Once upon a time, ‘getting signed’ was the Holy Grail for creative people.
Authors dreamed of a book contract. Rock bands of being picked up by a record label. Artists of being represented by a gallery.
Once the contract was inked, went the fairytale, you were well on the way to ‘making it’. Your talent had been officially recognised. You had the backing of a major media power. The money and marketing people would take care of business, leaving you with the freedom, money and time to focus on your creative work.
Later, you would have the satisfaction of seeing your work in print, on vinyl/CD, or in the exhibition catalogue. The fans, interviews and reviews would not be far behind. And off in the distance… you could glimpse an awards ceremony, shimmering like a mirage.
Yes, there have been plenty of hard-luck stories about artists who have struggled to cope with fame and fortune. But let’s be honest – those sound like nice problems to have. Much better than poverty and obscurity at any rate. And signing the Big Deal was the well-trodden path to stardom.
Then along came the internet, and the game changed.
As many people – me included – will tell you, now you just need a laptop and an internet connection to reach a global audience. You can sell your artworks, or self-publish your own books, music, podcasts, movies, documentaries or whatever else you want to put out there.
Even if you’re skint and starting from scratch, the cost of selling your work online is getting cheaper every year. And if you need production cash up front, platforms like Kickstarter give you the option of crowdsourcing your funding, instead of signing away your creative control in exchange for an advance.
If you can do all that yourself, why would you want to tie yourself to a contract that could turn out to be a pact with the Devil? No wonder so many creatives are choosing to stick two fingers up to the Man and run their own show.
On the other hand, would you really turn down the Big Fat Contract if it were put in front of you to sign?
Maybe you have a decision to make…
Reasons to sign the contract (or not)
So let’s suppose you get the call and a contract is placed in front of you. Here are some of the factors to consider before you decide what to do.
Big media companies tend to have deeper pockets than struggling artists. At the stroke of a pen, they could transform your fortunes, taking care of your bills and removing a whole lot of stress from your life. And when the royalties start rolling in, the sky could be the limit…
But all that glitters isn’t necessarily money in the bank. Back in 2000, Courtney Love did the math and concluded that major label recording contracts were so loaded in favour of the record companies that the bands “may as well be working at a 7-Eleven”. So you’ll want to have someone well-versed in contracts and calculators to advise you before you sign on the dotted line.
It’s hard work attracting an audience, especially on top of creating the artwork or product itself. And given the choice, most of us would probably rather leave the messy business of sales to someone else. A big money marketing machine could get you on TV or radio, in the papers, on the big screen, and on the big stages.
When your work is published by a recognised company, it gives you stamp of credibility. Your friends, family and fans will be impressed. You’ll feel like a ‘real artist’.
While the stigma associated with self-publishing is disappearing in some creative industries, it’s alive and well in others – poetry and fine art are two that spring immediately to mind. Many galleries, curators and critics (not to mention artists) look down on those who sell their work direct.
Let’s face it, it’s a lot more glamorous to be driven by a limo to a press conference or awards ceremony than blogging in your underwear; and you’ll get more of an ego boost from sashaying down a red carpet than meeting and greeting your fans on Twitter.
This is a potential bananaskin – you don’t want to end up like David Bowie, who didn’t read the small print and discovered to his horror that he did not in fact own 50% of his manager’s company MainMan, nor even his own songs. He eventually had to spend a rumored $27 million buying back the rights to his own back catalogue.
On the other hand, having the resources of a large company behind you could help you exploit and protect your intellectual property in ways you might struggle to do on your own. The company’s contacts could open doors to lucrative licensing deals. And their heavy-hitting lawyers could help to protect your brand and copyright from infringement.
The bottom line – get advice
If you’ve got this far in The 21st Century Creative you’ve probably realised I’m not a legal professional. Before you sign a contract, you need to get the advice of a lawyer who specialises in contracts in your particular industry. No-one else will be able to spot the problems lurking in the small print.
This needn’t cost the earth – I’ve received excellent advice from book contract lawyers at the UK Society of Authors, which I accessed for the price of a modest joining fee for the Society. So it’s worth checking whether there is a similar organisation and consultation service for your industry. Either way, this is one situation where it’s worth spending some money to get an informed opinion up front – it could literally save you a fortune down the road.
The pros and cons of selling direct to your audience
“Now artists have options. We don’t have to work with major labels anymore, because the digital economy is creating new ways to distribute and market music.”
Courtney Love, Courtney Love Does the Math
Radiohead made a splash when they did just this – making their album In Rainbows available for download via their website, and inviting fans to pay whatever they liked. According to reports, this made them more money than their previous album, released via the conventional route.
This isn’t confined to rock stars – J.K. Rowling published the ebook versions of her Harry Potter series through her own company. Hazel Dooney is a leading contemporary artist from Australia who has turned her back on the gallery system, selling her work direct to collectors and making outspoken criticisms of the established art world.
And it’s not just established artists. Amanda Hocking was an unknown author when she made her novel available on Kindle to raise a few hundred dollars – and ended up selling over 1.5 million books. John Locke is another novelist who went from obscurity to selling over a million books on Kindle.
Hugh MacLeod was a nobody when he started doodling cartoons on the back of business cards in a New York bar – now he has an enthusiastic audience who snap up his originals and limited-edition prints via his online gallery.
In 2005 Trey Ratcliff started blogging about the relatively obscure HDR photography technique – the blog now generates over a million page-views per week, and he was thrilled when it landed him a book deal with Peachpit, a publisher he had always admired. But he was in for a rude awakening once the contract had been signed and the book completed:
“After many months of hard work, I finish the book and fly out to San Francisco to have dinner with some of the senior execs at Peachpit. I’m excited. I’m about to have a book in Borders and Barnes & Noble (this was before Borders went out of business); my mom and dad can go into a store to see my book and everything. In a way it’s all very personal: New authors can’t help but think about their parents walking into a store to see their child’s book. I can hear my parents talking about it to their friends at the coffee shop. This is a big moment for me.
“Anyway, back to dinner. I’m sitting there in a nice restaurant in San Francisco with all these executives of a major publishing house. It’s one of these power dinners of lore. We’re there to discuss the upcoming launch of the book, and I’ll never forget what happened. They asked me, “OK, Trey, what are you going to do to market this book?” You could have knocked me over with a feather.
“My young publishing life flashed in front of my eyes.”
(Trey Ratcliffe, Why e-books will be much bigger than you can imagine)
He worked really hard to market the book, and calculated that he earned 15% of the value of the book sales. Deciding that this was unsustainable, he set up his own ebook publishing imprint:
“So I started FlatBooks and now we operate at an 80 percent profit margin.
“Almost immediately after launching into the e-book business, we hit six figures in income. It blows away what I got with my advance from Peachpit. We now have about a dozen authors from all walks of life. Every month we add more and more, and things are really beginning to snowball.”
So the rewards of self-publishing are potentially enormous. But is this route for you? Here are a few factors to consider…
Because you’re taking a much bigger share of the profits, you don’t need to sell so many copies of your work to earn a decent living. If you sell digital downloads direct, you’re only paying for hosting and credit card processing. For physical goods, you’ll need to add on delivery costs.
Publishing via an intermediary such as Kindle Direct Publishing or Bandcamp means you’ll have to pay them a commission, but even the lowest royalty rate for Kindle books is 35% – significantly higher than a typical book contract.
When you run your own show, you have a lot more control. You can set your own prices, choose your own projects, and execute them as you please. So there’s less pressure to ‘sell out’ in order to make your work attractive to a bigger audience – and pay for that big marketing machine.
Direct communication with your fans can be immensely rewarding. There’s nothing like getting an email from someon who bought something you made and loved it.
And it also makes sound business sense. In this podcast interview, Seth Godin describes his astonishment on visiting a major publishing house, to discover that they were binning letters from fans instead of writing back and keeping in touch with them.
Seth advises us to build a permission asset – i.e. gaining the permission of your audience to communicate with them over time, such as via a blog or email newsletter subscription. This helps you maintain a strong relationship with your audience, receiving valuable feedback and making repeat sales over time.
This is the big sticking point for many creators. Building an audience and learning how to sell takes time and energy away from your creative writing, music, film-making or whatever you consider your ‘real’ work. So you have to decide whether this is a price worth paying for the benefits it brings.
The rise of content marketing means that artists and creatives enjoy an unfair advantage at online marketing. Having built an audience twice over, first at Wishful Thinking and now at Lateral Action, I’ve found from my own experience that it’s hard work but surprisingly enjoyable, and I’m grateful to have met all kinds of wonderful people. But you’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons for yourself.
Marketing is hard work. Yes, we all need to learn to sell if we want to succeed as creative professionals. But there are degrees of selling, and ways of delegating. If you simply can’t face asking for the sale, then direct publishing won’t be for you.
You may well need to attract an audience anyway
If you’re tempted to aim for the contract and leave the audience-building to others, you could be in for a shock.
Just as record companies wanted to see bands attracting enthusiastic fans to gigs before investing their money, publishers of all kinds of media are increasingly likely to expect you to have a ready-made audience before they will sign you.
I know from my own experience that book publishers like to deal with authors who have a popular blog or newsletter audience. And Joanna Penn has suggested independent publishing can act as “a form of slush pile” – when a a self-published book is already selling well, it becomes a much safer bet for a publisher.
So if you really want that contract, it may be that you need to build your audience anyway. Which is where things start to get interesting…
Because if you have an audience – and maybe an income – then it puts you in a much stronger position to negotiate with a media company. So you might ask yourself – and them – why you would want to sign away your copyright and 90% of your profits?
At the very least, since you’ve demonstrated that you have a valuable audience and assets, you should be able to get more favourable terms (keep your lawyer handy here). If they want to snag your signature, this company will have to show they can bring you significantly more of all or most of these qualities than you can generate yourself:
- Intellectual property value
Regardless of the money, you may decide you’re better off maintaining control by going it alone. You might be happier with less money (but still no financial hardship) and more control over your life and artistic direction.
And it doesn’t have to be a black-and-white career choice. Many creators pick and choose on a project-by-project basis, signing a deal with a media organisation when it suits them, and going it alone when they think they can do a better job themselves. If you make wise choices, and get good advice, there’s no reason why you can’t have the best of both worlds.
Now, you may not have a contract on the table today. But it’s worth pondering a few key questions right now:
What kind of opportunities are you looking for?
Could attracting an audience increase your chances of success?
If so, is it time to start working on that?
The following episodes of The 21st Century Creative Podcast touch on the themes of today’s lesson:
Written by me, unless otherwise indicated
Contracts: an Introduction from the Arts Law Centre of Australia
A Modest Proposal for Publishers and Authors by Jonathan Fields. Brilliant and balanced analysis of the choice between self-publishing and the traditional route. The basic dilemma Jonathan describes applies to all kinds of artists and creatives, not just writers.
Why e-books will be much bigger than you can imagine by Trey Ratcliff
How to Sell 130,000 Books without a Publisher by Joanna Penn.
Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should by David Gaughran – excellent introduction, giving an overview of the publishing industry, how to self-publish on different platforms, and inspiring success stories from authors making a living by self-publishing.
Permission Marketing by Seth Godin
Seth Godin: the New Face of Publishing – great audio interview about the opportunities for authors in a changing landscape.
Can You Self-Publish Your Way to a Big Deal? by Lindsay Buroker
5 Ways a Minimum Viable Audience Can Help You Create a Successful Startup by Brian Clark. Brian’s concept of the ‘minimum viable audience’ applies to artists as well as entrepreneurs.
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