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. 

How to feed your journalism cow

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 22, 2011

Image: cheeseslave on Flickr

Here’s a question I bet you don’t get often: do you feed your cow?

In the early days of my freelance career, back in January 2010, I spent a couple of weeks working on a film with video journalism supremo David Dunkley-Gyimah at the Southbank Centre in London.

We were interviewing artists from around the world, and every discipline imaginable: poets, musicians, film makers, painters and violinists. Among them was the architect Shumon Basar. Off camera he was the most interesting and relaxed, and while we were talking he said something that’s stuck with me since.

He said whatever type of art you do, it’s vital you keep consuming ideas and information. He likened the brain to a cow: ‘you want the cow to produce milk [ideas] but to do that you must feed it well.’

Journalism, and its periphery disciplines (writing, film making, photography, design) consume ideas like we consume petrol. If you’ve worked on a magazine, 24-hour news channel or even run a blog, you’ll know just how ideas hungry these things are.

So, no matter how busy you are, make time to take Betsy out for a big lunch. As always, I’d love your own personal recommendations too – stick ’em in the comments box!

Six things to feed the cow

.01 A good newsletter

Sign up some inspiring, idea-laden, newsletters, that pop into your inbox without you having to do anything. If it’s sitting in your inbox it’s harder to ignore, and you can still save it for later on.

I’m personally loving two particular newsletters right now: BrainPickings, a weekly collection of great design and ideas curated by Maria Popova in New York. Her Twitter feed is really worth following too. Secondly the Do Lectures (think TED lectures but on a Welsh farm) send out a weekly newsletter called Kindling, which does just that: it sets off little sparks of inspiration and lets them catch hold.

.02 TED Lectures

If you can make time, even once a week, to watch an 18 minute TED lecture, you’ll be a more informed and inspired person. As well as good talks on productivity, ideas and the like, the best TED talks are about something completely off the wall, like whaling or painting.

The success of the format relies on the focus on new ideas (rather than a soap box for criticism) and on the 18 minute slot: too short for an expert to waffle on for hours, but too long to just scramble a powerpoint together at the last minute. This one on the future of online video has inspired my ideas throughout 2011.

.03 Kickstarter

Never mind cool ideas, what about being inspired by what people are actually doing? That’s why I love visiting KickStarter. It started as a platform to raise funds for cool projects, but has a secondary role as a hub for inspiring ideas people are trying to get off the ground. If you’re a film maker, it’s a useful watering hole to see what documentary projects people are trying to get off the ground.

I’m living in patient wait for KickStarter to become available to those outside the US (at the moment only US citizens can fundraise). Oh and if you see one you like, don’t forget to donate a dollar or two to the cause.

.04 Video .fu library

Speaking of films, I couldn’t miss off the video .fu library from this list. I’ve been curating a collection of epic, cinematic, memorable video storytelling all year. There are more than 30 films in the library so far, and dozens of subscribers.

In particular, I look for factual stories which take a cinematic approach to how they’re made, focusing on compelling characters and strong narrative arcs. Many appear on this blog but not until some time after they’re in the library so get an early peek. If you’re looking for inspiration for characters, styles or story structure, this is a good place to start.

.05 This American Life

This American Life is a wonderful way to feed the cow when you’re on a long journey or even just commuting to work. The hour-long weekly podcast is a finely crafted nugget of great stories well told, by Ira Glass and his team. If you want to learn how to tell better stories you must listen to TAL.

As it’s a podcast it’s something you can drop onto your iPod, iPhone or just the laptop, and listen when you’re travelling. A word of warning about This American Life: each episode demands (and rewards) your concentration. Don’t listen while you’re doing emails or writing a blog post – give it your full attention.

.06 beta620

A new product from the New York Times, beta620 is a platform for experimental projects being tried about by developers, journalists and co at the paper. They include apps and mashups – worth a visit to see what some of the smartest people in journalism are up to. They also have some great hacking events going on, if you’re NYC based.

Of course, I should add visits to museums, galleries and exhibitions to this list, plus who knows how many countless books. But at least this digital selection is something you can dive into right away. Please add your own suggestions below!