Maybe We Should Stop Comparing Books to Music and Instead Look To A Different Industry

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First off — I apologize for the ridiculously long blog title. However, I needed to write it down somewhere and the title seemed as good a place as anywhere else. 

Oftentimes the book industry — particularly those associated with it, like authors, editors, and readers — have a habit of referring to the early days of digital music when Napster allowed me to listen to literally anything I wanted. The music industry wasn’t prepared and suffered for a while. Thanks to iTunes, they have been able to survive, but the new digital age has provided new opportunities for independent artists and bands. 

I would argue that the latter aspect, while an important part of today’s music scene, was really always a part. The digital nature of the Internet has just allowed those bands to receive more exposure. Where does a lot of that exposure come from? 

YouTube. 

A band or singer writes a song, films themselves singing it (perhaps with some crazy and wacky props) and it goes up on YouTube with a viral hit a prayer away. We’ve seen this happen over and over. Sometimes this is an artist already signed to a contract like Psy from South Korea or OK Go. What about Rebbecca Black of the Friday fame (and I know just by mentioning it, that song is playing incessantly in your heads)? Let’s get away from the professionals and semi-professionals…what about the Mom and Dad who filmed themselves lip-syncing to Frozen’s “Love is an Open Door,” while their daughter sat oblivious in the backseat? (15 million hits on that sucker, by the way.)

All of these benefited from the nature of YouTube — where a person or small group can record themselves (possibly on a very tight budget) doing what they do best and putting it out there for the world to see. This is more analogous to the modern state of publishing today, I believe. 

Let’s take a look at John and Hank Green. They were not the first to have a vlog, but their Vlogbrothers channel on YouTube has been the force behind a lot of successful projects. (Last time I counted, between the two of them, the Greens had an interest in over a dozen YouTube channels from their normal twice-a-week vlog, a video game channel, educational science and history channels, the pioneering Brain Scoop among many others). Hank Green is also the originator of Vidcon, which just wrapped up in Anaheim, California. 

According to their website: 

VidCon is for people who love online video. Independent creators, enablers, viewers and supporters of all kinds. The ways that we entertain, educate, share, and communicate are being revolutionized. The creators attending and on-stage at VidCon are central to that revolution. The best part is, we’re having the time of our lives doing it.

Sounds a lot like the Independent writing and publishing community to me. In just a short time, I have written and published a few novels and a handful of short stories. Along the way I have made friends — from fellow authors, bloggers, editors, and even those who prefer to just read. The independent author with a negative outlook on their craft is rare and those who refuse to cooperate are even rarer in my experience. (In fact, in the last few days, I’ve written a blurb promoting a fellow author’s new space opera, and helped to beta-read another friend’s final installment in a four-part science fiction novel — neither one I would have done if those friends hadn’t shown their kindness to me on previous occasions. We lift up each other’s successes; by doing so, our own work may benefit, but it may not. We do it because we love this stuff. 

John and Hank have been in the mainstream news a lot lately because John is also the author of the Young Adult hit, The Fault in Our Stars. The press had difficulty understanding how John and Hank built their online community, affectionately known as “Nerdfighters,” which I will profess to being. These companies want to build these “genuine” communities like the Nerdfighters, but they don’t understand the time, the patience, and the hard work that goes into it. Also the “genuine” part. 

Now…I can’t help think of my friend Hugh Howey here as well. (Yes, this is a rare instance where we get to compare, not contrast Hugh and John Green.) After I had been following the Vlogbrothers for a couple years, I found myself getting into the books on my Kindle, notably WOOL. I wasn’t the only one. Greatness seemed to be thrust upon Hugh to a certain extant, but as far as I can tell, along the way he has been nothing but gracious and receptive to his multitude of fans, interacting with them on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (!), even his own website, where he responded to tons of fan responses to a blog post earlier today. He has genuinely built an online community where his fans will follow and read just about anything he writes (even love stories from Europe!).

So why do authors compare their books to the music industry? I guess since we write the book and put it on Amazon for people to purchase, just like a band might record an album and put it on iTunes. However, I would argue we shouldn’t compare it to music — but rather to the YouTube phenomena. 

Maybe we can make the following comparisons:

Hardback books are like Hollywood Movies. Not all hardbacks sell great, but they are the best the book industry can put out there. Hardbacks are usually only manufactured with a significant investment and Hollywood movies are much the same. Some books don’t sell even in hardback and some movies are unseen as well (John Carter, Lone Ranger, etc…). 

Paperback books are like television shows. Paperback books are everywhere and the number of television channels seems to increase each day as well. You can find just about anything in paperback and TV offers so many niche shows. Some do well…some don’t. 

Independently published books are like YouTube videos. Indie authors put their heart and soul into their books, but there is still a bit of luck that gets that book to chart and rocket up the charts. Even quality books can languish without the “right” group of people finding that book and reading it. Same goes for YouTube videos. You can watch a dozen videos and maybe one will have the legs to go viral. Why does a video of a cat playing the piano become a worldwide sensation? Why does Fifty Shades of Grey do the same? Some questions will never be answered. 

Now…fellow indie authors, I am not saying this to mean anything negative about your books or the craft of writing. In fact, I honestly believe some of the most inventive, most creative, most compelling stories being created on film are shown on YouTube first. There is a reason why those previously mentioned Hollywood movies and TV shows are clamoring for YouTube hits as well. Hollywood is mining YouTube for their next stars and Jimmy Fallon’s YouTube channel has millions of subscribers. In fact, Fallon’s bits are specifically designed to have a viral factor most nights. 

There is an appeal to YouTube, just as there is more and more of an appeal of Indie Publishing. It’s cool. It is the cutting edge place to be. Where else can you find Amish Science Fiction stories? Where else can you get an American writing just like Neil Gaiman? If the publishing industry continued to exist as it did 50 years ago, you wouldn’t get traditionally-published books by Ernie Lindsey, Ann Christy, Stefan Bolz, Michael Bunker, Jason Gurley, or even me. But because of digital innovations from YouTube as well as Amazon, we are getting the best content we ever have. 

Now, I’m not hip-deep in the world of visual media as I am with books right now, so I don’t know if this is true, but from the outside it appears as though the movies, TV, and online content each have their own place and can coexist. If this is true for them, why can’t it be true for hardbacks, paperbacks, and indie published books as well?

 

 

 

We can go down the list and find dozens of 

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One thought on “Maybe We Should Stop Comparing Books to Music and Instead Look To A Different Industry

  1. I enjoyed your blog, Will, and I agree with the sentiment. The homemade, independently produced and uploaded nature of YouTube videos does appear to be closely analogous to the self-published ebook; certainly more so than the music industry examples. I, too, am genuinely excited at the opportunities in front of us because of industry evolution, but I’m also with you about co-existing. I may have been guilty of over-emphasising indie publishing benefits over legacy publishing, largely because one serves my interests over the other, but I do genuinely want both to remain and remain attractive in their respective ways. I think we should spend our time embracing the opportunities in front of us rather than bemoan perceived injustices. Just like the YouTubers who spend their precious time creating great new content rather than shaking a fist at the industry in general.

    I enjoy your positive and (justifiably) optimistic approach to things very much and find it laudable. Not all indies can honestly say the same. Keep it up.

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