Documenting Creating

Yesterday I read Austin Kleon's Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered. Like his Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative it's a quick read and very visual.

The line that stuck in my head was: "Become a documentarian of what you do." I like this idea because it refocuses your attention away from end result = product to current result = process/progress.

He also suggests you share something small every day.

Here's my current status:

Bye, Baldy

I'm still guest blogging over at Kottke this week. Today's posts include: "Say Hello to Chemo and Goodbye to Bald."

I went wig shopping, but I never bought one. The American Cancer Society sent me a hideous free brunette wig that showed up one day in a brown envelope in the mail, and I stuck it in a drawer. I didn't wrap a scarf around my head like Elizabeth Taylor. Sometimes, I wore my husband's USMC baseball hat. More often than not, I walked around exposed: I was six-two, I was bald, and I was angry. I felt humiliated, but I did it anyway. I hated that I was sick, yet I was hellbent on refusing to hide the fact that I was. I startled people, and eventually it dawned on me that I wasn't me anymore, I was The Sick Person, and what everyone saw when they saw me was the looming specter of human frailty.

[Kottke]

The Numbers on Self-Publishing Digital Fiction

Considering a title for this post, I was reminded of a post I wrote back in 2010, "The Numbers on Self-Publishing Long-Form Journalism." In 2009, I'd self-published, "They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They?", a longform look at how the Great Recession impacted the adult movie industry. The piece was free for readers, so the numbers I wrote about in that follow up essay mostly focused on how many people had read it.

This week, I self-published "The Tumor," a beautifully designed, deeply horrifying digital short story about a husband, a wife, and the tumor that shows up to terrorize them. You can buy it directly from me on my website, and I'm charging $1.

Or am I?

Gumroad, the platform I'm using to process payments, has a payment option called Pay What You Want. You can read about how Gumroad does PWYW here. Of course, Gumroad didn't invent PWYW. Radiohead used the pricing strategy to sell In Rainbows. Stephen King used it to serialize The Plant. Panera Bread used it to hawk turkey chili.

According to Wikipedia:

"Pay what you want (or PWYW) is a pricing strategy where buyers pay any desired amount for a given commodity, sometimes including zero. In some cases, a minimum (floor) price may be set, and/or a suggested price may be indicated as guidance for the buyer. The buyer can also select an amount higher than the standard price for the commodity."

Gumroad enables you to utilize PWYW pricing by giving the seller (people like me) the option to add a "+" when setting the price for the product. I decided to charge $1 for "The Tumor," and I added the PWYW option. So the price for the buyer (people like you) appears as $1+. When you click to purchase, Gumroad's prompt next to the amount box reads: "Name a fair price." You can enter $1, or you can enter a bigger amount -- say, $3, or $5, or $1,000. It's up to you, the consumer. 

Why would you use PWYW? Well, for one, Gumroad asserts, "Pay-what-you-want products often make upwards of 20% more revenue." I'd already used PWYW with Gumroad because Clayton Cubitt is my friend, and a photographer, and people were emailing him with questions all the time -- you know, asking for advice -- so he created the InterroClayton. Basically, you can ask him a question, but you have to pay for the answer.

As Cubitt puts it:

"This $2 digital download entitles the purchaser to ask any single question of me and receive an honest answer to it in a timely fashion. It is a VIP ticket to my mind."

Way to monetize your brain power.

(Side note: You can also "sell" your stuff for free on Gumroad. One great thing about Gumroad is that you get to see who is buying your product. Unlike Amazon. Like I said before, Fuck Bezos. You won't be making money, per se, but, as Gumroad says, "It's a great way to get valuable data from your audience in exchange for giving them great content." Gumroad's got more on pricing and pay what you want here, and you can also check out their "Is Pay What You Want Pricing for You?" interview with author Tom Morkes, who wrote The Complete Guide to Pay What You Want Pricing. Also, Money has "A Brief History of Pay What You Want Businesses" and Louis C.K.'s role in it).

In any case, "The Tumor" is PWYW priced at $1+. So far, the average price people are paying for it is $2.77. The highest price paid thus far is $20, and $3 and $5 are popular amounts.

Interesting.

What's interesting to me here is not the money, or the pricing model, but the concept of value and who decides it. Is the black convertible Bentley that I see parked at the gym worth $226,000? Last year, Fiat started selling Maserati Ghiblis for $68,000, well below the rest of their $100,000-plus Maserati models, so what does that do to their brand and our perception of it, when randoms can afford a Maserati? Or, you know, why don't you just buy a Nissan Versa for $12,000 and call it a day because you don't need a car to tell the world your worth?   

Why would you pay $1 to read "The Tumor"? Why would you pay $20 to read "The Tumor"? What is "The Tumor" worth? What is its value? What service does it provide? What is the market value of a fiction?

Here's the first page of "The Tumor" (page design by Domini Dragoone):

Now, what would you pay to read the rest?

Why You Should Sell Your Own Work

Yesterday, I launched "The Tumor," an original digital short story I'm selling on my personal website.

It's a story about a husband, a wife, and what happens when the husband wants to shoot the wife to solve the problem, and she won't let him.

Here's why you should sell your work yourself:

It's Really Not That Hard

I'm using Gumroad to process purchases of "The Tumor" on my site. I chose Gumroad because Clayton Cubitt uses it, and he told me to use it. They don't take as big of a cut as Amazon.

Lesson: Fuck Bezos.

It's Great for Control Freaks

I'm a control freak. And a freelance writer. That means editors screw up my prose, incompetent designers do a shitty job of laying out my paragraphs, and artists create horrible art to go with my fine lines. It's like going to the prom and getting caught in the rain on the way, and by the time you get to the prom you look like you just got in from a gangbang. When you sell your work yourself, you control what it looks like, what format(s) it's in, and how much people pay for it.

Lesson: If you're spineless, stick to letting other people ruin your life.

You're Good Enough, You're Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like You!

I pitch stories to outlets all the time. Most of the time, they pass, they ignore, they turn up their noses. Every time this happens, it makes you feel a little more worthless, a little more downtrodden, a little more why bother. It's not easy to be a creative and have people shit on your head, is it? Here's the thing. The problem isn't your work. The problem isn't you. It's them. These needlenose fuckers, these self-proclaimed guardians of invisible velvet ropes, these losers who have desk jobs because they're too afraid to go deep and create things that are beautiful, and new, and remarkable? Why would you ask them for permission to do what you want? There are people out there who want to buy what you have. It's up to you to deliver it to them.

Lesson: Be your own Courage Wolf or the world's miniature Dachshunds will devour you.

You'll Expand Your Mind and Your Circle

It took a band of creatives to spawn "The Tumor." Peteski did the cover. Domini did the page design. Susan copyedited. Creatives spend a lot of time in isolation. Creating, producing, and selling your own work forces you to engage with others in a way that makes you smarter, sharper, and savvier. You never learn this when you hand over your work to people you never even know.

Lesson: Collaboration is the spark that ignites creation.

There's No Glamour in Being Nobody

The writer who claims he doesn't care if anyone reads his work is a liar and a fraud. At the moment your work is seen, you are being seen. The work is your child, given up to be adopted by the world, and you have a responsibility to be its doula. Otherwise, it will be invisible.

Lesson: Your 15 seconds of nanofame is there for the taking -- grab it.

Now go buy THE TUMOR.

How to Turn a Malignant Tumor into a Digital Self-Publishing Project

"The Tumor," cover by Peteski

"The Tumor," cover by Peteski

I've been a freelance journalist for seventeen years. I've written for magazines and websites, appeared on TV and radio shows, and self-published a 10,000-word investigation of the Great Recession's impact on the adult movie industry, "They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They?" I've published short stories, and Future Tense Books published a collection of those short stories, You're a Bad Man, Aren't You? I've blogged for Forbes and for Time Warner. At one point, I became a digital copywriter and wrote Facebook updates for a bottle of stomach medicine. But today marks the first time I'm selling one of my original digital short stories on my personal website. It is "The Tumor."

On November 23, 2011, I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. Over the following year and a half, I underwent five biopsies, two surgeries, three months of chemo, thirty radiation treatments, and a year of IV drug injections that targeted my particularly aggressive type of cancer. Along the way, I went bald, my fingernails and toenails turned brown and peeled off, and I developed what's known as "chemo fog," a chemically-induced state of mind that makes you feel like your brain has been replaced by a bowl of tepid oatmeal. Throughout the process, I wrote. I wrote journalism, I blogged, I drafted a novel. In a way, writing was my therapy.

Eventually, I was declared cancer-free and sent on my way. I went back to life and writing, and I kept trying to write something that captured what it's like when a malignancy shows up in your life, and you're not sure whether you or the tumor is going to win the war into which you have been thrust. I could never quite assemble the words properly. I kept trying and kept failing. The story of the tumor eluded me.

Then, last month, it was time for my annual mammogram. Most mammograms are an unremarkable experience. In theory, one's annual mammogram is no big deal. Still, once you've had one mammogram go sideways, you worry you may pull the short straw again, and it was while I was riding a growing ball of anxiety about this upcoming scan that I wrote "The Tumor."

Of course, if you know my writing, you know this isn't just any story. It's a story about a husband and a wife, and when the wife announces that she has a tumor, the husband's first idea is that he shoot her in the chest in an attempt to eradicate this unannounced saboteur. Things get stranger from there.

I had a terrific time putting this project together, and it wouldn't have happened without the help of others. Clayton Cubitt is an inspiration to all creatives who want to do it themselves and advised me throughout. Peteski made the beautiful cover you see here. Domini Dragoone did a fantastic job creating some of the coolest page design I've ever seen. Susan Clements proved to be a keen and perfect-for-me copyeditor. Lydia Netzer championed my creative efforts, as ever.

As for that mammogram I had last month, the results raised a question mark, a biopsy was done, and it came back benign. I remain cancer-free. For all I know, the tumor has taken up residence on some far off planet. As for "The Tumor," you can buy it online here.

To All The Journalists That Give Advice, Here's Some Advice

Image credit: Newseum

Image credit: Newseum

About six years ago, a young writer emailed me. He was 24. His name was David Johnson-Igra. He was looking for advice.

He wrote:

"Hello Ms. Breslin-
My name is David, and I’ve been reading your blog 'Reverse Cowgirl.' I’m a young (24) aspiring writer, and by aspiring I mean, hoping to someday be reimbursed my for contributions. I don’t mean to bore you, but I’m intrigued by your style and topics, and would like to know more about how you forged your writing career. If you have time I would love to know more about:
1. Did you attend journalism school? Is it a good way to 'break-in?'
2. Are you able to support yourself solely on your blogging and writing? If so, how long did it take for this to become possible?
3. What was your 'break'?
4. What suggestions might you give for someone like myself who has a years experience writing for a handful of small magazines?
I understand you’re very busy, and however you prefer to answer my questions (via email, phone, later on) please just let me know. Thank you again for your time, and the best of luck to you.
Thanks,
David Johnson-Igra"

I responded to him on my personal blog, a missive I reposted a year later to the now defunct True/Slant, where I was a blogger. In "A Veteran Journalist Offers a Advice to a Young Journalist," I was decidedly unkind. I sneeringly described him as a "bright-eyed, bushy-tailed" upstart and told him to "Learn how to use apostrophes." I was, I confessed, "12 years into a little-rewarding writing career," had "grown bitter, jaded," and described myself as "a broken person whose industry is slipping through her hands like a gelatinous jelly fish." Suffice to say, I wasn't very helpful.

More recently, I was reminded of our conversation, such as it was, when I read Felix Salmon's, "To All the Young Journalists Asking for Advice...." Salmon wasn't any more encouraging than I had been. His advice: "I’m sure that many people have told you this already, but take it from me as well: journalism is a dumb career move."

Which got me wondering: What happened to David? Six years had passed. He was 30. Was he a journalist?

I emailed him to find out.

Susannah Breslin: As soon as I saw Salmon's piece, I thought of our exchange. I still feel bad about it, almost six years later. I found the post archived in the Wayback Machine, since True/Slant is no longer online. Even the title is assy: "A Veteran Journalist Offers Advice to a Young Journalist."

Your email asking for advice on becoming a journalist was nice. My response is best captured in this line: "Why would I help you?" Although, I did give you some advice -- for example: "Find out what it’s like to get jizzed on for a living."

Anyway, I see now my response was much more about me and my professional frustrations than it was about you. How did my response impact you at the time -- or did it?

David Johnson-Igra: I wouldn't call myself a "bright-eyed, bushy-tailed upstart" anymore. I'm tired. I gave up freelance writing. But I'm not as jaded as you were to me, nor as Salmon seems to be. I wouldn't tell an eager writer "get out of here." Maybe it was because my "career" was short, or that I never got jizzed on, but journalism doesn't feel as bleak to me.

I listened to Eric Schlosser give a talk last week about his book, Command and Control. Schlosser explained that he remains an optimist, even though he's revealed so many terrifying truths that suggest we're on the brink of a nuclear devastation. I admire him for that. Maybe that's why I'm optimistic that technology will not perpetuate the on-demand labor workforce that will further alienate individuals in a capitalist system.

A point in Salmon's article that resonated with me:

"The answer is simple: Capital has realized that it has an advantage over Labor, and that its advantage is here to stay. The trick is to build a formula which works."

The reserve army of labor has always existed. I don't think the click-hole debate is a good one to go down. There's a reason people still follow Salmon, or yourself. We love great writing. Yes, a "bright-eyed, bushy-tailed upstart" can write a listicle on Buzzfeed garnering triple the reach of your carefully crafted investigative report, but so what? Fix the advertising model. Work for Fusion! Try to fill Andrew Sullivan's shoes.

Salmon is right: the financial foundation that has supported journalism has been tenuous. But again, I return to optimism. Journalism was a $94-95 billion dollar industry almost a decade ago, but today is down by almost 30 percent. That's $30 billion dollars on the table for journalists to earn with the right framework.

Today, I work at an online radio company called 8tracks. It's funny, because I hear the same gripes from people within the music industry about the economic crash. What has driven me to this point has always been my underlying desire to be involved with music, but I think your advice also guided me:

"Write for love. Do gigs for free. Stop churning out the same boring fucking copy that your peers are dutifully filing like a bunch of self-congratulating monkeys and find out what 'beyond the pale' really means. Read this. And this. And this. Go into the ghetto. Interview a homeless person. Find out what it’s like to get jizzed on for a living. Fuck the pyramid, fuck j-school, fuck writing for a living. Fuck your computer, fuck your rent, fuck whatever your parents said. Go and live. Go be in the world. Go push yourself until you cry and then go back for more and then write about it."

So to answer your question, this is what I learned. I learned fortitude. I pitched and got rejected. Again. And again. I used the connections I built to build new ones and so on, because I understood that nothing would come easy.

I took your advice about J-school. (I didn't go.) I told my Jewish mother you advised against it. Looking back on the mistakes I made as a writer, I wonder if I would have found a mentor in school that could have helped me avoid them.

Your encouragement to break the mold was what broke me. Soon after we first connected, I met a rock journalist. She was a free spirit that let chance lead her to parties with the Arctic Monkeys at the Fairmont Hotel, dinners with Chris Martin, and onward. I thought to myself "This is what Hunter S Thompson and Susannah Breslin would want for me." I couldn't do it. She didn't pay taxes, had no health insurance, and supported her photography by clipping marijuana in northern California.

Don't feel bad, Susannah. You told me I could write, even just a little bit, which was all I needed.

Next step, let's flip it. If you could go back, and rewrite what you wrote me, knowing what you know now, what would you say?

SB: That's a great question. I believe our original exchange happened in '09, and then I posted it on True/Slant in '10. Eventually, I ended up working with some of the same people from T/S when I became a blogger for Forbes, and in '11, I did two sort of mentoring things on my Forbes blog.

I put out a call to young female journalists, saying I would pick one of them, based on their pitches, and pay her $100 to write a guest post on my Forbes blog. I ended up choosing Lauren Rae Orsini, who ended up getting a full-time journalism job not long after, in part because of the guest post she wrote on Forbes. After that, I did the same guest post thing with a young male journalist, and I ended up picking Alan Blinder, who wrote about surviving and covering a tornado.

I don't think of myself as in any way impacting their careers, because they were on their own trajectories, but it's been neat to follow them. Lauren is an author, and a journalist, and covers all kinds of subjects, and Blinder works in the Atlanta bureau of the New York Times. Thinking about them makes me feel positive and happy for them.

Like I said when I started this exchange, I feel embarrassed about my response to you. But. These days, when young people email me asking me for advice, I don't even respond at all. I just delete their emails. And. I think if I got your email today, I would skim it, and then delete it. That's the honest answer.

What I wish my answer would be is that I would make you write. Because I don't think people who write asking for advice are really looking for advice. I think they're looking for permission. And I think people just want to be told, yes, you can do this, and, my god, you should at least try, and, hey, if there's something that you really want, you should have at it. I should have told you to write something for me, a piece of journalism, and I should've posted it on True/Slant, and then I would have been giving you "permission" to do what you wanted to do, which was to be a journalist. Instead, I slammed the lid. In other words, I should've said, "You want to write? Write." Which is very stupidly simple advice, but also true. Like, people should stop asking for permission, and people should just create. (I'm talking to myself here, too, for sure.)

You're director of marketing at 8tracks. Do you use your skills as a journalist in that role? In a way, are we defining what "journalism" is today too narrowly? Sometimes I think we need a new word. Like Life Curator. Maybe that's enough.

DJI: I understand deleting an unwanted email. I can't keep up with the pitches I receive from publicists. But, you're right that I was seeking affirmation. What you provided those two journalists, whether it enabled them to get their next gig or simply encouraged them to write more, is important. If journalism school is becoming a thing of the past (suggesting, not stating), who can a young writer turn to in order to learn and support them? A simple yes is important. People don't need permission, but as an impressionable twenty-year-old trying to get by during an economic downturn, encouragement is reassuring when everyone tells you "How the hell are you going to pay your bills?" 

Marketing, journalism, PR are they all the same? I'd say the parallel is storytelling. I understand journalism as the objective truth told by a reporter. Marketing is the branding and advertising of a product. PR is the storytelling of that brand. So, yes. I've learned how to tell a story. To build arguments around a central idea I feel I should convey. I don't think we're defining journalism too narrowly. I think the notion of journalism is expanding too quickly.

Do you think there are citizen journalists on Twitter? Can personal blog posts transcend into journalistic pieces? What is the line? Who is a journalist today when everyone can photograph a moment or post an update?

You recently shared this post by Jim Romenesko rehashing Herbert Gold's 44-year-old piece:

"The delight in self, the lack of delight in subject matter, implies a serious ultimate judgement which ought to be faced by the first-person journalist: What matters? Does the world matter? Does anything matter but me? Is there anything out there? Is my business to stroke myself, and let the voyeuristic reader watch while telling him he is learning something..."

The statement seems to encapsulate some of the schism we face today between new and old journalists.

I'm not sure if we're going anywhere, or if this is helpful. Are we lost at this point with this discussion?

SB: Yes, I believe we are lost in a forest of words. Maybe that's a good thing.