Independent Musician vs. Independent Author

A few independent musicians have practically become household names. They sell millions of downloads and can fill stadiums with fans. A recent post on the marketing strategies of Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails trumpets them as an example for all to follow. How about novelists? Should they cast off the yokes of their evil publishers? Not so fast. There are some major differences between the independent author and musician. Even successful independent authors are hard pressed to set up a book signing, and most who do sell a bunch of books soon parlay that into a book contract with a traditional publisher.

So what gives? A lot of this is specific to novels and other types of narrative prose. Some who write inspirational or business advice are doing quite well going the independent route, even if they’re not likely to sell out a stadium anytime soon. That aside, here’s a few ideas that may explain the gulf between the independent musician and author:

Musicians form bands. Unlike writers, who toil away in solitude, musicians are social beasts. Music is a collaborative process with lots of instant feedback as it’s created, long before anyone outside the band is asked to pay to hear it. Such collaborations can obviously be heated, which makes for better music but is also why most bands eventually break up. Then the lead singer goes on (more often than not) to produce some less than stellar music on his own. For books, it’s not until an editor enters the scene that the collaboration starts.

Music makes noise. When I was a kid playing my guitar and singing John Denver songs (my guitar teacher’s idea) my whole family made a point of letting me know how terrible I was. This worked. I stopped singing, and the world is a better place for it. If only all the parents of those kids who end up on the early American Idol shows had been so kind to their offspring. No one can tell just from the sound of my fingers hitting the keyboard whether my scribbles are any good or not, they’re just happy I’m not singing.

Everyone is taught how to write. Music lessons stop at about the sixth grade. Not many would pick up a saxophone in the morning, blow into it until it made some noise, then start laying down tracks. Yet lots of people think that since they wrote papers in high school, they can write a novel. But what about all the other stuff that goes into a novel, like character, plot, setting, pacing, style, theme? It takes a decade to even begin to master it all, just like it takes a decade to learn how to play a musical instrument well.

No one likes record labels. Listeners and musicians alike have long felt duped by record executives, who seem much keener on producing a stream of one hit wonders than actually making music. They foster a system where musicians starve, originality suffers, and massive profits end up in the pockets of big business. There’s been no publishing equivalent of Milli Vanilli. Authors can be as ugly as they want to be on their back covers. Most readers don’t think much at all about publishers, while authors like John Scalzi and Charles Stross in recent posts actively defend the status quo. If people who make stuff up for a living can be trusted, they truly value these relationships that help them create better books.


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