Friday, March 25, 2011

United Artists Redux

Repost From July 20, 2010. 

Given the excitement over Amanda Hocking and Barry Eisler. Amidst radical change forced on them by major advances in technology (largely out of their control), a small group of leading media producers have joined together to establish their own (insert word): broadcaster, publisher, studio, agency. Unlikely? Not now, because the functions that support these traditional media companies are increasingly becoming commoditised, enabling the creative producers (writers, authors, producers, etc.) to potentially collect more of the revenues generated from their creative output. While individual authors have gained some attention by 'going direct,' either by working through Amazon (J.A. Konrath) or direct to consumers via the iPad (Ryu Mirakami), it may be that traditional publishers have more to fear from groups of authors, editors and agents conspiring to establish their own media companies. 

These new companies would leverage the available low-cost 'back office' functions and the readily available supply-chain provision to dis-intermediate the traditional publishing monolith. In 1919, United Artists was formed by D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. These four performers established United Artists to gain greater control over their own work and to produce other work they thought valuable. The four partners eventually hired an executive to run the operation who, in addition to signing new actors and producers to United Artists, also established a movie theater chain. 

United Artists was ultimately unsuccessful as the changes in the industry largely exceeded the ability of the partners to adapt. Yet this model resonates in an age where 'infrastructure' is becoming less important than author, character and content branding. 

If a similar group of content creators were to establish a new "United Artists" organization they wouldn't find it difficult to hire executives to act on their behalf to establish a new publishing organization. This new organization would be unencumbered by either the traditional publishing model or (more importantly) the cost structure of the business. These United Artists would sit atop an organization that would be largely supported by external third-party agreements with accounting firms, editorial and production services, distribution and fulfillment, etc. Important value-added services such as marketing, promotion, content rights and licensing - those functions that, by definition, worked closest to the content creators and added real value to the consumer experience would be full-time hires of United Artists. 

In discussing authors 'going direct,' there are frequent suggestions that this could become an avalanche with traditional publishers seeing their best and most profitable content producers leave the fold. This belies the difficulty of an author having to do all the nasty stuff the publisher does for them if they go it alone. However, what if the author became a partner in his or her own publishing company? Then, perhaps, the model changes and the options begin to look more appealing for the content producer and potentially problematic for the traditional publisher. 

Could recently reported news by Variety that Steve Ross had joined joined Abrams Artist Agency to provide "consulting services to a select list of clients" be an indication that PND isn't the first to revive the United Artists idea? 

See my post from last week about scale and infrastructure: The Baked Beans are Off.


Unknown said...

I've noted this on a (very) small scale with groups of authors who are banding together to sell digital copies of their rights reverted works. The technology isn't pretty at the moment, but I'd call these early attempts at forming the kind of coalition you are referencing.

Nicola Griffith said...

The co-ops are coming, no doubt about it. More slowly for writers than other groups, though, because we all think we're smarter than anyone else and find it difficult to follow a leader...

Jennifer Stevenson said...

Look at for a trailblazing example.

Marianna Jameson said...

Another recent example is, which was started by a few members of Novelists, Inc. (NINC).

Von Allan said...

I think the largest and most successful recent example of this is the founding of Image Comics. The artists who formed it in 1992 were, for the most part, the most successful and accomplished artists working for Marvel Comics at that time. Thes individuals involved (Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, and Whilce Portacio) have all continued to work within the comics industry and Image Comics continues to be a strong publisher in 2010 (note that Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic series has recently been acquired by AMC).

I'm always amazed that we haven't seen more "Image Comics" style publishing houses form. While Image, like United Artists, certainly had (and has) its issues, I suspect more authors and visual artists will experiment with this idea going forward.

One key factor that shouldn't be forgotten was that Image was able to gain a strong distribution foothold in the Direct Market through Diamond Comic Distributors. Being treated as a brokered publisher (as are Marvel, DC and Dark Horse) allowed Image to compete on an equal footing with their larger competitors in way that many other comic book publishers can't match.

Matt Damon said...

This guy looks like he's barking up the same tree, he did an "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit that was hugely popular - he's got his entire book posted up online for free but is hoping to sell e-copies: