Starving Artist / Overnight Success

Thoughts & Ramblings

I wasn’t sure whether I should write this post, but a few friends & work colleagues have commented on my ‘huge success’. I want to break this down a bit because I’m really not that successful, in objective (read: financial) terms. In fact, I am hugely unsuccessful. The other reason is that careers in the arts are usually seen with two possible outcomes – starving artist, or overnight success.

The truth is, there are plenty of people in the middle. Earning a full-time wage is where young people wanting a career in the arts should aim, and it’s not helpful to suggest that the only way one can succeed in the arts is by means of a ‘lucky break’.

Before I properly start, I want to say that I do see myself as successful, but by my own terms. Completing the first draft of The Caretaker of Imagination is success, developing the confidence to publish my work is success, selling hundreds (yep, hundreds!) of books is success, and the fact that I am still writing and art-making is success.

However successful I may be in creative terms, this does not translate into immediate financial success. Now, I’m not complaining. I know that in any business, it takes time to turn a profit. Gosh, it takes time to break even! It’s my understanding that the average business takes 2 years to do so.

Thus far, my book productions costs (illustration, editing, formatting, printing) far outweigh any money I’ve made from sales – and that’s not including money spent on marketing & events, nor the sheer time spent in writing and learning more about writing and publishing.

If we just look at direct print costs, then the amount I’ve made in sales is about 25% of how much I’ve spent. If we pile everything else on as well, I’m looking at about 20%. Some of those costs are one-offs (like illustration and editing) and some of those are ongoing (like printing books). If we take an example of spending $1000, that means I’d only have made $200 back… ouch! (and that’s over three years of effort).

The point of this post isn’t to get sympathy, or to promote the ‘starving artist’ stereotype, but just to put it out there in the world that being an author isn’t this magical thing where the rules of business don’t apply. I’m confident that I’ll reach the point where I can be a full-time writer and artist, but it’s going to take dedication, creativity and support (fortunately I am blessed with all of them).

As authors, we work hard to create our own success, like any other business or career path – and it takes time. As I’ve talked about before, one of my driving motivations is proving to young people (ahem, and their parents) that creative careers are achievable; they should NOT be written off. However, if young people go into creative careers thinking that all it takes is one lucky break and they’ve got it made, well… that’s not realistic and it’s not helpful.

I know plenty of people in the arts industry ranging from hobbyist, to part-time, to full-time, to really good full-time incomes. They are all good ways of following a creative path. There are more people earning a living from creative endeavours than most of us realise, and that’s a beautiful opportunity.


13 thoughts on “Starving Artist / Overnight Success

  1. As always, love your honesty and practical sense. You are doing a fantastic job and you have and are inspiring a whole generation of children (and adults like me) to pursue their dreams. You are a true inspiration.


    1. I wasn’t aiming this post at writers, but you make a good point, Steve. It’s as much about our own perception as the general public’s.


    1. And they are all needed! Thanks for your comment, NZIBF. The festival is one more way to help local creatives build our careers.


  2. This is an excellent post that I will share with other “creatives”. I was having this exact conversation with my son just yesterday.

    One of the most difficult questions I am asked is, “How are the sales going?” because I have to measure my expectations and those of the person asking. In one sense, I want to sell enough to live on. In another, one sale means that one human being felt my book worthy enough to spend valuable money and time on. And the best moment I have ever had with all this had nothing to do with sale – it was the night I finished the last sentence of the first draft of my first novel, knowing I had done “it”.


    1. Eloquently put, Antony. Every sale – every read – matters, and the most rewarding moments have nothing to do with sales.

      But, to have more time & energy to devote to creating relies on sales, and so it becomes important.

      It’s interesting that you point out changing your response in relation to expectation. I hadn’t thought of that but in retrospect I think I do that, too. Should I? Hmm…

      Thanks for the food for thought, and for sharing.


    1. We’ve got to start somewhere, right! Breaking even is something not everyone can lay claim to (I certainly can’t yet), but making a living from something we love doing? Nothing short of a dream come true 🙂


  3. I love when people come right out and say it, because too many others ignore it: that it’s possible to be successful on your own terms, even if it’s not “success” by common worldly terms. Besides, it’s not like anyone who says you’re “successful” sees the books, really, which keeps them really blind to the reality of the situation of being an artist.

    I’m thrilled with your honesty here, and you’re right: it takes passion and perseverance, and if you’re happy with what you’re doing then hey, that makes it all just a little bit better. Wonderful post; I’m glad you decided to publish it!


    1. Thanks, Rae. I guess now, with the internet and general globalisation, it’s harder NOT to see the people between the extremes. Some years ago, it would only be the very high or very low that would get any media attention.


      1. That’s so true! Way back when, it’d only be fail vs success. Now we have the luxury of actually getting the “inside scoop,” so to speak, and seeing the process of beginning and finding your legs. It’s great insight.


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