Creator Spotlight with William Deresiewicz

William Deresiewicz

For this week’s creator spotlight, we would like you to meet William Deresiewicz, the author of the newly-released book titled: The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech!

Can you take us through your creative process? How long does it take? Does everything you produce make money?

I just finished a book on a topic that I’ve been thinking about for 10 years. The book itself took 4-5 years. So, I guess the answer is, it takes a long time!

My process starts by noticing, paying attention to what’s going on around me – in society, in culture- and jotting down ideas and observations about it. Once a topic starts to coalesce, I began to research it in a more directed way: reading books and articles, talking to people, making more notes, and thinking, thinking, thinking. For The Death of the Artist, I read about 40 books and hundreds of articles and blog posts, conducted in-depth interviews (at least an hour each) with about 140 people, and ended up taking over 1300 pages of notes.

Then I had to organize all that material. It took me eight months just to reread my notes, assemble a list of points and ideas, and turn the whole thing into an outline. Then the writing started (my favorite part). That took a full year. Then the editing process: two or three rounds from my editor, then a copyedit, then production edits. That was another six months. Now that the book is coming out, there’s also a lot of promotion to do.

Like I said, a long time!

What do you think is the biggest misconception about your line of work?

That it’s easy!I think of a guy I sat next to on a flight once. When he learned that I’m a writer, he said, “I’ll bet you work four days a week, six hours a day.” (I wanted to stab him in the eyeball, but the flight attendantwas looking.) There’sthis strange idea out therethat creators are lazy – that writing or making art or music is a kind of leisure activity for self-indulgent weirdos. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone working harder than the artists I spoke with, for the simple reason that they seem to work all the time.

One writer told me that she has always put in seven days a week – often 12 hours a day when she was younger, and sometimes still. A pioneering web series creator explained that she went years in which she often wouldn’t see her house for a week at a time. A successful illustrator said that during the years that she was building her business, she would wake up at 7 a.m., reach down to grab her computer off the floor where she had left it the night before, have her girlfriend bring her coffee in bed, and go all day. A young cartoonist told me that she only knows when it’s a holiday because the traffic gets lighter in front of her house. When she arrived in New York and was hustling to finish her first book, a graphic novelist (who also has a full-time job) was “just ruthless,” she said. “I would have been up all night with incredible anxiety if I hadn’t worked” that day. Now that the book was done, she was a little less driven by the time we talked. For example, she said, she wasn’t planning to work after dinner that day. Our conversation took place on the Sunday of a three-day weekend.

When did you first become aware of copyright?

A lot of the impetus behind writing The Death of the Artistcame from my frustration (my outrage, really) around issues of copyright, piracy, and the idea of working for free. For years it had been clear to me that Silicon Valley and its allies in journalism and academia were propagating this story that all you needed to do was just put your stuff out there and the Internet would take care of the rest – that you could have this fabulous career doing what you love. I knew that it was nonsense. Whatgood was all this “exposure”? To get you more exposure? How were you ever going to monetize it?

At the same time, the same suspects were also conducting a very well-funded campaign against copyright and intellectual property. Not only were they telling you to work for free, they were trying to destroy the basis on which you might ever get paid. And it was all so transparently cynical. They want creators to work for free because they don’t want to have to pay them, and at the same time, they’re making a fortune off our work by running the platforms that distribute it.

I actually have a whole chapter in the book about Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian narrative (“there’s never been a better time to be an artist”), and another whole chapter about copyright, piracy, and the evil machinations of Big Tech.

What do you do when you encounter someone stealing something you’ve invested your time, intellect and money into?

I pressure them to stop. I pester them until they’re forced to pay me. There is an “e-singles service” (a place that sells single articles and essays) that has a few of my pieces on their site. I signed a contract with them a few years ago that stipulated that they were supposed to pay me quarterly. After a couple of years, I realized that I hadn’t gotten a single check. It took me about ten emails to get them to pay me. Now, I write them every year (it still takes a few emails each time) to get them to cough up the money I’m owed.I think their whole business model is built on the idea that writers aren’t going to remember or bother to contact them.

Another story. I was contacted a couple of years ago by a guy who had started a literary site. He was inviting me to contribute book reviews. I asked him how much he paid. He said, sorry, we’re a small site with very little money, so we can’t afford to pay writers, but we think that this is a good way to contribute to literary culture. I said, I don’t work for free, on principle. If you want to contribute to literary culture, I told him, the best way you can do it is to pay writers. And if you can’t pay your writers, you shouldn’t have a site in the first place.

What is the best piece of advice that you would give to fellow creators in your field about copyright and how to protect themselves?

Don’t let people bully you into working for free.Younger artists, who have been told to “build an audience,” who are even more liable than others to undervalue their work or to feel guilty about asking for payment, and who in any case have very little bargaining power, are especially vulnerable to this kind of exploitation.

And you shouldn’t feel bad about asking to be paid, as if artists should “just do it for love” or something. There’s all the static aroundart and money. I cannot think of another field in which people feel guilty about being compensated for their work – and even guiltier for wanting to. One musician told methat she had so much anxiety about asking for money for her first CD that received any traction (it sold about 300 copies on Bandcamp) that she put it up for free on SoundCloud a week later. But she changed her mind about charging for her music as she put more and more into it. “The idea of valuing my art – that became real,” she told me: “putting a price on the things that I’ve created,” finding a momentary equivalent for “sleepless nights and anxiety and all of the relationships that working on music for that amount of time had cost me. Now I absolutely feel comfortable putting a dollar amount on my work.”

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