When you’re writing that first book, it can seem inconceivable that you might want to run an author business someday. But inevitably, things change! Today I talk about the journey from author to entrepreneur to creative business empire with Sean Platt.
In the intro, I mention Kobo’s new country store view, how 5 billion people will get access to the internet in the next few years, The World in 2025 and BOLD by Peter Diamandis. Plus, why you should check out the ALCS if you’ve been publishing a while to help locate little payments you might be missing.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Sean Platt is one of the three partners behind story studio Sterling & Stone, publishing a ton of books in multiple genres, and co-hosting the Self-Publishing Podcast along with Johnny B Truant and David Wright. Their successful books include Write, Publish, Repeat, Invasion and Yesterday’s Gone amongst many others. His latest product is StoryShop.
- On the changes at Sterling and Stone.
- Creating systems and letting go of touching every part of the company.
- Recruiting freelancers and employees from within one’s own community.
- On creating a clear and positive visitor experience for those coming to an author’s website.
- Writing and selling screenplays.
- Teaching writing and why Sean was resistant to that at first.
- On story software and rethinking how books and stories are made.
Transcript of Interview with Sean Platt
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I’m back with Sean Platt. Hi, Sean!
Joanna: It’s great to have you back on the show. Now just in case people don’t know who you are, I’ll just do a little introduction.
Sean is one of the three partners behind story studio Sterling & Stone, publishing a ton of different books in multiple genres and co-hosting the Self-Publishing Podcast, along with Johnny B. Truant and David Wright. And their successful books include “Write, Publish, Repeat,” “Invasion,” “Yesterday’s Gone,” amongst so many others. It’s very hard to do an introduction.
But Sean, many people will listen to your show, but it’s been two years since you were last on The Creative Penn.
Sean: Well, I find that hard to believe, actually.
Joanna: I know!
Sean: It feels like yesterday.
Joanna: Time flies. But Sterling & Stone is a much bigger company. Things have really changed. Give us a bit of an update.
What has changed for you in terms of your role and what you’re working on now?
Sean: That’s a great question, and it’s changing really fast, actually.
Just really recently, within maybe the last month, Johnny and I were talking. And a year ago, we had a conversation where it was like, “We’re forming this company, we’re partners.” And we’ve treated things really like they’re the same. We’re the same people. We make decisions at the same time and the same places, and we’re on all the same calls.
And during this walk, we realized that’s kind of silly. We fought it in the beginning. We were just, “Okay, there’s two CEOS, we’re co-CEOS,” but a CEO is a very different person than the COO. And we just wanted to share in that space, but it was the wrong thing to do.
And as soon as we decided, Okay, my job is kind of lead the company, and his job is to kind of make sure that I do everything right, and that it gets done, and so we really leaned into those roles. And so we’re getting actual things done faster than ever, because he’s fantastic at seeing that picture and having the team to dot all those i’s and cross all those t’s. I’m so much messier than that.
It was a joke in a company meeting that we had a couple of weeks ago, that had everybody laughing quite hard for quite a long time, when he said “Here’s Sean! Idea! Question mark! Profit!” Right? And there is some of that. I clearly see it in my head.
I do make the mistake often of assuming that the people around me can read my mind, and they’re on the same page as me and they’re getting it. And I know I’m saying a lot of things that are probably like I’m taking it for granted that they totally understand what I’m saying. And so that’s not always the best.
But now we have different filters. I’m aware, too, like I know what I need to work on, so I always want to improve my communication. And when I have several people saying, “Okay, I didn’t quite understand that third thing because the seventh thing is crazy,” so I have to explain the third thing so the seventh thing is less crazy, at least. And that’s really changed.
My job lately has been to slow down a little bit and actually strategize, and I’ve never had more fun, it’s great. And Christine kept slacking me during a workweek of a few weeks ago, “We need to give you more time to think, this is great.”
I think things are getting more oiled. I think we all can contribute our best value if we’re in the right places doing the right things.
Joanna: It is so good to hear that. And when I hear Johnny’s “Almanac,” I was like “This is so what you guys should be doing, it’s exactly the right thing.” I emailed him and congratulated him on it.
But it must be so hard for both of you. Now I’m not in the same place as you are, obviously, because as we’ve talked before, I don’t aim to have a massive company with all those people.
Sean: No, you’re so sane! You’re so sane!
Joanna: But in the last year I’ve been working with my husband, and also, I’ve increasingly felt, gosh, I wish I had a COO. If I had someone who would do these things, then I could spend more time with the creative side.
So what I wanted to ask you is – what you’re doing is on a much bigger level. But how have you dealt with your internal conflict of “I don’t want to give this up,” or external conflicts with people because you’ve had to explain yourself?
I have to explain myself to other people to try and get them to understand, so how are you dealing with that? And also that letting go.
Sean: Those are really good questions.
Okay, let’s do letting go first because I think that is hard. That is hard for creative people, it’s hard. You’ve built this thing and you wanna make it all better, right?
But as much as I like that…and I do, I want to hold onto many of these things. In fact, my friend Danny, we were talking a couple of years ago, and he’s like, “You’re touching every part of the company. Is that sustainable, or smart?”
He’s right, of course it’s not. But I said, I like editing every word. As long as it’s my company, I want to have my fingers in the clay. Even if my name isn’t on it, my name’s on it. That’s important to me.
I’m doing those things now. We are grooming things to where they can operate without me. And I think I’ll always be a part of Realm & Sands and Collective Inkwell. I’m going to be intimately involved with every single page of those books forever. But there are other authors who can come on board and be a part of the Sterling & Stone ecosystem, and I think that we’re really leaning into that. I love building the systems for that. That makes me really happy.
I don’t feel like it’s a loss, because I feel like I’m filling the bucket with something else. Okay, now I’m gonna get to go do these other things that I would have never had time to do. And I keep filling my plate with more and more exciting things, and I’m so looking forward to the many, many things that we’re planning for 2017, that would not have been possible if I were still hanging onto these other things.
I feel like I’m allowing myself to grow, and the company can grow and we can all grow because of it, and that’s very exciting to me.
But also it’s the building of systems. Like when I had the flower shop, I used to go and get all the remnants out of all these different empty buckets at the end of the day and divide them into three, and it was called a setup. I’m like here, “Now you have to make these bouquets because we have to turn this stuff fast.” I like creating a system and I like teaching a system.
We’re slowly figuring out our systems, and we’re gonna be able to actually get like SOPS, like a real operating business, standard operating procedures that are repeatable. And we’re really moving in that direction.
It’s amazing to take these systems that actually work in a brick-and-mortar sense and marry them with the creative, the art that we’re creating and the experiences. We’re trying to create more experiences and being able to do that with systems in place. It is what creative magic is about.
Joanna: Yeah. And it is super that you’re doing that.
Maybe just also talk about how you’ve recruited from your community. For example, on a much smaller scale, people listening, if you want a virtual assistant, which is where many people start with this kind of letting-go stuff… I know mine, Alexandra, is from my community and you’ve also recruited from your community, haven’t you?
What are your recommendations on hiring? Because you’re growing so fast and hiring can be the biggest issue, with indies, especially.
Sean: Okay, so there’s two parts to that. Of course, because I never have one part to anything, right?
I think that hiring from the community is – this isn’t necessarily true for every industry – but for us, community is so important and understanding who we are is so important. I wouldn’t want to go out and hire a PR person, because that’s not the same. I’d rather hire somebody, bring them into the team, have them all bond with us, really know who we are, and then actively go out and seek PR. I would just want to handle it from that angle, because I think who we are is as important as what we’re doing.
And so I want to make sure that as time unfolds, we’re really giving that the right intention. And I think intention is really important.
When you’re playing a pretty big game, it’s important to think long-term. What are we trying to do?
And bringing people in from the community who’ve kind of been there from the beginning, like our customer service person, Heather. She’s awesome. She’s been listening since the second show. She’s heard all the jokes. She gets our dynamic, and it does help. It means that she knows us, in a way, and it makes the onboarding just more natural.
We also have a really systematic hiring process that we’re gonna be using that’s actually developed and on loan to me from somebody who knows how to do these things much better than I do. We’re getting better and better at those processes.
I love it, but it is a little more painful than just making stuff. Making stuff is always more fun. But this is making a family, making a really amazing business, so it’s part of the making process.
Joanna: Absolutely. But it’s a scary part for a lot of people. And I know it’s like one of my big issues is letting go of stuff. So you guys are really good examples in that way, because you’re now letting go of more.
But you did talk there about who we are and the brand, and one of the things that you and Johnny particularly have done from the beginning is say, “We won’t be boxed into any genre, we’re going to write what we want.”
Now when you go to Sterling & Stone website, it is much more an imprint.
Are you at the point where you wanted to be when you made that decision, as in, you’ve now got these clear? And how do you recommend other authors go in terms of niche and genre?
Sean: Great questions. No, I’m not happy, but I’m really close. We’re getting there. It’s iterative.
What we had is a big scrappy just terrible mess. Christine, who is like a godsend to the company for sure, because she speaks it, it’s exactly why bringing from the community makes so much sense, because she knows who we are inside and out.
When she’s writing copy for us, it does its job so much better than any copywriter out there out there, doesn’t matter how good a copywriter you are if you don’t know your people, right? But the same person who is writing the copy is spending time in the Facebook, right? “The Facebook”? I sound like my grandpa. You said “The Facebook!”
So it’s just that community element is just so important and she’s remapped out all of our auto-responders, because as much as she’s into the indie publishing fiction world, she also has a copywriting and a marketing background. And so having her go in, and we’re just reshaping all of our funnels, getting everything in place and completely revamping the website. We’re going to have daily content and it will be strong.
There’s some stuff that’s just too early to talk about publicly that we’re doing for next year with the blog that is very, very, very cool.
Joanna: How does that apply, in terms of advice for other people around genre?
Sean: Right when you go to the site, it says “Are you a reader or are you a writer?” And that is just so fundamental, because we do have two very different audiences that we’re trying to send to the same destination. And that’s kind of like suicide for any kind of marketing.
Joanna: That’s what I have, too.
Sean: Right, it is very, very difficult.
You just have to always think of the user journey. What is their experience? When they land on the page, what is the very first thing they see? And they have to immediately understand who you are.
I totally feel your pain, because it is the exact same problem. Are people coming to you as Joanna or are they coming to you as JF, or what order? And can you take one and convince them that the other is awesome also? It’s a juggling act, for sure.
But I think you almost have to think of it as user interface, right? What is the customer journey? You have to know where people are coming in, so then you know where to send them.
Now when you have so much, like we do, I think that the rules change. But I think that you actually have a fairly simple thing, because you have this kind of fiction or nonfiction. Right? So you could actually do a very simple parsing when somebody lands on your site and they go here or they go here.
If you’re a romance author, say, and you’ve got a few different genres, because a lot of romance authors do that, right? They want to write in a few different genres. Then “Do you like this? Do you like this? Do you like this.” And then send people to that space.
Send them to, okay, “I like paranormal romance,” then you click on there and that’s all the options that you get. And after you go through there you can go to another part of the site, but you’re being led there.
You’re just more aware of what your user is going to see at any given time, rather than just letting them blindly fumble about. And that’s something that authors don’t think about. They’re not web designers, so they’re not thinking about that. They’re authors, and they’re thinking about, “I want my ideal reader to see all these books at once and love me completely,” and not have to make any decisions.
Joanna: I totally agree.
Well, what’s interesting, one of your imprints, let’s see, you’ve got sci-fi, and you’ve go the “Invasion” series. You’ve said that that is written to market, and it’s done incredibly well financially. And I’ve had Chris Fox on the show talking about this sort of stuff.
Would you say this is the most successful book, and what are your tips for writing to market? And how does that differ to some of your other more, I guess, for-love projects?
Sean: Great questions, always.
Writing to market, I think if you can crack the nut, it is incredibly fun. I love the way “Invasion” ends. I’ve said publicly it’s not my favorite of our books before, because it’s not. It’s just it’s not. I like “The Beam” a lot more in straight sci-fi.
Joanna: Me, too.
Sean: Right? It’s just, it’s better. But “Invasion” sells like 10, 20 times better. And also “The Beam” is 10 times harder to write. So you’ve got this project that takes five or six times the length of time. “Invasion” wrote very quickly. I’m almost embarrassed to say how quickly we put the original “Invasion” together considering what it’s yielded.
And so that’s very attractive to have a couple of projects like that. And I’m not so snotty, that’s like, “Oh, I can only make stuff that’s perfect,” not that Brits are all snotty, or even that that was a good Brit accent.
Joanna: No, it’s terrible.
Sean: I want to entertain people. And I’m smart enough to see at this point that there is a direct relation to how awesome I think something is versus how commercial it is. I’m perfectly comfortable with that now, like “Okay, whatever.”
“Invasion” was very much written to market, and even with kind of the wink-wink nod-nod keyword titles for the whole entire series, right? To us, we were baking marketing into our art, and that was a lot of fun.
Now since then, we’ve really leaned into it. We want to make our prestige projects, and we are not going to tap the brakes on that. That’s really important to us. We’ll hit at least one each year. And when we’re all caught up and we’ve close all our boxes because we’ve opened too many, and once those are all closed, we’ll have more of those, because they are more creatively rewarding.
But in the meantime, we’re seeing how wide we can crack that nut, and we have several projects in several different genres that are very intentionally written to market that are coming out next year. And they’re tremendously exciting.
My advice is find something that you are excited about.
Because if I wasn’t excited about these projects, I’d be kicking rocks. But every single one of them is just awesome. And we were able to do it by boxing ourselves into these very narrow constraints.
We were looking for very specific openings with which to write our books. Okay, this is our audience, this is exactly who we’re going for, this is our genre and our subgenre, and we just made sure that we picked ideas that really resonated with us but used this little sample to pull from.
The projects that have resulted from that are a ton of fun to write and they feel really commercial. Our mantra was we have to out-“Invasion” “Invasion.” And I think we’re doing that.
But I don’t think it’s possible without enthusiasm. I think people really need to, not look for a vulnerability in the marketplace, but look for an area where there’s opportunity, where they can write something that they’re really passionate about.
I think as long as you handle writing to market that way… I mean, that could be all you do, there’s no judgment at all. For me, I would want more variety than that, so I want to do prestige projects that I care about mixed with that. But whatever. I think it’s really fun, and I’m having a grand time writing to market.
Joanna: I think taking it kind of less seriously seems to be the approach that, like you said, it’s fun. And also you’re an entrepreneur and a creative. It seems like a creative project, in a way.
I’ve been quite resistant to it, but since talking to Chris and hearing you guys, I’m like, “Why am I resisting this so much?” I write slower than you guys, so I can’t choose as many projects per year.
Did you have that resistance, as well, to it?
Sean: No, I didn’t, because I just saw it as fun. And what’s the worst that can happen? We wasted a few months. But we were kind of forced into it, which is interesting.
We’d recently done this apprentice project, right? And so the books that I’m talking about are a result of that project. Because we had put out these guidelines, like, this is how we would structure if we were trying to do “Invasion” with a lot of intention and we were writing to market, these are the rules we would follow.
We had this group of apprentices, and we had to set the example. It was kind of funny because there were several moments on a couple of different projects where it had just been us, if it had just been me and Johnny, for example, we would have been like, “Okay, that’s good enough, let’s go.” But because we had a live audience who was watching us, we’re like, no, we have to follow the rules. It can’t just be like “Listen to what we say,” we have to follow the rules.
We really forced ourselves into the box, and it was the best thing ever. We ended up with the most complete outline we’ve ever had. And we really knew the story before we started, and we just had a really good time. We actually had this thing where we called it a table reading, and we took the beats and we just talked about the whole story, start to finish. And so we really knew it when it was time to tell it. And that was fun, and it was born from playing the rules.
There was a little bit of resistance, but I think that because we had an audience, we couldn’t succumb to it. We were forced into following the rules, and it ended up making the art better and more fun to produce.
Joanna: And more money.
Sean: Yeah. Right. And I think these are really commercial ideas.
Joanna: Fantastic. You mention table reading there, and I’ve been to a few screenwriters conferences, and table reading is something that they often do with scripts.
And you’ve announced, you’ve sold your first screenplay, which is awesome!
Sean: Thank you!
Joanna: Congratulations! And of course, you’ve admitted it was quite a small sale, it was not like seven-figure “hello, Hollywood!”
Sean: No, I’m not adding a wing onto the house or anything. But it’s done, right?
Joanna: It’s started.
Sean: Yeah. And I think that’s one of those things. It’s like, “what do I do after I write a book?” Write another one! Right? I’m not done, I’m not retiring from the screenplay business.
When you want to sell a screenplay, that’s the first thing they ask you is “What else have you optioned?” So being able to have that door open, I think, was good for us and it was good for Justin Sloan, who was the partner on that first project. So it’s just, everybody wins, right?
Joanna: What have you learned? Because I’m really interested. I’ve tried and failed a number of times to write my own screenplays, from adapting my own work.
What have you found to be difficult about adaptation? Or are you writing the story first as a screenplay from now on, for example?
Sean: I don’t think I’m ready to write from scratch. I will be someday. But right now, we have so much inventory that we have so many things that could be adapted, it doesn’t make sense to go outside, right?
Because I always think oh, I would love to see that as a movie. I would love to see that as a movie. I know this sounds silly. This is more the artist than the businessman in me talking, but there is something beautiful about that transference, and when I’m done with the screenplay, it is a movie.
Whether it gets made or not, it exists in this other medium, and I made that happen, and there’s something magical about that. So that’s almost enough for me. I mean, not quite, I’d rather sell it, but there is something very sweet about that process.
I wish I had a little more time to do it. I was doing it real regularly and I’ve totally pulled back just because there are so many other things going on. But I have a list of ones I want to hit.
As far as what I’ve learned; I’ve learned that you just have to do it. It’s like writing. It’s totally different. If you’re expecting it to be the same at all, it’s just not. I write fast. But I mean I’ll spend several minutes on every single page of a screenplay, despite there only being a couple hundred words, right? It’s a lot of thought.
But it’s an exercise, and it really does teach you. I mean there’s value in doing it, because you learn, for sure. I think it also makes you a better long-form writer because you’re understanding how to truncate things, and you’re understanding perspective and dialog in ways that you just don’t otherwise, but you’re right there on the ground with it. I feel like I got to be a better writer just by writing screenplays.
I think it’s a great exercise, but it’s also how much time in the day do you have. I’m like, “Oh, I’ll do that, writing a screenplay for a quarter onto the list,” which I’ve actually done and failed.
Joanna: Well, we haven’t finished the list of the many things you’re working on.
Another thing that’s happened this year is taking the nonfiction side of Sterling & Stone more seriously, which is really funny, because many people would have thought that you were already taking it seriously. I mean, “Write, Publish, Repeat” is a bit older now, and you’ve got the podcast and everything.
What was the shift in your mindset around doing both genre, both fiction and nonfiction?
Sean: Well, we always did both, but it was almost like we were very proudly, almost arrogantly, I would say, “No, we’re a fiction company and we’re not gonna sell stuff,” and it’s a little silly.
We did our event last year and we even proudly said, “As long as it breaks even, we’re fine,” which, like, okay, awesome, be a martyr, right? But we did and it was a really good event. We did that to build community.
I love people who do the work. I love smart people who dig in and do the work. And we saw all those people doing the work, and it really touched me.
I do like to teach, but I’m a little resistant. Cindy’s so happy right now because she’s always encouraged me to teach, and I’m still like, “Oh, yeah,” but I’m so begrudging about it.
It’s not like we were not taking it seriously, but there was a little bit of obligation there. Right? Like, yes, this is something we do, especially, like last thing Dave wants to do, half-Fridays, is get on the podcast, right? But he was very touched as well. It really did mean something to all of us.
Not only have I leaned into the idea of yes, this audience is looking for education and yes, I want to help create those things, and yes, as a company, we’re going to be responsible for the direction, or at least some of the direction that the industry goes. I am actually at a point where not only am I comfortable stepping into that, I feel good about it.
I needed to feel it in my heart because if I don’t, then it’s hard to get me to do anything I don’t genuinely want to do. Now that I genuinely want to do it, I’m doing it with my all. And I’m trying to think not just how can we create creative educational experiences, but how can we create experiences.
I think you can learn without memory, but if you anchor learning with memory, I think it’s crazy, crazy amazing. It’s exponential. I want to create that type of experiential event. That’s what we want to do as a company. But we’re figuring out what that means. But definitely, not just “Click here and you consume videos of information.” It’s gotta be something better than that.
Joanna: I personally didn’t meet you, but knew of you back in the kind of Copyblogger days and Johnny 1.0. I think that what has happened is that online education has reached the author audience. I keep getting emails that say “How come everyone’s creating courses?” And it’s like they’re not suddenly doing that. People have been doing this for years.
Sean: Forever, yeah.
Joanna: It’s just actually reached this industry now. Maybe authors are a little bit behind technologically, but I think that’s why it’s happening. I’m really glad that you guys are doubling down on that, too.
I also think, from a business perspective, nonfiction income can be steadier. Fiction can be really hit and miss, can’t it? Whereas nonfiction income can be a good, steady baseline, almost.
Sean: Yeah, for sure. I was talking recently about, everybody’s launched something. Everybody’s launched something. But there’s a direct correlation. When you launch something, people know your name. That’s what happens, you get on the actual radar.
And we’ve never really launched anything. We’ve done our Kickstarters, twice, but we’ve never actually gone on the map and launched, and got partners and all of that.
This is a new space for us. And we came up in the space. I understand the space intimately. So there are a lot of things that I don’t love about the way it all works.
As we’re going forward, as we’re getting into the space, I also feel like people are paying attention to what we do and how we do it. I feel like it’s our job not to just create the best product that we can and the best experience that we can, but to kind of toy with the launch model and to see, what can be done differently.
How can we market with manners, and how can we make sure that the right people are finding it and the right people are participating in the launch for the right reasons?
I’m really excited about that, too, because we do that at Sterling & Stone, marketing is part of our art. And so when we are creating our story sellers course for next year, the actual marketing of that will be part of the experience we want people to take away and how we want people to look at the way we do things.
Joanna: Oh, absolutely.
Now, already everyone’s like, “Oh my goodness, you’re doing so much!” One of the other things happening at Sterling & Stone is the development of StoryShop. Now this is crazy, crazy stuff.
First of all, what is StoryShop?
Sean: Yes, originally it was our attempt to build a cool, almost like an add-on to Scrivener, where you could have all these planning tools and then export it and work in Scrivener, because that was where our head was at the time. When we were originally conceiving of StoryShop, we wrote in Scrivener, and we were looking for ways to improve that experience and the preproduction process.
But, as happens with any idea, the more you toy with it, the more it changes into something else, and this idea was always malleable. Now we’re actually rethinking what modern writing software should be.
If we really look at out there, there are planning tools and there are digital typewriters. That’s pretty much it. But is there anything that’s really rethought from ground zero? Like what is the writing and publishing experience? Like what should that be in the year 2016? It’s different, and I feel like the tools that have been built so far are built on preconceptions that are outdated.
And so just rethinking that from the very, very start. How would a toddler approach this? Someone who doesn’t know anything about the way it’s been, and they’re asking these questions.
We started with a survey and we asked all our users, if you could have dream software, what would it be? We, internally at the company, had our ideas, and we’d already marinated on all of those. But what we saw from the audience was a lot of crossover. A lot of crossover. And it’s stuff that isn’t available.
And so we thought, how do we create this thing? And it’s been kind of a nightmare because it’s just been harder. We barely hit beta when we said we would. And it went out, and it was a little rough, but it was a minimum viable product, and the clock hasn’t started ticking on the backers who have their time. It’s all just use it for now.
It was originally planning tools that were going to be $10 per month. And then we thought, what we really need is actual writing software because that’s our biggest problem with Scrivener right now.
Scrivener’s an amazing tool, it’s just a little outdated and it was never meant to do the things that we’re asking it to do, so it’s not even fair. We’re asking it to please let us collaborate, but the way it syncs, it’s just not always right, and there are issues and we don’t even know what’s there. And anyway, it doesn’t matter. We thought we would really love our own tool.
And so Seth said, well, we could do it probably in a couple of years. StoryShop has to pay for itself, and all of that. And then we just kind of took a really big gamble and said, “You know what, we’re just gonna pay for Writer to be done ahead of time, since everybody can use it, then it can be free, and A, it’s free for the wide community, but B, that gets a lot of people knowing about StoryShop, so it works, too.”
It’s just a big gamble because we had to pay for that, and the Kickstarter money was all used to build the planner. So now we have to build this whole other piece to it out of pocket. There’s like nine developers working on it, and it’s getting done.
But yeah, it’s been a whole thing. Because once we realize that we’re building Writer, it meant that Outliner had to be completely rebuilt, because it used the same core structure and it would fundamentally change the way the planner behaved. We had to rethink the whole thing and basically start over after we’d already reached beta for the first thing.
The good news is what is being built is amazing. I’ve seen the prototypes, and I love them and I’m so, so happy and I can’t wait. But the bad news is I’m refusing to give any dates, because I feel terrible that we have not delivered to the Kickstarter’s backers yet. And every day, I’m like, “Okay, I hope this is the day, I hope this is the day,” but I know it’s in a week. But they’ve been amazing. They’ve been super, super patient, they keep telling Seth, “High five,” like “we know you’re doing your best.” But still.
Joanna: Hey, it’s a Kickstarter. Which Kickstarter delivers on time?
Sean: Never! I had a desk that I bought on Kickstarter. It was delivered the day before I moved.
Joanna: I remember that story. Okay, so let’s just be more specific.
The StoryShop Writer would be similar to a Scrivener.
Sean: It’s like Scrivener, right.
Joanna: Like Scrivener.
Then there’s Planner, or Plotter? Is that the same as plotting or is that pre-production?
Sean: Yeah, it’s Planner. Planner will have places for stories, for your locations, for your outlines, for all of this. But it has a really interesting way of tagging things, so you can use @s and #s.
And then when you’re writing in your actual outline, if you’re a character in the story and it says @Joanna, you could click on that and a little drawer comes out and all their data is there. You can see how people have relationships with each other. The drawers slide out for whatever you’re talking about, whether it’s locations, too.
But then there’s also things that you can label book parts. So let’s say you’re in the outline page, right? The way StoryShop works, it’s just a blank page. So you just start writing, and anything you label a book part as part of your outline gets a little tag. And there’s a little toggle switch up in the right-hand corner. So when you’re done with the outline, you click on that switch and it turns into your draft. And it will keep all of your book parts.
And then the book parts become the rough draft that you work from, and when you’re completely done writing that, you tick the toggle switch again and it turns into publish. And then you can compile and do whatever thing you need on that page and then click Publish and export it to MOBI or ePub or PDF or whatever you need to.
It’s gorgeous HTML, so it won’t have any of the issues like on the “Look insides.” The HTML is really, really super clean, so we’ll have beautiful, beautiful compiled books.
Joanna: Okay, so going back to the pre-production bit. People can write in Scrivener. I’m using Vellum now to do my formatting, my eBook formatting because of that problem.
Sean: I’ve heard amazing things about Vellum.
Joanna: Vellum’s pretty cool. So those two things are kind of covered. With other tools, obviously, having all in one is very different, but the thing that really makes it stand out to me is this idea of the planning tool.
Does that also have genre tropes in? If people want to follow that write-to-market idea, will it have stuff like this?
Sean: It absolutely will. It won’t on launch, but it absolutely will.
There will be even buttons with like “Hero’s Journey.” So you can click on Hero’s Journey and it fills in. Or like Romance has a very specific flow to it, so you click on Romance – His Perspective, Romance – Her perspective or whatever.
But the really cool thing about StoryShop, too, is we’re building it in a way where the community will kind of dictate its direction. Eventually, we’re going to have a StoryShop marketplace.
So let’s say, you love creating characters but you hate writing, and there’s somebody else that loves writing, but oh my god, the roadbuilding, can’t stand it. There’s a marketplace there. Somebody could sell their little packages. Here’s a whole world that I built.
Like the Dungeons & Dragons crowd. They love to build worlds, but they’re not writers. But they could go sell a package for like $5,000, but it has 100 characters and like a whole world, or whatever, right?
The community will help to drive that kind of thing. So whatever they’re wanting as far as, “Okay, what are planning tools gonna be? We’ll build that.” Like, we want to build really robust timeline stuff, blueprint makers. If you have a haunted house, you could actually build the house out. That kind of stuff that just makes writing more enjoyable in the pre-production part.
Joanna: Yeah, super-fun. That marketplace is very interesting to me, because one of the problems with collaborations, at the moment, is if you don’t have a company together, like you and Johnny and Dave, then one person takes on the publishing and then they have to be responsible for paying the other person for potentially years to come, you know, the life of the author, if you like, and afterwards.
In the future, will this marketplace be a way to split payments between co-authors, for example?
Sean: Yes, there’d have to be something set up on the back end. It’s too far for me to play. I haven’t dug in far at all, but I did talk to an amazing banker who understood this stuff a few weeks ago. And yeah, it’s certainly possible. I know exactly the model you’re talking about. Basically, ACX.
Joanna: ACX, yeah.
Sean: For general purpose, right? It’s basically a broker in the middle of two creatives. Like “I can do this thing really well,” “I could do this thing really well,” “Okay, we’ll take all the money and give you each your share.” Yeah, something like that, for our space, I think, would be amazing.
I definitely think it’s a huge idea, and I think it’s a moneymaker. And it’s the kind of thing I would love to consult on, but I don’t think I’d want to build.
Joanna: There’s definitely money in this, but…
Sean: You’re right. It’s like the dashboard that we’ve talked about. It’s the same thing. And it’s possible. We’ve talked. Once StoryShop is ticking, there’s a lot of other things we’ve talked about building with Seth. But who knows what the market needs.
I think as with everything we’ve built, the common denominator is we always build things for ourselves. What will make the company better, what will make the company stronger, and therefore trickle down to the community? Because that’s really important. What we learn, we broadcast, and so it’s important to keep refilling that tank.
Joanna: We don’t want to say what date it’s going to be available, but is there a landing page people can go to?
Sean: Of course. It’s getstoryshop.com. And we’re very, very close, like we’re really close. I can’t say the date, because oh my god. But we’re very close.
Joanna: If people are listening to this in mid-2017?
Sean: Oh, it’s out. If it’s not out, then I’ve jumped onto a freeway or something.
Joanna: This is a really big project. I used to work in software testing. This is like hell. I mean, there can be some nightmares there. So I really applaud you guys for taking on a project.
I don’t think you understood it, right, before?
Sean: No, no, I didn’t understand it. I’m actually glad I didn’t know.
Joanna: You wouldn’t have done it?
Sean: I wouldn’t have done it. I would have said the same thing about trying to sell the screenplay. It was hard, and for the amount of money it was, “Okay, awesome.” But again that’s not why… It’s knowing your why, and that was what made the screenplay feel like a celebration, right? It was because my why was I want to sell a screenplay, right? So that was enough.
And this is, we wanted to create this amazing thing. And I’m so grateful for where it is in the process that I don’t feel like I have the right to be upset. Because we had this dream. We asked our community to believe in the dream. They did.
And now we’re making the dream and doing well enough, and believing in ourselves enough, to fund the rest of the way. And that’s just a magical place to be, and I don’t want to disrespect it by grr, I wish it was done.
But we’re having Scrivener issues right now, too, so it’s like, oh, I wish it was done! But I’m as eager as anyone.
Joanna: I’m a Kickstarter backer, so I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s awesome.
We’re almost done, but I wanted just to ask you, right at the beginning you talked about plans for 2017, you talked about systems, and we’ve talked about software and all these other things.
Do you think that what is happening with you guys is reflective of the maturity of the indie space? Because what I see from the outside now is you guys are not behaving like indie authors. You’re running a company, you’re not indie authors. You’re basically running a story studio, which is what you wanted. That was your ambition. Most people are not doing it this way.
Is that a reflection of how the whole industry’s changed? Or what is your view of the indie market right now? Has it split into the professionals and the amateurs?
Sean: Oh, that is a great question. No, I don’t think it’s split, but I think it’s Jell-O. I think it’s constantly moving, and I think that there are people who are taking it more professionally.
But I also think there’s constant waves of new people, right? And I also think there are people who are moving over from traditional and they’re thinking, “Okay, well, I’m going to try it. I’m going to dip my toe because I keep reading these stories,” right? And so they want to come over. And there’s a definite natural evolution.
I do think that it’s not just because it’s the indie space, it’s just because it’s the internet space, right, and the way things tend to move. But I feel like more indie authors or more people creating art in whatever way, there’s just, there’s going to be less boundaries and more blurred lines.
My daughter loves Dan and Phil. Like she just loves them, right? They’ve got their tour and they just wrote their book. And I think there’s going to be book people who do a lot on YouTube, and there’s just going to be different ways that things are going to be more transmedia, right? We’re gonna create this franchise, and okay, now it’s a video game, and now… I think that art is kind of just changing.
Do you remember when Jewel wrote her book of poetry and everybody laughed at her? But she did. She published a book of poetry and she got made fun of.
I think that same artist now would have her songs on YouTube and she’d have a really devoted following, and then she would sell her book of poetry directly to her fans and it would be lauded. Like they would love it, because it’s not competing at a Barnes & Noble to random passersby. It’s different.
I think people who wouldn’t produce art, or wouldn’t produce a book before, may be encouraged to produce their version of a book. Or vice-versa. Maybe an author who would never have picked up the guitar and sung a few songs may do that, because his devoted audience wants to see what else he can do, and he has a thing for lyrics. Maybe he doesn’t have a great voice, so he never could have been a professional, but he can write a song, and now, selling directly to his people.
I think there is going to be more lateral thinking when it comes to production and distribution.
Joanna: All right, just pushing you a little bit further.
In 5 years’ time, 10 years’ time, are you a traditional publisher? Are you Penguin?
Sean: Oh, that’s a great question. No, I don’t think so. And the reason why… and that is a great question.
But first, I think that the idea of traditional has kind of changed. I don’t think I could ever fit the definition of the old traditional.
I also think what makes it different is that we’re always going to be creating our own stuff. We’ll never make a lot, a lot, a lot of books. We’ll always be boutique. We’ll always be smaller.
We’ll be creating books that have an intention to be turned into film, or have a screenplay written, or have a video game attached. It’s some specific reason or a specific author. We’re always going to be creating our own stuff in-house first. Anyone who’s part of the Sterling & Stone family can publish within that, and that’s probably going to keep us pretty busy.
If we took other authors in, it would be case-by-case, but it would also have to fit into our larger library. Where I think a traditional publisher is always just going to be looking for profitable books to publish, that’s not what we’re doing. We’re building authors.
And you know that’s happening in the apprentice program right now. Jamie and Christine are both writing books for Sterling & Stone for the first time. We’re working with them using all of our company resources to shape those books, but that’s their books.
Where we would nurture those from inside, we would never bring authors in from the outside who say, “Here, I have this book finished, will you publish it?” I can’t see that being part of our model at all.
We’re a story studio, not a publisher.
Joanna: No, fair enough. Look at how far you’ve come in five years. When I think where you could be in 5 years or 10 years.
I was thinking I might pitch you my screenplay or something.
Sean: Well, see, but that’s different, because you know how relationship-based we are. That’s actually a good example of exactly what I’m talking about. So, oh yeah, Joanna, she’s extended family. Of course. Because that’s it.
A traditional publisher wouldn’t do things just because of extended family, but it’s our story studio. We can do whatever we want. Right? And I think that that’s it, it always has to feel like family.
We are more serious business-minded now than we were a year ago, and I think that’s good. I don’t think that’s just good for us. I think it’s good for the industry. I think we’re going to do some really great things and shake it up, and taking that responsibility is a good thing.
But it’s also, on one end, where we’re getting more professional, I also think it’s important to be even tighter and as much of a family as we can and stand by that ethic.
Joanna: That is awesome. And of course, you were on the show two years ago, but you were on the show two years before that, when you’d just put out “Yesterday’s Gone” in a serial, with Dave.
I really want people listening to be encouraged by your journey. And this is what’s so great about podcasting, and putting our life out there. Like your “Almanac,” I’m a total listener to the “Almanac,” I love it, this sort of behind-the-scenes of what’s going on. And people listening. I mean, life changes over four years. You’ve set these intentions, you do the work, and stuff happens.
Sean: Right. And even if it’s not what you expect, it’s always something. You’re always moving forward. That’s crazy to think that was two years ago, and then two ago, and two years from now is a long time. But I do think 2018 is our year. For sure.
Joanna: Okay, well, I want you back on the show in 2018, and it will be so cool to see what’s happened.
Sean: I will be here. I promise.
Where can people find you and StoryShop and the books and the podcast and everything online?
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Sean. That was great.
Sean: Of course. Pleasure to be here. Thank you.