Richard MacManus on how to build a career as a professional creator

In 2003, Richard MacManus founded the popular tech blog ReadWriteWeb. Now, he's back with Cybercultural, a newsletter covering how technology is changing cultural industries (books, movies, music, podcasts, etc.). Richard lives at the cutting edge of new media models and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about how to build a career as a professional creator.

What's your thesis for Cybercultural? How has the internet changed since you launched ReadWriteWeb back in 2003? What underlying fundamentals remain true?

Cybercultural is an email newsletter focused on the intersection of technology and the cultural industries. As I noted in my launch post, you only need to look at the likes of Spotify, Netflix and Amazon to realise that digital technology has profoundly changed the way cultural products are produced, distributed, paid for, and consumed.

Cybercultural is also my attempt to tackle the problems that emerged from the Web 2.0 era - a.k.a. the read/write web, which is what I named my previous blog. While I’m glad Web 2.0 gave us the tools to become professional creators (if we have the requisite talent and perseverance), it also made it much tougher for creators—and cultural institutions—to make their mark in a noisy and often superficial online world. So with Cybercultural, I aim to be an advocate for professional creators and the cultural organisations that support them. The major challenges of this era are how to find an audience, how to get peoples’ attention, and how to make money. It's a very challenging environment now, but I want to analyse these issues for the cultural industries and help find solutions.

As for the format, I chose to run it as a subscription email newsletter using Substack. Email newsletters are a format that has never really gone away, unlike blogs - which have, unfortunately, become much more difficult to run nowadays due to the demise of online advertising and RSS Readers. And we can no longer rely on social media to disseminate our content, due to the increasingly opaque algorithms of Facebook, Twitter, et al.

Plenty has changed since I launched ReadWriteWeb in 2003. The business model most of all. RWW made most of its revenue via online advertising and sponsorship, but that's very difficult these days - Facebook and Google have squeezed indie bloggers out. Also there's a lot of noise nowadays, mainly due to social media. As for what underlying fundamentals remain in place, I think it's that anybody can still create something new on the Web and give it a fair crack in the open market. Whether that's a niche media publication, like Cybercultural, or an indie author self-publishing on Amazon's platform, or a musician uploading their music to Bandcamp. The tools are even more plentiful now than they were in 2003, so fundamentally the read/write web is very sound. But the business models are difficult to break through, and it's exceedingly difficult to get peoples attention nowadays.

What frequently misunderstood forces are shaping the future of cultural industries like books, music, blogs, and podcasts? What do those forces mean for professional creators? 

I think one of the fallacies of Web 2.0 was that it created a democratisation of cultural content - that anyone could earn a living by being a content creator and that people would be able to earn their living just by being a part of The Long Tail. But the reality turned out to be quite different from the initial wave of Web 2.0 optimism. In reality, you can't make a living by publishing a book that lives way down in the long tail (I discovered this with my self-published science fiction novel, Presence!). And the same is true of music, movies, blogs, podcasts, etc. The cultural industries has never been a democracy—at best, it's a meritocracy. For some reason, in the early 2000s we all thought the Web would change that and democratize everything.

Another thing people may not fully realise is that creators are still reliant on gatekeepers in the cultural industries - and sometimes the power those people wield is alarming. Try to get a book noticed without it getting reviewed in book industry publications, or other publications with a sizable audience (your own breakthrough with Cumulus, for example, happened largely due to a fairly unexpected Ars Technica post). The gatekeeper model that existed prior to the Web hasn't gone away—and if anything it's even more pronounced now, because you need those people to cut through all the internet noise. Sure some gatekeepers are now Web native—e.g. prominent bloggers or people who have amassed large Twitter followings. But as a professional creator, you need them today just as much as you needed someone like a literary agent back in the 20th century.

What new business models are professional creators using to make a living? How should aspiring and experienced creators build resilient careers?

It depends on the sector, but subscriptions is certainly an important (but still nascent) business model. It's what I'm trying with Cybercultural, and it's also happening more and more with the platform companies (Spotify, Amazon, Netflix, Apple, et al). Various cultural sectors are at varying degrees of maturity with the model—arguably Spotify's subscription model is more mature than the newspaper models, since bundling isn't so common yet in news media (although that's starting to change). Another recent trend is crowdfunded subscriptions, especially with Patreon. But as I explored in a recent newsletter, it's much harder than it seems to build a paying subscriber base. The '1000 true fans' theory of Kevin Kelly is appealing and theoretically spot on, but in reality it's very difficult to achieve.

I'm not sure there is such a thing as a "resilient career" among professional creators, since only the elite creators can claim to be financially secure. The rest of us have to constantly innovate and hustle to get attention and earn an income. Perhaps that's as it should be. Once we all get Universal Income, after AI takes all the non-creative jobs, maybe then creators will find it easier to get paid!

Tim O'Reilly famously said, "The problem for most artists isn't piracy, it's obscurity." In a noisy world, how do professional creators become the signal?

I think all you can do is try to contribute something original and meaningful to the world, that nobody else is doing as well as you. Then at least you're a signal worth picking up. As to how people discover you, on the internet it takes a lot of networking and a fair dollop of luck. There's no easy formula. But that's partly why I created Cybercultural, to try and figure this out—and of course, hopefully become a signal myself.

What lessons have you learned from interviewing folks like Zoƫ Keating, Jason Kottke, and other creators who are making a good living making good art?

All of the people I interviewed were passionate about their niche and seemed to have a calling to do what they do, which is something I already knew about from my own experience with RWW (but it's always good to be reminded of it, because sometimes you forget to do what you love). I think Jason Kottke, who has been a blogger for over 20 years, was the most extreme example of this—especially since it's very difficult to make a living as a blogger now. For similar reasons I also really admire how Zoe Keating perseveres in running her career as a DIY musician, given all the economic ups and downs the music industry has endured since Napster.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this set of interviews was how long most of these people took to gather an audience. It took YouTuber Tal Oran 3-4 years to grow his audience and earn enough to go full-time (and even 1-2 years after that, he's still not satisfied with his audience and revenue). It was a similar story for other creators. Brian McCullough launched the Internet History Podcast in February 2014 as a research tool for a book on the same topic, but the book wasn't released till October 2018. Cherie Hu, who I regard as a very promising music journalist, has been doing her email newsletter for well over 3 years now—and is probably only at the base of the mountain in terms of how many subscribers she'll eventually have. Doug Metzger has been doing his fabulous Literature and History podcast for over three years, and has a massive catalog of content now - but has a long way to go till he makes a living from it.

So the big learning for everyone, including me: it takes more time than you think to build a career as a creator, so keep doing what you love and keep at it every day!

Complement with my IndieHackers interview, how to publish your fiction, and three pieces of advice for building a writing career.

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