Louis CK: Self-Publisher

Louis CK is my favorite writer – in any medium. Yeah, he’s a comic, but he’s got what I look for in a writer: total honesty. He’s willing to explore the darker parts of himself and lay it all bare. In my experience, there aren’t enough writers who do that. Check out his moving ode to George Carlin about his process. Really, there’s not much difference between stand-up comedy and fiction. It’s just writing performed.

So it was very interesting to see Louis CK go the self-publishing route with his latest special.  It’s pretty much exactly the same as self-publishing.  Big time, famous artist circumvents big media (in this case HBO or Comedy Central) in order to self-release a special on his own.  He’s charging $5 to stream and download the show.  And it’s been successful:

First of all, this was a premium video production, shot with six cameras over two performances at the Beacon Theater, which is a high-priced elite Manhattan venue. I directed this video myself and the production of the video cost around $170,000. (This was largely paid for by the tickets bought by the audiences at both shows). The material in the video was developed over months on the road and has never been seen on my show (LOUIE) or on any other special. The risks were thus: every new generation of material I create is my income, it’s like a farmer’s annual crop. The time and effort on my part was far more than if I’d done it with a big company. If I’d done it with a big company, I would have a guarantee of a sizable fee, as opposed to this way, where I’m actually investing my own money.

The development of the website, which needed to be a very robust, reliable and carefully constructed website, was around $32,000. We worked for a number of weeks poring over the site to make sure every detail would give buyers a simple, optimal and humane experience for buying the video. I edited the video around the clock for the weeks between the show and the launch.

The show went on sale at noon on Saturday, December 10th. 12 hours later, we had over 50,000 purchases and had earned $250,000, breaking even on the cost of production and website. As of Today, we’ve sold over 110,000 copies for a total of over $500,000. Minus some money for PayPal charges etc, I have a profit around $200,000 (after taxes $75.58). This is less than I would have been paid by a large company to simply perform the show and let them sell it to you, but they would have charged you about $20 for the video. They would have given you an encrypted and regionally restricted video of limited value, and they would have owned your private information for their own use. They would have withheld international availability indefinitely. This way, you only paid $5, you can use the video any way you want, and you can watch it in Dublin, whatever the city is in Belgium, or Dubai. I got paid nice, and I still own the video (as do you). You never have to join anything, and you never have to hear from us again.

This has to be making media companies shaking. Because that’s a lost million dollars right there. There are some types of media that absolutely need the backing of a major studio – such as big budget sci-fi movies. But who knows – maybe in another few decades (or less) desktop CGI will be so user-friendly that you can make “Star Wars” from your desktop. This is what the self-publishing revolution is all about: not just books, but giving power to artists in general.

Of course, this scenario is out-of-bounds for most self-published authors. The ability of self-publishers to unload massive numbers of books from their own website is a fantasy. But this is the stand-up comedy version of Pottermore. The Global Indie Author echoes this:

True disintermediation is still the luxury of the already successful. Louis CK was only able to bypass his former media partners because he had the means to do so. He had a fan base — built over three decades using the traditional media model — who paid for the tickets to the show that was recorded, which meant the $170,000 production paid for itself. He had the aforementioned $32K to build the website.

This is true – but the story is still very meaningful to the self-publishing community because it tells popular artists that this is a viable way to produce new work. Once more writers do this, fewer self-publishers will be turned away from review outlets because so many big-time writers will be self-publishing as well. This time is coming. Writers will still have to use Amazon for distribution, rather than be totally independent, but self-publishing will be the norm, rather than the exception.

It’s pretty gratifying to see a more-courageous artist also being more-courageous with his distribution. It shows that indie can be about a lot more than how a work is published.

Note: there’s NSFW language all over Louis CK’s work.