I attended a panel discussion and networking event last night, Tiger Talks in the City: Arts Entrepreneurship. The event was sponsored by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, the Lewis Center for the Arts and the Princeton Arts Alumni. The focus of the panel was the theater, but the discussion could have been about most any artistic endeavor.
I don’t think of myself as an entrepreneur. I didn’t when I created a business that employed 50 people. And I don’t now as the author of 4 published murder mysteries.
I’ve often said I’m not in the business of selling books. I’m in the business of selling stories to the people who sell books. Of course, as the publishing industry changes, I’m really in both businesses, selling stories and also selling books. Perhaps I’m in the business of creating a brand. In any event, if I want people who don’t know me to read my stories, I need to be a successful businessman.
So the question is, Why don’t I think of myself as an entrepreneur? The easy answer perhaps, is I’m not interested in business. Let’s be honest, if artists enjoyed business, we’d sell life insurance.
But that answer is too easy. I think the answer has something to do with how we measure success. So for a moment, I need to go back to 1992 when my business idea was just a piece of paper in a file drawer in my home. I was married, with a two year old son and a mortgage when I quit my job and decided to turn that piece of paper into a business. For the next 26 years, we provided state-of-the-art community-based services to adults with autism.
So why don’t I think of that as entrepreneurship? It certainly seems to fit the definition. Probably because my objectives were never financial. My business was a non-profit venture. Success was defined by our social mission rather than our balance sheet.
And now? I’m 66 years old. I’ve earned most, if not all, the money I’m going to earn in my lifetime and book royalties represent a financially insignificant percentage of my lifetime earnings. If my goal was to support myself by writing crime fiction (and there are some writers who do just that and do it well), I would have to conclude that I’ve been a failure as a writer.
Which brings me back to last night’s panel on arts entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs speak a language all their own. They talk about scalability. They talk about return on investment. But Jordan Rose, President of Jujamycn Theaters made the point that there are far safer ways to invest than in a Broadway play. That if you are in the arts, there have to be success metrics that aren’t financial (which is not to say that financial metrics are unimportant, but that they can’t be the only metric). He suggested that success in the arts can be measured in many ways and that the quality of the work itself may be the best measure of success.
The quality of the work itself, that’s something I understand.
Three weeks ago, at C3, Keith R.A. DeCandido reminded me that as a writer, I am responsible for my career. Last night, Jordan Rose reminded me that there is no career track for the artist. Your career in the arts is whatever you make of it. Your track is the one that you blaze for yourself.