Art and Product: Allowing Creative Work to Find Its Audience

Consumer culture pushes us to believe that commercial viability is the be-all and end-all of human creativity. Why bother writing a book if it’s not going to make you a lot of money or be turned into a blockbuster movie? What’s the point in creating a painting if you can’t sell it for several million bucks? Being an actor is a waste of time, unless you’re a glamourous Hollywood celebrity grabbing a big paycheck. The notion of creating something simply for the joy of doing it seems to be getting lost. And if you do create something for a commercial audience, it had better make a lot of money instantly. The quality of a novel has been reduced to how high it reaches on the New York Times best seller list, and how quickly. The merits of a film come down to how much it earned on its opening weekend. A television show had best get consistently good ratings starting with the first episode. Instant gratification culture and corporate “we need to make a profit this quarter” has all but killed the notion of allowing creative work to find its own audience at its own pace.

Most of my books qualify as best sellers on DriveThruRPG within a week of release, some hitting that benchmark in as little as a couple of days. As of the time of this post, Revelations in Cold Iron has been out a little over a month, and might finally qualify as a best seller sometime later this week. Compared to Starlight Manifesto, released two weeks later and hitting the best seller level in 3 days, that’s a long time. For some people that would mark Cold Iron as a failure, because it’s not a breakout financial success. However, it’s also my most reviewed, and best reviewed, title. The game does not resonate with everyone, but for those that it does it resonates very strongly. I knew when I was writing it that it was writing for a small percentage of the potential audience, and I’m already a small fish in a small pond of a niche market. In other words, I wrote it because I had something to say and not because I thought it would be commercially viable. On the spectrum of art and product, I had art — or self-expression, at least — in mind.

Kickstarter in particular has created perceptions and expectations within my industry. I’ve been pushing back against them for a while, but I continue to struggle with articulating my thoughts. If you don’t fund within the first week, the campaign is seen as a failure, and you’re less likely to meet the goal over the rest of the time span. You have to offer all sorts of rewards and enticements to get people interested. You can’t simply try to make something, just that thing, and be done with it. Go big or go home. I would rather make the thing that I want to make, the way that I want to make it, and then find the people who will appreciate it. That makes me a terrible businessman, I know. I don’t want to pander to the masses, I want to express myself and, through their own stories, help my audience to express themselves.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people making quality work who are also making money. That’s obviously not true. I’m only speaking for myself here. Writing and publishing is my full-time job, it’s how I’ve successfully paid the bills month after month, but I never want it to start feeling like a job. If I start allowing the market to make creative decisions for me, it probably will. If I try to do things the way that everyone else does them, it definitely will.

My happiness as a creator, I think, is a strength and not a weakness. The people who need big returns on their investment continue to crank out more.-of-same because they know it will sell — until the market becomes oversaturated and it doesn’t. I just need to cover rent and groceries and a few other expenses, so I can take risks. I can write and release books and games that other publishers wouldn’t. I have the freedom to be different and weird. My stuff might not ever truly be considered art, but I’d like to think that it’s more than just product.

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