Some thoughts on being “independent”
What does being “independent” mean to us? As publishers, writers, artists, musicians, designers, editors, booksellers and more, what does it mean when we put the word “independent” in front of those titles? The obvious answer is that we and our work are “not requiring or relying on something else” or “not affiliated with a larger controlling unit.” In terms of publishing, as long as you are not affiliated with the Big 5, you can pretty much be considered an independent publisher. And that makes sense and that seems good. We like to think of ourselves in that way, but how true is it? Although we are independent from the Big 5, how “independent” are we really?
In an essay called The Inferno of Independence, designer/writer Frank Chimero addresses questions and issues surrounding being an independent (fill in the blank). He writes about how issues such as loneliness, mental health well-being, boredom and stress are pretty common among people participating in the independent community. He also writes about some of the business-y aspects of being independent:
how do we produce more equitable platforms where attention DOES equal money? Google, Facebook, the music labels, movie studios, and any other major player is not going to solve this, because they have no incentive. The artists’ problems are those companies’ successes. The way you get a business to be a major player is by being a funnel of attention and siphoning off as much money as you can. The independent community shouldn’t mistake dodging the gatekeepers for being subservient to new ones.
Read that last sentence again and apply it to independent publishers. Are we, as independent publishers, just dodging the gatekeepers of the literary/publishing world (the Big 5) and becoming subservient to new ones (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple)? Yes, definitely. So then the question becomes which is “worse” for us? Even though these new ones are participating in the literary/publishing world, are they as invested as the previous gatekeepers? (Keep in mind all of the fights between Amazon and publishers before answering that one). How are we, as active, involved participants in this independent community that are trying to make a living or at least keeping ourselves or our presses afloat, being affected?
Chimero also offers this perspective:
Jack Conte of Pomplamoose did some math…and said that a YouTube music video with 400k views would net the artist about $25. In this case, what’s the difference between YouTube and a dastardly music label? The fact that they’re willing to “sign” anyone, because it costs them next to nothing to do so?
I don’t think Chimero is advocating that we should stop using the products and services from companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, etc… all together, but rather he is asking us all to re-evaluate our relationships with these companies and their products and services. He wants us to ask ourselves if it is worth it to give up control over certain things (don’t even want to get into here the debate about whether these types of companies are eroding our civil liberties) in return for certain conveniences. Companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple make it very easy for people and publishers to use them as long as they abide by strict policies and user agreements that most of us don’t even read. Maybe the answer is yes, maybe the answer is no.
In the digital world that we live in today, relationships between the independent and non-independent communities, between individuals that define themselves as independent and larger corporations are becoming increasingly intertwined. As that happens, reminding ourselves about how independent we are and want to be is a must. As Chimero asked “…how do we build up businesses for independent artists that act as a sidekick rather than a toll booth?”
There are companies such as WordPress and Medium that offer tools and services for anyone to use and that are not as restrictive as previous gatekeepers. But don’t be afraid to explore and find a balance that works for you as an independent creative. Don’t just use Amazon because “everyone uses Amazon.” Make sure it makes sense for you and what you are trying to accomplish with your art, your press, your writing, your music, your designs. Think about what you are giving up when you decide to use the services of a gatekeeper.