One of the first maxims I learned when I really committed myself to being a writer was that you can’t get published until you’ve been published.
Which is to say, an editor or an agent or a publisher isn’t going to consider your writing unless you have previous writing experience. Which you can’t get until an editor or an agent or a publisher considers your writing.
That’s the theory, anyway. In reality, of course, it’s not that simple (cuz otherwise no one would ever get published…). Lots of agents and editors read unsolicited queries, and while previous writing credits may positively influence them, it’s the quality of your query letter and actual writing itself that matters far more (to many of them, anyway). And when it comes to short stories submitted to literary magazines or small anthologies, previous writing credits may not be important at all. In fact, that’s how many writers break into the scene — you start small, and once you’ve built up your writing résumé a bit, you might get some more notice for your larger works.
But there’s definitely some truth in it still — and this vicious circle actually applies to lots of other areas.
Thinking about my ambitions for transmedia stories, large digital productions, and things like that, I did some research into funding (since here in Canada, there are several government avenues to get funding for the arts). The overwhelming truth I found in every application guideline was that you needed to show the judges that you had previous professional experience in whatever it was you wanted to do. You had to have had your work professionally published (not self-published), or have produced a film that was in a notable film festival, or something like that.
In fact, it could be quite restrictive — in order to get funding for a media project, like a film, you needed to have been the director on another successful film. You can’t just have been involved, even heavily involved; you need to have directed it. Period.
Now, from the point of the view of these funding bodies (and publishers and whoever else), this makes sense. It’s like any other résumé. An employer isn’t going to hire someone for an important managing position if they haven’t had any experience in that. That’s why kids get summer jobs and part-time jobs. That’s why people intern for no pay. You build your experience, then get to the positions you really want to do. Just like in the arts — I’m not going to risk giving you thousands of dollars if I don’t have any evidence that what you do with it will end up being something worth investing thousands of dollars in.
I think this holds true even beyond the rigid guidelines of government councils. If I were to set up a project on Kickstarter, asking for thousands of dollars, I’m still going to need to provide some evidence to whoever might help support me that it will be worth supporting. Maybe this would be easier there — a good enough pitch might do it — but it would be far more certain if I had an established audience, and a list of evidence that I know what I’m doing.
So yes, it makes sense that this vicious circle exists. The problem is that, as is the nature of any vicious circle, it’s hard to break into it. If I can’t get funding to create a film, how can I be director on a film to prove that I’m worth giving funding to to create a film?
And thus do artists slave away without being paid for their art, working day jobs for years while they try to establish themselves enough to warrant the trust of investors (and, working a day job, having less free time to practice their art).
There’s got to be a better way.