Posted on September 30, 2013 in Archive

Author patronage – an intriguing concept, revisited


As a history graduate, I feel very compelled and qualified to tell you – artistic patronage used to be a thing, and it worked!

The reason it’s being mentioned is this article by Suw Charman-Anderson, discussing the possibility of publishers investing in authors, rather than just books. It got me thinking.

From “ancient times” up until the rise of big corporations (think the end of the nineteenth century), wealthy individuals such as kings, nobility and super-rich merchants participated in patronage or sponsorship. Artists such as painters, poets and sculptors would be financially supported by these figures so that they could continue to create art unencumbered by non-artsy daytime jobs. Often work would be commissioned by the patron, which was the beginning of sponsorship in society.

William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Beethoven are all figures that participated in this system to some degree – just in case you wanted some proof that patronage worked.

This is practically the opposite of what happens today – publishers will often only invest in a first-time author once they’ve seen the completed work. If you aren’t a one trick pony, then you might get an advance for the next book – but according to figures by this survey in the UK, it isn’t enough to live off.

On average, the authors who took that survey made £4,000 a year from their writings.

As a result, authors are often forced to restrict their writing to evenings and weekends so that they can still make a living. On the off chance that their works become popular, promotional events like readings and book signings are difficult to integrate into their daily schedules.

Don’t weep for the poor writers, though! If patronage became vogue again, it could be all too easy to modernise the system so that both publisher and author get something out of it.

Liquid state - author patronage - Mona Lisa

Da Vinci worked hard for his patron’s approval.

According to Charman-Anderson, an author and a collaborative team could be employed full-time by the publisher to write the book, design the book cover and accompanying merchandise (because we all know, merchandise is where the money is at), and generally create a business or brand name out of the author.

The music industry works upon a very similar premise to this – just go to your local shopping centre and look at how many non-music One Direction products you can find. Yeah, there are lots. Smelling like your favourite pop idol is a big market, these days.

This proposed shift from investing in books to investing in authors would mean a significant change in how the publishing industry works – the publisher and the author would be significantly dependent on each other. It might also mean that publishing deals or offers would become more scant. But let’s face it; looking at how many would-be authors are out there, deals are already scarce.

It would be a good way of weeding out the serious from the ‘please publish my fan fiction based on the latest McDonalds advertisement’ crowd. The investment that publishers make in this type of deal could also be many times more profitable than the current system in place.

Picture it – full-time authors would be able to make a decent living by writing, as publishers would pay larger advances. Publishers could still maintain profitability by securing deals that allow them to reap royalties from merchandising and any other crazy deals they can come up with.

Long-term relationships between publishers and authors could hardly be a bad thing. In fact, setting up such a system might be just what some self-publisher needs to stand out from the crowd. Expansion from just printing and publishing words could bring about the age of authors as businesses, rather than machines that are wound up (not unlike a jack-in-the-box) just to crank out words for publishers. That’s something I’d like to see.