Platforms and the Myth of Self-Employment
There are two things that the internet has too many of: blogs by bloggers about blogging, and self-published writers writing about self-publishing. That said, I am a self-publishing writer and am occasionally called upon to give thoughts and insights on the topic. Normally, I prefer to use this space to explore spiritual and philosophical subjects, but in light of something which happened to me earlier today, I have decided to take some time and talk business in the hopes of helping others. What I am going to discuss applies primarily to self-publishing writers, but the principles I will address can assist any aspiring entrepreneur, most especially those who work in any kind of media.
I was on my way out the door to the gym. I'd already written most of a chapter of an upcoming book, and was still riding the high of scheduling some new events, when I made the mistake of reading an email from CreateSpace, the website through which I publish my books. The email was informing me that they are being absorbed into Kindle, that all of my current paperbacks were being ported to Kindle, that I would not be able to revise current projects or start a new one until this process is complete, and that from now on I would have to use Kindle's interface -- and be subject to Kindle's formatting standards and royalty policies. Within an hour, I received a followup email alerting me that certain titles I offer do not meet the new royalty standards and that I will be forced to either raise my prices or remove said titles from foreign distribution, closing off a huge market.
I won't be so hyperbolic as to say that this devastated me, but I will say that it winded me more than any workout I was about to have at the local "Judgment-Free Zone." My whole shtick is to extrapolate lessons from pop culture and then reflect on those lessons, either in my talks or in those precious books that now hang in the balance. So, in the grand tradition of what I normally do anyway, rather than panic, I've decided to use this as a teaching opportunity. If you are a writer yourself who uses the services of CreateSpace and are in a similar place of concern, I hope that this will bring you to a place of confidence and focus, instead. Even if you're not a writer but are otherwise self-employed, I would like to offer three big-picture ideas that can help you expand your vision and the scope of what you do.
First, let's get this out of the way: no one is completely self-employed.
Often, we think of being self-employed as a synonym for being your own boss. Don't get me wrong, being your own boss is great, but being your own boss and being self-employed are not interchangeable terms. To be employed, one must be paid for a service they are rendering or a product they are offering, either by money or by some other form of barter. Hence, while there are a lot of people out there who are their own boss -- people who are hustling harder and for longer hours every week than many of their peers in the workforce -- a great (and tragic) number of them cannot rightfully claim themselves to be employed, no less self-employed. This is why some in Theater or Film wear the title "Working Actor" with such pride. They understand the difference between being an actor and actually acting.
Given the seasonal nature of my events, and how sporadic online book sales can be, it could be said that I am frequently unemployed, if for no other reason than my services and wares are not being employed by others. That doesn't mean I'm not working, of course, just as you are likely working very hard even if you're not seeing a cent. I am always hard at work, either writing new books or planning new events, but working for yourself and employing yourself are not the same thing. I had a hard time with this first lesson for a while. In fact, until I sold my first book, I struggled to figure out how to answer the dreaded question of what I do for a living when meeting new people. Like so many, my sense of worth and pride was tied to my job, and, until I had a book to show for it, I didn't feel like I could justifiably call myself a writer. What freed me was changing my focus; instead of being proud of my title, I was proud of my work. Once that shift happened, I no longer cared about the title of being self-employed. This shift in attitude is necessary if one is to understand the deeper truth -- that no one is truly self-employed, because someone else is always paying your salary. Clients and customers are the ones who employ us. We boss ourselves. We drive ourselves. We manage ourselves. We do not, however, employ ourselves.
Once we swallow our pride and come to terms with the fact that we are not as self-reliant as we'd like to think we are, we are then prepared to examine the next topic I wish to address -- the topic that inspired this discussion to begin with -- platforms.
In business terms, your platform is the primary venue you use to reach your customer or client base. It is essentially a stage. If your medium is a podcast, then your platform might be iTunes. If you're a vlogger, then your platform might be YouTube. If you're a game streamer, then your platform might be Twitch. The effectiveness of your platform will depend on how well you know, understand, and utilize that platform to reach an audience. The important thing to remember -- most especially as someone demystifying themselves to the illusion that they are self-employed -- is that no matter how much you have invested in your corner of your platform of choice, it does not belong to you and can be changed or taken away at any time.
The best example of this is YouTube. As a company, YouTube is financed by advertisers, advertisers who began to pull their ads in droves once they started to realize that potential customers were associating their brands with the content of YouTube users whose material was inconsistent with their own company values. In an effort to not hemorrhage to death, YouTube created policies that only rewarded content creators whose videos were "advertiser friendly." As a result, countless people who depended on their YouTube revenue to survive suddenly found themselves demonetized. This led to outcry over censorship, a debate highlighting why an understanding of platforms is so important. YouTube is a company, not a government. As a company, it is within their purview (no matter how inconvenient and hurtful to its users) to change their policies. It's not censorship; rather, it's a reminder that your livelihood is vulnerable to the platforms you choose.
When writing this blog, I briefly lost power due to a severe storm. This knocked my internet out for hours, preventing me from completing this when I wanted to. As someone whose books are sold online and who depends on social media to promote myself, internet access is of paramount importance to my job. But if I can't control a little thing like when the internet goes out, who am I to expect a juggernaut like YouTube or Kindle to bend their ear from heaven to hear my grievances?
Understanding that so long as you don't own your own platform you are subject to the whims of those who do brings us to the final realization that we need to make: since we cannot count on any one platform to support us, our business model must be multi-leveled.
As a writer and speaker, I straddle both digital stages as well as the physical stages of churches and other venues who host me. I certainly cannot walk into a church I am not a member of and pretend I'm entitled to any measure of ownership. All I can hope to do is effectively use the stage I've been offered and (if I'm lucky) be invited back if I did. Were I to rave like a lunatic or say offensive things, I would have no one to blame but myself if that platform is taken away. The problem with YouTube, historically, is that they are not clear about their criteria, are quick to act, and slow to respond. As such, many creators find their videos reinstated or monetized again after weeks of not earning the ad revenue they otherwise would have. This is why YouTubers are either starting to branch out to Twitch or open Patreon accounts. Others increase their income by offering merchandise. Their brand is themselves and their content, but their success comes from a multi-leveled approach.
I won't lie, I'm shaken by the email I received. At this time, it is impossible to know how these changes will affect the production schedule of books that I currently have in development or how working within Kindle's pricing and royalty standards will impact what my books will cost and what I will earn from them. Despite "being my own boss," I feel like an employee whose company was bought out and am left to wonder about my future with the film.
Still, I am not defeated, because I went into this understanding that I could only ever do what I was allowed to do within CreateSpace's system, and that until such a time as I am able to pay my own printers, I must be content within the parameters that come from using them. Kindle, even if I didn't choose it, will be the same, and I will have to adapt. The only ownership I have on the platform is the ownership I take over how I use it. Besides, even if there is an increase in online prices (and I will do everything I can to prevent that), it doesn't change what I sell my books for at events, which is the second level of my multi-level model. Are all of my levels operational yet? No, but I have more than one operational at this time, which is more than most can say. I'm not trying to brag but to stress the importance of having multiple platforms, so that as one possibly begins to fall out from under you, you have another one to jump to.
If you're a writer who is banking on ebook sales, consider a print option and look for book fairs or signing opportunities. If you're a blogger, look for sites where you can contribute articles. If you're streaming on Twitch, consider podcasts on iTunes. And if you're a YouTuber, well, I'm just sorry. No matter what you do, remember: you may be dependent on other people's platforms, but with humility and a multi-level strategy, you don't have to be at the mercy of them.
Jason Korsiak is a writer and speaker. He is currently booking dates for his upcoming tour, "Finding Christ in Christmas Specials," which you can learn about here. You can also learn more about him and his books here.