In its 2018 Christmas issue The Economist had an article about patronage.

Among the interesting facts it tells us is the striking news that Laurie Penny, a British writer, has 650 on-line patrons who pay her just over $3,500 a month. Nothing compared to James Patterson‘s income of course, but not too shabby. Two of her funders each pay her $250 a month: she’ll meet them for dinner if in town. And it’s not as if she’s using the money to self-publish her books: they are published by the likes of Bloomsbury and Tor, who presumably pay her royalties too. My mind is boggling.

Here’s a video intro to Patreon, the website which enables this on-line patronage. If you don’t see a video here please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Now I can, of course, see the appeal of receiving patronage. But please, eager patrons in waiting, do not send money: not everyone want to be obligated to a patron, even a relatively anonymous on-line group. I decided not to look for income from ads on this blog for a few reasons. I don’t want to feel that I have to be right when I say something. Not that I want to be wrong, but I want to feel free to say what I want to say. I started out with a sort of modest educational aim in mind: to tell younger people in the book business how things were a few years back, and also to interpret the British book world to Americans, and vice versa, and I’ve expanded into just letting off steam about various book-related topics. Topics of my choosing though. If you have patrons waiting for your words you are rather obligated to write something they’ll be interested in every day. If I miss a week, I miss a week. And receiving money for your writings carries with it an implication they are worth something: which kind of lays a weight of obligation on your shoulders. Plus I don’t need it. And then of course you have to acknowledge the gifts, which can lead to some sticky, sickly writing. “Great and manifold were the blessings, most dread Sovereign, which Almighty God, the Father of all mercies, bestowed upon us the people of England, when first he sent Your Majesty’s Royal Person to rule and reign over us.” Thus the translators of the Bible to their boss, King James I and VI. Not for me, thanks, though of course the benefits to England of having a Scottish ruler are quite manifest.

But Patreon is a fascinating development. There does seem to be a fairly wide-spread desire out there to support the arts. Kickstarter and other crowdsourcing efforts attest to that. Supporting an artist cannot but make you feel good. Painters and sculptors have never really given up on patronage: Forty years ago I knew an abstract expressionist who used to receive patronage from a Swedish pig farmer. I do occasionally kick a PayPal payment in the direction of Wikipedia and The GuardianThe Guardian, according to The Economist, has 340,000 people making monthly donations and a further 375,000 one-off donors supporting their on-line presence. That’s got to be a success.

Is it likely that a patronage-based model will take over from royalty- and fee-based publishing, once again taking us back to a pre-Victorian model of payment of artists? Doubtful I’d say. On-line patronage like this will certainly facilitate self publishing. But for it to take over completely would require the disappearance of royalty-paying publishing; and book publishing seems quite capable of the dodging and weaving needed to survive in a changing marketplace. In so far as publishers are unable to provide a living wage* to their average authors, patronage might seem an ideal supplement. Go get it before it’s all taken.

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On 8 January The Digital Reader brings us the news that “The Authors Guild’s 2018 Author Income Survey, the largest survey of writing-related earnings by American authors ever conducted finds incomes falling to historic lows to a median of $6,080 in 2017, down 42 percent from 2009.” Of course the median is just the median. It would of mathematical necessity be lowered by a large addition of authors earning nothing or next to nothing from their self-published writings. Just sayin’!