Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Nine myths about publishing books, films and magazines

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 30, 2012

Publishing is changing fast, and so are its rules. This is fantastic opportunity for anyone willing to take it, and a problem for traditional publishing houses (unless they’re willing to adapt, and quickly). 

At the same time, the danger is to walk into this new world carrying the baggage of the old. We’ve seen it happen a lot in video. Whether you’re publishing ebooks, digital magazines, podcasts, a blog or video, here are some “rules” which apply to traditional/mainstream publishers, but not to you.

.01 you need to publish to a regular schedule

Traditional magazines publish weekly or monthly and it’s easy to fall straight into that mindset if you’re publishing digitally. But remember magazine schedules are based on the cost and systems of printing paper. Publishing digital products, like ebooks, magazines and apps online you are free from those constraints.

Think for example of California Is A Place: it’s a video web series, but new episodes appear only when they’re good and ready. That hasn’t stopped each video racking up tens of thousands of views.

.02 you must make advertising revenue

Again it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the only way to make your journalism pay is to stick adverts all over it. GQ and Grazia might be 60% advertisement but your digital publication doesn’t need to be.

How come? Well, firstly your overheads are lower so you don’t need big contracts to keep going. Secondly, the web opens up a whole host of other revenue streams from subscription, to events and other products.

Here’s the thing about advertising: in an ideal world, does your audience want to consume adverts? No. So do a good thing and spare them the pain.

NOTE: by coincidence, the New York Times has just revealed it is starting to rely less on advertising, in the face of big slumps in revenue.

.03 you need to publish a certain quantity every month

Isn’t it funny how a newspaper is always the same size no matter how much news there’s been that day? How the evening news is always 30 minutes long no matter what? Again, these are constraints created by those specific platforms.

And yes, publishing online frees you from this too. So, if you’re publishing a digital magazine don’t feel you need to fluff it out with more pages just to fit a quota. And don’t feel your ebook must be at least 100 pages to make it valuable. If you’ve got 20 pages of fried gold your readers will appreciate the quick read.

Incidentally, I read somewhere once that physical books often need to have a certain number of pages in them, so their spine is thick enough to get noticed on a bookshelf!

.04 you need to publish forever

Again the overheads associated with magazine production make it necessary to aim to publish indefinitely. While it’s impressive to build a formidable brand over many decades of publishing, it doesn’t have to be so.

The Domino Project was a publishing business that ran for a year with great success and published 12 titles before Seth Godin decided to wrap it up. “Projects are fun to start,” he said “but part of the deal is that they don’t last forever.”

If that feels a bit futile, don’t forget you can start a company that runs short projects, each one temporary but contributing to a larger brand.

.05 people won’t pay for digital products

This is being proven wrong all over the shop. While a couple of years ago it seemed consumers were hesitant, ebooks now generate $2billion of revenue a year; meanwhile iTunes and Spotify are the biggest forms of income for record labels.

Furthermore, it’s not the cheapness of digital projects that appeals. Don’t get fooled into pricing your next book at 79p. Instead try charging £5 – and making it worth all five pounds.

.06 you need to reach a large audience

The mainstream media and mass communication is about just that: the masses. Traditional books, movies, magazines and TV shows are judged solely on numbers and can’t survive unless they have big audiences.

It’s a relief to see the debate around online publishing moving away from its obsession with hits. The internet is designed for niches: slim, deep verticals where people are small in number but big in passion and engagement.

You only need 2,000 passionate readers willing to pay $100 a year to subscribe to your work and you’re making a tidy $200,000.

.07 you need to control your content

TED know this very well. For years they’ve released their talks, completely for free, on Youtube, and they’ve garnered hundreds of millions of views. Everyone wins when you do this.

Audiences are grateful for your act of generosity, and your idea and brand are spread far and wide. So don’t try and own your content so hard; make it easy to share, let other people remix, transform and copy it, let it spread far and wide.

Acts of generosity always come back to you in the future.

.08 you need to be short, snappy and controversial to get attention

While “50 pictures of cats wearing sweaters” and their ilk may be around forever, the debate about journalism and content is finally appreciating deep, high quality – if less regular – journalism. I’ve written about Matter before, it’s the science magazine launching in September, aiming to publish one long-form article a month.

They’ll be specially commissioned in-depth pieces, with their own bespoke illustrations. This is clever because rather than trying to get lots of eyeballs and attention, they’re setting a standard for quality: something worth paying for.

.09 you have to have a consistent price

We slip into this mindset of commerce without even thinking about it: when one charges for a product, one must choose a single price. 

Says who? Here’s two ways you can mess with that idea: firstly, scaled pricing where you offer a bronze version, a silver price and a platinum edition. Each layer gives you more stuff. Kickstarter has proven how well people respond to tiered pricing levels.

Secondly (and I love this idea): have a dynamic price for your product that increases by one-penny every time a new copy is sold. In other words, the book gets more expensive the more people buy it. If you’re a customer, that injects an urgency in buying the book.

It bears repeating: this really is the time to get into this game. Choose to be a creator, not just a consumer. Make great stuff and build a crowd around it. And forget how publishing has been done, and instead think about how it could be done. 

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The rise of the microbusiness and why journalists should embrace it

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 21, 2012

First off, an important announcement about Inside the Story: the book will go off-sale at 23:59 on Thursday 24th May London time, so this is your last chance to get a copy. I have no plans at the moment to re-release the book, so if you want it, don’t waste time. 

• • •

I write a lot about entrepreneurial journalism round here, and get to talk a lot about it too (see below). It’s the Age of the Online Publisher and an incredibly exciting time to be exploring this space.

But I see a lot of people make a big mistake when attempting an entrepreneurial venture in journalism: they think like a traditional business.That either puts them off starting in the first place, or leads to fatal errors, such as relying solely on an ad-based revenue model for a hyperlocal website, or measuring of success in terms of hits and not loyalty.

Enter the Microbusiness: the smart way to think about entrepreneurial journalism.

What is a microbusiness?

A microbusiness is, in some ways, a unique by-product of the internet age, although of course they existed before then. Generally, a microbusiness is one that is intentionally small. It usually consists of one or two people, working from home or from a shared workspace, being frugal, minimising overheads, concentrating on pleasing a small but loyal customer base and, as a result, being impressively profitable. But we’re not talking about Facebook money; one of the defining characteristics of a microbusiness is the owner aims to make ‘enough’.

In his excellent book Rework*, Jason Fried says you shouldn’t be ashamed to run an intentionally small business.

“Don’t be insecure about aiming to be a small business. Anyone who runs a business that’s sustainable and profitable, whether it’s big or small, should be proud.”

I started a video production micro-business in early 2011. I had all the equipment I needed, after saving up over the previous year. All I needed was a website which I made using WordPress over Christmas of 2010. I challenged myself to launch it in 30 days…in the end it took me only 10. I had a target for the business to make a certain amount of money every month by the end of the year…it reached that goal after just two months and continued to be busy throughout the year.

No office, no investors, no employees and all the associated baggage. It also carries less risk, so you can see why it’s a popular option for the first-time entrepreneur, and in particular journalists and publishers looking for new opportunities.

In fact, the micropublisher is already a thing: to see someone really smart building something great in this field you would be wise to check out Thom Chambers, the founder of Mountain & Pacific, a micropublishing house. It’s just him, making very well designed magazines, and working hard at building a loyal audience.

The space is beginning to get populated by more and more success stories. I’ve mentioned many before: people like Kirby Ferguson of Everything is a Remix fame and even successful hyperlocal blogs (when done well) work best as microbusinesses. Many bigger beasts in the industry started out in someone’s living room, a passion project for one or two driven creatives.

How do you set up a microbusiness?

Well, a lot of it depends on your own design – and therefore having a willingness to ignore conventional wisdom, and really create something that fits around your life and your passions. But if you are looking for a guide, you’re lucky because one has just come on the scene, courtesy of one of my favourite authors.

Chris Guillebeau is the founder of The Art of Non-Conformity and the author of a 2010 book by the same name*. It’s a must read for anyone leading unconventional careers like I do. He’s just published a follow up all about microbusiness called The $100 Startup*. (Disclosure: I get a very brief mention in the book, alongside lots of successful microbusiness owners).

It’s not specifically about journalism or publishing (there is a small section on it) but the lessons are universal. Moreover Chris talks in detail about how he has launched his own information-based products, and there’s some great advice about how to launch a new website, book, or other digital product. A lot of his advice actually helped launch Inside the Story last month with such success.

Courage and Commitment

Last month I was invited to Perugia in Italy to talk about entrepreneurial journalism for Media140, and my talk focused on microbusinesses. You can watch a video of the talk (in English) here, and the presentation itself is below. Check out the “microbusiness challenge” slide which gives you a rough run-down of what you need to do.

It’s pretty self explanatory, but I ended on a note about courage and commitment. These are the two essential ingredients that, above all others, make successful businesses. But they are often misunderstood.

We often think courage involves being fearless in our pursuit of something. Courage is nothing of the sort. Courage is feeling shit-scared, but acting anyway. I can’t stress how important this is. The only people who genuinely don’t feel fear have a pathological condition. The rest of us get on with our work despite how scared we are. You need to do this too if you’re going to start any project that makes waves.

The second is even more underestimated. To be a starter, an innovator, a leader of any kind requires total commitment. This means making a leap of faith, and betting the farm on your idea, not doing it half-heartedly or half-arsed. It means committing to late nights, often working alongside a normal job, working weekends and more. It means at the moment you feel like taking a break you push yourself to work an extra half-hour. At the moment you feel like giving up, you force yourself to give it one more try.

Do you have that commitment? 

*Affiliate links

The active way to start your journalism career

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 7, 2012
image SeanRogers1 on Flickr

First a quick update on Inside the Story, which has been on sale for 10 days now. It is selling extremely well, and has raised around $1700 for Kiva so far. I want to double this by the time the book goes off sale at the end of May though, so please tell everyone who’ll listen to get a copy!

If you’re not sure about it, then there have been some good reviews of the book so far on Innovative Interactivity, plus from other journalists.

The active way  to start your journalism career

One of the most popular posts on this blog in the last six or so months was a response to a query from Nick, a young Australian journalist. He wanted to know how to use the age of the online publisher to start his journalism career in the best way.

My main advice was to get to work, making high quality video stories, even with nobody to pitch to. Take the initiative, make a bold move, and create good content.

Well, I recently received a follow-up from Nick, which again, he’s kindly agreed to let me share with you.

Hi Adam,

Believe it or not, this morning I got offered my first real job in the journalism industry. It’s just as a Production Assistant at a TV news network, but most importantly it’s my foot in the door. Honestly, after three rounds of interviews it hasn’t sunk in yet.

The reason I’m telling you is because at the beginning of this year I decided to take some initiative, get out there and start creating stories. At the time I drew a lot of inspiration and advice from your blog and links. I bought a Canon 60D (with 50mm f1.4) on credit, found ‘free’ software, created a simple blog and began making videos. My videos are very amateur, but I’m convinced that the reason I got the job this morning was because of taking that initiative. And in part – that initiative was a result of reading your stuff.

First of all that’s fantastic news and congratulations Nick. I’ve shared this, partly to show that fortune really does favour the bold, but also to highlight some of the specifics of Nick’s approach that you can apply yourself.

The key is Nick’s decision to take the initiative, start a project, and get to work making videos. There is literally no excuse not to really, and if you’re a beginner, like Nick, then it is the only way to improve your craft.

Now, Nick says his videos are “very amateur” although I would beg to differ. Take a look:

First of all, I love the concept: give people an ice lolly in exchange for their opinion? Brilliant! If you don’t mind Nick, I will be borrowing that idea myself one day.  (Vox popsicle anyone?). His videos are creatively cut, perhaps inspired by the famous 50 people 1 question series, and he uses his DSLR camera and lens well.

The important thing is this: he has designed a project to channel his creativity and force him to create a series of content, just like some of the video producers I mentioned in the post before. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. It’s a clever idea, but not so ambitious it would take a long time to do (and cause enthusiasm to eventually fizzle out).

Secondly, Nick smartly doesn’t make a big financial investment where possible. He uses free editing and publishing software to get his content made. The music in his films are creative commons licensed. The only thing I’d advise is to avoid buying anything on credit as far as you can. From painful experience, borrowing money is not  a route to go down, especially early in your career.

That said, Nick’s investment in his camera does demonstrate one important thing: commitment. In buying a camera Nick is saying to himself, to the universe and of course, to potential employers, he is serious about this. He is committed.

From experience I can tell you that big projects often require a public demonstration of commitment, as if you are telling the Gods ‘I am serious about this shit‘. Once you make that commitment, you find things start to shift in your favour somehow: people start getting in touch, offers start coming through, inspiration takes hold.

Finally, and most importantly, Nick shipped. He started the Icy Poll project – and he finished it. That proves stamina, determination and an understanding of when something is done.

So, if you are sitting across the table from Nick at this TV News Network you see a young journalist with initiative, creativity, commitment, determination and leadership. Cool fact: they are five skills they don’t teach you at j-school and are therefore rare.

Prove you’ve got those skills too – through action, not words – and you’ve got a much better chance of standing out. The jobs market is not going to get easier: you have to get tougher.

The alternative to your journalism CV

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 27, 2012

The journalism jobs market is still difficult and likely to stay that way for some time. What that means is every time you apply for a job, you’re competing against a large number of people. 

You’ve been to university, got a journalism qualification of some kind and done some work placements. The problem: so has everyone else.

The common solution is to spend more time tweaking the CV: adding new things, rearranging the layout, sticking it on LinkedIn. But this is a 20th century solution to a 21st century problem.

Everyone else has a CV, but not everyone has the initiative to see the new publishing opportunities in front of us all, and to start something. Launching an online magazine, for example, and building a small, loyal community around great content. Or running a series of talks or events, or making that documentary.

Projects like these demonstrate things a CV just can’t: leadership, initiative, problem solving, social-media prowess and technical ability.

When I tell people what I’m up to at the moment, a common response is “That’ll be good for your CV”. I don’t have a CV. No-one has asked for one in more than two years – but I’m busier than ever.

So stop spending your time filling out your CV and asking for recommendations on your LinkedIn profile. For God’s sake get out there and do something. Create. Make a film. Start a business. Write a book. Launch a website. You don’t need anyone’s permission.

Do it with commitment and persistence and the opportunities will start to come to you that a resume simply cannot bring.

It’s harder and scarier than filling your CV with internships and diplomas, which is why still – 10 years into this web 2.0 malarky – not many people try it. Happily that increases the chances of success for those who do.

We’re entering a world that rewards guts, action, execution, total commitment, responsibility and initiative over work placements and qualifications.

Want to be a journalist? Actions speak louder than words.