Gatekeepers

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The other day, a friend was critical of the arts granting process, objecting to the fact that writers had to have had 2 or more ‘professional’ publications to qualify for a grant, effectively excluding self-published writers no matter how successful they had been at selling their work. He went on to suggest that similar restrictions were not placed on musicians or dancers or painters.

The latter statement is simply not true. Except for occasional special programs to encourage new artists, (Canada Council used to have a category called Explorations grants – I applied unsuccessfully several times when I was starting out), all grants require that artists demonstrate they are professionals or on their way to becoming one. The wording differs but essentially it says you must be making an effort to make art a significant part of your work and livelihood. One of the ways you have historically done that is through professional publications (or performances in a professional venue or showings in a professional gallery).

But, of course, the world is changing. More and more people are self-publishing or, if you prefer, indie publishing. Some of them are quite good. And granting agencies and professional organizations are responding. For example SFWA – the organization representing professional science fiction and fantasy writers – recently changed their membership requirements to include indie publishers, provided they had made an income from their writing equivalent to the minimum advance required for traditional published writers (roughly $3000USD in a single year). In this case they are using the marketplace to establish your professional standards. Given how few indie authors make that, it still represents a significant barrier and keeps the organization ‘professional’ in its mandate.

The Canada Council of the Arts studied ways that it can be more relevant and helpful in the digital age. It is doubtful they will base their qualifications on income but nonetheless they are looking for ways to include professional artists who have been previously excluded. I strongly suggest those interested to provide input in the still on-going consultation process.

But why have qualifications at all? Why not let anyone who claims to be an artist apply and let the chips and grant dollars fall where they may?

Two reasons come to mind. First most professional artists served an apprenticeship, years or sometimes even decades working on their craft – getting rejected and then accepted, taking courses and workshops and finally winning acceptance from the larger community. A lot of them – myself included – resent the fact that all that might have been pointless. We could have just slapped together a document on our first try and then with the click of mouse published it on Amazon. We take some comfort that most of those books don’t get read but take even more in the idea that they aren’t viewed as professional.

For grant agencies there are practical concerns. They already can’t fund all the proposals that do get through the qualification process. Dropping those requirements would lead to flood of applications – almost all of which wouldn’t and, in fact, shouldn’t be funded. The purpose of government grants is to fund people to become self-supporting artists not to support their hobbies or whims. Sorry. And, on top of that, the only way they could judge the quality of someone’s work – without the screening of professional gatekeepers – would be to actually read the self-published books themselves.

Not only would the workload overwhelm the lightly-paid juries, it would probably burn the eyes out of their heads. Because while some self-published work is very good, the vast majority is unreadable drek. Trust me – having read some of the things at the bottom of my own slush pile, I know. Oh, god, how I know.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

Boaty McBoatface

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Boaty McBoatface. Really?

I guess this is the democracy that the Internet was designed to bring us. An on-line poll to name a new arctic research vessel has proposed the above name. It is leading the polls, well ahead of a bunch of other stupid names. I guess it has the advantage in that it saves people the effort of googling who Shackleton was.

I like democracy as well as the next person but it does have its limits. That it can be railroaded by idiots is only a minor criticism. After all, the people who own the boat (a branch of the British government) have the final say as to what the boat is actually called. I expect a committee of toffs is sitting around right now, snorting over their tea, and saying: That’s why we went to Oxford and they didn’t.

So, having a bit of fun is alright when nothing much is at stake. It’s like when the people of the Northwest Territories were asked to come up with a new name for the territory after Nunavut split off. In a similar on-line poll  “Bob” was the second favorite choice. Now that might seem like innocent fun except it was a campaign designed specifically to reject the preferences of indigenous people for a name that reflected their heritage.

And, sadly, that is what populist and plebiscitary democracy often gets you. Illogical or contradictory policies (like when California required smaller class sizes in schools but no increase in school budgets) or an opportunity for the worst among us to hijack the process for their own narrow and often repulsive objectives. It might work okay if voting were compulsory but even then I have my doubts. When voting on these types of measures only draw ten or twenty percent of the electorate – special interest groups will always win. And by that I don’t mean what most people mean when they say ‘special interest group.’ I mean people with money. No one has more special interests than rich people.

As they say, it’s all about the Benjamins.

I’ve seen lots of arguments that say money doesn’t affect politics. Usually, the argument points to the fact that this politician who spent $25M failed to defeat that one who only spent $12M. See – money has no impact. Except, of course, the both spent bucket loads of money and, in order to get it, they both had to moderate their policies to please their funders – whoever their funders might be. And some of the funders are progressives – up to a point. Even the most liberal billionaire has an agenda, generally directly connected to how they got their billions.

And the real measure of whether money counts is not taken by comparing the well-funded campaigns of career politicians (and these days, everyone seems to either be one or be on their way to becoming one) but in the results of plebiscites (in those places that have them) where money clearly makes a difference. And the exceptions you might point out are exactly that.

And while it may not matter when you are giving a joke name to a boat – it has massive effects when you are shaping public policy.

And that’s ten minutes.

Zero Interest

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The European central bank just lowered the interest rate to 0%; Japan has been in negative interest rate territory for some time. Anyone who has a saving account knows that interest rates have been below 1% for quite some time. With inflation running at roughly 2%, this means your money loses value while you wait. It’s better than putting money in a sock but not much. If banks start passing on negative rates to customers (they haven’t yet, somewhat to the chagrin of central bankers) a sock will become a viable option.

The stock market isn’t doing much better. While you might be lucky or smart enough to pick winners, the overall returns from investing has barely done better than inflation this past year. Count in broker or mutual fund fees and even that advantage goes away. Someone may be getting rich (hint, it’s your investment banker) but it ain’t you.

There is lots of money around. Multinational corporations are sitting on trillions – holding for better times or, more likely to buy out their rivals during bad times. It’s not being spent on making jobs.

The economy is broken and no one, it seems, knows how to fix it. This is largely because in the 21st century capitalism has turned from a system designed to increase societal wealth and promote innovation and progress into a tool to funnel the wealth of a shrinking economy into fewer hands. And yet, people continue to hold onto the mistaken belief that the ‘free market’ is an impersonal and rational system to promote efficiency. But in fact it twitches and jerks to the strangest stimuli.

Take the price of iron in China. You may recall, that Mao said that democracy grows out of the barrel of a gun. Protestors in various countries riffed on that by putting flowers in those same barrels held by soldiers sent to ‘watch’ them. In China – where the economy is struggling – the price of iron suddenly jumped 10%. How could that happen? Apparently a massive international flower show was being held in a large iron smelting city. Local officials fretted about pollution levels. Iron company executives – suspecting a temporary shutdown – began hording their product. So the price went up. An ideologue might say it was a ‘rational decision’ but I would reply: You keep using that word; I don’t think it means what you think it means.

So if the market system is broken – what do we do? Especially if we are trying to buy a house, whose price will either spiral out of control (in part because of insider trading and speculators) or languish or even fall in many markets. What’s the point of pouring good money after bad? Why not rent and let someone else take the risk? And what about saving for the future when our savings are worth less every day? Maybe we should do what the central bankers want and spend, spend, spend. Or maybe we should give up on the idea that tomorrow will be richer than yesterday and learn to live with less. Easy enough to say when you are somewhat well off – but what if you are already living on less?

Or maybe we should start to reform the system by admitting nothing is too big to fail and that speculators don’t have a God-given right (let alone a legal one) to game the system. Maybe we could start by sending a few of the worst to jail.

But that’s ten minutes.

Property

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There are few things more contentious than the question of property. For those on the far left, property is theft. For extreme conservatives, it is a sacred right. Most of us come down somewhere in the middle. In Canada, while we guarantee the equality of the sexes in the Constitution, we don’t guarantee the right to own property. The state can – and frequently does – expropriate property for the public good and there are a number of other less formal ways that your property rights can be infringed.

In fact the biggest property owner in Canada is the Crown, which controls vast tracts of land from coast to coast to coast. In most situations, the Crown continues to own subsurface rights to land even if the surface rights are owned by individuals.

For artists and other creative types, the big issue is copyright – that is, the right to own the product of their mind and imagination. In Canada, copyright persists for fifty years after the death of the creator; in the USA, those rights extend for 70 years and there are some – notably big creative corporations like Disney – who would like that extended even further.

The simplest argument people make is that if they own a house they can pass that property down to their children and grandchildren and so on in perpetuity so why shouldn’t intellectual property be the same. Property is property right?

Well, no. We already distinguish between different kinds of property. There is real property, generally referring to land but can also be ascribed to other forms of wealth, and there is chattel property, things like cars or the furnishings in your house. This distinction becomes particularly relevant when you go bankrupt, when most chattel property is forfeit (unless it is the tools of your trade) whereas some real property (such as your primary residence) can’t be touched.

We also make a distinction – in the tax system – between different kinds of real property. Primary residences are exempt, for example, from capital gains tax. Some lucky folks who bought a house in downtown Toronto in the 70s are now millionaires because of soaring house values. When they sell, none of that money is taxable. Not so the people who own a cottage on Georgian Bay (unless it is their primary residence); their property is subject, on sale, to taxes on the difference between the purchase price and sale price.

And, finally, you can only pass down your property when all estate taxes (in the USA) or probate fees (in Canada) are paid. Failure to pay those and your property can be forfeited to cover the cost. As far as I know, probate may (or may not) be applied to intellectual property but it is difficult to estimate its value and hence ascribe a percentage tax or fee to it.

There are some arguments against extending rights to intellectual property beyond a reasonable limit. Extending patents (which are different and shorter than copyright) for drugs for example may – at a certain point – raise prices for consumers without significantly increasing innovation by pharmaceutical companies, which would rather spend their R&D on modifying existing properties than inventing new ones. The same suppression of creativity may well apply to other forms of copyright as well.

And that’s ten minutes.

Click on This!!!

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A man wrote 600 short essays. And you won’t believe what happened next!

We’ve all read the overheated headlines promising some amazing revelation of human nature. But human nature being what it is – the results are seldom amazing.

Still, hope springs eternal and, despite our determination never to be sucked in again, we click on the link of 25 pictures that broke the Internet. Most of them don’t even cause me to break into a smile.

Everything is designed to try to get you to follow the link to this or that site. And why? Well, apparently, the more people that visit a site, whether it is a pseudo-legitimate news site like Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post or much less reputable portals to a life poorly wasted, the more they can charge for the advertisements that appear on them. Because that’s what they really want you to click on. The endless ads, carefully (ha ha) selected to match your tastes and habits.

But I never click on the ads, you say. I’m not influenced by such things. I wonder how the advertising industry has managed to sustain a multi-billion dollar business if no one pays attention to ads.

But of course you do. Most of us can sing a dozen ad jingles from our childhood – back when jingles were a thing – but not a single number one hit of our teenage years. Of course, advertising has an impact. You may not notice it but every time you are looking at a shelf of nearly identical goods – especially if you are in a rush and aren’t really focused – you will almost always reach for the one whose name – whose brand – you recognize. And you will, from time to time, believe that you do so because it is better quality than its cheaper competitors.

Years ago, when I was in chemistry class, we did a blind experiment to see which detergent was best at removing dirt. We stained identical scraps of cloth with identical and carefully weighed samples of dirt and grease. We then washed them for identical periods of time in identical amounts of water.

Guess what? The cheapest brand did the worst job. But not by much. And the most expensive one was slightly worse than the one in the middle. And none of them did a worse job when it came to the naked eyes. That is you could weigh the remaining dirt but not see it.

Most of the students were outraged by the results; some because they wanted the cheap brand to do best, proving a corporate conspiracy. Others wanted the brands to do exactly as well as the price attached to them. Because that’s how the market works, right?

Actually the market works exactly like that – on false information and inflated expectations. All driven by advertising.

There are those that think money doesn’t make a difference in politics and cite studies to show that high spenders don’t always win. But when you consider that in a perfect world those high spenders would not even be in the running based on their non-monetary characteristics…

Click on this to learn the real story.

And that’s ten minutes.

No End in Sight

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I talk a lot these days about retiring. What I’m really talking about is moving from one occupation to another. Frankly I’m tired of working in a regular job – getting up every day to someone else’s schedule and trundling off to an office where my activities are constrained by those around me and the systems in place to manage the work.

I’ve never been keen on systems. I didn’t mind school but found plenty of ways to circumvent or at least ameliorate the rules. It was not a case of rebelling – I was a radical but not much of a revolutionary – but of co-opting them to my own interests. Being smart and working hard can buy you a lot of freedom. It helped that the high school I went to had 2000 students and my university only 1300. You could choose to be invisible if you liked – or you could stand out in ways that seemed to buy into the system while secretly subverting it.

Good times.

Real life was never so easy. Governments and corporations have had a lot of practice shackling their employees, locking us into the iron cage of bureaucracy. Small businesses – unless you happen to be the owner – are nothing but arbitrary fiefdoms where employees are treated like family – in the worst sense of the word – and expected to work like slaves.

Work – the curse of the drinking class.

But, having been smart enough and lucky enough to work in a place that offers a defined benefit pension plan (indexed to inflation) means that soon I will celebrate, not freedom 55 but freedom 61 or 62 (the timing remains uncertain). I will have an income free from any obligation.

It’s as if I was suddenly a member of the gentry in a Jane Austin novel!

But as they say a man with an income is soon in need of, well not a wife – I have one of those – but an occupation. Something useful – at least to them – to fill the hours until happy hour. Without it, happy hour may start to come at 10 in the morning.

But what to do? Fortunately I’ve been planning for these days for a very long time and have plenty that will fill my hours with interesting tasks while still leaving me free to pursue my real hobbies of traveling and sampling all the various foods and drinks the world has to offer.

I have my publishing company and my writing. I don’t see giving up the latter – ever – and as for the former, well, that depends upon other people, those who choose to buy or not buy the books I publish. But for now it continues to beckon me. After all, writing and publishing have their own benefits and not merely in terms of being engaged in a creative process but in being engaged with creative people.

That’s what keeps your mind young even as the rest of you ages into decrepitude. Even after my body stops moving my mind can journey to far shores.

I’ve seen the alternative and it isn’t pretty. Wasting away in body AND mind. No, I’d rather go out like Robertson Davies, starting a short story on the morning of my death at age 90.

But that’s ten minutes.

Living from Your Words

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Yesterday I spent a couple of hours with a class of students taking a two-year program at a local college to become professional writers. There were about forty of them there in the “Business of Writing” class and my job was to give them some idea of what their prospects might be if they decide to focus on fiction writing. I started by telling them that only one of them was likely to make a decent living from the job – though for some others creative writing might form an important part of their life and income.

They took it pretty well. I suspect they didn’t believe me. When people have a dream it is hard to dissuade them with cold hard facts. Such as the fact that a typical novel makes a Canadian writer in the hundreds of dollars. That’s right. Hundreds of dollars – seldom in the thousands.

Full-time writers can expect an income of perhaps $13,000 a year – once their career is established. In the ten years leading up to that, it will be a lot less. Traditional publishing does no better (or worse) than self-publishing – but at least with the former it doesn’t require any investment on the part of the writer other than time.

Certainly some people make buckets of money from writing. James Patterson made in excess of $85 million last year. He, of course, is an industry unto himself; the second place writer, John Green (The Fault in Our Stars), earned just $26 million. By the time you get to George R. R. Martin who tied for fifteenth place, the take is a mere $12 million – a 46% drop from second. Still sounds pretty good but if the curve were to continue at that angle (it doesn’t) the 120th place writer would be making about $60 thousand dollars. In reality there may be as many as a thousand writers (I’m talking novelists here, not those who make their living writing screenplays or game modules – though the distribution is the same) in the world who make in excess of $250K. Seems like pretty good chances until you realize that roughly 200K books get published in Canada every single year. And we’re a small country.

Information out of Amazon says that exactly forty writers sold at least one million e-books over the last five years. Most of these – though not all by any means – were self-published. At the typical price of a self-published e-book, these writers made $200K or more a year. But there are 1.7 million people who have self-published a book on Amazon. Most of those will be lucky to make $200 in a year. Or a lifetime.

So fame and fortune is for the few; most writers, indeed, most artists, have to make due with much slimmer pickings. Studies in both Canada and England show that – if they relied on their writing income alone – the vast majority (80%) would live below the poverty line. Few would have more than a modest middle-class living. And incomes are falling.

There are options of course to build an artistic life and lifestyle. Marrying well is a good option; I have a couple of friends who have managed to be full-time writers because their wives have good steady jobs and sufficient income to support them both. You can also combine writing with any number of other jobs – government communications or policy writing, commercial work for company reports, teaching and so on. If you have to, you can add telemarketing and bartending to the list – both jobs I did during the six years I was writing ‘full-time.’

And despite all the worries over money, it is still worth it. You get to associate with other writers, some of the brightest, most articulate and, yes, craziest, group of people you will ever meet and you get to do what you love pretty much until the day you die. Robertson Davies, it is said, started a short story on the morning of the day he died. He was 90.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.