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?
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.
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.
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.
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.