Why creators should hire their own “boss”

What do solo media professionals such as YouTubers, podcasters or writers miss without an editor, and how the overprotective culture will ruin most of them

Maxwell Perkins was not exactly famous. Ok, the very notion of “famous” is a complicated one, but even in his own epoch and métier, Perkins wasn’t well-known and exalted as his boys Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe. For one thing, he wasn’t a writer, he was a book editor — yes, he’s that guy from the movie Genius (2016) — , and secondly, Perkins, while a major literary figure, always practiced what he preached: book editors should remain invisible.

But what would this fame equation look like if we applied some creative reverse engineering? Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe would be eternally “visible” without Perkins? Would The Great Gatsby be brilliant as it turned out to be? Would Look Homeward, Angel ever see the light of day? “An editor creates nothing,” Perkins used to say.

Interesting choice of words, Max. From the mid-2000s onwards, a lot of media professionals (and a few amateurs) decided to “create something,” to become “creators,” which is the trendy term for trying a solo career in the search for audience, relevance, and money. They once were photographers, designers, journalists, jobless, but now they create under the titles of YouTubers, podcasters, TikTokers or simply “influencers,” a label they love to pretend to hate.

Some have succeeded beyond expectations, but for each Peter McKinnon, each Burak Özdemir who thrived in a solo career, there are millions that failed relentlessly — literally. Considering only YouTube, there are over 30 million channels on the platform, and less than 100,000 of them (0,003%) have more than 1,000 subscribers.

This phenomenon is not limited to YouTube, evidently. From the 2005 blogs that grew into solid media companies, such as Huffington Post and TechCrunch, to the most successful and popular podcasts of 2020, all these “new” mediums became the new (media) normal. In the last few months alone, several journalists and writers, such as (The Verge) and (The Intercept), chose to launch their own indie-style publications rather than keeping a traditional job. The 2020 version of we-should-buy-bar is a newsletter.

[roll intro]

The Huffington Post in 2005: from a small blog to a $315 million company

The reasons are as numerous as they are obvious. The traditional market went down the drain, media outlets shut down like dominoes falling, thousands of professionals lost their jobs and, finally, hustle culture revisited the magnetism of an old magic word: entrepreneurism.

Those media professionals who took an alternative path are no Hemingway, of course (not even you, Glenn, mate, sorry), but the analogy fits the debate: how could the presence of a Max Perkins help in their lives? Or in a broader spectrum, what do solo creators such as YouTubers, podcasters or journalists miss out on without the figure of a “boss”?

Before we go any further, let’s abolish the silly argument that states that the channel, the podcast, the newsletter belongs to the creator and he does whatever he wants with it. This is obvious, empty, and it doesn’t add anything to the conversation. A girl may have 1,000 subscribers on YouTube or 1,000 downloads on her podcast and live happily ever after. That’s not the point. The question is, would media entrepreneurs looking for more quality, audience, relevance and money be better or worse with an “editor,” a “director,” essentially, with a Max Perkins?

First, it’s vital to understand that this is an excessively large list of media heads — from Logan Paul, a foolish 25-year-old YouTuber, to Glenn Greenwald, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. As weird as it may sound, in this story line, all the Logans, Glenns, Caseys, Peters and thousands of others are in the same boat: the one whose helmsman and sole authority is the content creator himself.

When Casey Newton left The Verge to start his own newsletter at Substack, he gave an interview to his former colleague Sarah Jeong. Back then, she asked: “The benefit of being at an institution is health insurance, legal assistance, and editing. How much of this are you about to get from Substack?” While Newton replied: “Legal is about the biggest protection they’re offering, and it’s very significant. (…) On health care, they’re offering me a small subsidy for a year.” When it came to the “editing” part, though, the answer took a turn: thanks, but no thanks. After leaving The Intercept, the news outlet he co-founded in 2013, Glenn Greenwald also took his desk to Substack, and, I suspect, he cut a similar deal.

Newton and Greenwald secured what they consider the best of both worlds, they’ve checked “yes” to resources and “no” to oversight.

Glenn Greenwald left 'The Intercept’ and joined the newsletter open bar

It is akin to what other platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok have taught: liberated from the formality of big corporations, creators feel free to de-professionalize the product and exploit the devil-may-care nature of the job. The irony is, even among the “pros,” those who close hefty deals with high-end brands, amateurism occasionally pops up as a useful subterfuge. Again, “yes” to sponsorships, “no” to quality control.

The main issue, however, is much more tricky. The one-man media business never hires a “boss” (or even an “equal”), he hires “help”: an intern, an assistant, maybe he gets lonely, I don’t know. Solitude-wise, it may work, but in terms of criticism, guidance and development, this type of hiring is pretty much useless.

Okay, but if someone is the happy owner of his own business, why on Earth would he hire a “boss”? First of all, because this is not a hot dog cart. Secondly, because self-awareness is much more valuable than what those feeble LinkedIn posts have been telling you. But mostly because there are plenty of scenarios where this influencer, happy owner of his own business, has become a bad influence to himself.

I’ll describe the character and you let me know if someone comes to mind:

A) The YouTuber who also happens to have a podcast, but talks way too much, doesn’t let her interviewers complete one single line of thought, and nonetheless tries to insert herself in every story.

B) The journalist that writes with no sense of sizing or editing, which turn his stories and articles into endless and unfocused pieces, causing the reading rate to drop by half of what it could be.

C) The influencer who is recording his fifth video in a row and clearly no longer has the patience to record anything else but does it anyway (we can tell by watching it, man).

D) The YouTuber that spends more time talking about his wife or girlfriend or kids than about the subject of which he is an expert and the reason why he got subscribers (nobody loves your family like you do).

E) All of the above.

MKBHD: great tech YouTuber and a terrible interviewer

But what degree of assurance can one have about the presence of a Perkins in creators’ lives? Would MKBHD, which is one of the best tech reviewers of his generation, become a better interviewer if he had an “editor?” Definitely. Would Logan Paul have escaped from the infinite amount of stupidity into which he plunged his career if he had one? Probably not. Paul doesn’t look like an “editable” guy.

What sounds like a dead end — creators would never hire a “boss” — is not exactly true. Some have. Ok, not a boss-boss, but still. Since influencer marketing became a thing, solo media entrepreneurs and agencies started to establish a relationship with mutual benefits. Some YouTubers, Instagram celebrities and podcasters have a “talent manager” and an agent. In smaller leagues (less than 1 million fans/followers/subscribers), the nomenclature is ambiguous and often one person plays both roles, but the rule of thumb is that a manager will help with creator’s brand and his creative process, while an agent will work bringing in new sponsorship deals — as it happens with singers, actors, models etc. This is the closest these people get to having a “boss.”

Over time, the biggest talent agencies in the world joined the influencers’ gold rush. WME, for example, that amass clients like Keanu Reeves, Rihanna and Eddie Vedder also works with the YouTubers iJustine and Jake Paul (Logan’s brother). UTA, another major player in this market, can display in the same list legends like Pink Floyd and Ringo Starr, and a couple of social media teens such as Dixie D’Amelio and Emma Chamberlain.

But these are first division relationships. The influence of WME in iJustine’s creative process, for example, is far from being life-altering, if at all. In (much) smaller agencies, this link is closer to what it looks like with an “editor”. Mike Sheffer, founder of Moment Mgmt, explained in a 2018 interview how he works with his client, YouTuber Erik Conover: “I’m on the business side, but I’m also a creative person. If we have a disagreement it’s: either one of us is right, none of us is right, let’s just try everything and then we’ll figure it out later.” Until 2018, Conover had a multi-thematic YouTube channel, then — with Sheffer’s backstage help — he decided to focus exclusively on luxury real estate. In the last 16 months, his channel grew from 400k to 1.5 million subscribers.

Great, so does it mean that what’s good for Conover is good for the gander? Of course not. It is hard to know even if the arrangement was actually good for Conover. I have no idea what his expectations were when he hired a manager-slash-agent: maybe he envisaged more money, more subscribers, more everything. Or maybe he felt some frustration with the path his career was taking in 2018 and did the right thing by looking for his “Perkins.”

This kind of awareness is crucial because whether you make YouTube videos or work for a traditional company, the worst people to turn to when you need a professional feedback are: your spouse, your best friend, and your parents. For starters, they don’t understand the true dynamics of your work, furthermore they are required by law to never thwart your hopes and dreams, which is insane, sure — but, like, in a cute way.

In recent years, this syllogism has only worsened. That’s because the hustle culture established a convenient partnership with the overprotective culture, the one that paints sunshine and rainbows 24/7, like a YouTuber’s intern. But you don’t need to be a YouTuber (or hire an intern) to get a vivid glimpse of the overprotective culture: just go to LinkedIn. The business-oriented platform is an endless source of zero criticism and infinite you’re-doing-great rhetoric spread with no criteria — it goes to those who have just been fired or to those whose management led to a company being shut down. For reasons passing comprehension, they’re all doing splendidly on LinkedIn.

Suffice to say that this overprotective culture is one of the main obstacles of self-assessment. Not only the “selfie” part, but assessment in general. Over the last years, the simple practice of receiving grasping criticism without pique became fictional work because we have been creating a “Matryoshka” of bubbles where there is no room for that anymore.

And this is not a 2020 prerogative: the professional version of here’s-your-trophy-for-breathing has been making its way into traditional companies for quite some time. The problem is, in this universe that ditched the ruler, all failures are candidly ignored and everybody is praised for pseudo-achievements, the likelihood of escaping mediocrity is increasingly slim.

Contrary to popular opinion, we all should take criticism more personally. Not less. Avoiding criticism won’t save your soul, let alone your job.

Since the overprotective culture is a game where everybody plays defense, the presumed reaction now is to pull the none-of-your-business card: this is my channel or company, so if it fails, it will be my failure. That’s true, and in 99.9% of the cases I’d say you’re right — every day thousands of entrepreneurs dive into that void where projects go to die without even realizing it. It turns out that a game-changing circumstance works in both directions, so the same way as one unexpected hit can skyrocket you to stardom, one single failure can affect those who come next.

If your podcast about country music or craft beer sank because of your stubbornness, this may mean that, in the near future, companies will have more resistance to sponsoring a country music or craft beer podcast. If the news website you once managed shut down, although everyone kept saying that your work was astonishing, it could mean that your work wasn’t that amazing after all. And since your news outlet no longer exists, these doors are also closed to the next generation of professionals. If your YouTube channel has been stagnating for months, maybe it’s time to find someone who doesn’t spend 24 hours encouraging your self-indulgent nonsense, because this is clearly not helping.

And if nothing I said seemed convincing enough (I don’t mind playing my own criticism game), at least let’s try one final exercise in comparative logic: if in a universe led by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the existence of a Max Perkins was mission-critical, imagine one dominated by PewDiePie, Addison Rae and Kylie Jenner.

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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