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.