Writers have to be like mothers of invention to get ahead these days

Frank Zappa once made the point that he and his 1960s band – The Mothers – probably couldn’t have got a recording contract in a different decade.

This wasn’t the quintessential view his generation had of their formative years – you know ‘not-the-sixties, not-the-sixties – – – THE SIXTIES!- – – not-the-sixties,’ etc.

Gravitational lens attributed to the presence of Dark Matter. NASA, public domain.
Gravitational lens attributed to the presence of Dark Matter. NASA, public domain.

Zappa’s point was that at the time youth society was in a period of unprecedented change. Record companies – which had been pretty sharp on what constituted marketable product to that audience in the 1950s – didn’t quite know where things were going. And so they embraced such diverse things as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones – and, in total contrast, the LA ‘freak’ scene epitomised by Zappa’s band of the day. All he had to do was add ‘…Of Invention‘ to the Mothers band name (which was otherwise likely to be taken as a contraction for something else). Zappa argued that if he’d done that stuff in the 1970s – by which time record companies were back in the ‘product’ groove – he wouldn’t have had a look in.

It occurred to me that the same is probably true of writing. And music. And all forms of transmissible products of an artists’ imagination.

The change now isn’t a generational reaction to the societies that emerged across the west from the two World Wars. It’s a change that affects everything from the systems of economic productivity to the way we relate to each other. It’s being driven by technology. And I think it will be further reaching than anything from the ‘generation gap’ period – which was, despite the hopes of its advocates, a transitory reaction to the world of the day.

What we’re facing now is far deeper, because it isn’t to do with content, it’s to do with transmission. It affects all of us. The advent of cheap – even free – and easy communications has changed the world. And will continue to change it. We’re seeing it, for writing, in the way the traditional book-publishing and freelance markets have been turned on their heads of late by the arrival of e-books. We’re seeing it in the way that content of all kinds can be freely and easily sent around the world.

It’s as big a change, socially and economically, as the industrial revolution, when the Early Modern economy – with its village-based personal production and self-sufficiency – was overturned in favour of employment and mass production.

The funny thing is that Zappa actually predicted how music would go. In his 1991 book The Real Frank Zappa Book (of which I have a copy) he outlined the exact music distribution system we have today. He didn’t have the tech, but he had the mechanism. Cool or what? The guy was a genius.

He didn’t comment about writing and books, but that’s where those have gone too. Authors are going to have to find ways of adapting to a time of unprecedented change – a need that, literally, makes writers mothers of invention. Of necessity.


Oh – and here’s Zappa and the Mothers in 1968:

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


3 thoughts on “Writers have to be like mothers of invention to get ahead these days

  1. Another excellent and thought provoking post Matthew.
    Personally, I don’t think that technology changes writers or writing one bit. It can save time maybe. Being published efficiently and effectively will always cost money. And we will always be in a cut-throat and competitive market. The more sophisticated technology becomes, the bloodier the fallout will be.

    1. You’re right – and publishing always has been a tough business. Very tough. And cut-throat. The recent change has been in the way the content is transmitted, and it’s taking a while to shake down.

  2. I can see a need for filtering now…we have so much content out there that it’s hard to know what’s good and what’s been vetted. I think people are open to non-traditional routes, but some shy away because they don’t know what to make of it, how to sort through it. And there are still quite a few people who don’t like ebooks.

    In music, it’s much easier to deal with the opening of the floodgates since all we have to do is lend an ear. Do we like what we hear? As a consumer, I have to admit I like the access. The musicians, on the other hand, have to deal with similar questions that writers have to face. Do we give away our music in the hopes that people will come to our concerts? Buy our next album? Etc.

    But the difference here is that writers don’t have concerts. They have years of work invested in their book, which they then give away. This makes it harder for other writers to charge a normal asking price for their work. Some could say to themselves, “Well, consumers will learn that free books aren’t great. They’ll get the idea that if they want to read something good, they’ll have to pay for it.” And yet, those freebies aren’t all bad…some write for the love of writing, and perhaps have a day job. We can’t ask them to stop. Besides, the consumer can simply download and delete—it costs nothing. They have nothing to lose, financially.

    Traditional publishing is still where wary folks go when they want to find a good read. Those have been vetted, and for nonfiction that’s even more important. I think one way forward for indies would be to make sure you have experts read your book. If it’s fiction, get a good editor or editors. Be as professional as you can be. If there could be some way of objectifying this task without going with traditional publishing, that would be an interesting way forward. I don’t have any specific ideas here, but I think it would be nice for the consumer to not have to rely on word of mouth or uninformed reviews. Or maybe such a mechanism already exists?

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