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[Guest Post] Vaughan Simons: What publishing can learn from Radiohead.

February 22, 2011 \am\28 10:45 am

On 13 February, no one had the slightest clue that a new Radiohead album was about to appear. Unlike almost everything else that happens in the music business, we hadn’t had to endure months of tedious pre-publicity and hype, studio session rumours and song leaks before getting our hands on their latest recording. So when, on 14 February, the band put out an online announcement revealing that The King of Limbs would be available to download from the following Saturday (19 February), and pointed to the site where you could pre-order both the download and the physical artefact (due later in the year), it really did come as a shock and a surprise. As if that wasn’t enough to destabilise the status quo and the standard way of doing things, they then decided that since everything was set up and ready to go there was really no sense in waiting any longer, and put the album online a day early. Best of all, the entire project was done independently, outside of the formal structure whereby an act releases ‘product’ via a record company and it’s backed by a carefully-orchestrated marketing campaign. After the ‘pay what you can’ release of In Rainbows back in 2007, Radiohead proved yet again that they really do know how to shake up the music industry.

So I’ll admit it: I love Radiohead. Lyrics of post-millennial alienation that reference cut-and-paste-and-rearrange lines from advertising and popular culture? Check.  Unsettling and challenging musical backdrops melding glitchy electronica with spindly guitars and pattering drums? Check. Thom Yorke’s downright weird face, strangulated singing and spazzy dancing? Check. Yes, I’m sold.

It’s not Radiohead’s music that interests me here, though. It’s the way they market themselves, the way they distribute their music. Their whole ‘fuck-you’ attitude is inspiring. Of course, their many detractors are absolutely right when they point out that Grinning Thom Yorke & His Merry Bunch Of Pranksters can behave in such a wilfully independent way because they’re now hugely successful, multi-millionaire rock stars who spent years peddling their wares on the conventional record company gravy train, playing stadium gigs and doing inane interviews on MTV just like any other band. It was only once they’d become jaded by that game that they decided to become the Awkward Squad. But in many ways, all they’re doing now is learning from the underground and applying those methods to a much bigger audience. At the other end of the music industry, light years away from Radiohead’s phenomenal level of success, there are countless bands and artists who are increasingly recording albums in their bedrooms on consumer-level software, communicating directly with their fans via Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook, putting free music online via Soundcloud and Myspace, and selling their releases via services like Bandcamp – often only in electronic formats.

Publishing – and, I’m sorry to say, even independent publishing – feels leaden and antiquated in comparison. Like the established music industry, it’s been slow to wake up, to rub the sleep from its eyes and look around with a slightly startled stare at all that’s happening, and then respond to the way the world is changing. As the book business begins the process of stumbling into the 21st century, you can feel the reluctance and see the grimace on its face, almost as if it’s mumbling: “Well, I suppose we’ll have to change if it’s what people want, but why can’t they just be happy buying paperbacks in bookshops like they always did?”

In the mainstream publishing industry, we all know the scenario well enough by now: the big brand bookstores are closing their doors and disappearing from our streets, people are buying books online, and they’re increasingly buying them in electronic formats. E-book readers – whether it’s the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad or even the iPhone – are the new must-have accessories. While it’s probably wise to take Amazon’s recent statement that e-books are now outselling traditional paperbacks with a pinch of salt – they have their own well-known e-book reader to sell, after all – I suspect it isn’t so far from the truth. Publishers are finally beginning to wake up to e-books, and putting more focus on ensuring that they’re released at the same time as the print version. As an e-book purchaser reading between my iPhone and my Kindle, there are still some shocking gaps in what’s available to buy in electronic format – even in new releases, let alone in older books – but these glaring omissions will no doubt be rectified sooner rather than later if the demand is there.

Above all, however, there’s one simple fact: like millions of people, I enjoy reading books on my Kindle. It’s light and convenient to carry around, incredibly usable, restful on my eyes and, if I’m feeling slightly less than intelligent, I can look up any unfamiliar words on the built-in dictionary. (As I typed the above comments, I could feel the reactions ranging from wearied, almost pitying sighs to utter, flesh-crawling hatred, accompanied by an exasperated chorus of “But it’s just not comparable to the experience of reading a real book!” Oh, let’s not have that tedious argument again, shall we?)

In music, the mainstream industry has been racing to catch up with the underground’s DIY ethic (which has been taken above ground by Radiohead). In publishing, though, it’s the other way round. While the major publishers engage with the e-book revolution, the independent literary scene seems to want to cling, almost desperately, to the old way of doing things, while shielding their gaze from the electronic glow of a billion e-reader screens.

So here are some aspects of indie lit publishing which, while I can certainly appreciate their inherent charm and appeal – and, in the interests of hypocritical self-disclosure, I’ll freely confess I have often wished to be part of such activities or have purchased the end products – somehow feel distinctly anachronistic in today’s ever-changing, fast-moving world:

  1. A micro-press self-printing and carefully folding together 75 – or maybe (at a stretch) 100 – copies of a chapbook which will, by its very limited nature, be bought and read only by other members of the indie publishing scene. It will never be reprinted.
  2. A small press paying for a print run of 200 copies of a perfect bound novel or short story collection. Again, the likelihood is that this will be primarily reviewed, bought and read within the indie lit community. It will only be available via the indie publisher’s website, meaning that you’ll most likely need to be aware of said publisher in order to discover it. The book may get a reprint if demand is sufficient.
  3. A printed literary magazine that’s available to buy from a small number of independent bookshops in a few select cities in the US or UK (but never both). They may have some limited online ordering too, but their main concern is to try and encourage you to “support your local indie bookstore” (even if it’s far from local to you).
  4. An indie publisher proudly launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund a print run of a literary journal. If they’re successful in reaching their funding target – all donations coming from the indie lit community, needless to say, because they’re the only ones who know about it – it’s still debatable whether they’ll be able to print enough copies to sell one to each person who gave money towards the campaign, meaning that some will inevitably lose out. There will never be an e-book or an online version, because that would be unfair to all the people who funded the print release.

I’m far from being a heartless free-market capitalist whose guiding principles are enshrined only in shining currency symbols. In fact, I’m the polar opposite: a liberal-minded, politically Socialist (Sssh! Evil word! Evil word!), unreformed hippy, who thinks we should renationalise the banks, redistribute wealth fairly, tax big business until it bleeds, and spend our free time hugging trees and knitting Tofu. So, for me, there’s no question that the above are highly laudable examples of indie publishing at its best, all of them borne out of a genuine, honest love for putting great writing ‘out there’ into the world. But even the most dewy-eyed romantic zealot for the written word can see that the impact of these efforts will be small and short-lived.

Does that matter? Should it matter? Well, yes, I think it should – if you’re so convinced by a writer’s words that you’re willing to spend so much time, energy and money publishing them, then you should also want the work to be read by as many people as possible rather than just causing yet another brief splash in the indie lit pool.

It’s here that I come back to the Radiohead model. The digital download of The King of Limbs is out there now for everyone to download into iTunes and listen. There’s nothing to hold in your hands, no sleevenotes to read, no lyric sheet to scan, no intricate cover art to admire – but in the second decade of the 21st century, the vast majority of listeners have long ceased caring about such things. For those that haven’t, however, they’ll release the physical artefact in May – a luxurious package comprising many pieces of artwork, two 10” vinyl records and, of course, the CD itself. It’ll cost more than five times as much as the simple zipped MP3 file, but if you love Radiohead and really want the full experience – as well as the pin-sharp perfect audio quality – you’ll be willing to fork out the cash for it.

Indie lit, small presses, micro-presses – whatever we want to call the world of publishing that sits outside the money-making business of endless Dan Brown novels – needs to engage with this new technology in exactly the same enthusiastic way its big mainstream brother has done in the past couple of years. And it needs to do it fast. It’s mostly conquered its fear of the internet, with even long-established print journals finally moving into the online world, so now it’s time to learn how to produce e-books. It’s time to do the unthinkable and engage with the Antichrist (i.e., Amazon) and publish your books there – because, whether we like it or not, it’s the world’s biggest bookstore and that’s where the majority of people will find you. This doesn’t mean the death of print – as so many reactionary, scaremongering commentators would have you believe – but it does mean that the print version may end up becoming the exclusive ‘collector’s edition,’ funded not by a small circle of friends, benefactors or other members of the community who ultimately just end up buying back what they’ve donated towards, but by those people who want to hold the physical artefact in their hands and admire the hours of love and care that have gone into producing it.

(Oh, and the Radiohead album? The first few tracks are a touch underwhelming, though still with all that paranoid Thom Yorke atmosphere. The last three tracks are utterly heartbreaking and made me cry.)

Vaughan Simons is not afraid of the future. He is also not afraid to call a spade an implement with which to facilitate the act of gardening. He often grabs a bull by the horns and shouts “Sorry, wrong bull!” Find him here, there and everywhere.

  1. February 22, 2011 \am\28 11:11 am 11:11 am

    Great post, I totally agree! Printed books will become luxury, collector’s items much the same way that vinyl records are today. I saw a DJ still spinning with vinyl at a house party recently and congratulated him. I was genuinely happy to see that still happening.

  2. February 22, 2011 \pm\28 12:31 pm 12:31 pm

    Great article – some really interesting points. I have to admit, when I worked at one of the four big publishing companies in the UK, I felt a little weary about the kindle (much as you describe above). A kind of feeling that other people might like it but I probably wouldn’t (not based on anything other than techno-ignorance, I’m sure). And even as I was setting up Shortfire Press, a digital publishing house selling short stories one by one, I remained a little unimpressed by the kindle. But then I went out and bought one. And my attittude completely changed. I LOVE reading on it – and I didn’t think I would. I love how easy it is, and I’ve spent far more on ebooks over the past few months than I have on physical books. As a publisher, there are still things about it I don’t like – for eg the way amazon takes 65% of the selling price if you are selling at less than £2.99 (our stories are all 99p each). And the way they add DRM to their files. Oh, and the way that they alter your price without notice. These are all reasons we sell direct from our website only at the moment. I’d love to have our stories on but they don’t make it easy for us!
    Thanks for the post – lots of food for thought.

    • February 22, 2011 \pm\28 2:03 pm 2:03 pm

      Thanks Clare – I actually discovered Shortfire Press a few weeks back, probably not that long after you launched it, and was really impressed and hugely enthused by it, especially the foresight of entering into the short story arena for new and emerging writers via the wholly digital / e-book route rather than the more conventional small press arena. Good to see it in the UK too.

      I think Amazon’s current rules and restrictions are crazy – DRM especially, and the ridiculous cut they take – but I tend to see the situation a little like the early days of digital music. That’s not only down to the competing formats (ePub v mobi, primarily), one of which needs to emerge victorious in the same way MP3 did, but also because stores like Amazon don’t quite know how to treat e-books in the market. It seems rather ironic that when Amazon launched their MP3 store to finally compete with iTunes, they trumpeted the fact that their products would be DRM-free, but when they head into the world of e-books, stealing a march on their competitors, they immediately apply DRM and take a whacking cut. Hopefully, as popularity grows, the moment of realisation, where they see the error of their ways, will soon arrive.

  3. February 22, 2011 \pm\28 1:13 pm 1:13 pm

    Good post, but here are some counter-points:

    As someone who co-runs a small press, I find the amount of work needed just to make one small book is exhausting. You’re doing about five people’s jobs to get it to an acceptable quality. Transferring it to an e-reader format isn’t then simply a question of running the pdf through some conversion software (although that seems to be the approach of the major publishers) but doing a whole load more work to iron out all the kinks and remove formatting that was specific to a page by page set-up. This is particularly problematic in the case of poetry, as e-book formats still seem to struggle with any layout that isn’t divided into neat, unbroken paragraph blocks.

    And I might be wrong on this but I don’t think there’s yet the e-book equivalent of the software that small publishers use to quickly create a pdf or doc file. When I last had a go at e-books, I had to code it like a web page. Larger publishers can hire programmers to do this donkey work; smaller ones would need to acquire a whole new set of skills.

    There’s also the question of readership. Kindle viewing figures going up and bookshops going down doesn’t necessarily say much about areas outside of the mainstream. If the majority of the audience shifting to Kindles are people moving away from cheap paperbacks – from one disposable format to an even more disposable format – that makes the extra effort needed for a digital edition less worthwhile.

    Then there’s a potential comparator in the publish-on-demand technology that’s been around for a while. It was hailed as the future because small publishers no longer had to pay for a whole run of books – an audience rapidly acclimatising to ordering from the internet would find your book online, place an order and have it delivered without the publisher having to pay anything but a small set-up fee. But where major publishers can’t shut out competition by making themselves more available (ie. through chain bookshops) they still find ways to become more visible. All others become lost in the sea of options and information.

    So there can be no utopia of all e-books being on an equal footing and accessible – the only way you’re going to find out about the output of small publishers is through the same networks (or equivalent online routes) you previously found out about them. At which point, the only reason not to buy the physical book is if you no longer have time for physical books at all, or can’t wait a couple of days for something to be posted to you, or baulk at an extra couple of quid on top.

    At the moment, the number of people who would fit into that category – who, having stumbled across the small press’s website, want to buy product but give up because the e-book edition isn’t available – is simply too uncertain to make it worth a lot of extra hassle. When the first person says to me, either on the street or through email, “I wanted to get that but only for my Kindle”, I’ll start reconsidering.

    • February 22, 2011 \pm\28 2:13 pm 2:13 pm

      Jon – you undoubtedly make some worthwhile points. E-book technology is still in its early days, true enough, and as I’ve seen for myself, it still hasn’t got the greatest of responses to the issue of trying to display poetry. I have no doubt that’ll come, though. As for being complex to produce, yes, they’re still a little more complex to make than, say, converting a doc to a PDF, but they’re getting easier all the time – there’s software out there now that’s little more than a different sort of word processing package: go in, do a bit of editing and tidying up, save it out and you’ve got your e-book. You no longer need to get your hands dirty with the code if you don’t want to.

      As for distribution, Clare (above) was right about Amazon’s rather hefty cut on cheaper e-books, but there are services like Smashwords, which has been specifically set up for marketing e-books from indie authors and publishers. Also, as regards sending out physical books, I don’t know how your press gets on with posting further afield than the UK, but I’ve often ordered books from small presses in the US (if I can afford the postage, which is sometimes horrendously high, through no fault of their own) and had things get lost in the post, be slapped with a customs charge when they got here, or take absolutely ages to arrive. These things aren’t any fault of the press, but it seems to me that e-books would offer presses the opportunity to get their books to an international audience, rather than just a national one.

    • February 24, 2011 \am\28 3:45 am 3:45 am

      Angela – it’s a great point, and I don’t think such a different one from what I was saying. You say “authors need to make money with their books in different ways” and I’d agree. Sadly – and I do mean it when I say “sadly,” because I hate coming across like some soulless economist – producing a small run of print books just currently isn’t a viable economic way for authors to make money. But then, it could be argued, unless you’re a huge act, neither is music these days – I wonder how many of these acts making music in their bedrooms and selling them via the web are making profit. Few, I doubt. Maybe just enough to make more music in between their day jobs. Maybe that’s the reality these days – sad but true.

      I think e-books might offer more possibility of making money because the production costs are, inevitably, lower. Yes, Amazon still need to change their percentage model on these purchases, which is pretty scandalous at the moment, but hopefully that’ll happen in time.

      I’m not sure about lit readings as a money-making venture. Concerts are a communal experience and you don’t ‘think’ about the music in the same way as when you listen to it at home. I’m a bit of a cynic, I guess – how can you honestly appreciate a writer’s words listening to them in a crowded bar with people clinking glasses and chatting around you? But it does make me think that maybe audio is another possible option – audiobooks sell, so why not writers producing their own audiobooks? Or audiobooks to accompany e-books? Recording audio at home – and making it sound good – isn’t such a leap of the imagination these days …

  4. February 22, 2011 \pm\28 2:54 pm 2:54 pm

    Having worked at a smaller publisher as we made the transition to adding electronic editions, I think the biggest problem we had was learning the ins and the outs of making the eBooks (we had trouble creating proper epub files), but once we got the ball running, it was hard to imagine a time before we had eBooks. It feels like “free money” every month when you get that big fat check (well, direct deposit) from Amazon, etc!

    • February 24, 2011 \am\28 3:47 am 3:47 am

      Agreed. I think a lot of people are afraid of e-books because they look on it as being a technical enterprise. Well, yes, it is. But it’s far from being rocket science, even though the tools aren’t currently that user-friendly. The thing is, just like building websites, the tools are only going to get easier and more user-friendly …

      • February 24, 2011 \am\28 11:52 am 11:52 am

        Yep, I don’t think it’ll be too long until the tools are so user friendly anyone can do it easily. We thought it would be “harder” than it was, and we did have some trouble at first, but once we figured out the ins and the outs of what the stores needed in the files, it went great. Our authors were really pleased with the checks THEY got from the sales, too, so everyone ended up happy — for once! ;)

  5. February 24, 2011 \pm\28 12:01 pm 12:01 pm

    The problem many of us indie micorpresses have (I run the tiny eight cuts gallery press) is largly the same as that many micro labels in the record industry have – we’re stuff geeks. Many micro labels at the end of the day are vinyl junkies who will put more into their beautiful limited pressings than their itunes release. Likewise many of us in the publishing scene come from the world of zines and chapbooks and will do likewise. We ARE doing genuinely exciting things in terms of content – but we’re happy with our niche of fellow geeks

    But there’s a second problem. And it’s one I’m afraid posts like this (citing Radiohead) contribute to. And that’s to do with coverage. JA Konrath could fart the alphabet and every literary blog would cover it. A new indie publisher could do something utterly mindblowing and no one would say a thing – because the media – even the so-called cutting edge interweb media – never want to be the first to break the story – they want to be the first on a ready-made wave of success – and that means waiting for just before tipping point. And the only exceptions are – you guessed it – those parts of the literary/music world run by our fellow geeks.

    What Radiohead did is no different from what, say, Philistine Press do with their releases. The difference is that you’re talking about it, and not about them. And at eight cuts gallery we run real/virtual crossover hyperlinked multi-arts anthologies unlike anything out there. Has anyone picked up the story? Of course not – only our fellow geeks (not strictly true – a fantastic writer from Sarajevo flew over to Oxford for the live show, and several of Serbia’s main papers ran massive spreads).

    So I think it’s disngenuous to lay the blame on micro-publishers – take a look, see what we’re doing, then give us the oxygen of coverage if you like it. But don’t assume because you don’t read about us doing it that we’re not, or that a big name who does something is somehow leading the way – they’re not, they’re just getting the credit their name buys them for doing what we’ve been doing for an age

    • February 24, 2011 \pm\28 4:04 pm 4:04 pm

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, Dan. First of all, I think you hit the nail on the head with your “stuff geeks” term. That’s exactly it. Many of us – and I know I’m still partly with a foot in that camp – want a pile of chapbooks and small press publications on our shelf to read through (or not read through, as the case may be), and we don’t necessarily care that much if our products are only being sold to other stuff geeks.

      You’re right, too, in picking up an aspect I undoubtedly missed. I do still think the micro-publishers are partly to blame for not enthusiastically picking up on new ways of getting their work out there, but there’s certainly a huge amount of truth in the idea that those who publicise the work of small publishers are guilty of not covering such efforts. At the risk of upsetting my hosts – I am only a guest here, after all – I guess we’re talking lit-blogs. WWAATD seem more clued-up than most to e-publishing – whether it’s writing about online lit mags or e-books – but I look around and see so many of the others that are full of those stuff geeks you talked about, who will spend huge long posts extolling the virtues of a new 100-print run chapbook, interviewing the author, reviewing it, etc, but will dispense with a new online publication in one cursory line (if that). Yet which is likely to reach a bigger audience? I can’t help thinking there’s an attitude, still, even in this day and age, that something in print is somehow more worthy, even if far fewer people get to read it.

      (P.S. I bought both Charcoal and The Dead Beat from eight cuts as e-books as soon as they came out, so I’m excusing myself from any blame for not supporting e-ventures. Obviously.)

  6. February 24, 2011 \pm\28 5:00 pm 5:00 pm

    @Angela – I took part in (and had the thrill of having Molly Parkin tell me she loved my writing!) a Literary Death Match. One of the things we do at eight cuts gallery is run a more humble, but growing in popularity literary night once a month here in Oxford – there’s always music from local artists, always drink, and some great writing. We’ve had some great guests (this month we got Lee Rourke, Nikesh Shukla. Stuart Evers, Gavin Bower and Niven Govinden as a fab job lot) but usually it’s just local writers, my big gob, and a great atmosphere. And there are some other super nights in Oxford – from No Reading Aloud at the Isis Tavern to no end of wonderful events at the albion Beatnik Bookstore, which stays open way beyond midnight and has live music as well as poetry and literature. People will pay, and keep coming back, which always surprises me very pleasantly. I love music gigs – I was at The Streets last night – and try very hard to capture something of that atmosphere in our live nights.

    Vaughan – do you know the shop Good Grief in Manchester (they have a blog but it does them nowhere near justice) – it sells really rare zines and special hand-pressings and it’s geek heaven.

    Delighted you got Charcoal and The Dead Beat – I hope you enjoyed them!
    I think you’re bang on – there’s a snobbery about a lot of zine/chapbook sites (and when reviewing they often still ask for hard copy where many regular sites will ask for an ebook), and even some amazing sites that *feature* great e-writing – 3:Am and the like – give the impression they care more for the physical – I guess the quintessence is the US zine Mineshaft. I have a feeling that the leader of this charge is McSweeney’s. There’s a real swing back to craft, and the actual words can lose out – part of the problem is that much cutting edge literature is quite visual, and ebooks haven’t caught up, but at base I have a feeling the problem is the same snobbery that exists in the mainstream media – “anyone can knock up an ebook” – hmm, well people who say that should see some of the breathtakingly exquisite pdfs out there – which brings me back to the utterly wonderful Philistine Press – one of the most exciting things I’ve come across in a long while

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