In the intro, I talk about my trip to India and my 2 year anniversary as a full-time author-entrepreneur. I also mention the opportunity of using PubMatch through the Alliance of Independent Authors for foreign rights, as well as my speaking engagements. We also have a message from podcast sponsors Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system.
Dan Blank is a professional speaker and consultant to the publishing industry. He teaches authors how to grow their platform and target readers through his online articles, courses and conference. You can watch the interview on YouTube here, or listen in the podcast stream or on iTunes.
- How Dan got started in the creative space, how he got into the publishing business, and how all that has collided now into his business, We Grow Media where he works with writers and the publishing industry.
- If the author is the source, and the reader is the destination, what role does the middleman play? We discuss the changing structure of the publishing world.
- Authors are experiencing a fatigue around “platform.” Dan explains his definition of platform – communicating effectively with the people you want to reach and engender trust in the process. He talks about how to reframe platform and refocus on goals. We discuss trust and authenticity, and the fundamental principles around platform, rather than the technology and the ‘latest' headlines that can distract.
- Getting some perspective and thinking long term. Embracing patience and consistency for the long-term. The importance of relationships that you forge in real-life or cyber-space.
- How the stigma of publishing has pretty much disappeared in the US. On foreign markets and other opportunities.
- On social reading and how Goodreads integration with Kindle Paperwhite and Fire might work for authors
Dan's running an online conference for authors, Get Read, on Nov 13-14, 2013, focused on helping you ensure your books get read.
He also has articles and video for authors at WeGrowMedia.com
Find him on twitter @danblank
Transcript of Interview with Dan Blank
Joanna: Hi everyone. I am Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com and today I'm here with Dan Blank. Hi, Dan.
Dan: Thank you for having me, hello.
Joanna: Hello, and hello again. We've had you on the video show before, but you're also on the audio podcast, which is exciting. Now as an introduction, Dan is a professional speaker and consultant to the publishing industry. He also teaches authors how to grow their platform and target readers through his online articles, courses, and his conference, which is very exciting. So Dan, start off by telling us a bit more about you and your publishing background and what you do these days.
Dan: Sure. So as an individual, growing up I was an artist, I was a musician, I was a writer, I was a poet, I was all these things. As I went through my career I found myself getting more and more into the publishing side. I started off at a large trade publisher that I worked closely with Publisher's Weekly, The Library Journal, and as everything started happening in maybe '05 and 2010 with all the changes in e-books and additional media and social media, I found it so much more possible to be working directly with the source, which is writers.
With all the changes happening in publishing and people, all of my friends talking about this stuff, for me, the one constant is going to be writers and readers. And I was able to start working more and more directly with writers and that has allowed me to develop everything I've done in the last several years. I've worked with a lot of large publishers, I've worked with a lot of small publishers, literary agencies. Spoken at a lot of conferences. But mostly I work with dozens and dozens of authors every single month.
Joanna: I've just got to ask you a general question, because if authors are the source, and readers are their destination, and you work with a lot of people in the middle, do you ever see a point where there is no middle man?
What do you see as the image maturation of the ecosystem, and what can those people in the middle, publishers and agents, offer to go in the middle?
Dan: For a certain type of person there is always the option for never having a middle man. And some people want that option. And I think that for most people, it is a horrible life to not have someone in the middle there. To not have a partner at it.
I know that John Green, the YA author, is very vocal about talking about, he is traditionally published, about the value of his editor, of his wife, of his friends, of his agents. Of all the people in the process how, I had a good idea, but if we published that, no one would have read it. So each person in the mix, whether it's a formal relationship, a financial relationship, or just the community, his trusted confidants or just the larger community, how it made his skill set and his work better.
And then you can talk arguably about the other end of it, which is the marketing side of it. That when we involve people, it's not just I've created something awesome, love it world. It's not that sort of us versus them thing. It's, wow, I'm creating, I'm learning, we're talking about it. Good things happen, bad things happen, and it sort of seems that is the artist's life. That's sort of the life some people would hope to have. Except for me, when I think about the roles of agents or editors or cover designers, I see a thriving world for them. It's just a matter of how that's structured I think, which is really how that's changing right now.
Joanna: I totally agree with you and for someone who pretty much does everything myself at the moment. I mean it really is quite out of control, in a way. I'm rapidly getting to the point with all my spreadsheets with this, that, and the other, it would be nice to have someone else, but I think that one of the issues of course if finding the right people, and that's not something that's easy.
I want to get back to platform, because you focus very much on helping authors getting a platform. And I think that really the word platform is actually probably overused these days. It has become this sort of tired concept. In all the best ways, I guess, but there is some fatigue around it.
Is platform still important. Do you use a different word now? Why don't you define what you mean, and what is still important it?
Dan: When I talk about platform, on my personal level, I define that word as two things, which is the ability to communicate effectively with the people you hope to reach, and earning trust in that process. To me, that's platform. I agree the word has become or is becoming grossly overused, and I think that happens because they say, “Here is a platform. A key element of that platform is Twitter. Now we're going to focus on you getting more Twitter followers, so if you get more Twitter followers, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And then we're like, well, this sucks. Because now I'm spending all my time getting Twitter followers, but there's a disconnect in there because if A=B, and B=C, then A=C. That sort of thing where something went awry there.
Or we're just talking about Twitter or we're just talking about Goodreads or just talking about this or that, and we're forgetting about the fact that this is about connecting with readers, it's about engendering trust in that process. So on a very personal level, yes, I definitely still use the word platform but I start talking more about what is the thing I do here?
While the newer things I am rolling out are very much about putting the readers involved in there, but how are we connecting with readers? Because that's what the whole platform does for us. The goal is to reach your readers. It is to have an effect on the world. So let's just get right to that.
Joanna: I agree with you, and I think trust is really important as well, and I think authenticity as well, to me has become more and more important in a world where there is just too much kind of going on.
And people need curators as well, don't they? What you often do is curate information about platform.
Dan: Well the trust issue is what I think a lot of authors fear, which is that they fear doing something that will make them bad people. They don't want to become a marketer, they don't want to do things that will make them feel dirty. Like, “Oh, I took out all these Facebook ads to make a buck and now I feel like a jerk.”
And when you think about it in terms of communication and trust, I think it allows you to make distinctions between, “I'm not going to do that because it doesn't feel right, but I will do this, which is still new thing for me. I'm still scared of it, but it won't make me feel bad while I do it.” And that could be speaking, or talking to book clubs or talking to libraries or doing something on Goodreads. And you're always trying to balance that, because a lot of authors are being told they can do a million things, it's all new, they don't have the time for it. But then there are these things that are emotionally very challenging for them. And I think you want to address that right up front.
Joanna: So with all that said, and the focus still on readers, do you still have some fundamentals that you think authors need to have in place?
Dan: Oh my goodness, yeah. It's funny. What I often think is that when we have this discussion on platform, people jump too quickly. They jump too quickly to, “Oh my goodness, Goodreads is doing well and we're going to get all over Goodreads and I'm gonna start friending people and whatever.” Sort of like, all right. Tell me about your ideal type of reader?
It's the sort of the thing where they have not done their research. They've not figured out who their readers are, they haven't started forging relationships, they haven't interviewed other authors, or liked them. They haven't really gone back and said, “Let me go back and look at my bio and let me look at other bios of authors I love doing well and let me do comparisons.”
They haven't done their homework, so they don't really know who their ideal audience is or where to find them. They don't know how to best position themselves in a way that their audience is used to seeing people and wanting to see you. So you're starting off with a really hazy sense of who you're reaching, a really hazy sense of what to say, and you're just jumping into Goodreads, or jumping in Twitter, or jumping into a conference. And it's going to be harder when you do that and it's also going to feel weirder because you're going to be pressing all the buttons and not know why they are pressing all those buttons.
Joanna: So it's very much about thinking before doing anything.
Dan: Definitely, and very much I think connecting on a human level. I go to a lot of conferences, I see a lot of survey data. And I always take it with an enormous grain of salt, because now we've taken human beings and made it a thing, which is a chart. And I'm always skeptical of that chart because it can't possibly represent the complexity of human nature. And all statistics are that way. Fifty percent of people get a divorce.
I bet if we dug into that we could actually narrow it down by socioeconomic, by all these different factors to realize it's not just if any two people are standing next to me, we could understand the factors that go in to that. Not with so much of a granular view of things. Instead this weird big thing of, “E-books are awesome. Our prices are going down.” These vague statements that headlines but you can get, you can't take action with that. You can't do anything with that, it's just too vague.
Joanna: And I think there's also a need to take a step back. I've just spent two weeks in India, and two weeks without the Internet, and you have a post on your blog about taking time out as well. And one of the things that I really thought about was getting perspective on all this fast moving, like you say, headlines day to day. But actually, the big picture is what, e-books have been big for what, two years, three years? Or getting there. The Internet's only 15 years old, I think, from the beginning.
The U.S. is a mature market where nowhere else in the world really is. Are we really just at the beginning of this and should people be just a bit more patient?
Dan: Well patience in general, that goes back to the 10,000 hour rule type of thing. You and I talked about this last time, I think privately, which was talking about when each of us started blogging and talking about, well, what other bloggers started and are still around, where a lot of people just stopped. Maybe they stopped because they are now doing something that's better.
But this is what you see is that you find more success when you do a lot of things, but you do them over time. And if you're going to not work with a lot of authors over time…and a lot of authors are going to get right on Facebook and then nothing happens and they're like, “This is so stupid. I knew I didn't like Facebook, and now I know why.” And you're like, “It's been a week.” Come on.
Joanna: “And I haven't sold any books.”
Joanna: I agree, I think that's true.
Is platform more of an attitude to getting to know your readers? To getting to know technologies, because technologies change all the time, don't they?
Dan: Yes, that is why I chose to focus a lot more on relationships because I feel like, look, survey 50 people that you know. Ask them how they got their job. And even though the last time I used a job board for a job was 1999, and I'm sure Monster and all of them have gotten dramatically better. In the end, most people get their jobs somehow through a network. LinkedIn is trying to play into all that they are, but in the end it comes through people you know more often than not.
I don't care what technology does in the future. That ability to navigate interpersonal relationships, no matter what happens, whether we become Borgs or not, that will still matter. That will still be the best skill set that you can have, is knowing how to talk to people and how to communicate, in a way that's trusting. So that's almost why for me, sometimes I don't get in the weeds as to all of the new changes in publishing about, oh, this new Kindle Fire, watch, this is how it's changed. It's interesting to me but I feel like, okay, I'll be talking about something else in 6 months. I want to focus on things that are going to always going to be not like, “Wow, that is so 2009.”
Joanna: I know what you mean, and although we should point out that when we talk about relationships we also do…like the fact that you and I met on Twitter first, and a number of the other bloggers we know, Joel Freelander and people who have been around, well we met on Twitter first and then we took the relationship into meeting on Skype and then you and I have met in person, but I still have never met Joel, the bookdesigner.com, after this many years, five years now. Which is crazy, right?
Dan: I don't think he is a real person.
Joanna: No, but I know you're real.
I was amazed at the fact that there were twice as many English speakers in India as there are in England. And that's a big market.
Dan: Oh, yeah.
Joanna: That's like 120 million English speakers who are educated and book readers in India who I haven't even really considered as potential readers, and they love religious fiction. So I'm like, “Yes, I want to get to know that people in that market.” That kind of a new thing.
Dan: Is this how you're writing off that trip, as a business expense?
Joanna: Unfortunately not, but the next one. The next one to India. Invite me to India, people.
I think the relationships now can be global, across borders, with technology.
Dan: Yes, I mean, where are you right now?
Dan: I mean, that's the crazy thing about it. This is for me, where so much of what I do is focused on education, and for me, what I do is online. There's online classes, online conferences, and all that stuff, and what I like about it is I love the global nature of it. One, is that I learn from that.
Even the courses I teach for partners, like MediaBistro, Writer's Digest, it's always astounding that we have people from all over the world in a small 10 or 20 person class. This is awesome. It becomes human very quickly. The classes always go the same, we make similar relationships. There's no barriers to that.
But I also think that it addresses the deeper issue that a lot of writers face which is maybe you're not in India, but you're in Indiana, and you have three kids and you've got a spare hour a day, and you don't have a lot of money, your husband's working all the time. You're not accessible to New York or a lot of things. You can go online though, and talk to Joanna or Joel, or take a course or listen to a webinar or listen to a podcast. To me, on a very human level, it's opened up a whole new potential for people that have dreams and otherwise cannot take the action because of where they live or that the money they have, or how other's define them. Because you do it almost personally, it's you and a laptop. There's not everyone else saying, “Oh you enrolled in community college? Oh, you're paying money for that? Or, it's this public thing you're doing?” You scale that up by the world, which is your point, I think it's astounding the potential that's out there now.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly. And I know you're not going to Frankfurt, right, because you're moving house, but the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is the biggest book fair in the world, if people don't know, in Germany, they are focusing on self-publishing this year, and the Germany book market is about to take off, I think. I think so much of the time we forget and we get kind of get bogged down in just our area or whatever.
I guess the point about the global thing is the market for your book, it used to be that you had to get a traditional publisher to buy into your book. Probably in you country, in your area, right?
But now, your audience might be somewhere else. It might be that with my theological thrillers that India might be a better market for me than England. You know what I mean?
Dan: But I think something important is going on here, too, which is that you are an entrepreneur and you're a business person because it's part of what you are doing here. There's the art and the critic side and the business side. So with everyone saying, “Oh, here's the big new thing,” and you're looking globally and you're saying, “What's the blue ocean, what's something no one is talking about that's a big opportunity?” And that's a huge one, because it's inclusive of other people.
I remember, was it two digital book worlds ago, so almost two years ago Bella Andre was in a session, and she was talking about the translations she is having done with her books. And it was funny because back then she wasn't just aggressively working on translations. She had established a process and teams to do this. So she's one person and she had multiple people working on whatever her processes were to identify markets, get them translated, get them edited, get covers done, get them in that market, move on to the next one. And that was two years ago.
By the time this really becomes a bigger trend, and I think you're hitting it earlier than a lot of people, someone like that was already working aggressively, two years ago she was aggressively working on it. And then she'll be like some big, “Boom, she just hit on it.” She's been working her butt off for years on this, and you're just noticing it now because The New York Times wrote an article about it.
Joanna: Yeah, I totally agree. I think the message to people is to put in the time long term and don't get bogged down in your daily Amazon rankings. I hardly look anymore. I know you mention we don't want to jump on the latest faddy thing, but I do want to talk about the fact that Amazon and Goodreads, obviously Amazon bought Goodreads this year, and they're bringing the social into the devices now. The Paperwhite and the Fire will have Goodreads integration and people will actually able to rank within the Kindle. And as a Kindle and a Goodreads user, I'm very excited.
What do you see as this sort of social embedding within the Kindle and what are your recommendations around that authors?
Dan: It's such a compelling thing. For years we talked about social reading. And it really hasn't hit the radar in a really big way and this is clearly gonna be the enormous tipping point for a tremendous amount of work other people are doing. So I think there's a lot of practical levels where people are gonna try to game this like they've tried to game Amazon and Goodreads already. So there will be very clear marketing strategies of what can and can't be done there. I think it's incredible to think about the opportunity to…it's like Amazon in general, you can't ignore the elephant in the room. You might not like them, but this is where you have to be to understand how it works.
Goodreads is not just you and Amazon, it's you and other people, notably readers and writers. So I think it's actually more interesting in that way and what's interesting to me too is how will that change reading, how will that change how we find new books? Because it's all right there and it's like it's scanning as it's happening, it's all becoming integrated.
The downside that I'm concerned about in general is, this is someone else's platform, as a technology platform, and I'm always concerned about going too all in on one thing that you don't own. I think this is going to become, to your point, huge and huge in ways that maybe Amazon and Goodreads hasn't quite figured out yet, but it's also…the other end of also not wanting to go all in where you don't have any personal connection with readers.
You know this; if you sell a book on your own site, you have that person's name and email address, you can reach out to that them with updates, even good things, without spamming them. You don't get that from Amazon. And of course they wouldn't give that to you and they're gonna control that, guard that with their lives. And that creates a dependency, and if this is a business for you, you just have to manage that risk. Not that you shouldn't take the risk, you've got to manage the risk, because one little change on there and your whole career could take a traumatic shift that you weren't expecting.
Joanna: Oh, absolutely, and I think it's really great to have the different paths. And then, again, back on India, I was just surprised at our guide, an educated Indian who loves books had never heard of Amazon. And that was just blew in my mind because the way they discover books is completely different. Now Amazon's got an Indian store now, but that doesn't matter, they've barely started in that industry. But with something like Goodreads, again, that is something U.S. focused. The Fire won't even be out in the UK with Goodreads, or that I've got Paperwhite coming so I'm excited about that.
But the discoverability within that engine as a reader is what I'm increasingly using anyway. They have a really brilliant thing around bookshelves, so my recommendation to people is I don't think you can go on to Goodreads and build a following overnight, it's just impossible. But what you can do is get your book on there and do some print giveaways, because that will actually get your book on people's “to read” shelf. And in that way you might be able to start getting into the UK system and the new algorithm, of which, no doubt, we'll hear lots about.
Dan: Four percent better than the old algorithm, yeah.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly. But it's interesting.
Have you really seen this shift…there's a lot of talk at publishing conferences now, a shift into data, really.
Dan: Yeah, there's a lot more talk about data. I think there's a lot of confusion about it for a lot of reasons. Sometimes data over-promises, and over-simplifies. What I like about the idea of data is you're doing research and you're getting feedback and you're acting on that feedback, getting more data/research, acting on it. To me, it's the process of data that's valuable, not the actual number of data that's valuable.
I mean, I've seen so many presentations, anywhere in business, but even publishing, and it never gives you a clear answer, it often asks better questions. Data gives you back better questions, and you take action on those better questions, you get back even better questions to ask, and it's a process of honing. But it's a constant process, if you stop, it all stops becoming useful.
Joanna: Absolutely. And the other thing, you know, you go to a lot of the conferences in the US, you're very in touch with US publishing, I read an article recently about, I think it was Romance Writer's America, when one of the big name authors, Barbara Freethy, was running a side thing on self-publishing, which became a place where agents and publishers were actually pitching authors.
Does that signal the change in the stigma, or is that because the romance lot are making so much money?
Dan: There's no stigma as far as, I mean, you can find an echelon in New York City, I'm sure, where there's a laughable stigma. But in general, if you are someone who is able to craft a story that people have indicated to the world that they want to read, and then whatever that number is, whether it's a million people or a thousand people, that's what's valuable, that's what it is.
I'm not saying that the traditional model is broken or will go away, I don't think it will, but I don't think there's a stigma anymore. We'll take a famous example from the last 18 months, Hugh Howie, he's become this poster child for indie books, but in the end he's writing stories that are well written and interesting. People are reading them and passing them along and that's what it is. What's a stigma about that? So that's gone, as far as I'm concerned and from what I'm seeing with other people.
Joanna: Well that's interesting, because I think that is in the US. In the UK I think definitely there's still a stigma, very much, and there's still a very, I use the word snobby, literary industry.
I was speaking at The Guardian this weekend and I got some questions in advance and one of the questions was, “Will people despise me for self-publishing?” And my heart is breaking, it really is, it's like seriously. People worry about being despised for doing this?
Dan: Part of that I think comes out of the human cultural thing which is, I don't know the difference, culturally, between Britain and the US for that, but even at the human level where…I know a lot of people who are married to people they met with online dating. They don't quite go around yelling about it in the same way that they yell about stories where they met otherwise. So here is something that is incredibly effective at something that's maybe the most important thing in your entire life. So many happy couples I know, but there's still a little bit of a thing where, there's no stigma to it but they're a little sheepish about it. What they want to do is tell a story where, you know, it's like Natalie Portman's discovery, I went to a pizza place at age nine and got discovered and now I'm Natalie Portman. You know, sort of this magical effervescent thing, it's such a cool story. That's not the same as saying, like, I kept applying, and applying, and applying, and finally some algorithm got me a job and now I'm Natalie Portman. It's not the same kind of romantic thing.
Joanna: Yeah. Oh, I want to be Natalie Portman now. And I did meet my husband online, so there you go.
Dan: I swear, most people I know who are my closest friends and relatives, that's exactly how it is. It's like why isn't this talked about more? This is the most incredible thing ever.
Joanna: Good point. And what excites me about that and the fact that you categorically say there is no stigma, and you're so in touch, really, in the US, and to me that signal, you wouldn't have said that probably a year ago, definitely not two years ago. So it's changed.
I think that what happens is that ripples out through the other markets, so I hope that encourages everyone watching to be like, “Yeah, the change is coming.”
Dan: I think what it does is it sort of, it just gives you another option where…you'll go to a lot of conferences that'll have the self-publish session, and it's like laughable, it's one session, but there's so many other opportunities.
Joanna: Great. Okay.
You have an online conference coming up which is awesome, called Get Read. I think I might be speaking at that. Tell us a bit about that conference and what authors can learn?
Dan: I thought about this for a long time, I wanted to do an event, an in person event, and the logistics of that are insane and like most of what I do, which is online courses, I'm like, let me do it online. I can connect to anyone, I can bring the price down, and get really anyone, anywhere to speak.
Basically what I'm trying to do here is cut away all the BS from all of the talk about what authors need to do. So the people that I'm recruiting here are, I really start off trying to get the most jaded people I know in writing and publishing. Not negative jaded, but where they've really been around the bend, they've really experienced this. And I'm trying to represent people who I think are closest to readers but most often ignored in conferences. So there's a lot of librarians and book sellers on the panel, there's agents, there's people working all deeply inside traditional publishing, there are authors and experts such as yourself.
I really want to give a voice to the people who are really in the trenches working with readers and working with writers, at the very day to day level. So for me, what I'm viewing this as is not the sort of one on one level. This is Goodreads and here's an amazing story to inspire you to look at Goodreads. I think there's a lot of value in that but I want to talk to people who are working at Goodreads or heavily using Goodreads and saying, “This is how you've really got to think about it. Here's the illusions that we're gonna dismiss, here's the best advice I can give you to really get some power out of it,” and where you should set your expectations.
And I think a lot of that is the other thing, so we're doing a session, some book sellers on author events. A bit part of that is saying, “This is what most authors think that an author event is, and here's a few examples of why that is completely incorrect. And after doing hundreds of these events, here's my five tips of how you want to approach a store or event space, and here's what you can expect from it.”
Joanna: That particular one, for example, I'm interested in myself.
Events in person for authors are just so few and far between, and yet they're definitely effective when you do them, it's just how effective can it be? So it's great that you're talking about some things that are offline as well as online as such.
Dan: Absolutely. Again, it comes down to the human relationship, so if you're not honoring that then really you're ignoring how we all come into contact with books in everyday life, but also, we'll always have that regardless of what device we're holding at the given moment.
Joanna: See, that's fantastic.
What is an online conference, if people don't know? How do they attend?
Dan: So essentially when you sign up…it's a live event. It's on November 13th and 14th, and basically it's an all day event. So you sign into a private site, and what you're seeing is a video of myself and all the speakers, presenting sessions, just like you would at a live, in person conference, throughout the day.
We'll have an agenda, all the topics for day one and day two. It's generally from 9:00 to 5:00 Eastern Time. And you're able to interact with speakers and ask questions with myself, with other attendees via a text chat on the right sidebar. And then anything you miss, so whether you have to miss one session because your kid is crying, because you can only attend half day, because you can't really be there live at all, you'll then get access to all of the video recordings so you can go back to sessions you want to hear again or view the entire thing because you missed it entirely because life is busy.
Joanna: Mm, fantastic. And where can people find all the information about that?
Dan: So it's wegrowmedia.com is my site, and the direct link is wegrowmedia.com/conference, but on the homepage you'll see a big banner you can click through, you'll see a video about it, details about all the speakers, the agenda, what we're hoping to do and why we're doing it.
Joanna: Oh, it sounds absolutely brilliant. Well thanks ever so much for your time, Dan, that was great.
Dan: Thank you, Joanna, appreciate it.
Joanna: Thanks for listening today. I hope you found it helpful. You might also like the back list episodes at thecreativepenn.com/podcasts. You can also get your free Author 2.0 blueprint at thecreativepenn.com/blueprint. If you'd like to connect, you can tweet me @thecreativepenn or find me on Facebook at thecreativepenn. See you next time.