Does Eric R. Danton‘s Hartford Courant story last week about DIY publishing address an important shift in the book trade, or is it thick with bad parallels and faulty logic? The story argues that self-publishing, long stigmatized by readers, reviewers, and publishers, is enjoying a rehabilitation of reputation—which is as it should be, because, after all, didn’t we think that DIY was a cool thing in music?
Well, we did, and perhaps we still do, but it wasn’t because we were happy to have an indie-rock culture that was free of gatekeepers, as the story suggests; we just wanted a more diverse assortment of gatekeepers from which to choose. Danton cites a handful of labels that serve as useful models for his thesis of operating outside the corporate system, like Sub Pop, Homestead, SST, Touch and Go, and Dischord. All great labels, but ones that were also very reflective of the personalities of their owners. You got behind SST because its owner was in a great band and signed lots of great bands, which made you slightly more patient about the crappy bands he occasionally signed.
Did we escape the age of gatekeepers with the arrival of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which became an indie-rock phenomenon in 2005 on the back of its unsigned debut album? The Courant story would have it that way: They’re the central musical example in it. But CYHSY doesn’t exemplify how a band can become a (modest) success story without gatekeepers—it exemplifies how the gatekeeper has changed, and no longer needs to be a standard-issue record label.
This is where Danton’s story starts to fail me. His equation of DIY music with DIY publishing fails to acknowledge the culture of discussion, argument, documentation—and, yes, gatekeeping and tastemaking—that’s still installed in DIY music, and doesn’t provide a convincing parallel for DIY publishing. Who’s replaced POD-dy Mouth? Where’s the culture of readers engaged with POD novels in the same way as Pitchfork? Or even the collaborative group of, say, young fantasy writers who’ve built a small cult around themselves by branding the novels they self-publish? Instead, the story’s chief example is Joel Fried, who’s sold a thousand or so copies of his book of essays, Bursts, through BookSurge. How this proves that self-publishing has obliterated its amateur-hour stigma escapes me. If anything, Stewart O’Nan comes off as the most convincing voice in the article, arguing for the old-fashioned publisher: He tells the Courant, “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.”
I’m not rejecting the value of self-publishing out of hand, and if there are good answers to those questions I asked in the previous paragraph, I’d like to hear them. But it’s inarguable that Danton needed better sources. One possibility would’ve been N. Frank Daniels, whose debut novel, Futureproof, was published in January by Harper Perennial after enjoying some acclaim as a self-published book. The novel itself didn’t do much for me—it’s an overlong accounting of a young man’s descent into heroin addiction, and its plainspoken tone would’ve been more appealing if its plot did anything but move in a ponderous, and-then-this-happened fashion. But it has its fans, and Daniels’ piece in the back of the book, about how he got those fans, is great reading. Feeling he had a worthy book but knowing he didn’t want to go through the rigmarole of going the O’Nan route, he developed a plan:
I would personally market the book to as many people as I possibly could via the Internet and its many avenues for self-promotion. I petitioned people, using primarily MySpace and Amazon, asking them to read the first fifty pages of the book and respond positively or negatively to what they’d read.
Only then did he go through the process of self-publishing the book, which led to a rave from POD-dy Mouth, which led to an Entertainment Weekly piece on the POD-dy Mouth rave, which led to more touring on Daniels’ part, which led to Harper Perennial knocking on his door.
What I like about Daniels’ process is that he gauged interest in his work before self-publishing it, instead of self-publishing his work first, then gauging interest in it; he made an effort to build a small but engaged audience that genuinely hoped for more from him in the future. That’s not unlike every smart band that realizes that nobody wants to own its music until they’ve had a chance to hear it a few times, which means a lot of time spent playing a lot of shows and building a fan base organically. Back in the olden days of Homestead, SST, and Sub Pop, you earned your right to take up space on the merch table, and it’s still a valid approach even if the merch table is now online and enormously long; it proves you’ve respected your audience enough to work on what you’re doing before putting a price tag on it, or even making it available for free. If indie rock is any sort of a model for DIY publishing, it’s not merely in self-publishing—it’s in smart self-publishing strategies that think of the audience before the book.