Monday 18 May 2009

Read the book, buy the T-shirt?

OK, I’m taking my 10 commandments out of turn, because I went off piste with my last post to talk about music. So this week we’ll deal with commandment number 10:

Writers need to think like musicians and artists; we need to be showmen and women, to work in the public eye, and to make our money from selling an experience rather than a piece of hardware.

This is the thing that sparks the most intense conversations with my fellow writers, with “we’re just different” being the standard answer, and the reason why my constant references to the music industry are taken as a sign the pressure’s finally got to me. And when I’m at a gig, surrounded on all sides by fans united by the sound and the experience, I can absolutely see the uniquely collective appeal of music. But…

Even during the most intense set I can’t get that “but” out of my head.

The fact is, I would happily pay £10 to sit in a hall and listen to Murakami reading from Kafka on the Shore (I DID fork out a fiver for this year’s Murakami diary even though the paper’s so shiny you can’t write your appointments on it). And look at flashmobbing; and those giant nude crowd photos set in department stores. Art’s clearly not so different from music. That’s the big “but” filling my thought screen – it’s not music that infects the collective consciousness. It’s culture. And culture is writing as much as it’s a rock concert.

I want to aside her, but I’m not going to because I’ll bore you stupid. Just let me know if you’d like me to talk about culture and collectivity in general and I’ll happily do so. For now, I’ll limit myself to the single observation that’s relevant to my argument. For most of the time we’ve had stories, they’ve been public and not private experiences, passed on by storytellers to a live audience.

All of which is jolly interesting but of no help in explaining how to make money from doing something other than selling books.

OK, I’m not writing a textbook, I’m writing a post for my blog and my thousand words are almost gone on my intro, so here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to look at three ways musicians use to make money and see if there’s any transferability.

Take it for read, please, that this post is to be read in conjunction with my earlier post on giving your work away for free. Because for me there’s a real synergy there. Give your story away, and make your money from selling something else. If you can do this you really are on to a winner – and you’re obeying last week’s commandment of putting the fans first. Of course there’s the question of whether writing creates fans like that. But for now I’m going to refer back to my own example. Either I’m unique (in which case I should have figured out a way of getting rich by selling myself to research by now, and my bank account is conclusive evidence to the contrary) or writing can produce real fans.

So here’s our packet of three:

The tour. In the free download age, we’re always hearing that bands rely more and more on making money from live performances. I want to make two points. First, the live tour is something writers can replicate perfectly well. Second, whatever their multitude of benefits, unless you ARE Murakami, or Oasis, they’re not really a way to get rich.

I paid (sorry, my wife paid) £7 to hear The Boxer Rebellion last Friday (as an aside, that’s ridiculous value [we got 3 and a half hours of which 2 hours was live music form 3 great bands, including the hottest property in the UK] – gigs are ridiculous value, even the humungous ones – but the humungous ones aren’t really what we’re looking at as a replicable business model). There can’t have been more than 150 people there. Even allowing for an average price of £8 to include those paying £9 on the door, that’s £1200 from door receipts. Split with the venue. Less the cut for main support (assuming first support are doing it for nothing but the kudos). Less manager’s cut. Less paying the road crew. Less transport, accommodation, food, kit maintenance. Then split four ways. Even my maths is good enough to tell me it pays better to sew the tour T-shirts in a sweatshop.

You don’t make your money on tour from playing. You get a kick from playing; you spread the word by playing; you delight the fans by playing. You make money on tour by selling merchandise. And that can include selling something you’ve already given away. We went to see The Charlatans at The Astoria last November. They got a vast amount of publicity by giving away free downloads of last year’s album You Cross My Path. CDs of the same album were on sale with the other merchandise, and within an hour they were sold out – bought by people who already had the free download. The point is, get a group of fans together and they’re not just PREPARED to pay for something they’ve already got for free. They’ll WANT to. But those who missed out on the night probably won’t all go to HMV the next day – that’s the importance of the gig.

So can writers do this? Well, yes. Book tours, with readings and signings, don’t have to be impossible to arrange. And they don’t have to be dull, dry, reverential affairs (although they can be – what form they actually take probably depends on your genre). Nor do they have to take place in bookstores. Chains will probably baulk because if you’re self-publishing they won’t get a huge slice of the pie. Independent bookstores are more likely but not great venues. I’d take a leaf out of bands’ books. Start in small venues you can get on the cheap – why not ask pubs and coffee shops (these are great because people go there anyway). Give away free downloads to build publicity, put up flyers, then sell the book on the night and split the profits with the venue. Move on to town halls, leisure centres, other public amenities, when you think you can cover any cost (and why not find local bands and ask them where they play/rehearse?).

Merchandise. Yes, merchandise. This is where the money is made by bands on tour – those 50 T-shirts at £15 a pop will earn them as much as the door money. Then add the badges, hats, mugs, and lanyards. But how on earth can a writer sell merchandise? Well, I bought my Murakami diary…
As a writer you may not be able to do the whole traditional gamut straight off – chances are people won’t want a Joe Wannabe mug, for example. This DOES illustrate the importance of branding yourself, though – giving yourself a visual as well as a verbal identity (think about the font and layout of your covers). One of the most important parts of The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, especially given the subject matter, iconic images and viral phenomena (although I obviously chose the subject matter for a reason) was the creation of a brand image to go with the website and novel. Agnieszka Kitty is an instantly recognisable, simple image that would look fine on anyone’s T-shirt.

Your audience might want different merchandise – I think Agnieszka Kitty eco bags would look rather nice. Then there’s the obvious – bookmarks. The other thing you can do is tie your merchandise in with your book – there’s a big tech element in The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, so I’m thinking mobile phone or iPod socks (but be careful, and I’d advise steering clear of the legal minefield of using proprietary brands). Does your book have a key theme? An orange chrysanthemum, for example. The masters at this are the Coen brothers – think Miller’s Crossing hats, Big Lebowski bowling balls, O Brother Where Art Thou hair wax (not to mention the Soggy Bottom Boys CD).

The special edition. Musicians and film studios are masters at this. The Smiths even wrote a song (Paint a Vulgar Picture) about it. When I was at university, bands would routinely bring out 5 or 6 versions of a single and fans wanted ALL of them. Needless to say eventually the fans got rather tired of “a slightly different cover” and “bonus tracks,” but the special edition has evolved.

The point of the special edition isn’t really getting fans to pay twice for the same thing. That’s what the bad old days turned it into. It’s about just what it says – giving them something special. Something that’s a badge, that marks them out as a “real fan” as well as satisfying the fans’ desire to know more about anything and everything to do with your work And the advantage to you is you can charge a premium, making more profit per unit. There are whole books to be written on getting the price right – my rule is simple: never take the p*** - it’s as much for them as it is for you. They may grudgingly pay £20 but wouldn’t you rather they willingly paid £15? But always charge more than the standard version (or if you’re giving the standard version away, more than the RRP of similar books) – otherwise it’s not special, it just looks like the different cover double profit trick.

So what goes into a special edition to make it special? In a way that’s up to you and will depend on what you write about. But make it something YOU’D want, and be prepared to pay for. And make it specific to your book (don’t just stick a generic pen on the cover, for example, or give them 20% off a MacDonald’s). Is there more information you could give on some of your characters? If you have a great cameo character you know people will love but can’t really expand for story reasons, why not write a short, or even a novella, and include it (The Man Who Panited Agnieszka’s Shoes is about a man’s search for his missing daughter. There’s nothing about her childhood, but from June 1st I’ll be tweeting her childhood story on the username dadpleasefindme – the collected tweets would be a perfect companion piece to a book)? Does your protagonist keep a journal? Why not give a customised blank journal of the kind you’ve described so readers can keep their own (would work perfectly if you’re writing a Bridget Jones type book)?


  1. Good grief Dan, you've reminded me when I did a spoken word piece of mine at the Union Chapel, accompanied by two women drummers, one from Huggy Bear and one from Mambo Taxi.

    Them were the days.

    If you want to do a double billing somewhere in London in the near future I'd be up for it ....

  2. I'm thinking of trying to do an open mic at the Book Boutique at Dick's on Romilly Street some time.

    I love that you've posted A,B, and E on Youwriteon. i uploaded the semi-experimental Lotte's Rats there last year and got an all-singing, all dancing 2.1 stars for it :-)

  3. I started at 4.5 and rapidly declined to 2.5 at present.

    Let me know if you get your open mic spot and I'll try come and support you.

  4. Hmm, yes, the delights of the standard deviation algorithm...

  5. No, the delights of being read by readers, one of whom (pigeon holing himself as Literary Fiction no less) advising me to cut out every word of 3 or more syllables !!!


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