Gonna Climb Up On My Hobby Horse Here

I was recently reminded of an old criticism I’ve heard of crowdfunding, old enough that it dates back to before the word “crowdfund” was coined. It takes different forms but usually goes something like, “If you have to ask people to fund you, it’s not a job, it’s a hobby.”

Well! This is an interesting notion to me. It strikes me first and foremost that it’s a bit backwards. If you can do something and not ask anyone to pay you for it, then what you have is in fact a hobby or avocation… something that demands little enough of you and/or gives you enough in return that it’s worth your time and energy regardless of whether you can make a living at it.

There are a lot of people who write as a hobby. They write in a journal for their own edification, or post it on a fanfic site or personal blog with no monetization elements. They never attempt to make a living at it. And that’s fine. I’m a great defender of those who doodle and scribble and sketch and color and paint because it pleases them to do so, of those who sing and dance and act with no thought as to how to make a career out of it, and those who write to please themselves. I think the world could do with more hobbyists, with more people who do things because they can do them, at whatever level they can do them.

On the other hand, there are people who write for a living. Some of them seek jobs with publications or studios, saying, “If you fund me on an ongoing basis, I will use my talents to write what you want.” Is that a hobby? No, it’s a career. Some of them write things and then shop them around to publishers and periodicals, saying, “If you fund my continued writing and retroactively fund the time I spent writing this, I will let you publish and sell this.” Is that a hobby? No, it’s a career. Some people (myself included, for many things I write) take their work and put it up for sale so that people who want to read it can buy it; this is asking them to fund its creation. Is that a hobby? Not necessarily.

I mean, there are people who are self-publishing on Amazon who are doing it at a level that would be more readily recognized as a hobby than a job, but there are levels and levels to all of these things, and there are people who do pursue traditional routes of publication at what we might call the hobby level, deliberately. They have a career or calling and don’t see any need to make a a career out of writing, but it’s nice to have the recognition?

So now we come to crowdfunding, whether it’s the Patreon style pledge in advance or the slightly older busker model of “I made a thing, if it pleases you, throw a little something in the tip jar.” Is there any reason this is necessarily more of a hobby and less of a job or career than the other models? No, none whatsoever. In its current form—that is, the form involving electronic money and globe-straddling information networks—it seems unfamiliar and new, but attracting the patronage of private individuals or collecting payment by pleasing the crowd are old and storied conventions for professional artists.

Was William Shakespeare a hobbyist, I suppose? He could not have written his plays while living on the coins the groundlings might one day throw at him for writing them, if he could only somehow stage them. He had to ask for funding from powerful and influential individuals who could pay for (and smooth over the sociopolitical complexities involving) his productions.

Or how about that well-known dilettante and all-around duffer, Michelangelo? Oh, he couldn’t hack it chiseling sculptures on spec, so he had to go ask the Pope for funding! Meanwhile, Leonardo was sniffing around the de’Medici tables, begging for scraps!

But that’s ancient history! Let’s talk about the lazy layabouts clogging up Broadway and Hollywood. Listen, if this Hamilton thing was so great, why couldn’t Lin-Manuel Miranda just start selling tickets and then use that money to put on the show? Why’d he need to find backers and investors?

Or those authors who get advances.

Now, I already know what the rebuttal to this line of inquiry would be: it’s different. It’s different to go to a Florentine noble or a venture capitalist or a Hollywood producer or the Vicar of Christ and get money from them. It’s not at all the same as going to members of the general public, to your audience directly, and try to do the same thing in a distributed fashion. Just like it’s different to put a price tag and a bar code on a product and put it on a store shelf vs. putting it up on the internet with a button that says “pay what you want”.

Except it’s really not that different.

There are all kinds of different models of commerce. There are all kinds of different models of transactions. Some of them are more familiar to us and thus, to some of us, more respectable. But at the end of the day, it’s all about this: if you produce something that has value, you are entitled to receive value in exchange for that. And there’s no wrong way to do that, so long as everybody involved is willing and their rights are being respected. You have to find what works for you.

Most writers I know are working another job, or living with a spouse or partner who is and who pays most of the bills. You ask the biggest name writers you can think of what their advice for writers is, and the common thread is going to be: find another way to pay the bills. Get married. Don’t quit your day job. Inherit money. Live in a country with an adequate social safety net. Stephen King. Tom Clancy. J.K. Rowling. The people who have absolutely won at writing will tell you that you never have a chance of getting to that point unless you’re willing and able to find some other way to pay the bills during the long years that you’re not there.

Now, listen. I’m not about to take potshots at other writers because the market is what it is and it’s tough, but if you see a crowdfunded author scrabbling and you think, “They should have done it the right way. This isn’t a job, it’s a hobby,” you have to be prepared to say that about the vast majority of authors and artists.

I know authors who have cracked the bestseller lists and won international awards who would “hobbyists” in the sense that they can’t yet make a reliable living writing. I know authors who are ahead of me in their career by every measure you can think of except one: my meager income is still more than they pull in a month from their writing.

It’s not just authors and artists who struggle. Think about the vast majority of entrepreneurs and small business owners and sole proprietors, when they’re first starting out.

I don’t know if this is still true, the market has changed so much, but when I was a kid it was common wisdom in the TV industry that a show only really became profitable after 100 episodes, which is about 5 seasons, because that’s when the syndication rights became worth something. Just think about that. For four seasons, Roseanne was somebody’s hobby. Four four seasons, Married With Children was the college drop-out living in its parents’ basement. For four seasons, M*A*S*H* was somebody’s overfunded vanity project.

The bottom line is that we all—those people I mentioned and everybody else who works for a living—are “asking for someone to fund us”, in one fashion or another. Doesn’t matter if you’re an author starting out or a highly paid professional businessperson in a highly paid professional business. You’re still “asking for funding” in every negotiation you make, and in every such negotiation, your ability to get it depends in large part on what you’re offering.

That’s why value for value is my watchword as a writer. I have value. You have value. We can exchange units of value and both come out ahead. I keep telling people, if you like what I write and you’re able, pledge me a dollar. It costs you nothing until the end of the month, and I’ll bet you by the time that comes around, you’ll think it’s worth it.