BU Alumni Web

Bostonia: The Alumni Magazine of Boston University

Fall 2009 Table of Contents

What the Web Can Do for Your Career

Or, why we no longer need agents, publishers, or flacks

| From Alumni Books | By Art Jahnke

Scott Kirsner says e-publishing can offer advantages.

For his latest book, Fans, Friends & Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age (CreateSpace, 2009), Scott Kirsner talked to dozens of successful filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, writers, and comedians known for using social media and other Web functions to boost their careers. In some cases, readers may suspect, Kirsner knew a bit more than those he questioned. He has built his own successful career writing about how technology has changed our lives for the better. In addition to writing the Boston Globe’s “Innovation Economy” column, Kirsner (COM’93) writes regularly for Variety and has been a contributing writer for Fast Company, BusinessWeek, and Wired.

For the sake of consistency, Bostonia used the ancient Web function known as e-mail to contact Kirsner and ask a few questions about what he learned from his subjects and how he used the Web for his own career advancement.

Bostonia: Did you use one of the online publishers you mention in your book that publish manuscripts writers send to them?

Kirsner: I’ve done books both the old way and the new way. With Fans, Friends & Followers, I used CreateSpace, an on-demand publisher that Amazon.com owns. The advantage for me was speed — I just didn’t want to wait a year or eighteen months for a traditional publisher to get it to the market, since the subject matter is pretty time-sensitive.

What are some other reasons to go with an online publisher and what are the reasons not to?

One of the pros of on-demand publishing is that you print exactly as many books as you have buyers, which means it can be cost-effective to publish books that are intended only for a niche audience. The biggest con is that it typically falls to the author to do most of the promotion, organizing readings and events and reaching out to reviewers, since you no longer have a big publisher’s publicity department working on your behalf. At this point, it feels like the book publishing business is very much in transition. Publishers want to continue pub­lishing books with brand-name authors that can be heavily promoted and sold by the zillions in airport bookstores — that kind of thing. But many other books are shifting to on-demand publishing.

Many people, and many businesses, are trying hard to find ways to promote their products using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Can you tell us how to use these sites?

I think a lot of people get too obsessed with being on a certain platform, like Twitter or Facebook, when it’s really all about doing something interesting or useful or entertaining on that platform. That might be a restaurant tweeting on Twitter about their off-the-menu, for-regulars-only specials or a hair salon posting photos to a Facebook group of bad celebrity hairdos. If you just decide to have a presence on some new social network, it’ll be a chore to attract an audience. But if you’re doing something valuable or fun, it just seems to happen.

How does the influence of the old ways, like a newspaper or print magazine review, compare to the influence of social networks?

I think if you can get a review in one of the few national or global publications that really matter — for instance, a book review in the New York Times, a movie review in Variety, or a record review in Rolling Stone — that’s certainly still valuable. But to be honest, online reviews tend to have more longevity, and if they link directly to your Web site or to a place where people can buy your work, they’ll have a far greater impact on sales than most print publicity. So one thing I recommend in my book is creating a list of some of the most influential bloggers who cover your field — ones who have already built up a substantial audience — and concentrating on getting them to review or write about your stuff.

With a book like yours, about using technology that changes fairly rapidly, there must be a market for updated versions. Do online book publishers offer any advantages there?

Definitely. You can put out a new edition whenever it’s warranted. The question is whether new editions will really have an impact on sales — will they slow down a slide or cause sales to pick up again? I’m not sure yet.

How can we use the Web or social networks to determine if there is a market for a book before we write it?

I think that’s already happening with blogs that build up an audience and then eventually spawn a book. It’s probably happening — though I don’t know of any examples yet — with Facebook groups or Twitter feeds that attract followers first and then become books. But the Web is definitely a powerful platform for market research and for figuring out what resonates with people before you turn it into a book, movie, album, or museum show. Then, once you do, you have a built-in army of people who will help spread the word.

Why not just put the book online and sell ads around it?

Ads are a good way of monetizing content that’s going to get a lot of views — for instance, a YouTube video seen by millions. Is there an audience of hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people for the typical book? Prob­ably not. That’s why I still like the idea of selling paperbacks, selling e-books and Kindle versions, and giving excerpts and samples of the content away for free.

Since you published your book, have readers suggested things you didn’t think to include?

Absolutely — there are lots of examples readers have cited of artists who are pursuing new paths to success, and strategies I hadn’t thought of. One cartoonist sent in the idea of putting work up for ransom — i.e., he won’t release it for free online unless he raises a certain amount of money, like $100, from fans. I make my e-mail address easily findable on the book’s Web site and it’s published on the last page of the book, so I hear from readers regularly.

In the spirit of seeking guidance from one’s audience, what important questions have I not asked?

Well, the high-level question is, what’s the big transition that’s happening that is affecting all kinds of artists — from writers to musicians to filmmakers to painters? And what’s the answer?

My thesis is that in the old world, the way you "made it" was to do your thing and hope to get discovered by a publisher, record label, movie studio, or art dealer. I think we’re now living in a world where those entities are all under economic stress. They’re spending less time and less money looking for new talent. So what is happening is that emerging artists are developing all kinds of new digital strategies to build up their own audience and earn a living doing what they want to do. What’s inter­esting to me isn’t just how that changes the economic model of being an artist, but also how the direct connection with an audience will change the work that gets made.

You Asked, We Answered
Readers took advantage of our invitation to ask Scott Kirsner about how to use the internet to further your career. Here are some of those questions, along with Kirsner's responses.

QHi, Scott. I have created an entertainment career information site for students and recent grads called YourIndustryInsider.com. Aside from using my own social media connections through Linked In, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as emailing press releases to college newspapers, what are some outside-the-box ideas I can get the word out about my site? Thanks! — Jenny Yerrick Martin (COM '88)

AYou might consider Google or Facebook ads (which can be targeted to specific geographies and demographics) as an inexpensive way to reach students and recent grads. It'd be a great idea to find some blogs geared to people just starting out in the entertainment business and either sharing some of your information with them, or writing a couple posts for them as a guest blogger. Finally, you'll discover that there are discussion groups that already exist on LinkedIn related to the entertainment industry, like "Media & Entertainment Industry Professionals," and the occasional post there to add to the conversation will help raise your site's profile. And you may have already done this, but you can have some postcards or other give-aways made by a company like VistaPrint that you can send out to university career offices to let them know about your site, or hand out at career fairs. Thanks for the question!

QAs a researcher/writer and creative writer, along with my associate who is a painter/designer/muralist (environmental installations), I would like to know how best to cost effectively advertise on the web. A website alone doesn't attract new clients. Thank you for this consideration. — Nina Luisi (CAS'71)

AI'd try advertising either with Google or Facebook, since both let you limit the amount you spend on a campaign, and you can see the phrases and search terms that work best, generating click-throughs. I would also suggest that creating a free podcast series in the iTunes store could be a good way to promote your work as a writer (perhaps featuring short readings of your work, or advice for other writers), and videos on YouTube of your associate painting murals could serve as good free advertising. Thanks for the question!

QI have compiled the best Creative Writing from several years of teaching that subject at a State Prison Complex in Arizona. I have signed release statements from each inmate, and a superb cover designed by one of the inmate-students. I want to give a glue-bound book to each inmate (18 in total) before they are shipped as a group to another prison. I am thinking of self-publishing with Lulu or Xlibris to speed this up. However, I would also later want to see if a University Press may want to publish it, but I will need much more time to pursue that approach because I plan on adding lengthy context material. Q:  If I self-publish, will a University Press still be interested, or will I have precluded any other publishing firm from ever doing so? Q: Is on-line publishing the same as self-publishing? Q: For a small run — just for the inmates — would having a local book binder and printing outfit be wiser than going with a self-publishing firm? Thanks. — Dr. David W. Shapiro (GRS'91)

AGreat questions. My book actually contains two examples of authors who self-published novels first, and later got picked up by traditional publishers. (Lisa Genova and Brunonia Barry.) I think the only requirement will likely be that you stop selling the self-published version if you're eventually picked up by a traditional publishing house. Lulu and CreateSpace are both good for publishing small runs of a paperback book, and even making them available for other people to purchase (maybe the families of the inmates will also want copies.) Either one will probably be less expensive than going to a local book binder, but you'll have to spend some time learning their systems. I don't have experience with Xlibris. As for the question of online publishing versus self-publishing, I'm not entirely clear on the difference -- I assume online publishing might refer to making the digital/PDF/ebook version available online. I'd call what Lulu and CreateSpace do self-publishing (though Lulu will also let you sell an ebook version pretty easily.) Thanks for the question!

Download: Download this Article

Print: Print this Article


Email: Email this Article

The content of this field is not retained.

Enter multiple email addresses separated with commas.


On 26 November 2010 at 12:12 PM, Keith G. wrote:

The story's the thing ... period! A poem, short story, novel, whatever ... a song. They all have one thing in common ... the story. It's the story man; it's the story. It may not be published even in the writer's own lifetime, or it may but not be read by enough people to generate any interest or publicity but ... it's still ... the story ... and, if it's a good one, it will be heard ... eventually! period!

On 20 November 2009 at 6:32 AM, carol lesley deakin wrote:

i agree with a great deal of what you have stated although for a new writer it still can be confusing as to how to get finished works out there. i know that as a new author i am probably never going to make a living out of my work but it would give inspiration to continue, if there was a more open door approach. i have written a novel but quite frankly find my short stories more fun and although critique and feed back is slow on the site i display my works, 'Worthy of Publishing.com', It does give me hope when someone gives feed back. But still like most new names and talents we always need help in any form..

Ask the Expert

Through October, Scott Kirsner will be taking your questions about self-promotion on the web. Some questions and answers will be posted above.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Which is lightest? elephant, cat, moon, tissue

Persons who post comments are solely responsible for the content of their messages. Bostonia reserves the right to delete or edit messages.