Numberscruncher: Music, Books, and Liz Phair

Written by Current Events, Numberscruncher

I admit it. I’m one of the people who loved Liz Phair in the early days and who is confused by the choices she has made. It’s an old and tired story, though, so I’ll mostly spare you the rant. Besides, Matt Springer did it better.

But I will say this: Phair’s career shows what happens when an artist doesn’t have an editor. As a writer, I find that editors often make my crabby. But most of the editors I’ve worked with have made my work a lot better. They save me from stupid mistakes, suggest words and phrases that make a story stronger, and point me in directions that I had overlooked.

Liz Phair has been working more or less alone for years, without a regular band or consistent record label. She thinks “Bollywood” is a great song, and she won’t listen to those who tell her otherwise. She doesn’t need to convince anyone but the buyers. Phair does not have to worry about manufacturing, distribution, and publicity, because she can do it all by herself on the Internet. I’d like to think that a long-time collaborator would have told Liz Phair that maybe Bollywood should be saved for a some sort of mega boxed-set of rarities and demos to be released only after she’s had a long career as an influential chart topper, a la Miles Davis. But it does not matter what I think, except that I’m not buying her download.

Music has been on the front lines of the media industry’s changes, mostly because it was distributed in manageable electronic formats before other genres of work were. Recording artists have been coming to grips with who adds value to their careers (bookers at influential clubs) and who doesn’t (record stores).

I’m a lot more familiar with book publishing than with music recording, having done six books now under my name and as a ghostwriter. (Number seven is underway, which is why I haven’t been posting regularly.) The books under my name are for Wiley’s  . . .  For Dummies series, and people buy those books for the brand and not the author. With the ghostwritten books, though, I have a harder time determining what value the publishers have added. The editors have been great, but then what about all of the rest of the people who take a big cut of the profits?  (Authors generally receive about 10 to 20% of the cover price of a book, and they have to split that with their agents.)

Self-publishing isn’t a new business, but it’s been a scruffy sector because so many self-published books are dreck. For that matter, many books by traditional publishers are terrible, too; a system of agents, acquisition editors, development editors, and bookstore purchasing managers hasn’t kept trash out of the system. But if everyone goes to self-publishing, what happens?

Here’s the reality: almost every adult in America can read and write. Hence, they all think they can write a book. Musical education is not nearly as widespread; few people can play an instrument, and even fewer can read and write music. That alone serves as a quality filter. Then, consider that music is collaborative while writing is solitary. Most musicians play with others who can give them feedback or suggest ways of doing things better. Most writers work alone, which makes them a bit weird after a while. And it means that they don’t get feedback in the course of their work. Some writers belong to critique groups or have agents who give them advice, but not all of them do. I’m pretty good at editing my own work, and yet, I’ve often been appalled at some of the mistakes I’ve made that were caught by an editor.

Self-publishing would allow many authors to make a lot more money. But it won’t shift power from bookstores or publishing companies to authors. Instead, it will shift the power to those who are willing to critique and evaluate the work. That’s the only way buyers will know who deserves their $9.95 and who does not.