Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Karaoke Analogy

So, several months ago, a traditionally pubbed author caused a lot of controversy when she called self-publishing literary karaoke. And I get why people were upset. I get that self-pubbed authors took this as a dis and a claim that they were all a bunch of amateurish hacks.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was an okay analogy. Not a perfect one, but not at terrible one either.

Before you get all mad, hear me out.

The thing about both karaoke and self-publishing is that anyone and everyone can get up on stage and take the mic. Now, right there I see the first flaw in the analogy, because while, sure, it takes courage (or alcohol) to take the mic in karaoke, with self-pubbing you actually have to write a book first. Which is a big accomplishment in itself. And way harder than following the bouncing ball over some lyrics. Kudos to everyone who has written a book. Seriously.

But... after that I start to like the analogy better.

On any given night in karaoke, (let's say on every stage around the world to get a big sample), about 5-10% of the people who grab the mic are truly gifted. They are awesome singers and performers. They are pitch perfect. Their phrasing is innovative, their tone pleasing, their stage presence exciting. Everyone in the room is in awe and wonders why that person doesn't already have a huge recording career, why they aren't already super famous and successful.

And every now and again Jewel gets on stage.

And then let's say that another 5-10% of the people who take the mic are truly deluded (or super-drunk) and have absolutely no talent. They can't carry a tune. They can't keep the beat. They jumble the lyrics. They're painful to listen to. It's embarrassing. It's sad.

So that leaves the middle 80-90% who are, well, competent. They have moments of brilliance. They hit some great notes. They really get into the groove in parts. Some show great promise and raw talent and maybe with a great vocal coach, or more practice or an awesome band or talented producer, or a better song in a different key they might be fantastic. But really, as of right now, their performances aren't spectacular.

Now even out of that middle group of singers a few of them might get really lucky. A talent scout might decide to take one of them on and help them do some polishing. Or someone in the crowd might film the performance and the video might go viral on youtube and get spotted by Ellen or Usher. But lets face it: there are a lot of singers' videos on Youtube too... and not many Justin Beiber stories...

So, that middle 80%--there's nothing wrong with them taking the mic and just being okay. Most of them will be happy singing a few songs every now and again, and don't have real expectations that it will lead to a career. Most simply enjoy performing and their friends enjoy their performances and a few people in the crowd will stand up and cheer at the end and maybe offer to buy them a drink, but that's about as far as it will go.

And in that, I think karaoke actually does have a lot of similarities to self-publishing. And maybe publishing as a whole for that matter, now that I think about it... although with trad publishing at least there's an audition process and coaching involved and someone dresses the "singer" in a professional costume, does their hair and make-up and teaches them how to properly use a mic.

But here's my other problem with the karaoke analogy--which might have fit better right after the Jewel takes the stage section.

Right now in self-publishing, Jewel equivalents are taking the stage more regularly than they do in karaoke. By which I mean that authors with lots of publishing experience--who've previously worked with the "pros"--are self-publishing in higher percentages than proven singers are taking karaoke stages on any given night. (Except maybe in LA or Memphis, where one might be more likely to spot a pro-- I'm guessing.) So in my analysis of this analogy, I'd like to exclude all those authors. All the authors re-releasing backlists or the few of their manuscripts (out of many) that for whatever reason didn't get a contract. I think that's different and does NOT fit the karaoke analogy well. And if that's the people who were insulted. Well, I agree. I'm insulted for them.

But for people who've never had the experience of being professionally published and/or have never caught the attention of an agent, for people who are self-publishing their first or second manuscripts, and/or are ignoring negative feedback and assuming everyone who rejected them just didn't "get their genius"--for those people I think the analogy fits.

That is, I'd guess that 5-10% of the those authors are probably truly awesome and have just had bad luck/timing and didn't land on the right desk on the right day. I think we all know that not every publishable manuscript gets published, even when writers have been repped by agents and editors have praised and wished they could publish their work. It sometimes takes a frustratingly long time to get published and it's equally hard to stay published. And if some of those manuscripts are now seeing the light of day via self-publishing. Great. I think it's awesome that self-pubbing is giving options to writers who have worked really, really hard on their craft and have been THIS CLOSE a bunch of times without actually getting a contract. But I also believe that a percentage of the books being put out there are at the other end of the spectrum. They're beginner level and/or embarassingly bad. And I also believe that the vast majority are merely okay.  (And again, I am excluding from this entire analogy authors who are re-releasing backlists and/or moving away from their trad publishing careers to gain more control.)

I'm a little nervous posting this. Because I really don't intend to insult anyone. And I know that everyone has to make his or her own choices in publishing and everyone has different goals and there's definitely more than one way to achieve publishing success (not to mention different definitions of success).  But when I heard all the brou-ha-ha about the karaoke analogy, I wasn't all up in arms, even though I have considered self-publishing myself and have total respect for others who have done so. Instead I thought, hey, literary karaoke--that's kind of clever and almost fits.


Stephanie Doyle said...

I didn't hear the original reference but brilliant post Maureen.

Eileen said...

I'm only insulted because I'm part of the 5 percent who should really never sing karaoke. I have a video of my sisters and I singing We Are Family to prove it.

No, seriously, I think it's a really good analogy. My question is, what happens next? I think a lot of the writers who are self-pubbing still want that contract with a big established NY publisher and right now those publishers are trolling the self-pubbed book lists. How long before editors stop wanting to attend karaoke nights hoping for Jewel to take the stage?

Maureen McGowan said...

Steph, the original essay was on why writers need editors and publishers. But people jumped on the term literary karaoke as insulting. At least on an indie author loop I'm a lurker on.

I think what's next is the great question, Eileen. I have to think that all of this is going to have some permanent effect on the industry, but I'm not sure what yet.

I do hope that publishers will be forced to change their business models and give authors a bigger piece of the pie -- especially on e-books and especially after a book has earned out. I mean, e-books become the majority (which it seems they will) then even if you believe it costs them as much to bring a book to market, once they've covered that initial investment, well, it takes practically nothing to keep selling more and more digital versions. And sure, everyone involved, everyone who took a risk on that book deserves to keep a piece and benefit from a success... but shouldn't the author get the lion's share instead of the gnats share we get now? I think we should see escalation clauses become more common for e-books... with royalty rates going up a lot after certain thresholds are surpassed. That's my hope for the future, anyway...

Anonymous said...

Great post, and I believe totally true. I love that analogy, and think it's totally true.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I think this is right on. RIGHT ON.

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