“To put it frankly, it can be hard to tell if you’re bravely persevering in the face of others’ unfair discouragement of your art, or foolishly persevering in the face of others’ accurate assessment of your limited talents.”
When an article on the First/Second Books blog carrying statements like the one above surfaced online, it caused me no small amount of consternation.
Admittedly, on the surface, the article seemed to suggest that ‘if you want a route to market for your comics, and you want us as a publisher to be that route, realise that we have conditions which not everyone can meet’. If that was all there was to it, I’d say that might be fair enough. They have a market, and not everyone is right for it. Besides, comics have long been heterodox to the orthodoxy of the publishing industry, and the history of self-publishing, and small press start-ups suggests the big houses do not have to be some panacea to which we must all aspire. We can do this ourselves. We’ve been doing it ourselves in many ways, for many years.
Yet, explicit in this blog is something else. It’s explicit in the title and spelled out in the message of the text: and that is, that at some point, you need to succeed or you have to quit. No alternatives. And what is even more pernicious is that there appears to be only one route to success, and that is through a publisher:
“publishers are in a pretty good position to make this call [as to the merit of comics work]. We’re not perfect, as we’ve established, but we look at a lot of work, and we have a general sense of who has “it” and who doesn’t. Our livelihood depends on us making good calls here, so we invest a lot of time and effort into it.”
I think that could be a fair statement in many ways, adjoined as it is by an admission of fallibility, if the message was ‘your work isn’t right for us, but maybe try elsewhere?’. But in fact the message appears to be: “WE know best, and if WE don’t want you, and other publishers don’t want you, maybe you shouldn’t bother at all”. Take, for example, the author’s comments on factors influencing an artist’s decision to persevere or give up:
“What kind of reception are you getting from industry professionals? Note: this last one is only one factor out of many in the morass of variables that will influence your decision to stay in comics or to focus your energies elsewhere. But it’s an important one, if this industry professional does say so herself.”
It seems pretty bald, to me. Succeed (by a publisher’s terms) or give up.
But who holds the cards here? As Rob Davis pointed out on Twitter, a contract to publish is a mutual investment – you invest your work in the publisher, they invest their resources in you. At best, that should be a mutually beneficial relationship, and also a mutually DEPENDENT one. The publishers need us as much as we might need them.
So we can return to the idea that one route to market, through a publisher isn’t for everyone. But that doesn’t mean you should give up: the alternative independent music scenes of the 1970s, 80s and 90s didn’t ‘ask for permission’ from the big labels to do what they did: they just did it. And they made making and performing and recording and releasing music off the grid, viable.
And when it comes to art, my interest is not in ‘success’ but ‘honesty’. If work is ‘honest’, that and is less mediated by ‘what is expected’ and more by ‘what it feels right to the artist to do’ THAT produces work that is challenging and exciting. Develop it with a crayon and a post-it, or an iPad and a stylus, or a tree and a camera, or an app and a soundscape or whatever. Do it from your heart, not to please someone who claims to be an expert in what sells in one, changing market.
So don’t give up. Keep making. Be creative both in how you make work, and how you share it. Meet people. Talk to people. Think about new ways to get things out there. Think about why you do things; make art of any kind because it makes sense to do so. Never, ever be told you can’t do it.
Don’t expect a living, but at the same time, don’t let anyone deny you one because they have one view of the world and you have another. I think we all have to revise our expectations about what is owed to us in terms of a wage - perhaps you can’t make a living from being published like you could many years ago. But there are a lot of occupations – from technical to creative to administrative to intellectual – that don’t have the same models of ‘career’ anymore. We all have to strive to find our own way through and do the things that are important to us – as a day job, or a late at night after work job.
I’m not saying that that it’s right that making a living from art is challenging. I’m just saying if there is a solution, then it’ll come from us, and not them. So to end where we began: Don’t. Give. Up.