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The Indie Problem: What Indie Authors Can Learn From Indie Bands
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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.

Mik 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. 

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