Sarah McIntyre (jabberworks) wrote,
Sarah McIntyre

Some thoughts on illustration and Twitter activism

We've all seen how Twitter is a powerful tool: it can bring about huge changes, rally people, and also destroy people's careers with a single tweet. Since 2015, I've been part of a campaign called #PicturesMeanBusiness, trying to show people how everyone benefits when illustrators are credited properly for their work. It was born out of my own experiences and seeing my friends and colleagues suffer and struggle unnecessarily. I made a lot of mistakes, some of them very painful and humiliating. I thought I'd try to write up some of the things I've learned. I'm not saying anyone else needs to take these points on board, but if you happen to be curious, here they are.

Artwork by Woodrow Phoenix, created for the website, designed and built by Soni Speight

1. There's a choice. One thing I learned early on is that a Twitter activist needs to make a decision: am I more interested in stoking outrage or in fixing the problem? Outrage is the currency of the Internet, and a savvy way to build an online profile is to get people really angry or upset about a legitimate problem. People get famous and powerful that way. But the problem with outrage is that it doesn't actually solve the problem; unless a constructive and realistic solution is proposed, it simply divides people and makes the situation worse. It creates 'sides', where perhaps there weren't sides before, and both sides stop talking to each other.

The problem with fixing something is that often a solution is very boring. It involves tackling, one by one, small manageable bits of what's broken in a system. It often means talking to individual people and convincing them, rather than shouting to the world to burn down the whole system. There's not a lot of glamour in dealing with solutions bit by bit; it won't capture people's imagination in a simple phrase, sell books or make a career skyrocket.

But if you're here for the second choice - fixing a problem - that's what I'm here to talk about.

2. Power is exciting. One of the things I discovered early on is power. As an illustrator, I felt remarkably powerless, and for years I heard my colleagues - even older, seasoned career illustrators - talking sadly about credit and how it didn't matter what they did, no one ever listened. And then Twitter came along. There were four pages in The Bookseller magazine celebrating a milestone for a well-known picture book, We're Going on a Bear Hunt, singing the praises of its writer, with a big photo, and no mention at all of its illustrator. This was so clearly wrong that I decided to speak up. Colleagues joined me, and the issue started to pick up momentum. Suddenly people were listening. The magazine printed an apology and began to change its practices.

I moved on to the next thing, with a hashtag, and again, people listened. I won't lie, it felt great. I finally had some power, but a good kind of power, the power to make things better for illustrators. But it wasn't all positive, authors were scared of me; they started crediting illustrators because they were scared I would come down like a tonne of bricks on them with the hashtag. I was swept along with this, telling myself that what I was doing was good. But I started to question this when something awful happened. I started a twitter pile-on, it went out of control, and I really hurt someone who'd been a potential ally.

I read Jon Ronson's book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed. I took it to heart, what he said about the sheer power and uncontrollability of Twitter pile-ons, and the horrible damage they can do. We're okay now, the other person was very professional, but even after an immediate apology, it took a long time for our working relationship to repair. I still feel awful when I think about it, she hadn't deserved the enormity of the response.

3. Holding up someone as a bad example is dangerous. In children's publishing, almost no one goes into it actively trying to do harm to anyone else. People don't have a beef with illustrators or want to see them hurt; lack of credit is almost always down to thoughtlessness. People get caught up in the excitement about their book and forget about the other people involved. Pointing out the omission to them embarrasses them, but quote-tweeting them and holding them up as a bad example for thousands of people to examine, backs them into a corner and makes them feel this career they've poured their whole life into is under threat. Not only is their career under threat, but they may not be able to support their family; so their children are under threat, their house, everything. That doesn't win allies, it simply makes people hate me. Those people aren't going to engage with me again, they're not gluttons for punishment.

4. I don't always know the whole story. People would often alert me to instances where an illustrator hadn't been credited, hoping I'd weigh in on it. A bunch of people were doing that to an author that I was friendly with, and I contacted her privately to ask why she wasn't crediting her illustrator. She was angry, we were making her look bad, and there was nothing she could do about it: her illustrator had issues with the publisher's design decisions and had instructed them not to credit the work. It was the illustrator's decision, but the author wasn't able to explain to everyone that the illustrator didn't like the cover, that would have looked very bad, too. She was stuck, getting a lot of flak for something that wasn't her fault, and rightly very upset. This happens a lot, there are often behind-the-scene reasons I don't know about, and I realised I needed to be a bit more humble in my approaches, and assume the best of people's intensions until I learn otherwise.

5. It's important to find a few people I can trust. I'm lucky to have some colleagues that I can talk with and work through problems. They come at issues from a different angle to me, with different backgrounds, and with different vested interests. They're not afraid to tell me when they think I'm wrong, ask me to examine my motives, or explain how something that sounds good to illustrators will be offensive to writers or publishers. I'm incredibly grateful to these people, they've kept me from making some much bigger mistakes that could have thrown the whole campaign into terrible disrepute. I feel safe that they're not going to gossip about what I've said, and they know to trust me, too.

I've learned to be cautious of those who seem very vocally on-side with the campaign. Early on, I assumed they would be the most interested in tweaking their systems to help credit illustrators. But because they see themselves generally as being The Best - holding the moral high ground - any criticism, even if gentle and private, can be taken as an assault to how they perceive themselves, their identity. The backlash directed at me can be much more harsh and personal, to deflect attention away from the illustrator issue, and to scare me. Sometimes it's the companies who haven't been particularly vocal in support whose staff see why it's in the interest of their company to do a better job of crediting illustrators; they take quiet but pragmatic action to improve things, without fuss. That came as a surprise to me. I became more cautious and carefully formal in my communications with people who seemed, on the surface, to value informal communication. I remind myself that there's no such thing as a completely private social media direct message. I need to imagine any message being read and used by someone who would love to discredit me and the campaign. These people will try to read messages in the worst possible light and I won't be given a real chance to explain myself.

6. I need to avoid mission creep. I didn't even know the term 'mission creep' until one of my trusted colleagues explained it to me. It's when I start out with one objective but then begin to add on others, which overcomplicates things and makes me lose sight of my original aim. Trusted colleagues were able to show me added-on things that would make writers and publishers want nothing to do with the campaign. And they helped me realised that if we kept the capaign focused purely on credit, and stayed consistent, we could show writers that this could help them, too, and keep them on side; they could trust us not to go on to do something harmful to them. Credit is a manageable, achievable, low-cost goal where everyone wins. We're not there yet, but we're doing better than we were a few years ago.

7. The idea of everyone winning is crucial. I believe that the reason earlier campaigns for credit always failed is that they were always about fairness, love and respect for illustrators. Illustrators would protest that they were being hard-done by, things weren't fair, that no one cared about them, and there would be a small blip of care, that a few days later would be forgotten. People are fundamentally self-centred. This doesn't necessarily mean they're bad people, it's just that they care more about feeding their children, paying their mortgage, looking after their mum with dementia, than they do about the feelings of illustrators that they don't even know personally, or not very well. Our feelings aren't a big priority and we get forgotten as their ceiling leaks or the car won't start or their kid gets bullied at school. Once I accept that, I can move on from trying to shame people into feeling bad - it just doesn't work, long term. I can try to figure out what WILL work. And with writers and publishers, who are trying to juggle all these things and make enough money to keep their career and business afloat, if I can give them a tip about how, for very little cost to themselves, they could succeed a bit more in their career, they'll listen, and remember. It's not about having the moral high ground, it's about fixing a problem.

8. It's not about purity, it's about compromise. Some people may never be overly convinced about the value of illustrators. Maybe they're not particularly visual people, or they didn't read many picture books when they were a kid. But if they see it makes sense for them to credit us, and that we'll support them if they support us, it doesn't really matter what they think. It's not about changing their hearts, it's about finding a way we can work together and cooperate so we can all keep working. It's possible that when they see that crediting their illustrator helps them reach a wider fan base, they'll have more appreciation for what we do.

9. Fear isn't an ultimate fix. When people are too afraid to speak up, they're not really on-side. Just because they're not pushing back doesn't mean they agree; people are well aware that Twitter is dangerous. My approach has mellowed a lot these past few years. More changes have come from private conversations with people, where I tried to find ways to work with them that would make them look good, rather than castigate them for their failures. It's about showing them what they can do that's right, a way forward for them, not looking for ways to shame them in front of everyone. On the surface, the power to put fear into people spreads quickly and appears to work; convincing people takes longer and is more difficult, but I think ultimately makes deeper, more fundamental changes, that hopefully won't disappear when the next big social media outrage comes along and pushes it aside.

10. I need help. People used to call me a 'tireless' campaigner, but that was wrong, I was really tired. A lot of people would suggest more things I could do, but I didn't want to do more things, I wanted to do fewer things, and I wanted them to take initiative and go do all those things they suggested. Sometimes people would even try to shame me for not doing enough, for not fighting often enough for them to be credited for their book. One day I'd had enough, and I kind of gave up, and told Twitter I needed help. And someone answered, for real, with a real offer of help, not more ideas for me to do. She's an illustrator and her name is Soni Speight. Within the first day, she came up with a list of things she thought the campaign needed. By the second day, she'd contacted Nielsen about data issues. But the third day, she'd paid for and started building I looked back to the beginning of the campaign and remembered James Mayhew had helped come up with the hashtag, and he'd been supportive the whole time. And I thought of Woodrow Phoenix, who was one of my early mentors and incredibly sensible. We all pulled together and became a team, made more concrete by Soni's profiles of us on the new website. Woodrow joined the Society of Authors General Management committee so we'd have a representative right at the top.

I'm tremendously grateful to them, and to everyone who's taken up the baton, getting involved in the campaign, especially those who can see the value of it being a positive campaign where everyone wins.

This Monday, 4pm - Join Joy Francis, Marianne Tatepo, Niamh Mulvey, Hamza Jahamzab and me
for a virtual panel discussion on 'How do we make change happen' at The Bookseller's FutureBook Conference, details here.

Tags: #picturesmeanbusiness

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