Author | Freelance Writer | Entrepreneur | Speaker and Workshop Leader

What Can Authors and Publishers Learn from the Music Industry?

May you live in interesting times, purported to be an ancient Chinese curse. For the publishing and music industries, it might not be too much to say that times have never been more interesting since the beginning of Gutenberg and the invention of the electric guitar.

Perhaps it’s not so ironic that Project Gutenberg claims to be the first producer of free ebooks?

It’s not clear how the democratization of print or music can best be used to benefit the vast majority. But the gates are wide open. Aren’t they? Isn’t it a matter of understanding and adapting?

But here I have a question. Why is it still considered innovative or grassroots for a band to “start their own label,” but for a writer, it’s minor leagues?

In some ways the path to publication as a novelist sounds simple enough. You break through with a literary agent, get published by a New York publisher (one of the Big 5 now), and PRESTO, you’ve made it. By some estimates, the Big 5 still own distribution spots in about 80% of the brick-and-mortar booksellers stalls. Does it matter that it doesn’t sell well? Yes and no. Mostly yes of course. But there are ways around a substandard first showing, especially if one continues to simply write well. With the hardest part out of the way, breaking through in the first place, it’s not like you’re blackballed because you didn’t hit the bestseller list. On the other hand, for someone like me, a “debut novelist of literary fiction” (yikes!), whose narrative takes place more or less in the course of an hour, few literary agents are going to swing the gates open.

The breakdown of the major recording companies had to deal with the breakdown first, and it’s been well-documented that they made massive mistakes. While iTunes has certainly figured out a lot about how to maximize their opportunity to profit from recording artists, the truth is people still widely torrent whatever it is they can’t or don’t want to pay for. While the development of ebook readers has helped the publishing industry avoid gaffes such as hunting down purported offenders instead of seeing the very clear writing on the wall and realizing new ways to monetize opportunities, why are attitudes so slow to change about the means and methods of publishing?

What can publishers and the creators of publishing content (writers!) learn from what’s happened in the music industry?

Wilco’s latest release, The Whole Love, was produced through their very own label and they even decided to sing about it in one song (see video). I wonder if it’s not just publishers and distributors who need to “get with the times,” but authors and writers themselves. If I believe in my work, if I can be the best promoter of my material, if I stand to make far higher royalties on my own, and if I can distribute my material by ebook to the world in (more or less) an instant, why is this not being utterly embraced?

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