Updated: Apr 26, 2021
One of the key aspects to a successful creative career is owning (up to) what you bring out. I call this creative agency or ownership: a culmination of everything you can and cannot do with your own output. And on each step - big or small - you will always face the same choice: do I keep my agency, or give it away? To anwer that question, I'm going to scare the living bejesus out of you.
Flipping the script
Just now, I had a really nice lunch with a very good young writer. She told me about some of her insecurities. Doubts I also have, still to this day, even after I don't know how much stuff I've penned down already. When writers meet we usually end up talking about writing for an audience. It really doesn't matter whether it's theater or fiction or business or scripts or marketing, there is always this sense of 'how much do I cater to the audience' and 'how much should be me'. And most of the time we end up with that cliché that is oh so true: 'Write what you know'. The more you own your piece, the better it will perform.
Writing at the end is a very insecure job. And I'm not just talking money. There is the audience of course, which is scary enough. But you are your own audience too. When you write you are literally confronted with your own words. There are staring at you from the screen, in your face, like a mirror of your deepest thoughts. And if you do not like them, you end up not liking yourself.
It's the main reason we procrastinate: we are not just scared of the audience, we are scared of ourselves too. So we'd rather avoid ourselves and revel in the works of others we admire. And in more cases than you'd think, it's not even being scared of failure, but of success: what if this works and my life changes forever?
That's why today, I'm going to flip the script on you storytellers. I'm not going to talk about what happens when you own your own words. We're not going into that mirror. Plenty of self help books are available for that already. No, we're going to go into what happens when you don't own your own creative work. And believe me, that's even scarier.
In other words... Today I'm going to scare you into being yourself. And I'm going to use a very extreme example to make my case: a video game.
The Biggest Botched Launch in History
It will go down in history as one of the biggest debacles ever surrounding the release of a creative product: the launch of the video game Cyberpunk 2077. Expectations where sky high, and rightfully so. The last game from developers CD Projekt Red had been The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that came out in 2015. Even now, many still regard it as the best video game in the world, having topped those lists for years now. And for crying out loud, Keanu Reeves is in Cyberpunk. Keanu freakin' Reeves man!!!
But a lot has changed since 2015. Most notably, new shareholders had entered the company. And understandably so. The promise of Cyberpunk 2077 was so great, that millions of so called pre-orders had been made. Those pre-orders alone already covered the cost of the entire multi-million dollar development cycle. All in all, the game was setting up to be the biggest release of all time.
And then it launched riddled with bugs that make the game completely unplayable, combined with terrible graphic problems on older consoles. This resulted in the unprecedented move of distributors like Sony, Microsoft and Valve offering refunds to the game without even consulting with the developer. And I've only scratched the surface here. What should have been the biggest release ever became the biggest botched launch of all time.
Now, why on Earth would any developer worth his or her salt, especially a truly fantastic group like CD Projekt Red (if you couldn't tell, I'm a fan too...), release their greatest upcoming game in an unfinished state?
The answer: they wouldn't. But it was not up to them.
Ownership equals responsibility
CD Projekt Red is not majority-owned by its developers, but by its shareholders. Many of those stockholders wanted to cash in on those pre-orders. And since they are the owners of the company, they are the ones who decide when a game will be released. With the amount of pre-release sales already great enough, they started pushing the developers to release the game, even in an unfinished state, to make money.
What happened here wasn't because of the developers. These developers don't own (enough of) the company anymore to make executive decisions such as the release date. Yet, when things go wrong, they are the ones who get the flack. Seems unfair doesn't it? That my dear storytellers is what happens when you don't have enough agency over what you put out. This story alone should inspire you not to doubt yourself too much when you go your own way and maintain control of your own output. It's scary yes, because you're vulnerable. But it's even scarier if you don't.
The original creators didn't have enough ownership over the finished product to postpone and fine tune their life's work. Those who do own it, the shareholders, don't feel any responsibility for delivering quality. It's not their work, so why should they care? As long as it makes them money, they're fine. The apple is 100% an apple here: a lack of ownership evidently, clearly, unequivocally, led to this disaster.
And I am positively quivering with passion about it.
Defending the creators
Not because of the game itself. The developers will land on their feet. They'll release online patches that will fix things. And in some time, the game will live up to its promise I'm sure. And again people... Keanu Reeves! No, I'm so passionate because I feel I need to defend the creators here. And by doing so, we can discuss what it means for your releases too. I'll use another personal example to explain.
Recently, I've been contacted by a record label with the question if I would want to join their roster. There is a downside and an upside to such a deal. The downside could be that we as a band, could loose some of our creative agency to do with the music what we feel is right. The record label may push songs that we feel are not our best work. The upside is: they could be right. They, as outsiders, may have a better feel for which songs the market wants, and which ones they don't. And they have the contacts to show for it.
Now, the label I'm talking about is perfectly fine. They're not the bloodhounds we usually associate with the music industry. Whatever happens, we'll be okay. Still, it is a dilemma. Mostly an emotional one. You feel like you should take the shot because these kind of shots don't always come along. On the other hand you have control over your output now, and have a reasonable reach already, so why give that up?
In this case, the best trade-off isn't a trade off at all, it's a paradox. The best situation is to let go of some of your agency to let them do the work they are good at - publishing and promoting - while you stay in control of the finished product. As we've discussed in another article on these pages already, you should not go for a deal if it means trading short term success for long term control. However sweet that deal may seem.
Own your wallet by owning your content
This doesn't just go for a financial deal but also for a deal on content. Many of us are in a situation where the stories we are telling aren't entirely up to us to create. We are often confined by the rules of the medium or even a paying customer. Film requires different things than a press release or a specific article on marketing. And clients have a story that needs to be conveyed well.
Yet, in those cases it's still good to stay in your strength. Why? Well, it's not just the medium or the client that we need to think off, it's also the receiver of the message. Those who see your story want to be inspired. Ultimately you are helping everyone if you stay true to your best skills. In other words, if you keep your creative ownership. Your wallet will thank you too.
Storytelling and self confidence
Ultimately, it comes down to self confidence. You should not overestimate how good you are in promoting yourself, which is an art form in itself. But also, please, don't underestimate your abilities as a storyteller. You are reading this blog for a reason. Chances are you are good at what you do. Better most of the time, than you'd think.
And if you're not convinced even now, consider this: the cost of not staying true to yourself is always greater than the opposite. Just ask CD Projekt Red. Whatever you create, own it.
Love, as always.
And plant trees people. Plant trees.