What Writers Can Learn from Rock Stars

I recently spoke on a panel about publishing, and a number of audience members asked questions about marketing. The other panelists and I talked at length about all the different things writers need to do to sell their books, even if they’re working with a traditional publisher: being active on social media, becoming a friend to booksellers, establishing relationships with other writers and readers, developing connections with organizations, blogging, and on and on. Finally, one audience member—clearly a writer—had had enough. In exasperation he asked, his voice rising, “When do you even have time for writing? Who can do this? It all seems pointless!”

And I get it. I really do. But sadly, most artists aren’t paid to simply create; if they want to make money, they also have to market.

Over the last few years, my conversations with writers sound a lot like my husband Andrew’s conversations with musicians (he’s in music marketing).

When we were younger, he managed a number of young bands who worked very, very hard to build an audience from a couple of their friends and family members at a local bar to national touring acts that could bring in hundreds or even thousands of fans at shows around the country.

The trajectory was fairly standard, and not unlike that of a writer. The musicians would go from playing music in their bedrooms to occasionally jamming with a couple friends. Kind of like when you go from writing by yourself to taking a writing class or going to a writing workshop.

Next, they’d start a band, and they’d practice and practice, and if they were lucky, they’d book a gig. Maybe the show would be something in the deep, dark 1990s that folks liked to call “pay to play.” Small opening bands would be issued tickets by the club, which they would then be responsible for selling to said friends and family members.

Self-publishing is much like this. You write and write, you invest money into a professional edit and design, and then your book hits the streets. A small group of your cherished friends and family embrace and support it and maybe buy copies to give away at Christmas and tell their friends to buy it. In the end, you sell maybe one or two hundred copies.

Like the rockers in our band, that’s where it ends for most authors. For the band, maybe they become an established bar band—they play occasional weekends and enjoy entertaining a small crowd at the neighborhood tavern. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There are tons of talented, fun bands with excellent musicians who don’t want to spend their Saturdays distributing flyers or posting on social media or touring the nation in a crappy van.

They play music for the love of it, and they don’t make a living at it. Cue the many writers who discover that they just like writing. They enjoy the process and are not looking for any great monetary returns; it’s a hobby, and a particularly satisfying one in that they actually have a product—a legacy—that they can leave to their kids and grandkids.

Then there are the bands who push a bit further—they work hard to get shows, they do some small regional tours, they beg and cajole to get an opening slot for a bigger band, they suck up to local music writers, and they spend lots and lots of time calling radio stations, posting on music blogs and websites, and uploading digital music, all in addition to writing songs and practicing.

Slowly but surely, they start to build up a base of loyal fans who will show up every time they play. Yes, there’s a lot of extra work and time, but these bands see a payoff in a bigger audience and more fans. When they show up to play in their hometown, there’s usually a crowd of a hundred people there, and even on tour they open for established bands and can count on at least twenty or thirty die-hard fans to show up just for them. They aren’t exactly making a living at their music, but they’re selling enough T-shirts and making enough from shows that they’re no longer paying to play.

These bands are like our hardworking self-published writers who are putting real effort into creating a following. Like our band, they are blogging and chatting and tweeting and joining writers’ panels and doing everything they can to get their names out there. Now, when they self-publish, their readers are waiting to digitally snap up their e-book the moment it appears on the web. With each book they gain new fans, and while they’re not giving up their day jobs, they’re no longer paying to publish. They recoup their investment and may even make a couple thousand dollars’ profit!

After working for many years as a small unsigned band, maybe our band gets the chance to play a local showcase for independent record companies. Lo and behold, a talent scout likes what he sees. He checks out their website and social media and sees how many likes they have and that their top song has been downloaded ten thousand times. The band is proactive about their career, even self-funding US tours that cost them more money than they make. He’s impressed, and decides to sign them. They’re going to make a record! He also introduces them to a booking agent who seems just perfect for them. She’s brilliant at getting young bands booked for festivals. Suddenly things change very quickly for them—kind of. They’ve got a record, which was paid for by their record company. They even got a small advance, which after splitting it four ways allowed each of them to pay off a few bills. Even better, their agent got them on a bunch of festivals for the following summer. Of course, they’ll have to quit their jobs to tour, but they’ll be rich soon enough, right?

Our newly signed rock band is much like our writers who’ve sold a book to a publisher (minus the quitting the day job—don’t do that!). No matter who the publisher, the writer likely receives a fairly small advance, which leaves him or her just about enough to pay off some bills. The publisher pays all the fees of publishing, which saves the writer quite a bit and allows the book to receive a proper edit and an eye-catching cover design.

The next steps in the life of a rock band or a writer are also similar—the truth is, few record companies or publishers have the budgets or the ability to do a great deal of marketing. While on occasion a publisher or record company takes a risk on a young band or writer and goes the full monty with marketing, the more typical scenario is that once your book—or album—is released, the publisher or record company provides minimal support. It’s usually up to the band or the writer to keep the momentum going and generate sales. That means, yes, blogging, tweeting, Instagramming, and for the band, touring, touring, touring, as well as well as all of the above.

For the writer, it also includes becoming friends with bookstore owners, managers, and salespeople and going to conferences—and on and on. If you’re a nonfiction writer, your marketing will include all of this as well as working tirelessly to become a name and face associated with the subject you write on—writing blogs, querying magazines and newspapers, working with an agent to be available for topical local and national radio and TV shows, and so forth. Phew.

In the end, a band that puts the effort into marketing and promoting and touring can make a living off its music. But even musicians who support themselves touring are rarely living large.

And the author who works as hard as the struggling touring band can make enough to live off and focus on writing—and marketing that writing. I know many writers who make a living off their work. I, for a time, was one of them. I wrote a lot, often about things I hated writing about. I wrote about pet food and pool sweepers and city council meetings, all for the occasional chance to write about things I really wanted to. Our musician or writer may ultimately find that their art is something they’re willing to do on the side, while they write advertising copy or work in concert production or music engineering to pay the mortgage.

It’s down to every artist to decide what, and how much, they’re willing to sacrifice. Because in the end, to make a living at anything, you have to engage in the business of it.

Yes, there are rock stars and rock-star authors who’ve put in the work and had the stroke of luck that put them over the top, but that’s something no one can count on. But take heart, dear writer: at least as you toil away at your craft in the wee hours of the morning, you’re in the warmth of your own home rather than sleeping in the back of a van between four other bandmates and a roadie.