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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Inside the Story: a huge thankyou

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 20, 2012

I’ve been looking forward to this one since January. 

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of wiring $4339.99 to Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity. That’s the total sales raised from shifting nearly 1,000 copies of Inside the Story: A Masterclass in Digital Storytelling from the People who do it Best. It’s an  astonishing amount of money for a brilliant charity.

E-junkie, who handled all the book sales, confirms nearly 1,000 sales

If you’re wondering why the final figure isn’t a round number, remember Paypal and Google Checkout both take a fee per transaction. Each sale therefore raised between £3.12 and £3.15, depending on exchange rates.

The final amount, ready to go to Kiva

The money is now with Kiva, who estimate that every dollar donated (as opposed to loaned) generates ten dollars in loans – so we could effectively have created more than $40,000 for a brilliant charity. If you haven’t caught up with what Kiva do, then check them out here.

I’m personally astonished by the final amount we’ve raised. I had tentatively hoped we would make about $2,000 or maybe $2,500 tops. But to hit nearly $4,500 is just mind-blowing, so thank you if you bought the book, and thank you again if you encouraged others to buy it by blogging or tweeting about it.

I’d also like to thank the 25 brilliant contributors who gave time and effort into making the book happen. The charitable fundraising aside, the response from readers has been fantastic; I’ve had emails from people all over the world who say its inspired them to up their storytelling game in a big way.

What next?

Some of you have asked why the book was only on sale for a temporary period. It’s a logistical thing, mainly: there isn’t a convenient way to set up transactions so the money goes to Kiva as soon as the book is bought, and so I have to look after sales and make a one-off donation. That, plus dealing with customer service emails takes up a lot of time, which I don’t have.

However, Inside the Story will return this summer, and will be permanently available, either for free, or with an optional donation. If you would like to know when that happens, then signup to the mailing list here.

On being generous

I’ve also been asked why I did the project in the first place. Why put so much effort into something like this, without any reward for me? This isn’t how entrepreneurial journalism is supposed to work, surely!

Well, I had my own motivations. I had the idea for the book last year so for one, I just wanted to start and finish it. I felt there isn’t a book like it out there and that people would find it really useful. Completing an ambitious project like this builds momentum to start new projects. It was also a fantastic learning opportunity. In order to make the book happen I had to teach myself Adobe InDesign, HTML, CSS and some Javascript, plus build on my online publishing experience. I’ve learned a lot about digital publishing in the last few months, skills which will feed into my next projects.

It also gave me the opportunity to get in touch with some of my favourite storytellers, journalists and film makers and collaborate with them.

But above all, it’s practicing a fundamental pillar of online publishing and enterprise: you must be generous. If you want to build an audience or a community around what you do and what you love you have to be willing to give away a huge amount, willingly, happily without want for immediate reward.

You have to be willing to share what you learn, give away your best secrets and skills, bring others along on the journey with you. That’s why I’ve spent several hours writing a new blog post every week for the last five years, which I give away for free, with no advertising and no fees attached. It’s why I always try to respond to emails from readers, give interviews and help with student dissertations.

As well as demonstrating you know what you’re talking about, it also builds trust and grows attention – two things in hot demand.

Note that generosity doesn’t include tossing off short lazy blog posts, or poor quality podcasts every so often. Real generosity is crafting something of exceptional quality, like Inside the Story, or even Everything Is A Remix, and then giving it away for free.

So, if you’re stuck about what to do next, and where to go from here, try being unashamedly generous. Give away free advice on Twitter, offer your filmmaking or writing skills for free for a day; hey, you could even publish an ebook.

Think about what you know, what you’re good at, and what you love spending your time doing, and then ask how that can be put to good use helping other people. 

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.

Next Generation Journalist: free giveaway!

Posted in Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on November 8, 2010

Amazingly it’s somehow six months since Next Generation Journalist: 10 New Ways to Make Money in Journalism was published.

It’s been selling incredibly well, and judging by comments, emails and tweets, it’s been making a difference in peoples’ lives too. All round awesome.

But I want more people to benefit from the ideas in the book.

Economically, the situation hasn’t gotten any easier for journalists anywhere in the west in the last six months. And arguably, with tens of thousands more journalism graduates entering the jobs market over the summer, the maths have gotten even more impossible.

So I think more people need a book like this – and for that reason, I have decided to give a chunk of it away – completely free.

From today you can get two of the most useful and practical chapters of the book without paying a penny. One of the giveaway chapters is a workbook with key questions you need to ask yourself about your career. Loads of people have found it very useful. The other shows you all about taking freelance journalism to the next level. And as an added bonus, you’ll also get a step-by-step guide to building a portfolio website to taut your wares.

Pretty sweet right?

Add to Cart

To get your hands on the free copy, just click on the button above and a .pdf will be on your hard drive in moments. If you want to get even more involved, you can also now join a new Facebook group, especially for Next Generation Journalists like you. Click here to get a look-in!

And that’s not the end of it – there’s another uber discount offer on the way before the end of the month…

A year of freelancing & the benefits of a portfolio career

Posted in Adam, Entrepreneurial Journalism, Freelance, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 19, 2010

Photo credit: Theresa Thompson on Flickr

It’s a bit of a red-letter day for me.

This month marks exactly one year since I quit my full-time job in radio, moved down to the big city to make a break of it. In an attempt to measure success & failure, I’ve just been looking back through all the different things I’ve been paid to do in the last year, from making films to writing books.

The big question: has this whole thing been worthwhile, or did I make a massive mistake? Should I have just stayed where I was, kept my head down and hoped for a pay-rise?

The measure I gave myself when I quit was this: ‘just aim to make as much (or more) than you would have done if you’d kept your full time job’. The good news is I made more than I would have done staying put (phewf!)

A portfolio income

What looking back over the last year has really highlighted for me has been the benefits of having what some people are now calling a Portfolio Career:  several revenue streams all contributing to a net income. To make that point, and hopefully to encourage more journalists to think about this as a valid career option, I’ve decided to publish my first year finances to the world…

…well sort of.

Here’s a pie-chart showing the rough percentages of everything I’ve earned since going freelance. Naturally, I’m not going to tell you what the percentages financially add up too! 😉

As you can see teaching & academic research makes up the most significant chunk, but documentary work, broadcasting and print contribute roughly a third. This pie chart shows 9 of the different things I’ve been doing this year, although there have probably been around a dozen.

Sales of Next Generation Journalist and Newsgathering for Hyperlocal Websites have been healthy too, as have things like training, everywhere from Madrid to Glasgow.

Why have lots of jobs?

I guess the point is this: I love doing every single one of these things: the writing, the teaching, the filming, the directing, the radio…but none of them would I want to do every single day. I’ve learned that having this sort of portfolio income gives me a really exciting variety, and also protects me against the loss of a single revenue stream.

I really think more journalists, writers, presenters, and film makers should consider this way of doing work. And it’s more suited to the 21st century work environment too, with growing numbers becoming self-employed and working from home. The internet is slowly making the office (and maybe even the dreaded commute) more and more redundant.

And even though it’s been a success, I still catch myself thinking, sometimes, even if it had failed – even if I had gone bust and had to go and live with my mum or something – I would still look back at this year and be glad I did it. I have had more adventures, opportunities and excitement than even a top reporter gig on a big radio station could give me, and that’s what matters.

So here’s to year two!