A Lesson from Estonia

I was intrigued to read an article in the Economist about independent musicians and groups in Estonia.  Here are a few excerpts.

ON A recent day, Helen Sildna was sifting through applications, looking at products, business plans and strategies for market expansion. This may be business as usual for investment managers, but the applicants were artists, not companies. Ms Sildna, the founder and chief executive of Tallinn Music Week, is convinced that musical acts need to operate like start-ups, attracting investors and creating business plans.

. . .

During the one-week festival, which takes place in March and April each year, bands and solo artists perform (free of charge), exchange ideas with each other—and hone their business skills by negotiating with promoters, investors and other potential partners. The festival is essentially a boot camp for musical start-ups. “The artists know that you have to take financial risk,” Ms Sildna says. They have to learn to “find investments and develop efficient teams containing all sorts of expertise from finance to digital media and marketing.”

For the previous Tallinn Music Week Ms Sildna received around 1,000 applications, of which 250—representing 35 countries—were selected. The application round for 2017 runs until the end of November. “It’s easier to start on your own because you’re in charge of your own career,” says Andres Kõpper, an Estonian electro-pop artist performing under the name NOËP. “In Estonia that’s the way artists work now. You don’t stand around waiting for a magic hand to help you.” Mr Kõpper signed a record contract with Sony, after they discovered his music on Spotify. The young artist had, in essence, already done the heavy lifting by building his own audience.

. . .

Waiting to be signed by a major label may no longer be a good idea for artists anywhere. According to a recent survey by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the key 13-to-25 demographic only buys 14% of all CDs sold, while music lovers aged 36 and over buy 58%. The younger demographic accounts for 41% of all music ripping and downloading, while the much larger 36-and-over group only accounts for 40% of that activity. Ms Sildna argues that music fans’ changing buying habits have created more opportunities for enterprising artists. “Today investment and competent teams can be found in innovative formats. There is no such thing as the classic music industry route anymore.”

There’s more at the link.  Recommended reading.

I think this is very applicable to our industry – writing and publishing.  Of course, we don’t necessarily have to use a publisher at all, just as a music group today doesn’t have to go with an outside producer or distributor.  They can do over the Web almost everything that used to be done by music companies, and they can hire professional studios to record their own work (or build their own in the garage or basement of one of their homes, just as we set up our offices – “writing studios” – in our own homes).

However, one aspect I haven’t seen among independent authors is a concentrated effort to market ourselves in conjunction with each other.  I haven’t seen an indie “boot camp” along the lines of the Tallinn Music Week.  Sure, there’s a certain amount of mingling and discussion at sci-fi conventions and the like, but that’s not the same thing.  Should we be trying to set up a more professional, more sales-focused event like that?  Would it work for publishing books as well as songs?  I don’t know.  Tell us your thoughts in a comment, and join the discussion.

I think we should be looking closely at how other areas of the entertainment industry – which, after all, includes books) – are marketing themselves and their artists.  If we don’t, they’ll eat our lunch, because the average consumer has only so many dollars (or whatever) to spend on entertainment every month.  Those dollars can buy a movie ticket, or a DVD, or music, or a book, or a video game, or anything else that entertains.  Our books are just one of many possible purchases.  We need to figure out how to make them – and their authors – more attractive to potential consumers.

I was particularly taken by this excerpt from the Economist’s article.

Mr Kõpper signed a record contract with Sony, after they discovered his music on Spotify. The young artist had, in essence, already done the heavy lifting by building his own audience.

That’s exactly how I ended up publishing my most recent book with Castalia House (which is selling very nicely, thank you), and why I’m now under contract with them for several more;  and it’s how my friend Lawdog recently parlayed his blog readership and wide network of followers into a publishing contract for two books.  Our experience has been identical to Mr. Kõpper’s.  If you bring to the table, as an independent artist or author, an established readership, guaranteed to buy your books, in sufficient numbers that the proposition will be profitable for a publisher as well as yourself, you have a lot that will interest them.  I think that’s the way most authors are going to ‘make it’ in the more traditional aspects of publishing in future (assuming, of course, that traditional publishers learn to adapt to the market of today, and don’t go the way of the dinosaur).  The more we can put on the table, the more the other side is likely to put on the table in return.  Both sides have to win – and if we do well as indies, we hold a winning hand.

We’re in a business, whether we like it or not.  Art is for the birds.



  1. I think the business aspect of writing is where most indie writers struggle the most. I know that’s the case for me. My non-writer friends ask me how I drum up sales for my books, which tend to sell in the low thousands (plus an at least equal number of Kindle Unlimited reads). I have to tell them that I have no idea.

    I use Facebook, but only have a minimal presence there, and promote my books when they come out. I publish updates while sales are climbing, but I don’t have anywhere near enough FB friends (three hundred, maybe) to explain my sales numbers. Considering the sales I get by word of mouth or Amazon algorithm recommendations or sheer luck, I can’t help thinking I’d do a lot better with some solid advice. In other words, I’d jump all over the kind of networking convention or festival or gathering or whatever you want to call it.

    1. Wouldn’t just about every occupation be substantially easier if the business side wasn’t significant and challenging?

  2. Yeah. I’ve been to writers’ workshops, but one for Indy _publishers_ would sure be useful. Of course, what I want is a magic wand. The hard work that is needed is my least favorite activity.

    1. Even a “this worked last year but it’s not so hot this year; this software is neat but there’s this quirk; elevator pitches to readers instead of agents/editors” that kind of stuff.

    2. Two years ago at Libertycon there was a very extensive track of panels on indie publishing. This year the subject was addressed a bit less vigorously, but there was still a ton of information passed along.
      Peter and Dorothy spent most of an hour discussing in detail their decision to move from pure indie publishing to a mix also encompassing his new contract with Castalia.
      As for the magic wand, saying wingardium leviosa is the easy part. Getting that swish and flick perfect is a stone beyatch.

      1. Oh yes. I can write, I can find editors, I can get covers, I can upload. But the “swish, flick” of attracting readers’ eyes so the little book flies off the shelves? Well, at least I haven’t turned myself into a screwt yet.

  3. In all seriousness, I’ll be happy to organize a small get-together for indie writers next year for precisely this purpose. It needn’t be the size of LibertyCon, or something like that: it can be limited to a reasonable number, and held in a smaller city that won’t be as expensive as a bigger one with more ‘commercial’ facilities.

    If you’re seriously interested in such an event, leave a comment here or e-mail me. Let’s see what might be possible.

    1. This is an excellent idea, especially if something like remote telepresence can be included. Many people simply can’t up and go to a conference/workshop/world domination planning meeting due to financial or mobility constraints. Meshing schedules is always a horror. Me, I just don’t have *time* to travel. I’d love to participate, though.

      Is there equipment that could be rented or purchased to allow for this? Skype?

      1. You know, even a recorded panel would be pretty useful. You could get both the info and what people in the audience had questions about.

      2. Suggestions : Uploaded videos of the panel would be nice for the folks who couldn’t attend.

        Charging a small fee for the video download would be acceptable in my eyes – bandwidth costs, hosting costs, organization of future such workshops, paying the speakers… Download because of an awareness of there still being places in the world with limited Internet.

        Just some thoughts.

    2. I’d definitely be interested. I’ve been fortunate enough to get decent sales this year despite not doing a lot of marketing, but I know there’s room for improvement. Would love to meet up with other indies and exchange knowledge.

  4. It’s interesting, but the artists are lobbying a relatively small group of content distributors who are actively looking for new product to distribute.

    I’m not sure how directly relevant it is to the current state of publishing.
    Publishers don’t really see themselves as distributors.
    And getting yourself on local radio, to leverage yourself onto other radio stations, and then onto streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, and then parlay that into a distribution contract with a major record label is very cool, but it doesn’t seem to have a direct parallel here. For authors going Indy (especially ones just starting out), distribution is not really a problem, it’s getting exposure that’s hard.

    1. Luke, I don’t see why we couldn’t invite representatives from publishers who might be interested in indies who can offer to bring their own audience with them. I reckon Baen and Castalia House would be almost certain to send someone to talk with us, and I’m sure there’d be others. We don’t want the Author Solutions type of dreck, but solid folks who understand the current state of the market and are willing to deal with it.

    2. Until recently the traditional publishers had a lock on the primary means of distribution. They still do when it comes to paper books placed in brick and mortar book stores. They also provided value added by orchestrating all the fiddly bits beyond the actual writing of the book itself with editing, formatting, cover art and layout, promotion, and that aforementioned distribution. From all reports the big five, and mostly the small houses as well are cutting way back on all of that. And with the near death of real book stores what is left is Amazon. And with electronic books all that hassle of printing and estimating how large a print run to invest in goes away.

  5. I’m mystified – if you already have ‘as an independent artist or author, an established readership, guaranteed to buy your books, in sufficient numbers that the proposition will be profitable for a publisher as well as yourself,’ you don’t need a publisher.

    If your books are attractive to a publisher, unless you can negotiate a large advance and better terms than most contracts, you’re far better off not going down the mined path of traditional publishing.

    It’s getting to the ‘established readership’ that is the hard part, the heavy lifting. Once you’re there, just write more books. Publishers take the lion’s share of the profits – they have to justify that share.

    The people who get the best deals are those who get the huge advances for a first novel, i.e., win the lottery.

    I’m probably wrong – and would look at a contract very carefully before rejecting one (if a publisher came after me) – but the help most of us could really use starting out is not being offered.

    1. Alicia, it’s like this. If I can sell X number of books on my own, and make (on Amazon’s KDP Select program) 70% royalties on them, I can earn a decent amount of money – but it’s up to me to market those books and sell as many as possible.

      If I use a publisher who’ll pay me (say) 35% royalties (as Amazon’s internal publishing imprints do), but will also boost sales by advertising and publicizing my work, I may sell three times as many books as I would on my own. Three times the sales, even at half the royalties, still translates to more money for me. (Castalia pays higher than 35%, and I’m aware that other publishers are already exceeding the ‘industry norms’ that are so unfair to authors.) There’s also the important factor that I no longer have to spend as much time on cover design, formatting, etc. The publisher will handle that (and, if one is lucky, one will still have a certain amount of input and/or control in that process).

      That’s why it may – I emphasize, MAY – be worthwhile to tie up with a publisher. My own contracts with Castalia House are an experiment. They’ve been very forthcoming about what they expect and are willing to provide. In return for that assistance, I’ve agreed to accept less money per sale than I would have received as an independent. I’m still in the process of finding out how that will work for both of us. So far, I don’t think either of us are dissatisfied.

      As with every other commercial transaction, it’s all in the balance. On balance, will I be better off sharing my book income with another party? Or will I make more money by doing everything myself?

      1. ONLY if you sell more than double to account for the lost royalties.

        Are you going to give them ALL your books? If not, cover and formatting are already done, and they don’t need to ‘contribute’ to that.

        I’m watching what you do – and am grateful you’re doing it AND posting about the experience.

        Also, congratulations, because this means you’re doing well enough to be attractive to them.

        Also, being the selfish person I am, I’m sifting through your words to see if there’s anything that might apply to me – most stuff doesn’t, as I’m never going to be prolific, and I don’t write genre fiction that might at least have some established fans looking for more reading material.

        There are good groups and collectives for Romance writers and reader, for example – but I am neither, and have found by bad reviews that a love story is NOT what a Romance reader wants. Not a good idea to attract readers who then leave 1* reviews – because they misread ad copy (which brings up whether said ad copy is in any way misleading).

        Still, these days it is interesting to see indies looking for publisher partnerships, and I’m listening.

        1. Alicia, traditional publishing only offers two things that an indie writer cannot do for him or her self. One is the cash advance, which by all reports is getting skimpier by the year. The other is a straightforward distribution path into traditional book stores. I suppose you might argue that professional contacts in the publishing world can help with promotion, but I’m not so sure that will continue to be relevant under the new rules that are taking effect even as we speak.

          1. For traditional publishing to be worth it, you have to win three lotteries: one, to get an agent; two, to get taken on by them; three, to be chosen for the push of the month/promotion.

            People also win the powerball lottery – I just think of the people who plunk down their cash for tickets week after week.

            I think it can be done indie, even for the kind of book I write. I just haven’t figured out some of the steps on the critical path.

            1. An author will find themselves in one of two situations as regards traditional publishers. As an unpublished unknown you as you say have to first impress an agent, then penetrate the locked gate of the house itself, and even then the best you can expect is the scraps and leftovers from their stable of established authors. As a self published writer with a strong fan base and well stocked back shelf Peter was in a much more desirable position. Castalia House sought Peter out, courted him was my description that he and Dorothy did not dispute when we discussed it, which put him in a very powerful position as regards contract negotiations. When cutting a deal it is very much to your advantage when the other party is aware that you can simply walk away if their terms are not totally acceptable.
              The more this is discussed the more I am coming to believe that the best new path to becoming a successful author is to start out indie, establish yourself with a body of fans, then let a publishing house seek you out. And if they don’t offer you added value you have that ultimate power to just say no.
              It also raises the question in my mind, under current conditions of what earthly use pray tell me is a literary agent that justifies them taking a huge bite out of your revenue stream?

              1. I don’t want a literary agent or a traditional publisher. I just want the ‘establish yourself with a body of fans’ part.

                That is literally enough. Probably forever.

                A publisher seeking you out – and the contract negotiations, etc. – is way beyond my physical and mental capabilities. Me writing, and slowly putting up what I write, IS something I can do. Writing takes every speck of energy I have.

                1. And there is absolutely not a thing wrong with that. There is much to admire and appreciate about someone who knows what she wants and is willing to work to get it.
                  May your endeavor to become a successful indie writer reward you handsomely.

    2. I hear you on this. But I see Peter’s point, a publisher would hopefully get you more advertising and much greater sales.

      On the other hand, I know I’ll never get picked up by a publisher, because of how some of my stuff is viewed, even though it sells rather well.

      Me, I’m just always trying to find new and better ways to advertise to try and continue to grow my readership/fanbase.

      1. I could get picked up – as a curiosity, or if I find my audience and suddenly do well.

        I thought my chances would be rather less than someone writing easier topics, at getting me an agent (back in the dark ages), so, when SP became a big thing, I knew I had found my home.

        But even in indie, the kind of novels I write – more like The Goldfinch and The Name of the Rose than many indie novels – I know I’m still in for a testing period to find my readers.

        I’m pretty sure – from reviews – that those who like mainstream literature will be glad they read, but it’s hard connecting with people who are much more likely to buy that kind of reading material when it comes out in hardcover, properly vetted by a traditional publisher. Literary – but on the end of the spectrum which says story is paramount, not language.

        NOTHING is allowed to derail story, unless you want your stories short.

        I don’t think a small publisher is going to give ME the advertising I would need. I have plans and ideas and time – this story is a trilogy. But realistic, mainstream, contemporary, and a love story.

        Oddly, though I do get discouraged and think of John Kennedy Toole’s mom shopping A Confederacy of Dunces around after he killed himself (not happening), I’m pretty sure this one will fly. Eventually.

  6. I tried, about a year ago, to work a swap with other writers. Namely, I’d let you advertise one of your books in my back matter, if you let me advertise one of mine. I didn’t get a single taker, even though I’ve been selling rather well for the last two/three years (and better than the people I offered this too). Personally I thought I’d get at least one person, but nope.

    I’m always willing to do what I can to help others, because I don’t view this as a competition. I do want to help others, but at times I get the impression that my writing is ‘too politically incorrect’ for most, even though I do rather well with it. So I’ve stopped making any offers for a ‘swap’ of advertising, I just talk about what I like on my blog and FB, putting up links to other peoples work, and I try to review everyone. I have a small but growing fan base and I’m more than willing to expose them to everyone here.

    I think the biggest problem is that too many people are judgemental about how and where they want to advertise, and who they’re willing to ‘be seen with’. The fact is, all advertising is good advertising. Most readers have diverse tastes. No one is going to refuse to buy your book because of where you advertised, or because whose advertisement they saw in the back.

    And for those of you who think we’re competing for readers, you need to stop that. We’re not competing with each other. None of us can supply the reading needs for our readers, they read far more each month than we put out. We are the tide, our readers are the boats. The more we write, the more readers we bring in to see each others work, the better we all do. I’m not afraid to expose my readers to other people’s work, I’m not going to lose them just because they started to read someone else as well. And neither well you.

  7. And here I thought the lesson from Estonia was “always be prepared for a Russian invasion.” 😉

    Seriously, though, thanks for posting this.

  8. So I was reading this, and thinking “SFWA should be doing this.” Which was good for a laugh.

    1. Yeah, I keep wondering why the SFWA doesn’t have a storefront to sell its members’ backlists, at the very least. And maybe some kind of marketing program.

      “But that’s crazy talk.”

      1. Because SFWA represents publishers, not writers. Why writers pay to be in it is beyond me.
        And mind you, I figured that out from listening to my writing friends talk about all the problems they were having with SFWA over a decade ago.

        1. I admire MCA Hogarth for working so hard to change SFWA from inside. She’s gotten some decent things started, but it’s like watching a fully-loaded supertanker trying to stop and turn around. First you have to deal with momentum.

  9. I want to self publish some material. However, there is a need to create an LLC to protect my family from silly errors. Here the problem is finding a checklist for the needs. Register, by-laws, rules of activity, business tax from the city, state required reports, annual meetings, types of contracts. I cannot find a book (hint) getting one through the nuts and bolts. I asked the Small Business bureau and they said, “Ask a lawyer” and “we’ll help you get money.” But I wasn’t looking for money….

    I would think that someone could make a good company just handling the physical side of publishing – letting the author focus on writing and doing his own publicizing.

    1. If you’re that worried about being sued, then you should be contacting and hiring a lawyer, period.
      Personally, I don’t think you need an LLC, but then I publish fiction.

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