The Artist vs The Industry

As self-publishing has taken off, I am often left to wonder how it had ever got to a point where entry into the field depended on everyone other than the artist. Of course this is due to my thinking in idealist terms. The artist controls his or her art in full. Said person brought the art into creation, so they own it, right?

Unfortunately, all too often such a utopian manner of thinking in artistic fields is not the case. Books are owned by the publisher. Movies are owned by the studio. Drawings (comics for example) are owned by the comic. The list goes on. Sure, it is not an all-encompassing. As always there are exceptions, but let me speak in my generalist mindset here!

A reflection on this topic comes from a post made by the venerable Hugh Howey, The Scaffolding. In his post, he discussed the oft forgotten idea of all of the bits and pieces that are used to build into to final work. I will not do it justice, but it speaks on what we don’t see when looking at a final structure.

Looking at the publishing industry (through the tiny peephole I’ve afforded myself) one would only see the giant machine that essentially dictates what is available to the public to be read (think right before self-publishing took off, don’t get too bogged down with amazon’s game-changing effect). How could we have gone from Homer’s clay tablets to now? What steps did we as a population take going from clay tablets all of the way to now: word processing, ebooks, print, digital, etc?

Occasionally there were giant leaps in innovation. For example, the Gutenberg press. Another, the typewriter. And with each of those innovations, certain things would be afforded, but others sacrificed.

Let’s take the printing press and examine some possible steps. (And by possible I mean that I am talking out of my ass and have no idea if these conjectures ran true or not.)

First, a page of writing needs to be assembled onto the press. This takes some time to read and then transfer each letter over. Mistakes are costly, so you want someone with the skillset to do the job with minimal errors. You can’t just do any Joe-Schmo to get the task done. In all likelihood, most writers wouldn’t have had a clue how to do this. So once the writer hires the press, then the jobs associated with the press come into play. The writer would have very little say into this, or he or she might, but it would be more likely that the press dictated who was used.

Next you might get copy-editors: those who would look over the work to ensure that there were no mistakes. Again, based on that equipment of the time, mistakes were costly.

This is how an industry is born, Ladies and Gentlemen.

After copy-editors, let’s say that the press, being a business, wants to better market itself, so it hires people to look over what is given to them, to see ways to make it more engaging or to simply choose what jobs they would be better to take. Then as books are sold, they begin to see patterns, or things that make people buy more copies. So the press then hires people to work with the writers to improve the works in a manner that would sell more copies. As presses get more profitable, more efficient, this need grows. Demand grows.

Eventually the bigger presses operate in this manner. Smaller presses may be more apt to still accept lesser works, but as it grows, as opportunities grow, the needs for other skills begin to materialize. Soon to sell more you need salespeople. Then to aid the salespeople with tools to appeal to buyers, you then need marketing persons.

Again, this is how industries are created.

Eventually it grows to a point that the average person just doesn’t have access to the press without being vetted first by the industry players. Printing presses of old are batch processes. Printing in a lean manufacturing one-by-one methodology wasn’t viable. Being in a batch manufacturing style job now, I fully understand this. Printing presses want a good reason to spend the money to mass produce a book. So it has to be verifiable in whatever means are available.

Realistically, one has to now think of it more as a job than as an artistic endeavor. Publishing houses, being largely in control of the avenues to mass market, require content. So as a writer, you become an employee that is tasked with creating that content. Albeit you are more of a contract employee. Manuscripts become the résumé.

Enter lawyers. (Also enter groans… because we all know what happens when lawyers enter the picture.) Contracts are negotiated, and with little self-awareness on their part, artists end up on the short-end of the stick. Not necessarily right, but certainly legal. Maybe. It becomes the “well did you read the fine-print?” scenario. Contracts, as many authors have illustrated in many blog posts became heavily slanted towards the publisher, not the writers. But we let it build to that over time. I am willing to bet it didn’t start that way.

Behemoths don’t just spring up out of nowhere.

Enter now the self-publishing (or more aptly named Amazon-publishing) age. Printing is more viable as a lean-manufacturing method. Technology advanced so far that a company like Amazon was able to invest in the equipment and now only print titles as they are needed. Ebooks are created from programming and don’t require any physical existence beyond the computer, tablet, or ereader. They created a system where minimal skill is required to enter the field. (I know this as I am one of those without skills.)

Two things come of this:

  • Those with no skill and no desire to learn, to work towards improvement, or to eventually use earnings to pay for help will enter the field.
  • Those who would ordinarily have worked with traditional publishing if having been given opportunity will use this as a way into the field.

I rank more on the latter, but not 100%.

What is nice to see in this is that self-publishing has put more power into the artist’s hands. It has opened up the avenues of entry to everyone once again. Niche markets now gain more momentum by allowing those with works that wouldn’t fall into the interests of mass publishers to find their audience. It also gives rise to writers who were somehow screwed out of fair earnings opportunity to rectify that.

For me, I like the control. As one would expect though, I remain an unknown. The money, time, and effort I am able to put into learning, into doing what is needed to be done to be successful as a writer is accurately reflected in my sales. I barely sell squat. I want to learn and get better though.

Maybe that will happen, maybe it won’t.

What I do see from this venture is an opportunity for artists to push back towards a more balanced approach. In many cases it did come a long way from the artist owning their work and owning the avenues that the work is presented. But maybe without it getting to that point we would have never gotten to here?

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