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.

9 thoughts on “What can writers learn from Radiohead?”

  1. Something to think about indeed, but my first response was Jane Siberry has been doing that from her website for at least three years. http://www.sheeba.ca/store/letterSDP.php I don’t know if she was the first, maybe not but I am certain of this: Radiohead are no more pioneers of this than they were of using electricty in their guitars.

  2. I didn’t mean to paint them as innovators as much as the first act with a big enough profile for them doing it to be “news” – plenty of acts have done similar things before, but it’s never really made much of a splash outside the regional music press before.

  3. Firstly, like the sub-headings!

    Secondly, to be pedantic, another overhead will be the, presumably not insignificant, bandwidth costs. If no one paid anything for the album they would probably lose money.

    Finally, I’m not entirely convinced that giving away fiction (== self publishing) is the right way for a new writer to go. I could publish all of my stories on my website and it would probably not help my writing career. The aim of getting published in Interzone or Asimov’s (apart from the personal joy) is marketing, they have a far bigger audience than my blog. Which is more or less what Radiohead’s managers said this morning on Radio 4, they’re still going to get a standard record deal, as well as a free download, because the record comapnies have the distribution/marketing infrastructure

  4. Point taken, James – but what I was trying to get at is the idea that publishing your own work acts as an advert to the magazines, whose position as “gatekeepers of quality” should actually be strengthened by there being more fiction available for free … I don’t know for certain, but I imagine if we could see more of the type of story that gets rejected from magazines, we’d probably have greater respect for the work their editors do. But distribution is an interesting point, and that’s where your argument cuts two ways – what the print mags have is strong brand reputation, but compared to online fiction publishing, their distribution logistics are brutally costly – I think it’s that, more than falling readerships, that has made things so hard for print mags. (Though I’d be more than happy for someone in a poition of greater knowledge to set me straight on that.)

    Regarding the bandwidth costs, again, point taken – and apparently the bandwidth has been an issue, as demand was higher than expected, leading to slow load times and failed log-ins. But that would be an easy problem to solve by co-promotion – a band with Radiohead’s profile, who’re going to get the sort of bandwidth demands in question, would have been best off going to a company like Amazon who specialise in delivering massive amounts of server bandwidth (the A9 framework, or whatever it’s called) and doing them a deal – “give us a cut-price rate, we’ll plug the service.” The mutual backscratch model works pretty well, and scales effectively from big numbers to smaller, also.

  5. Oh, and additionally – a greater availability of free short fiction should, theoretically, produce a greater demand for short fiction of the highest quality, which people will be willing to pay for (or tolerate ads in support of). I remain convinced that more people would read genre short fiction if they were aware of its existence.

  6. Point 3 – true enough, James, but you should also take into account that your blog isn’t set up as a promotional tool for your own writing, which will be a factor.

    Additionally, “giving away” is misleading. As increasing numbers of digital ‘zines are demonstrating, the writer gets paid, but the reader gets it for free.

    I’d give away more fiction myself if I ever finished any stories! 😉

  7. Jason Stoddard and I have kicked around plenty of How To Save SF Publishing schemes, and they all end up at the same point: go online, quit charging your readers to read, use every form of getting cash (subscriptions, donations, ads, selling hard goods), allow readers to post their words and pictures, and have a pro editor to helm the thing to bring the prestige. We called it the Big Scary Idea, and if anyone’s interested, I can send you the document. We would’ve done it ourselves, but there’s never enough time.

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