What Authors Can Learn From Radiohead

In Rainbows by Radiohead

If you haven’t already heard, Radiohead recently did what some considered absolutely crazy: they released a new album with absolutely no fixed price. Let’s clarify that for a moment: you go to their website, click through a few well designed screens, and they give you two options: one is a box set which costs a whopping £40.00, and the other is a download. Add that to your basket, checkout, and they throw you with a screen that allows you to enter the amount you’re willing to pay.
Radiohead box set
What’s remarkable about this isn’t just the pricing scheme: Radiohead has bypassed the music industry in order to get to the end consumer – they’re not releasing this through a major record company (thought they might in 2008). And if that isn’t mindblowing to you consider this: publicity for Radiohead spiked after one post in Pitchfork. Blogs started linking and talking about this is the hundreds, far surpassing anything a record company can do, throgh record stores – digital or otherwise. Radiohead’s website crashed after the first few hours.radiohead buzz graph

There are a few things us Internet fiction writers can draw from this – the parellels between the music and the book industry are obvious, though they do face different challenges. But what Radiohead has done was only possible with the advent of the net and the blogosphere – the first for distribution, and the second for getting the word out.


Between this situation and the book industry? You’ve got to be kidding me, right?

Not so. While it’s true that we don’t have as many people complaining about the monopoly publishers have on the consumption of prose (the way audiophiles complain about how radio killed music and how record labels are going the way of the dinosaur), there are issues with which we can all identify with. How hard it is to get published today, for instance; and then there’s the Jane Austen rejection fiasco; and recently I stumbled upon an article about how fiction just isn’t what it used to be.

Have we woken up to the fact that publishers aren’t the only way to reach a target audience? Yes, we blookers have. But while the music industry is seeing huge changes to the way people receive and buy and listen to music, much of the publishing industry has stayed the same. Plus, they have a target audience that knows getting access to good music isn’t through just the record labels.

We sit in the sidelines and watch a revolution happen in a neighbouring house. What a party, what a life! Was that a piano crashing out of the 2nd storey window?

Lesson from Radiohead: we can now bypass the big distributors. But – and this is the important question – will anybody listen?

PS: I particularly like the layout at the Radiohead site: it focuses attention to the text, and tells a story in multiple pages. Plus there are little distractions: you want to see what the next screen will say, partly due to the lack of links (or sidebars). That’s a format worth experimenting with.

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Category: Publishing · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://www.alexandraerin.com Alexandra Erin

    No comments on this article? As far as I’m concerned, this is the most important article on the site!

    There’s a LOT of sites out there dedicated to -how- to write, or how to write well, or even just how to write better… but not nearly enough discussion about how writers can make their work accessible AND be paid a fair shake for it, without getting multiple layers of businessfolk involved…

    I was greatly surprised to learn just that some authors (not publishers or editors, but authors) object to self-publishing of any kind on principle, under the idea that there’s no “professional eye” filtering the material for quality and it results in “the public being forced to wade through the crap to find the gems.”

    My opinion? These people really have no idea how the internet works. The chance of finding any one piece of crap among the crap is pretty slim… but the gems stick out. Quality calls attention to itself.

    Look at webcomics! For every one that’s a professional quality Goin’ Concern, generating a living for one or two or more people, there’s a thousand and one kids with a cracked copy of Photoshop they don’t know how to use or–God help us–MS Paint… and yet… it doesn’t matter how many of the “bottom rung” strips there are, it doesn’t prevent one person from finding their way to Schlock Mercenary.

    As an allegorical example, I mentioned on my blog the other day that I was surprised to find that the number of garage bands on MySpace didn’t make it any harder to find my seats for the symphony.

    Another thing authors can learn from webcomics: PEOPLE WILL PAY TO BUY A BOOK THEY JUST GOT TO READ FOR FREE. A lot of the mid-level publishers are getting in on the “give away for free to get people to buy” model by letting people download free e-books of selected works, but they’re only vaguely in the right neighborhood. Forcing people to download a file eliminates a lot of casual browsers who only know “downloading files is bad, mmmkay?” and runs into the problem of forcing people to sit at a screen with a big chunk o’ text for a long period of time. Also, they’ve navigated away from your site.

    Book blogging just makes more sense. It gives people nice digestible chunks, it’s easy to navigate, you can have a tip jar off to the side so that if people decide to reward you for your work they don’t have to come back to do so, and people who scoff at the thought of reading a book online might already spend hours reading blogs.

    That’s to say nothing of ad impressions you can generate as new readers click through the chapters in the archive.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Alexandra, I am very, very, very tempted to turn this into a guest post. There isn’t enough people concentrating on the writing solely for the web and making money of it scene, and talking about it.

    This is cool stuff, this is.

  • http://criticalmass.crazydreams.org/ CrazyDreamer

    Schlock Mercenary makes me go “Yay!” There’s a guy who quit a six-figure job to do a negative-three-figure one. (He lost money his first year doing it professionally but now makes a living at it.)

    You want a better example? Girl Genius, a financially successful print comic that switched to a web comic and immediately TRIPLED ITS SALES. If that isn’t a wake-up call, nothing is.