My friend Ariana works with Warren Ellis to make all kinds of really cool things. Lately, they've been experimenting with print on demand technology to take creative risks that simple economics would have rendered impossible as recently as five years ago.
For example, three weeks ago, they started putting out a T-shirt of the Week at CafePress. It's a great idea: they put up a design on Sunday, it's available for a week, and then it goes off to the land of wind and ghosts to make room for something new. If you like the design, you grab it (possibly enjoying that you're part of a limited edition), and if you don't like the design, you just wait a week and try again.
Warren says: "TOTW is basically a joke that Ariana and I pull each week in our joint guise as the International Electrophonic Unit. Basically, we take some of the stupider things I’ve said on Twitter and elsewhere, often in a state of extreme alcoholic refreshment or severe sleep deprivation, and put them on a t-shirt. Ariana set up a Cafe Press store (because this is a joke and engaging with a serious maker of t-shirts would be less funny to us), and… well, once a week, here we are."
As a creator and as a consumer, I think this is awesome. The only thing Warren and Ariana are actually investing – that is, the only risk they're taking - is the time it takes to create the design, and if you're a creative person who, uh, enjoys creating, that's not really a risk as much as it's a chance to play with your toys and possibly make a little money while you do it.
This is incredibly inspiring to me, and I hope that it's just as inspiring to indie artists everywhere. Why not take a creative risk and see if it works out? Unlike the old days, when we had to purchase a lot of stock ahead of time and hope we could sell it, we can just Get Excited and Make Things, knowing that the very worst that can happen is that nobody likes that thing we made as much as we thought they would.
In the old days, creators had to hope that:
1. A store would carry their Thing.
2. Once in the store, their Thing would be in a place where people could see it.
3. People would buy their Thing.
4. People would buy enough of their Thing to get the cycle to start over at step 1.
Oh, and to have any hope of being successful, they have to do this in different stores all over the place, competing for space and attention with huge companies that have massive advertising budgets. It was, to say the very least, daunting.
But look at how much things have changed! Creative people can get excited, make something, and get it to their customers without ever having to go through any of those steps. The financial risk has been almost entirely taken away, so now we can take chances on our really crazy ideas, just because we're excited about them.
For example, when my episode of Criminal Minds was going to air, I got excited and made an audio version of the production diary from Sunken Treasure. The time elapsed from the moment I got excited until the moment I had an actual thing was about five hours. Now, it's hasn't exactly sold like crazy – only 242 total sales – and if I'd invested in actual product instead of doing it POD, I would have lost money on it for sure … but I spent half a day making something that has gotten great feedback from the people who listened to it, and I earned about nine hundred dollars for my trouble. Clearly, it's not a sustainable full-time business model, but it was certainly as successful as I could hope one of my Crazy Ideas would be.
If this sounds even remotely interesting or inspiring to you, I encourage you to read three posts Ariana has recently written on her blog about her experiences with POD:
Will tomorrow’s design be niftier? Who knows? I’m taking the opportunity that a weekly project affords to try and up my game each time… but whether you like the next (or the next, or the next) better is, well, it’s all a bit like Let’s Make A Deal,isn’t it? Only instead of fabulous prizes and curtains named Door #4, it’s fabulous bits of silly on whatever clothing options we’ve decided to offer this week. But the basic premise stands: Either you decide this week’s is the design you want… or its gone and that’s that.
with POD, there’s really no “…while supplies last!” either. That’s brilliant, too, of course — a huge part of putting Shivering Sands on Lulu is just that: it can stay there as long as Lulu does, still pulling in a sale or two in ten years.
But, although I’m not advocating a fake or forced sense of urgency — because that’s a bit cheap, and more than a bit insulting to folks’ intelligence — there is something to be said about exploring how some online and POD systems do lend themselves to Being An Event.
It was Warren that first brought my attention to the concept of Event Internet (although he calls it “Appointment,” but I don’t love those so I’ve renamed for comfort), so I’m riffing off his playbook, here. But he’s certainly not the only person playing with the idea. There’s the well-documented Twitter-Flash-Mobbery that Amanda Palmer’s been pushing for a while, or Eliza Gauger’s Sweatshops, for instance. Hell, just a few minutes ago, Wil sent me a link to this, saying: “It redraws random fractals every few seconds. You can’t save them, so you just appreciate them and then wait for the new one to show up.” Which isn’t precisely an “event,” I suppose, but it sums up the idea rather nicely: You can’t save everything — although you can often record the live event to watch later — but sometimes, some things, even online, are about this moment. And when they’re gone, you missed it.
So what the hell could that possibly have to do with Print On Demand which, as I just said, is so great because it just stays there forever? Well, it’s all about looking at the tools in your kit and thinking about new ways to use them.
In response to the inevitable cries of "but this only works for people like Warren Ellis because he's Warren Ellis" she wrote POD: If you're not Warren Ellis, which I can't really excerpt here, because it needs to be read in context. To sum up: before he was Warren Ellis, not even Warren Ellis was Warren Ellis. Stop crying about how you're not Warren Ellis, be who you are, and take that energy you're pouring into feeling sorry for yourself into getting excited and making something.
Finally, she wrote POD: Let's back up a bit here, which I think is the most inspiring of the three. You need to read the whole thing, but I'll pull a bit for you:
Here’s what you need to do, right now, tonight. No, NOT tomorrow morning, or this weekend, or once your work rush has let off a little, or after the holidays, or sometime in the New Year: Right. Fucking. Now.
Decide what you want to make.
And I’m talking about the single most complicated and ridiculous creation you can think of…
NO STOP IT I DIDN’T SAY HOW or WHY or WHEN, I only said WHAT.
I SAID STOP THINKING ABOUT THE HOW OR THE LOGISTICS OR THE MONEY OR THE TIME. STOP IT.
This moment, right now, this THING that you’re deciding to make, this thing exists independently of the fiddly bits for now. This, what you’re doing here, is something that back in the olden days, before the slagosphere wasted all your time telling you how not to do things they called a goal. It’s a beautiful and magical thing that doesn’t need money or time or effort to believe in. It’s only different from a dream in that you made it yourself, instead of letting your subconscious do all the work while you sleep.
Now, okay, here’s the little-bit harder step, are you ready?
Look at that THING you just said you wanted to make. Really look at it. Now, right now, tonight, NOT tomorrow morning, or this weekend, or once your work rush has let off a little, or after the holidays, or sometime in the New Year: Right. Fucking. Now.
DECIDE WHETHER YOU’RE GOING TO DO IT, OR NOT.
Period. This is it. You’ve been putting it off, or you’ve been planning to get around to it, or you know that once you get a little spare time it’s at the top of the list… for HOW long now? I’m looking at you. I know you’re already taking a breath to rattle off the list of all the things standing in your way. and what’s more, I know you know they’re just excuses.
And it needs to end, now. Your life is never going to GET less stressful. It’s honestly not. That’s not how life works. When we put off the things we want to do, the stress of that adds into the stress of life. You’re not going to GET more hours in the day. You’re never going to have enough money to put aside spare time. You’re not going to suddenly have That Moment where it all gels and you suddenly break out and start doing what you want to be doing… unless you MAKE that moment, right here, right now.
I'm not suggesting your quit your job and napalm the bridge behind you as you drive out of the parking lot, because not everyone is going to be able to do this and make a living from it … but that's not really the point, here. The point is to encourage those of you (us) who have been unable or unwilling to take the chance and just create something, already, to get out there and do it.
I once saw a poster or a paperweight or something that said, "What would you do if you knew you could not fail?" Think about that for a second. What thing do you want to make? What story do you want to tell? What song do you want to sing?
We can take these great creative risks now, because we really can't fail, not in the traditional monetary sense. Sure, we could be out a lot of time, but even that time isn't entirely wasted, as I hope to illustrate with two examples of my own:
1. I spent days putting together a little book that I thought would be awesome, only to discover that there was absolutely no way to make it affordable for me or you. I was disappointed that I spent all that time, but it was incredibly fun while I did it, and maybe I have a script for a show now, instead of a book.
2. I worked really hard to write a story that ultimately wasn't really finished, as much as it was let go. I spent a lot of time after I was supposed to be done with it, trying to figure out how I could fix it so I could publish it, before reaching the very upsetting conclusion that it just can't be fixed. I talked about this with some friends who are writers, and told them how I felt like the whole thing was a waste of time and that all I got out of the experience was the knowledge that I need to do a whole lot of grinding before I level up as a writer. One of my friends, an incredibly talented and accomplished writer, told me, "Every project you finish levels you up as a writer." While I was (and am) still disappointed at what I believe was a failed project, I can't disagree with my friend. I gained Writer XP, even if I didn't gain a great story that I can feel good about publishing and selling.
So what are you waiting for? Do or do not. There is no Try. Whether it's an Etsy store, or a book with Lulu, or a T-shirt or a mug or a clock or a fucking teddy bear in a sweater from CafePresssingle … hell, if it's a photograph you put on Flickr or a podcast you host on Archive.org, or a story that you write for Ficly or your own blog, just do it! Go get excited and make things, and when you're done, come back here and link us to what you did.