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Is the author platform still a necessity in an age of paid advertising? What has changed in the last few years of publishing? I discuss these questions and more with Dan Blank in today's show.
In the intro, I discuss some of the publishing talk coming out of Book Expo, Amazon's new smartphone aimed at the emerging markets and the 1 billion internet users coming online in the next few years, the Internet Trends report that India is the next big tech market, with 80% of internet traffic coming from mobile … and how you can make sure you're ready for this market.
I also mention the new podcast, The 21st Century Creative which featured Steven Pressfield this week, and my upcoming free webinar with Nick Stephenson automating your author marketing – click here for more details.
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.
Dan Blank is an author, professional speaker, and consultant to the publishing industry. He also teaches authors how to grow their platform and target readers through his blog, books, and courses. His latest book is Be the Gateway: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience.
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- The changes Dan has observed in self-publishing, including accessibility to better tools
- The biggest challenge for author-entrepreneurs
- Alternatives to ‘platform' that connect authors with readers
- Creating experiences, not content
- On whether there's a shift back toward print books
You can find Dan Blank at wegrowmedia.com and on Twitter @DanBlank
Transcript of Interview with Dan Blank
Joanna: Hi everyone, I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com. And today I'm here with Dan Blank. Hi, Dan.
Dan: Hey, how are you? Great to be chatting again.
Joanna: Yeah, I know, it's been a while. So just a little introduction.
Dan Blank is an author, professional speaker, and consultant to the publishing industry. He also teaches authors how to grow their platform and target readers through his blog, books, and courses. His latest book is, “Be the Gateway: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience” which is very cool.
Dan, so you were last on the show in October, 2013. Which is just like “Really, has it been that long?” We've seen each other in New York since then.
What's changed for you in the last three and a half years and how does that also reflect changes in the publishing industry?
Dan: So it's interesting because I think what's changed for authors, and even for me and you, and to a certain degree is opportunity. We've all come around understanding that newsletters, and webinars, and ads, and courses, and bonuses, and digital products, all these things are now accessible. Not just to you and me who work on both sides of it but to the average writer, and that is mind-blowingly awesome.
And the flip side that I've seen since 2013 is that everyone feels an incredible sense of pressure. An author could be doing 40 things to launch their book and killing it with, like, 80% of it, and they will still go to bed feeling bad about themselves because right before they checked Facebook they saw an ad, “You know, if you're not launching this, if you're not doing this for an author, if you're not using Amazon this way, you're missing the boat.” So there's this pervasive sense of overwhelm and that they're never doing enough.
And no matter how masterful they get, they're almost being dangled that carrot. “You know, I launched a book with no list, and no following, and no expertise, and now four weeks later I'm this big bestselling author.” And it's not that that's bad, all of that is great, it's there's so much of that. So a lot of what's changed, I think is that sense of overwhelm.
When we first started out, you and me, years ago, there were very few courses, you're on social media there wasn't that sense of like everyone has a newsletter, everyone has pop-ups, everyone is sending 40 emails in a newsletter chain. So that's I think a big thing of what's changed–the opportunity and the overwhelm that comes with opportunity.
Joanna: It's a really good point, and of course, you and I both have books and courses, you have consulting. We're almost part of the overwhelm. And it's great that you say this today because…and it's funny you mentioned pop-up because I finally put a pop-up on my site this January, so January, 2017. And of course, you and I know pop-ups have been around for 10 years in other niches.
I think what's happened is that internet marketing seems to have gone mainstream in the author niche which is what you're saying.
So then I've got to ask you because obviously, part of you being on the show is you're launching your book, “Be the Gateway.”
How have you dealt with that comparison-itis that says, “I should be doing all of this”? How do you deal with that?
Dan: It's such a great question. I would say internally, I have this hobby of watching other people, watching you, and watching Mark, and watching so many other people create new things and how you share and how you launch them.
I think the one thing that I find, and I'm seven years into this company, is that real sense of understanding what I want for myself and what I want that to embody and then how I want to work with people. Because it's so tantalizing to see someone do something really well and say, “I want to do that too.” And then try to copy and follow along.
I've been down this road enough to know where I've tried so many different things and in the end, I'm very clear about how I work with people, about my role in working with people, the kinds of people I like working with, and also the lifestyle I want to lead is a very big part of it.
We may talk more about this later too, even as I launched this book, there were so many decisions about what I was going to write about, the publishing timeline, and how I'm going to launch it that really had to fit in with my life. We talked before the call, recently my wife and I have had our second child, and that “deadline” of the due date of the child literally defined everything about this launch, and what I would do.
And more importantly, there are dozens of things that if I had more time, I would have done, but I said, “You know, I really want to do this in this timeframe, and because our son is coming, this is how I'm going to do it. I'm going to let go of the rest for that period of time.”
I think that knowing your boundaries and knowing the experiences you want to create for yourself and others, I think that's the key for how I try to manage that because I'm not unaware of these really interesting things that other people are doing that I'm not doing.
Joanna: It's a great point, and I was thinking about this as well, I've been doing yoga now for about oh, nine months and that's really helped me, I think, because I've never managed to stick with meditation on its own. But part of every yoga class is meditation and is relaxation and breathing, which I'm actually useless at breathing, it's really funny.
And I feel it's funny because you say it's about looking at what you want for your life and that perspective. I already feel that I'm getting to that point as well of like, “Okay, you know, I just have to focus on what I can do and what I want to do, and then say no to the rest.”
And so, it's interesting that because you mentioned…I mean you've mentioned lots of things, but advertising is one of these things. So coming back to what's changed, when you and I started there was almost, I mean, you could do paid advertising but there wasn't much of it. Now it's everywhere.
How does paid advertising fit into your book launch? And do you now consider it mandatory, given the environment?
Dan: I don't think anything is mandatory. I think it's an opportunity though. I think that when you talk about Amazon ads, and Facebook ads, and Twitter ads, I think they're wildly more effective than anything you and I had 8 or 10 years ago at our disposal.
And I think that you can experiment with them in fun ways. You can use them in very targeted ways. And I guess for myself, with the book I'll focus on…you know, I think there's two ways of thinking about it. There is, sales and launch, and then there's branding.
I think that when you really think about “I want to be an author, and this are the audience, I want to reach the people,” there's a real value in saying, “I want to take out X dollars a day or a week and just kind of put these ads out there, and I hope they convert, but I know how sales happen.”
I was talking about this with a friend this week. I hear about a book through this thing and they think, “Oh that's gonna convert to a sale.” No, “I closed the Amazon window, went away, I read something else remind me of that, three days later I brought it up and I bought it.”
So even just thinking about branding, there's a value in that. And I think that these ad products do so much for such a little amount of money. Again, you don't have to do them, but I think it's an opportunity. And the nice thing about them is you can say, “I don't know anything about these ads. I'm gonna spend $35 just to get myself over the hump of my fear of how to take one out. I'll take out an ad for seven days and I'll play with it.” That's still such an amazing thing to me, is the barrier for entry is so low.
Joanna: Yeah which means there's more competition. And it's funny because one of the things in my lifestyle is I'm not really a data person, so a lot of that stuff kind of…it's always the thing that moves off my list, as opposed to on my list. But I am running ads obviously, like everyone else.
I wanted to ask you, coming back on that. You mentioned that the brand and the longer-term platform. So you and I have connected for years because of the whole platform building thing, and I was reflecting on this the other day.
We would have said, five years ago, maybe even three years ago, as a nonfiction author, you have to have a platform, by which we mean a website and other ways to reach an audience. But now it seems you can actually sell books without a platform, using things like paid ads.
Do you think, for fiction or nonfiction authors, is platform still as important as it used to be?
Dan: This is actually what the book touches upon. And the way I try to frame it is the idea of what you want is a clear sense of the people you're trying to reach, the message you have, how it aligns with their worldview, the things they resonate with.
And have an awareness of the–I'll just call them channels–by which people can hear about that. And can be influencers, you know, the influencers_trademark you know, like that kind of brains. It's knowing who those people are, who they respect.
It's knowing the phrases. They go “Yeah.” Like you'll see a Facebook post that is a meme, “Librarians shaped my life, librarians are my hero.” And you'll see a million likes because it's for anyone in the bookish world like we're a lot of my friends, everyone is going to like that. So you know what they like rally for, you know what they're against.
I saw a meme the other day that was something, it was something quasi-negative and I don't want to say it, it was nothing horrible, and everyone liked it. And I was like, “Because there's a world there.”
And I think that the platform is really your understanding of, this is what I create and it is why I think people really resonate with it. This is what I know about those people and where I can find them, if it's a conference, if it's a partnership, if it's an affiliate thing. That's what I think the “platform” is–your ability to really know who those people are and really understand how to connect with them.
And again, I even refer to it more as a gateway, I mean, that's the phrase in the book. And the way I like to think about it too is not even as you create the work, big ads, miles long, you market the work. The way I like to think about it is that this is all creative, and the idea of the platform or the gateway is that it's about you're crafting experience for someone. Your work, you hope it has an effect in the world.
And thinking about how you share that is not you taking off that beautiful perfect creativity hat, putting on that horrible sales-y marketer hat for a couple weeks around the launch. It's like no, you can write this book and say, “I wrote this book and I'm proud of it, and it's on my phone now and I'm satisfied.”
Or you can say “No, I want to publish it, I want to share it.” And when you do that, you have to think about the effect in the world and the experience it creates for people. So that's kind of how I think about platform and how it is.
Joanna: It is so interesting, and as I talk to you I'm hearing snippets of things and I've got so many questions I want to ask you off the back of this. But I'm going to go with the one that people still ask me all the time, which you mentioned several times, knowing who the people that you want to reach. Knowing your target market.
People are still struggling with this and again, if you're creating ads, you have to say what keywords you're targeting, what other authors you're targeting. So this is something so key whether you're building a platform, writing a book, doing ads, whatever. I do find that a lot of people still don't understand genre or category and where they fit.
How do you recommend that people decide who these people are?
Dan: I run a little mastermind group and I did a video for them the other day, and it talked about really having a literacy of your marketplace. This is like learning a new language. It's learning the phrases that work and the tone, and the pacing.
I think that's what you have to do, and again, that's kind of what “Be the Gateway” really talks about. It's this whole idea of instead of looking at as,”I don't know keywords or metadata.” I mean, some of that is very specific, there are the categories Amazon gives you are very specific, you should know them. But that's not really that hard.
It really is the idea of figuring out that one reader at first, and that one comp author, and then getting to five comp authors. So who are the other authors that exist in the marketplace as you would? Where do they show up? How do they describe their books? Is it suspense thriller or a psychological thriller? Or is it mystery thriller? What are those kinds of phrases they use? What are the phrases at the marketplace? What will Amazon categorize them as? If I went down to my local bookstore, what would I say to get to their book? How did they shelve that book? How did they hand-sell that book? What phrases did they use?
In the same way, you look at readers. One thing I talk about, I think I talk about this in a blog post on your site as well, is the idea of really mining the data that Amazon gives you and Goodreads gives you, and the reviews.
If you can find five comparable authors who are current authors, who are doing okay, they're mid-list authors, not only can you read the voice of the reader, the actual reviews, we've got this amazing little search box. So you can start looking and saying, “Oh yeah, I keep seeing someone say, ‘Kept me guessing until the end.' Let me go in that search box and put in the word, guess, guessing.” And now you'll see 76 out of 400 hundred reviews use the word guess.
And you think, “Okay, they want to be surprised, you know. I'll look up the word surprise, I'll look up the word thrilled.” And you start to understand the words that readers are using to describe your book, instead of the opposite which is…I think what scares a lot of authors which is saying, “Do keywords,” and you're like “Okay, let me do keywords.”
And you try to think it's coming from in here, you start there but you've got to go out, analyze the marketplace, talk to readers. You can talk to them by going to the ThrillerFest and all these amazing conferences, but even if you don't have that kind of time or that kind of money, just going on Amazon, just going on YouTube, and just going on Goodreads, you start hearing people talk about this.
I'm a total addict of YouTube in general. There's all these author talks on there and you can see well, how does an author talk at a book signing? What kinds of questions does Stephen King get? This stuff is publicly available as long as you have a web connection. And I feel like that's the kind of initial research you do to start really thinking about who is the audience and more importantly, like why do they resonate with these books, and how they talk about the books, what's the language.
Joanna: Yeah, and it's so funny because I wonder if the other thing that's possibly changed since 2013, and maybe it's just me realizing this, I used to think that everyone could be a successful indie author. But what you're talking about there is something and running a business, and all the things that we have to do now, the personality.
Some people will be listening and cringing and going, “Oh, I don't wanna do that,” you know.
What do you say to people who are like, “Well, I don't want to do that”? Is it literally well then you have to get back in the queue for traditional publishing or like how do you get through that personality gap?
Dan: I don't think it's any easier for traditionally published authors. I mean, we can talk about that if we want as well. This is a big part of it, I think a lot of it is breaking it down to very simple steps where it suddenly becomes reasonable.
For that video last week of the literacy that I did for my mastermind group, the assignment last week for them was, “You have to describe what your creative work is and you have to describe that to one person.” So that meant at a barbecue, it meant the line at Starbucks, it meant a friend you haven't talked to in a while.
And it was literally that simple thing. I've been to a lot of conferences as you have, and you're like, “Oh, so are you a writer?” And you've heard this a million times, “Well, yeah I mean, I'm trying to write my first book but I don't know, I mean, it's kind of a mystery. But really, I'm an accountant and I don't what I'm doing here.”
And they don't even know how to say, “Yes, I write novels like this and that, it's about X, Y, and Z. Do you write too?” Like they don't even know how to have that identity.
I find when you start at these little points…it's funny, one of the simplest things I found with a lot of people is just having that confidence of saying, “I'm a writer and I'm doing this and I'm a professional.” That is a really difficult milestone for a lot of people.
So having that sense of being able to talk about what you do, and when someone says, “What kind of books do you write?” of being able to say, “Well, you know, have you ever read this book or seen that movie?” and they say, “Yeah.” “It's kind of like that and I add this in.” Knowing how to kind of frame it in someone's head who has no idea, just saying like, “Oh, I write literary fiction.” What does that mean?” Nobody knows what that means. It could mean anything.
I think it really is starting at that level of how would you talk to someone else? How would you frame it for them? How would you get them interested? And I think a lot of times it's the idea of not pitching them. It's understanding, like, you know, I would never say I love horror movies, but that old movie with Brad Pitt like “Seven”, that was a horror movie and it was great because it had these crazy twists to it, the actors, the whole thing.
I give this example in the book but like, I don't really like fantasy books, I don't really like the whole magic and wizard thing, but I love Harry Potter. I'm reading Harry Potter to my six-year-old right now. Again, because Harry Potter to me is not about wizards. It's about friendship, and loyalty, and how you use power, and choices you make in life and all that.
So for people who are overwhelmed and saying, “I don't want to do that,” what I think of this, you're writing for a reason, there's something you want to do and part of it it's entertainment, but part of it is something deeper. And when you talk about this, I'm not asking that you become a marketer and become savvy, it really is about if you go down to your local cafe and someone comes…even better than that, you got in an elevator with Oprah Winfrey and she says you know, “What do you do?”
How do you answer that question because that's what I'm asking for you to do is just to talk to real people passionately about what you do. If you can do that, you can take out an ad because you have a sense of what to write. And the really savvy marketers I look at, and you're friends with a lot of these people, their email newsletters are not, pitch, pitch, pitch. They're stories, there's photos of them, there's, “Hello from Salisbury.”
It's this whole idea of they're not just pitching you in the sales-y way. They're real people who understand that they want to know you, and they want to know what you're about. And that's what I see a lot of marketers and I think that is a very human, more down to earth way of looking at it is just knowing how to talk to someone who would love your book.
Joanna: That's what we have to get back to because it's too easy now to get into…and I mean, I interview lots of people on the show about data and ads, and of course you mentioned Mark Dawson is in Salisbury, which is why you mentioned it.
You can be the hardcore data person, and I love hearing from people who are hardcore data people, but I'm not that person and what you've talked about there is very much more the human aspect. It was interesting, there was blog post yesterday on Seth Godin's blog about this, about the human aspect, that marketing is kind of diverging into the human aspect versus the data aspect and machine learning and all this type of thing, really interesting.
Now, you and I have always done content marketing and, doing things like this to attract people for free and then they might buy our book or whatever, but you also have in the book, “Creating experiences, not content.” So that seems to take it further.
What do you mean by “Creating experiences, not content”?
Dan: That's a big part of it, and I think that we get scared of marketing because we think that we have a product, because of the ear pod things, we've got to get to a sale. And I don't think that's what drives a lot of creative professionals, a lot of writers.
In the in the book I talk about, “What is a book?” The book is an experience. Like, you write it and you think that people going to read it as you wrote it, they're not. That's the pallet, those are the colors, it's the canvas. And it's halfway there, but I read your book with my experiences.
When I read Harry Potter and I get emotional because I'm linking something from my past to that character. When he overcomes something, yes, I'm reading about a fake wizard using a Patronus, whatever that stuff is. But for me it's the translation. That means a lot to me because once in the 7th grade…and your story for that is different. So even that aspect of how someone reads a book is an experience that you've created for them. You want them to cry, you want them to laugh, you want them to feel a sense of escape.
And I think that when you talk about the ideal platform or marketing or anything else, it's that as well. If you want to do an email newsletter, great, there's a lot out there. How are you creating experience?
I get this a lot, I've done the newsletter for 12 years, every single Friday. And I get feedback from people where they're just saying like, “It's not a Friday unless I get your email. You know, I wait for that.” And for me it's that sense too of like someone is waking up, a very full inbox, how do I draw them in a way that doesn't feel sales-y, doesn't feel like I'm getting in the way. Where they can read what they want and they can kind of move on. What's that experience?
When you do a talk at a conference, when you're podcasting, you're crafting that experience as well. And you do this masterful job where it feels meaningful but you're also so helpful to people. That's part of the experience.
And I think that when we look at this, that's why whenever you go to an author reading, and it's horrible, it's because that person had a sense of this is like a resume. You do this, you do this, you do that. And the people who are great, you're like, “Why was that great?” And you can say, “Oh, they're charismatic.”
It's like no, they've done enough to get over that initial fear certainly, but they saw the room, they said you know…I mean, I see this all the time where they right away…I don't know why I think about this, whenever you go to a wedding or a funeral, and the person who's officiating knows how to just break the tension in the room, it's because they know there's tension in the room, even though we feel like there's a hierarchy here, we're not.
We're just 80 people in a room together. And I'm going to recognize that, and they make a joke and they say, “Oh, I was talking to the groom before the wedding, I was talking to the mother before this.” And they just break the tension, they create an experience instead of just going through a check box of this is what the program says I have to do. And that's what people remember, and I think that's how people connect with other people.
Joanna: And actually, I think the difference there, like you said, the author reading, I never agree to do author readings because I'm like, “They don't want to hear me read from my book. It's meant to go in their head via the book.” What they want is something that either helps them or entertains them or something and unless you do poetry, which is designed to be performed at small length, like reading a paragraph from my novel is not going to help you get a sense of it.
It's better for me to spend that time maybe answering questions on how to write fiction or whatever else people want to talk about, as opposed to reading from my book. So that's why I never agree to do readings but I do more events.
But I did also want to come back on your regular, like you said you've done a newsletter for 12 years, that's crazy. I mean, that's completely mad. But the regularity, this podcast, when I went from random every couple of weeks, to every Monday morning, the audience just went up hugely.
And I started Patreon, and thank you to everyone who supports the show on Patreon. I couldn't have done that without regular updates, whereas I'm terrible at newsletters so I just didn't do that.
Do you think that's one of the keys? Like whatever you do, whatever practical thing you pick, you do it on a schedule?
Dan: I think so, and it's not that you can't experiment with it with a podcast and then say it wasn't for me, but it's the idea that you're crafting a relationship of some sort. And for people to expect that you're going to show up for them, to find value in that, people don't want to be abandoned.
I always think of something like that with how I grew up where I grew up watching Johnny Carson 11:30 every night on NBC, and this is like in the '80s, my little black and white TV set. And it's a very weird thing because he felt like a part of the family. He was the voice I went to bed hearing.
You almost think of this is what celebrity is. This is why podcasts are so popular now, it's like a voice in your head. And to hear that voice every week and that voice is personal, and we've amped up the bass a little bit so it sounds really good, it is that sense where they feel a connection to you and you're one of the characters in their lives.
I think that we see that so much with people who have any kind of brand online, like you said, Seth Godin or you. You know, it's the idea that we feel connected to you and the fact that you show up regularly really means something.
I also think that for a lot of authors they have that book launch, like a two or three-year gap and then nothing, and then book launch. And that does two negative things. One is that you feel like you're terrified of marketing again, it's because you avoid it, so you've no dialogue with the audience. The other thing is you're not learning about your audience. You're not building a relationship one by one.
One of the great things about podcasts for anyone, especially interview-based podcasts, you are making a connection to someone new every single week. So when your next book comes out and you email people, you've got all these new colleagues, all these new fans, all these people you've felt that you've done a favor for them because you have.
And it's like wow, week by week that really builds up. And the same with anything, whether it's Twitter or Instagram or a newsletter. Yeah, you might not get a 1,000 new subscribers this month, but you might get one a day, and over the course of three years that really adds up, then at the time you're writing has gotten better and the way you talk to your readership has gotten better.
Joanna: I was going to come back on the podcasting because we were talking more about data-y things, but podcasting is really about relationships. This podcast is not open to pitches, but it's booked up for the next six months. And part of that is it's based on relationships that I make in some other way.
I interviewed a lady yesterday about bookbinding, I can't remember if she was before you or after you, Lisa. But you know, I think I found her on Instagram and I was like, “Oh wow, you're amazing. I want to talk to you.” And I just emailed her and said, “Hey,” I can't remember how. Or she might be listening to the podcast. Hello, Lisa.
But anyway, the point is that I was coming back to is podcasting and I've seen you've done a few podcasts for this book launch.
Do you think that for nonfiction books, podcasting is the most powerful book sales technique or book marketing technique? Or would you put it up there these days?
Dan: I would put it very highly because it has all of the foundational tenets of what you should do for any good business. I did a blog post about this guy's book and he had had a podcast, five, six, seven, years ago because podcasting emulates what you want, which is consistent output, consistent focus, and more importantly relationship building. Consistent, steady, meaningful relationship building.
If you're doing a podcast over the course of months or years, that's what it does. It forces you to build the business practice of publishing, of getting clear in your message, of outreach of marketing. It's like a habit, it's like the perfect sense of what a practice is. It is great.
The problem with it is you can't just do a podcast right around launch and expect it to get you anywhere. When you've done it as long as you have so consistently, well, that is enormously powerful. And the reason I brought up…I forget the name of the book, is Michael something or other recently in my blog where you know, he's like, “Well, how did I get Brene Brown to blurb my book? I interviewed her five years ago.” And it's like, man, not just the power podcast, the power of being early the podcast and not stopping. Not stopping is so much of life.
Joanna: I'm not suggesting that people start a podcast, I think it's a big amount of work.
As an author with a new book, is pitching to podcasts part of your marketing plan in general? And why is that? And is that what people should do?
Dan: Yes, definitely. And I would say it used to be a blog tour. The problem with that is that too much of them are just turnkey, you're often kind of sending out the same press release. But a podcast is a real conversation, it also embodies the fact that you have to hold the conversation. The podcaster probably doesn't want to just talk about your book.
We've talked about so many things that are around the city of my book, but we haven't just sat here saying, “Darn, what's the book about? What's the first chapter?” You know, not at all. We might not even get there and that's fine because it's all in that sense of you have to be able to talk to that audience and more importantly, and you just said this, the podcaster and the interviewee have to have some kind of dialogue.
I do think it's important because one, they're very popular. Two, if someone starts listening, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour, you're in their ear. And then three, you kind of get a lot of opportunities to wow someone. You might not be a great speaker, your book might be okay, but you're also a gardener, and the listener is a gardener, and the podcaster of the interview is a gardener. Like, that funny little quirk will actually become a big part of how people find you charming and pick up your book.
Joanna: Yeah, and you should always try and throw in these personal details, you know, like you mentioning reading a book to your son is a very visual image that people can imagine and go, “All right, he's just a guy like me, with a six-year-old and a new baby.”
Thinking about podcasting and tech in the way things are going, you're wearing this swanky new earbuds with no wire, I have a wire, but you're quite a tech guy, like you like tech, that you are an Apple guy.
How do you think that the tech stuff is shaping the way books are consumed and marketed?
Nonfiction in particular, for example, I'm finding audio sales for nonfiction, vastly better than fiction you know, the consumption of the podcast. I didn't really even read blogs anymore, I don't like subscribing to newsletters. I'd rather listen on a show.
How do you think that's changing and is that changing the way that people can reach people through the gateway?
Dan: Yeah, I think so, and a big word that I really focus on is empathy. When you think about the nonfiction book reader, and you think of whether it's a podcast or an audio book, if you're tapping into that same thing which is they're busy people who want to expand themselves professionally, they're interested in the idea, they don't have any time.
But they're sitting on that train or in the car, on the bus or they're jogging or cycling, and when you have empathy with that person, you start thinking that it's not you've got to be techie, although it is technical to do any of these things, you're really thinking, “When people have time? This person has three kids, they work, their spouse works. Like when do they have time?” And it's like “Oh, audio.”
I keep talking to my audience and I keep finding these busy professionals, I wrote a book about leadership, genius idea, they don't have time to always read so they're doing other things.
I think that it's not necessary starting with tech, it's starting with empathy. But I do think that as I said before, technologies give us a lot more opportunity. And this is where again maybe it's for nonfiction and we can talk about fiction, where this is where you have a lot of things where download my book now and you'll get a 20- part video course, and free 20 guidebooks and worksheets and that kind of thing. Where you think about the value add, you think about the goal of someone reading that. And it's different for fiction or for memoir or for nonfiction.
Joanna: I do want to focus on nonfiction because that's what you write. I know you have clients who write fiction, but we'll talk a little about fiction on this show. I like doing nonfiction as well.
It's my company year end, so I'm doing my annual look at my book sales and everything. And nonfiction is really interesting because I sell a lot more nonfiction books in print as well as in audio. Whereas my fiction sales are primarily eBook.
As a nonfiction author, how have you found the sales footprint for eBook versus audio and other things that nonfiction authors should focus on? For example, doing a hardback with IngramSpark in order to look similar to some other nonfiction authors?
Dan: For myself personally, to “Be the Gateway” again, there was a compressed time frame. I found that twice as many print books sales. I had a launch team but this kind of a team of people helping advise me. These are like fans of my newsletter and I brought them in so they could help me figure out decision making.
And that's the feedback that they gave me, they said, “Raise the price.” They forced me to raise the price of the book. They said, “Yeah, I read a lot of fiction on my Kindle or whatever, but nonfiction, I'd like to have it.” And they explained why, “I'd like to mark it up, I'd like to put on my shelf, I want it as a reference.” And these are assumptions I could've made but I didn't really know.
I think that's part of the opportunity. You're mentioning audio, because of my timeframe I had no chance for that, no time to do that. And now as you're saying in my head I literally have a Post-it note right here in my brain like, “Do an audio book.”
Because I've read that but then you forget, you get busy, and it's like, of course. I think that I'm turning over the question, but yeah, the difference with nonfiction is you have to think about that difference. And I think there is a huge difference with that, absolutely.
Joanna: No, absolutely. And then, we could talk for ages but we're actually almost running out of time and I did want to ask you about…because you're in New York and I see whenever I come to New York and we hang out which is great, and have coffee and stuff.
Now, because you're in New York, you're also in with a lot of people in traditional publishing, you've been around publishing for so long and you do consulting and speaking, and I wondered what your thoughts are because at the moment one of the things that's happening.
Amazon has been dominant for years, but since 2013 we've seen some of the big things, physical bookstores, we've seen Amazon publishing become increasingly dominant in the book charts on Amazon, plus things like in the last couple of weeks moving into the Middle East, Australia.
On the one hand, it's like, yay, because as authors we love Amazon and we're tied into Amazon. And on the other hand it's like, “Oh, my goodness.”
What is the feeling in New York around this kind of shift? Have you been to those bookstores as well?
Dan: Not the Amazon one. I can only speak for myself. I do have a lot of friends in publishing. I think one thing that Amazon does well is they think about the reader, and they have been very innovative because they haven't had any industry thing holding them back.
They said, you know, “Whatever that is, we'll do that.” And because that gets a book to a person faster, gets to recommend a book faster. I also see the opposite…not the opposite but I see that reflected locally.
Three years ago a local friend opened a brand new indie bookstore here. A year and a half ago she moved to a bigger bookstore, one of the most prominent buildings in town. She has this way too big bookstore now. It was like a big jump.
Another friend moved to town, she spent 20 years in major publishing, like vice president of marketing at major publishers, she just left her job to become the manager for this bookstore. And what I see with Barb and Rachel is that they are a part of the community and the same thing in a different way that Amazon is doing in that sense is ask, where are readers?
What do readers want? How do we actually get more books to people? How do we make it easier, whether that's cheaper or shipping or whatever it is?
I see that's what they're doing. They're saying, “We're going to invest in a bookstore in town, we're going to get all the local organizations involved. We're going to get Rachel in here and find a way to get her to work for the store.”
Rachel is already doing all these crazy events and getting all these people involved and bringing that truly A-level marketing brain into running a small bookstore in a small town.
I think there's a lot of innovation around just the reader, and that's how I view it. And I think Amazon is complex in that way philosophically. When I see something like that video of Amazon's food store idea, that concerns me because I go to my food store a lot and I see all the employees there. And I see that these are real people and a lot of them are not 16 years old, they're 45, 55, 65. And I look at the supply chain and I think, “I like these people in my town, I see them every day, and I don't want them to lose their job.”
There's a complexity with Amazon, but in the end, with a lot of it, it's great I can see reader reviews. It's great I get really truly catered stuff to me. So it's a weird a philosophical dilemma, but I do think they're thinking about what truly gets people to buy and read books, and they're very aggressive about that. And it's a very similar thing as I see locally with an indie bookseller which is on the opposite side of the Amazon chain when they want you to buy locally.
Joanna: I do think what you're saying is true. It's interesting you said about grocery shopping, I don't grocery shop, I order on my phone so we get groceries delivered. And we didn't have a car for like six years, so part of it was it is easy to get stuff delivered. I've been doing that for years and now I'm feeling guilty because the robots run the warehouse, but there are drivers.
But it is interesting how that technology shifts, I think there's obviously people moving further to buying online, but there's also when I have a break, like yesterday I went round to the local independent bookstore and I bought three hardback books for some other project. And see what, it's doing both and there is the increase in both. Like, we're seeing in publishing, the problem is in the middle, if you're trying to do everything.
I see the rise of digital and the rise of beautiful print but the missing is probably the mass market paperback.
If we're going to talk again in like 2020, is the mass market paperback dead and all we now know eBooks, audio books, and beautiful print?
Dan: I don't know the trends enough to really say it but I don't believe necessarily in that thing where beautiful books. I was at the bookstore yesterday, and there was some pretty recent book and the paper stock was horrible, and it's a big book. And I didn't care, it's like I don't think it has to be beautiful.
I know Seth Godin talks about this, the beautiful crafted thing and all that stuff. But it's like the book's format is just so perfect, even a mass market paperback. So I don't know the trends enough to speak that way, but I don't believe it's either the beautiful object you wanna put on your shelf or the easy cheap eBook. I think there is a big middle ground there.
Joanna: Oh good, I was about to ask that question. I know we've talked about a lot of things that just tell us a bit more about “Be the Gateway.” I mean we've talked peripherally about it.
Tell people what they can find in ‘Be the Gateway'.
Dan: Yes, so this is sort of my view of how you can practically start thinking about who your audience is and reaching them. It's broken into three parts, is the idea of looking at your creative work as a gateway because that helps you think about why you create and how you would share and market that in the same pure place.
The middle part is about opening that gate, it's about audience research. I think this is the stuff a lot of authors don't do. How do you start understanding the marketplace, and the ideal reader, and people that reach those readers? And doing in a way that isn't slimy and uses all these great tools that are accessible.
And the last part is walking someone through the gate. It's not how to launch a newsletter for a billion subscribers in one day. It's if you can walk one person through the gate to get them to understand what you do and why you get them to buy the book, boom you've done what most authors can't. Now you can do with 2 people, now you can do 4 people, 8 people, and 16 people. And every time you do that, you learn so much.
I used to work in a big publisher, a magazine publisher. They do all these studies, we'd have 4 million data points, all of that kind of stuff, and that's great, that's fine. I've also known that if we want an opinion on something, if we ask three to five people, we're gonna learn 79% of what we need to know, just by talking to three to five people.
And we'll get the details after that and this is the idea of if you can talk to one person and say “This is what you do, and this is what you write, it's why you write it,” you can't sum up, are they the right person, if you can't ask them a question and figure out how are you doing that with 100 people, 100,000 people?
And that's kind of the structure of the book and I try to get very practical about how to do each step and really breaking it down. And for me, you mentioned this earlier, it really is trying to bring it down to a human process, a process that is not scary and big, one where you feel like you know, where you are starting with nothing and you've got to expose yourself on the line to do that. That it really is about connecting with real people and about really staying true to why you're writing.
Joanna: That's great. Tell people where they can find you and your book and everything you do online.
Dan: The book right now is on Amazon.com, “Be the Gateway.” Everything else I do is on wegrowmedia.com, and I'm @danblank on all the normal social media like Instagram, and Twitter, and Facebook. That's where you can find me, yeah.
Joanna: Super, thanks so much for your time, Dan. That was great.
Dan: Thank you.
I was reading Start With Why by Simon Sinek, and I felt like so much of what Dan is saying here is the same thing. You might be a fantasy author, but there’s something else behind that.
You might write about:
– friendship and loyalty
– falling in love with someone you shouldn’t
– discovering the things wrong in your family/neighborhood/city
Those things could be fantasy, contemporary, sci-fi, thriller, middle school, or any genre. And while it’s important to have genre, if you can isolate these elements and core values in your stories, you’re more likely to find those 1000 true fans who love that type of story, and want to read it over and over again.
Dan Blank says
Start With Why is such a wonderful book! Thanks for exploring this further.
Ethan Jones says
Thanks so much, Joanna and Dan. Learned so much.
Mary Ellen Latela says
Joanna, thanks to @KMWeiland for this referral… Lots of important info on this page.