I have done what could be considered “professional writing” in three contexts. I was a sportswriter/columnist in San Diego. I played in bands (we got paid, sometimes it was in beer, but still…). Now, I get paid for freelance writing and for my novels. As of this week, I can officially say novels (plural). I just published ‘The Biker’ on Kindle. And soon, I will tackle Createspace and Smashwords. So, the book just came out. And I have been thinking about building a “fan base”. The whole idea and the terminology makes me uncomfortable. Getting fans as a fiction writer is a tricky thing.
When I worked for the paper, I never considered whether I had “fans”. It’s a different kind of gig. They tell you what to write. You write it. They pay you. And there is little time to stop and reflect. People would compliment me on my articles. I got some nice letters. But I got paid the same amount whether people loved me or hated me (or my writing). I didn’t have to worry about “getting fans”. The paper either sold or it didn’t. That wasn’t really my concern.
Playing in bands is interesting. The cliché that all you have to do is start a shitty band to get girls…it’s kind of true. Sorry. And not just girls. People. You get people. You play shows and there are multiple personalities on stage…some whackjob will love your bassist. Who knows why. There are drummer groupies, lead singer groupies – people who like the craziest bastard in the band. You have t-shirts and stickers. People think you’re “cool”. It’s all idiotic, but, I assure you, it’s happens. I had girls leave notes for me on my car, at my house, with the bouncers. We made friends with other bands and played shows together – we shared fans. People wanted to be like us. To give you an idea of how stupid it is, when I was in high school, I was in a band called The Patsies (there is another band called The Patsies now FYI – just in case they are satanists). You can listen to our crappy demo. We weren’t good. We were 16 and learning how to play. But it was punk rock, and we were enthusiastic. Anyway, we liked to poke fun at the lame people we saw at shows. Elitist, yeah. Stupid, yeah. A big object of mockery was wallet chains. So, our drummer showed up for practice one day with a coiled phone cord for a ‘wallet chain’. We thought it was funny. So, the next show, we all wore them. The next week we went to see a bigger band and, I kid you not, there were kids with telephone cords walking around like it was nothing. I could never understand how you could be a passive part of the scene. Why weren’t all these kids starting their OWN bands.
It is interesting to me, since I have had this experience, to transition to the lonely, lackluster world of Indie writing. I have fans. I don’t know who most of them are. The worst part is that you have to court them. When you’re in a band, fans come to you – if you are even somewhat decent or interesting. There are people who go to shows every weekend. There is a progression. You play a few shows and then a handful of hipster kids will be ‘into you’ because no one else is. Then, the greater population emulates them. The original fan base starts to hate you, but the larger fan base grows with every show. They feel part of it. The fans almost feel like part of the band. You see them at shows. You know their names. Some of them become friends. And, in the scene I was in, musical ability wasn’t even the important thing. It was a cult of personality. Still is. And in a band, you are gaining fans who view you as a social event. This is VERY important. Groups of people come and watch you and get wasted and have fun. They associate the fun with you even though it probably could have been any band playing while they drank beer. Going to shows is their hobby…something they do with their friends. You play enough shows and it happens – people want to see you again.
As writers, we are trying to get fans who will sit quietly and digest our words and hopefully find value in them. Hopefully, they will recommend our work to friends. Hopefully, they follow up when you come out with something new. There is a lot of hope involved. People buy my book and read my blog. Some of them, I know. Some of them, I come to know. Most of them, hell, I don’t even know what state they live in. They don’t know me. They wouldn’t recognize me if I punched them in the face. The only connection between us is some words…a story. It makes building a fan base really hard. I sold more tapes for $3 when I was sixteen after one show than I sell books in a month. And the books are better!
I am cursed and lucky to know that musicians have it much easier when it comes to getting fans. Sure, there are many parts of being in a band that suck. But at least people get fired up. They dance and throw things at you. You talk to them. There is a repartee. When I was playing in The Patsies, Blink 182 was the big fish in our scene (San Diego, early 90s). We played the same shows to the same crowds. They were two years older than us. They were sophomoric. They played pretty well and their sets were punctuated with fart sounds and masturbation jokes. But you knew. Back then they were just ‘Blink’ and we went to tons of their shows because there were always hundreds of hot girls there. And they had chemistry. They weren’t a polished band like they eventually became, but you could tell they were headed in that direction. We weren’t.
I played in bands into my early twenties (that’s me on the left in the picture with my friend Josh on bass and Gabe on drums). I had a lot of fun. In my musical life, I played with some big bands. I played with a lot of terrible bands. I played some cool places. I played some places that were literally disgusting. I got REALLY tired of schlepping my amp around…amps are HEAVY. But never once did we sit down and discuss how we would “get fans”. We made or contracted merchandise to sell: stickers, tapes, shirts, patches. We practiced our asses off to be as good as we could be. But there was no ‘marketing strategy’. We brought our ‘A game’ and if we connected, great. If not, there was another show to get ready for. We got drunk and moved on. No endless editing. We couldn’t fix our ‘typos’.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. My friend Dina sent me some old videos of band practices. That got me thinking. I’ve been planning on releasing ‘The Biker’. That got me thinking. I don’t have an answer, but I have a lot of questions that will eventually lead to an answer (I hope). There is no doubt in my mind that I am a better writer than I am a guitarist/singer/songwriter. But I’m not signing any autographs. I don’t have any creepy stalkers (the true sign of a fan base). I sure ain’t getting rich.
Indies Unlimited is a huge step in the right direction. Part of the reason bands are successful is that they are part of a ‘scene’. It’s a web. You like bands that lead you to other bands. Not so for us. Individual writers shouting out into the static void have a pretty tough row to hoe. But we are creating a scene here. We have ‘fans’. We are building a community. The sad truth is that you can suck and be a “rock star”. Hell, given six months, I could start a band, book a tour, and I guarantee we’d pick up some nutjob fans who would try to steal our guitar picks between songs. Writing is a weird scene, but we can learn from other scenes. We have to.
This is getting long, so I’ll wrap it up. Buy ‘The Biker’. OK, that’s not the point. But do it. Seriously. I know bad people. The point is that writers bitch about trying to get fans, but we do it from the comfort of our “writing places”. We expect our books to go out into the world and be embraced while we sit back and plan the next book. We use twitter. We write press releases. It is all cold and impersonal. Being in a band wasn’t all gravy, don’t get me wrong. Fans may have come easier when I was in a band, but we played shows that were misery. Complete and utter misery. I got hit with glass bottles. People spit on me (perversely, this was often considered a compliment). A skinhead kicked a mike stand into my face and broke my tooth. I got out into the mosh pit and got roughed up. I got bled on. Puked on. I played sick. Hung over. Strung out. People expected me to want to hang out with them after a miserable show when I was drunk and tired and wanted to go to sleep. I put flyers up and handed out stickers. People asked me to do things I really didn’t want to do. And I did them. Because that’s what you f***ing did if you were in a band.
Being in a band is one of the hardest ways in the world to make money. Unless you are HUGE, you carry your own equipment. You set up your shows/tours. You make the merchandise. You get out there. Your hands get dirty. You don’t sit on facebook and expect people (most of whom read two books a year) to become your fan. Like I said, I don’t have the answer yet. We’re going to come up with the answer together. We are the beginning of a revolution. No one knows the rules yet. We will write the rules together. And we will always have a tougher time than an average band, but we don’t have to get kicked in the head and have our equipment stolen. We can take solace in that. It is all about unity. A success for one of us is a step in the right direction for all of us. That is why I am always harping about pushing other people’s work. Buy ‘The Biker’. Or don’t. Buy Hise’s book. Buy David’s book. Buy Kat’s book. Buy Rosanne’s book. Buy Lois’ book. Buy McNally’s book. Buy Valerie’s book. Buy Jim’s book. Go to Cathy’s blog. Go to the Author bios, then go to our Amazon pages and poke around. Go to the IU bookstore and throw down a few bucks. Support the scene. Write your own books. Leave a comment. We’ll return the favor. We grow together. Together, we are a movement. Alone, we are shouting into the wind. Do something. Participate. Appreciate what IU does for you and don’t ask to be on the guest list for every show. Pay your five bucks and get in the freaking pit.
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