In this 5On interview, Brian Felsen discusses (among other things) the push against the gatekeepers, why a writer whose subject matter is sure to sell should still strive to be good, and the prevailing belief that not being on top is synonymous with being a “loser.”
Brian Felsen is President of AdRev, the world’s largest YouTube music administration service and the leading independent YouTube Content ID and Network Partner. AdRev was named in the 2014 Inc 500 as the USA’s No. 2 fastest growing media company based on revenue growth. Prior to this position, Felsen was President of CD Baby from 2008-2014. He also founded BookBaby, which digitally distributes the works of independent authors, making their ebooks available to dozens of digital retailers and hundreds of libraries worldwide. He first joined Disc Makers in 2003, launching and growing major new initiatives including the Merchandise and Film/DVD replication programs, before going on to head business development. Other previous activities include founding and running one of the largest independent music conferences in the world, composing several classical music works, creating art photography, poetry, and plays, and producing an award-winning documentary film about Turkish military coups d’état.
5 Questions on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: You compose music, you’re a filmmaker, you’ve written secular gospel music, you write poetry (Female Figure (Possibly Venus)), and you recently performed in HomeLA’s “The Takers,” a domestic performance dance piece by Lindsey Lollie. It seems there’s little you don’t do artistically. What does writing make you feel that’s different from your other creative outlets?
BRIAN FELSEN: I feel more at home with writing in some ways than I do working in other media, as I have more practice: writing, and speaking, is something I’ve done for a longer period of time, and for more hours in a day, than I do making music or films. The downside is the loneliness of writing: the lack of true collaboration, the limited platforms for exhibition, and the feeling that society and culture don’t afford people the luxury of blocking out time and attention to receive longform works, anymore.
You said this in an interview with Joel Friedlander as advice to writers who want to succeed:
Really hone your writing. Always continue to read. Read the classics, but also your genre, to know the norms of it, and then to be able to add something authentic and passionate and articulate to the conversation. And work with beta readers so that way, by the time that your work is edited and released out there to the world, who will be less kind – or depending on your family friends, maybe less unkind – that it’s really ready.
How much does it matter whether it’s ready if, even when not “ready” by traditional standards, it sells well?
My general feeling is that one should be good and try to do good work. The eyeballs and money that you may receive for your work is an imperfect indicator of quality. If money’s what you’re after, you’re better off selling Venetian blinds than writing books – and since it’s a crapshoot, why not strive to make good art? That way, you’ll have something to look back on with pride, and your idealized audience will, too. Reading and beta readers are two ways of making your art better. The other two, of course, are to work your posterior off and to be born with talent.
Unlike some other media, writing has a couple of pitfalls which are obstacles for investigating and expressing first-person data: verbal productions are linear, and slow. Also, our language is saddled with folk psychology, which is a wonderful thing, but it makes concepts like “god,” “energy” and “love” awfully heterogeneous (and slippery). What attracts me to poetry is the way that it can be used to express recursion by repurposing and compressing language, as well as by reference to other text (either by the way it’s laid out on the page or the way that words and symbols are deployed).
The other thing that attracts the writer in me to the poetic form is when I’m lonely and heartsick and I misguidedly believe that setting it down on paper will help me make sense of it, making the pain go away, or get me laid.
Whether they’re watching a film by you, listening to your secular gospel album, or reading your book of poetry, what do you hope people will take from your writing, or what do you most want to communicate?
I want to communicate what the artwork wants to communicate. There are no words that should be able to communicate it better than the artwork—just like a picture is worth a thousand words, a word is worth a thousand pictures. Of course, I understand that in most cases the artwork will fail, either because it doesn’t speak to every audience member, or because the work did not take best advantage of its language and medium.
You’re quoted in Creative Spotlights as saying, “America has this mythology that you’re either Steve Jobs or you’re a loser.” Have you ever felt yourself succumbing to the pressure of that mythology, and what would you say to someone doubting his or her work—or creative goal—because it’s not receiving a certain amount of attention?
Of course. Thing I would say to that person is: in the grand scheme of time, Steve Jobs is as meaningful as a cat’s sneeze; that if you’re going to be depressed just because you’re not an outlier, you’re in for a miserable life; and that we’re living the dream of Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame right now, so your fifteen minutes may come any second.
5 Questions on Publishing
You founded BookBaby in 2011, and within months you had a couple thousand customers using the service. Does this say something about the publishing industry or does it say something about writers—and what does it say?
It says that there are a great deal of content creators dying to get their works out there everywhere, and that they did not want to be prey to one retailer (Amazon), one gatekeeper (the major publishers system), or one technological hurdle (how to create and distribute ePub files).
It’s been argued that gatekeepers are needed in the publishing industry to filter out the bad writing. Others argue, on a similar side but from a different angle, that if the writing hasn’t been accepted by a publisher, it must not be good enough and writers should probably take a hint. “Confident writers get published,” Joe Konrath wrote before becoming the voice of self-publishing. “Confident writers work within the system, even though the system is flawed.” Many, like Konrath, have since had a change of heart, but there are still many who align themselves with that way of thinking. What is your response to this?
Traditional publishing is morphing into “self-publishing plus services plus a Wizard-Of-Oz imprimatur.” My response is that everything in the industry is changing, and I don’t give a fig about which old-school companies survive. My concern is over how curation can occur in a post-Internet era, and nobody’s solved that, in any media. It’s wonderful that the curators got hurt, given their past offenses, but the wisdom of the crowds has brought us what, Miley Cyrus and E.L. James? I’m starting to miss the era of the pop-culture geniuses. I hear a great deal of talk about new communities and curation around them, but the scale isn’t there for the fans and the money isn’t there to pay the curators and, so far, it’s a whole lot of nothing.
One of the ways an independent author—or, the “little guy”—can look big, you said in the Friedlander interview, is to have a professional-looking book, which BookBaby at the time was just preparing to provide with its then-new digital book printing. What else can independent authors, or even mid-list authors with a relatively small publicity machine behind them, do as they’re marketing their work to make themselves look big?
All of the usual things—have a strong social media platform, get powerful reviewers, have a pretty-looking cover and website, have good editing, have a strong title. But I no longer care so much about looking big; I care about being good.
It’s been rightly hammered into authors that talking too much about their books is probably the worst way to self-promote on social media. What are some other critical marketing and self-promotion mistakes writers may not know they’re making, whether using social media or elsewhere?
The main mistake that writers make is to think that promotion entails dropping your pants and being an extravert like Amanda Palmer. You can engage online with the right communities and thought leaders and even become a thought leader, and make new relationships, in an enjoyable fashion, merely by talking about what you want to talk about around your topic.
What single piece of business advice would you give someone who is considering self-publishing?
If you’re writing nonfiction and can find new revenue streams around your writing (such as speaking), great. If not, I’d say what I say to anyone in the creative arts: don’t quit your day job, but never, never quit your night job either. 😉