The ramblings and musings of author and musician Geoffrey Young Haney.
Much more coherent and loveable fare from his wife, Michelle.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Self Publishing: Your Demo Tape?

Last post was the family hat. Right now I'm gonna put on my writer hat. Feel free to tune out if you're not interested...

But I think you should be, because this isn't only about writing. It's about art and the consumption of it. So yea, let's see if I can organize all these thoughts into something coherent! :D

As I've been diving harder than I ever have before into editing a manuscript, I've been learning a ton. But lately I've found myself wondering what to do next. I know I wish to have an agent and a publishing deal when it comes to The World Within My Walls. It's a series (a big one - four main stories and possibly four related tales, including two prequels...) and I want to make sure my rights are intact for something I feel could make a long-term splash out there in the world - if given a chance. But I've been battling with what to do in the MEANTIME, that is to say, the time when TWWMW will sit idly on my computer and its queries sit unanswered in the slush piles of agents too busy these days to dole out rejections with anything more than a form letter (if they send anything at all.)

I have myriad other ideas that could be better suited for the New World: e-books. (Eeek!) Or more specifically... SELF-PUBLISHED e-books (and non-e-books alike)!!! Now before I'm struck down by the Publishing Gods of Old, let me remind them that I did just mention that in many ways I prefer the Old Ways: A publishing house edits, designs, prints, and promotes your book and you sit back to take in the profits (hoping that it sells.) But this day and age is not for the author who simply sits back. More and more authors are relied on to almost tirelessly promote themselves. There is just far too much entertainment out there to not be active! Getting lost in the crowd is almost a given. A review in Entertainment Weekly or a positive blurb from some big wig won't alone sell your book (unless that big wig is a certain Mrs. Meyer, in which case you might as well buy your mansion right now...) Authors need to go out there and FIND their audiences, with blogging, Facebook pages, Twitters, Tweeties, Torpedoes, Tiptocksters, or any other oddly names social networking site that comes out this month. Therefor authors, especially new ones, are more responsible than ever for the success of their product. This is a good thing, I think. Who is better at selling something than the person passionate enough about it to sink countless hours, days, weeks, and years of their life into creating it?

Yet publishers, store chains, and e-book outlets seem to forget all that. They want US to do more for less (go ahead and check out this post from lit agent/blogger extraordinaire Kirstin Nelson for just one glaring example.) With more people out there writing books than ever before and new technology looming around every corner, the Big Guys hope to cling even tighter to those keys to the pearly gates of publishing heaven while squeezing as much money out as they can. I think they're afraid that their time is running out, at least their time of being financial giants. Its a pessimistic worldview, perhaps, but lets not kid ourselves. We've seen this in the music industry, an industry who continues to cry about profits dropping from 13.5 BILLION to 8 BILLION dollars since the wave of file-share and the Internet. If I ever complain about making 8 BILLION dollars, I want someone to cut my head off.

But they NEEDED to make that money, because they had grown so large under the weight of their own self-importance that every dime they made they SPENT. And now that they aren't making as much, they find it hard to pay for the things they once paid for (mainly CEO salaries. *tear*) But that's a discussion for another time.

Back to publishing. We have this model of publishing that is intrinsically designed for Gate Keeper mentality. An agent must like your work. That agent must convince a publisher to like it. That publisher must convince those who hold the purse strings to promote and present it properly (you know, as if they liked it.) How many hoops does a story-teller jump through just to REACH an audience? How much approval (opinion) must we seek before someone actually READS our story simply to ENJOY it free from the worry of if they're making any MONEY of it or not?

So it may have been all well and good back in the day to hand over so much responsibility and profit to a publishing house, seeing as they were chiefly involved in making you money and sharing your work. But now authors have even more responsibility in selling themselves. Heck, most of the blogs I follow our authors just like me, seeking an audience while having little if ANY published works to their credit. Already we're pimping ourselves. Why? Because its what you gotta do now. It looks good on your resume to have a blog and a readership, even if you don't quite have anything published. So on top of pouring over and perfecting manuscripts, synopsises (synopsi?), and query letters (*shudder*) we should maintain and write blogs, guest blog on other blogs with more readership, read and comment on each others blogs, and have a veritable blog orgy in the limited amount of time we have between ACTUAL writing, family, and (in most cases) a 9-5 that pays the bills. Why, then, would we want to do all this promotion and networking just to turn around and hand over more of our money to companies who seem to be doing less, or at the very least doing the same (while we work harder.)

Enter self-publishing.

Yar, is it easy these days. We don't even have to BUY the books first, with a little thing called Print-On-Demand (POD.) Now, it takes a lot of work and a lot of know-how. But I argue that we're already DOING most of the work. We tirelessly join critique groups. We're networking with not only authors but artists and designers and musicians and all these creative types. You mean to tell me that between all the people you know you couldn't find one starving artist who is exceptionally good as an editor (maybe even freelances or has held an editor position in the past) and would be willing to work with you for little to no money? Remember, they're a fan of you or your project already without seeing dollar signs in their eyes. And it can become a you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours scenario. Same with designers. Plenty of people in your circles I'm sure could teach you to properly create a PDF which would be the layout of your POD book. You could have illustrations! Tons of them, because a publisher isn't freaked out by how much ink it would be!

My point in saying all of this boils down to one thing: One of people's biggest complaints I've heard with the POD and self-publishing models is that "99.9% of its list is nearly unreadable dreck" because there aren't "quality checks" in place. How does that make you feel? That just because you haven't found an agent or a house whose opinion is that your story is good (and will sell) and choose instead to self-pub that you're peddling garbage? The quote above came from an anecdote by seasoned man of publishing Michael Stearns, founder and agent at Upstart Crow Literary. It was posted on the linked blog entry (read it, Upstart Crow is a pretty cool and "with the times" agency) and goes on to make many valid points about the importance of publishers and editors, including that they bring with them "those ineffable quality enhancers that make a book cost more than its printing, paper, and binding. Editing. Marketing. Publicity. Design. Attention to detail. Vision." All well and good.

But I argue that, in this new age, authors are already DOING so much of this, and that our web of contacts and networking buddies could help us with the rest. We already need to have a manuscript looking solid before submitting it. Agents want to see that we can do all those things above: self-edit, self-marketing and promotion; our attention to detail and our vision. Why? Because we are no longer simply creators of story, we are partners in selling a product. I will never sit here and say publishing houses are over and done with, or diminish the importance of a solid critique group, a skilled agent, and an experienced editor. I'm merely saying that we don't necessarily have to rely on one to get the others.

I'll equate it (as I always tend to do, because that's where most of my experience is) to the music industry. Look at it like this. No one 10 years ago thought you could make a living off original music without a label. A label, after all, fronted hundreds of thousands of dollars for you and/or your band to go to a studio, paid for you to make a music video, and promoted you (that is, if they felt like it. More bands got dropped in the 90s due to lack of promotion than I can even count...) But now, that just isn't the case. What made it possible? Technology. MySpace began dictating what was popular and put artists directly in touch with an audience. Home studios became all the rage. We can shoot and edit our own music video and have it on YouTube in a week. My former band spent a little under 3 grand to buy an entire recording studio (Mac laptop and all) which we used to produce completely serviceable recordings. Could it have gone on the radio the next day? Maybe not. But our MUSIC, our MESSAGE was out there. There are more than a handful of examples of success musicians have had with just a few microphones and a solid set of MIDI synths and beats. Adam Young, the man behind the wildly popular Owl City did just that...

Owl City was started by Adam Young in his parents' basement while he worked at a Coca-Cola warehouse,[1][2] turning to music as a result of his insomnia.[3] Young received much attention for songs he had uploaded to MySpace, the "viral popularity" of which would later result in his signing to Universal Republic.[3][4] In 2007, Owl City released an EP titled Of June, followed by the 2008 release of the album Maybe I'm Dreaming. Of June reached #20 on the Billboard Electronic Albums chart, and Maybe I'm Dreaming peaked on the same chart at #16.[5]

Owl City's first two records were released while Young was unsigned. In early 2009, music industry website "Crazed Hits" leaked that Owl City signed with the major label Universal Republic.[6]

Owl City's third album Ocean Eyes was released on iTunes July 14, 2009, with the physical release following on July 28, 2009. The album debuted at #27 on the Billboard 200. Owl City has released four singles, "Hello Seattle", "Hot Air Balloon", "Strawberry Avalanche", and "Fireflies".[7] "Fireflies" topped the US and Canadian charts and became the most-downloaded song on iTunes in the US. Ocean Eyes reached the top ten on the US album charts and topped the US electronic charts and also reached Amazon MP3's top 10 most downloaded album list. By December 2009, it was certified Gold in the United States. On 24 January 2010, Owl City reached the number 1 spot in the UK Top 40 Singles chart with "Fireflies".

via Wikipedia

See that? Adam hit Billboard's electronic charts WITHOUT a major label. He landed a deal on the STRENGTH of his own self-produced product. And then look what he did with major backing. No one told Adam he was good enough - he told THEM. And Adam didn't just cut a disk and sell a few hundred copies at a local record shop (wait, what's that?...), I'm talking national radio play (his newest single is actually on the radio in the other room as I write this), attention from the big labels, loads of MySpace fans. All produced from the kid's basement. All which he and a team he surrounded himself with worked for tirelessly. I suspect we could see the same sort of thing happen with POD, especially with the wave of e-books making access to a book quick and easy (just the way we've been trained to like it. Thanks iTunes.)

So if you're thinking about self-publishing, as I am, remember that it's not always about the glitz and gloss of the finished product. Yes, Owl City does sound more polished than a rapper's Escalade, but there are plenty of indie bands out there who actually EMBRACE the low-fi, DIY sound of a home studio and write great material doing so. There are million dollar studios trying to EMULATE that sound for their million dollar artists because they fail to see its not the presentation, its the message. The "best" isn't always better, and for me, it will ALWAYS boils down to the message and the passion. It's about the story.

So do the work, find that editor and design friend (if you haven't inadvertently already,) do your very best to present the product well. Embrace your limitations and make the most of what you CAN accomplish. And then go out and promote the heck out of it! (You're already doing it now...) Don't imagine you will sell a Rowling amount of copies and don't try to hit a home run the first time out. Just put your best foot forward and surround yourself with the tools and the people to make that happen - people who were in your corner long before an agent told them they should be. Think of that self-pub release as a demo tape, something to give the masses and to get your sound out there. Don't let the fact that there's a lot of crap out there keep you from considering producing your own work (there was and still is a lot of crap on MySpace and there was, still is, and always will be a lot of crap in Barnes & Noble) Self-publishing isn't for the Big Guys, its for us and our audience, no matter how small it is. And who knows, maybe your little book could be the Owl City of the literary world.


Anonymous said...

Hi Geoff,

I understand the analogy, but at the end of the day, a demo tape is just that, a demo tape. Sure it can (and should) be the best quality possible, but there's so much that those musicians (and writers) who produce those demos don't know they don't know, and that's where, in the case of writing, the traditional publishers come in.

That's not to say that all demo-tapes/pitched novels need improving, but the vast majority do.

Just my 2 cents.


Geoff said...

I guess my point with it all is how much we know and don't know is a gap more easily bridged now (because of the connectivity of community and the power of technology) then ever before. Our demo tapes sounded good because my bass player was a sound engineer. You put the right people behind you, you have a serviceable product. Is self-pub the end-all-be-all? No. But it can still serve to get our stories out there. I'm all about the old ways and know that publishing traditionally will never go away, nor should it. The experience of the people in that field is invaluable, just as having a seasoned producer in your corner is next level. My main point of the article is that POD could have its place too if we stop turning our noses up at it.

Just my two (more) cents. :D

Thanks for the comment Jon!


Mic said...

Stephenie Meyer can't help it that she's a genius. :D

Geoff said...

Honey, you are a nerd.