Indie Writing as Vaudeville

How is indie writing like vaudeville? Let me start with a history lesson.

It’s been said by people cleverer than myself that history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. I rather like that, because the longer I’ve lived, the more I see certain things coming around in a slightly different form or from a completely unexpected direction, but it’s pretty much the old thing with the numbers filed off, a new mask pasted on, and the same human beliefs and motivations driving it.

For example, society has been collapsing morally ever since the animists saw the druids coming over the hill with their menhirs and said the equivalent of “there goes the neighborhood.” After that, it was the appearance of clothing, colorful clothing, short skirts, comic books, video games, rap, “The Simpsons,” the Internet, “South Park,” and smartphones.

That’s what history teaches you; there’s nothing new under the sun; and someone’s always going to beat the panic drums over everything except what will actually get you. The price you pay is that pointing it out does not convince many people that you’re correct. They’ll even dislike you for appearing to be such a smarty pants.

That’s especially true as I see each new generation coming up behind me, and I realize that the behavior and attitudes that I thought was so cool when I was their age made me look like a blithering idiot to an adult. Fortunately, there are very few adults around these days so it seems to matter much less.

Anyway, Big Idea time. It concerns the entertainment world and the Internet, and especially indie authors. It’s important to understand this Big Idea because it’ll give you a 50,000-foot overview of the industry, where it is headed, and where you might find your place in it.

Dig it: The Internet is vaudeville reborn.

indie writing as vaudeville

What was playing at the Palace, New York City, 1921. These acts only had to perform twice a day instead of more in the smaller towns.

If you know what vaudeville is, skip ahead to the next section. For the rest of you, settle back and pay attention.

Once upon a time, there was no Internet. No cable television. No over-the-airwaves television. No radio. No movies. Not even silent movies. No digital music; no compact discs; no cassettes; no 8-tracks; no albums; no wax cylinders; no recorded music.

In short, no recorded anything. If you wanted to be entertained, you had to go to another human and watch them do something.

So there was vaudeville. I’m not going to teach its history, its origins from medicine shows, minstrel shows, religious tent-revivals and all that. Visit this site, or try that site or even that site over there..

Vaudeville worked like this: every city had at least one theater where you could pay a dime and consume as much entertainment as you could stand. A theater would have as many as a dozen acts, and they would perform continuously during the day (this way, a patron could walk in anytime and get their money’s worth). At its height, in the big cities, some theaters would never close.

There were hundreds of these theatres across the country. Even the small towns could sport at least one of them. The life of a vaudeville performer was tough. They toured the country by train, ate terrible food, slept in flophouses, get paid for shit (or the manager would run off with the proceeds), face hostile crowds, as well as the temptations of booze and sex and despair over an uncertain future. It was worse than the guy who cleaned up behind the elephants, you know, the one who replied when asked why he stayed “What, and give up show business?” At least that guy had a steady job.

Despite the terrible life, there were thousands of men and women eager to get into vaudeville. Everybody wanted to get into the act. Sure, many would get discouraged and quite, but at least they could say they tried it, and collect a few stories to dine out on later in life.

marx brothers indie writing as vaudeville

The Marx Brothers, Chico on piano, Harpo on harp and Groucho playing the teacher (center), in “Mr. Green’s Reception” (1914).

The ones who survived the circuit went on to be big stars. W.C. Fields performed as a “tramp” juggler and trick-shot pool player; Buster Keaton was a child star, literally thrown around by his father on stage; the Marx Brothers performed a “schoolroom act” with Groucho playing a German teacher and the rest as smart-alecs talking back to him. Al Jolson, Jimmy Durante, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Edgar Bergen, Fanny Brice, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, and Eddie Cantor all honed their skills on the circuit and went on to become big stars in other media.

Indie Writing As Vaudeville

So what does this have to do with indie writers? Both share a number of similarities:

writing as vaudeville

Both also had marketers ready to instruct you on how to make it big.

* There’s nearly an unlimited number of competitors. Take a look at the number of books published on the Kindle, as of Dec. 26, 2015.

* Arts & Photography (228,835)
* Biographies & Memoirs (176,653)
* Business & Money (247,266)
* Children’s eBooks (310,406)
* Comics & Graphic Novels (103,280)
* Computers & Technology (64,999)
* Cookbooks, Food & Wine (68,028)
* Crafts, Hobbies & Home (84,153)
* Education & Teaching (156,850)
* Engineering & Transportation (56,671)
* Foreign Languages (811,821)
* Health, Fitness & Dieting (267,804)
* History (273,884)
* Humor & Entertainment (106,946)
* Law (52,228)
* Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender eBooks (100,235)
* Literature & Fiction (1,336,596)
* Medical eBooks (97,803)
* Mystery, Thriller & Suspense (224,487)
* Nonfiction (1,981,635)
* Parenting & Relationships (69,408)
* Politics & Social Sciences (252,727)
* Reference (128,085)
* Religion & Spirituality (410,209)
* Romance (338,281)
* Science & Math (225,416)
* Science Fiction & Fantasy (253,857)
* Self-Help (113,567)
* Sports & Outdoors (74,753)
* Teen & Young Adult (188,457)
* Travel (66,086)

* The bar to enter is low: A vaudeville act could only perform in one theater at a time. There were so many theaters, and such a high turnover of acts that even inexperienced or bad performers could find work. By performing several times a day, vaudevillians learned their craft as they went, starting in the smaller houses and as they got better move up to bigger and better-paying theaters.

Failure was an option, but it was not permanent. If they were fired from one theater, they could head down the road and get hired there. If word spread that they were terrible, they could change their names, change their act, steal material from more popular acts, sleep with or bribe the manager.

Same thing with indie publishing. If you’re willing to go the full DIY route, you can publish a book for free and put it up for sale on the biggest store in the world: Amazon. You’re playing on the same field as the great writers of literature and genre fiction.

* The Type of Content Doesn’t Matter, Only the Quality of the Response: The sole purpose of vaudeville was to entertain the audience. Period. A punter entering the theatre could see comic acts, dramatic recitals, musicians, and dancers, some of them veering into the strange and unexpected. A child singer dancing with his pet duck; a cowboy comedian who also did rope tricks; a quartet of virtuoso musicians performing in blackface; a man who swallowed and regurgitated kerosene, set it afire, and put it out with regurgitated water: Anything was fair game so long as it drew a crowd.

Indie authors are equally free to write and publish what they want or think will sell. They can write noir cozies; erotic romances about dinosaurs or Bigfoot; blend genres far beyond the comfort zone of a New York publisher; or come up with a new take on a genre such as Westerns or horror that would be difficult for an agent to represent.

In short, if you can think of it, you can write it and publish it.

The Future of Indie Publishing

Looking at the history of vaudeville, what can we expect to see? And more importantly, what can we do to meet these challenges?

* Consolidation: There’s safety in numbers. As vaudeville matured, astute businessmen bought up individual theaters and turned them into “circuits.” Acts could be signed onto a circuit and moved from city to city. Standardization brought down operating costs and made it easier to schedule acts, while the performers could count on a steady paycheck and the opportunity to move up to the biggest circuit, run by B.F. Keith, and play the Palace Theater in New York City.

Indie writers are starting to learn develop ways to take advantage of consolidation as well. They’re banding together to publish their books as bundles, bringing their fans together and exposing them to writers in the same genre. Some writers have created multi-author blogs with the same purpose in mind.

It’s possible to see this idea expand in new directions. Take the idea of a publishing house, in which someone sets up a business, announces that it will accept manuscripts for consideration, then take on the publishing and marketing duties in return for a share of the proceeds. A group of writers in the same genre could adopt the same idea, banding together with one person handing the publishing duties on behalf of the group.

* Ability to Invest in the Long-Term: Indie authors share with their vaudevillian cousins the luxury of time to develop their skills. A low-selling book will not kill your career. You can try again and again, even change your penname if you have to, as you learn the trade and what works for you. If you feel you need to, you can even hire developmental editors, line editors, and marketers to back up your work.

* Look Out for Disruptors: Vaudeville survived the silent-movie era and the beginnings of the recorded music industry, but the introduction of sound movies in the early 1930s was too much. It became more profitable for theaters to show one movie several times a day than deal with a dozen acts.

Can we see the same thing with ebooks? Maybe. We’ve already passed the first stage, when Kindles were novelty items. In the second stage, we’re seeing ebook newsletters such as BookBub and BookGorilla, acting as middlemen offering discounted ebooks to hardcore readers. There’s also been an uptick of interest in audiobooks, and indie authors will have to decide if they want to invest in converting their books to the audio format.

But the biggest challenge indie authors face is this:

* They Must Get Better: This is the perennial challenge, and I admit that there’s nothing new there, but let’s dig into what it means to be “better.”

1. It means learning to write better. There are the basics, such as learning how to spell and to use the right word in the right place. Those are the basic tools.

2. But more important, I mean learn to write in a unique voice and tell your story in a way that’s uniquely yours.

Put it this way: There are thousands of stand-up comedians, but only one Richard Pryor. Only one Eddie Murphy. Only one George Carlin, or Joanne Rivers, or Rita Rudner.

There are thousands of fantasy writers, but you could read a passage from Tolkien and tell it apart from George R.R. Martin. You could read a passage from Douglas Adams, and recognize it instead of Tim Holt or Christopher Moore or Terry Pratchett. You could be given a paragraph from a Janet Evanovich book, and tell it apart from a Sue Grafton or a Sara Paretsky or a Patricia Cornwell.

I don’t mean that you should copy their styles, but to learn from them and come up with a voice that is uniquely yours.

I want to get into that in a later post, because I’ve been looking at a lot of indie books lately, and I’m discerning a sameness to them, a narrative style that is grammatically correct and moves the story along, but cannot be told apart from many other books in the same genre.

The reason why you want to learn to develop a unique voice takes us back to business: There are thousands of writers in your genre, but only one you. If you’re books are so unique that only you can write them, that means that you have a monopoly.

Think of Terry Pratchett. Can anyone else write a Discworld book like him? They can’t. Writers have written books in the world of James Bond, Jeeves and Wooster, Nero Wolfe, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Hercule Poirot. Some were good, others not, but not one of them reached the level of their original creators.

If you can craft your voice so that it becomes as unique as a thumbprint, you will have created a market that can only be served by you.

It’s not a recipe for guaranteed success. It’s only one tentpole to keep up your circus’ main tent. But it’s a damn good start.