You Don’t Need Permission to Be Successful
So why are you still pandering to gatekeepers
Ryan M. Danks
Many people believe that politicians, celebrities, and CEOs keep them from achieving their dreams.
The reality is that none of them would have power if someone didn’t give it to them. You know who’s really in control, who absolutely has the power to block you? Gatekeepers — the ones who allow access to power and influence in the first place.
Or, at least, they used to.
Here’s a little secret: we don’t need gatekeepers anymore. I don’t. You don’t. What you need to do is snap out of the dinosaur mentality that the old world taught you to adopt.
Before I got into writing, I had few gatekeepers in my life. Call it my privilege or just a penchant for going after things that no one stood in the way of. I enjoyed hiking, but only the mountain could stop me from climbing it.
The origin of this mindset was probably a martial arts dojo somewhere in Las Vegas. I can’t say for sure when it happened, but I can identify a bit with Hawk from Cobra Kai — if something got in my way, I adapted, flipped the script, and found a way around the obstacle.
That’s easy to imagine, but when you’ve got a 6’5”, 250 lb, highly-trained behemoth raining blows down on your face, adaptation becomes a skill you have to master, fast!
When I got into writing, I had a more challenging time adapting. This was 2008. Obama was coming into office, and I was excited to get some of that change. So I left the security industry to become a creator — a job I always wanted to explore.
It was fun, at first, but I soon found myself squaring off against the industry’s gatekeepers.
I had my first victory in 2010, when, a year before, I had abandoned the idea of being a comic book artist for being a writer, which I was far better at.
Unfortunately, that same year, Marvel and DC both closed for open submissions. So I transitioned to fiction writing and sold a short story on Nov. 1st, 2010 (funny how you remember specific dates).
That was my ticket! I was going to ride that wave and make all the awesome things, and people were going to read them, too…until they didn’t.
2011 was another year of being told that I didn’t have permission to show my work to the world. I spent most of 2012 working on my craft, thinking that the problem was me.
In December of 2012, I learned about how Kickstarter worked and saw some people making massive success publishing roleplaying games on the platform.
That was my pivot: self-publishing RPGs. I started in that space, launching my first Kickstarter in April of 2013, and earning close to $14k.
That was followed by two more Kickstarters, which brought my total made on Kickstarter (for three different projects) closer to $30k. And that didn’t include the revenue from selling the projects after the initial fulfillment.
Publishing those RPGs led to publishing fiction, because who was going to stop me? I had my own publishing company! The mountain was mine to dominate, and no one could stand in my way.
The evidence suggests that I’m pretty good at selling myself, just not to highbrow agents and publishers. And my work was of a good enough quality that actual customers made return visits to pay cash money for my work.
Take that, gatekeepers!
Today, it’s far easier to get started — you don’t even need a publishing company.
Even though self-publishing on Kindle was a thing when I started, it was still going through a transition period where people expected self-published authors to suck.
Quick Side Note: A friend of mine auditioned for American Idol back in the day. He said there were hundreds of people auditioning who could put Mariah Carey to shame, but they were overlooked for worse singers who had more controversial personalities or life stories that would cause drama on a reality TV show.
If that story had taken place twenty years later (today), those better singers could have cut their own albums on platforms like Spotify or iTunes and made a pretty good living for themselves doing what they loved.
They weren’t right for reality TV, but they had the raw vocal talent to be successful in another format.
Likewise, authors can eschew the dream of seeing their book on shelves at Barnes and Noble and head into the self-publishing world to earn a decent living doing what they love, which will last longer, anyway.
If you had chosen Borders as your bookstore of choice — the way I did — the longevity argument would have a more obvious outcome for you.
Why gatekeepers exist
Imagine you have a company that turns spun aluminum into soda cans. The operations are likely pretty expensive.
The materials aren’t cheap; there are production lines, machinery, OSHA safety officers, sales teams, packaging, shipping…there’s a lot.
When choosing someone to run operations for this company, are they going to promote any old Jane or Joe from the line, just because they’ve been at it for a long time?
No. They’re going to choose someone, likely from outside of the company, who has been trained and possibly has a degree for business operations. Why? Because if they mess up, it could cost the company a lot of money.
Take a look at what publishing looked like just thirty years ago. You had print runs that would churn out between 10k and 20k copies, marketing (they didn’t expect you to run your own blogs back then), book tours, and that’s not even counting the author’s advance (a highly variable figure).
Not every book got the full treatment, but it could run the company a couple hundred thousand for one book.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t take that kind of chance without some vetting. And if I had a publishing company in place, I would have some quality control editors (read: “gatekeepers”) to make sure I’m betting part of the farm on what’s at least a solid story.
Then the internet changed everything
The benefit of gatekeepers to a company — to save them from lost revenue — is no longer valid when a book launch can be done well for under $3k, start to finish. By all rights, the publishing companies could be churning out dozens of more books every month, if they used the newer model, and still not lose anything (and probably gain a lot).
Vetting a product (or story, in this case) also benefits the consumer. No one wants to waste their time on what could potentially be a flop. When a publisher puts their name on a book, it’s their brand stating that it’s a quality read. Unfortunately, they don’t always get it right.
I know I’m not the only one who read Stephen King’s “Maximum Overdrive”.
The thing is, we don’t need professional gatekeepers to vet things anymore.
And that’s fortunate. How many books with liberal ideas were turned away in the last century because of conservative gatekeepers? How many conservative ideas are dismissed by liberal gatekeepers today? Removing the bias of a single person or small echo chamber allows for the world to get all the ideas.
So who’s going to vet all of these ideas?
Readers, that’s who. The ratings and reviews system over at Amazon and other online retailers leave a lot to be desired, to be sure, but they are lightyears better than they used to be, and slowly getting better.
When I’m able to read the reviews of a dozen or more gatekeepers, each with their own voices, biases, and descriptions of what they didn’t like about a thing, I’m able to make a much more informed decision about purchasing it than if I trusted someone who is getting paid to say good things about the product.
And like it or not, the market is the modern-day gatekeeper, even for traditionally published books. There’s a reason I waited eight months to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
It’s not just books that have changed
There are content sites that pay writers for producing quality stories, like Medium.com. It can be fiction or non-fiction, whatever brings the eyeballs of consumers.
Now, you may be thinking that the curators or publication editors are the gatekeepers at Medium. You’re right, to some degree, but here’s the thing: I get paid based on reading time.
So if I wanted to, I could spend the money to put ads for this article out on Facebook, Instagram, etc. I could run a months-long marketing campaign to drive traffic here. If my quality is good enough, they’ll probably signup for the paywall so they can click on my name and view my other articles.
But that’s the thing: they need to think my quality is good enough.
See who the real gatekeepers are?
Publication editors, whom you might think are gatekeepers, will publish almost anything that Tim Denning or Ayodeji Awosika send their way, not because it’s excellent writing every time, but because they’re guaranteed to bring the eyeballs. Why? Because they have had excellent quality often enough to deserve those views and reads.
Bring the quality, and end-users (AKA consumers) will tell their friends, plain and simple.
Why creating on the internet works
Simple: the platforms you are creating for need your work to make money. No Dwayne Johnson on Instagram, no ad revenue for the parent company. No prolific author on Amazon, no 30% royalty for Amazon.
Creating on the internet works because the platform and the creator have the same goals: to make money on the content. It took a while for the platforms to realize this, but once they did, they changed the way creators will make money for decades, or longer.
…platforms are the only gatekeepers who matter anymore.
Why? Have you ever heard about authors who get blacklisted from Amazon? What about YouTube creators who post compromising material and get their channel deleted?
Platforms can decide that the shared goal no longer applies to a particular creator and cut them off. That’s a good and bad thing (ah, censorship). But it’s not censorship because these platforms are not nations. Your rights are the ones you agreed to when you clicked that box after the text you didn’t read.
But internet platforms are run by mostly upright people. And when it’s discovered that they aren’t, people usually run to the other Starbucks across the street.
You do not need permission to be remarkable. You just do it. You also don’t need permission from some gatekeeper to make money creating online. It’s on you to make it happen.
Ryan M. Danks
Publishing consultant and word-slinging author of many things. http://ryanmdanks.com/