put my money — my actual money, as Matt so eloquently put it — where my mouth is.

These incredibly brave authors are facing a world of uncertainty very few people could handle, and it’s not just them: their families are sharing the burden as well. If even one of them had to give up their creative work because they can’t earn enough to make a decent living, the Internet would be a darker place for me. Unfortunately, there’s only so much any one of us can do individually. Unless we collectively start valuing creative people and their craft in terms of actual money and not just praise or readership, we’ll continue to incur a huge risk that one day they’ll be gone, never to return.

As a creative person myself, I’ll admit to having a vested interest in this. I’ve been working full-time on Analog Senses since August and while readership is steadily growing, it’s still nowhere near big enough to be a sustainable business. I don’t even mean a sustainable full-time business, although that is what my vision for the site is. I still have a few months to go and I’ll keep working my ass off to make it, but there’s no guarantee it’ll work, and that’s sometimes frightening. There are several strategies I can and will try that have proven successful in the past, like weekly sponsorships and subtle ad placement, but those usually only go so far. The day is coming when I’ll need to ask for reader support in one way or another and then my fate, just as Matt’s, will not be in my hands anymore.

In the meantime, I only hope I can prove myself and provide enough value to you, dear reader, that you’ll consider supporting me when the time comes. I don’t know if things will work out or if I’ll be left to chop off my own ear1 but whatever happens, I’ve made my peace with it and I’m determined to find out.

  1. Figuratively speaking, of course. I apologize if that was too graphic.