I’ve been working on a post lately about what I call publishing parasites. Rather than bringing focus to the post, however, my initial attempts only led me off on wonderful rants about various injustices.
Last night, however, I came across this hilarious tweet from Guy Gonzalez —
Red Room sends me an email saying I’m “one of [their] self-published authors” and thinks their site is worth $30/mo? Seriously? #fail
— and a follow-up tweet pointing me to this post of his from July:
These are the three fundamental steps to building yourself an author platform, no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, and precede any discussions of SEO, Freemiums, URLs, etc.
As to his post, I think he’s right and you should read the whole thing. As to my fixation on publishing parasites, I now have my focus. Money.
When I first moved out to L.A. and started working as a screenwriter I was surprised by the number of people who made their living off the people who actually make their living making movies. For every individual (writer, director, set dresser, hairdresser, key grip, etc.) who was directly involved in creating the end product (film, TV show, etc.) there seemed to be ten people trying to make their living off that one person.
Agents, business managers, publicists, personal assistants: all of these people make their living not by making a product, but by providing a service to the people who actually make the products that Hollywood sells. Then again, they usually only work for people who are already successful — or at least successful enough to hire them. (For the moment I’m going to ignore the sharks in each profession who willingly prey on the naive and uninformed. There are predatory practitioners of every service mentioned above, but that’s not the point of this now-rigorously-focused post. I’ll get to them soon.)
Beyond these service providers lies another province of purveyors that I do think of as parasitical. These are people who hang around on the fringes of the production machine in every commercial form of entertainment, making their their living not by providing services to professionals, but by whispering promises. Quite often the people fed on are amateurs looking to break in, but they may be desperate or naive professionals as well.
An early (and valid) fear of anyone who writes for a living is the nightmare of someone stealing your work and profiting from it themselves. But the odds of that actually happening are quite small, and particularly so when compared to the much greater likelihood that someone will walk right up to you, look you in the eye, promise you the moon and take your money, all the while knowing they will never deliver on their implicit (commonly) or explicit (rarer) promise. When your expectations are not met, you will either be told that the failure is your own, or that your dreams can still come true as long as you stick to your convictions — which means coughing up more money.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re a writer. Amateur, professional, it doesn’t matter. Your job is to write. You feel it in your bones.
And as a writer, you think it makes sense to keep writing while turning your business responsibilities over to other people. Quite often you’re even encouraged to do so by entertainment industries which traditionally rely on intermediaries like agents, lawyers and business managers to keep the assembly lines humming. Or maybe you don’t know a lot about marketing or self-publishing or technology, and you think you don’t have enough time to learn, or that you’re not smart enough to understand, or, again, that it makes more sense for you to write while bringing in other people to do what they do best.
I can’t argue against any of that if you’re not interested in helping yourself or you’re so rich it doesn’t matter. Which is exactly why these parasites will never go away, and exactly why I think there is going to be an explosion (think supernova) of abuses in the online space as publishing evolves to deal with the internet. And again, I’m not talking about willfully criminal activity here: I’m talking about people who are going to offer to do anything and everything for you for a fee.
Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past few years you’ve seen this already. Blogging sites begging for writers by promising them credits or clips or pennies per million clicks. Sites like Red Room trying to up-sell services on the promise of greater exposure. Endless online advertisements offering jobs to writers, which are in fact attempts to harvest resume data in order to stock other sites with lists of available freelancers, so those sites can charge more money per bazillion clicks.
The internet is going to be the best thing that ever happened to these parasites. The inherent promise of the internet means these people don’t have to make promises of their own. Instead, they can simply use the fear of being left behind to fill their coffers. The inherent technical complexity of the internet, even when low, still provides enough of a barrier to entry — or the appearance of a barrier to entry — to create both legitimate opportunities to provide services and illegitimate opportunities to exploit confusion and uncertainty.
In all these things the only antidote is the same antidote. You must guard your money as you guard your life, and you must take responsibility for your own knowledge. If the heavily-regulated banking and mortgage industry was willing — happily willing — to destroy the American economy, then it’s a pretty safe bet that any of these unregulated people and practices will happily destroy you.
Do not pay someone else to provide you with a service that you don’t understand. You can make that decision later, when you’ve done your research and know what the issues are. Do not pay someone to make something happen for you. You can make that decision later, after you’ve given it a go — and another go, and another — yourself. Do not pay someone to tell you what you want to hear, including gurus of all stripes. Writing is a craft, and getting better means writing, not paying someone to tell you secrets that are in fact common knowlege.
And whatever you do, do not pay someone to solve your technological problems (real or imagined) until you know exactly what those problems are and what you’re getting in return. Guy Gonzalez, in the link above (reproduced here for ease of use), gives some good free advice. If you take a look around, you’ll see that good advice is plentiful, and that there are a lot of people willing to help answer any questions you have.
How will you know who’s helping and who’s hitting you up? Well, the questions pretty much answers itself. Not all people hanging out a shingle are trying to scam you of course, but they are asking for money. Before you give someone your money you should make sure that what you’re getting in return cannot be gotten for free, and that it has a value equal to the money you’re spending. (Yes, time is money. But it’s not cash money, which is why parasites are willing to trade their time for your cash.)
If you have a dream, follow it. Don’t pay someone else to validate it or tell you it will come true. When you really need an agent or tech help or a freelance editor or marketing muscle or someone to cook you three gourmet meals a day so you can crank out your next bestseller, you’ll know. In the meantime, write all you can and spend as little as you can, or less.
Whether you’re a professional or an amateur, watching your money is the most important thing you can do. Because there are a lot of people out there who see your money as their business opportunity.
— Mark Barrett
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