Betting on Yourself, Part Two
In the past few weeks we’ve been talking about risk, specifically the universe of hazard that the artist and entrepreneur willingly and consciously inhabit. We’ve talked about operating on two tracks—the commercial track and the pure-soul track—and about betting on yourself. Today I want to take the discussion deeper into the realm of nuts and bolts.
When you and I sell our novel or cookbook to Simon & Schuster (or our screenplay to Warner Bros. or our album to Interscope or our videogame to Electronic Arts), we willingly and consciously take ourselves out of the sphere of risk.
The company cuts us a check and we cruise to the bank. The publisher or studio has taken on the Big Boy assignment: they have assumed the risk. It’s their role, now, to finance everything, distribute everything, market everything. If the project bombs, they eat it. You and I get off scot-free. We’ve got our check and nobody can take it away from us.
But there’s a price to be paid for evading that risk. The price is that we become the child, and the studio/label/publisher becomes the adult.
There’s a reason why editors and producers (and even agents) pick up the check when they take the writer or musician to lunch. They’re the grownups. We’re the kids.
Now it’s true that certain projects require the deep pockets of a Major Kahuna. You and I can’t finance our $50 million sword-and-sandal epic. We’re getting nosebleeds just thinking about bankrolling our $10K digital, shoot-it-in-three-days biopic of Johnny Rotten. And (full disclosure) I confess that my own next project is a big book with a big publisher. So by no means have I totally moved away from my day job.
But in other areas of publishing/music/movies, the barriers to entry have fallen so far (thanks, Seth Godin, for teaching us this and a lot more) that it has become feasible to actually roll the dice and bet on yourself all the way. I can do it. You can too.
In fact, Shawn and I are about to plunge into that very pool ourselves, in association with our crack pards Jeff and Callie. My next book, coming in a few weeks, is a follow-up to The War of Art called Turning Pro. It’s something I’ve been trying to do for three years and finally (we hope) have put together.
We’re going to bring the book out ourselves. Are we nuts? Why walk away from a six-figure advance and the prestige of being published by a major house? Why take on the hassles of design and copy-editing, printing, marketing, administration, fulfillment? The writer is already risking his time, his work and his future. Why put his bank account at hazard too? The answer for Shawn and me is it’s fun. And it’s empowering. If the web and other tech breakthroughs make it possible to be active instead of passive … let’s do it.
Besides, we’re tired of being in the role of the child. The writer who signs a contract and cashes the check forfeits all right to complain. Whatever evils may befall him or his book, he has enabled those evils himself. It’s not the publisher’s fault. The writer has no one to blame but himself.
Shawn and I have more books in the pipeline after Turning Pro, including a videobook that discusses this very business model—what we call a “Long Tail Business,” after the seminal book by Chris Anderson. We’re putting it out in the hope that it might inspire other artists and entrepreneurs to bet on themselves in the same or similar ways.
The trick to a long-tail business (we hope) is that, if you can keep your expenses and your expectations low, the rewards of autonomy and control will make up for the smaller upfront payday. That’s the theory anyway.
Stand by for updates. We’ll be sending dispatches from the trenches in the weeks to come!