Why is Indie Music So Much Cooler than Indie Books?

I apologize ahead of time for the following generalization and also the following corporate-marketing cliche: indie books need Millennials in order to be cool.

OK, so that sounds as horrible to you as it felt to me, writing it, so let me revise to something a bit more substantial and less corporate-speaky: indie books need (or if not need, would definitely benefit from) the same sort of connoisseurship culture that has defined ‘indie music’ for the last 15 or 20 years.

Independent musicians, and now not-technically-indie indie bands on major records labels, can safely depend on a whole subculture of music trading and discussion to help propagate their music, a subculture which is for the most part cultivated by people in their twenties and early thirties. People review, Facebook, Tweet, and old-fashioned talk about new music in person; independent DIY bands relying on Bandcamp are celebrated for their independence, and music connoisseurs are genuinely proud of discovering new and totally unknown artists.

Indie books and indie music are both inextricably connected to the phenomenon of overproduction: doing it yourself means anyone can; it means there are no initial filters for creative output. The difference between indie (which is functionally synonymous with ‘internet’) music culture and book culture, however, is that while there is a huge cultural digestive system prepared to process and categorize the constant release of new music, there is nothing analogous for new indie books.

It is essentially impossible to say just how many independent musicians exist in the United States, just as it is essentially impossible to say how many independent, self-publishing writers there are, but it is fair to assume, I think, that both numbers are big numbers; that there is more ‘indie’ in general than anyone can even begin to listen to or read, and that both indie writers and indie musicians must try to impress internet gatekeepers to gain an audience.

The difference is simply that musicians have a better shot at this; that while most indie musicians languish in obscurity, just like most indie writers do, indie music seems to be more flourishing, varied, and respected than indie publishing. There is credibility, it is cool—or at least can be—in being an unknown, self-released musician; being a self-published writer, simply, there is not. A site like Pitchfork, for instance, breathlessly reviews small and no label (along with major label) acts every day–and there are hundreds of websites emulating Pitchfork, and thousands and thousands of blogs who feed on the scraps and sawdust of the bigger music sites. Indie music cares about itself, reads about itself, and propagates itself–and while there are certain examples of this happening in indie publishing–only very rarely, like in the case of Sergio de la Pava, do the biggest success stories coincidence with the best independent writing.

The same, however, cannot be claimed against indie music: some of the biggest acts in indie music over the past decade—The Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, and Bon Iver—have all received consistent critical acclaim and adoration, and deservingly so in my opinion. Hermetic and authentically original acts with almost no initial mainstream appeal have managed to branch into major artistic (and commercial) figures. The reason this happens, I’m trying to suggest, is that indie music has an anarchic, yet dependable structure for filtering its own content—and more importantly, because serious music fans have genuinely—and this happened a long time ago—turned against most of the major label output. Among the major differences, and one of the major reasons indie publishing doesn’t have the same ‘filtration system’, is that serious readers don’t believe that there’s anything worth filtering in small and independent publishing. Music fans don’t trust their major labels, but for the most part, book lovers do.

One of  the claims—or rather, the claim—made against indie publishing is it simply fails to produce writing deserving of serious consideration, but there’s really very little proof for or against this claim. A Google search of indie book reviews yields a relative pittance of hits, given the fact, that you, Google searches the entire internet. This means that right now, indie publishing is stuck asking potential readers to buy books on faith, while indie musicians can genuinely turn to an entire cottage industry of bloggers and journalists to establish that faith for them. The consequence of this, is that many musicians feel empowered—and rightfully so—to simply reject major label attention, while most writers are absolutely desperate for a ‘Big 5’ contract.

Simply put: the indie music community is more daring because the culture of indie music itself—a culture that comes with a diffuse but huge network of indie music writers—values artistically serious and daring recordings. While a self-released musician still faces immense challenges promoting and selling themselves, there are millions of music fans who go online every day hoping to discover a great new artist. There is no comparable willingness to discover, as far as I’m aware, among readers, who are already, I suspect, less numerous than music fans to begin with. So what one is forced to wonder, is how many legitimately good novel manuscripts are being kept in desk-drawers (or Google docs) for the day when an agent will magically rescue them from obscurity? It is impossible to know, but one can be sure that if the indie reading community looked more like the indie music community, that number would be much smaller.

26 replies
  1. avatar
    Robert Nagle says:

    Good thoughtpiece, and Amen to almost everything you mentioned here. I think the pop music genre has certain unique characteristics — the songs can be digested fairly quickly, they are easy to pirate and youtube lets you sample a lot very quickly. Aside from radio, it is not particularly easy for many people to stumble upon quality poetry or storytelling. Also, music has a very public quality — there are concerts and the notes can blare from speakers or appear in movies or TV shows. So they are events with a social dimension with glitz and “happenings” and “sexyness.” Finally you can absorb music passively while prose requires your undivided attention (aside from audiobooks which you can consume when you are driving somewhere).

    I am a fiction writer who is an indie publisher and is writing a book on music collecting, so I have lots of thoughts about this issue. We are used to thinking that’s way too many books in the universe, but the number of bands (and recordings by a band) are exponentially higher than the number of authors or books. 10 years after the fact, albums are just tossed aside and completely forgotten. I suspect that digitalization will make not help this situation — although it’s true you can order just about any obscure thing online these days. Books have more staying power — they take much longer to digest. On the other hand, they can provide a lot more value for your buck (in terms of entertainment per minute) than music does. You can consume hundreds (if not thousands) of albums in a typical year but only a handful of books. Also, readers are overly critical of books — they start a lot of things which they don’t end finishing, and it’s hard to locate a book which clicks with you and is provocative and well-crafted.

    I probably don’t have to tell this to anyone on this site, but I could pick 10 indie writers at random and feel pretty sure that they’re going to be interesting if not great. But doing that requires a bit of daring on the part of the reader. It means taking a chance with an unknown quality and getting used to an unfamiliar prose style. Critics and academic types know how to do this (and see the value in it), but the mainstream reader already has a stack of paperbacks from well-known authors to keep him or her busy.
    Robert Nagle aka idiotprogrammer http://www.imaginaryplanet.net/weblogs/idiotprogrammer/

  2. avatar
    Poorer Richard says:

    It’s a very interesting topic, to be sure. I do believe that there are inherent differences in the two art forms that dictate how well they can be marketed through social networks and buzz. At its most basic, music is a shared pleasure. It can be listened to in groups and quite often is. People enjoy bringing their friends to concerts, or sharing a new mp3, etc. It is a shared experience, while reading is a solitary pursuit. People will readily tell a friend “how that concert last night was”, when asked, but how many times is anyone actually pressed to talk about “how that read was”. There was also the debacle of the melt-down of the major record labels and their penchant for producing everything to sound exactly the same, which created the Indie Music movement and branded early adopters as “enlightened”. Major publishers, while they have made mistakes, are still more likely to offer a wide range of reading voices, subjects and genres. In addition, the music industry never had the chutzpah to send up talking heads to lambast the Indie Movement in print and media, non-stop, while the Publishing Gatekeepers have been bad-mouthing self-published work for a hundred years to cement themselves as sole authority on quality. Indie writers have a much bigger hill to climb than the musicians who want to put their music out to the market.

  3. avatar
    B. V. Larson says:

    This article is well-written, and the basic premise that Indie authors aren’t yet “cool” is quite true. But I can say from personal experience and observations of my fellow authors that the conclusions made here are not accurate. Who says most Indies are desperately seeking Big 5 contracts? This is not true for the successful ones. Now, if you’re talking about Indies that aren’t very successful this is naturally true. But it’s true of all the traditional-selling mid-listers, too. They’re all seeking any way they can find to move more of their books. But for people like me, who are “hybrids” and successful, I’m steering clear of additional Big 5 contracts. I’ve been in their offices. I’ve signed deals and entertained more deals. At this point, they are NOT willing to change their draconian terms (giving you 25% of 70% royalties on most sales, for example). Every time my agent tries to sell a book to them, I end up making more within two months than what the Big 5 offered me for it. Staying Indie is a no-brainer.
    And that, I think, is the real reason that the trad world and all their sales-spinning critics, etc, hate us so much. How many Indie musicians have refused big record company contracts to stay Indie? I haven’t heard of any such cases. The traditionals don’t like us because we don’t need to pay the majority of our earnings to them in order to succeed. That is a huge threat to the Big 5, and that’s why they sneer. They’re enraged with people like Hugh Howey, author of “Wool” who reportedly turned down 1.5 million for his next series to do the whole thing as an Indie, or Barry Eisler, who turned down 500,000 to go Indie, etc.
    They don’t like us because we’re dangerous.

  4. avatar
    John Lauricella says:

    The original piece and the comments preceding this one have fairly stated the predicament of most self-published authors, so I’ll add just a few words to sharpen the point.

    Indie publishing–I’m thinking mainly of self-published novels, which is what I’m doing–probably works out wonderfully for a writer like Barry Eisler, who has established himself as a capable plot-shaper of international espionage thrillers. Eisler has a pretty large following of, I assume, enthusiastic fans; as engaged readers of this very popular genre, as well as of Eisler’s particular contributions to it, these fans do not care who publishes the physical books–an indifference that the easy and incorporeal (and very cheap) availability of ebook versions can only deepen. We should not forget, however, that Eisler built his reputation (and that very enthusiastic fan base) by publishing many of his John Rain novels the old-fashioned way. It’s not impossible that he could have achieved this level of success if he had self-launched his career as a self-published novelist, but I daresay it’s not likely.

    The Indie novels that tend to sell–a quick look at IndieReader’s “Bestsellers” seems to confirm this (I haven’t read the books listed there; I’m judging by titles and covers)–seem to be something that might be called “polite porn.” If this phrase misrepresents these novels, I apologize; again, I’m just going by titles and cover art. And that’s fine–of course, readers should read what they most want to read (it’s supposed to be fun, remember). But if getting Millennials to perceive self-published novelists as edgy and cool is the key to getting self-published novels bought and read, I think our cause is in bad trouble: what I’ve witnessed of the generation that follows my own suggests to me that its members likely regard the authors of “polite porn” as–well, I won’t say it as it’s not flattering–and the novels that fit this description as hilariously superfluous.

    The high visibility and evident success of self-published “polite porn” also does not bode well for people who are writing and self-publishing what is still often called “literary” fiction–a label that is unhelpful at best, sales-wise, except for possibly selling a very modest number of books to the very small audience of readers who might be interested in this sort of thing (not that “literary” is all the same “sort of thing,” although that seems to be the general assumption). Such readers, I think, have not paid any attention to self-published novels–as several commentators have noted, no one really believes “serious” (to use another troublesome label) and possibly important fiction is being self-published–perhaps because they do not believe that big-time, traditional, mainstream publishing is not interested in such fiction unless it discerns in it (or in its author) a ready & easy way to market “it,” either book or writer. If these readers happen to investigate self-published novels–say, by visiting the “Bestseller” page of IndieReader–their assumptions about the frothy, frivolous nature of self-published fiction tend to be confirmed.

    As if the box in which the self-published novelist has put himself were not sufficiently tight, the lid gets nailed down–inadvertently, I believe–by indie reviews like the ones offered for a buck or two (or rather more, actually) on Web sites like, yes, IndieReader. I understand that We Are All In This Together and Everyone Wants to be Helpful and Has Everyone’s Best Interests at Heart, but a cyberreviewer’s bringing his or her genre-inflected reading expectations to bear on a realistic, “serious,” “literary” narrative and misreading it as a result is not helping either that novel in particular or other “literary” novels, similarly self-published by their variously anonymous authors. And it isn’t just a matter of misreading, or even predominantly that–it’s the tone of these reviews, which seem pitched at a level of offhand-glib, the kind of remarks one might pass at a party between sips of tequila. The prevailing zeitgeist of indie-pub culture seems to be, “Isn’t it just a hoot, this sport of knocking out novels! Let’s not take it too seriously, ha ha ha!” The sense I get is that everyone–well, almost everyone–does not want to be the first one to “take it seriously”–almost as if we’re embarrassed to say, even implicitly, that fiction is entertainment that, sometimes and at its best, can matter.

    None of this is meant to suggest that we ought to give it up, this maybe-quixotic project of publishing our best work ourselves. It has been a life-saver for me (another story, another day), to be able to self-publish my first novel, and it’s going to save me again in a couple months when I publish my second. Without self-publishing, both manuscripts would be sitting, as someone said, in a desk’s dark drawer. Strangely enough, the publishing part has become relatively easy. The question now (for me and those like me; the Barry Eislers of contemporary American fiction have solved this problem) is how to capture the thoughtful attention of a “tipping-point” number of readers?

    Any “born self-published” novelist who has figured this out is encouraged to share.

    • avatar
      carlmelcher says:

      John, good perceptive comments to an interesting question and post. I would add to your ‘polite porn’ category, YA and genre or a combination of both, as it seems to me that it’s mostly YA stuff that gets rocketed to the top, probably because of the demographics of the readers who have embraced Kindle and ‘Indie’ writing the most, mostly female. I like your take on how serious works are ‘reviewed.’ I think the most challenged Indies are the ones who write serious books. Dismissed out right by NYC, and dissed and made fun of on Indie Writer sites, Indie writers to foolishly ascribe the term literary to their work, have a difficult trek ahead of them. Indie writing is still corraled in a ghetto, albeit a modern electronic one. My evidence: Indie books are pretty much shut out of brick and mortar stores. To their credit, the folks at Indie Reader are trying to change that. Best!

    • avatar
      Robert Nagle says:

      1. The current ebook trend is toward publishing shorter pieces more frequently. Death to the novel!

      2. Even if you’re not genre, it helps to have a label attached to your writing. Any label. “Polite porn” is as good as any.

      3. It’s almost a miracle on Amazon whenever an indie title has received even one review — much less a lucid one.
      4. I wish reviewers would stop reading and reviewing #$#$#$# Amazon Vine titles!

  5. avatar
    Dumitru Sandru says:

    Although true, there is a slight difference between music and books. A piece of music can be heard in under three minutes and you know if you like it or not. It takes a lot more than three minutes to read the first few pages of a book and to make up your mind if the rest of the book is worth reading.

    • avatar
      Jake S. says:

      That’s what I was thinking, it’s much easier to convince someone to invest the time to listen to a song than to read a whole novel. And these days you can get just the one song you like without buying the whole album. You can’t really just purchase the one chapter you like.

    • avatar
      Larry Nocella says:

      Excellent point and agreed, Mr. Sandru. I love music for its simplicity, but I think a book, once a reader invests in it, can change your life in the way a song can’t.

  6. avatar
    Amy Michelle Mosier says:

    Good article, although I disagree with some points. As an indie writer, my responses from people who learn of it are varied. Some people do think it’s “cool” and will ask me questions. Others blow it off and ask me when I will be looking for a “real job”. It all stems from their perspective and what stereotypes they have of writers. And by no means, I’m not a successful writer (not yet) but I wouldn’t say that I’m desperate for a big 5 contract. If they won’t give me the time of day, why should I grovel at their feet? That would be wasting my time and if I ever make it big, that would only allow me the “right” to elevate my middle finger at them should they ever approach me before I move along with my day. Lastly, why isn’t there a kickstarter site for writers who have a novel in the works?

    • avatar
      Tony Laplume says:

      I think it’s the fact that I hold books to such high standards that so many indy writers look so bad to me. Although the first indy book I ever read was also one of the best books I’ve ever read, so it’s not impossible. It just sometimes seems that way.

  7. avatar
    Julia Robb says:

    No indie writer worthy of notice? I’m surprised Indie reader would claim something like this. Why don’t you just review me? I’ve written three novels; “Scalp Mountain,” “Saint of the Burning Heart” and “Del Norte.” You can find me at Amazon, or at my website juliarobb.com. I challenge you to do it. Julia Robb

  8. avatar
    Shannon @ River City Reading says:

    This is a pretty fascinating piece, I’m surprised I haven’t though much about the comparison before. My husband runs a music blog where he features only unsigned submissions and I’m a book blogger, so I can definitely see the difference in the way we approach what we feature on our sites.

    Like someone mentioned in the comments below, I think time is a pretty big factor. My husband can go through a string of 10 e-mails in 15 minutes, playing a 30 second clip of a song before mumbling something about not reading the blog or getting excited about a new discovery. Accepting a book for review is a different process and should take at least a little more time, so it’s easy to look toward the places you’ve had success in the past. I do love when great small presses pop up on my radar, it feels like things start to shift a little.

  9. avatar
    Jim Breslin says:

    Matt- Yes! I agree with you. I’m always looking at the indy music scene and what writers can learn from it. Having grown up on the punk bands, that DIY ethos carries over to indy writers. Dumitru laid out the biggest challenge – we can hear a band quickly, effortlessly and know if we dig them. Unearthing indy writers takes more work though we’re published in journals and do events in our own communities. How do we pollinate like the indy bands do? Set up more readings or story slams and create an underground network so we can crash on couches and meet writers in other towns across the country.

  10. avatar
    Renee Benson says:

    I would be thrilled to have a pile of blogging websites about indie writers and books, if the indie authors were anywhere near as brilliant as the indie film writers on depth and character development. That would be a great comparison as well indie movies vs. indie books, though you’d probably get much of the same reasons/excuses as with music: time issues and whatnot.

    We should take this opportunity, that is this discussion, to share some of the indie writers we hold close to heart: I am crazy about Micheal Knight, a writer native to Alabama, who has published two novels and some collections of short stories, my favorite being “Dogfight: And Other Stories” (he may not be too indie depending on your definition of indie, i guess, but he is definitely not someone many have heard of) i will be taking the time out to check out Julia Robb, for sure. 🙂

  11. avatar
    Larry Nocella says:

    Mr. Gasda – I absolutely love this article Spot on! I’ve been banging this drum (nailed that metaphor!) but never so articulately as you. I was inspired by my novel Loser’s Memorial on the Alice in Chains heavy metal song, Rooster. I set up a Spotify playlist for songs related to the novel. I’m also moved by bands that are inspired by books, say Iron Maiden for one.

    Also, let’s not forget tho that a lot of indie music isn’t that unique. That said I’d also put some of the blame on the ivory tower nature of writing/reading education. Writing can be every bit as rebellious as punk but it often isn’t.

    However, I think that’s why indie books with maybe not the greatest production but about subjects people like (say, vampires, etc.) do well – because they’re about what people like. Sounds simple, but when you have endless books on “how to write” that include creativity-crippling advice like “the reader must love the protagonist and hate the antagonist” you’re going to end up with creative people who can’t find their hearts behind all the thinking.

    Rock on my friend! And all my fellow indie writers – cut loose and kick some ass!

  12. avatar
    Michael Katz says:

    Part of the problem is generational. Indie musicians, as a subset of the music industry, tend to be younger and more apt to use social media. At the same time they are less apt to value traditional review and informational sources. They can use social media to present clips, videos, etc, of songs, which, as others have pointed out, are brief and require less commitment from a viewer. Indie books, for all the reasons others have commented on, require a greater commitment. Like it or not, there is still a stigma attached to being self-pubbed unless the author has a significant backlist. And for those of us a little older, it is really hard to get our audience to spread the word via social media, or in many cases to even use it at all.

  13. avatar
    MG says:

    I think the solution has to be grassroots; offline; just like, on a fundemental level, it is with indie music, or even indie film. So living rooms, couches, coffeeshops, university libraries: sub literary ecosystems have to evolve into publishing and marketing enterprises. Launching books from laptops is not enough because a love of literature, manifested socially, is an inperson social phenomenon!

  14. avatar
    Alena says:

    I think there might be a problem in the medium itself as text of any form is a primary focus medium. What I mean is that when you read, the main thing you do is reading. You can listen to music while doing a number of other things. You might hear a song by an indie band for the first time on spotify or last.fm or in a YouTube-Playlist or on an obscure USB-Stick a friend has left at your appartment after the last party. You might hear it for the first time while you work, on your way to a friends house or cleaning your windows. You can take not then and there and look up the artist later.

    It’s not quite as easy with books. You have to make an effort. You can’t read additionally to any other activity. Except maybe for listening to music.

    I think this might be a great handicap for Indie writers.

  15. avatar
    Tyler Doornbos says:

    No problem!

    This ridiculous comment helped us find a bug in Disqus that was sending emails to us, but then not showing the pending comments in our Disqus panel. Weird.

    Anyway, thanks again for your unreasonable response. It was a huge help, and it resulted in us finding a few other comments that had met the same fate as your original comment, which you’ll notice is now showing below.

    In the future, you can feel free to send us an email if you don’t see your comment, something like, “Hey, I don’t see my comment! Is there something wrong?”

    Though I understand why you’d want to stick with the world-is-against-me schtick — it’s worked so far, am I right?



  16. avatar
    Jess Waters says:

    As a Millennial, a starving college student, a lover of indie books and indie music alike I think there’s one factor that this piece and the other comments have mostly overlooked — money. You can access more indie music than you could ever need (or want) and more importantly, you can do it largely for free or very cheap. Bandcamp, Spotify, and Soundcloud make full streaming albums available fore free. Downloading an album or going to a local indie show usually falls into the range of $1-$15.

    I think indie books, for the most part, as a bit more of a commitment. You might be able to see a writer’s columns or essays online, perhaps excerpts of their work, but you’re going to end up paying $1+ for an ebook and at least $6 for a paperback. This might sound like not very much, but compared to the glut of free, tastable, tangible indie music, it starts to add up.

    I think the solution again, is the same one proposed here: the building of indie book communities. Grassroots libraries, e-libraries, book groups, reviewers, bloggers, forums, etc. The cash question is just one more thing that highlights this need. Great article Matt!


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