Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The age of the online publisher – and why you should embrace it

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 28, 2011

 That’s the ultimate irony, no? That in the midst of remarkable and unprecedented change, in the midst of the greatest stories to happen all century, we are paralyzed by some changes in the delivery system.

Carey Tennis

Far from being a terrible time to be in journalism, publishing or the like, I genuinely believe this is an extraordinary period: unexpected, exciting and packed with new opportunities to create amazing things.

The internet has put awesome publishing platforms at our feet, for free. What great opportunity! Yet, so many are paralysed by fear of change, or fear of the unknown. And of course, fear of failure.

Thankfully, more and more overcome this as time goes on. Every month, new shoots break through the soil, small (for now) but with great potential to be the publishing powerhouses of the future. Here’s a few examples, which I hope inspire.

Five online publishers who create great stuff – and make money

.01 John Locke

If you’ve never heard of John Locke before, you soon will. The US author shot from obscurity this year to become the first person to sell 1 million ebooks using Amazon’s direct publishing service. British authors, such as Louise Voss, are following suit.

The Kindle service negates the need for publishing houses entirely, and allows authors to publish direct, taking 35% of the revenue (much more than most mainstream book deals); ebook sales jumped in the UK last year from £4m to £16m and it’s becoming big business.

I’ve said before that ebooks are a much overlooked publishing platform for journalists: zero costs, and if your content is quality then you can make decent revenues. I’ve done it twice myself, publishing two e-books in 2010 (and another on the way at the end of 2011). The great thing is once they’re up and online, they provide a great source of passive income: there’s nothing cooler than waking up on a Sunday morning and finding out you made money while you were asleep.

.02 Fleet Street Scandal/Yuki7

Fleet Street Scandal is the work of two US designers Kevin Dart and Chris Turnam who have the aim of making “art that looks great on a wall”. There are plenty of design agencies mind, so why are they here?

Well, this year they created something pretty unique and remarkable: an animated character called Yuki7 who has stylish 1960s-esque adventures. I saw this little film, and liked it so much I bought the t-shirt.

There’s clearly been some investment in making these films, and they’re recuperating that through products – posters, books, t-shirts and DVDs – which are now on sale. The point is, it takes balls to make something as big and complicated as this: something that we expect to see done by television studios. Fleet Street Scandal prove you don’t need be in the mainstream media to publish great stuff.

.03 Put This On

A video web series now, from Jesse Thorn and Adam Lisagor – all about men’s fashion, with the tagline “a web series about dressing like a grown up”. As well as a regularly updated website, which is actually just a Tumblr blog, PTO also contains regular, high quality short films focusing on different areas of mens fashion, including shoes, grooming and denim.

I love this series because it targets a clear and easily identifiable group of people (men, interested in fashion) of which there are a lot. You just have to see the popularity of sites like Fashion Beans to see that.

Each episode is getting 20,000+ views; it’s funded by sponsorship (a season one deal with Instapaper) plus donations from viewers. Make something that draws people to you and the money will follow.

.04 Pictory

Laura Brunow-Miner’s photo-series was instantly popular when it launched a year ago. It’s a very simple premise: each month, a different theme with story and photo submissions from readers.

Pictory/PhotographyBlog.com

Laura’s made it work by keeping it a small operation (she runs it alone) and through sponsored themes including partnerships with Levi’s and NPR. She also takes advertising on the site, with the rather charming idea of making adverts “big and beautiful” unashamedly 1000 pixels wide.

More importantly, Laura’s established herself as a big name in tech and media, with speaking work and a place in Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Tech list.

.05 Everything is a remix

Kirby Ferguson’s documentary project started modestly nine months ago, with the publishing of part one of  ‘Everything Is A Remix’, a short Adam-Curtis style documentary which makes the point that nothing is new, everything is influenced by something else.

The third instalment went online in June to much fanfare, and collectively the three videos have been viewed more than a million times across Vimeo and Youtube, with one more on the way in the Autumn.

Kirby asks for donations to keep the project going, but watching his appeal at the end of the latest film, you realise it’s launched a career as an in-demand speaker and commentator. All down to publishing something remarkable.

These are all just ordinary people with the sort of skills journalists today have: good writing, design, filmmaking or photography. What makes them different is they had the initiative to take an idea and keep working at it until it became real – and through a little bit of social media promotion, they’ve become disproportionately popular.

So what’s the takeaway? There are jobs out there, yes, but the barrier to entry is set high; the barrier (and cost) to becoming your own publisher and editor meanwhile is now nearly non-existent. The question is, do you have the balls to start something, and the guts to finish it?

This is the age of the online publisher. So go, publish. 

NOTE: just as I published this, science writer Ed Yong (who blogs over at It’s Not Rocket Science) made this excellent point, which I think wraps my argument up perfectly:

I care very deeply about journalism, but there are few things more boring than journalists arguing over what counts as journalism. We live in a world full of stories, about amazing people doing amazing things and terrible people doing terrible things. I will use every medium I can to tell those stories. I will try to tell them accurately so people aren’t misled. I will try to tell them well so people will listen. If people want to argue about what to call that, that’s fine for them.

I would rather just do it.

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  1. […] The age of the online publisher – and five people who are embracing it – some inspiring examples of people who have become online publishers. […]

  2. […] You said you want to make video stories – well turn them into a web series about something that people are interested in, create a website and start publishing. That’s what Jesse Thorne and Adam Lisagor have done with Put This On, a fashion web series. Their stylish short films clock 30,000 plus views each. It worked for Kirby Ferguson too, the creator of Everything Is A Remix, which has more viewers than some television documentaries. And of course, it has worked for Jamal Edwards, who founded SB.TV who now hangs out with Jay-Z and Richard Branson. I’ve written about all these guys before, here. […]

  3. […] You said you want to make video stories – well turn them into a web series about something that people are interested in, create a website and start publishing. That’s what Jesse Thorne and Adam Lisagor have done with Put This On, a fashion web series. their stylish short films clock 30,000 plus views each. it worked for Kirby Ferguson too, the creator of Everything is A Remix, which has more viewers than some television documentaries. and of course, it has worked for Jamal Edwards, who founded SB.TV who now hangs out with Jay-Z and Richard Branson. I’ve written about all these …. […]

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