On Video, Crowdfunding, And The Future of Publishing
The first Write Bloody contract winner has been announced. It’s Miles Walser! Miles is awesome. Yay Miles. Also, watching Andrea Gibson do mini-trampoline jumps is pretty much the most adorable thing on the internet right now. I can’t wait to hear who the other winners are!
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about crowd-sourcing and how art gets out into the world ever since the finalists for Write Bloody were announced. For the first time this year, Write Bloody asked each finalist to make a video of one of our poems to post to youtube as well as sending them a copy of our completed manuscript for their editors to judge. They gave each author a lot of freedom with what kind of video we wanted to create (Artsy? Live Performance? Claymation rap battle?) and gave us a few suggestions. I freaked out, emailed every film-maker I knew, realized that there was no way I was going to be able to produce a successful collaboration on two weeks notice, and then bought a tripod for my i-phone and fucking did it myself. Having a very VERY patient sweetheart (hi Marc!) to hold said tripod and loan me i-movie (which I also taught myself to edit on) were utterly necessary to the success of this project, but I think it came out pretty great. See for yourself.
The clincher here, was that 20% of our overall scores on our manuscripts were based on how many youtube ‘likes’ our videos received. I saw a lot of disgruntled poets on facebook, wondering why a publishing company would put such power into the hands of consumers, musing on the debasement of the printed word and how this kind marketing left a bad taste in their mouths.
But here’s the thing: this isn’t anything new.
Publishing companies have been trying to come up with interesting ways to market their books ever since the serial novel died out. And using digital media and mediums like youtube aren’t anything new either. The videos I and the other finalists posted are essentially book trailers. The marketing we had to do to get people to watch them is essentially the same kind of marketing authors have been doing every time they release a written work (and the same kind of marketing every winner in the manuscript contest will need to do when their book is released.) The medium is different, but the skill set and tools remain the same.
It’s not enough to just be an artist, and I’m not sure it ever was. Now, you have to been a marketing machine, a blogger, a tweeter, a clever promoter. And honestly, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.
Take musician Amanda Palmer, for example. She just raised over a million dollars to fund her new record and tour on Kickstarter. This has been all over the internet, and its not an understatement to say that she has fundamentally changed the game for artists using crowd-funding to make art. She’s met a lot of resistance to this too; criticism ranging from “Leave money for artists who really need it” to “Stop begging your fans for money and just release the damn record and sell it to us like normal.”
But what’s normal when it comes to art production? Is writing 10 grant proposals in a month only to get turned down by all of them, normal? Is working 40+ hours a week at a day job to fund all of your art projects by night and weekends, normal? Is joining a record label or a press in order to receive an advance up front, then seeing zero profit as your label or press pays down your advance against the actual sales of your art normal? Thinking about art in terms of commerce is always uncomfortable, but art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Artists are real people, and we have bills and rent and impractical shoes to buy just like any other worker. I’m not saying being an artist is the same as working in a factory (goodness knows my class consciousness is more refined than that) but I am saying that art is work, and it takes time and money and real physical and mental energy to produce. I also don’t buy any sort of purity argument about pretty much anything ever (sanctity of art production, sanctity of marriage, etc.) but its also true that even musicians on major labels or writers on big publishing houses struggle to get their work out there in the form they want it in and make a decent living off it. Perhaps even more than independents, since big labels/houses have SO many artists to work with, and it’s easy to “get lost in the marketing calendar” as they say. Hell, that’s why Amanda Palmer isn’t even on her major label anymore. It’s why Cory Doctorow releases all his books under creative commons licenses when possible.
I love that Amanda Palmer posted an entire breakdown of how she’ll use that millon dollars. I love that Write Bloody is asking its readers to tell them who they love and want published. And yes, I think there’s a million right ways to communicate with your audience and a million right ways to talk about how money, class, and economics play a role in getting work out there. Amanda Palmer and I, for example, both have the time and the technology to blog and get word out there about our work via the internet. That’s a fucking privilege if ever there was one, and I’m lucky as hell to have that know how, time, and means. And the internet is a double edged sword for artists. While I love the transparency that comes from a blog about where money is going in a project, or how a publishing company makes decisions about who gets published, it’s also true that once you’ve connected with an audience via the internet or crowdsourcing, your audience expects you to communicate. Its a contract of sorts, if an unspoken one, and every moment building an internet presence (while so often necessary to get your work out there) or chasing down money to make art (via kickstarter, grants, or day jobs) for many of us translates into less time making art. But how wonderful to demystify that process! How wonderful to give people the opportunity to directly invest in you as an artist or in a specific project you’re working towards. It’s been incredibly rewarding to hear from feedback from people on the video I never would have gotten around to making if it weren’t for this manuscript contest. I ran into Natalie from Another Perfect Crime and the Rain City Girls Rock Camp at a show the other night, and she said “I joined youtube so I could ‘like’ your video!” Holy shit. People appreciate what I’m doing. Thanks for the wake-up call, universe.
I guess this is all to say that experimentation is a good thing. That as writers and artists we are starting to forge our own ways of funding and finding homes for our art, and that I’m glad to see the publishing world trying out new ways of conversing with the audience as well. What do you all think?