Friday, April 17, 2009


On my ride up to see my parents for Easter I had some time to think. What crossed my mind was the idea of patronage in the arts. I’m sure I have most of this wrong, but back in the ye-olde-days some rich person would commission art for his (or her) personal collection. With any luck that same rich person would commission multiple works and would be considered the patron of the artist. Some of the details may be not entirely accurate, but I think that’s at least part of how it worked back-in-the-day.

I thought about how this could work today. Recently Tobias Buckell explained why he is changing the focus of his fiction, and then Sarah Monette announced that her publisher was not going to offer her a new contract. Then I thought about Elizabeth Bear and her Promethean Age novels and how, so far, she has no publisher for future volumes. I’m sure we can come up with dozens if similar examples.

So, patronage.

What would happen if I were filthy rich and wanted to throw money at my favorite writers? Now, John Scalzi has said in the past (though I can't find his post) that he has been offered a very healthy rate to write a story just for one person but has declined because he wants his stuff to be distributed. That makes sense to me. I’d love to be fabulously wealthy and in a position to through a pile of money at Elizabeth Bear so that she could write Promethean Age novels to her heart’s content. She’d get to eat and pay her bills, I’d get to read the good stuff.

But, would she write for an audience of one? Should she?

If I’m being honest, while I’d love to be the first person to read Posthumous Johnson or Unsuitable Metal, I don’t want to be the only person to read it. I want to be able to talk to other people about it. I want to share!

This makes a modern patronage model different than the ye-olde one. I don’t want a novel written just for me and not enjoyed by the relative masses. It’s not a painting to hang in my parlor (because I’d have to have a parlor if I was filthy rich).

What’s the distribution method for this? Do I build a website and give away copies? I could do electronic copies, but I know I’d want to hold the book in my hand and shelve it next to the four previous Promethean Age books. So, besides giving Bear a bunch of money, I’d have to print up copies. Naturally I’d want it to look nice and shiny so I’d have to find a good printer. I’d want art, so I’d have to commission an artist for the cover.

Then another problem hits me.


I’m not so naïve to think that even work done by fabulously awesome writers doesn’t need an editor’s professional eye. I’d have to hire a good editor.

I also wonder if I’m distributing the books on a small production run, do I sell them or just give them away? Maybe I charge enough to recoup production costs and the work of the artist / editor, but not the author.

This all begs the question – do I just want to be Subterranean Press, only without the profit?

Wouldn’t it be awesome to be so rich that you could be the patron of your favorite authors? Contract their novels without any real concern about sales? They’d still be free to also contract elsewhere if they wanted to write something that wasn’t part of the commission and that I didn’t want to buy, but how great would that be? Not sure how or if this would change the publishing world because authors still would need to find someone willing to buy their work and they can only sell what people want to buy. Patronage offers some extra $$ beyond traditional publishing. No royalties, though. I’d pay enough up front and do smaller print runs that would never earn out. Besides, I’d pay far more than other publishers (unless you’re already a bestselling author, in which case you don’t need me) First North American rights only, and rights to reprint via another publisher after a year or two (tops) would revert to the author. This should be very author friendly.

I’m going to think on who all I’d want to commission novels from. I would tend to lean to stuff that I know the writers actually want to write. Bear’s Promethean Age novels, Cherie Priest and her Clockwork Century (though she does have two under contract with Tor), Tobias Buckell’s Xenowealth. Paul Kearney is good example, though I haven’t read any of his stuff. I’ll have to think about it and come up with a list.

Who would you commission work from and what would you commission? I’m talking about stuff that isn’t currently under contract, another novel from GRRM like The Armageddon Rag would be a great one to commission. There would probably be a bidding war for commissions on A Dance With Dragons or Republic of Thieves, but that wouldn’t get either volume out any faster (given that both are currently under contract).


Tia Nevitt said...

What a fascinating topic! I'd patronize Alex Bledsoe to write me one Eddie LaCrosse short story a week. The author would be free to write all the novels he wants, and might be able to write them faster (not that he has a problem with output) because I'd be supplying him steady income.

Of course, if I didn't like a particular story, what then?

Composers were patronized, too. Back in Mozart's day, he was first patronized by the Church, then by the emperor of Austria. Of course once the work was "out there" anyone could make a production of it without paying the author a dime. And the patron often thought he "owned" the work in question because the comissioned it in the first place.

Joe said...

I'll totally back you on Bledsoe. I want more Eddie LaCrosse novels!

Otherwise, I think I'll work my patronage system where the authors keep all rights AND get paid. :)