The Golden Age of Publishing – BookExpo 2011

DylanIn 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan stunned the crowd of folk music lovers, by “going electric” – playing a few songs with a full plugged-in band. He ended the set with a harsh statement via the song “It’s all over now, baby blue.” The final verse:

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

This is the story I am thinking about as I attended BookExpo this week in New York City – a huge trade show for book publishing insiders.

What Dylan did – and thousands of others could not – is take action. To not reflect on how the world was changing, but to be a catalyst for that change; to willingly shed his own skin, and evolve. Dylan was never the same after that, and it was his CHOICE. This is something I think we can all use reminding of – that the world is not happening TO us, we have the CHOICE to take the reigns and make change happen.

And this is what I am seeing in many small ways at BookExpo this week. I met with many authors who are exploring DIY publishing. Walking into the massive Javits center hall at BookExpo proper, the first booth you see is Amazon, whose recent announcements have stirred the publishing world faster than ever.

The message is loud and clear: the time for mere reflection is over. We need DOERS. And if we aren’t willing to be that person, then it is clear that someone will step in and take our place.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not “old school publishing” vs “digital publishing” or a big publishing house vs Amazon. This was a room filled with thousands of people who LOVE books, who love writers, who love stories, and who love ideas.

Dan Blank Is the event perfect? Nope. And that’s what I love about it. It is many things to many people – not one unified kumbaya whole. I think that makes a vibrant, thriving, and VITAL community, business, and industry. And I think there is room for everyone, at least in the fact that there is OPPORTUNITY for everyone. Sure, not all will find success, but all have the CHANCE to carve out a reasonable corner of this industry. Those who will do the best will likely focus less on the form, and more on the need. On providing for creators and consumers – and the ever growing blurry gray area between them. That many readers are writers. That many writers are readers. And that is where the opportunity lies. In the self-propagating momentum that creates fractals of creativity, ideas, sharing, and creation.

Going back to the Dylan reference above, I see a lot of new matches being lit.

Not everyone needs to be an innovator, as long as we are all in an ecosystem where innovation is possible.

We will push and pull each other along. At times helping, at times needling. This is not an us vs them game. We all love what books represent – the work, the stories, the information, the access, the community, the creativity, and the people who make that happen. And we all want a sustainable future, one where there is firm financial footing that rewards those who do the work.

This 93-year-old publishing attorney and author has been going to book fairs for 60 years. As we analyze the many details of this week’s events, we have to look ahead to the world we are creating 60 years from now. In 2071 will seem extraordinary that any of us will still be active in publishing, and would have attended BEA this week.

Nick Hughes wrote a wonderful post that looks at the phases of innovation – from interruption, to the frenzy of financial bubbles around a new idea, to the crash, and then to the golden age where new ideas mature and become stable foundations of a new market. Highly recommended, especially when considering the future of publishing.

When is the golden age? When there is a vibrant ecosystem of people dreaming, working, and creating. The golden age is now. Enjoy it.

-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com

The Dials, Levers and Buttons of Building Your Author Platform

The difference between a traditional book launch and building an author platform

Dan Blank If you are a writer and want to build a successful career, what options do you have? The above image is an example of how one could look at a traditional book launch vs a writer developing their own platform and marketing channels. There are two ways to look at this:

The good:
That if you choose the bottom box – to build an author platform – you have more levers to pull, buttons to push, dials to tune, and this means you have more options, more chances for success. That you are not waiting for someone else to validate you in order to have the chance to be published, that you don’t just have one 6 week window in which to promote a book that you spent years writing and bringing to publication. The above image looks ‘good’ because a traditional book launch can look like this:

A traditional book launch

That timeline here can be weeks or a couple of months. It has taken years to get to this point – you have slaved over writing the book, worked hard to find an agent, a publisher, and get to the culmination of a long process. At that point, you have a few weeks to try to get good reviews, get the media to notice your book, get placement with book retailers, and find your readership.

For most books, that spike does not represent tens of thousands of books sold. Often it is just hundreds of books, or maybe in the low thousands. Does that spike meet your expectations? If you worked on your book for 5 years, and sold 1,100 books before sales trailed off – is that building the type of career you want?

The bad:
Another way to view the image up top is that when you have more levers to pull, buttons to push, dials to tune – that it’s more work. Most people don’t like that. Most people are already swamped – juggling their writing, their career, family, home, hobbies, and other responsibilities. Maybe they struggled to find time to write, and don’t understand how they can find time to engage with potential readers and build their author platform.

To them, having all of these levers, dials and buttons means that your work becomes scattershot. They prefer a simple, elegant, and powerful solution. They want that first box up top – just flip the one toggle switch, and have magical things happen.

So which side is right here? The one that views an author platform as a wonderful opportunity, empowering writers, or the side that views it as a confusing road that takes one away from their writing?

Honestly, I don’t think either side is right, I think there is merely a difference in attitude. That the writer who sees the opportunity in how the web has empowered them – is one who will do the work to find a way to connect with readers. That they don’t find excuses to avoid connecting with readers and finding an audience. That one’s desire is a primary factor in the outcome – that one has a passion to reach their goals and will leverage any opportunity to do so. That these buttons, dials and levers all represent opportunities that did not exist in the old publishing world. That waiting for a phone call from an agent or publisher is not their entire strategy for the success of their writing career.

Don’t get me wrong – I love agents and publishers – enablers of sharing writing with the world, and connecting people through it. But in a world where LOTS of books are published each year, where nearly everyone is a writer and potential author – having your own writing career depend on a single switch is akin to making a bet.

A bet that in that one moment, that one short time frame in which you flip that switch, that your dreams will come true. This, instead of slowly building your dreams – doing things every week to build your audience and your career over the course of months and years.

A reality for writers is that many people are trying to fill a certain niche with books. There is lots of “competition” – although I hate to think of that word in terms of creative work. But the fact is: you are not the only person writing in your genre or on a specific topic. You may feel that fiddling with all of those dials is not for you. The problem is that – other writers in your field or genre WILL make the time. That they might look at those dials, feel confused and overwhelmed and begin fiddling anyway. Because in fiddling with something new, you learn. This is how you find connections that matter. Sure, you will do some things poorly, but you will also unlock opportunities that propels your career forward.

Overall, this is about expanding the number of options at your disposal. More options to build an audience and connect with others.

This is why I am relaunching my online course: Build Your Author Platform. It’s an 8-week course I will be teaching this summer that takes writers through a structured curriculum, but also offers personalized help to grow their writing career. Click here to sign up for updates as I move towards launch.

Have a great day!

-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com

The Creative Process: Not Everything Needs to be Shared

yearbook

My wife bought a college yearbook from 1927. We were astounded by it’s craftsmanship – it’s weight, depth, and overall quality.

It had me considering the difference between this book and Facebook.

The difference between eBooks and traditional books.

Between art and commerce.

Between experience and documentation.

I work with writers to help them connect with those in their community, with readers, with like-minded individuals. And there has been a lot said about the expectations upon authors – about whether they must now be marketers, constantly promoting – or if they should focus solely on writing.

But I think there is a distinction.

That our creative work need not be shared.
That our creative work need not earn a profit.
That our creative work can be a slow and personal process, and it’s effect internal, not external.

And that this is a choice. A writer does not need to share their creation. They can write it in perfect solitude, and never spend a moment on marketing. And that is absolutely fine.

But what if the goals of the writer or creator is that they DO want their work shared? That they want to do everything possible to connect to others through their work. How do they find the time to do both – to create, and to connect?

In the 1990’s, I spent three years creating a series of pop up books. These were born in the midnight hours as I worked three jobs to pay the rent. I went through revision after revision, exploring the story, the words, the illustration, and how they related to the paper engineering of the book.

I spend months experimenting with materials and styles.

I went through x-acto blades by the dozen.

I would wander around New York City taking photos of everyone and everything that inspired me, infusing them into the work I was creating.

These books represented an entire world to me. They pushed me further and further, trying to become what they knew they needed to be.

After three years of work, my time with that story was done. In the end, there were three books, and a story that pushed my vision further than I thought possible.

And then, at the culmination of the creative process, I carefully packed them away in boxes, and that is where they have been ever since. And that is where they will remain.

Those stories did not need to be shared in order for me to fulfill my vision for them. They didn’t need an agent, a publisher, a Twitter feed, a book tour, a line of related merchandising products, or a royalty check in the mail. They didn’t need an audience.

Their purpose was served in their creation alone. Not everything needs to be shared.

So if you are a writer, trying to understand the role you play in finding an audience; if you are a creator, summoning a world that never existed before, and putting it on paper: it is your choice.

Your work does not need to be shared.
It does not need to earn revenue.
The process of creation alone is enough.

A world has been created, and an identity has been explored. And that does not need to be validated by attention or praise or money.

But…

If you choose that your work needs to have an effect outside of yourself to be relevant; That it must be read; That your skills must have an audience; That your time must be supported my monetary benefit; That it has an inherent value, and an industry such as the publishing industry can assist you in exchanging it for its approximate financial value.

If any of these things are true for you, then we must move beyond the romantic vision of publishing. That the world will magically find your work. That an industry will expend its precious resources to share it, to promote it, to give it a chance to grow. That this happens naturally, easily, and within a reasonable timeframe.

Publishing is hard work. And that hard work does not guarantee you an audience, validation or financial gain. It is no one’s RIGHT to have those things, it is something that is earned.

That is why I work with writers to help them connect with others. Because it’s not easy. Because it’s hard to do it alone. Because it can be an inherent part of realizing the vision of the creative process.

These writers have goals, and that includes extending the value of the work beyond themselves. And they are willing to invest in the vision. They are willing to work for it.

You don’t have to do that. Every song does not need to be published by a music label and played on the radio. For some songs, it is enough for the singer to sing it alone in a cabin in the woods, never shared. It is enough for a song to be written and sung from one person to another, never resonating in the eardrums of another person.

But for those songs that need to spread – that is a choice. It is a choice to share – to work hard to do so – to give it wings beyond the creator.

Should Bob Dylan focus his musical genius by only sitting home and writing songs, exploring his craft? Regardless of what you or I think, he spent most of his career touring hundreds of days each year.

Should U2 have never released and promoted their material under a tight deadline, even though some band members felt it wasn’t ready? Regardless of what you or I think, they did, and found success doing so.

In fact, I think that the promotion of a work can be integral in developing it. That you learn to explore it from outside of yourself. You learn what it does or doesn’t mean to others. You see it in a new light, outside of the confines of your head. You give it a chance to breathe, to grow on it’s own. This is why bands tour. This is why Jack White will spend a day recording an album, and a year touring it.

It’s not always ideal. Many popular bands are sick and tired of playing their hits – they have done so hundreds of times already. They watch crowds rush to the bathroom when they play their newest material – the material that as an artist, they are most proud of personally. And they work to share these songs, to give them meaning and context in people’s lives.

My pop up books sit in the dark corners of a storage space, packed deeply away. That story does not need to be shared, and that is my choice as a writer and artist, as a creator.

And for the work that you create, that choice is your own.

-Dan

Our Effect as Writers and Publishers: Creating the Future

I LOVE working with writers and publishers. This is the heart of my business, and how I tend to spend most of my waking hours both personally and professionally.

The news of Borders closing 200 of its stores was chilling to many, even if it wasn’t surprising. I visited a Borders the other day that is to remain open, and it had me considering many things about the state of the publishing world.

Dan Blank Mostly, it has me considering the role of creators vs destroyers. To clarify: this isn’t really a role, it is an EFFECT of our work. And our effect can only be measured AFTER the fact, not with intention. No one within Borders intended for this to happen. Yet, it did. Undoubtedly, a few months down the road when the restructuring is complete, Borders will come out with a rosy picture of how successful the restructuring has been, and how it has put them onto the path for success.

But that won’t undo the effects on communities, authors and publishers.

For those of us in the publishing industry, what does this leave the next generation? What is our role in helping to find a solution that ensures our communities have access to information, to great works of literature, to writers, readers, and everyone who ensures their work is shared to the world?

Every day, we shape the future of publishing. The future of writing. The future of reading. The future of connecting people to ideas and each other via the printed word – whether that word is printed on paper or screen.

This is a profound responsibility. SO much bigger than ourselves.

Who can do this? You. And me. And everyone we know. WE are the best resources to help create a positive future for all the things that books enable.

This shift in publishing – this is a weight on all of our backs. We may not each be responsible for the problem, but we are responsible for the solution. That we each must come together to do our part to help the whole.

Every day, I listen to so many smart people in publishing, so many passionate and inspiring people. And I simply hope that their attitude is infectious. That each of us can play a small role in building, not in tearing down. In helping, not in carving our own pieces of the pie.

Last year I discovered a little community whose time had passed. I snapped photos, and hung onto them, never sure in what context to use them. But this week, the photos have been on my mind, so I thought I would share them.

Below are photos of a small summer lake community that has fallen into disrepair. In some ways, the photos are haunting. Not because of anything supernatural, but because I can’t help but wonder why this happened. As I look at these derelict houses, I ask myself, what if each person who stayed there applied another coat of paint, fixed a broken window, repaired the roof. What if they cut back the weeds that began eating away at the foundations. Instead of relying on a single owner to take care of it all, what if individuals took small measures to help the community.

These photos are a metaphor, a small representation of what happens when we don’t collectively take care of things. I have been holding on to these photos for a long time now. I think they are a sort of Rorschach test – you see what you want to see. This week, the photos make me think of Borders and it’s effect on publishers and writers. I consider the current state of the publishing industry, and actions we can each take to ensure it has a vibrant future.

Here’s the story of how I found and explored this place:

While driving, I noticed these empty houses hidden behind brush, and decided to stop:

It turns out, they are what remains of a small summer lake community from the early part of the 20th century. Made up of at least 8 houses, most are now in complete disrepair. I explored them, trying to peak into a time gone by. You can practically see the decades when you look at these houses. I ventured behind them:

The houses get progressively worse in condition. Some seem to have had people living in them not to long ago. Others have been falling apart for decades now. The first had simple broken windows, the start of what will become much greater disintegration of what they once were:

The second seemed as if its roof would soon collapse.

The third is when things started to get more interesting

You can see right through it, from the hole in the back to the front door.

What was once a standing shower is literally falling out of the house.

Another building, in better shape, but likely not for very long. Cinder blocks hold up the back corner of the house.

This house was like a decomposing dollhouse, one entire side was missing. To the right you see the kitchen, to the left, the bedrooms.

The polka dot curtains still hang in the kitchen, and the front door is still chained shut (see top left corner of door.) How long ago was the chain set? How many decades have passed since then, since the entire side of the house fell off?

The backside of the same house shows it being held up by a few carefully placed 2×4’s. Incredible.

Odd to be looking into a window of a house, only to see through to the other side.

This house looks as though it belongs in Emerald City

There is a phrase I hear a lot in the startup community: “fail early and fail often.” I have nothing against the phrase, but when large organizations such as Borders begin to stumble, when doing so has such a big effect on publishers, communities, writers, and readers, I begin to think about the EFFECT of failure.

The phrase “fail early and fail often” assumes that there is the ability to carry on after the failure, hence the convenient addition of ‘often,’ as if there are unending resources, motivation, and ability. But sadly, this is not often the case. I believe in learning from failure. But I’m not going to pretend there aren’t casualties well beyond the person or entity that failed. That is why Borders is on my mind. How it affects everyone else outside of Borders.

For background on the Borders situation Jim Milliot at Publishers Weekly created a few good articles:

-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com

Why Publishers & Writers Need to Embrace Digital Media

I read the most incredible article this week, and I want to take the time to really explore what it means. Specifically… what it means for you and your career as a publisher or writer.

The article is a Fortune piece on Conan O’Brien, and his transition from old media personality to becoming a multimedia brand. Even if you hate Conan, read the article. It’s an important reflection on the power EACH OF US has to reshape our lives and careers.

Dan Blank What amazes me is that this happened last year. By then, Twitter was already seen as normal, when we all felt like we missed any “opportunity” with Twitter that would have profound effect. And yet, here we have Conan’s story, which perfectly embodies not just the power of digital media, but the power of an individual who focuses on purpose and connection.

Below are highlights from the article. But this is the main theme:

“Like millions of other Americans, Conan O’Brien’s life has been disrupted by the digital world, and he’s been forced to reinvent himself.”

If you are in publishing – if you are a writer or creator – consider how this article reflects on your career. On how we have ALL been challenged by new media, but that there is opportunity hidden within it if we care to look. I want to be clear: Conan’s story is not about technology. It is about removing the pretense, about getting back to basics – connecting with people, and doing so via a shared purpose.

If you don’t know the basic’s of Conan’s recent experience: after 17 years as a late night talk show host, NBC made an unreasonable demand: to move his show, until after midnight, and put his biggest competition (Jay Leno) in the time slot ahead of him, at 11:35. Conan would not make the move, so he left the show of his dreams. Via social media and the web, fans helped support him, and it lead the way to a very different type of career for Conan.

Okay, here is what I took away from the article:

  • Conan Focused on Greater Purpose and Beliefs, not Selfish Motivation
    His response to NBC’s demand that he move his show from 11:35 to 12:05:
    “For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting… I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.”

    This wasn’t a discussion of contracts or formats. It was about the greater affect of his decision on the people it affected most: the fans and the work he would be building – a work that has a rich history. Messing with those things in the name of profit alone is not something he wanted to be a part of.

  • Context Matters
    Conan’s use of Twitter started when a fan created an image, Facebook Page and Twitter account to support him. In coming to his support, Conan saw the power of social media – something he knew nothing about. When he saw its use within the context of his situation, a light bulb went off.

    For those in publishing – some of this talk about digital media, social media, apps, etc must seem very foreign. Look for ways to put the proper context around it – to see how it can connect you with your core mission of sharing information and stories – of connecting with people.

  • The Role of “The Audience” has Changed
    On the generational shift, thanks to the web and social media: “It’s an audience that doesn’t want to be just an audience — they want to be participants. They love being connected to one another and to the celebrity objects of their affection; they love posting and creating and remixing.”

    In the publishing world, I hear the phrase “People still love holding books” a lot. You know what, I love holding books too. We all love books. But that’s not the question. The question is… do some people enjoy connecting with information and stories in a different manner too. Is there another opportunity IN ADDITION to holding books. One that does not belittle the book, but is simply different from it. When we stop focusing on the book, and start focusing on readers, a world of possibilities opens up.

  • We Sometimes Represent Things Greater than Ourselves
    “Generation X is finally at the stage where they can have the jobs the boomers had, and the economy crashes. There’s nothing left for them: There’s no Social Security; there’s nowhere to invest. Conan was a great stand-in for the frustration with this never-ending boomer legacy.”

    For a writer or publisher, this is about understanding that people’s relationships with your work is something deeper than purchasing and reading a magazine article or a book. That the work LIVES within them, they think about it and act on it long after the process of reading it has ended. Consider what those deeper connections are all about.

  • Value Can Be Created Where There Was None Before
    “What was interesting about it,” points out O’Brien, “is that all the legal prohibitions were coming from people in the old media. They were saying you can’t do all these things, and pretty quickly we realized, ‘Wait a minute!’ Someone said, ‘Does that include Twitter? No. It doesn’t include Twitter.’ And so I started tweeting.”

    If the publishing world tries to create the digital media (eg: ebook) world in the same image as the print world, they will find challenge after challenge. The rules that we think apply don’t really exist. But for most of us, it is scary to consider this – that these rules that secure our world-view don’t exist. For others, it leaves an opportunity. To help shape the world, and improve it.

  • Power is in Aligning Purpose to Connection
    “On January 23, 2010 after taping his last broadcast, Conan O’Brien, a guy who had been a staple of late-night television for 17 years, no longer had a show. Nor did he have a Facebook or Twitter account yet.” A month later, he amassed 250,000 Twitter followers in his first day on Twitter.

    Was Twitter the key in Conan’s success? No. It was merely a channel, be it a relevant one for his audience. It was his purpose – in combination with the channel – that had such a profound effect. When you approach a channel like Twitter, you can’t think about what it can do for you, you have to think about what you are putting into it. That is what matters.

  • Learn by Doing
    He sold 120,000 tickets to his live concert tour with a single Tweet, and sold out 30 shows within a few days. During the live shows, they would create a unique twitter hash tag, so Conan could keep track of what was happening in the audience, and use it in his performance. “Suddenly O’Brien wasn’t just performing for fans; he was also engaging in a conversation with them.”

    Conan kept exploring what could be done – how to further connect with his audience – even during a theater tour, something very traditional. Again and again, he broke down barriers that separated him from his audience.

  • Freedom Matters
    With his new show on TBS: “O’Brien is in control of all the on-air creative and, just as important, all the digital use of his content. He and his production company Conaco own the show. Among the other late-night talent — Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, and Jimmy Fallon — Letterman is the only host who owns his show. It’s the opposite of O’Brien’s setup at NBC, says Ross, a partner in the company. “Conaco owns the show, and TBS is a participant. At Tonight, NBC owned the show, and we were participants.” And ownership makes all the difference for O’Brien and his team.”

    It is hard to state how big of a shift this is for the media world. Conan will not be the last to experience a shift like this in their career.

  • Rewrite the Rules of Success
    “Team Coco touches more than 5 million people each month, many of them primarily consumers of O’Brien’s brand of humor online. “A lot of television executives still have the idea that a show is something everybody watches.” His team also shares clips from the show very quickly – so instead of people needing to rip them and post them, Conan’s team encourages them to simply share.

    Conan’s new role is something very new and very traditional at the same time. Regardless, he has rewritten the rules of success, paving the way for others.

So why am I so excited about this story? Because it’s not just about creating great content and broadcasting it, but about strengthening the CONNECTION and ENGAGEMENT between the creator and the audience. Digital media is not about marketing to people – tricking them to engage with you. Rather, it is about aligning for a common purpose.

For each of us, this is about not just embracing a thing (digital media), but embracing a change in our own identity. That even though we may have EXPECTED our careers to be one thing, we have to be open to shift and expand. Not for the sake of ‘media’ – but for the opportunity for our work to have a deeper affect on the world.

In the end for Conan, it wasn’t about him keeping “The Tonight Show” at all costs – about sitting in Johnny’s chair. It was about connecting with people – entertaining them – making their lives better.

For those of you in publishing and who are creating great work that flows through the publishing world – this comes down to the idea of whether you are focusing ONLY on the book or magazine or newspaper – or if you are focusing on the effect your work has on people’s lives, regardless of media type. And that the opportunity in front of you is to strengthen your connection to the world, and give your work the chance to have a greater purpose and effect.

-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com