Friday, May 27, 2011

Writers Starve

Tim Bauer, playwright and author of the blog Direct Address, recently posted to his twitter feed a link to this article:

Tony Kushner: Can't Support Himself as a Playwright

Basically he makes his living as a screenwriter.

The author of the post asks if this fact should "lead to the examination of the overall theatre business model?"

This doesn't particularly come as a surprise to me. I would say very few people in general earn a living as writers, whether they be playwrights or novelist, or even screenwriters for that matter. You can be mediocre at a lot of professions and still earn a living. You have to be wildly successful as a writer to earn a living.

"But Kushner is wildly successful!" I hear you cry. Theatre will never generate the same level of income film or TV for the simple reason that fewer people can see it. It will always be limited by the number people you can fit in the theater. I heard an interview with Aaron Sorkin once where he marveled at how X million people had watched the premier of the West Wing, while it had taken YEARS for 1 million people to see his play A Few Good Men. And that was a wildly successful play.

The "business" model just doesn't work, which is why most arts organizations are non-profits.

But it's true of other writing related industries as well. It's hard for novelists to make money. I used to work in the children's book industry. Authors would have a NY Times Bestselling kid's book and scratch their heads wondering why they weren't suddenly rich. That's just not how it works. Very few books, even bestsellers, sell the millions of books you'd need to sell to be rich. Maybe it's more common to sell enough to earn a living, but even that is getting rarer as book sales steadily decline.

Even Neil Gaiman, who could probably support himself just fine from his novels and comic books, writes movies every now and then. Not only because he enjoys it but because it's how he gets health insurance.

At the bottom of this blog, you'll find a short paragraph explaining its name and how the original intent of this blog was to chronicle my journey towards earning a living writing. You'll notice that hasn't happened yet. I certainly haven't given up on that dream, but I recognize it's highly unlikely. It's like winning the lottery or becoming a movie star: lot's of people dream about it, but few do it. Hardly any writers do it without writing a screenplay or two.


UPDATE: Tim posts to his blog about the article and points to a very interesting discussion on another blog:

Fascinating Discussion: ‘Tony Kushner Can’t Support Himself As A Playwright’

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In 1789, the governor of Australia granted land and some animals to James Ruse in an experiment to see how long it would take him to support himself. Within 15 months he had become self sufficient. The area is still known as Experiment Farm. This is my Experiment Farm to see how long it will take me to support myself by writing.