The thoroughly wonderful avant-pop-electro-folk duo Trwbador have just released their second album, Several Wolves (which you should all rush off and buy*), and I was struck by a remark from guitarist and producer Owain Gwilym: “I know this album has done way better than the last because it was pirated within 24 hours and is now on about 300 pirate websites“. And that’s good? I asked him. Apparently yes: unless you’re a really successful mega-band, record sales are basically a loss leader: the real sources of income come either from things that can’t easily be copied (live performance) or from people who can’t get away with not paying (national media, advertisers). The record is now a means of advertising the product rather than the product itself.
Partly because I’m in the final throes of getting a book ready for publication (the 600-page Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides), this led me to reflect on parallels and comparisons with academic publishing. One obvious conclusion is that we academics were well ahead of the game; while there are still plenty of musicians complaining loudly that music piracy is robbing them of a living, I doubt if we academics have ever thought that royalties on academic publications would give us a steady income, or recompense us for even a modicum of the time and labour invested in writing and editing them. We do it in part for the sheer joy of intellectual creation and the satisfaction of the urge to communicate our inner thoughts (and if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus), in part as a requirement of the job (which does admittedly rather cut against our freedom to produce the ancient historical equivalent of Trout Mask Replica or Ascension), and in part as a means of building a reputation that can be parlayed into speaking invitations, job offers and the like. The book isn’t the product, which is why the occasional royalty cheque for twenty quid is an excuse to buy a couple of records rather than an essential contribution to the gas bill; the product is the individual who wrote it, with the book serving to show that they’re worth their salary (this REF cycle, anyway) or worth inviting to put on a live performance (and, yes, I know we don’t get paid for giving seminar papers either – but the revenue from t-shirt sales isn’t bad).
This analogy, strained as it is, does offer some healthy lessons. Most obviously, forget about envying the historians who appear prominently in ‘proper’ bookshops like W.H. Smith; just as the musical artists who sell millions are the ones that the industry has set up and promoted to sell millions (not all of the artists they push make it, of course, but no one makes it to the globe-trotting level without having been pushed; cf. http://mic.com/articles/95260/the-music-industry-is-literally-brainwashing-you-to-like-bad-pop-songs-here-s-how), so the historians who become world-renowned media darlings (and I’m talking here about academic rather than proper popular historians) are those whom the publishing industry has picked out as potential best-sellers, and promoted like mad (reviews in the broadsheets and so forth, followed – as Eleanor Crawford (@el_crawford) remarked this morning – by this year’s Cheltenham People Who’ve Been on TV and Now Have a Book Out Festival). Since, as I’ve noted previously, the chances of my writing the sort of book that a publisher would see as a potential best-seller are pretty well zero at best, I really should stop believing in the fairy-tale that somehow, some day, an original and idiosyncratic take on the subject might just catch the public imagination and become a popular hit…
No, better to acknowledge the reality of the Long Tail: a very small number of prominent, big-selling historians, and everybody else. The positive take on this is that, especially with the development of the internet, it’s possible to find an audience – select but still potentially substantial – that is genuinely enthusiastic about exactly what I have to offer, rather than the larger but less committed audience for the more generic, heavily promoted mass products. I mean, over a hundred people like this blog, in all its pretentiousness: this may occasionally feel like the ancient historical equivalent of the Russian post rock** that is, I’ve discovered this week, the perfect soundtrack to proof-reading and indexing – but hey, I have a niche!
*Full disclosure: yes, there’s a family connection. But it’s a brilliant album – 4 stars in Q magazine, 8/10 in Mixmag – and so you should rush off and buy it nevertheless: http://owletmusic.greedbag.com/.
**Also highly recommended: Kauan, especially their album Aava tuulen maa, available from http://kauan.bandcamp.com/.