By Eric R. Danton
The Hartford Courant
Saturday, March 7, 2009
There's a curious divide in the pop arts world over the do-it-yourself ethic and the different, and opposite, ways it applies to books and to music.
In music, DIY is a source of credibility for acts that take pride in circumventing the music machine and the compromises often required to release an album through a record company -- especially a major label.
With books, by contrast, do-it-yourselfers are usually regarded with skepticism, if not outright derision, when they pay to publish their own work through what is disdainfully referred to as a "vanity press."
"In the book world, it's so fragmented, with so many publishing houses out there, that somebody doing something on their own has more of a stigma, because it suggests that everybody else passed on it," says Josh Jackson, editor in chief of Paste magazine, which covers music, film and books.
There are signs, though, that the stigma within publishing is lessening slightly. That is due to a combination of technology that is democratizing the way would-be writers produce and distribute their work, and a deepening economic recession that has induced dramatic cutbacks at publishing houses, including HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Random House.
Popular music has a long independent streak, dating at least as far back as Sun Records and Stax in Memphis, and Motown Records in Detroit. Motown was an unusually successful example of the DIY ethic, releasing 110 Top 10 singles between 1961 and 1971, but the basic idea has held sway ever since.
Since the '60s, rock bands have operated outside the major-label system, recording and releasing their own records. By the '80s, the American underground rock scene was large enough for musicians, and some fans, to build an independent-music infrastructure, thus birthing indie labels such as Sub Pop, Touch and Go, Homestead, SST and Dischord.
In the current decade, of course, thanks to the Internet and the increasing affordability of recording gear, bands have attracted an audience even without the help of independent labels. A few such groups, including the New England jam band Dispatch and New York indie-rock act Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, built considerable fan bases without a record company.
"Nobody's going to tell me what to do from a creative standpoint. If you're not involved, then what . . . sort of authority is there that would make somebody imagine that they could suggest certain things?" Clap Your Hands singer Alec Ounsworth said in a 2006 interview, just before the band self-released its second album. "We're not making albums for the record label or anybody, really. We're just making albums."
Things work differently in the literary world.
Bands have the comparative luxury of writing songs and then performing them before they ever record them, which helps hardworking (and lucky) groups build audiences for the albums that might eventually follow. Writers, by contrast, traditionally have relied on finished products, such as books, to build their audiences, although that's starting to change as more post their writing on blogs.
"Maybe that's where the parallel is," Paste's Jackson says. "You have bands going out and playing live shows, and you, as an author, can congregate an audience through a blog. Bloggers are getting book deals all the time these days, but I think it'll be interesting to see if bloggers start self-publishing."
Blogger Joel Fried, 51, of Hartford, Conn., already has. He writes "Random Thoughts of an Overactive Mind" at http://Travelpoet1122.blogspot.com. That's also the subtitle of his first book, "Bursts," a collection of humorous essays he self-published in 2005. He's planning to release a collection of poetry the same way. Fried says he's not bothered by the usual perceptions of self-published books, most of which he describes as "not good."
"Yes, it would be much more wonderful if my book of poetry, or this book I put out online, were picked up by Penguin, which is a real publishing company," Fried says. "But once somebody meets you, once the book gets into their hands, they don't care who the publisher is."
The on-demand publisher that Fried chose, BookSurge, sells a package that includes placement on Amazon.com (which subsequently bought the service). That, along with occasional readings and mild promotion on his blog, has helped Fried sell about 1,000 copies of "Bursts."
"If I had a publisher, I think I would have sold a tremendous amount of books, far more than I have sold, just because I would have showed up," he says. "They would say, 'You have to go out and promote your book.' " Books released through publishing houses also have a perceived measure of legitimacy that can help attract attention from reviewers, who tend to avoid self-published works.
"If the author isn't already established, and there's no organization that it's attached to, it's really hard to break through all the noise out there of so many books getting published," says Jackson, whose magazine recently published a book of its own, "An Indie Rock Alphabet Book."
Besides the sense of legitimacy they project as gatekeepers, publishing houses have a logistical advantage by taking care of distribution, which is crucial for an author who wants the widest possible readership.
"I want to get my book between covers and onto the shelves of as many good bookstores and good libraries as I can, hoping that in time maybe that will translate into it being on the shelves of lots of good readers, and I find the big houses give you the best shot at that," says Stewart O'Nan, 48, a Connecticut-based author of 12 novels, including 2007's "Last Night at the Lobster," and several works of nonfiction.
O'Nan and other established writers also are using the Internet to their advantage. Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho has been posting chapters of his 2008 book "The Winner Stands Alone" on his blog (http://Paulocoelhoblog.com), and O'Nan has a repository of otherwise unpublished work on his Web site (http://Stewart-onan.com).
"Any way you can get your writing out there is valid," O'Nan says.