Editor’s Note: I am pleased to feature this interview with Colin Wright as part of the Winning Edits Expert Interview Series.
Wright is an author, entrepreneur, and full-time traveler. He moves to a new country every four months based on the votes of his readers, and along the way runs businesses and writes.
Matt Gartland: As an independent author and entrepreneur, what do you find most compelling about the business opportunities emerging in the wake of the publishing industry’s transformation?
Colin Wright: The publishing industry is definitely at the biggest crossroad its encountered since the development of the printing press, and its an incredibly exciting industry to work in as a result of that.
Most compelling, I think, is that for a long time that most difficult part of the publishing process seemed to be getting your work out to a lot of people. You could write something stellar or terrible, and either way when you’re done you would run into this wall that was unyielding and seemingly random in its determination as to who it would let through.
Don’t get me wrong, that filtering process led to a lot of great work getting published over the years, and even made a lot of that work better than it would have been otherwise, but I would guess that for every success story of that kind there are just as many books that went through the wood-chipper of legacy publishing and came out the other side half the product it once was. For each amazingly handled book that went through that process, there were probably 100 books of the same calibre that didn’t make it past the initial stages of securing an agent or getting their work looked at by acquiring editors.
Today, however, the problems are flipped, and anyone can get an audience: the hard part is writing something that resonates and gets people talking. In my mind, this is a good tradeoff that’s been made, because now people are focusing on the work, not the gauntlet they’d need to run to get their work to an audience. The opportunities that have arisen as a result of this funnel-flipping are myriad and wonderful, and I think after legacy publishers get a grip on it, and indie authors understand it better, the whole industry will come out a lot better for it.
Most exciting for me on a micro level, rather than the macro level extrapolated upon above, is the chance to try out new business models, delivery systems, and types of published content. The business model for books is one that has made sense for a long time, but paid newsletters only became prevalent after the dawn of the Internet, and with good reason: they were a tricky business to make money from when dealing with atoms instead of pixels. The same goes for serialized fiction, poetry collections, and essays: the market for these has always existed, it’s just been troublesome to identify, serve, and monetize. Today it’s far more possible, and we’re able to watch these new markets grow out of very little, and in some cases appearing out of nowhere.
The industry is an entrepreneur’s dream right now, and thankfully it’s a content creator’s dream, as well. It’s not every day that the interests of those two groups align so perfectly.
MG: Once upon a time, you founded Ebookling, an independent ebook marketplace aimed at helping “turn authors into authorpreneurs.” Can you share a bit about the Ebookling story: why it existed, how it worked, what you learned, and why you decided to deactivate it?
CW: The concept behind Ebookling was a piece of advice that I tell my creative friends all the time: the days of being able to consider yourself and artist that doesn’t need to work or worry about money are over. There will be a fortunate few who find benefactors or who are able to have their hand held while their work is discovered, scooped up, and published as-is, but it’s about as likely as winning the lottery, and in most cases won’t pay as much.
These days, the smart artists are owning their work and their business infrastructure. This control allows them to continue to produce work over the long-term, rather than having to work a second job to support their passion, as has often been the case throughout history.
Through Ebookling, I wanted to create an easy to use platform that would get rid of a lot of the gimmickry and background knowledge necessary to self publish, and would provide other tools that helped writers build their audiences as well; a key component to creating not just a piece of art, but a career around many pieces of art.
Unfortunately, although the company was profitable from day one all the way to the day I pulled the plug, my team and I weren’t able to compete with the technology offered up by other platforms like Amazon and Smashwords. They leapfrogged us without even trying, and I realized that with the technology they had begun to offer it was a smarter choice to provide information and services to authors, rather than trying to rebuild the wheel. They had come up with some really stellar wheels since the day I started Ebookling, and it seemed silly not to use them. The concept still holds — that artists need to be entrepreneurs — but I’m approaching it in a very different way now.
We could have continued to keep the company going and made a decent amount of income each month, but that would have missed the point: we wanted to help move publishing forward, and simply making money to make money didn’t interest us.
MG: You have recently partnered with Thom Chambers, Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn to found Asymmetrical, a digital publishing company that exists to “improve the quality of published work.” How is Asymmetrical unique from other micropublishers, and how will the company fulfill that big vision?
The business model behind it comes in three sections: the Community, the Press, and the Studio.
The Community is free for everyone, and we don’t make any money from this directly. It’s a place for authors and editors and bloggers and poets and anyone involved in publishing of any kind to get together and share resources, ideas, feedback, and the like. We wanted to give folks a place to do that without it being tied to a specific company’s products (Amazon has a popular forum, for example, but very often anything not Kindle-related is given the boot) because we wanted that kind of forum to use ourselves and found that nothing like that really existed yet, at least not on the scale we wanted to build.
The Press is our riff on a publishing house, and through it we partner with different kinds of authors and other publishers to create, market, and distribute products. Our advantage is that everything we do—from editing to marketing and helping them decide what vehicle is best to deliver the product to the consumer—is very lightweight, so our overhead is also low. We put in a lot of time and bring our knowledge and experience to bear, and in return we get 20% of the profits from the product (while the creator of the work retains complete ownership — we’re just investors). This works best with people who are going to produce many books or blogs or whatever over time, of course, so we focus on people who are somewhat prolific and who create really solid work. We’re hoping to expand to work with journalists and educators and other folks who are publishing beyond traditional books, as well.
Finally, the Studio tier of the trio is where we provide the same time and knowledge and experience to clients that we usually only provide to authors who we’re working with through our Press. For a flat fee (instead of the 20% of profits we usually earn from the Press), we’ll help chisel a product into tip-top shape, then help get it to the best and largest audience possible. This is a service we’ll be offering to individuals, but also to other publishing houses, which is something that ordinarily costs them a whole lot of money to do internally. We can do it for a lot less, due to our extraordinarily low overhead and the methods we’ve refined over several years.
Through these three different approaches, we hope to bring our experience and knowledge—as well as that of the many other people in the Community and who we work with through the Press and Studio—to a far larger audience. We’re also producing open source publishing business models, collections of resources for indie publishers to use, and other such time- and money-saving devices. We want the industry as a whole to grow, and the more any of us succeeds, the more we all succeed. We want to get more know-how out to more people, and to have more success stories worth talking about to inspire people and get some deserving work into the limelight.
MG: Much of your writing projects and entrepreneurial endeavors are rooted in the ideals of community. What have you done right in building an engaged and supportive community? And what have you done wrong?
CW: The best thing to do when building a community is to communicate well with that community.
Over the years I’ve had various degrees of success with this, and probably the most successful thus far has been the Exile Lifestyle community that I maintain over several different sites and in real life. I think stripping the process down and figuring out what I could do to really add value for people was key, so I avoided all the trendy things that other people were doing and honed in on a few things that my readers were telling me they really wanted. A few places where they could talk directly to me, check (Twitter and email). A few places where they could read my writing, check (the blog and my books). A way to be updated on my various projects, check (social media and my newsletter). A place to find out what I’m interested in and reading, check (Twitter and Facebook). Beyond that, anything else would be somewhat superfluous.
The times when things haven’t worked so well are highlighted by my not being able to leave things well enough alone, or not having a good enough grasp on what people in the community wanted. I made both of these mistakes with a brand called Most Interesting People in the Room, which—although I still think it’s a killer idea—failed to ever break past the initial growing pains of a community, so I pulled the plug on it twice. The first time around, I went wild and tried out too many things all at once, which confused the brand and the purpose behind it. The second time I focused a lot better, and the primary intent of the community (a space for high-level conversations, which are otherwise tough to find on the single-serving culture of the internet) was embraced by a few, but others wanted something else from it, and I wasn’t able to catch on to what they were looking for fast enough to give it to them.
Valuable lessons, all of them, and the best piece of advice I can offer up front is to make damn sure that you’re part of the community you’re building. It adds legitimacy, sure, but it also gives you the ideal way to get feedback and make sure things are going well: people can talk to you from within the community itself, and you, as a member, will know if things are amazing or terrible.
MG: What is the #1 piece of actionable advice you’d give to an author accomplished in writing (perhaps with published books) but new to whole “community building thing”?
CW: You’re going to be either excited to get things going or hesitant to toot your own horn, and either one can be a hinderance that leads you to jump too quickly, and maybe off the wrong cliff.
Start with one small platform (like a blog, or your Twitter account) and expand from there. Let it grow organically. If you find there’s something you’re not able to accomplish with your current platform, but that you want to do and people want you to do (say you’re running a blog and want to share links, but it doesn’t fit within your blogging schema), then start up another platform and invest some effort to see if it grows. In this way you’ll spend as little time as possible on potentially useless sidetracks, but you’ll still be able to sound out what your people want. And at the end of the day, if what you’re working on isn’t providing them value and doing the same for you, it’s probably not worth your time.