We get so many questions about electric vehicles or EVs, that we decided to gather some EV experts and enthusiasts to tell us what their experiences are and what those of you curious about Evs should know before getting behind the wheel. Starring Tom Merritt, Sarah Lane, Allison Sheridan, Rod Simmons, Bodi Grimm, Howard Yermish.…
When words bring you closer to the prisoner in his cell, to the patient dying on his bed alone, to the starving child, then it’s a prayer." Elie Wiesel speaks of the power of prayer and forgiveness in the wake of profound suffering.
Show Notes & Links
Shape of Design online
Shape of Design Kickstarter
Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 true fans
Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, Kickstarter
Robin Sloan Writes a Book, Kickstarter
The Field Study Handbook Kickstarter
Art Space Tokyo
Kickstartup: Successful fundraising with Kickstarter and remaking Art Space Tokyo
Craig Mod: You’re listening to On Margins.
I’m Craig Mod and this is episode 002.
Something has happened in the last few years and this is going to sound really obvious when I say it, but, nevertheless, a transformative change for independent creatives around the world — people like myself and many of my friends — has been underway. And this change is the normalization of paying for stuff.
See, I told you it was gonna sound ridiculous.
And I’m not even talking about micro payments like the 99 cent apps around the world. But I’m talking about big bucks. $30, $40, $100 payments for books or behind the scenes looks at films or music albums.
We are truly in the era of being able to leverage and build off of what Kevin Kelly calls the thousand true fans.
Thanks to the work of crowdfunding and patronage platforms, this act of giving money to an independent producer has gone from esoteric and quite frankly really tough 10 years ago, to downright banal.
Today, I’m talking with good friend, old buddy, partner in writing retreats. The designer, illustrator, visualist, and author, Frank Chimero. Frank was one of the first creatives to really capitalize on the rise of crowdfunding way back in 2011 with his seminal design book, The Shape of Design. We’re talking today about how Kickstarter and similar platforms have changed. What we’d like to see added to them and why we feel like there’s never been a better time to be a creative person than today. We hope you’ll join us.
We are talking today about books on Kickstarter. And Frank you did a book on Kickstarter back in 2011 called The Shape of Design.
Frank Chimero: True.
Craig Mod: That was a pretty incredible project for a number of reasons. Not the least of which you managed to pull in $112,000, this is back in 2011, with 2,109 backers which, at the time, was incredible. Even today $100,000 for a book is incredible, but at the time it was really incredible. What prompted you, first of all, to do the Kickstarter and why that book, then?
Frank Chimero: Well, I had been looking at Kickstarter for about a year.
Came across the service because of you and your book, Art Space Tokyo, our mutual friend Robin Sloan, who also used Kickstarter for a book that he wanted to produce. What was interesting is that I felt at least in the community that I had access to. Sort of the designs community, the web community. Everybody knew about Kickstarter, and had maybe backed one maybe two projects. But it didn’t necessarily feel like at that sort of like critical, cultural inflection point, anyone from our community had actually used it for anything. So, that’s what got me interested in doing it.
The other thing was, I had just given this talk at a conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland, called Build, and I named that talk The Shape of Design. And basically it was just talking about design from a very high level about the format the work takes, the influence of clients, what client relationships look like, what design does when it’s out in the world, all that kind of stuff.
Based off of my experience teaching and the response to that talk was so warm that I was like, well, let’s turn it into a book. Thinking that a 40-minute talk could translate into maybe 140 page book, something like that, if you go through and illustrate it. And so that was the original inspiration behind it was I got this thing. I’d like to put a little bit more meat on the bones. I think it makes sense to live in a book format.
So let’s go ahead and do it. Doubly so because I was writing more and I wanted to take on a new bigger challenge from a writing perspective, and I had worked before in designing books, so I knew how to handle the production. So I walk into it with the goal of, I don’t remember exactly what it was, it was like 22,000 or something like that. Thinking that I’ll probably sell 300- 400 books and I would just order a pizza and me and a bunch of friends would sit in my apartment and stuff envelopes and that would be like the new experience for me.
It would be like writing the book and then doing a little bit of the production of it was something that I had already had experience doing. So it didn’t necessarily seem too intimidating to make a first book off of a talk that you’ve already written. Going into a process of producing that you’ve already done a few times in your career.
Craig Mod: Right, so you kind of understand the parameters of what you were getting into in terms of production at least?
Frank Chimero: Yeah exactly and I had had some experience with pretty much all of the facets of running a Kickstarter project because I had sold art prints through my website and done order fulfillment through that. I designed books before and I just naively thought that writing a book would just sort of be like writing an essay. You just do it 10 or 12 times. It’s not quite that simple. But [LAUGH]yeah, once I got into it.
Craig Mod: When you say it wasn’t quite that simple, what did you find to be not so simple about it?
Frank Chimero: The segues and just sort of scoping the ideas, so that they’re paced and ordered in a particular fashion where everything builds on top of one another. It took a lot of time to find the form of the book, honestly. Because whenever I just sat down was like step one is just transcribing the talk, every word that I say in this video I’m going to type that word to use as a starting point. And I typeset it like I had this size that I kinda thought I might want the book and it was 27 pages,
Craig Mod: That can be great, but that can be amazing, right? Did you feel that there was just wasn’t enough stuff?
Frank Chimero: Yeah, I had a thought in my head about what a book was, right? A lot of stuff on my cutting room that didn’t make it into the talk, because I had 40 minutes, right? And there was a few videos in the talk and some other things. So I was trying to figure out ways to integrate that into it, as well. I was just kinda very anxious to take the pose of a writer to just sort of step into this and say this will be a very writerly book. And I don’t think that I would go down that path necessarily at this point. I would probably just sort of say I’m a designer and a writer so it’s going to look like there’s a person who cares a lot about images and can make images working on this book in addition to somebody who writes.
Craig Mod: I had a very intimate kind of relationship with the making of this book.
You were sending me drafts of it when I was in California. And some of the things that I loved about the earlier versions kind of fell away. When you tighten things up, when you take prose and you polish sometimes, you lose that funny folksy weird blogginess. Blogginess is all about unpolished pros kind of un-type pros in some ways. It’s what we love when we read great bloggers connecting to this kind of intimate buddy tone. I remember one of the early drafts that you sent me I think I was like on the first page. I remember I got cut out of the final edition.
Frank Chimero: [LAUGH]
Craig Mod: I was very sad about that. That tone too is like in and of itself really wonderful. Openness and vulnerability that some of the earlier drafts had was really kind of special. I thought that was very cool.
Frank Chimero: So some of those early drafts they took on Contrapuntal structure, right? So sort of like Grapes of Wrath.
Craig Mod: What does that mean?
Frank Chimero: It kind of means where you’ve got two different kinds of chapters. It’s like you’ve got two different stories going, or two different themes throughout the book. So, let’s say all your odd chapters are just sort of like random stories that stand on their own. Which was what the first draft of the book was. It would be like a folktale or a small experience that I had. And then all the even numbered chapters would maybe be more theory-based, or more directly related to the topic at hand, which is design. So the early drafts were like that.
And as I sort of lived with it longer, I became more interested in trying to integrate those two things. Whereas very early on I was quite satisfied with just sort of saying, here’s the thing, and then letting it stand on its own and then jumping into something fundamentally different. And then sorta trusting that the reader would be able to make the connections between those two things. And sometimes it worked and it was really satisfying for people, and other times I swung big and missed.
So I think, to a large extent, integrating those things and cutting out some of the folksiness and really polishing it, I think it was a hugely educational experience for me. So what it actually did was, I was working with my editor on this book, Mandy Brown. What happened was some of the really rough and probably ultimately embarrassing and regrettable stuff got edited out. And it might have also shaved off a little bit of the spunk as well.
I think in the long-term, it probably makes it a little bit of a more valuable and readable book, but it definitely makes it less chatty. And that’s something that I kinda think about continually as I’m sitting down to write now. Is trying to dial in that tone, because there is a tone.
There is a austerity to the tone of the book which I think probably speaks to more than likely just the experience of a first time writer for something of that length. We think that books are these big monolithic presences in our lives, right? Like you never get to write your first book more than once. But, you think it’s gonna be the shadow over you, but it isn’t. You just have to talk about it until the next one is done. And then you get to talk about the next one.
Craig Mod: Right.
Frank Chimero: Yeah, you kind of lose the, not necessarily the ambition. But more of the assumptions that you think that a book needs to be, you can sort of deflate it a little bit and make it more approachable.
Craig Mod: Yeah, well and for you, how much is visual a core part of the writing process, when you’re working on one of your visual essays online. Do you start with the words? Do you start with a set of images? Do you start with just an idea and some words and some images? Is there a process there, or is it a big soup of chaos that then evolves into something coherent and scrawling?
Frank Chimero: It’s a big soup. So for me, there’s the wall. I have almost like this murder wall-
Craig Mod: [LAUGH]
Frank Chimero: [LAUGH]In my apartment. With like photos, or like little pronouncive quotes or things, just sort of stuck up on the wall. And I’m trying to arrange things in groups.
Craig Mod: How big is that wall?
Frank Chimero: It’s not too big. It’s probably, gosh, about the side of a chalkboard.
Craig Mod: Okay.
Frank Chimero: Just like a normal chalkboard that you would wheel into a room. So,
Craig Mod: And is it like corkboard that you have pins stuck into it? Or, what’s the situation there?
Frank Chimero: No it’s just literally the wall in my apartment.
Craig Mod: [LAUGH]Okay.
Frank Chimero: [LAUGH]And then I buy blue painter tape, and I’ve got a bunch of index cards. And just stray print outs from my crappy little inkjet printer, and I just sort of go to town on it. And sometimes it’s up on the wall, other times I like spread it out on the floor on a table and I’m just trying to sort out these notecards.
Because I have this loosely, blurry idea on my head and I’m trying to find the patterns and all of these things that I’ve been collecting that seem like they’re related somehow. So, the meaning emerges out of that. So, after that, I actually, maybe write a little bit in just like a text editor but I actually go into Keynote. Because what it allows me to do is to get all the images and the quotes arranged in a specific order. And also, I can nest them, I can sort of create a little hierarchy.
So, it becomes almost like a visual outline for me instead of a text outline that you would do in Google Docs or Word or something like that. And that works really well for me, because I can just sort of push things around and type up a quote or I can do a speaker commentary. There’s presenter notes inside of Keynotes so I can just write a full paragraph.
And then once I have a form there that I think works really well, then I sit down and I actually write out the thing in whole.
And sometimes that turns into the presentation at the conference, or the event, or the lecture, whatever I’m doing. And then that also gets turned into the website.
Craig Mod: Keynote really does kind of turn things into objects in a way that text editors don’t. That sort of invite you to move things around in a way that, even in like Google Docs for example can click and drag on images. But I hate doing it, [LAUGH]like it doesn’t feel good to do it. Keynote I’m constantly shuffling stuff. The nesting works so well with tabs and shift tabs to unnest stuff. Apple really nailed something about tactility in Keynote. To me it feels the closest to like having a wall on the computer, in the same way you can move notecards around on a blackboard or whatever.
And so when you have the Keynote kind of outline set, what software do you write in?
Frank Chimero: It doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s TextEdit. Sometimes like I’m in Sublime Text. Something that I write code in. Sometimes I just sit down and right just need a monoless font. And then I pasted over in Pages or something like that to do a quick grammar check or to make sure that I didn’t misspell a word.
Craig Mod: Right, well I was just asking cuz I was wondering, are you bringing the images in while you’re writing as well, are they stuck into the document? Or if you’re using Sublime Text I guess you can’t do that.
Frank Chimero: No, I can’t, I can’t do that so. Yeah, it’s sort of interesting. Because I have the Keynote. I understand how the text kind of fits into the presentation. So I think all writers read their work out loud. So for me, a lot of times after I write the two, three paragraphs that I need for this particular idea on the slide, I’ll just paste it into the presenter notes. And then launch the Keynote presentation in Presenter mode, and sort of read it out loud that way. So I think that that’s maybe one of the reasons why these visual essays that I’ve done have such a probably different tone than what I had in the book.
Craig Mod: Right.
Frank Chimero: Right? Cuz I’m working with different ingredients and different tools and I wrote most of the book and I wrote it in Pages because we wanted to be able to track edits and things like that. And it yielded a certain outcome. It was actually a lot easier to write words then to try to get images into it. And if I step into Keynote or if I just keep things off the computer as long as possible and write things out by hand or shift things around on the wall.
It’s a lot easier for me to switch between images and words, because if you’re holding a pencil you can draw a cat or write the word cat just as easily with either one. And if I have Keynote open, I can pull in a photo of a cat really easily, and just as easily as making a slide that says the word cat. And you can’t do that, necessarily, in something like Word or Pages or like a plain text editor.
Craig Mod: I think sometimes people get too obsessed with finding one piece of software that Allows you to do everything. And it’s nice to hear that you have this kind of messy process that involves so many different moving parts.
Frank Chimero: Yeah, I mean it’s nice. The other good thing about, I guess, having so many of the reference points or ideas about the thing that you’re working on around you in the physical space is that you just sort of get to sit in it. And it’s very difficult to reproduce that inside of a digital environment as well.
Craig Mod: It is. It’s so hard to come close, in any way, to replicating what you get with a wall. And I felt that, I was doing a residency in Virginia in November, December last year. And one of the features of my studio was this giant wall. It was a 20 foot long wall that I could just use the whole thing and 30 feet high. It was just this huge wall. And when I came back to Japan, I realized immediately I need a wall [LAUGH]in my life. And all the apartments I had lived in before were too austere to have a wall at that size. And so when I was working on big projects, I’d have to go to friend’s design studios and kind of borrow their floors and stuff. But having that wall and having a thing covered in ideas that you are forced to walk past or confront every day is so powerful.
Frank Chimero: Yeah, I don’t feel like I’m actually working in an interesting or a good direction unless I look like a crazy character in a David Finch film.
Craig Mod: [LAUGH]Right.
Frank Chimero: Everybody who works in a David Finch film, they just have their work spread all around them. And they look absolutely manic because the film camera can’t pick it up because you can’t see it. And that’s the same problem with the computer. It’s like well, if I’m kinda pacing around my studio, or I’m at my apartment, and I’ve got this stuff up, I can see it whether I want to look at it or not. I don’t need to have the will to pull it up. It’s just there.
Craig Mod: Well and it’s not only just there, but it’s also inviting you to remix it in a way that digital stuff. That feels like there’s a weird friction because you can’t see the macro view of a lot of things at the same time. You can’t see all of your slides and keynotes simultaneously. So moving a bunch of slides from the top to the bottom is actually ,it’s kind of onerous, right? It’s a big deal. Whereas, if you’ve got your board, you can make a mess in a way that you understand how the mess has been made. That I think invites you to make more of a mess and it’s in making that mess that you come up with your most interesting connections and ideas.
Frank Chimero: Yeah absolutely 100% agree with that.
Craig Mod: Getting back to Kickstarter book stuff, you said that Robin was kind of an inspiration for the shape of design. And I was going back through the last few years, really the last eight years I guess of books on Kickstarter. And I was shocked to see that Robin’s was so early and so long ago now. It’s August 2009 that he launched his Robin writes a book campaign.
Frank Chimero: That was eight years ago, yeah.
Craig Mod: And what I love about it is it’s like Robin writes a book. He does a little Kickstarter eight years ago. This is when Kickstarter was in its total infancy. You had to email Kickstarter. And send a proposal in, which was editing a text file and beg to be allowed to put a campaign up on the site. And they would bless you and allow you to put the thing up there. And even with all of the weird friction between wanting to do it and doing it, Robin put this thing up there. And no one really knew what Kickstarter was then, but he managed to get 570 people to pledge $14,000 for Robin to write a book.
Robin Sloan: I’m writing a book. I’m writing a book. I’m writing a book. I’m writing a book. I’m writing a book.
[MUSIC] So I’ve had a few really great experiences when it comes to books and publishing this year.
First of all, there were the short stories that I published for the Kindle and for the web that got just a really warm, encouraging response.
And then, of course, there was new liberal arts, the collaborative project that I did with a bunch of other people over at Snarkmarket. And both of these were so much fun and just so gratifying that I’ve figured it was time to take the next step. And I think that’s to write a book, a short book, because I think that’s reasonable for me to write and also reasonable for you to read. I have this nightmare of finishing some 500 page tome that even my parents can’t get through.
Craig Mod: Well, it’s incredible to think that, that was eight years ago.
Frank Chimero: [LAUGH]
Craig Mod: Right, and it’s so endearing, but it’s also interesting to see that drums as music for Kickstarter videos is a thing and it’s been a thing for eight years. [LAUGH]
Frank Chimero: [LAUGH]
Craig Mod: I remember seeing this video and just going, and I had never met Rob and I met Robin maybe a year and a half after we put this thing up. And I remember seeing this and am just being like who is this dude, and like wow men, what guts it takes to put this thing out there.
Frank Chimero: Yeah, absolutely. But that video is completely Robin, right?
Craig Mod: [LAUGH]
Frank Chimero: Just enormously cheerful, very smart and funny, and completely one of the most affable people that you’ll ever meet. And I think the charming thing about it is that he’s not really even talking to people that he doesn’t know. Right?. So he doesn’t even introduce himself [LAUGH]He’s just like here’s a guy and he sort of pops up from the bottom of the frame. And he says I’m making a book.
And that’s kind of enough for the people who already knew about Robin, and like the couple of things that he mentions in the video. Yeah, Kickstarter is a lot different now, because people are trying to also speak to people that they don’t know. But it’s nice that the core of it, the heart of it, has pretty much always been there.
Craig Mod: It’s just so gutsy. Right? I mean this is 2009. No one’s really done a book on this thing before. And to just go, I’m gonna write a book guys. And it wasn’t even done. Yeah, I mean, that’s He was in the middle of writing it. It’s the ultimate gutsiness. Now, and then I love the, kind of the looking back at the history of Robin now. It’s like okay, he does this in 2009. And then he has an international bestseller come out a few years later. [LAUGH]
Frank Chimero: Yeah exactly, exactly. The book that follows me around, that I always kinda smile whenever I see it at a bookstore in an airport or on the font table at the Indie book shop. Yeah, it’s amazing. And then I think later on this year a second novel is coming. Well, a second published novel by a big name publisher, so.
Craig Mod: Sourdough. It’s coming out-
Frank Chimero: Sourdough from FSG, yeah.
Craig Mod: I’ve read it. It is so much fun. It is just pure Robin fun. And he’s also the most San Francisco positive writer working today. It feels that to me, I don’t read much about San Francisco outside of tech news, and it’s always dollar, really kind of grim. And then I want to go to the San Francisco and Robin’s books. I feel like Robin was secretly a consultant on Big Hero Six or Big Hero Five, what was the name of that movie?
Frank Chimero: Yeah, that sounds right. I didn’t see it.
Craig Mod: Big Hero something, where it’s like San Francisco and Tokyo melded together. In the most awesome possible way. Just looking back at this project, it was just a shock to see that it was eight years ago, and that it did as well as it did. And actually the number of people is really impressive. 570 people is a lot of people to get to pledge to something. And then after Robin, in my mind it’d come a lot later, but actually it was just like a month later. Scott Thomas launched the Designing Obama book. Which then, at that time, raised $84,000, which was just unthinkable.
Frank Chimero: Right, [LAUGH]I mean, it was just-
Craig Mod: Astronomical, right? What, you could get $80,000 for an indie book prepublished on Kickstarter from a bunch of people you don’t know? 1,312 backers for that one, that was, I feel like that was the first design book to come out of Kickstarter.
Frank Chimero: Yeah, I have work in Designing Obama, that’s why I got a copy of it.
Craig Mod: There you go.
Frank Chimero: Yeah, so I actually didn’t back it. [LAUGH]I should have, but I got a copy because I had a couple of posters in there.
Craig Mod: Yeah, that was huge, because I think people didn’t really quite understand like the range of possibilities with crowdfunding at that point.
Frank Chimero: To actually have a dollar sign associated with it actually made it more impressive. So it was just sort of playing on the Obama gravy train, and just sort of like every, we’re just gonna ride this cloud and this rainbow into infinity of pure bliss.
Craig Mod: [LAUGH]
Frank Chimero: Publishing is different, we can make these amazing giant books filled with graphic design and posters,. and raising $80,000, and whee [LAUGH]
Craig Mod: Yeah, and I think around that time, literally if I just saw the word Obama, I started shooting money out of my pockets at it.
Frank Chimero: [LAUGH]
Craig Mod: But this is an incredible book, and it’s sad that money legitimizes stuff. But it felt like this really legitimized Kickstarter, the platform, as a place to do serious, big books. I mean, this is a book that Taschen could have put out, but Scott Thomas decided, I’m gonna do this on my own, I guess in the spirit of the campaign, in a certain way. This is around the time that I applied to be able to do Art Space Tokyo on the platform. So, between applying it and actually launching Artspace Tokyo, we took about eight months. We applied, we got accepted, and then we didn’t launch for eight months.
We were just trying to get everything ready for that, prepared for that, but this was when Kickstarter really hit my radar. After having done indie books on my own as a co-publisher for six or seven years, and going, my God. This makes so much more sense than hoping your distribution channel is going to sell these books that year, kind of producing on a prayer here. And it just felt like it made a lot of sense economically. It made a lot of sense in terms of the ecosystem, in a way that no other funding platform had done before.
Frank Chimero: Yeah, and before this, it was difficult because you were putting a lot of money at risk..
Craig Mod: That’s what I mean [LAUGH]
Frank Chimero: Even to get the presses started, it’s one of those things where, if you want to let’s say, what was this? This was 2008, was that the year?
Craig Mod: 2009.
Frank Chimero: 2009, if you wanted to say make a film, or a short film, you could go recruit friends, ask for favors, shoot it on a DSLR. And the cost of production will be pretty much zero because at that point you can find different places to distribute that video,
Craig Mod: But you had YouTube, right?
Frank Chimero: Yeah, you could stick it on YouTube, and it can vary, you could put it on video and it could get featured. But with indie books, one of the issues was, if you wanted it to take a physical form, like people expect a book to do most of the time.
It was pretty expensive at that time to actually get the presses started. You needed at least several thousand dollars to get going. And if you wanted to produce something that seemed to be a special artifact, like, say, a big art book about Obama. Or a very-well constructed and considered precious smaller book, like Art Space Tokyo. That takes coin, and it’s really risky to put your own money out for something like that. Especially when the audience is so speculative.
Craig Mod: Well, especially considering, for a lot of books to reach a really big audience in the bookstore universe, you had to be out on the front table. If you weren’t on that front table, you basically didn’t exist, and that also costs money. And to get on the table, you had to have a relationship with Barnes and Noble. And that required being part of a big publishing network or having a big distributor. The Perseus sales rep had to go in there and fight for you, so you had to convince the Perseus sales reps that you were worthwhile. There were so many hurdles between producing the book you wanted to produce. And then getting it to the people you thought might like it, and doing it in a mildly efficient way. And the amount of costs required to be put up front for that to happen, and then not even knowing if anyone’s gonna buy it in the end.
Frank Chimero: Yeah, exactly, doing all of that and still not being sure if there’s an audience that are interested in this thing you may have just spent years of your life working on.
Craig Mod: Right, and possibly $100,000, depending on how many you made, or how big it was, or how complicated it was, and how much promotion you bought from the bookstores. I mean, the amount of money up front could be bananas. Whereas on Kickstarter, Designing Obama as kind of this first example of doing a risky book in a way that there is no risk, a risk-free risky book. And then 2011 you do your book, you raise $100,000. And then last year, in 2016, I think one of the most amazing things to come out of Kickstarter. Which was the confluence of normalization of the platform, normalization of crowdfunding. This idea of crowdfunding as being a thing that, yeah, you just kinda do those GoFundMe campaigns and there’s Indiegogo campaigns, and you kinda see it all over the place. That all coming together, plus the production of books being easier to do, and distribution through Amazon and all those other channels being easier to access. Coming together as Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Francesca and Elena over at Timbuktu Labs, that was incredible to see that happen. This kind of thing that rode a tidal wave of promotion to a million dollars in sales on crowdfunding, [LAUGH] it was just incredible to see that..
Frank Chimero: That total is flabbergasting [LAUGH]
Craig Mod: It’s unbelievable, I mean, they raised $675,000 in the Kickstarter campaign, and then transitioned to Indiegogo, where they went over a million. And they announced last month, they’ve now sold over 500,000 copies around the world, which is just a bonkers number.
Frank Chimero: Yeah, that would totally obliterate anything on the New York Times’ bestseller list.
Craig Mod: I don’t think it would have sold as well had it not been crowdfunded. There’s something that happens between the buyers and the sellers. There’s an intimacy that happens here that makes you wanna get out and fight for the thing. In a way that just like hearing hey, Random House is publishing this progressive book of bedtime stories for girls. You kinda hear that and you go, yeah, that’s kinda cool, but seeing Elena and Francesca, and I think this is where the power of a good Kickstarter video comes in. Seeing them fight for this book, stand in front of you, and go, we think this should exist in this world, and doing so in this really beautifully unpolished way.
The launch videos for this book are quite raw, but they’re so endearing. Seeing that makes you want to get out there and scream and buy 15 copies of it. And buy it for everyone you know who has a daughter, and send links to everyone you know who might be interested in this thing, buy it for libraries. And there’s an activation that happens on crowdfunding that I don’t think it’d happen in big publishing, which is really fascinating.
Frank Chimero: Yeah, it feels like you’re making a choice for yourself. Right? By participating in helping this thing to exist, you love it more.
Craig Mod: Yeah.
Frank Chimero: Like no matter what it is, you now have a bond to that thing. And it’s just impossible to have a personal story attached to any kind of product that you buy in a normal, commercial fashion. And that’s kind of a really interesting experience that I’ve had backing Kickstarter campaigns. Because by the time this thing actually shows up, hopefully that person has been sort of trickling news about working on the thing.
Or one of the cool things about backing publishing projects on Kickstarter is the excited press check backer update.
Craig Mod: Right.
Frank Chimero: That’s probably one of my favorite modes of writing. Because, one honestly the people who are there are tired, but so excited to actually go make this thing real.
Craig Mod: Right.
Frank Chimero: The other is sometimes those people have no experience being on press. So maybe there’s this set of really helpful people who work at the print house helping them actually make their book a reality.
And then the third is that I like it a lot, too, because it sort of exposes the process of producing a book at probably its most interesting point. Where you’re putting ink on paper and it’s kind of being flown through this machine at a million miles an hour to make a few thousand of whatever you’re doing.
Craig Mod: Yeah.
Frank Chimero: So, just having pictures of things like that, that kind of work, floating around the Internet, possibly being shown to people who would never want to look at that. Unless it was attached to this object and the story and sort of this little mini-movement that they’re participating in. That’s really exciting to me, as a person who sometimes designs books, and works as a designer all the time.
Craig Mod: Do you think there’s anything Kickstarter can do to crank up the intimacy? Are there features that are being left on the floor now that you think if this existed, or if this was part of the follow-up, it would allow even more connection or conversation between the backers and the producers?
Frank Chimero: I think that there’s a whole experience once the project’s finished. Being able to maintain the relationship once the project is through, I think is pretty important. And it feels a little awkward to, whenever somebody launches something new, whether it’s through Kickstarter or not, to get a message from that person that’s tethered to the project that you backed. So there’s that, I think there’s also the possibility of building out tools to help people share the campaigns once they’re over. It’s those people are interested in continuing to sell the thing that they’ve got funded. And I think that that’s particularly important with publishing.
Craig Mod: Right.
Frank Chimero: Because if I’ve raised this money and now I’m gonna go write this book, and I’ve got a pretty good hunch that it’s gonna take me four to six months to write this book. And I’ve secured the money that I need to do the print run that I need to fulfill the orders of my backers. Then why wouldn’t I just keep on selling it, right? Because the cost of adding another few hundred to the print run and pre-selling those, and getting a little bit more cash in the bank, there’s no reason not to do that. Because at that point the risk is pretty much gone.
Craig Mod: Yeah. Well, and also books begin once they’re done. Like that’s when-
Frank Chimero: Exactly.
Craig Mod: That’s when the real conversation starts. And it feels like Kickstarter’s over-optimized for beginning the thing. And then once the thing is real or once the campaign is done, it feels like all the tools suddenly disappear, they drop off. For me with doing Koya Bound last year it was just so weird to have Indiegogo reach out and contact me and say, hey we’ve cloned your Kickstarter project.
And the second your Kickstarter ends, we will put it up live for you, and you can just keep selling over here. We did that, because that was the easiest way to just keep selling the book, to keep going. And it just felt in some ways like we were cheating on Kickstarter. [LAUGH]It was like I wanna keep giving Kickstarter my money, their cut of these sales, but, yeah, it felt really unfortunate. And then that bifurcates where the conversation can happen and where information’s being consolidated. And where background information’s being consolidated. And it just feels like that would be nice if it was all under the same hood.
Frank Chimero: And there’s one more thing, so like there is sort of key two points, there is like two points that are very critical, the first is, whenever the thing gets funded, right? Whenever the campaign ends, if it’s successful, that’s what we’re talking about right now. There is another one which is when the thing ships.
Craig Mod: Yeah.
Frank Chimero: Right, so if it’s, like I don’t know, if you spent 8 bucks to get a cooler, or whatever that ridiculous cooler was was on Kickstarter. Your experience after that is like, okay, cool, I got this cooler.
Craig Mod: [LAUGH] But in publishing, everybody who backs it gets the same book at around the same time, and that is like a de facto book club.
Craig Mod: Yeah.
Frank Chimero: Right? So why is there so little around the experience of enjoying the things that you’ve backed together? If you’ll enjoy the experience of backing it together, is there the possibility of producing ways to allow people to enjoy that thing together?
Craig Mod: I suppose this is an argument for doing a book-specific Kickstarter. Like a startup that is just focused on helping people make books. Although, I think the market cap for that is probably too low to get funding, and you’re gonna be competing with Kickstarter. But it’d be great if Kickstarter had maybe three or four different post-funded modes. So you have something post-book, something post-tech product, something post-industrial design. And the follow-up and the tools for the follow-up were different for each of those different spaces. And, in the case of a book, like you said, it should be book club time. There should be kind of like a forum space for people to be able to talk about what was in the book, the topics of the book.
Allow the author to communicate with those people, and sort of begin this conversation, which is what, in the best case scenario, a book is great at doing, right? Starting a conversation.
Frank Chimero: Yeah, it’s weird because physical books, they are these enormously social things that exist in space. Like a good bookstore is, it’s a social space.
Craig Mod: Totally.
Frank Chimero: It’s like you can walk in there and buy the books. But the point of the bookstore is to chat up the people behind the counter, and see what they’re reading. And maybe mention this thing that you were reading that you enjoyed, to see if they have anything else that might be worth your time or just to sort of like stumble in. The book store a couple blocks from me, they have like a children’s book reading every day on Saturday morning like around 10 or 10:30, something like that. So, it’s like a communal space, and there’s readings and those kinds of things. And you can do that in physical space, but I feel like that’s maybe something that has been pretty lackluster online.
Craig Mod: Yeah.
Frank Chimero: Goodreads doesn’t feel like a community, it feels like Yelp.
Craig Mod: [LAUGH]Does it? I don’t know what it feels like. I mean it’s like-
Frank Chimero: It’s like a lot of very angry people complaining about books.
Craig Mod: It’s a place I don’t want to spend time for whatever reason.
Frank Chimero: Yeah.
Craig Mod: It doesn’t feel like a nourishing, positive place to spend time online.
Frank Chimero: Yeah and I think that there’s actually, there must be a way to get people together through the Internet to enjoy books together, right?
Craig Mod: Well and I think that’s why your point about Kickstarter providing the space is so powerful, because everyone has opted in. Everyone wants this book to succeed if they’ve backed it.
Everyone is there, operating from a positive point of view.
And to be able to capitalize on that to have great conversations feels like a huge opportunity.
Frank Chimero: Yeah, and I think another thing that it does is it very easily creates value for the people who are putting on the project.
Craig Mod: Yeah.
Frank Chimero: With no work from them. So what you can then do is if you want, you can then raise your pledge levels a little bit. Tack on a few more dollars because one of the perks is that Now you can participate in the book club.
Craig Mod: Right.
Frank Chimero: Because you were one of the original backers.
Craig Mod: Right.
Frank Chimero: You can have like this cool space for you to talk about the book. And we’ll do like a little AMA with the author or something like that.
Craig Mod: Yeah.
Frank Chimero: Two or three weeks after the book ships. So that as you have questions about the text or whatever we can just sort of hang out and chat about with things we’re finding interesting about. What we’re all enjoying together.
Craig Mod: Yeah, if it feels like there’s a lot of opportunity there. Closing loops for projects can be difficult. And I think kickstarters optimize around, focus on just getting the money to make the thing real in the world. But I think that’s great, but Kickstarter has been around for eight or nine years now.
Frank Chimero: Mm-hm.
Craig Mod: And that it doesn’t feel like it has evolved beyond that initial focus for better for worse. And so then you end up with Indiegogo or you end up with backer kit. Or you end up with these other spinoffs, picking up the baton once the thing is done in a way that feels overly complicated. It would just be nice to keep it all in the same place. [CROSSTALK]
Frank Chimero: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Craig Mod: In a positive way.
Frank Chimero: Exactly, exactly. And that happens with a lot of online platforms. They eventually figure out that a way both this thing and people are using it. And one of the main ways that we can add values to the people on our platform to make their lives easier. And for our company to make a bit more money is to actually step into seller services or building out features help the people who are actually succeeding using the thing that we made.
So this is people like Etsy or Shopify making shipping features and postings a lot easier for people, or inventory management or whatever. Right. And yeah, it seems kind of crazy that Kickstarter hasn’t gone too far down that road yet.
Craig Mod: Yeah, I mean I realize it’s really complicated obviously, and focus is good. But it’s kind of at the point now where we’re ready for those features on the platform. And we kind of you know we understand the core of what’s there now and it wouldn’t confuse us. And I think it would just bring more positivity and benefit to the community. But what’s fascinating about now as a time for doing these things is just how totally normalized doing books on Kickstarter is. And how normalized it is to get $100,000 [LAUGH]for a book now. Designers in books is such a cool,
Frank Chimero: Mm-hm.
Craig Mod: Group done two books in the last year. Which have both raised over $100,000. One of the books, The Bolted Book Facsimile, an exact copy of Depero Futurista $250,000. That’s pretty amazing for this kind of reproduction of an old design classic. And then just a few months ago, earlier in 2017 Jan Chipchase, the field study handbook raising over $300,000. It’s so amazing that all of these systems of crowd funding becoming normalized, people being willing to put in big amounts of money.
Trusting that they’re gonna get the thing that’s being presented to them. People understanding how to frame projects now in way that maybe we didn’t know how to do it six years ago. And also understanding what point in the process to launch the project, right.
Frank Chimero: Right.
Craig Mod: So like Jan launching when the thing was totally done. And just saying, look as soon as this campaign ends you’re gonna have a book in two weeks, that’s pretty powerful. But all of these systems and distribution systems and Amazon fulfillment becoming more and more of an easily accessible thing. It’s just like everything is in place now for people to produce great books, beautiful books without having to go through the rigmarole of hoping that a publisher takes them on.
And waiting years for the thing to get produced. Yeah, and it feels like maybe right now we’re at sort of another inflection point.
Frank Chimero: Mm-hm.
Craig Mod: Because crowdfunding is so normalized.
Frank Chimero: Yeah. I was kind of, we had on the calendar that the two of us were gonna talk. And I got interested in Patreon.
Craig Mod: Great.
Frank Chimero: So I was like clicking around Patreon, right? And they have models on Patreon where you just send people money that you’re supporting every single month and they don’t necessarily have to do anything.
Craig Mod: Right.
Frank Chimero: Which is kind of amazing.
Craig Mod: [LAUGH]
Frank Chimero: Because it becomes so normalized that you’re just sort of like, I’m just gonna send this person who makes things that I like $3 a month.
Craig Mod: Yeah.
Frank Chimero: And they do have things where it’s like you pay them every time that they ship something,
Craig Mod: Yeah.
Frank Chimero: Like they release a new video or there’s a new comic strip or something like that. But I think it just speaks to how normalized this whole mode of support and then commerce has become that. Essentially the transaction in that case it’s almost like a retroactive thank you.
Craig Mod: Yup.
Frank Chimero: Or it’s just sort of like an investment in a person. And it’s completely removed from the idea of producing a particular project, or artifact, or anything.
Craig Mod: The specificity of output becomes irrelevant.
Frank Chimero: Right, exactly, exactly. It’s like they’re gonna do something interesting. Or I think that it sort of common knowledge that there’s high possibility of a Kickstarter campaign turning into a burden.
Craig Mod: Right.
Frank Chimero: For a lot of people at this points. So now what’s sort of happening is people are taking on strategies to try to avoid that, right. So like Jan essentially doing everything before starting a Kickstarter campaign. We’re possibly producing these modes of being able to offer support. And just sort of completely dissolving the connection between a product and the financial backing is interesting. Not everybody can do that, and not everybody is willing to do that, but it’s interesting that it exists. And that there’s enough people on both sides of that equation who find that acceptable.
Craig Mod: Yeah.
Frank Chimero: It’s really cool.
Craig Mod: Yeah, it is kind of amazing. And the Patrion model is fascinating for me. Because, I think it also speaks to the fact that we’ve normalized the acknowledgment that making stuff requires money. It requires time, it requires support. I think we’ve seen this in newspaper pledges because of political stuff, so people subscribing to a New York Times or Washington to post for whatever. But also just more generally, people subscribing to the New Yorker because they wanna see the New Yorker continue to make New Yorker stuff forever. And then scaling that down to the individual producer like the guy who does Every Frame A Painting. Every time the Every Frame a Painting Guy,
Frank Chimero: Tony.
Craig Mod: Every time Tony puts out a video he gets $8,000.
Frank Chimero: Yeah and he hasn’t done one for, I was looking through my user subscriptions.
Craig Mod: Yeah.
Frank Chimero: Because I wanted to watch like a new Every Frame a Painting.
Craig Mod: Yeah.
Frank Chimero: And I’ve got like a couple of other subscriptions on YouTube that are sort of in that similar genre. I know he is, I think it’s been at least six or seven months since he’s put one out.
Craig Mod: Yeah.
Frank Chimero: But that’s fine.
Craig Mod: Right.
Frank Chimero: He’s doing other stuff. I think, I feel like, I subscribe to FilmStruck. It’s like a streaming service from Turner Classic Movies and The Criterion Collection. And they have bonus features in a lot of the films that they have, and there’s one I swear it’s him.
Craig Mod: [LAUGH]
Frank Chimero: I don’t know if it’s him but I swear it’s him. Like the editing looks a lot like what he would do.
Craig Mod: Right.
Frank Chimero: And the voice sounds very similar.
Craig Mod: Mm-hm.
Frank Chimero: I swear it’s him. I think he’s moonlighting man. [LAUGH]
Craig Mod: Pretty yeah, he’s cheating on us. I’m a Patrion backer.
Frank Chimero: Yeah.
Craig Mod: Come on Tony we’re waiting for you. No, but being able to reliably get $8,000 every time you produce something that takes an incredible amount of time and effort, that’s an amazing situation for a creative person to be in.
That ten years ago was impossible to imagine, because the normalization of supporting someone [LAUGH]it’s like, intellectually.
I think this is the important point, intellectually we’ve always understood that it takes money to make stuff. But what’s happened from these systems and from Kickstarter and GoFundMe and Indiegogo is that they’ve normalized the experience. So it’s no longer just this intellectual activity of thinking I need to give money to things for things to exist. It’s doing it once, doing it twice, doing it three times, doing it ten times. That becoming embedded in your psyche as, yeah, it is required to give money to make a great thing in the world. And then Patreon kinda coming along and saying, hey let’s generalize that for people who are doing a whole bunch of different kinds of creative activities which may or may not result in an object that you can buy. And,
Frank Chimero: Mm-hm, yeah.
Craig Mod: It’s, it’s really exiting, I think it’s really exiting, really inspiring time to be making this stuff, right now especially books.
Frank Chimero: Especially books because movies are cool, but books are the best.
Craig Mod: [LAUGH]Books you could be an introvert hermit and make them. Movies require collaboration most of the time. You have to talk to human being. Which is not, always at the top of list of things people wanna do.
Frank Chimero: Unless it’s a podcast.
Craig Mod: Unless, yeah [LAUGH]it is two introverts talking about book stuff on a podcast.
Well, thank you Frank for taking that time, it was great to share and hope to see you soon in New York city.
Frank Chimero: Of course, come see me. We’ll buy some books and see some movies.
Craig Mod: And eat some pizza.
Today we’re talking with Frank Chimero. [MUSIC]
Whose middle name rhymes with Ford Escalade.
No I just wanted to use the dramatic piano. Hi, Frank..
Frank Chimero: Really? [LAUGH]Hi, Craig [LAUGH]
Craig Mod: [LAUGH]
Frank Chimero: Please put that in, like maybe just do that as a bumper at the end or something.
Craig Mod: [MUSIC] We’re done.
Show Notes & Links
Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls homepage
Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls podcast
Original Rebel Girls Kickstarter (2016)
Rebel Girls Indiegogo page
Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls 2
Craig Mod: You’re listening to On Margins. I am Craig Mod, and this is episode 004. Today, I am speaking with one-half of the founding duo of Timbuktu, Elena Favilli. Now, Elena and Francesca, her partner in putting Timbuktu together, they had been working on building apps for the last seven or eight years.
It wasn’t until about two years ago when they put out a book called “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls” that everything in their lives change. I am recording this on the side of a mountain along the Kumano Kodo, world heritage pilgrimage path in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan.
I am sitting in one of the remains of what was once a tea house along this path, and I am looking out over the mountains in the distance of Kii Peninsula. For the last couple of days, I have been walking alone. As you walk alone, you have many thoughts, and I have been thinking about people, and books, and companies that have inspired me over the last five to ten years.
I can say without hesitation that one of the most inspiring companies has been Timbuktu, and two of the most inspiring people I’ve met, two people whom I loved dearly and who I’ve been rooting for and will continue to root for are Elena and Francesca. I couldn’t be happier to have Elena on the program with us today. I hope you enjoy.
Craig: Elena, thank you for making time to speak today. It’s great to have you here.
Elena Favilli: [laughs] Thank you for having me.
Craig: We’ve known each other since, I guess, 2011?
Elena: I think it was 2012. Yeah, when we moved to San Francisco. Yeah, it was 2012.
Craig: I was looking back through email stuff, trying to find exactly when we first contact to each other, and it turns out, you followed me on February 4th, 2011. That’s [laughs] when Timbuktu Labs on Twitter followed me. That was…
Elena: [laughs] I guess, I got to know you before we met physically in San Francisco. Yeah, I think I discovered one of your articles on the “The New York Times,” and that’s how I started to follow you on Twitter.
Craig: You guys reached out to me, and I at that point in time, in 2011-2012, I was getting all of this inbound about people making apps. Everyone was making a digital magazine and everyone was trying to put together an iPad app.
This was an exciting time to be doing this stuff. Your email came in, and I just pushed it off and pushed it off because I pushed everyone’s emails off. You followed up, and you followed up, and I finally opened the Timbuktu app and I was blown away. It was the most delightful thing I had opened since I’ve gotten an iPad. In fact, I wrote back to you right away.
I have the email. I said, “Wow, I just downloaded and spent half an hour with Timbuktu. You are all crazy. I love it. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve seen out of all the kids’ apps I’ve downloaded. It has real voice and real character.” [laughs] Then, you guys wrote back, “I love that you said we’re crazy. We are indeed.”
Elena: That’s so cool. I didn’t remember this. It’s so cool. It totally sounds like us. [laughs]
Craig: It is wonderful. This is the thing that has been a theme throughout all of what you’ve made. It’s that your voice and the character of what you’re creating is so strong, so well defined, and so joyful. When you and Francesca began this in 2011, what was the process of getting to that voice of playfulness that you had?
Elena: This was really a natural voice that’s always been with us and within us. It’s just our normal approach to life, I would say, before apps and books. It’s really our tone of voice.
We thought that it would be cool to bring that perspective to the children’s media space which is, instead most of the times, strictly educational, strictly scholastic and people talking down to kids and explaining how things are, how they should be. We really wanted to stay away from all of that.
We thought that the iPad that was about to come out at the time, or had just come out, was the perfect medium to experiment a bit with this new approach to children’s media and communication. We’ve always been very passionate about children’s books, the physical aspect of illustration and of children’s communication has always a strong part of our background and passion.
We really wanted to try to take that and try to bring it and translate it into a digital experience.
Craig: Why did you feel the need to bring it into a digital place? What was exciting at that moment that made you think that?
Elena: I remember that moment. We had been studying this iPad thing before it came out and it was about to come out. [laughs] I remember there was this hype around it and this promise that it would be a new tool that eventually would take over. Everybody would be on the iPad, especially children. Maybe they wouldn’t read books anymore. They would just play with the iPad and learn and read on the iPad.
It was a way for us to experiment with a new medium, which has always been something that we both love. This combination…also, the combination of and the intersection of design and technology was something that…It’s always been at the core of our research.
The iPad, at the time, was the perfect tool to do that because it was a design object, but it was also a cutting edge technology object. It was so new and nobody knew at the time what they were doing with the iPad, really. Even those people who said that they knew. Nobody knew.
Craig: I still don’t think most of us know what we’re doing with the iPad. In that time, though, what was so difficult was that you had to be a really technical person to make an iPad app. In the same way, anyone can make a Keynote presentation and make it pretty and make it work, to make an iPad app back then you had to be a technical person.
The reason why I was so reticent to open up your app when you first approached is because I had seen so many other apps that were so boring, that may have been technically well executed but had no soul. They were these soulless technical things or they’d be 10 gigabytes of data. It was kind of crushing.
When I opened your app, the thing that struck me was all the technology fell away. It was pure joy and voice and ownership of the space in a way that I hadn’t seen anyone else do. That was ultimately why I got so excited about what Timbuktu Labs could produce.
The technical stuff you can figure out. Whatever. You can raise some money. You can hire some engineers. You can brute force tech but you can’t brute force voice, and joy, and a lightness of being, and a seduction of good character. It was this feeling of being pulled into another world and wanting to stay in that world.
I remember thinking, “Yeah, this is pretty special. This is not something you see every day.”
Elena: I guess that’s because we’re not tech people. Francesca and me, none of us, we don’t have a tech background so technology is something that we learned along the way. It wasn’t our main focus. Our main focus has always been content.
That’s what’s made a big difference in our apps, if you compare them to most of the apps that were around at the time, especially the children’s space. There was this magical feeling to it that was purely editorial, I would say, way more than technical. That came from our content related background and interest.
We were also lucky enough to find, when we started, a good developer and a friend in Milan when we put together the first issue of “Timbuktu Magazine.” He was as excited as we were about the content that we were producing. He was a strong, solid designer who was happy to experiment with the iPad and with iPad apps.
He was also very passionate about the kind of magic content that we were trying to produce and this new approach to children’s communication that we were trying to bring into the iPad.
It was something that came together very naturally. We were working out of our kitchen in Milan at the time on weekends and at night. We had full-time jobs. I was working full-time as a journalist. Francesca was working full-time as a theater director and playwright.
We both brought our worlds of creativity and imagination to this project that then became a startup.
Craig: Magic is a perfect word. You said, “We’re trying to inject magic into this.” I think that’s what it felt like. The iPad came with the promise of magic but so little actual delivery of magic. The work that you and Francesca were producing felt like actual magic, felt like true magic, which was cool.
You won a bunch of awards. The app did pretty well. How would you categorize the goodness of how…Did the app do well? Did it do better than you expected?
Elena: Oh, yeah. It did better than we expected, definitely. We got a lot of press right after it came out, especially in the US, which was our goal, because we wanted to try to move to the US and see if we could take this project to the next level and maybe bring the company around it.
It had a nice reception in terms of press and design awards, because the design feeling and aspect of it was immediately one of the most praised aspects of our work. But then, it failed to reach that level of economic independence that then gives you the strength that you need to carry it forward. It never became sustainable.
We were winning awards. We were getting nice press coverage, but we were never making enough money to keep up with the costs. At some point, it became clear that it wasn’t a thing that we could keep doing for too long.
Craig: Unfortunately, you can’t eat award certificates or use them to pay rent or hire developers or whatever. It’s funny. It’s like prestige is inversely proportional to commercial success in a lot of ways. The more love you get from the insiders, the more love you get from certain aspects of the press, the less mass successful things are on a commercial scale.
What wasn’t working? What part of the economic model wasn’t coming together? You were giving the app away for free but you could buy subscriptions. What was the model you were using and why do you think it didn’t work?
Elena: We tried a subscription model. With the app, you could download it for free. You had access to a few free content. Then, we were asking you to pay for a subscription. It could be monthly or annual. We never reached a large enough user base of paying subscribers that could pay for the costs.
The costs of production were very high because we struggled to create this magical experiences that we were talking about before. You need to come up, first of all, with really strong content. Even from a concept perspective, it takes time. It takes time and it takes effort.
Then, you need to translate that concept into great experiences both on the graphic and illustration side, and on the technical and interactive side, because we always tried to create these stories that could be highly interactive for kids to explore and to play with.
It was costly on the production side. We weren’t able to charge crazy amounts of money for the subscription.
Craig: What were you charging?
Elena: I think we were charging nine per month. I don’t remember the annual subscription right now, but yeah, it wasn’t a big amount. It was pretty much aligned with magazine’s subscription. At the time, we were positioning this as a magazine for children.
Most of the content was around news and current events from all across the globe. We were trying to find a more quirky and interesting angle to tell those stories to a kids audience.
Partly, it was the structure of the cost of production and also the intensity of production, the amount of hours and hours of work that we had to put into every single issue. That wasn’t really sustainable after a while.
I also think that the magazine, yes, we found our niche of people who were, in their way, raving about this magazine, but then I think we never truly found product market fit, meaning that most of the times, at least for the mass audience and market, it wasn’t clear to them what this was.
I remember this user sessions with kids, with parents. Sometimes, parents were very candid. “What is it? How are you supposed to use it? Is this educational? Is this just for fun? Is this teaching them lessons about…?”
In the US especially, I think there’s such a strong obsession with results and with goals. If you’re not able to immediately categorize something and say, “Oh, this is for after school when my kid is reinforcing his alphabet or math skills. OK, so I’m buying this.”
If you don’t have that, especially in the US, it’s hard for parents to make that decision of, “Yes, I’m buying this subscription to this thing.” It was this mysterious object, I think, for most people at the time.
Craig: Do you think anyone figured it out? Did anyone else who was out there doing magazine things or kids apps, did anyone find product market fit?
Elena: Certainly, not on the magazine or publishing side. I think that the only apps that are working on the publishing side in the iPad are those apps that created some sort of Netflix for children’s books. They’re more platforms. You pay a subscription that can be monthly or annual. It’s mostly for content that is then produced by somebody else.
I don’t think that nobody has really figured this out clearly yet. I’m not sure that no one ever will at this point. I don’t know. I feel that the app market for children, especially, is kind of messed up right now. I don’t see many people experimenting with it anymore.
Craig: I guess it’s a question of is the medium fundamentally flawed in some way? Is the iPad just not the place to do these things?
You guys have made a lot of apps, haven’t you?
Elena: Oh, yes. We did 12 or 13 at the end. The iPad, I think it’s working when you create apps that are designed around a very specific task or maybe just a few different specific tasks. They need to be highly focused if you want them to work and to have users working on them and playing with them on a constant basis.
In our case, we were instead trying to create this ever-changing editorial experience. When we started, it was actually changing every day. We had a different story every day, which was kind of crazy because it was a lot of work.
Also, it didn’t make any sense for the users because, especially with children, they love to read the same story over and over again. We overestimated our ability to capture their attention.
Of course, there are some apps that are doing this in the right way, but I think that they are very specific. You have a great app to learn the alphabet, or you have a great app to learn the states of the US. They are very, very limited in creativity and in scope. It was never something that was appealing to us.
Craig: Right, you had bigger ambitions than that. Does Timbuktu Labs make apps anymore?
Elena: We don’t right now, no.
Craig: Have you announced that? Have you said anywhere, “Hey, we’re not doing updates to the apps. They’re out there but they’re not being worked on.”
Elena: No. We haven’t publicly announced any change on that side. The apps that are out there in the iTunes space, you can still download them, and play with them. They’re still working, but we’re not producing, or releasing any new apps.
We just decided at some point to take a break, and go back to where we started from, and then see what else could we create.
Craig: It’s crazy. There’s a lot of this that’s happened in the publishing industry. Like your story of 2011, heady days of getting excited about the iPad, going all in on it, doing things like doing daily content updates.
Huge content updates delivered through these subscription systems, trying to find sustainable models, trying to find new ways for kids to interact and learn. So many people went through that cycle, and then ended up coming out the other side I think in a similar place to where Timbuktu popped out which is, “OK, we’re going back to what we know.”
I don’t know if that is saying that print media, or traditional media just is a powerful thing, or if it’s saying that the iPad is kind of under baked, or the economies under which people are willing to operate on the iPad…
For example, you were only willing to pay $2 for an app. You’re never going to make a sustainable business with a $2 app really. I don’t know if that’s the problem. How would you categorize Timbuktu today? If somebody said, “Hey, Introduce yourself? What is Timbuktu?”
Elena: I think today, I would call it a digital native brand especially when I think about “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls,” and the whole movement, and the whole community that has formed around it. I would say that today, we are a digital native brand, and that we have done this starting from a physical object, and a very traditional one such as a children’s book.
I think that, yes, we did go back to what we knew, and we went back with an additional layer of knowledge of the digital space, which I think at the end is what made all the difference because we were able to really design, and create this object, this book around a clear, and specific audience this time.
We were able to capture this audience online with a newsletter first, and then with a crowdfunding campaign. For the first time, I feel like we took all the lessons that we had learned along the way in the startup scene, and ecosystem of small iterations, and small tests, and customer research.
We took them with us, and we brought them to this other more traditional space of the book publishing industry where most people, and most companies are not doing this. They still think that you have this big idea that you create it, you publish it, and then they will come.
Craig: Goodnight Stories had this interesting genesis. You briefly noted it started with a newsletter, which I think most people wouldn’t think of doing if they’re starting a new book brand. When did you launch the newsletter? Was that the end of 2015 or end of 2016?
Elena: That was at the end of 15, and we used a newsletter for customer research, and also product research. Every week, we were sending out a short story about some extraordinary woman from the past or the present, and sometimes it was just text, sometimes it was a short video, sometimes it was maybe some illustrations with some text.
We were just testing different formats, different stories, and recording how the readers were responding to these stories.
Craig: When you say recording, were you doing an actual AB testing, and tracking clicks or?
Elena: Yes. We weren’t doing AB testing at that point. It was I guess a more superficial level of testing. At the time we were using MailChimp, we were using all the usual KPI and metrics that come within those email service provider.
We were tracking the open rate, click through rate, time spent on them, on the blog reading the story. Then, we were measuring the pace at which the email list was growing week after week.
Craig: How many people did you start sending it out to? What was the audience?
Elena: I was actually looking at that the other day because I was like, “Oh my God. I really want to see where we started from,” because now, the book has been translated into 42 languages, which is crazy. It’s just completely…
Craig: That’s insane.
Elena: insane. I was like, “Wait, but where did we start from?” The very first email that we sent was sent to a group of 25 people. That’s where we started from, because I remember perfectly that we were like, “OK, we want to try something new. We’re not going to use the Timbuktu newsletter.”
We’re going to start from scratch, and try to build this brand new list specifically interested in this kind of content. Empowering stories for young women.”
Craig: Why did you feel the Timbuktu list wasn’t a good starting point?
Elena: Part of it was that it wasn’t a really active list anymore, and also we took this as a test. We were like, “OK, if we want this test to be really meaningful, we have to start from zero. We don’t want to take with us any of the baggage positive, or negative that we have with Timbuktu.” We decided to start completely from scratch for this reason.
Craig: You started with 25 people. Do you still have a Rebel Girls list now?
Craig: Can you say what number it’s at now?
Elena: Oh yeah. Sure. We started with 25 people, and then when we launched the crowd funding campaign, the first one, we were at 4,000. This was just after six months after. Now, we are at 300,000 people on our email list. It’s exponentially grown.
Craig: The economics of that. What does it cost you to send out an email now? To 25 people it’s free. 300,000. I’m curious about that. I don’t think I have ever asked anyone who has so many subscribers. Are you still with MailChimp?
Elena: No. Now, we are with another company called Klaviyo. The cost, yeah, it becomes expensive. On a monthly basis, I think it’s $1,400.
Craig: That’s not so bad. Is that for unlimited emails?
Elena: That’s for unlimited emails to that user base.
Craig: Nice. That’s not so bad. Wow. That’s amazing. What a growth curve though. That’s over basically a year and a half. Two years basically. You launched a Kickstarter. It does really well. You get 675,000 or so from the Kickstarter, and then you continue on Indiegogo.
I think it’s really ridiculous that you just can’t continue on Kickstarter. That you have to jump over to another platform. You jump over into Indiegogo, and you get to 1.287 million or so, which is incredible. Now every year, it feels like the baseline of what a lot of money for a Kickstarter campaign or crowdfunding book campaign is gets reset seven years ago.
It’s like if you got $20,000, that was a lot of money for a book on crowdfunding. Then two years ago when you did Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, it was the most money any book had raised on crowdfunding.
Elena: That’s true.
Craig: Then getting it to 1.2872 over at Indiegogo, that’s a lot of money for any book. Your goal was $40,000. Is that what the…?
Elena: Yeah. That was the initial goal.
Elena: I know.
Craig: Talk about where the company was when you decided to launch the Kickstarter campaign? Because you had been doing apps to this point for four, or five years, and they were not proving to be sustainable. Did you feel like the company was in a tough position?
Elena: Oh yes. Absolutely. Honestly, the company was dead at that point. It was just Francesca and me, and we had decided to move from San Francisco to LA, because we wanted to get away from all the craziness of the startup ecosystem where everyone was trying to push us to create a platform for kids’ content instead of creating our own content.
We spent one year in LA just really spending time with ourselves, and we didn’t know anyone there. We just spent a lot of time doing research, and trying to reconnect to what was important for us.
The company wasn’t making money. We were using our own personal money just to survive, and were consulting on the side doing any kind of jobs that you can imagine when you’re trying just to keep things going for a little longer before shutting everything completely down.
It became clear for both of us that this passion for gender equality, and female empowerment was our biggest, biggest passion, and focus. We decided to do something around it at some point.
Since we were in children’s media, we were like, “OK, let’s start from here because it’s just the space that we know best. We know that we can create something meaningful.” It was really the response to a very personal need, and also to a very personal pain I would say, because as you grow, and as your experiences in the workforce grow, and expand, you begin to realize more and more how more difficult to succeed.
It becomes painful. At some point, we were like, “OK, if we have to keep trying one more time, we really need to try with something that we care about, and something that we care a lot about because there’s no way that I’m going to try to launch a new app on iTunes.”
Craig: Also, there’s no way you’re going to let some random VC be like, “Hey girls, you got to make a platform. If it doesn’t hit a billion users, you’re worthless,” which is the prevailing sentiment when you’re up in the Bay area.
I think the fact that you had to physically extract yourselves from that environment, it makes a lot of sense to me as someone who also has extracted himself from that environment. I think it also speaks to just how…
God, in some ways, Silicon Valley is so wide eyed, and optimistic, and in other ways, it is so myopic. So tiny. I think it’s incredible that you physically extracted yourselves, and then you took some time, and space to reflect which is something that also doesn’t happen very often up there.
It’s, “Keep going faster, faster. Make more. You know what? No more users. What? What’s the growth rate?” There’s no sense of taking a step back, taking a breath. When you’re moving towards the Kickstarter campaign, you were in this place of this is the last thing we can try before we’re really out of money. Is that what it felt like?
Elena: Oh yeah. Completely. There was a lot of pressure from us, and also a lot of expectations, because we knew that this campaign could become something big. The initial goal was $40,000, but in our mind, we had a secret goal that we didn’t even want to share it with each other.
We thought that we could probably reach 300,000 if we were lucky, and if everything was going as we thought it should. Then it immediately exploded the first day. I remember the first morning when we were, again, in our kitchen…We always launch stuff from our kitchen. We’re Italian, we have to do that. It’s the only way.
Craig: It’s a beautiful place.
Elena: Yeah. I guess in Silicon Valley, everybody launches stuff from their garage, and we launch from our kitchen tables. That’s the difference.
Craig: That’s the trick.
Elena: Yes. I remember that we saw these people starting to preorder the book, and buy the book, and donate to the campaign. Within the first few hours, we had passed I think 40 percent of our funding goals. It was immediately clear that the campaign was going to be funded, and that we could go on raising additional funds.
It was I think one of the most exciting moments for us, was that instant realization that things were going to change, and finally, were going to work in our favor.
Craig: Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls” is not the first book of this kind. There are other books out there that are about amazing stories about women, and children’s books about empowerment, and things like that. Why do you think this book at that moment caught on the way it did?
Elena: I think it’s a combination of many things, and I think the title honestly is a big part of it. The title is strong, and it works, and it’s exciting for people because everyone wants to be a rebel girl.
Craig: I want to be a rebel girl.
Elena: Yes. Why not? Right. It really captures their imagination, and they feel that they want to be part of it. Also, I think that we did it in a different way. Most of these books that collect stories about real women, extraordinary women, they’re usually quite dry and cold.
They’re more like little encyclopedia for kids where they’re putting together collections of stories of biographies. Short biographies where the typical tone is, “Oh, this was the first woman to do this, and this was the first woman to do that.”
Again, it’s a very classical scholastic approach to exposing children to these kind of themes and stories whereas we decided to go with the fairytale twist. We transformed these biographies into fairytales, which I think it’s the most engaging aspect of the book, and of the stories themselves.
Because they’re not dry biographies anymore. They become this very warm, and imaginative fairy tales that you really want to read out loud before going to sleep. I think this aspect of creating a story that can become part of your bedtime routine is what made the book so successful, because it immediately gave people clear user case people in the app space would say.
Craig: Right. I was just going to say it’s like with the parents who are looking at the app going, “What’s the benefit again of this? How do I integrate this into my life?” This book is like the perfect product market fit. You say, “Hey, before you go to bed, read a story.”
Elena: The user case was very clear. Yeah.
Craig: Silicon Valley isn’t entirely wrong about finding…Product market fit is important.
Elena: Oh no. Sure. It is. It is important. We’re so grateful for all that we learned there, don’t get me wrong when I say that we had to get away, but yeah.
Craig: I think what you’re speaking of again is voice. It’s like it’s the same thing that you, and Francesca have been doing for almost a decade now. It’s like taking great voice, and applying it to different mediums.
It’s like the iPad had that great voice, but it just so happened that the market there was so weird, and the economics of it were so strange, and the upfront cost of content production was so high it just didn’t work.
In the case of a book, you’ve taken that same joy, that same magic, and that same strength of voice, and you’ve made this object out of it. How has that been? Was there a community around the apps that you found forming, and how does that compare now to this community that you found come together around these books?
Elena: No. I don’t think we were ever able to create a community around the apps. It was always a small community, and it wasn’t really engaged on a level that you can say, “Oh yeah. We have a community. We have two million users.”
Even if we had two million downloads, even at that time when we reached the two million downloads, we still couldn’t say that we had a super engaged community. It’s tough. I think it’s tough. Creating communities around apps I think it’s really difficult even when apps take off.
Craig: What is it about apps that make that tough?
Elena: I think that other than of course social media apps, I don’t think people have the same kind of relationship with small little icons that they have on their phones.
Craig: You don’t hug your icons before you go to bed?
Elena: No, I don’t. I think it’s quite tough to create a strong sense of community around a single app. Some companies have been able to do that, and when I say this, I think some music apps for example, like Smule, which was part of 500 when were there, there are some apps that have done this, and are doing this in some spaces, but I think it’s quite rare.
With a book instead, of course, books are social objects by definition I would say. They have been with us forever, and we are just used to having them around our physical space, our rooms, our bed, our cars. They have this physical presence that it’s still really strong.
Especially with people being constantly immersed, and fully immersed in the digital space, I think that physicality of the objects is becoming more, and more important, and especially for something like books that still…
Although of course, we read books on the Kindle, and I do that all the time, but still there’s certain books that I prefer in their paper in their paper format that I wouldn’t buy on a Kindle. I think this book is one of those.
It’s not just a collection of stories, but it’s also of this beautiful design object that people like to buy, and to have with them on their table, or on their bedtime table. Yeah, we see pictures all the time of children hugging the book, and taking the book with themselves to bed as if it were a toy, or more than a book.
I think that’s something that you can create really only with physical objects, and the community that formed around it is just incredible. I think it’s the most incredible aspect about this new adventure.
We see everyday people sharing pictures from every corner of the globe with this book translated now into so many languages. It’s just insane for me to see how connected they feel to this object.
Craig: What are you doing to help foster that connection? Are they all joining your mailing list? Is there an online list that they congregate in? Are you doing events?
Elena: Yes. We’re doing a combination of those things, and on social media, we’re using a lot Instagram to collect and give space to these stories, to these pictures that come from our users, and from our readers. Then yes, also we use our newsletter as a space for them to come in, and to continue to be part of the conversation with us.
Then we are doing more, and more events in different places. We’re doing a lot of events in Europe where the book has done extremely well. We’re doing book signing events. We’re doing presentations. We’re doing sometimes events even in theater just reading the story sometimes with actors, sometimes just Francesca and me.
It’s a combination of things, and it’s ever changing, and we’re constantly learning new ways to interact with them, which is I think one of the most exciting parts of this work now.
Craig: It’s interesting you called a book a social object, because I think one of the promises of the iPad in the digital world was that it was going to make these things that were I think non-social.
A book is a thing that isn’t connected. It’s isolated. It’s on its own. It’s this thing you have an intimate one on one relationship with, and even if people are reading the same book, you don’t know they’re reading the same book.
This is the whole thing of shared marginalia, and let’s read a book together, and let’s do this on the Kindle, on iPad apps or something. Even in Timbuktu, it’s like let’s all exist in the same space. Let’s all gather in the same space, and read this text together, or experience this story together.
A physical book isn’t that, and it’s funny that the iPad, and the digital book spaces, the Kindle and iBooks or whatever didn’t ever fulfill that promises. What you’ve done with Rebel Girls is you’ve created these totems that people can form an intimate relationship with, the kids can take to bed with them in a way that is more I think understandable because it has edges in a way that like an iPad app doesn’t, or a digital thing doesn’t.
Then Timbuktu, you and Francesca have just done such a good job at creating connective tissue. The mailing list, that’s the social layer in a weird way on top of a book in a way that most publishers don’t get. From an outside perspective looking in at what you’ve built, it’s like you have these incredible digital connective tissues.
Using Kickstarter, when you use Kickstarter, everyone feels like they’re part of it in a way that you can never be part of with a big publisher. I think that’s probably a lot of the energy that you feel maybe is in part because you didn’t go to like Penguin Random House, and put it out through them. You did it on your own.
Everyone feels like, “Yeah. We’re part of this.” You have community coming together there. You have community on the mailing list, and then you have all of the follow up stuff that draws its momentum from what is ultimately an isolated physical thing. The book.
I just think it’s interesting. Even though a book itself is not inherently social at all, it’s like the most anti-social thing you could do, is I’m going to go in the corner, and I’m just going to be quiet. I’m going to be quiet. I’m not going to talk to anyone.
Yet, it has the power to transmute that experience in a way that gets people so excited that they’re willing to come together, they’re willing to gather, they’re willing to hold up these ideals which is really exciting. It’s really exciting to see you find that fit because I think you’ve always been moving in that direction.
Watching Rebel Girls go from a Kickstarter campaign, and watching your update videos, your update videos are like one of my favorite things in the world, because it’s like you feel how excited you both were, and surprised. Also relieved.
Hearing that back story about where you were in that moment reframes those videos in a little way where there’s palpable relief like, “We aren’t going to have to give up on our ideals.” It’s a really incredible transition.
Six or seven years ago, if I said where do you want Timbuktu to be in three years, or four years, you probably would have said something like, “Oh, we want to have this incredible app ecosystem, and have millions of paying customers, and producing all this great multimedia content.”
Today considering where you are right now, and considering the success you’ve had with these books, what is the ideal five years from now for you?
Elena: In some ways, I think the idea has always been the same. The idea for us, and the dream for us was to build a digital media company, and even if the output now is physical books, that doesn’t change the fact that we consider ourselves a digital media brand.
We think, and we’ve always thought of this book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls as this cornerstone of a larger media brand that can connect with this audience of young women, and keep creating meaningful objects for them.
Of course when I say objects, I think mostly about books because books is the core of our expertise. Also of our passion. At the same time, I also think about other digital ventures that could come along the way.
Like this podcast that we’re about to launch, which will be called again “Goodnight Stories Rebel Girls.” This first season will be 10 episodes each one focusing on a different woman from the past or the present.
We go from Margaret Hamilton to Harriet Topman to Maria Carlos. It’s going to be interesting to see how we can tackle this new medium, and this new adaptation of our stories with sound, with music, with a host reading the stories in a slightly longer format. Again, it’s an experiment. It’s a storytelling experiment. We are storytellers more than anything else.
We love to experiment with different storytelling formats. I think that we will just continue to do this with whatever we think might be relevant. I think podcast, and audio right now is such an interesting space.
Maybe just like the iPad was back in 2011, 2012, it’s one of those new emerging spaces where you feel that you can start to work in, and start to experiment different things, and see what works, what doesn’t.
You feel that you have the freedom to experiment, and you’ll start trying to do something that is quite cutting edge, because it’s something new that people are now doing it. Radio of course is not new, but the podcast consumption is new, and the podcast format is new.
I guess that’s also what’s exciting for us. It’s always trying to be one step ahead, or at least try to be, and keep experimenting with every new platform format medium that seems relevant to the storytelling experience.
Craig: When you think about the podcast, how do you think about it in economic terms? Not to be like coldly business focused or whatever, but for me, one of the questions I ask anyone who’s doing either if it’s a startup or books or whatever, is that how do you keep it sustainable because ultimately, that sustainability is what enables more magic to exist. You have to keep that in mind.
When you think about something like this podcast, how does it fit into your overall media strategy for the company?
Elena: For this first season, we’re not going to have ads. There’s not that piece of monetization. So far, it’s just sustained by the sales of our books. The business model there so far is very simple. It’s just we can afford to produce it, and to make it because we are selling our books, and we’re making enough money to start this new production.
In the future, I don’t know. There are I think a bunch of different things that we can do around it. I think that if the podcast becomes successful, and keeps on building an audience, very targeted audience, it can become something very appealing for a sponsor, because of course, we are talking to very specific kind of readers.
It could also become something that we could try to sell with a subscription, because of course, it’s recurring episodes, and if people like them, and want to listen to them, that could also be an option.
I don’t know. I don’t have an answer now. I think it’s something that we will need to wait and see, and honestly, that’s what’s most exciting for me right now. Because we don’t know. We are entering this field, and we don’t know, and we will find out along the way.
Craig: That’s the nice thing about having a book, is people underestimate the power of being able to sell. How much do you sell Rebel Girls for?
Elena: We sell it for $35 and the reason why we’re able to make a lot of money with it given that we’re talking about business, and money is that we decided to be completely independent.
Timbuktu, our company is the publisher of the book. As you can imagine after the crowdfunding campaign, we started receiving gigantic offers from all the big publishers in the US.
Craig: Really? Can you say what the biggest offer you got was?
Elena: Yeah. The biggest offer was one million advance for book one which is something that usually if you’re a writer, it really never happens. Almost never happens to you unless you’re a super famous rock star or writer.
Craig: Hold on a second there. You had raised a million basically on your own, and you would have kept that million that you’d raised, and then they would have gotten the rights for a million dollars basically. You would have gotten two million in total. Having been six months earlier wondering if the company can continue to then suddenly having…
Elena: Two million.
Craig: potential of basically two million in profit on the table, what was the calculus you went through to go, “OK, we don’t need that million. We’re going to own the whole stack, and this is why”? What was the thinking there?
Elena: Because we’re crazy. Because from that very first email.
Craig: I don’t think you’re crazy. I think you’re really smart.
Elena: We took a big risk of course. This could have gone completely wrong, and we could have ruined it.
Craig: Fulfillment sucks. Fulfillment and distribution sucks.
Elena: Fulfillment sucks. Fulfillment and distribution are horrible, and it was completely new for us. We didn’t know anything about fulfillment, and third party logistics when we started fulfilling the campaign.
It never really crossed our mind to sell the rights for one million. We thought that this could become something bigger, and we thought that we worked so hard, and learned so much over the previous years that we could really finally have this opportunity to take all of that, and try to cave it to the next level.
It was a bet, and it was a risk, but we like risks I guess, and we like challenges. Also, we love the idea of trying to create this independent publishing model that could break new ground, and also disrupt the traditional publishing model where typically you need a big publisher to make a lot of money, and to sell a lot of books.
We were able to get to the “New York Times” best sellers list with no publisher behind us, and with no distribution behind us because we have a direct consumer approach, we are also the distributor our books.
To us, these kind of results, which maybe if you’re not an insider of the publishing industry, you don’t think about that, but it’s one of those things that really gets us excited.
Craig: Yu’re doing the thing that you set out to do when you started, which was to take the promise of all these new mediums, and produce something beautiful and magical and inspiring.
Just because the end artifact is a physical book which it’s an old thing, everything you’ve done along the way has been new. Everything. This book couldn’t have been made 5 years ago or 10 years ago. Everything that you’ve used to make this book is because you’ve leveraged contemporary systems, and because you had this digital experience. You weren’t afraid of it.
Going forward, it really feels like you’ve set the foundation for a kind of freedom that creators like you deserve. I don’t know if you feel that as well.
Craig: You put in a lot of work honing your voice and understanding who you want to be in the world and what kinds of things you want to put in the world. Through these books, you found that fit and you found that permission from all of these people, all of 42 languages. That’s incredible. All these people around the world are giving you permission to do the thing that you’ve always felt in your heart to do. I think that’s pretty amazing.
Elena: Thank you. This is so beautiful, so beautifully said. I agree completely, especially on the freedom piece of it because it is true. We always fight for our independence, our freedom as creators, as producers. That’s one of the main reasons why we decided not to sell the rights to any big publishers.
We knew that the moment you do it you lose control. To be full in control of your creativity, most of the times you need the economic control. This was the perfect combination for us, the crowdfunding campaign and everything that’s surrounding that. It gave us the perfect opportunity to have both the creative and the economic control, which is something so rare for creators, I believe.
While you have the chance to have it, you should keep it.
Craig: It’s so rare, in part, because all of the things that you’re doing most people don’t want to do. A lot of people give up control because they don’t want to deal with the logistics. They don’t want to deal with fulfillment. They don’t want to think about production.
Not only are you comfortable with these messy technical things, which you’ve proven over the years, but you also have the storytelling chops. People talk about unicorns but I feel like Timbuktu is one of these media unicorns.
Elena: Thank you. That’s great to hear. That’s the best compliment.
Craig: An Italian media unicorn sitting in a kitchen.
Elena: Sitting in a kitchen.
Craig: Lunch and stuff.
Elena: I love this. We need a comic.
Craig: An illustration.
Elena: Or an illustration, yeah.
Craig: Thank you so much for taking the time today to talk.
Elena: Thank you. It was my pleasure.
Craig: Give Francesca a hug for me.
Elena: I will. Bye-bye.
Thank you for listening to Episode Four. I’m back in my own studio now, no longer on the mountain. That makes me a little bit sad. It was an incredible walk I just did. When I recorded that intro, I wasn’t kidding when I said I just spent a couple days thinking about the people and the institutions that are like a guiding light to me or that are inspiring.
Elena is definitely one of those people. Listening to this interview again now, weeks later, I feel that more strongly than ever.
I want to give a big thanks to her for taking the time out of her super busy schedule to get on the phone with me, hop on Skype, and do that call because they were in the middle of launching a bunch of new stuff, including the new podcast, which you should totally go and check out. It’s incredible.
I know that so many people are going to get so much out of what Elena had to say in this podcast that I’m grateful that we had that time to put this together.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Elena. Thank you to all of the listeners out there. I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of responses I got to some questions about having people help out with this podcast.
You have these vague senses of the reach of things online, sometimes more vague than others. It’s nice to know that there are people out there listening and enjoying this. If you are and want to help out, one of the most tangible things you can do to have a positive effect on this is to, obviously, link to it, or tweet about it, or put it up on your Mastodon or whatever the heck we’re using today.
You can also go and leave a review in the iTunes store. That would be a huge help.
Thank you in advance to all of you who have left reviews. We will catch you in the next episode.
Show Notes & Links
Jason appearing on Halt and Catch Fire
kottke.org — 10 years old
kottke.org — 20 years of gratitude and acknowledgements
kottke.org — twenty
Nieman Labs: How Jason Kottke is thinking about kottke.org at 20
Noticing — the kottke.org newsletter written by Tim Carmondy
Craig Mod: You’re listening to On Margins. I’m Craig Mod, and this is Episode Five.
Kottke.org is a website. It is not an app. It is not a product. It is simply a static website updated daily, running some rickety, old blogging software. As of March 2018, it’s been consistently updated for 20 years. It is largely the product of a single mind: Jason Kottke.
Kottke.org has shaped the way many of us have thought about news, blogging, and linking. Jason has built his entire career around the power of hypertext.
That is, he has pointed to things and added commentary in over 26,000 posts. A simple gesture, and today, an obvious one, but one that was only possible because of how the Web was constructed.
Everything on the web sits side-by-side as equal class citizens. A guy in a bedroom in the middle of nowhere can stand toe-to-toe with global news agencies, and through a consistency of tone, hopefulness, and sharp eye, kottke.org has stood the test of time.
It’s one of the largest, longest-running single proprietor websites online. Now, not all books are bound and not all books need be printed on paper. In my estimation, kottke.org is as much a book, that is, a distillation of a singular curious point of view as any thick nonfiction tome published today.
Jason was kind enough to make time to chat with me about this and more on today’s episode. I hope you enjoy.
Craig: Jason, thank you for being here today.
Jason Kottke: Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me, Craig.
Craig: If you were to go back in time and thank one person or one institution that has allowed you to do what you’re doing today, who would that be?
Jason: I think there’s a few contenders. I grew up on a farm in a small town in rural Wisconsin. This was the ’80s and early ’90s, and so I was very culturally sheltered. I didn’t know a whole lot about what was going on in the wider world.
I did well at school and I got a scholarship to a college in Iowa called Coe College, C-O-E. Coe College. I went, and college for me was this eye-opening experience, like it is for a lot of people, but I think for me, it was like I discovered that I was always a super curious kid and super interested in science and learning.
I actually liked school. I liked the learning part of school. I hated the social part of school, but the learning part of school was great.
When I got to college, it was like, holy shit, there are people here who take that part of school seriously – because they’re curious about it, because they can’t help it. I learned that that I am one of those people that I just can’t help being interested in all sorts of different things. College for me was like this amazing thing.
Didn’t know what I was going to major in when I got there, but after a year or two, I decided I was going to major in physics. I had this advisor. His name was Dr. Feller. He was the best teacher, hands down, I’ve ever had in my entire life.
He would do this amazing thing. I didn’t know this right away, but when I got to be a junior and senior, I noticed this more and more.
In the class, he would teach simultaneously to every level in the class, no matter if you knew exactly what was going on with everything, or if you were really struggling, or anywhere in between. I don’t know how he did it. Like I still don’t know how he did it.
He was so generous with his time and his energy. He had this infectious energy that just propelled everyone forward. I just took so much from that experience and from having him as an advisor, and as a mentor, and as a friend really. He became a friend.
I think I owe him a lot in how I approach the world, and how I approach work, and in just thinking of the world as this endless bounty of things to know.
Craig: Is he still around?
Jason: He still is, yeah. I think this is his last year teaching. He’s going to transition into a peer research role, working with students on research.
Every five years, the physics department has a reunion. This year, coming up is the reunion, and I’ve already – I haven’t bought my tickets, but I will soon. I am definitely attending.
Craig: Have you ever said, hey, by the way, a big part of what I’m doing today was influenced by having you as an archetype in my life? Have you ever explicitly told him that?
Jason: I haven’t, but I think I’m going to make a point of it this time around.
Craig: I only bring that up because I had two people in my childhood who enabled me to get access to a kind of thinking similar to what you described – a kind of thinking, a kind of curiosity. There was one person who literally gave me access to his house, because he had a computer and we couldn’t afford one.
When you’re young, you don’t think about death. You don’t think about gratitude as much as you should, at least I didn’t. Maybe that’s a failure of my upbringing or me as a child or whatever. I never really thanked him. I never thanked him.
In fact, there was this one day he got a new computer and I bought his old computer and that was it. I remember five years ago going, “Shit, I need to email Tom.” I went to look and he had passed away from a heart attack a few years before.
You just go, “Fuck.” It’s a really important thing to remember to do.
A lot of times, we think people know that they have had a profound impact on us, but the reality is is that they don’t. I think a lot of people have tremendous influence, positive influence on folks they come in contact with, students, and they never really know how much of an impact they’ve had until it’s explicitly said.
For me, that’s become an important principle of moving through the world. That’s great, though. You’re lucky.
It’s amazing how powerful just one good person in your life can be.
Jason: Yeah, I feel lucky to have crossed paths with him and to have been so influenced by him. I think a lot of his students feel like that. I think he’s far and away the most popular/the most respected teacher that school has ever had in a lot of ways. Super guy.
Craig: You have 20 years built up on the site. Have you done a calculation of how many words that is?
Jason: I did a few years ago and I can’t remember what it was. It’s several books worth of stuff. If I didn’t do this and I wrote books instead, I would have 10, 12 books under my name right now. It’s a lot. [laughs]
Craig: It’s a ton. It’s crazy. To have one place where you consistently put 20 years of thinking and focus into.
Jason: I haven’t done a lot of writing elsewhere. I’ve written one or two things for “Wired,” I think. I did a thing for “Meg Magazine.” I did something for Nieman Lab. That was about it. Everything else is on kottke.org.
Craig: I was going to ask about the .org bit. It feels natural. It feels like if it was kottke.com…Kottke.com, even just saying it feels incorrect. It feels wrong. There’s no .com happening in Kottkeland.
That felt quite insightful in 1998, to pick a .org. Do you remember, was kottke.com taken?
Jason: Oh, yeah. I would have had .com, but it was taken so I had to take .org. It wasn’t any sort of stylistic or editorial choice. It was just like, “OK, I’m going to go with .org.”
In the early days, only organizations and non-profits could have .org domains. When I got .org, everyone was like, “I don’t understand. Are you an…?” It was like this, “Can you really have this?”
I’m like, “Well, yeah. Anybody can register anything. You can register a .net even though you’re not a network.”
Craig: This is back when TLDs had meaning. Today, nothing matters. Nothing is real.
Jason: Exactly. I tweeted the other day that I was looking for a guest editor for an upcoming week. Somebody sent me an email about it. “Oh, I’m a writer here, here, and here. Here’s my personal URL.” It was beyonce.horse. That’s a URL now, a fucking great URL, but it was kind of crazy.
Craig: Oh my God. You should hire that creature.
Jason: I looked at it and I was like, “Holy shit. Beyonce.horse? This is a big green check mark in my estimation.” We’ll see.
Craig: I like that we’re at beyonce.horse period of the Internet because it’s all invented. We get so precious about this stuff. This is the proper way to do this, or that, or whatever. This is all just invented stuff, from some bearded dudes in the ’60s who were just saying, “Let’s use .com. We’re going to do HTTP://. That makes sense. That’s a good way of doing it. That’s a very readable way to define the protocol.”
Jason: And then culture took over. Culture is things like, “I’m going to do beyonce.horse.”
Craig: Right, because it’s like it doesn’t matter. Who’s typing in URLs anymore anyway?
I feel like the .org, for you, as an ethos, intentional or not. It feels so fitting because it feels like kottke.org is an organization. It’s a singular voice. It is a collection of careful thinking, hopeful thinking.
That’s what I want in my organizations in the world, my cultural organizations, is consideration and hope and curiosity. It feels very, very fitting.
Have you ever taken the kottke.org content and done anything else with it? Has it ever manifested in any other way besides kottke.org on the web?
Jason: No, it hasn’t. I thought about putting it on the Kindle or turning it into an actual book. I was talking to some friends a few years ago about making an iPad sort of magazine thing out of it where you would take articles from the website around certain topics and repackage them together into these magazine issues.
I don’t know. Nothing ever came of that. It’s still an idea that’s out there. There are lots of different things I could do.
Craig: Has anyone approached you about acquiring the archive?
Craig: Has a library ever come to you and said, “Hey?” In the same way that you acquire Leonard Cohen’s letters. Has anyone said, “We want the kottke.org official archives”?
Jason: I think at some point, a few years ago, the New York Public Library sent me an email about something like that, that they were going to do it but then they never followed up. It was one of those things where maybe the person that was there at that time was spearheading this thing and then it lost steam and fell apart.
That was the only thing that I remember along those lines.
Craig: When I think of your website or a website like yours, in my mind, it sits as close to a book as you can get online. It feels like there are strong edges to it. I know where it begins and ends, even though it’s 20 years and probably millions of words.
I feel like even if it’s not knowable in its entirety, I understand the parameters of the object. I understand the parameters of the website. I understand the contract that I’m entering into when I go to kottke.org.
I think a lot of the web, and I think a lot of digital space, is subverted by this lack of real contract between the person that is looking at the thing and the people or person that’s making the thing. On Twitter, for example, or Facebook, those things are so nebulous I don’t know what the contract is.
Jason: That’s constantly shifting, too.
Craig: Constantly changing. You don’t know what it’s going to be the next day. But a website like yours, to me, has a very clear.
[00:12:57 @craigmodALEXA] Craig’s Alexa: Sorry, I don’t know that.
Craig: Sorry, Alexa was just yelling at me.
Jason: [laughs] It’s the conference we’re in. Talk about not knowing boundries.
Websites like yours, you go to it and you know what you’re getting. You know the edges of it. You can see where it left off the day before. There is a human scale to it, even though now, it’s super huge, that I think is beautiful and important and sustaining.
If you were to take what you’ve done and you were to slice it to make a 400 page book, what would you pick? How would you do that? How would you think about going about that?
Jason: It’s interesting when you talk about the, “You can see the boundaries of the thing.” When I close my eyes, I can see exactly what a book would look like, the book version of kottke.org.
Craig: Would it be yellow?
Jason: Exactly. I can see exactly what a conference, if I put on a conference, what that would look like. Or a podcast. Specifically with the book, one of the titles I’ve always had in the back of my mind is, “The Kottke Almanac,” because the site is so eclectic. It’s actually been interesting. I’ve been experimenting with email newsletters.
Tim Carmondy and I have started this newsletter called, “Noticing,” which is basically him taking the week of posts that I’ve done on kottke.org and making sense of them as a unit, which I had never thought about before. I don’t think about the site that way, in these week long chunks.
I think this is an interesting thing. This is an interesting thing. Tim has been going back and chunking those things together into, “Here’s the three themes this week that Jason’s been talking about.”
I’m like, “Huh? OK. Sure.” I think that a book would probably be going back into the archives and looking at some sort of bigger themes that aren’t evident day to day, even to me, because I’m in the stream paddling as fast as I can. I’m not standing on the bridge watching.
Craig: I think that would be incredible. I love the framing of almanac because one of the things that you’ve been, if nothing else, is consistent. To have that kind of consistency over such a long period of time means that you, in some way, whether consciously or not, you’re mirroring the things that are happening in the world. You’re mirroring the trends that are out there.
I think the framing of here are the trends. This is what was happening at this moment. Here are the subtendrils. Here are the things that I picked up that are connected with that that maybe in the moment I didn’t realize. Looking back on it, I’m like, “Yeah, this influenced this. This led to this.” You start to draw these lines between things. That would be really fascinating, I think.
Jason: For the last, I don’t know how many ever years, at least eight or nine years, I’ve been tagging all the entries with tags. The easy thing to do would be to go back and group things together by tag. I think a better way to do it would be to group things together by…
One of the things I talk about often is, “Here’s what people can do. People are amazing. They can do all of these amazing things.” That’s a theme that runs through a lot of what I post, even though it’s always below the surface. I never call that much attention to it.
That’s one of the things that could be a theme in a potential book.
Craig: Even something simple like, “The World According to Kottke.org” or something like that. You can almost imagine the design of it, where facing pages have a screenshot of some website. You could break it down by every two weeks you choose one thing and you go through 10 or 20 years of two week, here’s this one thing from this two week period. This is one thing from this two week period.
You have these screenshots. You have this super strong visual component on the right side, and on the left, you have the text breakdown of what that was. You have dates running on the bottom or whatever. Even just that, because I think one thing that physical objects do really well is it lets us experience, say for example, a span of 20 years. Experience 20 years of web design.
Looking back over those 20 years and seeing, even just being able to flip through it and see how websites have changed so drastically during certain periods. I don’t know how you get all the screenshots. I guess archive.org you’d have to lean on a lot.
Jason: That would be the hard part. Also, blowing them up to book size.
Craig: I think that messiness is OK. What you could even do is print them in the book at real size, as you go through time, they get bigger because…
Jason: Bigger and bigger and bigger.
Craig: Because the resolution goes up or whatever.
Jason: And then, when you get responsive it’s full bleed.
Jason: That would be kind of funny.
Craig: That would be pretty neat.
Anyway, it feels like there’s a lot to play with there. More importantly, it would let you hold this thing that…I was going back through your redesigns over the years. I was having these emotional moments because I first found you through [inaudible] and then, obviously, Kottke. I was looking at those designs. There is something so specific about the way they look, and the design language they’re using. It’s so strong.
I remember when I saw them for the first time. It had such an impact on me, the intensity of the colors or whatever, that I remember who I was at that time. These designs have a place in my heart in the same way that a familiar corner in a city has a place in my heart. There’s this weird emotional resonance connected to those images, to those points in digital space.
It’s almost overwhelming looking back over them because you start to remember who you were and who you wanted to be at that moment. I think there are very few things online where many of us who today have been working in this medium for decades can look back and feel that about a still existing.
To somehow, transmute part of that into an object you can hold feels intuitively like there’s value there.
Jason: When I look at old designs of mine, and also designs for other sites I have those reactions, as well, that sense of nostalgia. Every time I did a redesign, it was a very conscious choice. It was like, “The old thing, it’s looking old. I need something new to tell…”
In some cases, it was like, “I want to tell new types of stories using new kinds of posts, using a different font or whatever to make sure that what I am saying is presented properly.” It’s funny. The site has changed a lot, but in other ways, the designs that I had, each stuck around for a while. It was each two years here, three years here, four years here.
Each is anchored in a moment.
Craig: And in the presence of a certain kind of web technology, too. When video starts taking off, you have to go, “How do we bring videos to this page in a way that works?” Or, “If everyone’s reading on a mobile phone now…” I noticed, I think it was in 2012, you said, “40 percent of all the reading happens on a phone. I want to make sure that looked better.”
I think Blogging with a capital B was as much about messing around with the technology and responding to technology as giving us excuses to redesign as it was, and is, about the content, in a way. You have this cute note on your 2016 redesign edition where you’re really excited about the footnotes.
I was looking at that and I was thinking, “Yeah, I would spend two weeks refactoring and redesigning and rebuilding everything for a better footnote.” I get that. That’s a certain kind of ethos of engaging with this medium.
Jason: I spent so long on how those footnotes should work and look. Now, I don’t like them. I think they should work a completely different way.
Craig: How should they work?
Jason: I haven’t figured it quite out yet because I haven’t actually popped into Sketch and tried fiddling around with actual design. In my head, it should just be a different type of link that is…You click on it and it pops up right there instead of a numbered button or whatever.
I think I have pink circle with a plus sign in it now. It’s too distracting when you’re reading. I want to minimize the distraction.
Craig: I like the in lineness of it.
Jason: Yeah, that’s good. You’re not jumping around.
Craig: I also miss…What’s fun with footnotes is you get to the bottom and you read them all at once. Then you go back. It’s almost like dessert. It’s a content dessert.
Obviously, you’re a big David Foster Wallace fan.
Jason: Yeah. It’s funny. I was just going to mention that because I found this news article today. It was Switzerland was banning cooking live lobsters because it’s inhumane. Of course, David Foster Wallace wrote a story called, “Consider the Lobster,” for “Gourmet Magazine” in 2004 about this very thing.
It goes on for pages and pages. Inspired by that, I downloaded the “Consider the Lobster” audiobook. He made a collection out of a bunch of his narrative nonfiction. It was called Consider the Lobster after that story.
I started listening to it. The footnotes in the audiobook, what the audiobook people decided on is that he would speak in a normal voice for the normal text and then they would modify his voice into a deeper voice when he did the footnotes. It’s completely ridiculous because you’re listening along, and all of a sudden, his voice changes.
You know you’re in a footnote but it sounds crazy, because some of the footnotes are three or four minutes long. He’s talking in this voice that’s not his voice instead of just saying at the beginning, “Footnote,” and then, “End footnote.”
Craig: You could imagine putting a tin phoney, telephone, old-timey telephone filter over it or something where…
Jason: Yeah, it’s so distracting, though, because his footnotes, they’re a part of the main text. They really are.
Craig: They’re only footnotes because he couldn’t get away with filing a 20,000 word story so he files a 10,000 word story with 10,000 words of footnotes, right?
Jason: Right, exactly.
Craig: There’s that element to it.
I like the in lineness of footnotes when they work that way, but I also like having the collection at the bottom to reward myself with if I make it through a big piece. Usually, the footnotes are where the true voice comes out. That’s what I find.
Even for me, when I’m writing a big thing and I have footnotes, it’s like there’s a tension in the main body of text. When I get to the footnotes, it’s like, “Oh, yeah. This is the casual corner. This is where I can let my shoulders relax.” I should probably be bringing that feeling to the main text, too, but…
Jason: Exactly. What’s funny about my site and a lot of blogs is that I am writing in a casual corner all of the time. I write how I talk, but the footnotes somehow are even more so than that, which is weird.
Craig: It’s totally arbitrary. Real footnotes live at the back of a book half the time. They’re off the page, so they do feel like they’re in a little universe. On the web, there’s no main and set or whatever. It’s all…especially when you’re a robot it’s all the same.
Jason: I feel like I’m using them less now because when I do want to include one, I’m like, “Wait a minute, I should just…”
Craig: Say this.
Jason: I should incorporate this into the main text because that’s where I should be using this sort of tone anyway.
Craig: I use it as, “Actually, I want this paragraph to be four times as long, but that’s not fair to you. And so, the TLDR is here. Then, if you want more, it’s down below.” It’s about finding that balance.
Voice is so important. I guess, of the 20 years of kottke.org, obviously, 9-11 was an intense political moment. Where were you in terms of this project when that happened? How did you respond to that? Do you remember?
Jason: I was a little more than three years in of doing the blog. I was doing kottke.org and Osculate at the same time as personal projects. Kottke.org was taking more and more of my attention, just because blogging was taking off. I was like, “Hey, all these other people are doing this thing. I want to…”
It was about exploration a lot. It was about, “Oh, there’s this new kind of way people are expressing themselves in this distributed conversational way.” I was interested in exploring that.
Then, 9-11 happened. I was living in San Francisco. I was not in New York at the time. Living in San Francisco, by the time I woke up and sat down at my computer…
Craig: It had all happened.
Jason: I had just left a job. I was laid off like everyone else I knew then, because it was 2001 in San Francisco. Nobody I knew had a job. I didn’t have a job.
I woke up and got on the computer. I think the first tower had already fallen. Everyone was freaking out, of course. I started doing the bloggy sort of thing, which is like, “Oh, people are posting all sorts of cool stuff. I’m going to start a post linking to all of that stuff.”
I did that and was basically on the computer all day, pretty much, with minimal breaks, just posting stuff like photos and maybe even snippets of video. I don’t think I was hosting the video, but I was posting to other…This was pre YouTube, of course. Probably these QuickTime videos that were 320 by whatever.
Craig: We all took down CNN.com. CNN couldn’t even handle it.
Jason: Sites were going down left and right. That was part of the thing, is I was in these chat rooms on AIM and probably ICQ, as well. People were talking about, “Oh, I mirrored this thing here. I mirrored this thing here.” It was an early moment of this sort of distributed…
I’m not going to call it journalism, but it was this distributed, “How do we get this information out to people?” Sort of thing. What journalism is at its base. It was taking in a lot of different…How do we help? Red Cross. We’re going to do this. We’re going to do this.
It was really incredible.
Craig: Now, we’re in this other kind of political moment that is almost the polar opposite of that, in that, it’s not contained. It’s infinite.
In your interview with the Nieman Lab, you said it seems like, in terms of other media outlets, it’s been hard to cover anything but things that are serious. Then you say for Kottke, “I think that the site is much more about things that are a little bit more…” You said, “I don’t want to say hopeful, but a lot of it is. Look at this cool thing.”
How do you see Kottke existing in this current political climate?
Jason: It has nothing to do with the news or not a whole lot to do with the news. I’m more interested in the broad trends.
I don’t know. I think 9-11 is an interesting thing, because I think something started there that has not yet ended and won’t end for a long time. It’s not just the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’ve been in Afghanistan for I don’t know how many years now. Since 9-11.
The role of US in the world changed. I think the way that the US thought about itself changed on 9-11. I don’t think we’ve entered any sort of new moment where that identity has shifted dramatically.
I think a lot of our politics since then has been in either direct or indirect reaction to what happened on 9-11.
Craig: In your comments about the role of media, everything is so serious. Everything is doom and gloom, in a way. The reason I asked, obviously, I know you do some political posts but there is this tenor of existing in another plane. Kottke.org is existing in, somehow, a more graceful space probably, in part, because you’re not driven by clicks.
You’re not trying to clickbait folks. You’re not putting out, as you said in that interview, 60 things a day, machine gunning, scattershotting, hoping that you make the page view chart go up and to the right. That way, the news organization can continue with ad dollars or whatever.
There’s a gracefulness that’s happening there, which I think is fantastic. I think it’s really important. It’s probably why, in some ways, kottke.org feels weirdly the freshest it’s ever been in 20 years.
I don’t know if you feel that way but it’s subversive in a number of ways. It’s subversive because it’s a stand alone website. That feels like its own protest. You’re not on Medium. You’re not on Facebook. You are your own thing. You own your island. You’re a landowner on the web.
Craig: That there is a sense of hopefulness. It feels like today, being hopeful is a form of protest. And that’s a totally, totally acceptable form of protest that I think sometimes gets thrown under the bus. On top of that, you have memberships. Let’s talk about that for a second.
Jason: All right.
Craig: You have this website for 20 years and you just launched memberships a year ago.
Craig: Part of that was because the deck was folding.
Craig: Since you’ve launched those memberships, how has it changed your relationship with the website? Have the memberships been greater or lesser than you expected? What’s the experience been with those?
Jason: Going back to when I started doing the site full-time in 2005, I quit my web design job and I was like, “OK, I’m going to do this full-time.” I actually launched it with, I called it the micro-patron drive. Sort of this BBS style pledge drive.
Donate $30 and I’m going to do this full-time for a year and if I get enough money and enough momentum and whatever, I will continue doing it. What was interesting about that is that it didn’t, on my end, like the financial stuff was fine. I got enough money to actually make it into, this is actually a job that I’m getting paid for.
But the way I felt about it was not great. I felt like I had 1,500 people who were my boss. That was totally, from my perspective. None of the people who had donated or contributed were saying, oh, you’re not posting enough about this or you’re doing this and not enough of this or whatever. Nobody was complaining about that. It was all in my brain.
At the end of the year, I was like, “OK, I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m going to put ads on it,” and that’s what I did. For 10 or 12 years, that totally worked. In the last few years, I’ve been wondering, with the rise of Patreon and Kickstarter and all of that sort of stuff, people have gotten used to the idea of contributing to these projects that they care about, that they want to see exist in the world.
I started thinking again. I was like, “OK, maybe I should do this membership thing.” I launched it and it did way better than I thought it was going to.
Jason: It was kind of ridiculous, like I had this range of what I thought and it blew past the high end of the range two days in. I was like, “Holy crap!”
Now, it’s been going for almost a year and a half and I’ve got to say, I do this site for a lot of different reasons. It’s interesting to me. I like doing the work. I feel really lucky to be able to sit down in a chair every morning and just learn all day. I get to read all of this stuff and write about it and all of these interesting things.
I also like doing it for the people who are paying me to do it, who have contributed and who have entrusted their hard-earned American dollar, and also dollars from all over the place, actually. I really feel a sense of commitment to them that is really positive for me.
Jason: It’s not like it was 10, 12 years ago, where I felt it was this thing that was a negative thing. Now, it’s a very positive thing. It’s something that propels me.
Jason: Which is great, I love it.
Craig: I think the normalization of paying for stuff has changed. In 2005, there was no real easy way to do a web payment. There was just PayPal. I have this vague recollection of that drive back in 2005. When you launched the memberships a year and a half ago, my first reaction was, “Holy shit, am I not giving this thing money?”
Craig: Wait a minute, I should be giving this thing money! Why am I not doing this? Yeah, obviously. I think a lot of us felt that way. It was this realization, I think we understand the brittle nature of our institutions a little more than we ever have.
These things we love in the world are not in this world, unless we continually put energy into them, supportive energy into them. I think we felt that really strongly in the last two years, especially.
Jason: Yeah. I think we’ve seen how things like advertising and things like shareholders can twist these services that we have loved into things that aren’t looking out for our best interests.
Membership type things can do that, as well. They can tweak incentives in a way, but I think they are much more likely to tweak them in a positive way than in a negative way, maybe. Maybe that’s just a belief. I don’t know.
Craig: No, I think it’s true. It formalizes an already implicit pact. I think the formalization of a contract that was already implicit between your readers and yourself, I think that’s a good thing for everyone.
What I was talking with a friend about pricing prints for a gallery show, he was like, “Well, I don’t want to overcharge.” I’m like, “Yeah, but if you charge an amount that makes people think the relationships are going to have with that thing they buy is going to be so much greater than if it’s like a five dollar thing and they just go, well, I will buy it.”
But if they pay 200 bucks for the print, they’re going to do something special with it. Anyway, I think a lot of us in the world feel like our institutions that we love need to be supported. Obviously, the easiest way to do that is to give money.
Craig: This is the moment to ask for these things, if you’re in the position that you’re in. Also, like you were saying, it dovetails into the content that you can focus on.
Craig: I don’t think all of these media outlets that are focused on the so-called serious stuff all the time, I don’t think they’re doing it because they feel like, this is for the best interest of our readership. I don’t think reading 10 articles a day about how everything is falling apart helps anyone, really.
Without actionable items. Being able to disconnect from that cycle, even though those are the things that people are going to click on, I think is important. The membership it even feels like a subversion of what is happening in the world today. Asking for memberships, as opposed to aligning yourself with some kind of ad network or whatever.
Jason: A membership for a blog that’s 19 years old and wants to last for another 19 years as a blog. That’s kind of crazy. Look, I’m not sure I would recommend anyone else going that route, but I don’t know, it feels like the right thing to do. It feels like it will be around for another 19 years, somehow.
Craig: That’s what I mean. Like today, kottke.org feels more vital than ever. It feels more alive than I think it’s ever been. I was iterating through those points before, but another one is the mailing list, which I think is great. I love how we’re all obsessed with mailing lists now again. It’s like 1984.
Jason: Email is still a thing, man.
Craig: It’s the vinyl of the Internet. But I think for good reason. Because again, you open Facebook, you don’t know what the hell contract your entering into.
Craig: You open email and you get it. You understand. This thing is going to end.
Craig: As false as it may be, the inbox is a place of implied intimacy, where you can have an even stronger voice than you can on the open web. I know for me, writing stuff to my mailing list is probably the most satisfying thing I do online, to be honest. The responses I get are unlike responses you can get anywhere else on the web, I’ve found.
Craig: You’re not going to get a 3,000 word comment from the heart posting on a news site or something like that.
Jason: Right, not anymore. But blogs used to be that way, a little bit. One of the ways I’ve always thought about blogs is like you’re writing an email to anyone who might be interested, rather than a single person.
Craig: Sure, yeah.
Jason: I think that blogs very much used to be like that. It was, we are all writing these open emails to each other and anyone who wanted to respond at length could.
Craig: Because we thought it was a safe space. It felt intimate. There was an intimacy there in those networks.
Craig: The world hadn’t figured it out yet. There was no Beyonce.horse yet.
Craig: That was coming later. The confluence of all of the things that are happening on kottke.org right now, leaning on the mailing list, which is phenomenal, by the way. I think it’s so good and I think Tim is such a great partner for it.
Again, it’s about voice. Tim has that voice. I look at those mailing list mails and I think that would take me, whatever Tim just wrote would take me a month to write. The fact that he is doing that every week.
Also, using the mailing list as a place – not to make it coldly commercial – but as a place to sell things. Sustainability is critical, right? We all want things that we love in the world to continue, and so they need to be sustainable.
I’ve just found for me, my mailing list, there’s no other place in the world where I can say hey folks, I need help with this thing or I launched this project, can you support it? Instantly the support comes, in this way that’s so moving.
Between your mailing list and the memberships and the subversive nature of being a handcrafted blog in 2018, it feels like, yeah man, kottke.org is more vital and more important than ever. That’s exciting, I think.
Jason: Yeah, that’s great to hear, if it’s true. I hope it’s true.
Craig: How do you feel?
Jason: I feel like I’ve been working hard on it.
Craig: You have.
Jason: I had some difficult life changes in the last three or four years and I feel like I finally, in the last couple of years, I finally had some time and energy to really knuckle down and sit down and think about where this thing should go and what I want my role to be going forward and new things I could do.
I think I’ve been hitting it hard. I hope it’s having an effect.
Craig: I think it is, and I think that it shows in the membership. Interesting connection.
Craig: Just this remembering of how vital a singular curious voice in the world can be, and how necessary that is sometimes. I’m able to type in “K-O” in my web browser and it auto-completes to kottke.
You go to this familiar place that keeps evolving over time, but everything is connected through the strength of your voice and your ethos and your curiosity. I think that’s a very important, amazing thing to have in the world today. Thank you for doing that.
Jason: Those are very kind words, Craig. Thank you.
Craig: They’re true. I do think you should think about the book. I know that running the website alone is a lot of work, but I think, even if you don’t do it, the exercise of touching that world might be instructive.
Craig: But I love the idea of the almanac. I hope you’ll consider it, and let me know if I can help in any way. You can print it in Japan if you want. That would be really expensive.
Craig: Thank you for taking time today, and happy birthday, happy blog day. Happy blog birthday.
Jason: Thank you.
Craig: Man, I think I speak for everyone on the web when I say we hope we see and continue to read kottke.org for another 20 years.
Jason: I’ll see what I can do about that. Thanks, Craig.
Craig: Thanks, Jason, bye-bye.
Thank you all for listening.
You can always email me at email@example.com if you have any comments or especially if you have suggestions for future guests. I’m always looking for interesting book-related folk just outside my radar.
And as always, there is a transcript of this episode online, as there is of every episode, at craigmod.com/onmargins.
Today’s episode was sponsored by a very special group. The physics geeks in the heart of Geneva, solving tough problems and building giant slingshots underground, beneath supermarkets and schools and police stations.
If it wasn’t for a cadre of curious geniuses, this episode would not exist, nor would trillions of dollars in market cap, for most of today’s companies. A big thank you to the tireless geeks of Geneva. Our heart goes out to you.
Until next time, I am Craig Mod, and this was On Margins.
Show Notes & Links
walkkumano.com — data and maps of the walk
To Make A Book Walk on a Book
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage walk’s main website
Craig: Craig Mod: You’re listening to a “Walk in the Woods with Craig Mod.” I’m Craig Mod. Hey, guess what? I’m walking in the woods.
Right at this very moment, I am walking upon a path which I walked two years ago. Actually on this very day two years ago, I was walking with Dan Rubin and Matt Mullenweg. We were doing an eight day walk on this road. It’s called the Kumano Kodo.
It’s a World Heritage pilgrimage path. There’s only two World Heritage certified pilgrimage routes in the world. There is Kumano Kodo, and there is the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
Up until that point, for the three years leading up to the walk I did two years ago, I had done many walks with a number of people. I began to invite folks from around the world to join me on these walks. We would have these incredible conversations and wonderful experiences as we moved across all these different various bits of Japan.
One nagging thing at the end of each of those walks was that we often wondered, “What could we do to capture the goodness of that thing we had just experienced?” There’s talk of, “Do we do interviews? Do we turn it into a podcast?”
It just so happened that Dan Rubin and I had been planning on doing a walk together for a number of years. We decided, Dan’s a photographer, and I’m a photographer, “Let’s shoot the heck out of this walk.” What we’ll do is we will hide in a little farmhouse in a tiny village in Gifu Prefecture in the village of Hida-Furukawa, which was featured in the the movie “My Name.”
We would hide there for a week, and we’d put the book together, a collection of images from the walk. We would put it up for print on demand sales, and we would be done. That was the plan.
Dan, I, and Matt, we all went on this walk together. We shot the heck out of it. We walked through the rain. We walked through the sun. We walked through the mud.
We trudged over these bits that I’m walking right now, which are basically I’m on a ridgeline here walking atop all these gnarled roots from these cedars and cypresses that have grown around the edges of the path.
We did the walk. We went to Hida. We put the book together. We printed it out and edited the photos. We spent days staring at the images and moving around. We came up with a first draft of the book.
Then we began talking with Blurb because we thought, “Well, all right, if we’re going to do a print on demand book, maybe we can use this as an excuse …”
[suddenly it gets really windy] Going to wait for the wind to down a little.
We finished the book. We thought, “Well, if we’re going to do print on demand, why don’t we take this as an opportunity to see how far we can push the print on demand medium.”
We talked with Blurb in San Francisco. We worked with one of their print specialists and representatives. We went back and forth over a number of iterations of different qualities of books that we could produce over the course of months.
It turned out that actually print on demand is a lot more limited than we ever thought. The number of papers you can use, the types, the kinds of covers, the cloths, the bindings, all of that is pretty locked down from within print on demand ecosystem.
By this point, we had spent about two months. The book that we had spec’d on print on demand would have cost $70 to $80 per unit. The minimum order, we were told, would be about 200 units.
Those economics don’t really work out for anyone because we figure that the max price for a book like this would be about 100 bucks. It just didn’t make sense to do it that way.
If we were going to go to a scale of 200 books, we might as well go and do offset printing. I emailed my printer in Japan with whom I worked with on many, many books and said, “Hey, we have this project. Are you interested?”
20 minutes later, he responds, Mr. Kohiyama-san, a wonderful guy, he said, “I’m in. Let’s do it.” Then we spent about two more months spec’ing offset materials, doing other iteration on the design.
In the course of that time, we realized, “Well, if we’re going really do this,” we decided to print 1,000 copies, “We might as well run a Kickstarter, right?” We actually shot the video around New York City. Dan and I both happened to be there by chance in August of that year.
By the time we shot that video, it already been about five months since the walk. What had begun as a project, as a book that was supposed to take five days, we just put it up online, anyone who wants it can hit print and get a copy, turned into this five month project. It still hadn’t launched.
Kickstarter video is done. The book is all spec’d out. We’ve got dummies. It looks great. It was great. We’re confident. I don’t like to run a Kickstarter campaign unless everything is done essentially.
We got to that point. Everything was pretty much done. We ran the Kickstarter campaign. We sold far more books than we ever expected. We sold about $60,000 worth of books, which was ton of books for a book like this, which is just a niche esoteric art book essentially.
In the end, we sold almost all of them. We sold them for 100 bucks a pop. The per unit cost of production, we could have gotten this down a lot lower if we had printed in, say, Hong Kong.
Printing in Japan, I wanted to support the Japanese industry. I liked working with the local companies here. I’ve been working with them for a while. The pre-unit cost was about 30 bucks a book.
Overall, I would say that we pulled a near $100,000 net revenue, which for a book like this is fantastic. Dan and I split the profits there. It was about $35,000 each to split.
If you netted out all of the hours we had put into it, if you really calculated that, and you spread $35,000 across that amount of time, I would say there was a probably about a $20 an hour salary gig, which is still not bad for a book and certainly not bad for a book like this.
Now why make an object? Why do you make that thing? Why print it out? This is the thing that was irking about those other walks. You do a walk. You have this experience, and then it disappears. How do you give edges to something that fundamentally doesn’t have an edge, that doesn’t have a container around it?
All you can do, the best you can do is do an edit of that experience. You can call some subset of moments and try to put them into a thing, into an object, an artifact, something that’s immutable that you can hold in your hands, and you can say this, “This is what we did. This is what that was.”
There’s something powerful about that, about taking an experience, taking the edgeless thing, giving it edges, putting it into an artifact, and putting that out in the world. In fact, just 30 minutes ago on this trail, I bumped into two people, two angels traveling from London, but both expats, one from Perth and the other from Italy, Sally and Francesco.
Sally, Francesco, and I started chatting. They were heading north. I’m heading south. Sally said, “Are you Craig by any chance?” I said, “Maybe.” She said, “We are here because of your book and because of the Walk Kumano website.”
That’s a really wonderful thing to experience. In the moment, total serendipity on the trail, meeting someone who’s not just there, but enjoying it so much. They are having so much fun because of this thing that you put out in the world.
It also speaks to this idea of, “How do you transmute an experience into something bigger than the experience itself?” Which is to say, “How do have an experience? How do make sure that what you’ve learned during that experience, what you take away from that experience can be given to other people?”
Books and websites, putting those edges around those experiences is certainly a strong way to do that. Our philosophy between the book and the website — the way we split then was that the book was meant to be almost like a visual poem to the experience and really, in some ways, just for Dan and me. A selfish object.
This is the thing that we went on at a certain point in our lives. There was a lot of meaning behind it to a certain degree. We have this thing to look back on to reflect back on that to bring us back to those moments.
Even as I walk today, yesterday, and the day before, because I put that book together, there is this resonance of these moments, the moments from the book that I see as I’m walking and experience. I feel that resonance in this deep way.
I walked past a postbox yesterday. It was one that Dan shot. Instantly, I’m back in that moment. I’ve walked this trail three or four times now. There are moments like that, layered experiences, at certain touchpoints along the path that you’re brought back to again and again as you experience it.
There’s something to be said about walking the same path over and over again. Same as it is to be said about reading the same book over and over again. The only real reading is rereading. The only real walking is probably rewalking.
Even on this trip, Dan, Matt, and I walked south to north. I’m walking north to south for the first time. It also turns out that, for the first time, I have gotten blisters. I’ve been walking in these boots for eight years. I’ve never gotten a single blister.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m wearing the wrong socks or my pack is too heavy. I’ve got a bunch of cameras and computer equipment, probably too much stuff on my back.
I got blisters, raw, nasty heel blisters. I’m only a couple of days into my walk. I brought bandages and gauze, but I’ve never had to use it. In fact, the expiration date on the gauze said 2015. I wrapped them up as well as I could.
It turned out that Sally and Francesco had an incredible amount of super high quality blister pack, blister gauze, and foot wrap in their med kit. They’re on the very end of their trip. They only have one more day of walking left.
They said, “As a thank you, as a payment for the website and for the book, as inspiration to come here, please let us give you this medical equipment to heal your horribly bruised feet.” If you’re listening, Francesco and Sally, thank you from the bottom of my feet and the back of them because I’m thinking that, from tomorrow, they’re going to be much happier because of you.
That concludes episode 1 of Walk in the Woods with Craig Mod. I hope you enjoyed it.
Original video: https://soundcloud.com/nomiepodcast/24-huge-nomie-6-roadblock-and
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