What We Can Learn About Self-Publishing From the Indie Music Model

After last week’s piece on the Nose regarding self-publishing, my friend and I had one of our classic Facebook battles. This happens frequently and is more a result of our love of debating masterfully than it is of deeply held convictions. We once debated whether or not diamonds were organic during an entire shift at Borders, the now defunct bookstore that was run by twelve year olds in suits. I conceded defeat just a few weeks ago.

My friend argued that self publishing will be the future of books and the reason it’s currently problematic is because “it’s still looked down upon by people in power.” He went on to mention that self-made music broke the traditional label model and part of the reason it was fought against was because it gave power to the artists. He said that self-publishing is still new enough that we haven’t embraced it, but that as we develop technologies that enable better book browsing and purchasing, self-publishing books will be just as successful as the indie music revolution.

Of course, I disagree. Many people, when talking about self-publishing make parallels to the music industry. But I think this is an erroneous comparison. I once went into the recording studio with a then-unsigned indie band called Analog. They rented a small studio, recorded a couple of songs, and had them mixed and mastered. They made their own CD and sold them for less than five bucks a pop. A while later I joined an unsigned band called Paria. We made our own merch and played shows for virtually free. Any money we made was poured right back into creating more merch and getting supplies and paying for gas. Here’s another interesting fact: most of our songs were under five minutes. A person could hear one song in less time it takes to shower and decide right then and there if we were worthy. The point of all of this is to say that music is easy to sell (if it’s good). Where there are venues, there will be people to listen, and if they like you, it’s only a matter of time before they play your music on a road trip and you’ve suddenly found a few more fans.

Books are a little more tricky. The time it takes to listen to a song, like it, and choose to buy an album is minuscule compared to the amount of time it takes to vet a new author. Venues–like bookstores and cafés–are much more conducive to performances from musicians. Patrons can sip their coffees and converse with friends while someone strums their guitar, but the same is much more difficult during a reading. Even previewing books is different. iTunes gives you 90 seconds to sample a song, and even if novels gave you twenty pages, you still have to spend at least 15-20 minutes reading those pages.

But one thing we can learn from the music industry is how to promote and present one’s self. Like those bands I talked about above, they spent money to go into the studio. We made our own merch. We went to other bands’ shows and handed out flyers to the audience as they left which advertised our next performance. In short, we spent a lot of time and money to make ourselves successful and we didn’t make money while doing it.

And this leads me back to my most controversial assertion: that self-published authors should release their work for free. Let me explain. Authors have a hard time promoting themselves. You can’t really go on a reading tour and put out your short stories and sell your printed pages for a dollar each. No one is going to buy a t-shirt or poster with your name and face on it. Authors are not bands, so to get their work out there, writers have to make it easy. If you spent years on a novel and don’t want to release it for free, that’s fine, but don’t think that you can put it out there for cheap and people will buy it. They won’t. Instead, promote yourself. Write some quality short stories and release them for free. Read those short stories at open mic nights if your city has them and if they don’t, go find one. Get your name out there with a blog that documents your writing process. You may not get a huge following, but at least you’ll have a following. Then, once you have some people interested in your work, put that novel up for sale.

But don’t fool yourself into thinking that people will buy your work without having heard of you or without you putting time, money, and a great deal of effort into polishing your prose. All too often writers get excited about what they’ve produced and decide to put it up on Amazon without a second thought. This method does not work. A band might be able to record a CD, but if it’s terrible, no one is going to buy it. The big difference, of course, is that these CDs are often sold at promotional performances where at least they’ve been given a chance to prove themselves. Self-published e-book authors have one shot to prove themselves, and it happens shortly after their first customer hits the download button.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.
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4 thoughts on “What We Can Learn About Self-Publishing From the Indie Music Model

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  1. I agree that the comparison between self publishing and indie music doesn’t really match up. While they do have one similarity – that they can flood the market and make chances of success just as small as the original chance of being signed by a label / publisher, the main issue is actually in the market. As you said, a band can play a gig, but the number of people who will attend a book reading is going to be significantly smaller.

    After having worked in the music industry and watched the downfall of the “indie label,” I can tell you that authors are going to have to be creative if they want to avoid the same fate for self / indie publishing.

  2. I completely agree with your assessment. Writers who self-publish have to realize that it’s going to be a long road, and that what counts more than anything along the way is getting readers. Free gets you at least a hundred times as many downloads than any price, and even if all those downloads don’t translate into actual readers, it’s probably still ten times as many.

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