What do you think of when you think about investing in yourself? If you’re an entrepreneur, it probably brings up good feelings. Businesspeople know a thing or two about investing in their dreams. It’s a truism that you have to spend money to make money. You have to pay to play. Businesspeople talk about the money they put into their businesses—and by extension themselves—with pride. It’s part of the terrain. It’s expected. In fact, it’s admirable.
So why are the arts so different? There’s actually a sliding scale of stigma in the arts around self-investment, with book publishing at the very bottom of that heap. Film and music are slightly more evolved. Filmmakers and musicians are largely celebrated for their indie status. Fine artists have it worse off than filmmakers and musicians, but still better than independent authors. Getting a gallery show at an exclusive site is on par with being chosen by one of the Big Five for publication—and just as in publishing, it’s not always the best artists that are selected. Personality, popularity, and brand, as well as the curators’ tastes, play a big role.
The arts are subjective. Not everybody likes the same thing. But unlike in business, where consumers choose what they like based a founder or CEO’s vision or product, in the arts there are gatekeepers who hand-pick what rises to the top, and with measures that are increasingly connected to people’s already-attained popularity and success. In other words, it’s those who’ve already made it in some way who are getting the deals.
Perhaps this is the way things have always been, but there’s been a marked shift in recent years, and increasing divisiveness in the publishing industry, especially between traditionally published and self-published authors—and that divisiveness is upheld by the industry.
After all, the industry has a vested interest in the politics of exclusivity. And while I’d love to head up a coup to demand equal recognition, indie authors mostly need to keep at it, and to follow the best practices where it comes to editing, production, and design. And one more thing: adopt an authorpreneur attitude. This involves shedding the shame associated with investing in yourself and adopting the mentality of successful business titans. Even in politics campaigns are largely self-financed. People at the top of their game are celebrated for having the guts to believe in their work. As artists, we need to cultivate that same pride.
It’s true that this is no easy task if your work has been rejected or criticized. It’s true that writers must hone their craft and only put out their best work. It’s important to know that your work is good, that it’s ready to share with the public, with consumers, with an audience. But it’s not true that any gatekeeper—whether we’re talking about agents, editors publishers, or even university liberal arts programs—have the best taste, or that their “no” should equal the end of your aspirations.
If you’re an indie author, shifting your mindset starts with commending yourself for your bravery. It’s brave to risk. It’s courageous to believe in your work and to put your money where your mouth is. After the mindset shift, once you fully believe in what you’re doing, so much so that you’re ready to go to the mat with those who would make you feel less-than, you’re ready for the good fight. The kind of fighting I’m talking about starts with education and is supported by excellent results. Your job is to excel at your craft, and to do your best work. Beyond that, it’s to support other indie authors, and to be a champion for the indie cause.
For those with a mission to change the landscape, the true leveling of the playing field comes from changing hearts and minds. Consider that film has independent film festivals that specifically honor independent filmmakers, whereas book publishing has self-publishing-specific review sections and awards that seek to separate self-published authors out, not so much to honor but to segregate. Indie authors with an eye toward changing the future can and should start to demand change.
Write to associations, awards programs, and review outlets that exclude you, and let them know that you expect equal consideration. Ask them to judge the book based on its merit and not how it got published. Celebrate the efforts of those organizations that operate from a place of inclusivity rather than exclusivity. Never lose sight of the truth that there is enough space for all artists to thrive and succeed, and that the measure of an artist’s success has little to do with the method by which they rise to the top, but the continued persistence and resolve they exhibit on the journey.