28 March 2011

Publisher Pays $2 Million to Remain Relevent

After Amanda Hocking sold one million copies of her ebooks, on her own, she decided to open up her work to traditional publishers, who fought a bidding war. St. Martin's Press "won," with a $2 million contract. NYT reports, "Publishers, weary of hearing about their disposability in an age when writers can self-publish their work on the Internet and sell it on Amazon.com, said they were vindicated by the news."

Vindicated? Er, right. A writer who doesn't need you is willing to let you pay her to work for her. Sure, you're both making money on this, but who works for whom?

25 March 2011

The Trivial and the Ephemeral

While 2000 bands and uncounted hoards have descended on Austin for SXSW 2011, I've had a couple weeks of less exciting but entirely satisfying musical exploration and reflection myself. It started with Loretta Lynn and ended with death metal, so I've covered a bit of ground. There's a lot of great music I haven't heard, and a lot I've heard that I just don't appreciate yet. Seems self-evident, and goes for everyone, but sometimes I just get bored or jaded. Aggressive and open experimentation makes all things new again.

SXSW is about bands, beer, BBQ, and less appealingly, intense navelgazing about the future of music. In a curious keynote, well-spoken has-been Bob Geldof decried the flood of Web music and dished on contemporary American musicians, calling them "smug" and "exhausted," no longer revolutionary or relevant. Critic Greg Kot rightly says Geldof is just not plugged into socially-conscious music, which is of course being made. "Perhaps the deeper issue is not that no one is making that type of music, but that much of it is being lost amid what SXSW executive Roland Swenson called 'the trivial and the ephemeral' culture that is clogging media. The great life-affirming and potentially life-changing revolutionary music that Geldof seeks is being made. But without discerning voices to champion it, who will hear it? Certainly Geldof could use a little help in finding it."

Precisely. Democratization of means of production and broken filters. That's really what bedevils Geldof. He can almost see it, but not quite. He says of social and economic inequality, "What’s music got to say about it? I don’t hear it. Maybe I can’t hear it. Maybe this hyper democracy of the Web simply gives an illusion of talent. You can download a studio. Download any instrument. You can pick up any instrument for nothing. You can make, cut and paste to create fab artwork to make your CD. Everybody has got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say. We need to talk about it."

"Nobody has anything to say"? Does he only listen to Top 40? So it seems, and top pop is indisputably formulaic and vapid. Jay Frank of futurehit.dna documents at morbid length how totally one-dimensional pop music is. Summed up in numbers, the top 100 songs "account for approximately 36% of all new music track sales. . . . The #1 subject matter in the Top 100 selling songs were variations of 'I want to take you back to my place so we can have sex' songs, accounting for 21% of the top titles. . . . The more traditional subject matter along the same line is the 'I love you' song, which was the 2nd most popular at 17%. These songs just edged out the 'Out Of Love' songs, which accounted for 16% of the titles."

Party songs do well, too, says Frank. Even really bad ones, if they follow the basic pop formula faithfully and can get lucky and go viral. You don't need talent or a label, though ambitious middle-class parents are a big plus. 14-year old Rebecca Black's parents paid $2000 to ARK Music Factory to make a video of her DIY single, "Friday." They posted it on YouTube February 10th, and to date it's attracted over 44 million hits. They quickly put the single out on iTunes, where it's selling 40,000 copies or so a week. The video is bad, it's being parodied, but the Blacks are printing money from it, and Rebecca's bigger than all of SXSW combined. Says Frank, "If you combined every view of 'Friday' and its parody videos, approximately 62 Million minutes were spent on this song [to date!]. . . . In the meantime, if the approximately 15,000 SxSW attendees watched 12 hours of music a day for all 5 days, that would only add up to 54 Million minutes spent watching music."

Rebecca Black - Friday (OFFICIAL VIDEO)

Feel free to cry, as the labels surely are. They've completely lost control of the system. Or if you're Bob Geldof, go ahead and feel validated, because this is future of pop music. Democratic production is here to stay, and it will mostly produce music like this, because this, and Gaga, and Britney, are at the top of the popular taste bell-curve. But at the same time, it permits an expansion of genres that has me buzzing with adrenaline and anticipation.

But if there will be no more Harper Lees, we may likewise see no more Pink Floyds, green and thoroughly non-commercial artists nurtured by generous and patient label A&R into astonishingly vernacular and catalytic talents. Even money-grubbing tastemakers occasionally have good taste, but the labels are losing all power to promote it. Great books only have great power if everybody reads them. Same with music. Revolutionary music proliferates, but out of the vernacular spotlight, buried under the ephemeral, starved of social power. Geldof's assessment is askew, but sadly, only by a quarter turn.

24 March 2011

18 March 2011

No More Harper Lees

I was going to comment on Fweem's post on the dismal economics of book publishing, but then it led me to Nathan Bransford's blog, and to this post on self-publishing ebooks, based on this post by author Amanda Hocking. Read at least the Bransford post and comments. This is the future happening before our eyes.

The music industry had no idea that the iPod and iTunes signaled an apocalypse for their business, even if at the same time it was making them money. Publishers probably are not as naive, and would surely kill ebook readers if they could. But they can't, and while publishers are already reeling, they are barely beginning to feel the mighty contraction and redistribution that ebooks will cause to their industry.

Ebook readers turn every work of literature into a blog post, the perceived value of which is zero. Anyone can publish a blog post, and anyone can publish an ebook. Publishers can still provide editing and marketing for the author, and more invaluably, filters for readers. Readers will be willing to pay a certain amount for the benefit of these services. But when publishers are puzzled as to why readers undervalue the very costly business of publishing (my own business), which they love to explain, they need to look at Hocking, shut up, and get to work reinventing themselves around new paradigms.

When one hardworking, mid-grade author like Hocking can sell 450,000 copies of her ebook in one month, without a publisher, the publishers' business paradigm and grasp on the market has just been smashed. It shows that an author can do it all herself and succeed in a big way. Are they scared? Terrified. Hocking says modestly, "[N]o publisher is afraid of me. That's just silly. I'm one girl who wrote a couple books that are selling well. That doesn't scare them - they just want to be a part of it, the same way they want to be a part of any best seller."

If I were a for-profit publisher, I would only be publishing work by authors with established online/ebook audiences. An audience is an audience, and it is the only thing a book needs to succeed. While some authors still believe self-publishing is debasing, that's old thinking, and irrational. I can foresee a day when publishers will be loath to publish anyone who does not already have a digital reader base. Building that base clearly requires quantity, at least moderate quality, and relentless self-promotion. Any shy author with just one great book in them will probably never be heard above the din. I hate the fact that there will be no more Harper Lees, but you read it here first: There will be no more Harper Lees.

15 March 2011

On Writing and Suicide Pacts

I listened to a great episode of Radiolab the other day on the lengths we may go in our quest for motivation. Addicts, creatives, and the mentally ill (mental illness defines all three equally well, probably) seem by far the most likely to go to radical extremes in search of willpower. In one segment, author Elizabeth Gilbert reflects on the fickleness of muses and whether it is possible to "live a creative life without cutting your ear off." In this same Radiolab segment, host Robert Krulwich speaks with the neurologist Oliver Sacks, of "Awakenings" fame. Sacks relates the story of writing his first book. He couldn't push past block, even to start it, and finally, in abject desperation, made a pact with himself to commit suicide if he did not have the book done in ten days. He finished it in nine.

I finished writing my dissertation under a similar cloud, facing professional annihilation. I thought years ago that writing it would be the fun bit of my program. After all, isn't thinking and writing precisely why I was becoming a scholar? As it turns out, there is a grand difference for me between the experience of writing what you want to write, and writing what you have to write. There is more to it than that (I tire of most topics quickly, I don't like my work to be judged, etc.), but this whole experience has has taught me much about myself. It's not only exploded ideas I've long held about myself, but also recast my entire thinking about the nature of both academic and creative activity.

I haven't encountered many truly creative people who are consistently so without great effort, many misfires, and too often, a lot of personal carnage. Most great scholars, the creative community I know best (as far as it is creative), are great because they are compulsive workers with fixed and narrow obsessions. They still have their ears, true, but often amputate from them life beyond work. Up close, it's not all that profound or romantic. Many great scholars are surprisingly dull people, hoarders of arcana more than Renaissance men.

I lack the requisite academic neurosis. I'm a compulsive loafer with obsessions both fickle and many. Unlike many colleagues, I do not have an absolute conviction of the value of my work upon which to draw for motivation, or failing that, at least a bottomless ego to feed or a desire for public praise or a compulsive need to be speak and be heard. Anonymity suits me just fine, and I rarely have something that I just have to say. In fact, I have a half-dozen blog posts written that I have not put up. I write them, I read them over, and then think to myself, "Honestly, why bother shouting into the void?"

So how does one develop a proper writer's ego? I don't know, but I have determined, at the very least, to begin to approach writing as a serious craft. I will always have to write, in my current occupation, and I would rather fall back upon great writing chops than suicide pacts to push me through block. And as an editor, I am constantly working with authors who cannot write well, looking to me for assistance. So, somebody pass me the Strunk and White.