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. 

The 7-step-plan to turn your journalism degree into a career

Posted in Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on September 27, 2010

It’s that time of year again. Except this year the stakes have been upped once more.

If you’re starting your journalism undergraduate or masters degrees this month, then first of all: well done. There was another increase in j-course intake, but still (in the UK at least) thousands of young people didn’t get in. I hope someone has told you already that having letters after your name is not the ticket to a job interview it used to be.

These days you need a strategy to prepare yourself for a very turbulent and brow beaten journalism industry – and a road map to give yourself the edge over the competition.

7 steps, you probably haven’t been told, for turning your journalism degree into a successful journalism career

.01 Learn

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice really: get busy living, or get busy dying”

Andy Dufreyne

Image credit: mikebaird on Flickr

Learn at least 3 new skills. And I mean practical, technical, challenging skills: photography, video editing, data mining, motion graphics production, HTML&CSS, JQuery, infographics design, social media… the list goes on. If there’s one that isn’t being taught as part of your curriculum, then make it your business to learn it in your free time. Look for websites, books, blogs and e-courses specialising in it.

The aim is to become what I call ‘a jack of all trades and a master of one‘: do one thing really well, sure, but widen your skills base in as many other areas as possible. You might think ‘what’s the point at learning JQuery if I’m only ever going to be amateur at it?’ – but your amateur level of coding is valuable to people who know even less than you do (i.e. 98% of people currently working in a newsroom).

The renaissance-style ability to be skilled at many things is back in demand, and the polymath is set for a comeback. Being good at one thing is sooo last century, so use your free time to sharpen your range of skills.

.02 Practice…

“Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.”

Erica Jong

You don’t get good at video journalism by reading all the books, making a couple of films, and watching TV. Trust me. I sweat away at making online films 4 days a week, and they’re still not nearly as good as I want them to be (and I’ve been doing this for five years).

While you’re a student you have a massive advantage over the rest of us: access to top-of-the-range gear and more free time on your hands than you know what to do with. You will regret not making the most of this, trust me.

Give yourself a specific project which focuses your practice – something which involves getting deep and dirty with this particular skill for at least 3 hours a week. If you want to learn photography, don’t just book out a camera and take random snaps: do a project taking portraits of the homeless people in your town (for example) and create a public platform for your work in the form of a website.

.03 Publish

“There is no such thing as boring knowledge, only boring presentation”

Dan Roam

Released under Creative Commons licence

Image credit: hejog on Flickr

Get really familiar and comfortable creating content for the internet, publishing it online, and marketing it. Chances are your career will depend on knowing how to do this. Don’t hope/expect a ‘techie’ do all the web stuff for you. Editing a film and uploading it (in the correct standards) to Youtube needs to be second nature to you. And so does using social media to make sure it gets watched.

This one is really important, because if you’re starting uni this year, you’re probably the last generation that may have a memory of life before the internet. There are kids coming up behind you who get millions of views on Youtube without breaking a sweat (see this article for examples) – hell, there are probably a few in your classroom right now.

Start a blog, begin a Tumblr, start audiobooing, whatever – you’ll need to do it now to get over beginner’s nerves and to give yourself time to develop your voice.

.04 Watch less TV

“The best assumption to have is that any commonly held belief is wrong”

Ken Olsen

I watch about 30 minutes of TV a week – and that will go back down to zero when the current series of the Inbetweeners finishes.

Since I cut back on my TV hours my life has got at least 5 times more interesting and exciting than it was before. I have quit my job, I have traveled all over, I have written two books and made a dozen films. What could you do if you stopped watching the X-Factor?

If you still need a fix of something that looks like TV then you would be well advised to fence off 36 minutes a week to watch two TED lectures. Short, succinct presentations from some of the worlds smartest people? Cha-ching!

Don’t just stick to ones about journalism or the media – pick a random one from a marine biologist and your eyes will be opened to new story ideas and issues.

.05 Lead

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Antoine De Saint-Exupery

A great way to separate yourself from the pack while you’re at university is to take the lead on something. The world (including journalism) is full of people who are happy to follow, to consume, to watch others take the chances – but not to take the lead and create something themselves. Are you one of those people? Initiative is a rare attribute – and therefore a very valuable one.

Start a collaborative reporting project and organise your fellow students to contribute to it. Take on the responsibility for being the editor, even when it goes bad, and you’ll learn a lot about yourself and the industry. If there is a problem take responsibility for creating the solution.

.06 Up your game

“It’s your thinking that decides whether you’re going to succeed or fail”

Henry Ford

Released under a Creative Commons Licence

Image credit: Ed Yourdon on Flickr

Here’s the thing: there are way more of you (people studying journalism) than there ever has been. Oh, and there are fewer mainstream jobs. That means increased competition and it means being average just won’t cut it. Five years ago we could all get away with being average at something – the current (and dying) economy is built on selling average stuff at cheap prices. This won’t last.

Don’t go into the jobs market place choosing to be average.  (Notice how I say ‘choosing‘ to be average, and not ‘being‘ average: average is a mindset, not a physical attribute. You stop being average the day you decide you will be awesome-or-bust, and spend every day achieving that.)

It’s not a simple switch however, and takes people months to come to terms with and apply – start now, and you’ll be rocking the free world before the ink dries on your graduation certificate.

.07 earn

“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others….I find out what the world needs, and then I proceed to invent.”

Thomas Edison

The great thing about being a ‘polymath’ (see point 1, above) is you can potentially make money from doing several different things at once. The internet has made this easier, faster and cheaper than ever. If you haven’t already, aim to turn at least one of your skills into a part-time business before you graduate. Know how to make an awesome website? Then you’ll know how easy it is to set up a web design company. Got a proper SLR camera and all the lenses? Then why not set yourself up as a one-person events photography business?

More than anything, it will get you used to the idea of exchanging your skills for money, and you’ll learn a lot of the basics of business which hold people back from great entrepreneurial ventures in the future. One gig a month shooting an event and you’ll be able to swap the Supernoodles for something nicer – and it won’t invade your study schedule.

Apart from the first one, these are not the traditional “skills the journalists of the future must learn” you’ll see on other j-blogs this year. Preparing yourself for the choppy waters ahead is more than just learning some multimedia skills and starting a blog: it requires a real shift in mindset, and that’s something few students are prepared for.

For more advice and practical skills for Next Generation Journalists click right here!

Have I missed anything off the list? Hit me in the comments box below!