Drawing Lines

Asking the Wrong Question

Transmedia hasn't exactly had a blockbuster 2013. In some circles transmedia's been declared dead and/or an empty buzzword, which amounts to the same thing; we've even seen the autopsy

But more telling, in my eyes, has been the dearth of new projects released this year. Work has been slow; budgets have been tight. Some great work is still being done — work is always being done — but the last two years have seen a decidedly downward trend in the number and variety of transmedia projects being launched. The once-vibrant community active on Twitter and at conferences has fallen quiet. 

It's disheartening to me, both as a creator who wants to be a part of something, and as a person who would like to continue using these skills I've sharpened to keep myself in coffee and warm socks. And, you know, everything else that requires money, too. Which is most everything, it turns out.

It's easy to think this is a crossroads for us; do we carry on? Do we accept that all industries have up and down cycles, and wait for the pendulum to swing back again, as it surely will? Or do we put down our swords and shields in defeat, leave the battlefield, and start new lives in a new place doing something else?  It is in that spirit (or so I assume) that I've been invited to a think tank* to discuss...

...the definition of transmedia. Sigh. 

This invitation-only event** is intended to once and for all hammer out a unified and mutually acceptable definition for transmedia, with the intent of looking at what we have and seeing if it is worth creating some sort of "industry group." 

What is transmedia? This is the wrong question to ask; a definition is beside the point. It's fundamentally not even the problem this group of people are trying to address.  Here's the question we need to be asking:

Given that we are a like-minded group of creators and entrepreneurs; how can we band together for the benefit of each other and our craft?

We already know perfectly well we have a lot in common. You don't need to agree on what transmedia means first — and indeed, I think we've been poorly served by our historic checklist-driven approach to a definition anyway.

Adrian Hon recently introduced me to Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblances to define what a game is. I think transmedia is the same thing. We'll never, never find one master checklist, because some members of the family don't have the same nose, others don't have the same curly hair. Some of us are interactive and others have tentpole films. 

But we already know we're all a part of the same family... it's the family of creators and projects and businesses who show up at the table to a discussion of transmedia in the first place.  So starting out the conversation by trying to nail down for once and for all what a member of the family is going to look like is an effort destined for failure. 

I've been down this road before, with the Transmedia Artists Guild. We, too, started with that wrong question. How do we decide who to let in and who not to? This is a question that matters very much if you're issuing a professional accreditation and have to decide who's earned the credit and who hasn't, or who qualifies for a grant and who doesn't. PGA, TriBeCa, Sundance, we're cool.

But if your goal is to make an industry group to support and promote the people and businesses who are making awesome stuff, to allow them to band together for mutual support and advancement, it is the wrong approach. Because the other way to frame that question is: what isn't transmedia? What do we choose to exclude? Who isn't invited to our club?

And that will always result in cutting out the edge cases, the fringe, the innovators. In short, exactly what any transmedia group should be rushing to embrace.  Which is why, in the end, the Transmedia Artists Guild was open to everybody. 

I'm ready to go all-in to an industry group, I really am. I wish the Transmedia Artists Guild had succeeded. I miss the feeling of being a part of something and sharing this journey with like minds. I'd love to share what I know and have with others to promote better work, and I'd love to have a network to support me in my crazy indie efforts, which are getting more ambitious every day. 

But to get there, you have to start by asking the right question. 


* Details and names intentionally omitted because reasons; I'm actually uneasy writing about this event at all, but I feel like the importance of this discussion to the community overrides my duty to respect the shroud of privacy around this event.

** I'm deeply uncomfortable with the framing of this event as an invitation-only think tank of thought leaders, because this means someone has already decided who deserves a voice in this discussion and who doesn't. That's very definitely not the indie-friendly, warm, open community I used to love to pieces.


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How to Hustle Gracefully in a Creative Career

Friends, Romans, countrymen, today we're going to talk about something crucially important if you want to make a living from your art: your hustle. Hustle! I love that word. It's getting something you want through forceful action. It's a con or a swindle -- getting people to give you money when they might not be so inclined on their own. Hustle is working hard to find or make opportunities, and then riding them for all they're worth.

Obscurity is the second-biggest obstacle to having a great creative career. (The biggest one is knowing your craft well enough to do solid work when the clock is ticking.) I'm addressing two separate audiences here -- freelancers and independent creators. The same general rules apply to each group, believe it or not. The only real difference is one of scale. In one case, your money comes from a relatively small group of people, your clients (or investors, I suppose.) In the other, you're dealing with a wider audience -- your readership or viewership, your fans, one might even say.

In both cases, you're trying to get people to give you money for stuff you make. How do you do this thing? Dale Carnegie told you lo these 77 years gone by. Win friends and influence people.

In Social Situations, Don't 'Network.' Just Make Friends. You know how they say it's not what you know, it's who you know? That's only part of the equation. Forging good relationships with lots of people is the secret key to successful self-promotion. Be friendly, but don't be a shark. If you approach someone with the sole intent of using your contact with them as a stepping-stone to get things that you want, you're not going to make a very good impression. People can tell when you want something from them and you aren't really interested in them as people. And you know what? Nobody likes feeling that way.

On the other hand, friends are sometimes favorably disposed to make introductions, put in a good word... and even buy your stuff. If you're faced with a choice between buying a book by someone you think is a great person and someone you think is terrible, all else being equal, odds are you're going with the one you like. Make people like you by being a friend to them, not a huckster with nothing but a quick sale on the brain. Good self-promotion is a long game.

Give to Your Community. So how do you make friends? You act like a good friend to someone (or, ideally, to everyone). As Chuck Wendig might say, be a fountain, not a drain. In your interactions with people, don't focus exclusively on what you can get out of the deal. Hell, don't focus on it at all. Instead think about what you can do to give more to your audience, your industry, your colleagues. Share what you know. Pass on referrals and introduce people who you think would love to work together. Make freebies for your fans out of love. Volunteer for the stuff you think someone should be doing. Give give give.

This is where you start a blog and share your secrets or your expriences. This is where you volunteer to speak at conferences, or submit to festivals, or whatever the equivalent is in your community. Do so to genuinely share, and not to gain a platform for your case studies and thinly-veiled marketing materials.

This spirit of generosity makes your community a better place to be. And on a more cunning and calculating level, it makes people notice you and what you have going on. Making the world a better place for other artists and freelancers is a great way to build social capital. There's no downside to having people subtly feel like they owe you one, you know? 

On Social Media, Be a Person, Not A Brand. Marketing-speak has alas infiltrated a lot of our cultural discourse, and even influences how we behave toward other people online. Successful self-promotion in the internet age isn't about intentional branding or marketing, though. It's about being human.  

If you're checking out someone's Twitter account and all they ever do is post links to industry-relevant lists of top five tips, or buy links to their own books, or subscribe links for their email newsletter... that might be a pretty solid 'brand,' but so what? That person is not making human connections. That person is not interested in a two-way give-and-take relationship over social media. That person is being a brand and not a person. It's self-promotion run amuck, and ultimately won't get you very far; nobody likes a relentless sales pitch.

Absolutely curate and filter the stuff you put out on the internets! But don't filter out you. The stuff about your work and your hustle and your business should be only a small fraction of what you do online. Be vulnerable and funny and admit mistakes and when other people talk to you, listen to them. Even if they aren't someone you think can help your career! You know how you can tell who's a jerk by how they treat waitstaff? Yeah, you can tell who's a jerk on social media by how they treat people who don't have as many followers. And yeah, people notice.

When You're Actively Selling, Don't Ever Put Anyone on the Spot. Never, ever put anyone in a position where they have to tell you no directly to your face. There is a world of difference between sending an email to a potential client saying, "Do you have any work for me right now?" and "By the way, I'm looking for projects, mind passing on my name if you hear of anything?" Likewise, there is a world of difference between an open tweet "My book is out today! Buy it at LINK!" and "@hey_specific_buddy My book is out today! Buy it at LINK!"

Again, this is all about making sure nobody feels like you're using them. Nobody likes to feel like all they are to you is an income stream. It's not even that hard to avoid.

Don't Be Shy! Just Be Aware of Context. So sure, if people are going to hire you or buy your stuff, at some point they need to know you're on the market, and the only way they'll know is if you tell it to them. This is the actual hustling part that you have to work at. To be a successful self-promoter, you should send out the odd email to potential clients saying you're on the market. You should send out the tweet with a buy link on launch day. If you're having drinks at a bar, probably a point will come up in conversation where you share what you do, and you absolutely can say "I'm an $ARTIST, hey, it would be awesome to work with you sometime/I have a book out/I'm going on tour."

And then as a follow-up... just leave it alone. Maybe the person you've met will ask a few follow-up questions, but it's absolutely not up to you to extend that part of the conversation.

Look. If you're talking to a hiring agent, a record exec, an acquiring editor, a potential fan, they already know what you want from them. You really don't need to spell it out. 

There is a time for the hard sell. That's in a context specifically designated for it. If you're in a pitch meeting, yeah, talk about how awesome you are. If you're sending out a newsletter that people have signed up for on purpose, hells yes load it up with buy links and your best sales pitch. If you've snagged a great business card, go ahead and follow that up with a shiny email about how glad you are to have met and how you'd love to get something together sometime. Just don't be douchey about it. Don't leave someone under the impression that your sole interest in them is what they can do to fatten up your wallet.

But Don't Be Scared, Either. Self-promotion is scary and hard. A lot of people hate to do it. Hell, I hate to do it. It's kind of a necessary evil. Nobody can buy your stuff or hire you if they don't know you exist, which means getting out there, making friends, engaging in a community, making sure people know you have something to offer.

But as long as you don't go crazy with it, as long as you show restraint and respect, as long as you're not entering a weird transactional twilight zone where people are only as good to you as their potential to get you revenue, then a little bit of promotion goes a long, long way. 


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Show Me the Money: The Copyleft Dilemma

The copyleft movement is very fond of talking about the benefits of giving your art away for free. The theory is this: if you, as an independent artist, give away all your writing or music in digital format, then you'll more than make up the difference by selling hard copies. Or related tangible merchandise, like t-shirts. Or maybe through tickets to shows!

It's a nice theory. But giving this message to writers who are just starting out, or who are established but have modest followings at best, contributes to an environment where it's OK for everyone around written work to make a living… except the writer.

Dance, Monkey, Dance!

Not long ago, The Literary Review ran a piece by Guy Walters that talks about the hard and potentially poverty-inducing reality that is promoting your work. You should read it. I've never spoken to an 800-person crowd, but it definitely rings true to my experience.

"As I drove home, I did some maths. Those eight hundred people had each paid £7, earning Hay a tidy £5,600. Compared to Hay's turnover of £4 million and gross profit of £1 million, that's not a huge sum, but it is certainly greater than a homeopathic ratio. Hay had probably made around £1,400 from me and I had got, er, six bottles of wine. I googled the wine to see what it cost and found it for as little as £8 per bottle. So 48 quid all in, and I bet Hay paid a lot less for it than that."

Writers trying to get more audience for their central work very often do incredible amounts of extra work for no compensation: book signings or promotional appearances, writing articles or guest blog posts, podcasts and interviews. It sucks up a tremendous amount of time. The month A Creator's Guide came out, promoting was something close to a full-time job. 

Sometimes it sucks up a tremendous amount of money, too — partly due to travel expenses, which aren't always reimbursed, but also because time spent promoting is time you're not spending writing. …You know, that thing you love to do.

Note that everyone involved in these deals except the writer is usually in line to make a little cash. The bookstore hosting a signing profits from selling extra copies of your book; podcasts and magazines run advertising or get sponsorships; conferences do all of the above, and sometimes they charge hefty ticket fees on top, too. (I object to this last so strongly that I will very seldom accept invitations to speak at for-profit conferences charging hundreds of dollars per person, unless the organization is paying an honorarium on top of travel expenses. I'm not in the business of donating my time to make someone else richer, you know?)

The promise is that the attention garnered through your tireless efforts will be your repayment. People will hear your interview or read your article, and they'll be moved to pick up a copy of your book or CD or whatever it is you're flogging. That's the value of "exposure." Put in for free now, for hypothetical benefit down the line.

But say you're giving your work away for free. In that instance, since nobody will be paying you for the work itself, you're not only not making any money out of the deal — you might be actively digging your way into debt. Even assuming you're comfortable or good at speaking in public in the first place.

And on the other hand, even if you are giving your work away, you still have to promote your work somehow. If you can't charge for the work and you can't charge for the promotional activity, where exactly is the writer supposed to get paid?

Tangible Goods

Oh, right. Those hard copies and t-shirts. Let's walk this through. To put out a physical copy of a book, I have to have the interior laid out, a cover designed, and physical printing done. The typical writer isn't going to have a copy of InDesign to lay out pages or the design chops to make a great cover, nor should they be expected to. So our hypothetical independent writer will have to pony up some hundreds of dollars to someone else to perform those services — again, someone besides the writer is earning a living. Anyone notice a trend?

And then, depending on the size of the print run, the books in question may feel prohibitively expensive. It's a rare and wonderful soul who will pay $15 for a paperback when they can get the ebook for free. But alas, including costs of shipping, that's about what a writer would have to charge just to break even on printing costs… much less squeak out a modest profit. And that's not even taking into account the money spent on that designer laying out the pages and designing your cover.

Not to say those rare and wonderful souls aren't out there — they definitely are! But in my experience, they're maybe 10% of your total audience, and often much, much less.

T-shirts have much the same problem. Small runs are proportionally more expensive, which makes them a harder sell to any but the most dedicated fan. And again, the writer is spending a lot of time and money to do something they may not even be good at or may not enjoy. The writer is forced to become a manufacturer and fulfillment house, at the expense of time spent writing.

The small independent artist, just starting out, may not have enough fans to even break even on design costs. That means the route to profitability and independence is much further out of reach for more people. Which means less art in the world.

Do we really want that to be the price of admission to be a writer?

Why Do We Write?

There will be some noble soul coming by, I am sure, telling me that they write for the joy of it; for themselves and for their audiences alone. Why should a writer have to make money at all? 

There's an unstated implication there that commerce sullies the artistic process, or that writing isn't work, and that it's right and proper that people shouldn't make a living from it.

I don't know about you, but that makes me very sad. Great art requires commitment. Years spent developing craft and executing. Great art requires an infrastructure that supports the artist financially so they don't starve to death or die of consumption while producing their masterwork. Without that infrastructure, without compensating for the work of imagination, those masterworks might just stay in the artist's head because they're too tired when they come home from that job at the factory or the restaurant or the nursery school. The whole world is the poorer for it.

If we cannot come up with a system that allows an artist to eke out a living without first sinking into debt through production costs and promotion, than we're ultimately creating an environment where spending the time to make serious art is a luxury few can afford. That is not the world I want to live in. 

The Time and Place for Free

Sometimes free is a good idea, of course. I've done it myself! Right here, and right now, you are reading work I am giving away for free. I don't run ads on my site, nor do I ever intend to. It's my gift to the world.

But it's not a gift lacking ulterior motives. It established my presence and opinions on the internet; it gives me a platform to promote the stuff I hope people will pay for, like the Guide, or like Lucy Smokeheart.

Even in the case of Lucy Smokeheart, I've been known to give the first episode away for free as a promotional effort, hoping to lure people into buying later episodes. But that's a key element: I am selling other pieces of work that people can pay money for.

The idea that all content should be given away for free and that creators should make money through nebulous other means is wrong and it's damaging. We should support a system that allows writers to make a living by writing… and then selling what they've written. 


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Rights Grabs

I've been running into a problem a lot lately. It's this phrase, or ones just like it:

"a perpetual, non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable license to exploit all copyright rights now in existence or that may arise in the future"

That comes from the Terms of Service of Medium, a shiny new content platform. Yesterday I used Medium to write a post on why writing for Medium is a bum deal. The translation: Medium is claiming the right to take what you submit and use it in any way they can dream of, forever and ever, without telling you and, more to the point, without paying you.

I don't know about you, but if I posted something on Medium and it happened to make them a million dollars... I'd be super mad if none of that ever trickled down to me. (It's a moot point right now in that Medium doesn't appear to have a business model at all, but I'm confident that won't last forever.)

Alas, Medium isn't alone in that kind of language. Another example: Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal is running a contest to find an author for a tie-in novel. In their rules, they say this:

 

Each entry will be the sole property of the Sponsors. By competing in the Contest and/or accepting 
a prize, each entrant (including the prize winner) grants to Sponsors the right to edit, adapt, publish, copy, display, reproduce and otherwise use their entry in connection with this Contest and in any 
other way, in any and all forms of media now known or hereafter devised, throughout the world, 
in perpetuity, including publication on www.darkcrystal.com.
That means they can, say, decide to print an anthology of all of the submitted stories and sell it.... without ever paying the authors for it. That's pretty common language in the terms of service for a site or a promotion any time user-generated content is involved. But it's... not cool.
Sweeping legal claims in website terms of service started out bad and they've only become worse and worse. I can see why it's done -- web services are trying to protect and future-proof themselves in a wildly shifting media landscape. They're collecting all of these rights, not because they actually plan to sell anthologies of content without compensating the writers... but because the copyright system doesn't actually have a simple mechanism in place that allows a web service to act as the agent of a user without staking some kind of ownership over their content.
And in the case of user-generated content, companies are trying to protect themselves from inevitable claims of stolen ideas, suspicious similarities, and the like, ridiculous though those claims usually are. 
But the de facto standard answer doesn't have to be "we own everything you ever show us," nor should it be. Our legal system needs to address this. Maybe we need new licensing standards specifically for web services and for user-generated content.
One wonders what those standards would look like.

 


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Kickstarter and Profit

Once upon a time, I wrote a short story. It was a lovely short story, one of the finest pieces I'd ever written, but alas, I couldn't find a market to sell it to. Then one day, a shiny new toy came out that I desired but could not afford. An idea sprang into my head: I will ransom the story to the public! If I could raise $250 to buy the shiny toy on Kickstarter, I would publish the story on my blog under Creative Commons as a gift to the world.

This Kickstarter was very successful; I got the object of my desire, and my husband got one too.

None of this should be news to you if you've been around here for a while. You lived through it with me! But I recently shared this experience on an online forum and was very taken aback when I was told that the project was unethical. Not what Kickstarter is for, probably a violation of their ban on "fund my life" projects, and in general a terrible thing to have done.

I disagree with this line of thinking, of course. Worse, I think there's a terrible, poisonous idea lurking in its heart: that artists don't deserve compensation, and that artistic work is without value.

The Debate

There are several more specific arguments regarding why the Shiva's Mother Kickstarter was unethical; the first is that the story was already written. Another seems to amount to an insufficient purity of heart; my motive in offering the Kickstarter was personal gain. One is: Kickstarter money should be spent solely on things that are required for the execution of the project, like editing or cover design for publishing, or music and graphics for a game. 

Let's focus on that last one first, because that's the key to this whole discussion. If I require outside services, like, say, an illustrator, it's OK to pay them with Kickstarter money, right? Absolutely. There's no argument there. And then that illustrator, having earned their wage, can spend it on anything they damn well please. I'm compensating that artist for time and craft, and their personal finances are their business. They're under no obligation to spend that money only on colored pencils and licenses for Adobe products, and if you suggested as much, they'd laugh in your face.

If I need several kinds of services -- even a whole team of game developers -- then it's fair to expect every single one of those people will be earning a wage in compensation for their time and skill. You might even say they're making... a personal profit.

Does that work suddenly lose its value if the person running the Kickstarter does it? If I have the skills and chops to design my own cover or run my own website, is it OK to pay myself for those services rendered? And indeed, is it not right to budget a wage for the time you spent in conceiving and excuting your own artistic project? According to the people calling me unethical and deceitful, the answer is no: that's not what Kickstarter is for.

So my question is... why would it be OK for everyone except the core artist driving the project to earn a wage? Must all artistic works rest on a core of volunteer labor out of love? I say absolutely not, no way, nohow, good lord no. 

It all comes back to that pernicious art vs. commerce tension that riddles our society, the idea that the work an artist does, all of the time and craft and passion they pour into it, is morally purer if there is no profit motive. That is isn't right for an artist to make or think about money. And yet you cannot eat art, you cannot live in it, it does not keep you warm in the winter nor does it put shoes on your feet. It is a hard fact that an artist must earn money to live. And if an artist does well enough to afford shiny toys on top of that: more power to you, comrade.

The time you spend in writing is still work that has value in the world. It is fair and just to at least try to earn something approaching a wage for it.

So was the story already written? Yes; call it owed wages for labor done before the Kickstarter ran. Was it a "fund my life" project? No; I executed and delivered an artistic work, just the way I said I would. Was my heart insufficiently pure because I went into it wanting an electronic device? No; how I spend my wages earned is my own business, not yours.

And should I have only spent the money on something necessary to the execution of the project?

...You know what? I did. Because without my own labor, there wouldn't have been any project at all.


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