The Patreon Dilemma

patreon_navigation_logo_mini_orange The Patreon DilemmaThere has been some controversy recently about authors signing up for Patreon. For those who don’t know, Patreon is a site where people can sign up to support creators (not just authors, but photographers and artists, musicians, models… you name it) by pledging them a fixed amount of money every month. Most Patreons start at $1 or $3, and can go all the way up to hundreds of dollars per month.

I’ll be honest, I’ve been considering it for a long time, but I hadn’t taken the plunge because getting a Patreon involves two things: 1. Talking about money, and 2. Swallowing my pride. Let me explain.

Firstly, a Patreon isn’t a payment for our work—or at least, it shouldn’t be. Patreon got its inspiration from ye olde patrons of yore, the kind Shakespeare and half the artists of the Renaissance had. These were wealthy people who wanted to show off their riches by covering the expenses of impoverished artists. The return was the kudos of becoming the patron of the most acclaimed painters and writers and musicians and sculptors, and having them on hand whenever you wanted to impress your friends by staging a play or hanging a new painting in your great hall.

These days, things are a little different. Art is created in new and fluid forms, and can be easily disseminated among the masses. You can make just as much, if not more, producing digital works and selling them for $10 apiece as you can spending a year painting a perfect landscape in oils and selling it for half a million dollars. Because art is cheap and accessible, more people can enjoy it and purchase it. This is a good thing. And this bright new age has brought us a modern version of patronage, where an artist’s living expenses aren’t footed by a single wealthy benefactor, but by dozens or hundreds of regular people like you and me who chip a couple of dollars a month into a cumulative pot.

Patronage, and Patreon in particular, can make it seem like the artist is expecting something for nothing. If you can produce the work and sell enough copies to make a living, why do you need Patreons? And if you can’t produce, or the work doesn’t earn enough, why do you expect other people with their own bills to pay to add yours to their burden? Get a job like everyone else.

This is a valid criticism and to answer it I need to do the unthinkable—talk about money. Sorry.

Firstly, you’re right. If we as artists can’t make our art pay our bills, we should find work that does. Except the nature of art creation and sale isn’t as straightforward as working a 9-5 for a fixed salary. Using authorship as the example, as it’s mostly authors/readers I’m addressing, we can’t just bang out a book overnight. A novel usually comes in around 60-100,000 words. Let’s say the target is 80k. That’s about the length of an average romance novel (some genres average waaaay longer).

Let’s say it takes 6 weeks of solid writing, 7 days a week, to produce that 80k (this is a conservative estimate). Then another 2 weeks for reading over what we’ve written and revising it. Probably with the help of betas, who hopefully aren’t so busy they can’t get the book read and back to us with copious notes within, say, 5 days.

Then the book has to go to an editor. An editor who will want to be paid for their time and expertise. By the time edits are returned and we’ve been over them, we’re 3 months into writing this book, about $600-$1000 in a hole for editing (that’s just for a copy edit, if an author wants content editing, double it), and now’s the time to get a cover if you haven’t already (let’s be reasonable and say that starts at $100), formatting if you can’t do it yourself ($100+), and perhaps employ a promotion company to give the book a decent kick-start ($50+).

For argument’s sake, let’s say the whole process, from writing, revising, and editing, to formatting and publishing, takes 3 months, and costs the (self-published) author $1000. That author isn’t just $1000 in the hole on that book, they’re also short whatever their living expenses were for the entire three months, because they’ve done nothing in all that time but work on getting this book published. That means in its first month the book not only has to wipe its own nose by covering the financial investment made into it, it has to start paying the author’s wages for the time they spent writing it.

Think how much your bills cost for three months. Your incidentals. The gas in your car, the birthday dinner for a friend. I bet it’s a not-inconsequential chunk of change. Now imagine gambling that amount of money, plus an additional $1000 or so, on a single event that might or might not pay off. That’s what authors do every time they write a book.

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but a lot of times it doesn’t pay off. That’s why writers have second or even third jobs. Why we scribble late into the night, early in the mornings, and all through our lunch breaks. By the time we’re making the leap to full-time authorship, we should already have a fairly stable boat. Savings in the bank. A backlist to mine during the lean months. Plan Bs and Cs and Ds for when our gambles fail.

Some changes, however, are out of our control. I started publishing in 2011, and quit my day job in 2013. I’ve done pretty well since then, but I’ll be honest, last year was brutal. I emigrated and promptly ended up hospitalised for the first time in my life in a country where being hospitalised is the leading cause of personal bankruptcy.

To compound personal troubles, the publishing world changed. Again. In February Scribd, one of the first ebook subscription services, and one that paid me a fair royalty for every book of mine that was read, drastically changed its business model and cut out romance books almost completely. My sales there were enough to pay for an edit every quarter, which was about when I was in the market for one. That was a blow.

Scribd fell in part because of Amazon’s newfangled KU program, which is working harder than ever to entice readers and bleed authors dry. ARe’s recent crash shows all too clearly the dangers of putting all our eggs in one basket, but it was my second-string site after Amazon and now that’s gone, too.

With suppliers drying up or going bust (in cases like ARe, taking a lot of authors’ money with them), and sales dwindling everywhere but Amazon, where you’re forced to accept tenths of a cent per page according to a payment model they set if you want to get in on KU, it’s becoming harder and harder across the board for even established authors to keep making a living from writing in the way they used to just a couple of years ago.

Still not our readers’ problem, of course. Unless they want to keep reading our books.

Last year, I published precisely one book. In January. That, frankly, is pathetic. That is not the output of a full-time author. The reason I only put out one book is because last year I wasn’t a full-time author. I was a full-time doing-anything-to-pay-the-bills kinda gal who wrote a bit on the side sometimes when she wasn’t exhausted from nickel-and-diming her way through every waking minute.

This is where Patreon comes in. If I’d had a Patreon, and if it brought in a steady stream of income every month, I’d have had a safety net that was impervious to my suppliers going bust, or the book market taking a lurch to the right when I was leaning left. That’s what Patreon is all about. Not paying an artist’s bills so they can sit around eating bonbons all day, but stabilising their income when they work in incredibly unsteady markets so that they can continue to work come what may.

This is the beauty and wonder of Patreon to people like me. It is old school patronage for the digital age and quite literally every little bit helps. If 200 Patreons chipped in $5 a month, that’s $1000 I don’t have to panic about. Put another way, you probably bought me 100 hours of nickel-and-diming that I could spend writing instead. That’s half a novel’s writing time. That’s massive. And all for $5.

That, in essence, is what all art creators want from their Patreons—or at least, all the ones I’ve spoken to. We want the ability to do what we love, and what we do best. To keep taking those gambles, but to do so in a calculated way. Patronage came into being because working in the arts was rarely lucrative, but we need art—books and paintings and music and sculptures and everything else out there that gives life its vibrancy and colour.

Another criticism I’ve seen is that Patreon keeps the art hidden away. Readers might be more than willing to buy four books every year by an author, but object to paying $5/month on top of that, and feel disgruntled that only Patreons get to see some of the author’s writing that as a reader they’d have been happy to pay for on the open market.

It’s a difficult conundrum. Obviously, not everyone can afford or wants to contribute a fixed amount to an artist every month, even if it is “only” a small amount. Nothing’s small when you don’t have it, and some months $5 might as well be $5000. I get it. Then if you’re spending probably $25 on that artists’ work annually anyway, buying their books or music or paintings or whatever, why is that not good enough? Don’t you already support them by buying their product?

Well obviously you do support them. The issue comes with how often they can bring a product to market, and generally that has to do with cashflow. Do they have enough money for an editor this month? Can they afford to take that time to write? So yes maybe you’d greedily snap up a dozen novels at $10 each if an author could put them out, but how likely is it they are in a position to do that? Patronage isn’t just about buying the art, it’s about supplying the time and materials for the artist to create.

That’s why, after much back-and-forth over the last year, AJ and I have set up a Patreon. It’s a joint profile, so Patreons will get double the rewards when they sign up—new writing each month from both of us, plus ebooks, signed paperbacks, and swag, depending on the tier of support.

For those who aren’t interested, we will still be writing our blogs, interacting on social media, and publishing our books. I’m writing a WIP—Strait Laced—on Wattpad right now and every chapter of it will go live there before it’s published.

I know there’s been a lot of ~drama~ recently about Patreon, but frankly if we tried to hold something off until there was no drama in our corner of the internet we’d never get anything done. This is a new year and a new experiment for us, and supporting our Patreon or not, I hope you can understand why we’re giving it a shot.

From our perspective we can’t wait to get started. We’re already queuing up new chapters and sneak peeks, and plotting out shorts about characters we’ve been longing to revisit. Joining Patreon will be a grand adventure, and we hope you come along for the ride.

If you need any more convincing, hop on over to AJ’s blog to hear her thoughts.

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