Note: I’m pleased to feature this interview with micro-publisher Thom Chambers as part of the Winning Edits Expert Interview Series.
Chambers is the founder of Mountain & Pacific, a micropublishing house that creates online magazines for the restless.
In Treehouses is the flagship publication, a beautifully produced magazine focusing on freedom businesses. The Micropublisher is the second and more recent magazine, one devoted to teaching you how to make a living with words.
Follow Chambers on Twitter: @ThomChambers
Matt Gartland: Your digital micropublishing house, Mountain & Pacific, is devoted to the “restless.” It’s a powerful, visceral word that I wager many in the indie publishing movements self-identify with. Why do you feel this quality is of such importance and vivacity now given the state of affairs in books and publishing?
Thom Chambers: After graduating from university, I worked in a bookshop in central London. Every day, we’d have people come in and ask for shelf space for their self-published book. There was plenty of tenacity in these people trying to find a buyer for their “sequel to Pride and Prejudice”, but there was also desperation and delusion. Rather than try to improve their writing or find different ways to reach their audience, self-published writers wanted to imitate what worked for others: shelf space.
Online, of course, shelf space is available to all, but the attitude of imitation remains. Anyone can look at the success of someone like Joe Konrath and say, “hey, $100,000 a month sounds great; I’ll publish to the Kindle and get rich too”. But Joe’s been doing this for a while, has dozens of titles to sell, and has built a fanbase who’ll buy anything new he puts out there.
Yes, you can try to imitate this. But you could also try out new things that might work better for you. It might end up being a magazine, a curated blog, or a serial letter. You might be a better editor or publisher than a writer.
There are so many opportunities available right now for those who want to make a living with words. Don’t just write and hit publish without thinking about things; publish deliberately with a goal in mind.
Exploration and experimentation reap rewards.
MG: The Micropublisher is your latest magazine, which is dedicated to the idea that, as you say, “self-publishing is no longer a stepping stone or a fallback, but a lucrative destination in its own right.” Can you elaborate on his concept, exploring the economics, freedoms, and operations involved?
TC: If you want to make a living with words, you have three basic options:
- Do it all yourself, building your tribe and publishing work that delights them
- Self-publish, with your own team of employees or freelancers to do the job of a publisher for you
- Get picked by a publisher who’ll do all the work for you
For the past few years, I think the dream has been to go from number 1 straight to number 3.
Lots of writers start a blog or an email list with the intention of building a reputation and an audience and, one day, turning that into a book deal.
What writers are starting to discover is that, in the new publishing landscape, they can actually make more money at 1 than at 3. When you’re at 1, you see, you take 70% to 100% of your sales revenue. At number 3, you get about 17%. Before Amazon and the online marketplace took off, publishers could offer the rebuttal of, “yes, but we have the distribution and the readers for you”. Now, you can probably reach just as many readers by yourself.
The shift, then – and it’s a big one – is that many writers are no longer self-publishing out of necessity but out of choice.
Making this shift puts the control in your hands as a writer, but it also puts everything on your shoulders. There’s nobody to blame if it goes wrong.
Many writers relish this. Rather than relying on a publisher to pick them and make them rich, they can go about making themselves a success on their own terms. You can build your own audience, talk to them, nurture them, make publications that delight them. It’s all in your hands.
Other writers would rather someone else did the work. They just want to do the words and leave the business to someone else.
This is why I think there’s a new dream, and it’s number 2 on that list above. Rather than aspiring to be picked by a publisher, you can aspire to build your own team of talented specialists around you. You’re left to do your work, while your editor, publicist, designer, service rep, agent, and the like – all working a freelance project basis rather than full-time – do their work.
You keep the control. You keep the money. You publish to a high standard. You choose your projects. You have a ready-made audience to whom to sell.
Not a bad situation for which to strive.
MG: Magazines are Mountain & Pacific’s trademark, and for good reason: they’re immaculate and beautiful in both design and content. With the spotlight on ebooks and e-readers, where do magazines fit into the future ecosystem of digital publications?
TC: Well, we have to be careful here with what we mean when we say “magazine”.
There are magazines like Cosmopolitan or Vogue – traditional print magazines that have been migrated to the web, full of bells and whistles and advertising, run by a big team in a New York office. If you can afford to make a magazine like that, good for you.
For the rest of us, though, magazines can be something else entirely. A simple PDF, delivered to a tribe of passionate readers, providing quality articles and interviews to a tiny, focused niche.
For me, these magazines – let’s call them personal magazines or micro-magazines – are the point at which blogs end and books begin. Blogs across the web are getting denser, providing deep value to a niche of readers. Books (non-fiction books, anyway) are getting shorter and more flexible, focusing on spreading ideas quickly and enjoyably.
Magazines bridge the gap. Like blogs, they’re aimed at a small group of interested readers. Like books, they’re finite – each issue has a start and an end and you know when you’re done with it. Like blogs, they allow you to build a tribe by giving them ongoing content. Like books, they feel valuable, collectible, and even worth paying for.
To many, the prospect of running your own magazine seems daunting – largely because the traditional paper product is still what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘magazine’. The reality, however, is that a personal magazine requires an ounce of the budget or complications of the traditional model.
All of which means a format in which there is clear potential, little competition, and an easy way to stand out.
MG: In a recent article, you write that “…success doesn’t seem to be about your headline or your post length or any other secret ‘content strategy’ beyond producing high-quality work.” To me, this speaks loudly of professionalism, a quality that I daresay is wanting in the wider “indie” universe.
What is your reaction to the “professionalism” versus “indie” debate? Are they mutually exclusive? Can they co-exist? And how, if possible, can smart folks unite them to become a highly respected “professional independent”?
TC: Publishing houses have long been the filters for the book world. They played the role of arbiter, choosing what was worth your attention and what wasn’t.
Since the web gave publishing power to everyone, though, there is no filter. You can shine a spotlight on the best stuff, but there are no gatekeepers to stop the bad stuff being made and distributed in the first place. Online, then, it’s up to each individual to wade through the rubbish to find the gold.
Because this is a problem for readers, it’s also a problem for you as a writer. Yes, you can revel in the opportunity to self-publish to your heart’s content. But a better attitude (and a better way to make an income) is to think of your audience, your readership, and how you can help them.
Writers are revelling in the freedom of being able to self-publish, without recognising the services that publishing houses have long provided. They’re only doing half the work, ignorant of the fact that as the publishing industry has changed, so has the role of the writer.
Publishing houses aren’t just glorified printers. They’re editors, designers, publishers, customer service reps, and promoters. Embracing the ability to bypass the publishing houses is all well and good. But by neglecting the jobs that publishing houses do, writers are throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Of course, while this is a problem, it’s also where the opportunity lies.
If you can apply the same quality and filter to your own work that a traditional publishing house provides to its publications, you’ll be valuable. You’ll stand out. You’ll make money.
MG: What’s the #1 piece of actionable advice you’d give to an independent writer interested in and open to alternative forms of publishing, including micropublishing?
TC: Stop blogging and start publishing.
All blogs, no matter what size or style, are a means to an end. They are support for a grander goal, whether that’s building your reputation, promoting your business, or otherwise.
Mitch Joel uses his blog to build a reputation and to spread a message. He’s not looking to monetize his blog, but to grow his audience and connect with those readers who matter. By building his brand and his voice in the marketplace, he serves as the best possible form of promotion for Twist Image, his digital marketing agency.
Call this indirect blogging. The goal is not a profitable blog, but a platform to connect and communicate and achieve other ambitions. The beneficiary is you and/or your business, not the blog – that’s just a tool.
I have no problem with indirect blogging. I think a blog is a fantastic way to support your work and spread ideas.
But so many writers build a blog, thinking they can “make money blogging”. When they realise they’re not making money, they look for related ways to make an income.
Think about this for a moment. Rather than building a business and supporting it with a blog, there are thousands of people out there building a blog and trying to support it with a business. They’re setting up the support mechanism and the promotion – the blog – then just tacking a business on to it.
This, of course, is absurd. Start with a business. Then support it with a blog. It’s common sense.
Your business is making a living with words. And so you need to focus on making quality publications – books, courses, magazines, letters, apps, whatever. Supporting this with a blog is fine – it’s great, even – but the business needs to come first.
When your focus shifts to the publications, everything changes. Rather than worrying about driving more traffic to your blog, you concern yourself with making the best publications you can for your readers. You’re forced to create high-quality work, rather than something that’s just going to be link bait or hype to snag blog visitors from Twitter or StumbleUpon.
Blogging is amateur media, so use it as such. A focus on publications that you can actually sell is the best way to make a living with words.
Images provided by and used with permission from the interviewee.