Why self-publishing is the new punk

punk

Future self-publishers? (image source:ontheshelves.wordpress.com)

 

In mid-1970’s Britain, record companies were king. They controlled their industry. Any artist who wanted a career in music had to have a record contract – major artists on relatively good terms but many of the mid-sized to newer entrants on contracts that would have today’s employment lawyers licking their lips. There were a limited number of radio stations, all of whom relied on the record companies to gain access to artists, and in return the record companies’ product dominated the playlists. If you weren’t linked to a record company, you had no chance.

At the same time, the music itself becoming staid, some would say bloated. Established artists were given a free rein, which for many meant bigger, longer and – you will have to excuse me – just a bit up their own backsides. The pop charts, while containing some classics, were full of formulaic songs with high production values performed by the young and beautiful and written by songwriters in the pay of the studios. Yes, there were some artists pushing at the boundaries and trying new things but these were on the fringes. Profit was king and so record companies played it safe, churning out the same thing, over and over, knowing that it was the most cost-efficient and profitable process. I know that there will be some of you reading this and shouting how dare I, what about artists X, Y or Z. My answer is for you to look back at the charts of any week during 1973 – 1975 and tell me how many songs of true quality it contains.

Then, punk happened. Frustrated at the music on offer, the young rebelled. Advances in technology that allowed home recording for the first time and the kids took full advantage. At the same time a few, pioneering DJ’s were willing to promote their work (because mass distribution was still in the control of the few). The musical landscape changed within a matter of months.

Of course, there was uproar. Record companies and many established artists claimed it was just noise. Some bemoaned the sound quality and the lack of  technical skill of the performers. Small, entrepreneurial record labels sprang up to meet the demand. The energy, passion and self-belief created by this opportunity gave rise, not just the big-selling punk artists still known today, but thousands of musicians who continue to make money out of music through small but loyal followings to this day.

Before you accuse me of having the rose-tinted nostalgia of an old punk, I was five years old when all this happened. But it is clear now, looking back, that punk shook the staid music industry to its core.

Let’s move forward to today. In the place of record companies we have the major publishers. They hate self-published authors and the likes of Amazon even more for introducing the technology to make self-publishing affordable to all. They complain about the quality of self-published works, ignoring the fact that for every Donna Tartt and Hilary Mantel there are hundreds of mass-produced celebrity tie-ins and written by numbers romance or thriller novels. Poor quality isn’t just about grammar. The majors also say that self-publishers are driving down prices and that there isn’t the money around to invest in new writers, ignoring the fact that they themselves are happy to profiteer by charging high prices on their vast back-catalogue of work – taking the lion’s share of the profit – whilst at the same time discounting other works whenever they fancy (for example, when Second Chance was published, the top-selling ebook in the UK was 12-years a slave at 99p). The major publishers are not interested in art for art’s sake, they are interested in profit. Any writer who has had their work rejected, not on the quality of writing but on the belief that there is no market or that they don’t have a big enough platform, knows this.

Self-publishing may be bad for the major publishers, but there are two winners in this situation: authors and readers.

Like punk bands before them, authors are no longer reliant on publishers to make their work available. Yes, this means there is poor quality work out there, just as there were hundreds of punk bands who hadn’t a clue and never improved over making a racket. But for every terrible book there are many more that are passable, good, very good and even outstanding. More writers than ever before are able to make a living from doing what they love, and they couldn’t do this if readers weren’t buying their books and happy with the value they receive.

But readers are the real winners here. They now have access to a much broader selection of work than ever before. It’s no surprise that lovers of genre fiction are the happiest. Where once the majority were limited by slim pickings from major publishers, or restricted ideas of what that genre meant – with only the bravest and most committed fans seeking out small and specialist publishers to find something different – suddenly readers have access to a huge variety of genre-mashups. Because just like those punks in the 70’s who mixed ska and punk to form two-tone, or punk and electronica to form new romanticism, authors are experimenting too and finding an audience for their work.  And it’s affordable. Because there are no large overheads, authors are able to make higher profits per sale and customers pay less per book. So customers are able to try new things, like different genres or short story collections or even poetry, and finding they enjoy it.

Sorry, did I day there were two winners in this situation. I forgot one other: publishers.

Because despite all the moaning and groaning, publishers, like their contemporaries in the 1970’s music business who signed up the Clash and the Sex Pistols and turned them into superstars, will use the opportunity to snap up the big-selling Indie authors. Those authors that have large followings and great word-of-mouth success are being approached with generous contracts, allowing them to expand their distribution opportunities, open up new markets in new countries, offer translated work. This is a good deal for the publishers. In the same way they like a celebrity-endorsed product, signing an established indie-author allows them to generate profit from books that have had little to no prior investment.

It’s happening now with superstar authors like Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey. Amazon are already snapping up indies, using their data to identify likely candidates just before they gain break out success.  This situation will only increase over time.

So before we moan about the death of the novel, let us instead celebrate the death of the status quo and the explosion of creativity that is the new punk, self-publishing.

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49 thoughts on “Why self-publishing is the new punk

  1. I can’t rave enough about this article. Your comparison between the music industry and publishing is spot on. Not only did you make a very relevant & informative connection between the two but you also had me entertained and wanting to read more the whole time. Not to mention, the last sentence is brilliant. WELL DONE!!

  2. Really good article, Dylan – and a great comparison with the music industry, I agree wholeheartedly with Carrie. Long may self publishers have the confidence to go for it – the stuffy book industry needs a good shake up!

    • I agree, Jenny. The problem for the publishers face is that they need to sell in volume to recoup their investment. I know a lot of authors who have been told their work is good but there is no market for it. Now these very same authors can make a living selling at the volumes which publishers would see as a flop, and at prices that wouldn’t cover a publisher’s overheads.

  3. Bang on. I have always done my own thing, my own way and I love the idea of what I do now being some kind of punk. Especially when it’s such a valid comparison. I don’t know that much about it either. I was about 10.

    Cheers

    MTM

  4. This is a great piece and you make a very persuasive argument indeed. So many traditional markets have experienced a shake-up with the arrival of technology. Music is certainly one, when one thinks of the whole download scene of today. The publishing world will have to endure a seissic shift as self-publishing comes of age. It’s a great comparison you make with the punk era too, even though you were still in short trousers at the time. I just hope they were covered in studs, straps and grafitti. I’m having fun picturing the five year old you with a pink mohican and a nose ring 🙂

    • Thanks, Jools! Sadly I wasn’t that 5 year old. My dad was a bit of a hippy so I had shoulder length hair at that age. I did, however, many years later buy my then 18 month old a t-shirt I’d seen in the window of a punk shop that said “Milk & Mom & Rock n Roll”!

  5. I agree, E books are the great option for self publishers, like me. In Slovenia, wher science fiction and fantasy are categhorized like something bad, E- book s and self publishing is only way to find readers.

    • Hi Bojan. Yes, I agree. Self-publishing is a great way to find readers for work that may be seen as niche or marginal by traditional publishers. Good luck with your writing and finding your readers. 🙂

  6. Amazingly I used to run a recording service for new song writers, just before the day when self recording technology became available. What I most remember about it was a) the amount of really striking talent that was going unrecognised, ( and goodness knows what sort of career those poor souls ended up dragging themselves through as a result of the failure to be recognised ) and b) the even larger pool of horrible noise put out by the self-deluded and mistaken, who no doubt went on to enjoy significant careers in the entertainment industry. Nowadays, the ability to Market is possibly more important than the ability to tell a tale or use language. It is part of being in the melting pot between one new order and the next

    • I agree with you that there there is a massive talent pool out there that doesn’t get recognised. What I’ve found is that while they may not go on to be superstars, there are a lot of talented musicians who are still able to make a living out of music in some form or other due to having the ability to make and control their art, in the same way as self-publishing writers are starting to do today.
      I half agree with you on the importance of marketing your work. Yes, it helps, but with writing the best form of marketing is word-of-mouth and that only comes if you have written something that people like. There are writers who have achieve overnight success but these are rare. Most slowly built up a body of readers over time and a number of books until they achieve success. Marketing is only a means of speeding up the process.

  7. I remain unconvinced. 🙂 I think there are lots of problems with traditional publishing, as there are with any industry, but the obstacle that self-publishers face is that there is an absolute tsunami of crappy writing out there that’s near impossible for readers to navigate. Traditional publishing provides a navigation mechanism for readers: agents and editors set a standard of quality and also for marketability. You may not agree with those standards but the free for all that exists with self-publishing right now does authors more harm than good, IMHO.

    Interesting piece in the NY Times this morning about this very topic: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/20/opinion/i-was-a-digital-best-seller.html?_r=0

    • Hi Karen, great to hear from you! It’s been too long. Then again, if you’re going to come on here and argue with me…. 😉
      Let’s start with your first point. Hugh Howey answered this better than me in an interview this week. He said (and I’m paraphrasing a bit) “do we get put off using the internet because there are millions of websites? Of course not. We learn which ones are good, either through recommendations, reviews or from looking ourselves. It’s the same with books.” Yes, there are some, possibly many, bad books out there but they soon get found out via poor reviews. Yes, there are also some gems that get missed. This happens with traditional publishing all the time too (you only have to look at the number of successful writers who faced rejection multiple times before being successful – and they are only the ones we know of).
      I am by no means against traditional publishing. The point you make about setting a standard for quality is a good one that all self-publishers should aspire to. The difference is, the level of sales a publisher needs to be marketable is very different from those of an individual author.
      I saw you post about the article on Twitter and almost replied there, but 140 characters were too few to make my point. The issue the author had seemed first to be with his publisher, then with the expectations they had given him, and finally that he had to work to promote his book if he self-published (in fact he wasn’t self-publishing but publishing through a 3rd party who over-promised and under-delivered). His surprise seemed to be that it needed so few sales to make it to the top of the charts, but Amazon charts are calculated hourly, not weekly or fortnightly like NYT or in England the Sunday Times bestseller lists. He’s correct that – unless you get to the top of the overall charts – the amount of daily sales is not comparable to a gilt-edged publishing contract (or commission in his case) but any sensible self-publisher knows that for most of us it is the long game, of accumulated sales from many books over a number of years that leads to being in a position to earn a living.
      Anyway, enough arguing. Are you back blogging regularly again?

      • I don’t think it’s a fair comparison between the internet and self published books. What is my financial/time investment in a bad website? What is my financial/time investment in a bad novel?

        As a reader, I don’t have the time to wade through the mass of self-published books to determine what’s wheat and what’s chaff and currently no mechanism exists to perform that “weeding out” function of traditional publishing: you and I both know that the “reviews” of self published books are not reliable and, in that piece for the NY Times, Tony Horwitz understood all too well that being a “digital best seller” means nothing–he had sold a literal HANDFUL of copies of his book and that was sufficient to launch him to the top of the charts for his genre. When there are 1,000 self-published titles listed in, let’s say, narrative non-fiction, selling five copies can make you a best seller. Does that mean your book is good, that it has been validated by the marketplace? No, it doesn’t, but sales is one of the methods readers use to determine the quality of your work and if they want to plunk down 2.99 for your e-book and “best seller” lists of digital books are absolutely deceptive.

        As a writer, I have one other point to make: the process of submission and rejection (and rejection and rejection, ad infinitum et nauseum) gives a writer the opportunity to improve or at least examine what’s going wrong or maybe even give up, because maybe there are more worthwhile things for this person to do than write. Rejection, as painful as it is, maybe is a good thing! And this is why there is so much dreck self-published: no one is out there saying “You suck. Get better. Or don’t. Who cares?” which is the role that agents, editors, publishers perform in traditional publishing.

        Lastly, I’m not against self-publishing. I’m against self-publishing crappy books. 🙂

        Regarding the status of my blogging career: I hope to blog more regularly over the summer. My blog waxes and wanes depending on my professional workload (which lightens up considerably in the summer, so here’s hoping).

      • I agree that you can’t rely on all reviews, however there is a big difference looking at a new book which may be high in the charts with a handful of good reviews and a book that has been in the charts for some time with many good reviews. And don’t forget, you’re risking 2.99 (or .99c or even free) compared to £8.99 or $13.99 for a new paperback or ebook from a publisher. The industry is still in its infancy and the systems aren’t perfect, but after 200+ years of the publishing industry that we know today I’ve managed many times to pay a lot of money for books which, while having few grammatical errors, have been very poor.

        It’s good to know you’ll be back blogging regularly. I look forward to reading more from you over the coming months. 🙂

  8. Hi Dylan, & thanks for the follow of our blog! Now….loved the post and the comparison which I found to be spot on!!! And being a Grunge Head like I am, a genre which was fathered by punk, I really luv this!!! We look forward to stopping by more often and reading more of your posts. Sharing now!! 😉

  9. What publishers don’t want to admit is that they publish crap sometimes too. The same way record companies produce bad music sometimes, okay a lot of the time. This is why I have no intent of even trying the traditional publishing route. I fully intend to self publish and self publish only.

    • This is true. Most publishers, certainly the majors, are interested in the bottom line. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t people working there willing to invest time and money in writers of merit, but they need sales too and they are quite happy to sell poor quality but popular books to keep the shareholders happy.

  10. I love this post! There is a whole world opened up to new authors, allowing so many people to live their dream! Like you said, there will be some that are bad, but there are others that are amazing. Of course, it’s a lot harder to get your work out there now with the explosion of books being released. But at least it’s your work. For people writing new, risky materal, it’s a dream come true.

    ~K.J. Bryen, plungingintothenovel.blogspot.com

    • Thank you, Karen. The point about people being able to write risky, niche work is important. The publishing industry is naturally risk-averse, as they look to tried and tested formulae on making big sales. This is understandable. Self-publishing allows writers to push the boundaries and find out what other types of works, styles or genres there is an audience for, giving choice to readers they never had before.

  11. Excellent post! You beat me to it, too; I had in mind to write a similar post, comparing the music industry to publishing, but you made everything single point I wanted to! All I can do now is reblog… 🙂

  12. Spot on comparison, Dylan, and exquisitely written.

    I am one of those who were told by an editor that the story is good, but there’s no market for it. And yet, when the target market (8-12 year old) read it, they loved it. So I went the self-publishing route for my novels, even though I had several traditionally published non-fiction books. You and many of those who commented are right, though: when you self-publish, you have to be in it for the long game. We don’t have the marketing clout of the big publishers, and there are hundreds of thousands of books published every year. How does one find a good one in that massive slush pile? How does one stand out? It’s not easy.

    Karen is also correct that there are far too many self-published books that are terrible, despite what their reviews might say. Just as there are a lot of not-very-good traditionally published books. But the difference is, with the self-published books, you can tell pretty quickly whether it’s worth reading beyond the first page. When the writing is full of grammatical errors, clunky sentences, extra words, goofy dialogue attributions, and obvious plot devices, you can be pretty certain it’s not worth proceeding. If the writing is that unpolished, chances are the story itself will be, too. (And even if it isn’t, it’s too much of a struggle to read.) The vast majority of self-published novels I see have these problems.

    With traditionally published books, at least the writing is generally polished, even if the story turns out to be not one’s cup of tea.

    I’d still love to get a publishing contract, but even when I do, I’ll still be self-publishing some of my work. The way I see it, it gives you more freedom to experiment (as you noted in your comparison to music), and once you have a following, you stand to make a lot more by not having to share the profits with agents and publishers. Established authors ought to *only* self-publish!

    I’ve never re-blogged a post, but I will yours.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Jim and also for the re-blog.
      When it comes to the quality of self-published books, I agree that there are many titles out there that are not good, although I would call them poorly written rather than terrible (because I have read some very well written but, in my opinion, terrible books). At the same time I have read some great self-published books. One of the reasons I started my Recommended Reads was to highlight those self-published books that I have read and enjoyed.
      Hugh Howey wrote in the Guardian that most publishers and agents look for prose first, then plot, whereas most readers do the reverse. Readers like a good story they will excuse a level of clunky dialogue, extra words or the odd grammatical error along the way. This is where I am. This doesn’t mean that I don’t prefer a well written story without errors, or that I don’t strive for that myself, but I am prepared to excuse the odd error, especially at the price most self-published e-books are sold.
      Good luck on going for that publishing contract. While I am very pro self-publishing, I’m not anti- the traditional route. Just be careful about any contract you are offered. A number of publishers have added anti-compete clauses into their contract, basically prohibiting authors from self-publishing at the same time as their work is being traditionally published.

      • You are correct: poorly written is a better descriptor than “terrible.” 😉

        Hmm. I wonder if the general tendency to forgive clunky prose is a consequence of the dumbing down of the English language? And I don’t mean that in a snarky way. But even a casual observer would note that there is much less emphasis on what was once called “correct” grammar and diction. Much of what passes for acceptable prose these days would horrify George Orwell. Even in daily newspapers, which used to pride themselves on clear writing and correct grammar, I see “loose” for “lose” and “alot” for “a lot” on a regular basis, among other glaring errors. Is this an example of language evolving, as languages naturally do, or a sign of laziness brought on by the Twittering and texting of society, if u knw wht i mean. 😉

      • I think incorrect word usage in newspapers is more down to the reduction in numbers of sub-editors…
        When I mentioned earlier that I can accept the odd error, it is in the knowledge that it is an error and that the author has done their best to eradicate these typos to the best of their ability.
        I can’t stand txt spk.

  13. Pingback: Why self-publishing is the new punk | Jim Mastro
  14. Great article, Dylan. Instead of merely accepting indie publishing, this makes me want to champion it. I feel like such a rebel!

    My big concern with self-pubbing is actually a grammatical one. I know that readers will accept flawed language; the problem is that many of them don’t know any better. I suspect that I learned the majority of my language skills through reading, and I worry that the poor writing that seems to be rampant in the indie author world is eventually going to become normalized. If an author doesn’t know the difference between there and their and they’re, how is a reader supposed to? I mean, I don’t want to have to call the Grammar Police here, but I do wish there were some way to ensure that independently published work wasn’t grossly incompetent in terms of its language usage.

    • Hi Lori, thanks for your kind words. Badly written self-published novels does appear to be the major concern on this thread. I’d like to distinguish between poorly written books and those that are well written with the odd error. For the former, I think there are a number of factors that will gradually see them disappear. The first and most important is that readers are becoming more savvy and less tolerant of these books. They no longer see it as acceptable, even with free books, and I’ve seen more and more books with poor reviews stating badly written, poor grammar as the reason. I think Amazon (and other ebook retailers) will also start to address this. It was more difficult early on because of the lack of content, but as new, more professional ebooks appear on the market, Amazon can, and more than likely will, start to identify and withdraw those of poor quality.
      As to poor writing skills in general, I’m not sure if this is true, or if this is a generational thing. I’m pretty sure I heard the same about my generation from my parents’ generation before.

  15. Thank you for putting my exact thoughts into words. I can’t count how many times I’ve compared self-publishing to punk rock; perhaps it’s because I was there from the beginning, spending all my time hanging at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City back in 1977 and seeing all these bands starting from scratch and making something of themselves, some bigger than others of course but just as an example, seeing the Police play to a room full of no more than 30 people then moving on to become huge.
    I began my attempts at writing when I started writing song lyrics for my own band.
    Fast forward to now and I’m still writing songs occasionally but spend most of my time working on my fiction; I believe if you put your whole heart and soul into something you can do anything, and I learned that lesson directly from seeing my friends get signed to record companies or putting out their own product, touring etc.
    You have to believe in yourself and your product, be it music or writing, and push yourself until you get what you want. If you have the talent to back yourself up, self-publishing in my opinion is a great option.
    And count me in with Grammar Police; a self-published author recently told me to read your work at least 10 times before you send it out, it’s easy to miss something if you just give it a quick once over, speaking for myself, my words are my babies, I want to make sure they’re all prettied up and on their best behavior before I make any attempts to be published. 🙂

    • Thank you, Joanne. I’m very envious of you and your experiences. As you know, everybody has to start somewhere (whether it is playing in front of a handful of people or writing a book only one or two people buy) but if you have the talent, the aptitude and a little luck, you can go on to bigger and better things, and you control the process. This has been the case for a while with musicians an is now the case for authors.

  16. So because I choose to publish through a publisher, I write formulaic crap? I don’t think so. I have never been asked to write formula, and I don’t write to one. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I write romance, and all any publisher has ever asked of me is that the stories must have a happy ending. That definition was set by the RWA, not any publisher, btw.
    I know what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at, and I’ve chosen the path that is most suited to me.
    I was at university in Manchester, England, when the Sex Pistols played the legendary gig at the Free Trade Hall. The impact that one appearance made is incalculable. Shortly after, the Stiff tour brought the indie label to audiences all over the UK and had a similar effect. I can’t think of one writer talk that has had that kind of impact. Musicians always have the option of live appearances. They can make a living without a record label.
    I’ve recently deleted nearly all the freebies and cheapies off my e-reader. I read a few pages and saw beginner errors and decided not to go on. The few I’ve kept are probably around 10%. As a reader, I want a book that will entertain me for a few hours. I don’t want to have to spend those few hours wading through crap. Amazon reviews don’t help at all, since they are being heavily gamed. Maybe if there were some reliable gatekeepers, they might produce better work.

    • Hi Lynne, thanks so much for your comment, I really appreciate you taking the time to put across your point of view.
      To answer the points you raised, no, I’m not saying because you choose to go through a publisher you are asked to write to a formula. This clearly isn’t the case. It’s also not the case that those in publishing aren’t passionate about literature of every stripe and have rigidly fixed ideas of what should be written and how. What I was saying is that publishers look for books they know will sell in large numbers and often turn down books that push boundaries or mix genres because they come with an element of risk and they aren’t sure how to sell them. I’m also not saying every that every romance or thriller (or any other genre novel for that matter) published through publishers is formulaic, but few push the boundaries of their genre.
      This is not a criticism of authors who choose to publish through publishers, or the many indie authors who also work within the boundaries of genre to great effect. My point is that indie publishing allows authors the opportunity to publish works that are awkward to categorise, or have a niche audience, that will never get picked up by traditional publishing because of the risk.
      The key part of my argument is that it was the technology that disrupted the music industry and allowed punk to proliferate through the reduced cost of recording. If this hadn’t have happened, it is unlikely you would have have the indie labels like Stiff you mentioned (or my own love, Creation records). This is now the same with indie publishing. That doesn’t mean everybody (or even a large minority) will use it to create boundary pushing work, but it has given a number of authors to do just this.
      Your last point I’ve already covered in my piece. My personal experience is that I’ve read and enjoyed many indie novels. I’ve also read those I haven’t. Yes, it would be great if more indie writers took care with the product they produce, but many do because the market has changed and readers are not willing to put up with sub-standard work. I see this only increasing over time as what is still a very young industry matures.
      Clearly, we have different views on this but as I said earlier, I appreciate you taking the time to comment and put your views across so strongly.

  17. Pingback: Subcultures, class and consumption | chantellecolantonio
  18. Excellent post, Dylan. I’m in the process of switching 6 traditionally published books (small press) to self-published. And I love the excitement and control that self-publishing affords. It’s completely switched up the publishing world, and I expect things will continue to change dramatically over the next decade. It’s a blast being part of this tidal wave.

    • It is a blast. I know of some writers who’ve had wonderful support from their small press and others who’ve felt frustrated that their book hasn’t had the backing they feel it deserved. The best thing about going indie is that there are no excuses as you have complete control over what and how much you put into promoting your book. The hard thing is that there are no excuses …
      I wish you all the best of luck with the switch and hope you enjoy every step of the journey.

      • Thank you. My guess is that every small press is different and it’s wonderful to find one that provides plenty of support. You’re right that indie publishing puts all the responsibility in the author’s hands. It can be intimidating, but so exciting as well.

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