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. 

Inside the Story: setting up your story

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 19, 2012

First of all, an exciting announcement.

After three months of work, Inside The Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best is ready to launch, and will go on sale one-week-today: Thursday 26th April 2012 at 0800 BST. It’s now more important than ever that you’re a fan of the Facebook page or subscribed to the mailing list to make sure you get your copy!

The English version will be available first, with editions in German, Spanish and Catalans on the way in May. This is totally a fundraising exercise, with every penny from each sale being donated to Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity.

But what’s in the book?

I’m really confident you’re going to love Inside The Story. For a start, there’s no other book, or website, like it. It’s a real masterclass in what it takes to create high quality, remarkable stories for the web. If you’re making films, designing graphics, animations, websites or podcasts and struggling to make it as good as you know it can be, you’ll find this book incredibly useful.

The contributors are almost all award-winners, and are behind some of the most popular productions on the web – you can get a sneak at some of the names here. And all their advice is ridiculously practical. To give you a taster, for the next week, I’ll be releasing short previews of some of the contributions.

How to set up your story like a pro

Let’s start at the beginning. How do you set up, research and prepare your stories to give them the best shot at being remarkable? The resounding thought from all our contributors is that preparation is key – and so are people.

Drea Cooper is one half of the team responsible for the quite extraordinary California Is A Place web series, which portrays fascinating characters from the US west coast with beautiful heart-breaking flair. Their latest film, Aquadettes, which tells the story of a group of elderly synchronised swimmers will get an airing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Drea gives some great advice about finding the right people in Inside The Story, and for him, finding characters is key:

Whether it’s fact or fiction, dynamic people and characters bring stories to life.  Any film, short or long, should have a dynamic person at its center.

But, Drea warns, it’s really not as easy at all. California Is A Place is celebrated for the incredible characters it features – and in Inside the Story Drea reveals how he, and partner Zachary Canepari go about finding them.

A sneak preview at some of the pages in Inside The Story

Once you’ve found the right person you need to make sure your research is up to scratch, says producer Ben Samuel who makes documentaries and history programmes for the BBC, on his page.

“Whatever field of human endeavour your story focuses on, there are experts who – more often than not – will be happy to give you an excellent grounding in the topic. And secondly, if your research isn’t quite up to scratch, there will be people who will clock your mistake, no matter how obscure your subject matter is.”

If you’re stuck for where to start researching, Ben gives some brilliant advice about where to start with your research, and a clue to the best research source of them all (and no, it’s not the internet).

Finally, some great practical advice from Guardian photojournalist and film maker Dan Chung, based in China. Dan’s covered everything from the Japanese Tsunami aftermath to life inside North Korea, stories you can’t just stroll into.

“Prepare yourself physically and mentally if the story requires. Think about the possible scenarios that will unfold and make contingency plans for them – both journalistically and technically.”

He outlines his preparations for each story in more detail in Inside The Story, one of more than two-dozen hand crafted chapters by some of the best digital storytellers on the planet.

So here’s the drill: find out more on the website….join the Facebook group…and tweet out loud: #insidethestory! There’ll be another sneak preview on Monday.

Inside the Story: a video update

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 16, 2012

For the last few months I’ve been working on an exciting project which is almost ready to launch. It’s called Inside the Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling from the people who do it best – an ebook, to raise money for Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity.

The last few weeks has been a flurry of layout, web design and conversations with some of the best film makers, digital producers and  journalists out there, and the book is almost ready to go live.

What’s going to be in the book? Here’s a quick video update on the project – and a sneak preview of some of the pages. Later this week, I’ll be publishing snippets from the book so you can see some more and announcing the publication date.

If you’re not a fan of the Facebook page yet, why not? 

Great online video: The Sartorialist

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on February 3, 2011

The top video pick over in the video .fu library right now is a portrait of the fashion blogger The Sartorialist.

I first saw this one over Christmas and many of you will have already watched it, but I wanted to dissect it a little more and work out its secrets. If you haven’t seen it yet, take the time to watch it through. It’s a short documentary portrait of Scott Schuman, an unassuming sort of guy living in New York. Except for the fact he created and runs one of the most famous blogs on the net.

Directed by Tyler Manson/Visibly Smart Films it’s actually a commission from Intel (you know, the core processor guys) as part of their Visual Life campaign. Like the successful Honda’s Live Every Litre campaign of last year, its success is partly down to the fact the sponsor message takes a back seat to the story.

It’s a good example of a new, but growing, genre in video portraiture, rubbing shoulders with concepts like California Is A Place, Last Minutes With Oden; and portraits of Toni Lebusque and The Mast Brothers. Its secret is in its simplicity: a single interview with a fascinating character which creates the spine of the narrative, weaved in with captured moments, evocative music and gorgeous sequences captured in a cinematic style.

So what do we like about it?

It starts with a classic film convention: someone walking somewhere. We don’t know who they are, or where they’re going, and for that reason we keep watching. The camera does a good job of keeping The Satorialist steady and in focus, and slowing the footage down adds elegance and gravitas to our heroes journey.

Films like these are made up of (I think) a few key elements, which I teach to my own video journalism students at Kingston University:

  • interview
  • scenes
  • sequences
  • and a final category of ‘visual flair’ .

The interview in The Sartorialist drives the narrative, and when we do actually see as well as hear the interview, Manson hasn’t been afraid to let Schuman’s face fill the screen. He knows this will be viewed online, on a small screen, and isn’t afraid to cut off the top and bottom of his subject’s head in order that we really see The Sartorialist’s features. He’s clearly positioned near a large window or soft light, and shallow depth-of-field focuses our eyes on his.

When we watch video online it's important to get features in close-up

The easy trap is to shoot and cut a quick interview (the easy part) and then ‘float’ some footage over it at appropriate places – or to cover the edits. As well as ignoring the visual part of visual storytelling, it’s also extremely boring.

That’s why scenes and sequences are important.

A scene is a bit of reality caught on screen; for those taught in the traditional broadcast way, I’m talking about ‘actuality’; on a documentary project at The Southbank Centre last year, David Dunkley-Gyimah used to talk to me about ‘capturing moments’. The Sartorialist is brought to life through these captured moments – where we see a bit of reality unfold, unhindered, before our eyes. For example at around 02’30 into this film, we watch as Schuman spies two women at a junction, and approaches them to take a photograph.

Seeing this action unfold before our eyes shows us how he gets his shots…far more effective than interview where Schuman tells us how he does it.

A 'captured moment' of reality, as Schuman gets a photograph. We see for ourselves how he works.

Before you choose a story to tell this way – or in anyway visually with video – you should be sure these moments happen and that you’ll be able to capture them. If you’re making a film about a cyclist, then you must show us footage of them cycling no excuses. If you’re making a film about a doctor carrying out life saving surgery in Tanzania, then we’d better see it on screen. If, for whatever reason, you don’t think you can get scenes, then ditch the project. Perhaps it’s a story best told in words, audio or stills rather than video.

Finally, sequences are the bread and butter of any good video storytelling. Certainly a convention in television and cinema, I still think they are vital for online video storytelling too. A sequence of shots showing one continuous action brings us into the film and in Vin Ray’s words ‘heightens the viewers’ involvement’ in the story.

Here, Manson devises an aesthetically pleasing sequence of The Sartorialist going to get his hair cut before hitting the streets of New York. My guess is this is something Schuman does regularly, and in presenting this sequence the film makers are showing us this truth, without telling us.

The Sartorialist's haircut is presented in a sequence of shots including wide-shots and closeups.

On top of this, there is a palette of other treatments open to filmmakers, including things like montages or straight GVs, which can be used at will. But I think without and interview, scene and sequences, a film has little to it. But as The Sartorialist shows, these three elements, as well as a compelling character and a great journey are pretty much all you need to for your online video to get viewed thousands of times.

Video .fu is a a growing collection of great factual online video – click here to subscribe and recommend films!

Three more lessons in video storytelling…

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 24, 2010

…from people who really know what they’re doing

Time for three more awesome bits of multimedia storytelling we can all learn from. You can see previous write ups on really good video storytelling here and here and here! Here’s three more well executed examples; I’ve tried to put  as much practical takeaways beneath each one as possible. If you think I have missed or misinterpreted anything, then you know where the comments box is!

Big Vinny / California is a place

A chapter from an online series getting lots of love on the internet at the moment — it would seem, by the sheer quality of the storytelling. Produced by Drea Cooper & Zackary Canepari for a series called California is a Place, it tells the story of a former car salesman, ‘Big Vinny’, looking back on the glory days. If you only watch one of these videos, make sure it’s this one.

  • the interesting thing about this film is visually, we are only seeing shots of a deserted car lot. There’s hardly any movement, and  no action. Does that hold your attention for the full five minutes?
  • this story is driven by one thing: an extremely engaging character
  • note the opening use of sound beneath a single caption – I find sound used like this sucks the viewer in more than moving pictures would
  • the opening sequence, cutting to “cars! cars! cars!” is a great way of using sound and pictures together for good effect
  • and then at 45 seconds the music comes in…say what you like about video journalists using music, but here it hits the spot and instantly conveys the tragic economic decline at the heart of this story
  • look at how they’ve framed Big Vinny – the shots are always slightly off centre or tilted at an angle
  • it would have been nice to have had shots of Vinny wandering around his deserted former business – if anything to inject more movement into what we’re seeing
  • there’s some great use of colour too, with the saturation pulled down just a bit to drain some of the richness out

Polyphoto / Daniel Meadows

Claire Wardle introduced me to the work of British storyteller Daniel Meadows just recently. His website has several small pieces, which he calls Digital Stories: 2 minute vignettes combining audio with still photos. Click on the image to see Polyphoto on Daniel’s website.

  • first thing you notice is Daniel’s choice of words – he is writing to pictures in the truest sense, a real craft in broadcast journalism which should (I think) continue into video journalism
  • combine that with his gentle voice and it’s like a trusted friend saying ‘come here and let me tell you a really good story…’
  • the narrative begins with the pictures and Daniel tells us about Polyphotos in much detail to draw us in. It’s only then that he begins the real story of how his parents met and their tough life after the war.
  • and this whole story was told using just a repeating series of old photographs, used in different ways: sometimes his mother on her own, then alongside her dad, then composited over each other.

Clifton Bridge / Rosie Gloyns

BBC Natural History producer Rosie Gloyns shot this short piece this month as part of a video journalism training course run by Michael Rosenblum. It’s a simple vignette, but full of clever storytelling tricks:

  • immediately you get the feel of this story: the music and opening shot of Barry (with no introduction) tells us this is going to be a lighthearted story
  • as in the first film, we see a some fast cutting near the beginning
  • but Rosie has been very clever in constructing her story: she sets it up in such a way to create a journey her character must embark on – and importantly she doesn’t tell us what it’s for: ‘he has all the things he needs..except one: and for that he needs to walk 200m to the other side of the bridge‘.
  • we then watch a sequence of Barry crossing the bridge – and we keep watching because we want to find out where he’s going! And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you keep your viewer interested.