By Mik Everett
“You’ve probably never heard of them.” This phrase, spoken about an
indie band, is a badge of honor: It’s one kid’s way of saying to another
kid, “I’m cooler than you.”
The same phrase spoken about an indie author is a dismissal. A death sentence, in terms of popularity.
The word ‘independent,’ as in ‘independent music,’ ‘independent
author,’ or even ‘independently-published,’ refers to being independent
from corporations. Indie music is anything not produced by major record
labels and their subsidiaries; indie lit is literature not produced by
the Big Six publishers in their subsidiaries. Indie music may be
recorded by the band itself, or recorded by an independent music label. A
independently-published book may be self-published, or published by an
independent press, often referred to as small presses or micro presses.
Here’s the defining factor, though: Indie music and indie literature are
independent of corporations, and therefore financed independently.
Corporate influence on entertainment is obvious: Poppy music, pulp
literature. Snookie on the bestseller’s list, tabloid superstars making
music. Big labels– in both music and literature– produce what will sell,
regardless of quality. Indie labels mock this practice. The
home-recorded sound, the hand-made merch, the dive-bar set of the indie
band all serve to say: “I’m not a sell-out.”
Independent musicians are
proud to be independent, and their audience is proud to listen to them.
But what about authors? What about readers? Rather than bragging
about supporting independently-published authors, the few readers of
self-published authors read their e-books in secret. Independent presses
get almost no support, outside their authors themselves. Where are the
t-shirts, the bumper stickers, the late-night venues for indie authors?
It’s possible that authors’ audience– readers– care less about
free-thinking, quality products, and eschewing corporate influence than
musicians’ audiences. But it’s not very likely.
Why Is Indie Lit Not As Successful As Indie Music?
I posed the question to some of my followers on Twitter and Tumblr,
and they came up with four main reasons why indie lit is not as
successful as indie music
1. Music is easier to share
Firstly, in a culture with, like, a six-second attention span, music
is easier to share than literature: A song can be shared with a friend,
and that friend converted into a fan, in about three minutes. A 200-page
book, on the other hand, is a larger time investment. A skeptical
friend may be more willing to risk three minutes of their time on a new
artist than two days– meaning that fewer prospective readers will
actually take the recommendation, let alone be converted by it.
2. Music and bands are better branded
Music is (typically) branded better than authors; Most bands have a
logo, while authors typically do not, even if their individual books are
branded well. However, branding a continued supply of new music,
albums, and live performances under a single logo makes it easier to
turn consumers into repeat customers– devoted fans– while
independently-published authors may have to start from scratch as they
gain an audience for each successive book. In fact, indie authors
(understandably) seem to intentionally avoid the author-branding that is
the hallmark of the mass-produced dime novel, like John Grisham or
Janet Evanovich. However, while attempting to distinguish themselves
from these cookie-cutter novels, indicating to their reader that each
book they produce is unique, they may lose repeat readers and avoid
turning readers into fans.
3. Music listeners are louder
Finally, here is the biggest difference between consumers of music
and consumers of literature: Those who listen to music seem to be, er,
louder. How much more intuitive could it get? Those who listen to music
enjoy going to live events, singing along to their favorite songs,
screaming their hearts out, are louder than those who willingly spend
their time in libraries underneath ‘Shhh’ signs. Not to mention that
natural extroverts are more likely to share what they love with others– a
marketing campaigner’s dream– while introverts rarely share their
opinion unless asked.
But it’s not necessarily true that extroverts aren’t readers, and
readers won’t share what they love with others. Earlier this month,
Rainbow Rowell’s FANGIRL exploded onto the market, with online
book-clubs, library hold-lists a mile deep, and thousands of reviews on
Goodreads within a week of being released. Of course, the book also
appealed to a certain demographic of readers– fangirls (and boys). Those
who devote their lives completely to loving a story, be it book,
television show, movie, or video game. They’re priceless, in terms of
advertising costs– All the money in the world couldn’t buy billboards or
magazine ads as effective as a fan base that creates nail art and
playlists devoted to their product of interest.
How can indie book marketers be more like music marketers?
Though FANGIRL was published by an imprint of Macmillan and is
decidedly not-indie, independent authors could stand to emulate its
appeal to the fans who are loud about what they like– or go their own
direction in appealing to fans in the same way the indie music does. But
another key may be in ease of share-ability. Websites like Goodreads
and applications like Shelfari and Oyster enable readers to share
recommendations with friends, but reaching audiences who don’t use those
sites is essential. Books are hard to share, but poetry is easier– and
live readings may appeal to the readers who are loud. Making readings
more interactive – more like music performances– may be key; One poet I
talked to was doing a reading last year when a member of the audience – a
fan – finished the last line of the poem out loud, in sync with the
poet. Like how members of the audience sing along to their favorite
lines of songs.
Another press reported that at one reading, they had higher sales of
stickers than books. And why not stickers? Poems are less of a
time-investment than books, and a sticker is less of a monetary
investment; Additionally, they not only label the fan, but stickers
enable them to share their love. This is another great opportunity for
authors to take a card from their indie-musician brethren and brand
themselves with a distinctive logo.
By making literature easier to recognize, easy to share, and tweaking
the target demographic, perhaps independent authors can enjoy the same
badge-of-coolness status that indie bands enjoy.
Everett is an American Regionalist novelist and essayist residing in
Wichita, Kansas. She studied philosophy and English at Wichita State
University, where she instructed logic before moving to Longmont,
Colorado, where she opened a brick-and-mortar bookstore for
independently- and locally-published literature. She helped pioneer the
indie-lit movement offline, and published the book Self-Published Kindling: Memoirs Of A Homeless Bookstore Owner about her experiences. She is also the author of Turtle: The American Contrition Of Franz Ferdinand, as well as the upcoming (If A Writer Falls In Love With You) You Can Never Die and A Two-Member Universe.