Neil Young, Patti Smith Discuss Future of Publishing at BookExpo America

The digital futures of writing and music continue to intersect

neil young patti smith bea
Courtesy of BEA
Patti Smith and Neil Young share a laugh at BookExpo America.
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Both the music and print publishing worlds are undergoing massive upheavals, as underscored by celebrated singer-songwriters Neil Young and Patti Smith’s onstage conversation last week at BookExpo America (BEA) at New York’s Javits Center. Having each worked in both mediums – Smith’s Just Kids won a National Book Award and Young’s new memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, is set for release in October – they came to some interesting conclusions. The most poignant moment of their discussion was Smith’s observation, “Books, albums… they’re the same. People create things.” It’s a lesson that musicians, artists and writers might do well to consider going forward, especially as the publishing expo tellingly catered to such creators with a record number of digital and self-publishing solutions.

Many musicians have found success lately with far-sighted add-ons to their tunes. High-profile performers such as Sting, Björk and the Roots have dabbled in the business of downloadable apps; even lower-profile acts, such as folk hero Daniel Johnston, have followed suit. Major label expatriate Amanda Palmer recently raised over $1 million in pledges from users of the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to finance a combination album, art book and tour. As BEA’s floor suggested – one choked with digital, downloadable and direct-to-consumer sales solutions for every device from Kindle to Kobo – the future of print appears strikingly similar. Artists seeking fame and widespread distribution can still enjoy solace in major label deals that includes hardbacks, paperbacks and the profitable sale of foreign rights.

However, as authors like New York Times bestseller David Thorne have discovered (Thorne made more money selling books on Lulu.com than by publishing with Penguin Books), creating a lasting career in today’s world can often require experimenting. Mass-market imprints such as HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon and Schuster retained a presence at the expo and should continue to play a prominent role in both author and audience development going forward. However, the growing array of new publishing channels available to scribes (independent imprints, digital downloads, multimedia-enhanced apps, etc.) and options for fan outreach are quickly expanding. Just as music was transformed by iTunes and the rise of the value-priced single, so too may short-form or independently-released content in the form of Kindle Singles, self-published books, crowdsourced manuscripts and companion apps transform the world of writing. Publishing success today may lie somewhere at the nexus of all activities.

It seems that both musicians and authors seeking long-term success would do well to invest in themselves. By pairing a range of supporting activities (including the launch of apps, blogs, exclusive subscriber programs, independently-issued releases, etc.) with traditional publishing efforts, they may have the means to create more powerful promotional and business platforms. All can set themselves up to enjoy more stability and leverage, a better position when negotiating deals and a greater measure of control over their creative output.

It's important to note that self- and alt-publishing solutions aren't a panacea for all artists. As was evident at BookExpo America, as in the recording industry, there’s still a future in retail and major label backing, but wise musicians and authors would do well to look at themselves as much as overarching brands as actual artists – and to operate as much as publishing companies as they do as actual talent.

Silently echoing through the halls of New York’s Javits Center seemed to be a single observation: chart-topping hits, and the scale they bring, remain a powerful vehicle for creating rock stars in every publishing field. But with as many authors making more off the speaking and consulting circuits as actual book sales, plus pulp legends treating new manuscripts like album releases, that business plan is becoming only part of the game.

As Young explained when comparing his latest work to Smith’s Just Kids, “I’m a highway and landscapes – you’re a city and painted bricks and lots of people. I’m traveling and you are too, but I’m on the road and you’re travelling down streets.” As the specter of tomorrow’s more fan-connected, high-tech publishing world loomed large over BEA, there seemed to be wisdom in taking the road less traveled.

[Full disclosure: The author heads independent book publishing label READ.ME, which has self-published the bestsellers The Modern Parent’s Guide and The Crowdfunding Bible outside of traditional channels.]


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