Indie Rock’s Lessons for Publishing
Musicians who self-publish books find the two forms strikingly similar
But while Colberg sees parallels between his approaches to music and to publishing, he also found that there were important differences between going it alone in the two industries.When Todd Colberg set out to publish his first book, a collection of true stories from his days touring with Chapel Hill, N.C.–based garage-punk band the Spinns, he didn’t even consider shopping it around to agents or publishers. After all, the band had always recorded without the middlemen and extra oversight of a major label, so going indie with his book seemed the obvious choice. Released in December of last year, Self Booked: Empty Bottles, Germs Burns and Bootneck Dreams: True Tales of The Spinns follows the exploits of Colberg and his two band mates through a series of comical and often-embarrassing tour stories. It covers the Spinns’s formation in 1998 to its disbanding eight years later.
As with the Spinns’s albums, the book’s creation was an independent affair. Over the four years he wrote and edited the book, Colberg rarely sought outside assistance and kept his focus on writing something that would entertain his friends and fans.
“You don’t have to write for certain demographics the way you would if you were doing something with a major publisher or major label,” says Colberg. “That’s what self-published authors and independent musicians look for: you hope for more artistic control.”
But while Colberg sees parallels between his approaches to music and to publishing, he also found that there were important differences between going it alone in the two industries. From the opportunities to connect with fans to the changing revenue model for artists, independent music offers some useful insights into the challenges of and opportunities in self-publishing.
Connecting with Fans
When Colberg decided early last year that he was ready to turn his stories and anecdotes into a full-blown book, he realized there were two main sticking points: finding the time to do the final writing and editing, and letting people know that the book exists. After all, the Spinns had stopped actively touring years before, and while they still had a loyal following, nobody besides Colberg and a few friends even knew he was working on a book.
In April of last year, Colberg publicized his Kickstarter effort through Facebook and the band’s e-mail list and in YouTube promos featuring Colberg playing his guitar around New York City, as well as footage of live Chapel Hill performances by the Spinns and other bands that appear in Self Booked.
Word spread to longtime fans of the band as well as those of the new bands Spinns members had formed (including Colberg bands the Gondoliers and the Siberians). Eventually the project attracted 35 backers and raising more than it $3,000 goal.
But beyond helping raise money for the project, the Kickstarter campaign helped Colberg raise awareness.
“Now everybody already knew about it,” says Colberg.
Colberg the author was able to tap into the excitement he generated as Colberg the musician.
“You need to connect with people on an emotional level, and get them to invest in you as an artist,” says Scott Collins, a professional musician who has published two books about the indie music business, as well as numerous guitar instruction books under his own GuitArchitecture series. “They will drag friends to shows, they call radio stations to get your songs played — those people are worth 10,000 friends on MySpace. That’s a real commodity.”
Colberg was able to reaffirm this connection with fans and give the book something of a launch party in December of last year, when the Spinns reunited for the first time in three years to play a few shows in Chapel Hill and Raleigh, N.C. The local paper covered the performances and even included the cover image of Colberg’s book. He was also excerpted in the garagepunk Bananas Magazine. While this was hardly the kind of promotional tour a typical author might take, it worked for Colberg.
“I moved a whole bunch of books down there and got roaring applause from the crowd. What could possibly be a better promotional tool?” he says.
More Freedom, More Responsibility
Colberg’s success with his DIY marketing extended to the writing and even editing of the book as well. He followed the example of his brother, who self-published his own book. In speaking with his brother, Colberg mentioned that he might need to hire a copy editor.
“He told me, ‘You wouldn’t pay anybody to help you write your songs, so why would you do that,’ ” says Colberg. “He’s a real minimalist and said, ‘I didn’t just write my book, I made it, with every single punctuation and even the cover art is mine — for that reason it has total artistic integrity,’ and so I became bent on accomplishing the same thing for myself.”
In the end, Colberg opted not to pay for a copy editor, but recruited an editor friend who worked in the publishing industry to gave it a read, offering suggestions for reorganizing some of the stories and making additions.
For both authors and musicians, the freedom that this approach to self-publishing offers can also present plenty of difficulties.
“I hear from authors I talk to over and over again that if you have complete control, and handle the financing and distribution, when do you have the time to write?” asks Florrie Binford Kichler, president of the Independent Book Publishers Association. “Musicians have the same problem— if you’re worrying about getting the music out there, getting it up on the site and communicating with fans, it takes away from your time to actually write and create music.”
Both industries have seen the barriers to entry vanish in recent years, as any artist is able to publish his or her book through Lulu or Amazon’s KDP Select service, just as a musician can post songs to YouTube or iTunes with little difficulty or cost. While this opens up the possibility for connection between artist and reader or listener, it also means the audience is faced with a virtually endless volume of options.
“For the publishing industry it’s the question of ‘discoverability,’ and I would imagine musicians find the same challenge,” says Kichler. “How do you reach the listener, how do you make yourself stand out?”
Kichler recently returned from Digital Book World and said that the message running through the conference was that authors need to reach their readers not by seeking the broadest possible audience, but by targeting niche markets.
“Independent publishers have been doing that for years— it may be two inches wide, but it could be 25 miles deep,” she says. “The same could be true for musicians— not everyone’s going to like your music, but if you can connect with those that do, it’s possible to keep digging and digging.”
Keeping it Personal
Colberg sees similarities between the creating of a book and an album, with both containing a number of parts— whether songs or stories— that take time to come together “like a puzzle” in a way that makes sense. But unlike when an album is recorded and released, with an e-book, Colberg appreciates being able to edit and adjust long after it’s officially come out.
Many independent musicians earn more from live shows than through album sales. Authors don’t have that option as a revenue stream. Major authors can charge $25 a person for a Q&A, but few authors, even for large houses, have the hope of making money on live appearances. But Kichler emphasizes that authors should still use live and online event such at Twit chats and online book clubs as opportunities to interact with audiences—while they may not pay, they can help connect self-published authors with their fans or expose them to new readers.
She maintains that for self-published authors, as for musicians, the most valuable currency in todday’s market is not always sales or a deal with a big name company, but a strong fan base.
Bookstores, like record stores, are getting scarcer, as more customers head to online retailers for even instruments. This makes traditional distribution to bricks-and-mortar stores less of a necessity as well.
“When I go into Barnes & Noble, the music book section gets smaller and smaller,” says Collins. “I remember when iTunes came out and I had a CD collection of more than 1,000 and I looked at the hard drive and said, ‘This is how much space 1,000 CDs take up?’ ” he says. “I knew that the writing was on the wall.”
But he sees hope for the future of print books when he looks at the example, not of CDs, but of the resurgence of vinyl, which saw sales rise 19% in 2012 compared to the year before, according to Nielsen SoundScan (digital albums only rose 14% in the same period).
“I think it’s because it’s kind of a ritual— pulling something off the wall, putting it into a machine and playing the thing; there’s a process,” says Collins. “I think for reading too—a lot of this is going to come back to that ritual, to people doing things because it’s an investment.”