Tag Archives: abundance

What can writers learn from Radiohead?

The news that UK band Radiohead have chosen to release their new album independently of record label support using an ‘honour box’ pricing scheme has set the internet alight. Is this a phenomenon that writers of fiction should be paying close attention to?

Thom Yorke of Radiohead

Lucky

The standard first response to this story has been “oh, but Radiohead are big enough (and rich enough) to be able to do this and not lose out financially.” That’s true enough, but the same model will (and indeed already does) still work for smaller artists.

The only overheads Radiohead have on that album is the money it cost to record and master it. No duplication, no distribution, no advertising, and no middlemen raking out the lion’s share of the revenue – which, believe it or not, shows signs of being quite considerable already, despite the fact that the option to get the download for free was available with the band’s blessing.

Now, granted, Radiohead have a strong brand already. None of the local bands in my town are going to make the same amount of news (or money) by releasing an album in the same way, because not enough people know who they are. But all bands make more money from touring (and selling merchandise at the same time) than they do from records, be they big or small.

Nice dream?

What Radiohead (and Prince, and others) have realised is that in a world where it’s impossible to stop people passing your music from person to person, you might as well accept it and use it to your advantage – let your music be a loss-leader advert for your other services, which in the case of musicians is live performances. If you can make some money back on the recordings, all well and good – and if you treat your fans with respect, they’ll be more willing to pay you.

So what does this mean for writers of fiction? Well, the publishing industry is not identical to the music industry, but there are similarities – especially when you look at the “play it safe” approach to developing new talent, leading to bookshops full of more of the same.

The big difference is that the “book experience” isn’t quite so readily reproduced electronically, and it will be some time before it can be, for various reasons. In other words, I’m not suggesting that fiction writers should abandon all desire to be published as novelists. But what I am suggesting is that new writers (and old ones) should be giving away snippets to build up their reputations and create a market for themselves.

No surprises

Publishers, as much as they may be sincerely interested in bringing great writing into the public eye, have a bottom line to look after. I don’t think it’s over cynical of me to suggest that, if given the choice between two debut novels of equal quality, a publisher is going to feel better about taking the gamble on the author whose name turns up more often in blogs, forums and webzines. That author has done part of the publisher’s job for them; he or she has demonstrated not just a competence at writing, but the will and drive to get out there and sell themselves.

Of course, I’m largely preaching to the converted here. But there’s still plenty of misunderstanding about these issues, particularly from the old guard of publishers and authors – witness the SFWA/Scribd spat, which I believe to have been done with the best of intentions, but on the basis of a decades-old understanding of the writer’s place in the modern market.

Optimistic

And, much as I hoped and called for (but am not taking any credit for), the genre scene is adapting to the new economics. Much as in music, it’s the fringe cultures that can afford to try out new models, because their communities are bound by loyalty and a sense of identity, and because the artists are going to keep on creating even if they can’t make much money out of it.

Hence the ongoing short fiction revolution – I was absolutely stoked to catch the news that Fantasy Magazine is giving up dead-tree magazine publishing, and moving instead to a weekly free-to-read online magazine model with occasional printed anthologies … and they’re increasing their per-word price for fiction at the same time!

Anyone can play guitar

So, what can writers learn from Radiohead? They can learn that things are changing, and where the big boys lead, they shouldn’t be afraid to follow.

OK, so you’re not Charlie Stross or Cory Doctorow – the Radioheads of sf, if I might mangle the metaphor – but Stross and Doctorow are breaking the trail ahead of you, making it progressively easier to follow in their wake.

Radiohead’s best advert for themselves is their music. As a writer, yours is your writing. So set it free – if people want to pass it around on your behalf, they’re doing you a favour.

DRM – what’s dumb for music is dumb for books, too

Thanks to Tobias Buckell, I caught another slice of wisdom from Eric Flint of Baen Books on the subject of piracy (though not the sort with ships and cutlasses, mind) and the genre fiction market:

“You literally can’t penetrate the obscurity of the book market. You’d have to spend every waking moment reading book reviews—and even that wouldn’t suffice, because the book reviewers themselves, all of them put together, can’t keep up with the production of new titles.”

(Yup.)

“In short, the book market is just about as opaque as any market there is. I might mention, by the way, that this is not the least of the reasons that the fears of authors that they’ll get “pirated” are almost always just plain silly. With the exception of a tiny percentage of very well-known authors like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, the real problem authors face is that only a very small percentage of their potential customers have even heard of them—so how likely is it that the ravening hordes of electronic pirates are out there plundering their titles?”

And a little further on:

“In the real world, the only authors—or musicians, by the way—who get “pirated” in any significant numbers are ones who are already famous and enjoy top sales. (And all the “piracy” is likely to do, even then, is simply boost their sales. See my next essay for a further discussion.) The great problem faced by all authors—musicians are in a very similar position—is the opacity of the book market. The entertainment market in general, actually, even movies. Compared to that problem, all others are fleas standing next to mammoths.

It is therefore absurd for an author or a publisher to support DRM, when DRM not only makes the market still more opaque, but—worse yet—it removes the best tool any author has today to penetrate that obscurity, at least a little.”

That is, of course, the O’Reilly / Doctorow “piracy as progressive taxation” argument, but here it’s coming from someone who knows the industry of which he speaks from the beancounting end. And the music industry comparison is timely, what with plunging CD sales and corporate panicking making headlines. They’re failing spectacularly; publishing would do well to learn from their mistakes.

Further evidence from O’Reilly, via Doctorow (ZOMFG! H4X! k0nsp1r4cy!), in the form of a case study of sales and download figures for a non-fiction title whose free availability became a Digg headline:

“…what’s most striking (apart from the huge scale mismatch, in terms of the number of people accessing the content through the free online version), is that when the downloads spiked in January of this year from about 8000 a month to nearly 30,000 after the book’s free availability was noted on digg, we didn’t see a correspondingly sharp decline in sales. Of course, neither did we see any evidence that free availability of the book spurred sales. And as noted above, there is a sharp drop at about the time the download data starts that is likely unrelated to the downloads, even though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility that downloads had some effect.”

This is of limited relevance here – because popular fiction is a different kettle of fish to obscure geek tomes on the future of telephony, and because this is a case where a free, easy and perfectly legal source for the electronic version was made available. But even so, it’s worth noting that there was no sharp decline in sales.

Of course, the best way to nullify piracy, as Flint and O’Reilly have both said before, is to make the stuff freely available at source. Publishers have been reticent about this, which is probably no surprise – the economics of abundance is a pretty new phenomenon in creative works, after all – but the problems being experienced by the record labels should be sufficient impetus to start planning ahead.

And the options are there – even Google, those filthy copyright-infringing bookscanner types, are holding out a hand to publishers by offering them the chance to have branded portals to the content of theirs that Google makes available:

“Publishers can tailor the index of their search engine so that only books published by them show up in the query results, Google said Friday. As in the main Book Search site, these result pages give users the option to link to online shops that sell the listed books.”

Sure, Google gains from this. They’re not stupid. But publishers stand to gain, too – and while playing King Canute as your business dwindles might be a glorious stand for what you’ve always believed in, it’s ultimately an empty display if you’re in the business of getting good reading material in front of the eyes of readers. Go with the flow; it’s easier to adjust your stroke if you’re not swimming against the tide.