The irrationality of producing cultural product

Last year I went to a couple of talks that discussed copyright and what people are willing to pay for. The speakers suggested that there’s a change in how publishing – of music, film and literature – works and a change in how consumer wants to pay for these products. With online piracy, finding stuff for free is easy and a lot of people don’t think of downloading without paying as stealing. Meanwhile we hear stories of self-published e-book authors who’ve made million by selling their books cheaply and focusing on shifting in bulk. The barrier to purchase for a £0.99 book is lower than for a £5.99 book.

The pro-copyright and tight control camp suggests that piracy snatches food from the mouths of musicians, film makers and writers (from now on “producers of cultural product”). I’m not going to go into the details, but one guy I saw said his research failed to find evidence that copyright laws really protect the people it’s supposed to. It works for the big sharks but it’s irrelevant to the small fry.

One of the problems with “cultural product” is how you define it and who you count as being a producer. If you look at the people who consider themselves professionals, we find that most of them don’t make much money from cultural products. Writers and musicians work all kinds of jobs but only a few of them actually do their thing full-time. The figures suggest that about 90% of the income goes to 10% of the producers. (There’s a lot of small fry in the cultural pool.) Hence the title of this post: if you’re writing to make money, you’re in for a tough time. It’s not a logical career path if you want a steady income. Instead you should go off and become a teacher, or a software developer, GP: whatever job will give you the income you need to maintain the lifestyle you want. Chances are that producing cultural product isn’t going to do it for you.

Except… It does for some people. And there are strategies for success. Most importantly, producing cultural product is so much more fun – so say some of us – than most other jobs. So if it’s what you want to do you have to go for it.

I’m ignoring all the stats and going for it. (But I’m not giving up the day job.) It might not be rational, but it’s what I have to do.


2 comments on “The irrationality of producing cultural product

  1. Hamish MacFarlane

    I think piracy of written works is a little different, given that I can freely download published materials to my kindle from my local library – no motivation to cheat, and the authors still get paid.

    I don’t think having a 75/25 day job / writing job career is a sign of failure – unless of course the only thing you want to do is write. I do agree you should ignore the stats when you’re writing a novel 🙂

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