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I was going to post about something completely different today, but then I read this post, Self-publishing: Your Demo Tape, by my friend, Geoff Haney. In it, Geoff makes the interesting suggestion that a self-published book can act in the same way as a musician’s demo tape.

I understand the analogy, but I think it hurts the argument rather than helps it. To me, the demo tape equates to that 'best possible draft' all writers should aim to have prepared before they even consider pitching their novel to an agent. It's not meant for public consumption (though I know from my Gentleman Jones days that it's hard not to share it with people who want to hear it – and many a poor soul who doesn’t).

As I’ve said elsewhere, while it’s not for me, I've nothing against self-publishing, and I agree with Geoff 100% when he says that much of the promotional work now falls on the author's shoulders. 

However, I don't agree with the idea that the 'Gate Keepers' are blocking my (or anyone else's route to success). I see the agents and publishers as assessors. Their job is to look for work which they think has market potential.  I imagine it's rare indeed that they get pitched something which can't be improved.

I was delighted when Echelon Press offered me an e-book contract for Fur-Face, but I wouldn't have accepted if they hadn't planned to help me edit and revise the novel before publication. The draft I sent them was the best I could do, but it was still a 'demo-tape'. I'm still working with Jenny (one of Echelon’s wonderful editors), but Fur-Face is already a far more polished novel than it was before.

The way I see it, the hardest part of writing is learning the stuff you don't even realize you don't know, and that's where the traditional process (with a good publisher) becomes vital. 

 It’s clear from some of the comments on the self-publishing post I made last month that there’s a market for self-pubbed work, particularly graphic-novels, but for regular novels? I just can’t see it, and I don't see how it can help you get an agent/traditional publisher more quickly (though I've no doubt there are exceptions).

Mind you, while I don’t think a self-pubbed novel makes for a worthwhile demo tape, I’m all for posting flash and micro fiction on your website, though just like with any demo tape, you want to make sure it’s the best you can make it (and in the case of fiction, preferably sell it somewhere else first).

How about you?

 Can a self-pubbed novel or story make a good demo tape?


Can a self-pubbed novel or story make a good demo tape?

Not sure
Something else, which I'll mention in a comment



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( 47 comments — Leave a comment )
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Mar. 20th, 2010 05:10 pm (UTC)
I answered "yes" only on the theory that if it happens once, it is possible. I think the instances where a major publisher picks up a self-pubbed book and republishes it, after editing, are few and far between, but they have happened. Rare is not the same as nonexistent. I still think the lottery ticket is the closest analogy to a self pubbed book. Is buying a lottery ticket a good way to plan for retirement? Buying a ticket or a few tickets is fine, if lottery winnings is not what you're counting on for income. Spending all your savings on lottery tickets is insane.
Mar. 20th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
I like that lottery ticket analogy :)
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Mar. 21st, 2010 01:37 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Mar. 21st, 2010 03:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 20th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
Is self-publishing your work the same as making a demo tape?
I want to highlight this bit of wisdom:

"... the hardest part of writing is learning the stuff you don't even realize you don't know..."

Which is *brilliant*.

I agree that it seems self-pubbing a novel is not a way to get that particular novel in the eye of agents and editors. If you sell a ton of that novel, it may help draw attention to your next effort, but I can only think of a couple of unusual cases in which a self-pubbed novel did get picked up by a publisher. It may be editors figure that book is *done* with its audience and look for something fresh. It may also be that, unlike a demo tape (or an indie release, which I find a better analogy) the self-pubbed work doesn't show how the author can work in the industry. In fact, because music is generally collaborative (there are usually other musicians and engineers and such involved in a demo) whereas a self-pubbed book may never have been read by anyone--even the author, based on my reads of some manscripts I've critiqued), so editors have no idea whether you can work with them. Your book may be seen as evidence that you can't!

I think your "demo" is that best-quality draft you submit to the agent or editor. To get back to that initial piece of wisdom, the best thing we as writers can do is learn to write better. I've been writing for many, many years, and I recently began to figure out how much I need to learn. I do speak with aspiring authors who say the problem is gatekeepers, not their stories, the stories are fine. And then I read the stories and--the problem is the story. Truly.

Those "gatekeepers" are not blocking million-selling novels out of spite. They want to sell books. They don't always guess right, and sometimes they make pronouncements like "guitar groups are on their way out," but they do their best to gauge a weel-told and sellable story. They are not the enemy.
Mar. 20th, 2010 05:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Is self-publishing your work the same as making a demo tape?
Yeah, I can't see the logic in gatekeepers barring the way for anyone. If they think it has potential for the markets they operate in, where would be the sense in turning it down?
Mar. 20th, 2010 05:18 pm (UTC)
Good post & good luck with Fur-Face!
Mar. 20th, 2010 05:30 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Aaron :0
Mar. 20th, 2010 05:44 pm (UTC)
I think you hit upon the best distinction between a demo tape and a self-published work: the demo tape is not yet out there for public consumption, whereas the self-published work already is.

... it's true that with some bands, the demo tapes are really cool to hear, and actually are worth buying--but usually, by the time the band releases them for sale, they've already had some success. On the other hand, I guess there are a lot of micro labels out there, like small presses... hmm, this is my problem--I always get lost in the analogy.

I also liked what you said about learning what you don't know. It's easy to tackle the mistakes and flaws you're looking for, but what about the other things? Some stuff is subjective, it's true, but I've certainly had people point out stuff that I hadn't thought about which, when it was brought to my attention, I did indeed want to fix.
Mar. 20th, 2010 06:22 pm (UTC)
I never cease be amazed at how much I don't know about writing :(
Mar. 20th, 2010 06:08 pm (UTC)
I agree with Francesca that there is a distinction between musical demo tapes and tapes a band wants to sell. My past bands put together many demo tapes. Sometimes we taped every practice so we could review them to see what worked and what didn't (it's pretty hard to *hear* your own music objectively while playing). But we had no intention of selling these tapes. We might make copies for friends who asked for them, but that was it.

All the same, I get whet you're saying. While I don't recommend self-publishing for most people, it has worked in the past, so I had to answer "Yes."

Local author James Redfield self-published "The Celestine Prophesy" and then took out his life savings to make it a success. He drove around the country with boxes of books in his trunk and hand sold them. The book went on to get major distribution and become a bestseller.

However, unless you are willing to risk your life savings and have enough wealth and time to do this sort of thing (most of us, like myself, do not), this is probably not the way to go...
Mar. 20th, 2010 06:25 pm (UTC)
I think it helps to have a clear (personal) definition of what 'success' is, and be comfortable with your choice.

Thanks for the input, T.J. :)
Mar. 20th, 2010 06:23 pm (UTC)
And just to clarify further. The tapes we made with my old bands (and we were in it for the love without really thinking about trying to make it as nationwide successes or anything) were not professional demos, just made with recording contraptions we made from odds and ends from Radioshack. Professional demos can cost a lot of money to make because typcially you are using good equipment and often have someone there to help you with mixing, etc. So once again, because a real demo usually involve some measure of "professional" involvement (the guy working the controls), they don't work as a good analogy to self-pubbing which anyone with a word processor can do these days without any professional background in publishing.
Mar. 20th, 2010 06:47 pm (UTC)
Back in the day, I 'released' two albums with Gentleman Jones, one through PeopleSound.com and one through Vitaminic.co.uk. Neither set the world on fire, though I often listen to some of the tracks.
(no subject) - southernweirdo - Mar. 20th, 2010 07:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Mar. 21st, 2010 03:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 20th, 2010 06:41 pm (UTC)
I had to say 'not sure' because this is all fairly brand new to me. It's great to eavesdrop on the converation, though. Thanks for posting.
Mar. 20th, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
I find it fascinating how there's such a diverse range of opinions about writing. I wonder we'll ever find out who's right ;)
Mar. 20th, 2010 07:12 pm (UTC)
I'm one of the "no" answers. I would have been a "hell no" if I could have.

The only readable prose comes from real publishers, ones with slush reades and editors who reject the no-hopers.

I don't see these people (or literary agents) as gate-keepers. The phrase gate-keeper gives the impression that their purpose is to keep people out.

Perhaps "defenders of the written word" would be a better phrase. Most people who turn to self-publishing do so because they can't break in to real publishing, even at 4-the-luv levels (which is still much better than paying to see your work in print), and therefore, it is safe to assume that it will take that author hard work to get to a point in which their work is safe for public consumption.

Some authors are willingto put in the work, they are called "real writers". Others are unwilling to work that hard... hence, self-publishing.
Mar. 20th, 2010 09:03 pm (UTC)
Lol, if I remember, I'll add a 'Hell no' option next time :)
(no subject) - southernweirdo - Mar. 21st, 2010 02:03 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bondo_ba - Mar. 21st, 2010 10:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 20th, 2010 09:06 pm (UTC)
I have to say, it doesn't even sound like it would make a believable story, which is probably a good indication of how likely it is to happen in real life.
(no subject) - sevenzebras - Mar. 22nd, 2010 06:26 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 20th, 2010 08:33 pm (UTC)
I think a publisher might take a look, but they'd be likely to wonder why the book couldn't find a publisher if it was any good. Yes, the definition of 'good' can be quite elastic.
Mar. 20th, 2010 09:08 pm (UTC)
Also, I'd have to wonder why a publisher took a look in the first place, assuming it wasn't submitted the normal way.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 20th, 2010 10:39 pm (UTC)
True enough, though I think I detected a smidge of sarcasm in Irene's parrking lot story :P
Mar. 20th, 2010 10:43 pm (UTC)
I agree with the idea of it not being a good demo. My 'not sure' was more for those few (okay rare few) who do self-publish and capture someone's eye. Within the past three years I have read a story (I can't recall which one) that started out as a book for family and friends. The author gave it as a gift for Christmas. His friends asked for more copies. So on and so forth. Then one friend urged him to get published. Now he could have been printing it up on his home computer for all I know. But he had a large following by the time he went to a publisher. I can't recall the book . . . it is gonna drive me bonkers.

For me, the thought of one of my books touching a shelf and not having wise eyes scrutinize it, makes my skin crawl. I want my name on a book that I and others have worked to make it the best story possible.
Mar. 21st, 2010 01:58 am (UTC)
I think that book was "The Shack" and I think it may still be a bestseller, if I'm right. Or it could have been "The Christmas Box." Both are pretty good examples of this kind of "demo tape" success story. Self-published books do take off (but, like I said above, it is rare and I would not recommend it for most folks except as a last resort).

Just food for thought: the success story I mentioned above, "The Celestine Prophesy" was also a book about spirituality. These books all fed a need in the public that mainline publishers just weren't picking up on, I think, but once the authors proved themselves, the publishers came calling.
(no subject) - tracy_d74 - Mar. 21st, 2010 01:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Mar. 21st, 2010 03:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 21st, 2010 03:23 am (UTC)
I think anything over 10k and self-published is probably not a good idea. Little flashes and short stories, and such are probably closer to what a demo tape is intended to do. I've never really self-published, but I've given a lot of stuff away and don't regret it. I think it's made me a better writer, established contacts and given me confidence. I think the theory is sound, but really doesn't make a lot of sense to me with longer works.
Mar. 21st, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
Even with shorter works, I think you should at least have tried to sell them elsewhere first.

Thanks for sharing, Bosley :)
Mar. 21st, 2010 05:04 am (UTC)
To be honest, I think self-publishing fiction is dangerous.

Let's qualify that: I believe it's dangerous when you haven't yet published anything at a professional level. If you've already sold novels and short stories professionally, go for it, but if not...

YOU might think your writing is good, but what are you missing? What can't you see lacking in your writing that a seasoned slush reader picks up within the first three sentences?

So... you get rejected, and then you self-publish a book, for free, to demonstrate your unproven and untested genius, which you have been unable to sell through regular channels.

(heard that dripping sound? That's the sarcasm)

It's 95% likely it's not going to be your calling card. It will be proof why you are not published. You're giving out calling cards with your name miss-spelled, and you don't yet know it's happening.
Mar. 21st, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
I don't know about dangerous, but from what I've heard, it's expensive.

I think you make an excellent point about people who've already had books published. They would have a far better idea about quality levels etc.
Mar. 21st, 2010 06:12 am (UTC)
I said no because everything I've learned about how to get an agent says that's a bad idea.
Reading the earlier comments, I agree that self-published books are not demo tapes because demo tapes aren't sold, only sent to people in the industry. So a better comparision would be to say demo tapes are the submission query. :)
Mar. 21st, 2010 03:16 pm (UTC)
I think so too. Thanks for the input, Stephanie :)
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