As a daily contributor to this website, one of the things you start noticing is trends in how people respond to articles and essays. One of the most common tropes in comment sections under stories pointing out racism in the magazine industry, movie industry and entertainment industry in general, is how black people need to stop complaining and start creating our own things.
More specifically, “Who cares? If you have a problem, why don’t you just make your own ???”
And yes, with that many question marks.
While I do believe that most times, that type of comment is the worst kind of lazy derailment, I also will acknowledge that within that consortium of folks who really don’t care either way, there are the genuinely concerned among us, who really feel that independence is key to addressing racism. Those folks I don’t necessarily disagree with. However, how we get there, is in need of a serious conversation.
As any black-owned business – in addition to the numbers – will tell you, “owning our own” is not as simple as it looks. For one, black America is not a sovereign state. Therefore, we will always be subjected to the societal rules and regulations, taxes and fees, rents and mortgages, so forth and so on…
Secondly, African American involvement in key industries like textiles, international large scale shipping and other distribution networks are really minute, which will likely mean that “our” money will always find a way to seep out of the community. We could probably connect with some networks in Africa and other parts of the black diaspora, but be honest: How many people do you know internationally? Distance as well as cultural difference means that those kind of relationships take years to build, which is not very helpful when you are trying to push your latest independent film, book or musical project in the next few weeks.
And then there is the much bigger problem: support.
In an essay entitled My Amazon Bestseller Made Me Nothing, independent author Patrick Wensink talks about how his book Broken Pianos for President (if the name sounds familiar, Wensink received international attention for being the recipient of a very nice and polite letter from Jack Daniels over the cover of his book) lays out perfectly how even the most fortunate and well-known indie authors don’t always fair well on the self-published market:
“I just started getting my royalty checks from July the other day (the publishing industry is slow like that). From what I can tell so far, I made about $12,000 from “Broken Piano” sales. That comes directly to me without all those pesky taxes taken out yet (the IRS is helpful like that).
Don’t get me wrong; as a guy with a couple of books out on an independent publisher I never thought I’d see that kind of money. Previously, my largest royalty check was about $153. I’m thrilled and very proud to say I earned any money as a writer. That’s a miracle. It’s just not the jewel-encrusted miracle most people think bestseller bank accounts are made from.
The book sold plus or minus 4,000 copies. (The publishing industry is hazy like that. What with sales in fishy-sounding third-world countries like Germany and England.) Being on an indie press I receive a more generous royalty split than most: 50 percent after expenses were deducted.
You can do the math. I’m clearly not buying a mansion. Hell, my measly dreams of constructing a Roald Dahl-style writing cottage in the backyard are even shelved. Twelve-thousand bucks is amazing, but it’s not life-changing money. Unless, of course, I need one of those clearance sale $11,999 kidneys.
In the end, I bought my wife a pretty dress to say thank you for putting up with me and my fiscally idiotic quest to write books. I also did the most rock star thing imaginable for a stay-at-home-dad/recipient-of-a-famous-cease-and-desist: I used the money to send my kid to daycare two days a week so I can have more time to write…”
While not a black author, Wensink’s story does illustrate what many authors go through as independent businesses. Basically, you will likely end up broke. Good thing he had a supportive wife. But if you don’t have a supportive network, say you’re a black person from a low-income community, getting started might be difficult. This PBS-related website has a pretty decent breakdown of the upfront investment needed, which can go upwards of a few thousand dollars (I think the high end is with bells and whistles).
And according to this article in the Guardian UK, a recent survey of 1,007 self-published writers revealed that the average earnings for a self-published author was just $10,000 a year, however, the report also said that those numbers were skewed by the top earners. In actuality, half of writers surveyed earned less than $500. What this suggests is that despite the mantra of building our own, the “our own” part is not always there to support.
As a casual observer to how people relate to indie products, I do believe lots of it has to do with thinking indie products are illegitimate. In short, brand names are better. We do it with clothing, with food products and also do it with our media. How many times have we complained about the indie-products? The films we call low-budget? We make fun of YouTube rappers and other musicians, and we also clown books because of the poor spelling and grammatical errors, as well as cover art and layout in general.
Nobody takes into consideration that you, as an independent artist, are working with the money and manpower you have – and most times, it ain’t much. It is certainly not enough to compete with big publishing, record and film houses with huge staff, who are assigned to deal with editing, copy editing, proofreading, audio and sound mixing, and all the other things people complain about.
And never mind the fact that you can find poor copy in major publishing material every day. Or that Hollywood, the record companies and even the main publishing houses, churn out high-quality yet crap-tastic productions every single year. However, because the main brands have the power and resources to mass-market and drown you in advertising, people have emotional connections to brands. And they often deem their products more trustworthy, whereas indie artists just come off as the rejects who weren’t good enough. As this wonderful article by writer Daniel Jose Ortiz points out, for a writer of color in particular, it could be the industry itself, which is predominately white, which likely is behind why his or her work is not considered. That reject stigma for indie artists is a tough one to shake and a big hurdle to overcome when trying to connect with potential audiences.
And there is the question of access, in general. Often times, indie artists find themselves locked outside of other networks that could distribute their content to their audience, like bookstores, public and school libraries, movie theaters and record stores. There’s always the Internet, but again, see the first few paragraphs as to how that tends to work out.
Again, I’m not anti-the movement to build our own. But I think we need to re-frame the conversation from, “How come we don’t just build our own?” to “How can we work on supporting our own better?” Plus, I also think we have to understand that this works in collaboration with the fight to gain access to more mainstream venues and channels as well. Until the day comes that we completely have our own, we are still going to have to rely on “their” infrastructures. So let us in…