Sharks Eat Starving Artists

LEGACY-CODE-AND-PARAGON-promo-1I published Legacy Code one year ago. I knew it would take time to write my series and find readers. So my goal was to sell 500 copies my first year. My stretch “dream” goal was 1,000 copies (based on what I read on my friend Susan Kaye Quinn’s blog last year.)

It took me 10 months to get the sequel to Legacy Code out, which was honestly too long. But even so, I sold over 11,000 books my first year. And last month my sales more than doubled our monthly household income. I earned back my investment in my business and then some. I never expected any of those things to happen in my first year.

But you know what really scares me?

I almost gave away the rights to my main series just a few months after I first published.

A lot has happened this year, and today I’m thinking about the idea of the “starving artist”. We’re all starving. Writers, artists, musicians, singers, actors… we’re starving for validation, starving to get exposure, starving to get ahead. And sometimes just plain starving, because, damn, groceries can be expensive.

There are sharks in the entertainment industry, and they feed off our starvation. They exploit our talent for financial gain and send pennies our way. I’m sure sometimes they really think they’re being helpful if they actually have the means to get our work to an audience.

The second you display any promise whatsoever, you’re bleeding in their waters. If they think they can make a dime off what you have–they’ll find you pretty quickly. As soon as you have a demo, or a few songs out, or a few books out–the first sharks show up. At least that’s been my experience in the music industry and then in publishing. So I want to talk about it. Maybe it’ll help someone else just starting out.

Sharks Eat Starving Artists

Sharks Eat Starving Artists

Sharks promise exposure, fame, and hopefully a big payday somewhere far off in the future. We just have to give them our golden eggs to get it. Usually for free or some pitifully low price. Sometimes the sharks make us pay for the chance at exposure (that payment might be money, creative energy, and time we’ll never get back.) And with stars in our eyes, we pay it.

Well we pay it the first few times, and then we stop falling for it. But by then the sharks have moved on to the next generation of starry-eyed dreamers, and we’ve wasted months or years where we could have been building our own body of work. Work that we actually own the rights to. For most artists, our intellectual property is our most valuable asset. So, of course, it’s usually the first thing the sharks want to make sure they own.

But sometimes working for a low rate or for free actually does create new opportunities and help you make new connections. And when you reach a certain point in your career, you will probably want to start making deals with well-connected people and companies. So how do you decide when the right choice is to say “yes” to something like this?

The Early Rights Grab

You’re in the early stages of your career, and people are already trying to snag your rights or get you working for them exclusively.

Usually these people aren’t offering much because they know you’re new. You make for a cheap gamble. They can afford to pay very little or nothing to acquire you or the rights to your work and then see if their gamble pays off. The only thing that matters here is that people with more experience than you in this industry see something in you–they see the potential to make money. So hold out. These early signs of interest are signs you might have a good thing going for you. So have faith that more opportunities will come along. Just keep doing what you’re doing.

I’m not going to share all the details, but one of the Big Five publishers wanted  my main series early on. The series was selling, and I knew it would only grow from there as I released more books. But if I gave up the rights, I wouldn’t be able to control the length of the series, promotions on the first books to find new readers, or any of the things I felt were essential to growing my budding readership. The publisher wasn’t really offering me anything I couldn’t do myself, so I politely declined. I don’t regret it. It wasn’t the right choice for me at that stage in my career.


If someone says they want you to produce creative work for them exclusively (which they then own the rights to), but they’re not paying you a really high full-time salary for your unique talent and creations… run the other way.

If someone wants to basically own me like an employee, they better pay me like one and offer me some nice benefits like other employees get. If they’re trying to control the work you do, yet don’t want to pay you enough to live on… then they don’t respect you. Don’t expect it to get better from there. Which leads to…

Non-Compete Clauses

If a company wants you to sign a contract that has a non-compete clause, make sure it’s financially worth it.

Publishers often have these in the contracts, so you can’t write in your own world or the same genre while working on books for them. And usually they want first crack at anything you do write in the genre. So they can decide on their own sloooooww timeline whether or not they want to buy it. Good luck affording groceries while you wait. I have author friends who have held out and gotten them removed from contracts. It can be done.

Work For Hire

A company offers you a payment to do something, and you don’t keep any rights.

It’s hard to say no to this if you’re struggling to pay your bills, but creative work for hire can drain us before we get to our own projects. So my rule on this (at the moment) is that I have a certain rate per word, and I have to be really excited to work on the project. I’m currently writing for a video game company, and I’m excited to be doing it. I think the world is amazing, and I love working with the other writers. I’m happy I said yes.

But another opportunity came up last year when I really needed the money. I was struggling to fund my next books (covers and editing). I was honored to be invited to the project, and it might have led to more exposure, but the pay was very low. And it would have taken too much time away from my own work. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I had to say no. If I hadn’t had a bunch of pending projects, I might have said yes for the experience. You just have to make a choice on these short-term projects based on whether or not they’ll keep you from making progress on your own.

Someone Else’s Dream

Someone a little further along than you sees your talent and gets you to spend much of your creative energy and free time on their dream. Their world, their music, their company, whatever. And you don’t make a dime… you’re holding out hope their dream will get you further than your own will.

Usually these people have a lot of charisma and really believe their project will make it far. The hard part is that some of them will be right. And sometimes they even manage to convince you that their dream is your own… because you just want to succeed at this and make money doing what you love.

I joined a girl group in LA when I was twenty-one… but I gave up myself to do it. I couldn’t spend time on my music, and I couldn’t find out who I was as an artist. I had to mold myself to be what they wanted. It got to the point where I had to cut out all outside influences. I wasn’t even supposed to listen to songs outside our genre. They wanted me to immerse myself in that style of music so I could keep improving. I told myself this was dedication, but really it drained me and killed my love for music.

The problem is, you never know who else will “make it” or if collaborating with or helping someone with their dream will get you further than you could go yourself.

But if I could offer my less-experienced self guidance, I’d ask myself this:

  • Do you feel good working with this person / these people? Does it make you happy, and do you feel like you’re improving and coming closer to your dreams? Do you love this project?
  • If you succeed at this, will you be truly happy? Is this really who you want to be and what you want to be doing in five or ten years?
  • If these people think you’re so talented, why aren’t you dedicating yourself to your own projects? Is it honestly possible to do your stuff and theirs and really succeed at both?
  • Is this a short-term project that you’re really excited about, and you’ll be proud of the outcome when you’re done?
  • Are these people saying they can do something for your career you can’t do yourself? Are you sure about that?
  • Do you even know these people? Are you sure you can trust them? (If they’re aboveboard and not amateurs, they’ll want contracts in place that protect the both of you.)

If you said “yes” to most of these, are you lying to yourself? Get out a journal and figure that shit out.

Don’t let the stars in your eyes cloud your vision.



I don’t have resources for every industry, but indie publishing is certainly a viable option now for writers. And producing your own music and building a fanbase is also a viable option for musicians. We’re the luckiest creatives in history because we have options. So let’s use them. You can find groups on facebook and forums online that explore all the options for your industry. There are lots of resources to learn from. You just have to look.

Here are some of the places I went last year when I was getting ready to indie publish:


  • Ann Christy

    March 2, 2015

    Great advice and I’d like to toss in another bit…be careful of even giving your work away. When you get invited to do a project (like an anthology or series) that is meant specifically to improve exposure or give to charity or what-not, eye that contract with the same attention you would one from a big publisher. Sometimes they have sketchy things in them that can give another person legal rights to your *other* work. Do they mean to do this? Sometimes, no. Sometimes, yes.

    Run anyway.

    • Autumn Kalquist

      March 2, 2015

      Great advice! 🙂
      I did two anthologies this year, and I’m glad I did them. They had fair contracts and were produced in a professional manner. There should always be a contract, and it’s always a good idea to have someone else look over it.

      • Ann Christy

        March 2, 2015

        Yep…I agree. I’ve loved the ones I was in (and am scheduled to be in)! But, caution with all things!

  • Satin Russell

    March 2, 2015

    Great advice! As someone who is in the process of writing her first book and hopes to publish this April, I’m very new to the whole scene. Thank you for the real world examples and straight talk.

    • Autumn Kalquist

      March 2, 2015

      I’m glad you found it to be helpful. Good luck with your book! 🙂