When I was younger (say, around 1990) and I had the tentative first stirrings of the idea that I might want to write novels one day, there was basically only one road to being a novelist. You wrote your novel and submitted it to publishers and hoped and prayed that one of them might decide to accept it. I know that's a bit of an oversimplification--even in those days there was self-publishing and networking and other complexities I'm not going to go into but in general terms the process was extremely straightforward. Self-publishing was pure vanity that some very few wealthy folks could indulge in. Creators were a dime a dozen and the distributor had the power in the relationship. Every novelist I'd ever heard speak on the subject had some kind of horror story involving titanic battles with their publisher over who owned the rights to what and the constant pressure of deadlines and book tours and editorial requirements and a laundry list of soul-sucking horrors that they had to put up with for the privilege of being allowed to get their work into the hands of the general public. A laundry list that was nearly always followed by some recommendation not to quit your day job. This is not exactly inspiring stuff for a timid would-be novelist. What kind of a future is that to look forward to? "You will work like a galley slave and if you are extraordinarily fortunate you might earn enough money for this to be your full-time career." Blech.
Of course, nowadays things are different. Self-publishing isn't only for vain rich people any more. Pretty much every industry that had this kind of creator/distributor relationship is radically different: movies, music, video games, books, who knows how many others. But despite this, the distributors still carry a lot of clout. There's still a lot of prestige and mystique attached to the distributors and the creators still flock to them so in many cases that poisonous atmosphere still endures. I'm not sure it will go away until there's another, subtler shift that exorcises the last vestiges of this mystique and turns the distributor into an equal who provides a service to creators instead of an aristocrat who patronizes creators. A lot of the current mindset still needs to change in order for this to happen, and change on the creative side of things. For instance:
1. Creators need to take more heed of the fact that someone offering to buy their work or the rights to their work is not a beneficent friend raining down largess--this is someone offering to enter into a business relationship and regardless of what they're offering or how delightful it seems in relation to your current penniless state, you need to vet them like you would vet a stranger offering to watch your child. In fact, if they come to you the chances that they are the equivalent of a pedophile are rather higher than you might expect. They are not doing you a favor no matter how much money they offer you or how apparently generous the terms. Getting the attention of a big distributor is not the success endgame state. It could be an express ticket to legal hell.
2. Creators need to shed the last of the "AAA" mindset. This pertains particularly to video games where "AAA" is actually a Thing and everyone talks about it. I went and browsed the Bioware job boards, for instance, and I saw a posting for a Lead Writer (which I am totally not in any way qualified for, just so you know, this is an example only). One of the requirements for said Lead Writer was that they must have already shipped a "AAA" game. This is the "AAA" mindset, that there is some kind of significant and meaningful difference between a big-name major distributor-backed title and one that was released by a team that lacks such backing. Yes, there IS a difference between a title that is worked on for 3 years by 50 people and one that was made by one guy in his basement over the course of three months. A single person working alone is not to be scorned--creating by yourself requires a staggering amount of drive, discipline, willingness to face criticism, refusal to give in to self-doubt. There's a huge and impressive skillset in working alone that is not any less than the skillset of working with a group, it's just that if you're going to apply work with a big team yes, you should demonstrate skill in doing just that. But what does the "AAA" part of this description bring to the table? It doesn't mean you have teamwork skills or creative skills or drive, discipline, focus etc. You know what that particular qualifier means? It means you have experience sucking up to a big distributor. This is not a creative skill or a business skill. This is attribute that is of value to exactly one participant--the distributor--and only if they are looking to maintain a specific type of working relationship with the creators in their stable. "AAA" mindset should be a massive red flag to creators everywhere that a distributor is in the market for peons, not partners.
Just those two changes will go a long way to cleaning up the rotting remains of distributor mystique. The funny thing, though, is that I don't predict this will be the dawn of some kind of fantastical age for creators where absolutely everyone can get the perfect audience they think they deserve. Far from it. I think it will be good for creators AND distributors, but I'm not sure it'll make either of them really happy, because the people who will really profit from it is the ones who drive themselves to acquire both sorts of skill sets. To be creative AND to understand business. To work alone AND with a team. To self-publish AND partner with distributors. I think the future belongs to those people, and they are few. Just doing ONE of those things is an undertaking that can consume your entire life. If you can do both, I stand in awe of you. I need to remind myself constantly that THIS is what I'm ultimately working toward. Doing the creative work is HARD, but by itself it's not enough to get me all the way to where I want to go. I need to pay attention to opportunities to grow in BOTH areas if I ever want to stop being just a hobbiest.
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