Column

The Reading Room

Writing about writing about music.

Henry writes about music and music books for ND, The Bluegrass Situation, Country Standard Time, Publishers Weekly, and more.

The Reading Room

Writing about writing about music.

Henry writes about music and music books for ND, The Bluegrass Situation, Country Standard Time, Publishers Weekly, and more.

The Music Books Market -- Or, We'll Always Want to Read about Springsteen

@Henry: Can you explain the numbers on the Springsteen book? You write that they need to sell five million books to recoup the ten million dollar advance. I don't understand how a publisher nets only two bucks per book. What am I missing here? And if there are 200,000 people in the universe who will spend $25 for Alanis' bio...I'll buy a hat and eat it. 

Thanks, Ed, for your question. Publishing is not an easy business these days--if ever it was; the late great Southern novelist Harry Crews used to say that if the show business we run like the book business, we'd all be barefoot.

Common wisdom in publishing is that you structure an advance by at $1 per copy (so, I was being generous with the Springsteen; I don't know S&S' first print run since it has not been announced, but it will likley be at least 250,000); so, in order for it to be worth giving a $1,000 advance to an author, for example, the publisher would need to sell 1,000 copies of the book before the author would start to earn royalties. The advance is a little loan that te author "pays back"/"earns back" through book sales; royalties aren't paid out until the loan is paid back. It's the case these days that most books don't earn out their advances, so authors get a nice chunk up front, but then don't earn any money on the sales of their books.

Books like there memoirs carry a trade discount, so a bookseller will purchase the books at that discount. The money from that sales is balanced against the cost of goods. So, and this is hypothetical since I don't know S&S business plans, let's say the Springsteen book lists for $30; after discounts the net will likely be around $12; balance that against the unit cost, maybe $4-$5, depending on number printed, and the publisher's net is $7. 

If the bookseller fails to sell copies within a certain period, the seller is free to return any remaining copies to the publisher for reimbursment. The publisher must then eventually write off that excess. There goes your net.

It's a complicated calculus; I doubt if Springsteen's book will ever earn back its advance (and that will also depend on the way that deal is structured; does that deal include the paperback, for example?) Truth is: most publishers are willing to take a risk on what seems a sure shot if they ave other big books, that are not as costly, they expect to sell well and balance their risks.

Print runs are another matter; they're often larger than they need to be in order to cover cost of goods.

Given the sales of memoirs by women--except for the numbers for Carly Simon's, which has not been out all that long--I'd be surprised if Alanis' memoir sells out the first printing, but in publishing--as in the music business--there are no sure bets anymore.

 

I find it hard to believe there is anything new anyone needs to know about Springsteen.  

I was thinking the same thing...Dave Marsh and several others plowed through most of that many years ago...

But then again never underestimate fans who would line up to buy the ultimate definitive super-deluxe version of Working On A Dream that includes 10 outtakes of "Outlaw Pete".

Yep...that does happen...it's in A minor by the way...in a couple of those outtakes, we find out that Pete really was a changed man...and that Bounty Hunter Dan felt compelled to raise the family Pete left behind...

Dang...gave myself away there didn't I?...

For the record, there was no line when I bought mine...

There are rarely lines in the future! That's a real advantage of time-travel Jim.  I just back from buying tickets for the Rolling Stones "World Tour 2022."  

No doubt Richards will still be playing lead, smoking and snorting dad's ashes...and tag team wrestling...

Bruce is a very thoughtful guy and anytime he has done in depth interviews recently , they've been very interesting (see, as an example, David Remnick's "Springsteen at 62" in the New Yorker a few years ago) so absolutely I think an autobiography is going to contain not only something new but a great deal that's going to be very worthwhile.    Another bio sure, I would not likely bother with it but hard to argue something the guy's worked on himself for years isn't going to be worth a look for anyone intrested in the bloke.

Hey, let's start a book club.  Suggesting for our first book "Bachman Turner Overdrive: Rock Is My Life, This Is My Song - The Authorized Biography".

I read Keith Richard's book, very entertaining.  Had a chance to meet Bobby Keys, he autographed Keith's book, "it's all true, I was there, Bobby Keys".

Maybe the most entertaining rock book I read was Ian MacLagan's autobiography "All The Rage".

Billy Joe Shaver's autobiography "Honky Tonk Hero" was endearing.

The Los Lobos biography, "Dream In Blue" was really well done.

Not in a hurry to read a complete book about most musicians though.  

 

As Far As You Cab Get Without A Passport by Peter Case was a good short read.

I read it a couple years ago and picked up a copy for a friend at a recent Case gig. 

And on that  topic (and off topic too) Case's "Pelican Bay" is my song of last year.  

 

That is a great song...love that guy...

My favorite music book is Mark Oliver Everett's "Things the Grandchildren Should Know"...you don't have to know or like "E" or the Eels music to be mezmerized by his story...great book...

 

Now what do you think about your book club Jack?

The nuclear option, eh, Hal Trump?

Take a look at these hands
Take a look at these hands
The hand speaks, the hand of a government man.....

 

 

 

 

Sweet...Dennis has this...

Dennis had the Donovan bio...he might debate the term "nuclear option" too...I'll let him handle that...but I'd say just looking around lately that it does seem to be the season of the witch...

Thoughtful piece, Henry. Could it be that people who love to listen to and to play music aren't necessarily those who wish to read about it. Perhaps, even, they're different kinds of learners and communicators. Verbal learners and auditory ones often have very different kinds of intelligence, see Howard Gardner. Because someone listens, plays, and sings a song or singer hundreds or thousands of times to the music of X probably has no relevance to reading a musical biography, much less a literary one. In fact, intellectualizing the music and its effects (affects, too) might ruin the musician's work for many. 

I have to disagree with that premise. I find it hard to believe someone, anyone, would read a(nother) Springsteen biography unless they were a fan. A hardcore fan. 

This is a memoir, not a biography, and Springsteen's publisher is certainly betting on his fans flocking to the stores to buy this one, since these pages contain the words of the Boss himself. The publisher may well also have worked out a deal--not at all unusual--with the Springsteen organization where they'll agree to buying a certain number at a discount so they themselves--Springsteen's folks--can sell the book at concerts and such.

I do think it will be interesting to see if Springsteen's memoir can sell as well as Dylan's of Keith Richards, but time will tell.

Thanks, Ted. I appreciate your thoughts here, and I think there are likely plenty of fans of music and the musicians that make it who have no interest in the life of the artist. That is, their learning about the artist's life adds nothing new to the experience of the music for those listeners, and it might indeed alter their enjoyment of the music itself.

When I talk publicly about such matters, I often use a modified version of M.H. Abrams' theory of reading poetry; the same applies to music, after a fashion: mimetic (universe), audience (pragmatic), poet (expressive), and poem (objective). But this is for another column or a much longer feature.

Suffice to say that publishers are counting on fans of these musicians to want to know every little detail of their favorite singer's/writer's life, and sometimes the more revelaing the better, of course (for the publisher, and often for the fan). The question then becomes "do I stop listening to Gregg Allman now that I now what a womanizer he was, or can I forget that and let the music's beauty envelope me?" The best memoirs--and there are very few of those anyway--and biographies drive us back to the music anyway.

 

I've never stopped listening to anyone because of anything I've read in a book about them or heard about them...I probably should have in a couple of cases, but it is sort of the flipside of the deal where I was listening to Ziggy Stardust in the 70's and telling everyone about it (I was listening to Yes at the same time too, so I'm not sure I knew what was great music vs. what was stellar musicianship at the time but...), and some of my acquaintances would say they wouldn't listen to him because he was gay or bi or pan or whatever he was...I've had people tell me the same thing about the Indigo Girls too...not bothering to listen because they are gay...or course, the same people listened to Elton John and George Michael for years, and somehow didn't realize...Allman did great things musically...who knows what I would have done if I'd had his access at his age...I'd like think I'd have done better, but I'm not sure I would have...

This was a pretty good column for discussion for sure Henry...

Yep, lots of questions here.

I have been reading the Elvis Costello book, not sure why.  I was never a big fan. The book is moderately entertaining, but I have to admit not something that I'd buy again, if I had to do it over again.

Patti Smith, on the other hand, isn't writing autobiographies so much as excerpts from her life.  Poetry more than prose.  I wasn't listening to her music back in the day, but her books have led me back to it. A truly different experience than other "music bios" I've read.

And on the publishing front, how are digital editions of the books figured into the equation?  I almost never read real paper any more.

Thanks, Ron. I've thought briefly about writing a "part two" to this column, and I may still do it. My only hesitation is that it may veer too much into details about publishing in which many folks may have no interest.

I understand what you're saying about Costello, though it may be one the liveliest of the past season's crop. Patti Smith is not writing music memoirs, but I agree that her writing is poetic and carries you along in ways that other memoirs do not.

I think Carrie Brownstein's "Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl" was one of the very best of the past season, but its sales have likely been a little disappointing to the publishers since it sold just under 40,000.

Sales of digital editions of books make up a very small percentage of a book's sales--less that 3% of any title's total sales; sales of e-books have declined steadily over the past five years and continue to decline. In 2016, most large publishers find that e-books account for 2%-4% of their total revenues. Does this mean publishers will stop producing e-books? Doubtful, of course, but as more indie bookstores open their doors and sales of e-books decline, publishers certainly aren't as invested as they once were in e-books. But I guess this is another article, too.

I'm surprised at the decline in ebooks, to be honest.  Everywhere I go I see people reading them, and I certainly couldn't get along without them!  I wonder if the sales decline is due to pirating?  It's certainly easy to find a torrent for many ebooks.

On the other hand, there is data that suggest some different numbers than yours.  A thoughtful article on Forbes, for instance, shows market share as of September last year at about 25%, higher for some publishing modalities, lower for others.  Some decline is said to be due to high costs, and it's noted that overall sales are also down.

http://fortune.com/2015/09/24/ebook-sales/

A recent Guardian article suggests that the percentage of digital sales of total publishing has fallen slightly in the UK, but only to some 30% of the total.  Some segments, like self-publishing, have grown remarkably in terms of unit sales.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/03/ebook-sales-falling-for-the-first-time-finds-new-report

Unit sales are different than total dollar value of sales, of course, and ebooks are (sometimes just a bit) cheaper than hard copies.  On the other hand, production and distribution costs are way way lower, approaching zero on high-volume titles, so margin is maintained.  Even with substantially lower revenue from ebooks, the publishers don't hurt on those sales.

Sorry for the off topicness! 

To get back on topic, I'd think that the whole realm of self-publishing might just prove attractive to some artists doing autobiographies or memoirs.  Lots of scope for this, and in the age of iTunes and other digital music services, makes total sense to me. No need to deal with a publisher, market through the same channels as the music, sell to the folks who really want to read what you're about.

I'm guessing Henry forgot a  zero in quoting e-book sales. The market share is closer to 20+% give or take. A few things come to mind: portable devices and readers have been marketed to the boomers, whose numbers are in decline. That's why you'll see a larger percentage of digital sales for bios from Richards, Costello and Springsteen. On a college or high school campus these days you'll be hard pressed to find a Kindle or iPad. While you can get e-books via the library, there's no Netflix or Spotify in the publishing world so there's little reason for someone without disposable income to buy one. It's interesting to me that the video and music companies pushed the retailers out of business to replace it with a product valued in pennies rather than dollars. The book publishers started to do the same, but their digital entry has yet to pay off, and may never. Maybe I'll write the part two to this story. I read last week's Neilson Soundscan music charts today...anybody see General Custard?

I don't know, the data I've seen suggest that quite substantial proportion of net does come from ebooks, even while total sales hover between 20% and 30%, depending on sector, and less in terms of revenue.  But margins are very high on ebooks.

I suspect e-readers will give way to other devices.  By choice, I use a small smartphone, because I like the ease of pocketing.  But even on my phone I like reading digital books, and the software is quite refined.  When I'm travelling on the commuter train, for instance, I don't like to take two devices, so the phone does nicely.  And with the bigger format phones so popular among the other generations (pretty much all of which are younger than me!), I don't see why that won't be the way of the future.

FWIW...I hardly read anything in print any longer. There are several factors governing my choice: my hand strength no longer permits me to lift and hold heavy books, the ability to vary text size is very convenient, space in our trailer and home are more limited than former houses making it easier to tranport and store ebooks. In other words, the constraints of aging argue strongly for an e-reader. 

Brownstein's book rang true with an understated honesty.  To be honest I read the book because of Portlandia not because of her music and the book never got "there" (but I still enjoyed it).  And I guess I have to backtrack on the Bruce book-a memoir (missed that detail Henry) I would probably read, another Bruce bio? Probably not.

On the other end of this are the print-on-demand books that current paperback production methods seem to have made practical. I have a copy of Ian Dunlop's Breakfast in Nudie Suits with the printing date in the back showing that it was printed shortly after it was ordered and delivered less than a week later. This system allows books that have a potential audience of just a few thousand (or even a few hundred) to get published and distributed efficiently. Of course these book also usually lack the professional editing that make the "best sellers" more readable but if you're interested enough in the book it's an OK tradeoff. 

 

I'll probably buy the Springsteen book. I bought kindle versions of Shawn Colvin's, Judy Collins', and Sandy Denny's biography. The Denny book is a horrible read. Poor writing and minutiae. The Collins book was mostly who she slept with while drinking or not drinking, and Shawn's was interesting. What I learned from the last two is that I'm not nearly psycho enough to be a famous peforming songwriter.     

 

 

@Charrise: With apology to Henry, I'll take your one sentence-fragment reviews over all others. You saved me money on the Denny book. And I've spent time with Judy; don't need to know more than I do. If you're doing this regularly on Twitter, I want to follow you. Made me laugh. @therealeasyed

 

Not on twitter, just FB. I've been playing music for 50 years, am slightly ornery, straightforward, and love a good song.  Glad I made you laugh. I knew someone would get me....

 

For the record, I thought your succinct reviews were funny as well...unlike Ed, I've spent no time with Judy...it will be interesting to find out the before and after Stills, and whether or not her discretion was better with or without alcohol...I wouldn't have bought her bio for her musical contribution anyway (not that it is not noteworthy, but she had/still has a habit of covering songwriters who are better than she is)...after 50 years of playing music, if you aren't psycho enough, congratulations on that...that's a pretty exclusive club...

 

To be fair, I was a big Collins fan for many years. Her early albums were gorgeous renditions of traditional folks songs. Her crystal clear cold-creek-water running over rocks vocals taught me to sing clearly so that great lyrics could be understood. She was a natural. She has a great ear for a good tune, and propelled more than a few songwriters into the mainstream. She lost me when she began the vocal lessons - I could hear it, and it never sounded the same. And Stephen Stills....? She dropped him because she didn't want to ruin her career by moving to the west coast. Silly woman. ;-)   P.S.  I worked in the aerospace industry and played music on the side. Aerospace  would have made me psycho long before the music.

 

 

West Coast?...there was nothing going on out there at the time...

The decision on Stills was likely a good one in the long run though...I'm always reminded of the best commentary on him...Nash telling Crosby as he's being wheeled to the OR for his liver transplant, "now don't you die and leave me here with Stills"...

As for her voice changing due to the formal training that is absolutely true and it was in her case a detriment (your reference to her being a natural)...and as you noted, she did put all of us on to some really good songwriters if we weren't paying attention...there isn't anything wrong with being known as a great singer/song ingterpreter at all...one of my current favorite artists, Jimmy LaFave, probably does as many covers as originals on most records and in his live sets...doesn't diminish what you do at all...Alison Krauss is another...Collins certainly made her mark and her early work is quite good...

I have no basis on which to judge aerospace vs. music so I'll have to take you word for that...pretty much all of my interactions in music playing in bands or solo has ended up being endlessly frustrating on some level (or many levels simultaneously = internal band issues, bad venues, venues that don't want to pay, equipment problems/theft, deceitful managers and music business types, bandmates under the influence or missing gigs or practice, etc.), and I know lots of musicians who feel the same way who played out a lot more than I ever did...and yet we all keep trying, or would try again if the right situation came along because there is nothing like making music when the situation is good...that is more or less the definition of psycho isn't it?  Keep trying, expecting a different outcome...

Jim, I got over the wanting to make music my life's work a long time ago. I do it for my own satisfaction.  I write, not as much as I used to, and Pierce Pettis, Dana Cooper, and Mickey Newbury  - yes, Mickey - told me I was good.  Once I heard it from Mickey, I never really gave a rat's a** about what anyone else thought. My husband and I often play as a duo. Our repertoire is 50% my material, and 50% glorious covers that no one knows unless they are songwriter junkies like us. We have a unique sound - both fingerstyle guitarists, some mandolin for leads, and unique harmonies. We play for fun. No psychos here.....

If Mickey Newbury told you you were good, you shouldn't give a rat's a** about what anyone else thinks, because the rest of us don't matter...that is faint praise indeed...I used to do a few of Mickey's tunes for friends just sitting around picking, stuff like "Ramblin' Blues" (my falsetto is pretty decent, I play fingerstyle as well), people always ask about those songs, who wrote them, etc.  Pierce too..."Alabama 1959" alway gets a great reaction.  Was fortunate enough to see Mickey live once a long, long time ago,well before he got sick, just amazing...Pierce used to come through here (Indianapolis area) and play a gig called the IndyAcousticCafeSeries frequently, I've seen him maybe 4-5 times...he was last here about 4 years ago, and his daughter Grace was with him then...I don't do any of Dana's tunes, but I did buy his last record (Building a Human Being was the title I think) and it is excellent...

Playing for fun is the only way to do it...it didn't really take me that long to figure that out...once I did I never played anywhere but at home for 25 years...I venture out occasionally these days to play with friends, and it is fun...

 

Long story about Newbury - for another time. He changed my life, and my outlook. So, so sad he is gone. 

Jim, you sound like my husband - loves to play at the house, but occasionally will let me drag him out and show him off. Very modest, and very talented man. 

I appreciate that Charisse, as I'm gussing you are pretty fond of him...my wife plays a little violin, and we play together some at home...I have a friend down the street who lived in Nashville for years who wrote songs (good ones, he's had a couple on movie soundtracks/in films) still plays in bands...I get together with him and that is always fun...he's younger than me, so I get him with a tune he doesn't know once in a while...

I am guessing you'd not say he was talented if he weren't...so tell your husband I said there's a few people out there that will appreciate him, and it is worth venturing out once in a while to find them (I need to tell myself that too)...one of my friends is an incredible guitar player...you can close your eyes and swear it's Albert Lee, or Duane Allman when he plays slide...he builds and repairs amps and guitars, a true craftsman...but he won't play out at all anymore, he got his fill of it and it isn't fun to him...sad thing...

No need to apologize to me, Ed; I agree about the Denny; she was already on a downward swing when she wrote this, and her life was a purple haze, sadly. If Judy's bio is anything like her meandering, self-congratulatory, and, frankly, boring keynote at Folk Alliance, then it's bound to be quite a mess; Colvin's works so well because she doesn't take herself so seriously and is honest enough to be self-critical.

Will be interesting to read Stills' when he finally publishes it; but there's another guy whose arrogance may get in the way--"these fans want to hear my story, and by damn I'm gonna give it all to them"--of his being anything like honest, self-reflective, and self-critical.

Many musicians ought not write memoirs, but, alas, the same can be said of many folks who feel self-important enough to write and publish one.

Collins is most known and loved, of those who love her, less for her songwriting achievements and more for her ability as songcatcher and interpeter. There are many folks out there today, including Mitchell and Cohen to name but two, whose careers and musical journeys are are connected via a solid line to her. Her habit of covering is actually a sharpened skill. I also give her much credit for creating a successful indie record label during a period when others have been either getting gobbled up my the majors or falling to the side. In the times I've interacted with her beginning about fifteen or sixteen years ago or so, which means post-whatever, my respect for her talent and business skills runs high. Here's my final take: in a world where we need more role models for young women, Judy stands tall. Progress, not perfection...she's done well. (I wasn't at FAI 2016 but I have seen her give a few speeches that have run the gamut from interesting to dreadfully boring.)

Thanks for that Ed.  I think sometimes "songcatchers", those who cover others' songs as a primary mode, are underappreciated.  I'd much rather hear a good cover of a good song than the boring schlock that passes as music from some singer/songwriters.  It's important to remember that for a long time "folk music" was almost entirely music with history;  singer/songwriters were a later development.

Agreed Ron and Ed, and I have alluded to that in a later comment, I did not mean to denigrate Collins by insinuating that the "singer/songwriter" model is necessarily preferable...I was actually making a joke about the fact that Charisse had boiled the bio down to who she slept with while intoxicated or not, and that I was succumbing to the "titillating" nature of the story...a poorly executed joke...the truth is, I likely wouldn't have bought the book before, and I probably still won't...

 

I agree with you, Ed, Collins helped Wendy Waldman, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and more recently, Amy Speace. Her songwriting never did much for me, but she always did more than justice on a cover. Tom Rush, though he never enjoyed the stature that Judy attained, also was a great discoverer of talent. He is actually responsible for first picking up on Joni, and did early covers of Jackson Browne and James Taylor. He also penned some pretty good tunes himself.  I have not read any of the Joni Mitchell books that have come out over the last year or two. I know her through her music, and that's enough for me. 

Ed, I think you and I could converse for hours, lol.  

Apropos to the Stills/Crosby convo, I saw Judy and David on a double bill at Bally's Casino in Vegas many years ago, and while the music was exceptional, the stage patter about who slept with whom sort of killed the vibe...such as it was, with the sound of slot machines wafting through the hall. 

Ugh. Makes me shudder. Never have been a big Nash fan, but just a few blurbs from his book left me feeling like I'd ben at a peep show. No dignity. 

Nash...earlier this week there was a story floating out there via Rolling Stone Online that he's had it with Crosby because of something he said or did. The memorable quote was something like  'I don't mind when he shits on me for a day, but two years is too long'. With Young out of the picture since his own personal Crosby-dust-up, I guess we'll have to settle for a Stills-Nash Final World Tour 2018 in order to hear them drag out the forty year old songs once again, no doubt sponsored by Metamucil. 

It will be sponsored by the Hemlock Society...the 2018 "Dying Without Dignity" tour...this presupposes that they don't kill each other first...

Graham has definitely painted himself as the peacemaker and conscience of the band over the years...it has gotten old...

Tom Rush did unearth some great songs by at the time unknowns...the last time I saw him, maybe 4 years ago, he was still doing JB's "These Days", and following it up with the comment "Jackson Browne wrote that song when he was 16 years old"...you don't have to say anything else probably...Tom is a treat live, great banter...he also does more covers than originals most nights...he makes them his own...

Amy Speace was the current artist I was referring to when I was referencing Judy Collins covering other artists...she's a great songwriter who keeps getting better...the Applewood Road thing she's involved in is beautiful as well...

 

 

How about the memoir of a musician and songwriter nobody's ever heard of? Me. 

Released five days ago and it has already sold tens of copies!

Seriously, Mr. Carrigan, it's a pretty good book and I'd be grateful if you would check it out at   www.myfourminutelife.com 

I'll be happy to send you a copy.