Editor’s Note: I am pleased to feature this interview with Penelope Trunk as part of the Winning Edits Expert Interview Series.
Trunk co-founded Brazen and two other startups. Her career advice runs in 200 newspapers. Her new book, The New American Dream, is about the pursuit of interestingness, not happiness, for a career filled with variety.
Follow Trunk on Twitter: @PenelopeTrunk
Matt Gartland: You recently revealed that you walked away from a big publisher to self-publish your latest book, The New American Dream. What was the largest factor that influenced your decision to abandon traditional publishing?
Penelope Trunk: They didn’t have any idea whom their market was or how to reach them, so I thought: I’m not going to learn anything about publishing this way. And publishing is changing so fast. And I’m a writer, so I have to learn how to publish. So I felt it was really, really important for me to learn another part of the industry since the traditional approach is obviously broken.
MG: You spent six months studying and analyzing the publishing industry in-depth. What were your profound discoveries and biggest learnings?
PT: I learned that a lot of people see an opening in publishing, but don’t have any business model in mind to seize that opportunity. They think because they understand that publishing is broken and because they really like books, they’re going to get in on it. But it’s very, very difficult to come up with an absolute business model for publishing. And I think most people who are involved in publishing right now are in denial about that.
Publishing is really up in the air. Almost no one has a good model. The good models are extremely specialized and very, very high-end. On the low-end, no one’s got a model that’s working profitably. The most surprising thing to me was how absolutely open-ended and completely unstructured the publishing world is right now.
MG: Through your learning process you discovered Hyperink and ultimately chose to publish with them. I presume you feel they are one of the very few companies out there that are getting this right. What really spoke to you then about Hyperink–their service or model–and did your experience with them live up to your expectations?
PT: Hyperink is a startup. They have funding so they don’t need to make money from authors or book sales right now. They basically have funding to figure out publishing. I think a lot of publishing start-ups are in a similar position right now, that they don’t quite have a model but are funding to figure out a model.
Hyperink has by no means cracked the code on the publishing industry, but what they are good at is SEO. And I’m completely convinced that if a publisher is partnering with an author, the author’s core competency is going to be content and probably some sort of audience ownership. But the author is never going to be good at SEO. It’s too specialized a skill set that’s too time consuming to learn and that changes all the time.
To me, a partnership between an author and a publishing SEO expert makes the most sense, which is why I selected Hyperink because every time they talked to me, they were so SEO focused.
MG: That way of thinking blends with the new rules for book publishing you articulated in your “How I got a big advance from a big publisher and self-published anyway” article. Of your five rules, what would you prescribe as your number one piece of advice for rising star authors that are trying to assess their publishing options?
PT: Well, the whole idea of a “rising star” author is just preposterous. For example, there are really only six big cinema writers. They’re artists. They’re doing art. The business they’re in cannot be controlled. It’s a business for a lucky few. It’s like a lottery, right? So, you can’t really control if you make money as an artist or not. You just have to do your art and say a prayer. That’s the case for fiction writers at least.
Then, there are the non-fiction writers. Most non-fiction writers think they’re going to support themselves writing non-fiction books. That’s just completely out to lunch; it just doesn’t happen at significant enough a rate to even be talked about as a possible thing. You should play the lottery instead of that. The way that most non-fiction writers make their money is using their book to sell something else.
That’s what you should be doing. You should figure out what is the thing you’re selling, why are you writing a book, and what are you going to sell from that book besides the book. After that, determine who’s the best partner for you to reach that goal. But if you don’t know what you’re selling besides the book, there’s no point in publishing the book. Just go flip burgers at McDonald’s; you’ll make more money per hour.
It’s really old fashioned to think that people who write books are somehow authorities. They’re not. People who have audiences and make money because they’re good at something that audience wants are authorities.
MG: I’m glad you mentioned audiences. You wrote recently that, “the person who has the relationship with the customer is the one who owns the business.” How are you changing or implementing new ways to manage and further grow your customer relationships after learning so much about the state of publishing?
PT: Well, I’m a blogger. I’ve been blogging for ten years. That’s my audience. I don’t need other sources to sell my books. Out of town PR for this book just isn’t cost effective for me. It’s much more cost effective for me to just do a really good job on my blog. If I write a good blog post, a thousand people like it on Facebook; that’s their way to get to my book. It’s much more productive for me to just do what I’m good at, which is building the audience that I already have. I don’t need to do anything else to sell my book.
Ultimately, my book isn’t what feeds my family. My community is what feeds my family. The book is just one little, tiny thing. I think that perspective is so, so important for book authors to think about. If you have a community, you can always support yourself. Maybe there’ll be a book; maybe there’ll be something else.
But if you have only a book, you probably can’t support yourself. People just don’t do that with books. The book is just icing on the cake for a community.
MG: Speaking of your audience, have they been excited about your new book and how you published it? Have they really embraced the book? Are book sales going well?
PT: This is my third book, so I already know what to expect from my audience. Also, I am constantly asking my audience to take some sort of action, so I know really well what to expect from them. Book publishers have this crazy question like, “How is your book selling?” If you don’t know your audience you don’t know how it would sell, so people are asking. But it’s not even an interesting question. “How is my book selling?” It’s my third book. I always feel my own audience, so of course I know how to write a book for my audience.
The very common question that you ask an author, “How is your book selling?” It shouldn’t even be a question. It’s like asking, “Are your subscribers clicking through to the comments?” No one answers that, right? It’s just consistent. I know what percentage of my readers that subscribe click through to the comments. It should be the same thing with book sales; you just know what percentage of your readers will buy that kind of book because you know your audience.
MG: I agree that that question asked in a vacuum is uninteresting. However, given the decisions and circumstances surrounding how you published, I was interested to know if that context had special influence on your audience in terms of driving book sales.
PT: Oh, no, they don’t care. My audience doesn’t care. My audience is just my audience. They already know that I complain about the publishing world all the time.
The post I wrote about my publishing experience and decisions was very popular and I got interviewed a lot on sites that I’m not always on, like TechCrunch. I don’t write for them that much, so the fact that I was on there and interviewed about my publishing perspectives means that a lot of TechCrunch people who don’t usually read my blog came to my site. But that traffic doesn’t really translate into buyers to be honest. I mean, anyone who’s trying to get on big sites like TechCrunch don’t realize that does not translate to sales. It does not translate to people taking action.
The people that you can get to take a prescribed action are people that you have a relationship with, not people that see you in one post.
In general, yes, the book has gotten tons of coverage, tons of buzz and all that. But buzz doesn’t translate to book sales. Community translates to book sales. And really, if buzz translated to sales, then publishers would know better how to make book sales, right? It just doesn’t translate. One of the things that has been really shocking to me throughout my career as a buzz-builder is that getting on CNN or 20/20 or 60 Minutes–I’ve been on all of them–doesn’t translate to anything. No one who watches you on those shows does anything online because of it. If you’re on 60 Minutes that doesn’t mean more people buy your book.
There was one moment–I think it was three years ago–when some big show, maybe 20/20, called me and asked me to come right away because of a tweet I did that was big news. They wanted me on the show, so they were going to fly me and my kids and the nanny to New York City the next day. I finally just said no because I was like: “Well, I never get anything from this. I just get to be able to say that I was on the show, but nothing ever changes in my life because of it. So I just told them no. To me, that was a big turning point where the goal wasn’t to get on big media. If I’m not able to make any money off that, then all my goals are really shifting. I had to really look at what I was trying to do.
MG: What’s the one thing you’ve been wanting to say about publishing or your book or the intersection of the two but haven’t yet because no one has asked that question. What’s the one question you’ve been wanting to reply to?
PT: Everyone who wants to talk about publishing I think is really just avoiding talking about community building. Community building is tens of billions of times harder than publishing a book. But that’s really what people need to do in order to get any traction with anything they care about. You need a community of people to take action.
I think the whole discussion of self-publishing and traditional publishing and all that, it’s only relevant if you know the one percent of people who make a truck load of money selling their books. For everyone else, it’s just a red herring. They should talk about community building and how they’re doing that in their life.
Disclosure: Penelope Trunk hired me as a publishing consultant during her intense study of the new book economy. The experience was mutually enjoyable and fruitful. In her own words, “I learned so much from you. Thank you for everything you taught me. You were a huge bridge to me to get to where I was going.”