Edgar Allan Poe came of age in a literal marketplace. Orphaned before age 3, he was informally adopted by John Allan, a trader whose import-export business dealt in consumer goods as well as cotton and tobacco. As a teenager he wrote his first poems on the back of Allan’s business records.
Poe is remembered as the inventor of the horror genre, thanks to Halloween-friendly poems and stories like “The Raven” and “The Tell-tale Heart.” But his creative work can be seen as another kind of business enterprise, charting his valiant but often futile attempts to “coin one’s brain into silver.” This makes him an instructive example today, when new technologies mean that creators face some of the very same problems that they did in the 19th century, including an oversupplied market and the proliferation of free content.
“Poe earned the equivalent of just $10,000 a year from his writing.”
Poe’s literary career was a series of what he called “novel combinations”—desperate attempts to earn a living at a time when the rules of the literary marketplace were stacked against him. In two decades as a professional writer before his death in 1849 at the age of 40, Poe is estimated to have earned about $200,000 in today’s dollars—an average of just $10,000 a year. One of the chief problems for writers at the time was the absence of international copyright law, which meant that American publishers could freely reprint European authors’ work, leaving them understandably reluctant to pay for manuscripts by American writers.
“Without an international copyright law, American authors may as well cut their throats,” Poe told a friend in an 1842 letter. In an article in 1845, he went so far as to portray the “copyright question” as a threat to democracy. As Poe saw it, the danger emerged from multiple directions. First, the lack of intellectual-property protections repressed “the efforts of our men of genius,” because only the wealthy could afford to pursue creative work. European reading material might also carry “monarchical or aristocratical sentiment.” But “by far the most important consideration of all,” Poe said, was the “insult and injury” perpetrated upon “the whole active Intellect of the world—the bitter and fatal resentment excited in the universal heart of Literature.” It hurt America’s national character to have such an “open and continuous wrong” in plain sight.
The practical effect was to force American writers into the periodical market, which Poe termed “the Magazine prison-house.” But here, too, an abundance of supply led to low rates, and worse still, magazine proprietors rarely paid on time. As Poe scholar Terence Whalen has noted, it is no coincidence that Poe’s characters were often aggrieved, disinherited men bent on revenge.
And who can blame him? Few artists want to cater to the marketplace to earn their living. While he would have preferred to concentrate on writing books, Poe instead spent his time churning out essays and reviews, which were often paid on a per-page basis. Likewise, while his first choice was to write Romantic poetry, he turned to producing short stories in the more commercial gothic-horror genre.
The great irony is that Poe had these market conditions to thank for his greatest success. Forced to write for quick cash, and justifiably angry at his era’s prevailing financial and legal framework, he produced the short, lurid tales of revenge and murder that now make him beloved around the world. To outpace the theft of his intellectual property, he combined literary elements old and new to create genres that became hugely popular, such as the closed-room mystery in “The Purloined Letter” and the detective story in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
In the 21st century, intellectual-property law has changed, and writers enjoy some of the copyright protections that Poe hoped for. But in recent decades Facebook and Google have made available a flood of free, user-created content, once again making it more difficult for writers and artists to earn a living. The abundance of free or low-cost self-published books on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing drives down demand for traditionally published books, which rely on agents and editors to screen for quality. YouTube videos must rack up millions of views to earn creators even a modest paycheck, which encourages them to cater to the largest possible audience.
“To retain some individuality while appealing to a mass audience remains a bedeviling problem for those who write, paint, sing, play the accordion or tell jokes.”
To retain some individuality while appealing to a mass audience remains a bedeviling problem for those who write, paint, sing, play the accordion or tell jokes. Art is created out of what Poe described as the “flimsy material” of the brain. Traditional assets such as stocks and real estate are difficult enough to value, but with a short story, discounting future cash flows to reach a present value is even harder, because its long-term reception is unpredictable. When artists innovate, it can take decades or longer for the value of that innovation to emerge. Poe was a pauper in his lifetime, but now that his work is out of copyright and anyone can reprint it for free, his popularity is flourishing as never before. He continues to inspire work in new genres and media, recently appearing in holographic form as a character in the Netflix sci-fi series “Altered Carbon.”
Poe’s example suggests that for creators in a challenging marketplace, the best way out is through. In the short term, a saturated market may hurt the individual artist’s ability to earn a living. But it also allows for the mass audiences, and even the perverse working conditions, that can turn a struggling freelancer into a classic.
By Catherine Baab-Muguira for The Wall Street Journal
This essay is adapted from Ms. Baab-Muguira’s new book “Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru” (Running Press).