Be a Librarian to Your Readers: An Interview with Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon is the New York Times Bestselling author of Steal Like an Artist, a guide to help you “embrace influence, school yourself through the work of others, remix and reimagine to discover your own path.”

His follow-up book Show Your Work was heralded as how-to manual for creating and sharing steal-worthy work.

His latest book Keep Going completes the trilogy, providing a path to continue these methods of creation and sharing for the rest of your life.

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Austin and I have always written about the same topics, so we’ve crossed digital paths and linked to each other many times. I’ve never spoken to him directly, though. So, we had a lot to discuss. We could have gone on for hours.

As parts of this conversation may appear in a podcast for teachers and librarians, you’ll notice we come back to those topics repeatedly.

Please subscribe to Austin’s newsletter here. And, if you haven’t already, subscribe to mine here.



CJ: Tell me about your library past.

Austin: When I was right out of college, I got a job at a public library in a suburb of Cleveland. It was the Cuyahoga County system, which is fun for me, because I’m giving a talk for them coming up next month. It was a great job. It was a wonderful job. It was 20 hours a week and I had benefits. I went in three days a week and worked like three or four days a week. I worked pretty reasonable half day shifts. Sometimes I would do a full day on the weekend and then the rest of the time I just hung out my apartment and read and wrote. It was like one of those jobs that I’m not even sure exists anymore.

It was great for having time to write and read. But it was also a tremendous education for somebody who wanted to be an author because you learn skills that aid you wonderfully in the writing process. You learn research skills, so I’m able to track down stuff pretty quickly, which helps my job tremendously now.

Also, when working with the public and seeing what they need and what they read, it was just a tremendous wake up call because I realized that the kind of books that I really love don’t circulate. The books that I sort of had a chip on my shoulder about were going out endlessly. I spent a lot of time grabbing James Patterson and Danielle Steel books.

Now you realize that’s where the gold is. It’s in those uncirculated books and you can draw from them.

Well, that’s an excellent point. If you want to be read, there are genres and you have to sort of play along with genres sometimes in order to have a readership.

I never in a million years thought I would ever put out a book that would be shelved in the self help section, but what was interesting was I discovered that there was a self help section, and a certain subset of self help called creativity, and then figured out that there was such a thing as an illustrated gift book.

I think about working in those genres that I would have never chosen for myself when I was like in my early 20s and one of the cool things about working on them now as I’m able to do the kind of weird books that I love, but just in that genre.

I feel really lucky that I found that kind of niche because I think my books are kind of weird, especially in format. I love that trick of working in a popular genre but still having weirdness and pushing against the form.

There were just so many wonderful things that I learned working the reference desk.

It’s like a mental cross training.

Yeah. I know some other authors who started out as librarians and they all kind of say the same thing. It’s just this wonderful training.

It’s interesting being a librarian, because you have to do so many different things now. You’re working with the public. So it’s part teacher, part coach, part policeman, part social worker. Working in a public library, you really get a skill set that’s incredible. I mean, librarians just have to do a lot of different things.

I think a lot about what my life had been like if I had just gone to library school and just stayed in the library.

You mentioned Cleveland. You just went back there for the winter and you chose quite a winter.

Yeah, my wife’s family lives up here in Cleveland and so for this next book tour we thought maybe we’ll move north for a little while and see how that goes and have family support.

But you know, a funny thing happened in the past dozen years. Somehow we became Texans. I have a feeling we’ll probably be headed back down south once this tour is over.

I remember seeing your tweets from the past few years in the winter in Texas and just imagining what it was like to be in the sun in the winter.

The grass is always greener. You can you can see how I’m doing in Texas in August and I’ll check in on you in February.

You’re not going outdoors in August.

Exactly, there’s a winter everywhere in some form, but you don’t have to shovel the heat.

I was going to ask you as a joke, “what’s next?

(laughs)

How does Keep Going fit in with Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work?

I think Keep Going is actually the best entry point if you’re coming in cold to my work. I think Keep Going is a book that will resonate with people whether they think of themselves as creative or not.

Keep Going is more of a general life book than the other two, although I think it’s obviously written for writers and artists first. I think it can apply to anyone doing any kind of creative work or anyone who needs to be more creative in their work. I think of it as the third in a trilogy as far as how it fits in.

Steal Like an Artist is the book you give to somebody who’s just starting out and needs a kickstart or a boost or something.

Show Your Work is for the person that has found their thing but they haven’t been found themselves yet — people who need to self promote or need to get their work out there.

Keep Going, while it can also work for the beginner too, is really the book for people who are trying to make a career out of creative work — people who are trying to be in it for the long haul.

It was a funny because Steal Like an Artist was such an unexpectedly huge hit with readers that I think a lot of the Indiana Jones trilogy. No one’s ever going to love anything as much as that first Indiana Jones movie.

I think that Show Your Work is probably my Temple of Doom. I think it’s a little bit more enjoyable than Temple of Doom, but it’s a harder book for people because it actually gives them hard work to do.

Well, it’s ripping their hearts out.

(laughs)

Yeah, some people say that. It’s funny, some readers are like, “Oh, I read Steal Like an Artist that made me all happy and then I read Show Your Work and it sounded like work.”

But I was thinking of The Last Crusade when I did Keep Going. I wanted to do something that sort of echoed the first book but also kind of lived on its own.

So I’m hoping that this is the trilogy. I mean I don’t necessarily think I want to do my Crystal Skull.

Crystal Skull is something you’d be kind of forced to do. It doesn’t occur to you.

Right, someone dangles dollar bills in front of you or something. I really think I love the way these books kind of work together and I could see them in a box set. I just am really excited.

We joked before about the “what’s next” question and I really hope that the next book can be maybe in the same genre but I’m hoping to go somewhere else. I can do something else now — something un-square maybe.

Speaking of un-square books, what books are you into right now?

I’m trying really hard to diversify in my genres with reading too. I try really hard during the day to read nonfiction. Just because that’s when I can make notes and underline.

I try at night to read fiction or comic books. I really like to read graphic novels and comics at night and then maybe poetry, but often something more narrative to enjoy and then knock me out at the end.

I’m reading Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, just like everyone else. It’s about an author who’s about to turn 50 and he just broke up with his lover. He decides to take every speaking gig that he’s been offered and travel the world. It’s just really funny and really well written. So I’m really enjoying that.

I just read Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. Funny enough, I took a trip to Los Angeles with my family. And if you’re a former librarian or current library and you’re going to Los Angeles that’s the perfect book because it’s about the LA Public Library fire and the 80s. But it’s also kind of a love letter to libraries. And, in particular, if you’re flying from Cleveland to Los Angeles, it’s the perfect book because Susan Orleans is actually from Shaker Heights. Cleveland plays a little role in that story.

The other book I really love this year is Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed. It’s a series of interviews he did with Paul Cronin that Paul Cronin assembled into this book-long interview. It took me forever to finish that book because every page is full of like Herzog’s wild poetry, or some sort of unbelievable story.

Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway is like a good old fashioned novel novel with just awesome sentences. I just love that book. And she’s an Austinite.

We ran into each other at a festival in Albuquerque recently and she’s just a great. Her and her husband Edward Carey, who also put out a really good book last year called Little, are one of the most interesting couples in Austin. They’re really a dynamic duo. I got to see them together at the Boston Public Library recently, and it was just a wonderful night.

I know you’re a music guy. I thought Jeff Tweedy’s memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), once he gets over his “aw-shucks I’m writing a book” (laughs), that book is really good.

I mean, it has a lot of the things that preoccupy me like parenting, the creative process, imitation, what it’s like to go from being a fan to having fans. I thought the way he handled his drug addiction was actually intelligent and heartful. I love his message about how art doesn’t have to come from pain and suffering, but artists are lucky in that they have something to do with their pain and suffering. I thought his perspective on creative work was really great.

I’d really love to read a book about his relationship with his two sons because I know Spencer and Sam are both creative guys. Spencer plays the drums and has a career going, and I’m interested to see what those kids do.

That’s always really interesting — the kids of creative people and how parenting even gets done.

I’m obsessed with this question right now because I have a six and a four year-old. I feel like I got really lucky that I either knew personally, or knew of, creative dads, and moms for that matter.

There have been so many good creative mom memoirs lately like artists memoirs like Sally Mann’s memoir. Amazing. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is amazing. It’s a fiction book but it’s insightful. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation.

Those kind of mother books and art books helped me think a lot about being a dad too. I feel like I got lucky and had these creative dad role models who I was able to kind of look up to tell me that, “Hey you can be an involved dad and a good writer or a good artist.”

If you’re a writer and you get deeply involved in your work and your creative process, that’s setting a great example for your kids.

I think so. I think every writer has to deal with that awful Cyril Connolly line, “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” You know, the stroller in the hall is the enemy of art. I think we’re still kind of battling that as a culture.

That’s only true time-wise. It can definitely expand your horizons. I think you start to see things as a kid again.

I think it was JG Ballard who said exactly that. He was a widower and an alcoholic. I mean he had his own problems, but he was a dad who talked about how he just thought the pram in the hall thing was the biggest load of crap. He felt like being around his kids gave him a whole different perspective and that’s exactly what has happened to me.

I want to echo to other parents to see their kids as not just vampires of time and energy, which they definitely are (laughs). They crack your whole perspective open and they make you vulnerable and they make you re-learn things and they really can show you a different perspective.

Just to be perfectly concrete about that, taking a five year old to an art museum, for an artist, it’s just a wonderful education in what captures the eye — how you look at art, what is art or isn’t art.

My kids used to look at the building itself and find it sometimes more interesting than the art on the wall. They would look at like the air conditioning grates.

One time I was in the Art Institute in Chicago and I was just like blown away. I think it was maybe my second trip to the Art Institute. I was walking around and I was just blown away by all the work. I had that kind of euphoric moment where I was just walking around like, “Wow, isn’t this great?”

I saw this really strange sculpture in the corner. It looked like some sort of futuristic space device that some artist had made and put in the corner. I kept looking at it and I couldn’t find a museum label for it. I just kept looking at it. I was like, “Wow, this is really interesting. I wonder what this is.”

I asked the guard, I said, “What is this piece? What Do you know about this piece?”

She looked at it. She looked at me with this pitying look. She said, “That keeps the paintings from melting.” (laughs) It was the air conditioning.

That is exactly what the art museum is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you look at the world in a new, different way, and to notice things that you would not notice before. That’s what I think kids can do.

You have one of the most interesting newsletters out there. What drew you to that format and keeps drawing you to that format?

I have a friend named Hugh MacLeod, and Hugh’s alter ego online is Gaping Void. Hugh told me at least half a decade ago or maybe even 10 years ago…

During his Ignore Everybody days?

Yeah. At one point he told me that his mailing list was the size of SXSW.

He had this brilliant format where he would he put out this newsletter for free, but then he always had a piece of art to sell at the end.

Hugh was always a step ahead. He saw that blogs were going to come back. People were going to get tired of social media. Even if they didn’t come in the [same] numbers, people were going to start blogging again, because there’s a freedom in blogging. There’s something beautiful about having your own turf. I know you know that and I know that you’ve written about it, but newsletters felt a lot like what blogs used to feel like.

I think I started my newsletter back in 2013 right after Steal Like an Artist came out and right before Show Your Work came out. You know, you’re like, “Oh, well maybe I’ll start a newsletter and that’ll move more books.”

But pretty soon, because my books were lists of 10, I thought maybe I should just do a list of 10 every week. Once I found that particular format, the newsletter sort of took off.

It became something like what my old blogs used to be like. If you go back in my archives to 2006, my blog was a lot like all blogs were back then. It was just a list of links to cool stuff. So the newsletter, in a way, became what the blog used to be, which was a way to collect all my interests in one place and point people towards them.

Then this funny thing happened where I went back to daily blogging again. Well, a couple of things happened, but the newsletter really happened as a kind of like, “Oh, here’s an interesting format that everyone hasn’t tried yet that could be really powerful because it’s not social media and you own all the addresses.”

It turned into its own interesting format and now it’s my favorite thing to do. Thursday is my favorite day. That’s the day I put together the newsletter. I know there are people who read my newsletter that probably haven’t read my books. It’s only a matter of time till I get them (laughs).

At the bottom of the newsletter, like Hugh, you have something to sell them, although I have to wonder why you haven’t gone into things like courses.

I’m lucky because I make a really decent living off my book sales and speaking, so, in some ways, it’s just to keep my life uncomplicated.

I don’t sell a bunch of merch, which would be an easy thing for us to do. I don’t do online courses yet simply because I like the uncomplicated. It just seems like a lot of work (laughs).

My wife and I live below our means and I really try to maximize my time with the kids because they’re so little. We’re just kind of waiting for the kids to ease up a little bit, but I also have the feeling that if you wait they’ll be off to college, so we’ll see what happens.

I’m also really old school. Probably laziness has something to do with it. I’m fundamentally a lazy person. I really don’t want to work very hard. I want to read a lot and I want to write a lot and that’s pretty much it.

Is the daily blogging mostly for you? Or are you trying to build an audience for too?

I have a critical mass now of audience members. I do believe that people have natural-sized audiences. I’m never going to have The Rock’s audience. No one will. There are levels in which you feel like, “Yeah, this is about the right size.”

I mean, I would love a bigger audience. Who wouldn’t? But I’m also just willing to be patient and let it play out.

I started daily blogging in, I think it was October of 2017 when I went back again. I was like, “Okay, I’m doing this, I’m formally doing this.”

What happened at the beginning of 2017 was I started diary-ing. I kept I started old fashioned diary again, and I do like three to five pages of an old school diary.

I write about my day. I write about what I’m reading. I write about what the kids are doing. Sometimes I’ll make collages and sometimes I’ll draw so it’s my notebook. It’s a daily notebook. But it really functions as a diary.

Doing that was such an amazing. It just got my chops back up, you know, because it had been three years since I’d done a book and I knew I was out of practice with writing. So the diary was the first part.

And that “what’s next?” is eating at you.

Yeah, exactly. The “what’s next” question was eating at me every single day. I just thought that things really went well for me when I used to just sit down every day and try to write a blog post. I was like, “Let’s just do that again.”

I’ve sort of been doing that ever since. I have missed a few days but I’ve sort of done that ever since. The combination of those two things led directly to Keep Going. Now I am the biggest proponent of daily writing — some kind of daily habit. I just think that you cannot beat it.

I think there were two people that inspired me the most, and they seem like odd fellows to put next to each other, but I think they actually work really well.

The first is Thoreau. Here’s a guy whose life’s work really was his journal. What Thoreau would do is he would just go on these epic walks. He would walk for half the day. He’d walk for four or five hours at a time and then he’d come back and he would write about his walks.

He would keep a notebook on him and scribble ideas while he’s walking around and then come back and write about his walks in his journal. Then he would take those journals and turn them into lectures. Then he would turn those lectures into his books.

What was interesting about Thoreau for me is that he really felt like, “If I could just give my journals to people, that would be the best expression of my life, because that’s what my life is.” So reading his journals was a big deal.

The other person who inspired me, who has Chicago roots, is David Sedaris. His system is actually very similar to Thoreau’s. Their days are just reversed. What Sedaris does is he keeps a pocket notebook all day, like Thoreau, but when he wakes up in the morning, for a couple hours, he’ll work on his diary.

He’ll take a look at his pocket notebook and whatever is interesting in there — that’s what he’ll write about. For the rest of the day after he writes in the morning, he’ll walk around and pick up trash by the side of the road for eight hours. That’s what he does with his time when he’s not on the road. He just walks around all day and picks up trash.

I was just like stunned. Here’s one of our most famous American writers who’s, by his own admission, wealthy and spends half his day picking up trash so much that he’s known in his village as the trash-picker-upper guy more than an author. His village named a garbage truck after him.

I thought about it and that trash-picking activity is a lot of what he’s done with his own work. If you think about it, what Sedaris, in a lot of his pieces, does is he sort of picks up the debris of life — those things that most people either overlook or toss out — and he weaves them into stories.

The thing I found out about his practice that I didn’t know is that he is a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago so he actually has a visual training. He’s trained in the visual arts. His diaries are actually all hand-made. He has somebody bind them together. Every season, he prints all of his diaries out from the from the computer. Then he binds them. Then he illustrates them with all this ephemera he’s collected from a trash walks. He’s actually a very visual guy, and I found that really fascinating.

I found Thoreau and Sedaris together gave me this repeatable formula for producing work. If you keep a notebook constantly throughout the day, just write down anything that’s interesting. The next morning, you just look through your notebook, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I want to write about that.” Then when you’re done writing in your diary, usually you have something to blog about, or you pick up something else in your notebook that you want to mention.

What those two writers gave me is a way to keep going indefinitely with my own practice, because that was really what I was missing as a writer. I was missing this kind of infinite system for producing work. I think that’s what every artist needs. They need some sort of system that will pull them through their days and through their career.

Now my creative life is very simple. I keep my notebook and I keep my diary and I go to my blog every day. Then I put out my newsletter every week. Things happen out of that. Having a system is what I’ve always needed. That’s what I have now.

Is there a line you draw in what you share?

Oh, that’s a really good question. Um,

I’m asking because having read Show Your Work again, it seems that there is a line there that you draw. I just can’t figure out where it is for most people.

Well, I think it’s personal. I think the fundamental thing that was misunderstood about Show Your Work is it felt like people who read it were like, “Oh, I need to share everything.”

Some people who read it thought it was a call for being completely open and setting up a webcam on your desk and broadcasting 24-7.  That was not what that book was supposed to be about.

That book was supposed to be about intentional sharing, thinking about what you share and doing it in little bits and pieces over time so it could turn into something interesting. That was my intent anyway.

As far as what I will share and what I won’t share, there are definitely some things now because I write about being a dad a lot and my oldest son Owen and I, he’s six, do a lot of collaborating. I’m really sensitive about how much of him I share online. I don’t share my son’s faces anymore. I don’t. I think they deserve privacy.

He should be allowed to determine what his digital life is.

Exactly. I share a lot of what Owen makes and I wonder about that sometimes. He’s into it. He sort of understands right now, but I’m sure at some point it might come back around to bite me.

The thing that I’m really sensitive about right now is that I show my son’s bodies online. I show them from behind, working on something, or from an angle where you would never be able to recognize them. You can tell they’re my sons and they’re working on something.

I had an experience recently that made me rethink a lot about sharing with them. As I mentioned before, I’m very lazy. There needed to be a book trailer for Keep Going for whatever reason, and I was thinking about this handwritten book trailer. I thought to myself, you know, Owens fingerprints are sort of all over this book. I should just get him to write these cue cards that I want to show up at the beginning of the trailer. We did it in 10 minutes at the kitchen table with an iPhone.

I just cut it together with iMovie and the laptop while he was taking a bath. He would give me his input and that was it. I shared it online. Most people thought it was cute and really liked it but one or two teachers mentioned how Owen was holding his marker.

Owen holds his marker in this really strange way where it’s as if you made a fist. If you extend your fingers and just put your thumb with your index finger. He holds his pencil like that. You can watch the book trailer if you want to see it, but he holds his pencil in this very particular way. It looks like it would be uncomfortable except his handwriting is like better than most adults that I’ve seen, so I never felt the need to correct him.

There were all these comments from people about, “You know, you will need to fix that because later he’ll….you should see a doctor because that might cause him…” It’s all this false interest.

They don’t really care and they may not even believe what they’re saying.

They’re saying they just want to say something, right? There’s a piece by Paul Ford that I go back to over and over again. He coined this phrase for the internet and it’s “Why Wasn’t I Consulted (WWIC).” I think of this all the time now when I interact with strangers. Paul writes about how that’s the fundamental question online. Why wasn’t I consulted?

I had this moment where I thought, my six year old is this wonderful, brilliant, creative, interesting kid. The idea that there were strangers online commenting on the way he held his marker just sent me into this rage for a day. I’ve never wanted to destroy a stranger so much. They were teachers, some elementary school teachers in my Instagram comments, but I was so upset. I thought it was so benign. I thought showing his handwriting would be like cute and benign.

Because it is.

Because it is. But the internet found a way to turn it into something that was kind of awful. I thought it was a really good lesson. You simply should not share things that you cannot deal with being picked on online. The things that are closest to you, you should probably keep them close to you. Some things just can’t be exposed to the caustic online air.

Now would I do it again? I don’t know. That was one really mundane instance and it could have been so much worse, when you compare that to the awful stories of what women or people of color or queer people have to deal with every day online. It does not compare it all. But for me, it’s an illustration of how something you think is so benign can just turn into this personal, ickiness online.

Another great argument for newsletters and blogs.

Yeah, exactly. Right? An argument for an audience that is more intimate or invested.

Is there anything you want to say to teachers or librarians that we haven’t covered?

I was raised by teachers. My mom was a Home Ec teacher and then she became an administrator. All my aunts were teachers. My dad was an associate professor for Ohio State. So I kind of was raised…I think teaching is in my blood.

But libraries have always been a natural haven for me. I think that the librarian perspective has been a lot more influential in my life than your traditional teaching perspective. What I mean by that is, I try to parent like a librarian.

I really feel that my role as a parent is less about having a lesson plan or things that are going to be on the test later. I’m not saying that this is what teachers do. I’m saying that this is our cartoon of teaching. My mental map of what I do as a parent is not that I have all this knowledge in my head that I want to transfer to my kids.

The map I have in my head is that I see myself as a kind of resource for them. I like to think of myself as their librarian. That can be as simple as having a bunch of books in the house. I’m creating a space in which they can learn for themselves, or I create experiences in which they can access what they need to access. I really do think things go better for me when I think of myself more as a librarian and less as kind of authoritative teacher if that makes sense.

That makes nothing but sense. That’s going to be a huge takeaway for me.

Just to kind of blow it open a little bit more, I want to be more like a librarian for my readers than a teacher too. That might be one reason why I haven’t done online courses yet. I want people to feel like I’m just a fellow student.

I’m just someone who’s on this trip with you. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned. Take it or leave it. I’m trying to create this resource for you that you can take as much or as little as you want. I don’t have a lesson plan or anything I’m trying to divulge.

I’m just trying to blow up in the world for you a little bit. I’m just trying to give you a world that you can step into and take as much or as little as you want.

That might be the new philosophy behind my blogging. Thank you so much.

You’ve given me a lot to think about. There are a couple of libraries on this tour. So hopefully I can hopefully I can take a little bit of that…

Library tourism?

That is my favorite thing. Yes. Well, I have a feeling, CJ, that we can talk forever.

Good luck on your tour.

Thank you.

Read more from Austin Kleon on his site, in his newsletter, and in his books.

Why I Just Unsubscribed 400 of You

The goal of my newsletter is to connect with my readers. It’s a simple, clear goal, but it’s not easy to maintain. Higher open rates on fewer emails are worth vastly more to me than lower open rates on many emails.

Because of this, I periodically unsubscribe large numbers of readers from my newsletter who haven’t opened an issue in a long time. This time it was around 400 people.

This is something businesses almost never do. If there’s even a microscopic chance someone will open an email and buy something, that person stays subscribed.

Here’s why I do what most businesses don’t:

  1. I’m not a business, I’m a person. My goal is connecting with other real people. Most good things in my life have come about because of connections I’ve made online. No joke — even my family.

  2. It costs more to maintain a large list. Each non-reader, or not-interested reader, is a cost incurred with nothing to show for it.

  3. Gmail hates it. Unfortunately, Gmail is what most of my readers use for email (please consider something like Fastmail or Hover — don’t let an ad company host your email). Google knows your open rate. If they deem your emails lower quality because of a lower open rate, your emails can end up in the promotions tab or spam folder. You become invisible. You’d be shocked how many big name newsletters I find in the spam folder of my old Gmail account.

I give these subscribers a chance to stay subscribed if they want. I send out an email with a button or link they can click to stay. If there’s no response, they’re unsubscribed from the list.

If you’d like to learn more about how to weed non-readers on Mailchimp, check out this thread from Paul Jarvis (you can dive even deeper into these topics in his course Chimp Essentials).

Craig Mod on What Makes a Good Newsletter

Craig Mod, prognosticator of publishing, recently tweeted about newsletters:

“There's a tendency to over-design newsletters as of late. I think this misses the point, the *power* of a newsletter is from its intimacy. You can design intimacy out of an experience by scrubbing voice, grit.

The best newsletters feel like nice letters from smart friends.

My favorites newsletter either:

1) have a super strong voice, and therefore I don't care how long they are, will joyfully follow them to the end of the world

2) are mega concise, and serve to highlight just a handful (3? 4?) of gems”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about under-designing a newsletter. Tobias van Schneider has also talked about this with his super-successful newsletter about design (which he refuses to call a “newsletter”):

“To be honest, I sometimes think it’s a bit too nice. I like to keep it simple; I want it to look less like a newsletter and more like a personal email.”

Tinyletter makes this kind of personal style easy, but if you’re looking to do this with a more fully-featured service, good luck. It can often be harder to make a newsletter look under-designed than over-designed.

The Value of a “Good Old Newsletter”

From Kai Brach, Publisher of Offscreen magazine and the Dense Discovery newsletter:

“Funny enough though, the good old email newsletter is currently experiencing a bit of a comeback. Perhaps as a reaction to the bottomless, anxiety-inducing social feeds, the email sits patiently in your inbox until you deem it worthy of your attention. Not able to read it now? No problem, come back to it later, it's right there where you left it.

That's why I've always loved email as a medium. Sure, I spend a lot of time reading and writing them – which arguably is not the most creatively productive time of my day – but it's still the one digital medium that abides by my rules (or filters). No sudden change in algorithm; no YOU-NEED-THIS product plugs; no strangers chiming in with rude comments. I decide what and when to read. Perhaps best of all: I can have constructive, civilised conversations with other people. Imagine that?!”

Amen. And it’s a really good time to subscribe to mine.

Best Practices for Newsletters

I've had a personal newsletter since around 1999. I've found it to be the most effective means of communication the internet has yet to produce. It's portable, open, universal, and personal.

I was asked recently to compile a list of best practices for newsletters, and this is what immediately came to mind (many updates to come): 

  1. The best call to action is “reply.”
  2. Test everything. No audience is the same.
  3. Never let any test impede other best practices. To a certain extent, you shape your audience as much as they shape you. This is more true in editorial newsletters than e-commerce newsletters.
  4. Try not to publish when everyone else does. Tip: test Sundays.
  5. Personalize everything you create and be more honest than what’s comfortable. “People come for the topic and stay for the voice.” — Merlin Mann
  6. Realize what your goals are. If it’s sales, your approach will be different than editorial. But your purpose is the same across all newsletters: to build relationships with the readers.
  7. Optimize for the reader, not for your workflow.
  8. Spend time on the subject line. Nothing matters if it’s not opened. This doesn’t mean to be clever — many newsletters experience higher open rates by simply using the same boring subject line every time, because they have loyal readers who just want to know when their favorite newsletter has arrived. How do you know if this will work for you? Test.
  9. Always opt-in. Double opt-in. 1 active reader is worth 50 luke-warm readers and a million inactive readers.
  10. Readers recognize quality. The hours of work you put in will be noticed. A half-assed newsletter is also noticed. Reputation is the most valued currency in publishing now.
  11. You will never understand what goes viral. This is why you need to put content out consistently. Your readers will tell you what they like. Same goes for products. 
  12. Create and curate. There’s value in both. Information overload has created a need for editors that may be eclipsing the need for content creation. In fact, the most financially successful editorial newsletters are from content curators. And remember: no one cares about your goals, products, or services anywhere near as much as you think. Give them a reason to keep coming back that goes beyond you.
  13. Put your opt-in link everywhere. Put it front and center in your social media profiles, about pages, email signatures, and the front page of your website (as well as every other page on your website).
  14. Personally greet every new reader, if possible, to understand who they are and how they found you. Meet with as many as possible throughout their time as subscribers.
  15. Weed non-readers from popular email services if you’re editorial. Although some readers do open after long periods of time not opening, and make a difference to e-commerce newsletters, email hosts look at how much your newsletters are read, and you risk being seen as spam if you have too much unopened email. Plus, every inactive reader costs you money, so make them count. 
  16. Make unsubscribing easy. Remember, it’s relationships and reputation that matter most. Uphold these principles and unsubscribers may return. Don’t and they never will.
  17. If you want engagement, be engaging.
  18. Don’t over-design it, and don’t actually call it a “newsletter.”
  19. Be consistent. It builds trust and it’s the opposite of spam.
  20. Give way too much before you ask for anything.
  21. Study those who are getting it right, like Dave Pell, Brian Clark, Austin Kleon, Hugh MacLeod, and Jocelyn K. Glei. I subscribe to many more, but these appeal to a more general audience (sorry to friends I left out).

My Favorite Newsletter

As an evangelist for email newsletters, I'm often asked for examples of the best. The problem is, the best are often niche newsletters that only a few hundred or a few thousand specific readers care about...but they REALLY care about them. That's exactly where you want to be as a publisher.

I can't tell you who's best for you, but I can tell you about my favorite.

My favorite newsletter isn't really a newsletter as most would define it in 2017. But I've read every issue for almost two decades, because it's the most useful email publication I receive that's specific to my interests.

Many of you know, I wrote a book in 1999 called The Van Halen Encyclopedia. I kept updating that book until around 2003, when the crush of new information coming from online detectives forced me to decide between spending all my time updating the book or having a real life. I chose to have a real life, and have since written more books, had two jobs in professional writing, and started a family. Good choice.

My interest in the information never waned, though. I think Eddie Van Halen is a musical talent who only comes along once in a generation (if you're lucky). I want to know what he and his band are up to, but I don't want to put in the work I used to.

That's why my favorite newsletter is the All Van Halen Announcement List.

It was started on Yahoo! back in 1999 when the idea of internet mailing lists had lost its popularity. Since then, Ron Higgins has faithfully published every major media mention about Van Halen on this list, which shoots me an email digest.

I know everything that's happening without having to subscribe to countless websites and social media accounts devoted to the band. I also have a searchable text archive of every major article and news piece written about the band since 1999. That's incredible. If I did decide to do another update to the book, this archive would be the primary source of information for it.

Only 192 people still subscribe to the All Van Halen Announcement List, yet Ron continues to maintain it in a thoughtful, easy to read, all-text format.

It's a shame. I wish all our media resources were as unobtrusive and utilitarian as Ron's emails. I'm sure, if I got all my news in this calm, collected way, I'd be healthier for it.

The Importance of Curators

I posted about the The Gruber Model last week as a theory for how news could be made more profitable and ethical through the filter of a good “curator.” I theorized the current ad model is just a race to the bottom.

I didn’t grasp just how close we are to the bottom, though.

This week Politico's Jack Shafer, a respected, veteran journalist, posted a data-backed article about just how polarized the environment has become among journalists, titled The Media Bubble Is Worse Than You Think:

"Today, 73 percent of all internet publishing jobs are concentrated in either the Boston-New York-Washington-Richmond corridor or the West Coast crescent that runs from Seattle to San Diego and on to Phoenix. The Chicagoland area, a traditional media center, captures 5 percent of the jobs, with a paltry 22 percent going to the rest of the country.”

That’s a shockingly small number of people who can relate to what an entire nation is dealing with outside of its largest cities. And the trend is only towards greater clustering within the bubble.

It’s not just about politics. It’s about getting the facts straight, which may not be possible from a cubicle a thousand miles away.

Michael Moynihan of Vice News Tonight put it this way on The Fifth Column podcast (quickly becoming one of my favorite podcasts):

“There’s a problem that happened rather recently…journalism now requires more people doing 24 hour jobs…and at the same time, journalism is making less money. How do you pay cheaper rates and get more content? You get 23-year olds...They come out of college newspapers in which these identity politics battles are all they know…at the same time, nobody has money for these people to go out and report...So, once you put an ass in the seat in New York City, the confirmation bias that envelops you of all these people and all these opinions, that are all very uniform...and you just got out of college, which is a very ideological and uniform place for the most part, and someone says, ‘alright, write me a piece for tomorrow.’ What is that piece?”

It makes sense that the news is getting stupider. This is why I love a good “curator.”

Yes, I do wish there was a better title for these people. “Aggregator” isn’t any better.

When I first started blogging in the mid to late 90s, most typical blogs (they weren’t called “blogs” yet) were what we’d call curators today. They were usually run by someone who had an obsession with a specific topic, an eye for good writing and design, and a distinct point of view. They’d post links to a few good articles they found every day to their front page (blogging software wasn’t a thing yet) with a little commentary. We grew to trust the best ones.

These curators are still around, but a bit harder to find thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and Google algorithms that tend to favor anything but a good curator. They're worth seeking out.

It's certainly worth becoming one, in my opinion, if you do have an obsession with a topic. As automation creeps into every area of content, real human expertise will become what's valued.

New ideas are popping up all the time on how to eliminate “fake news” through algorithms or teams of poorly paid editors, but for systemic problems in reporting real news,  a good curator is the best check against faulty journalism right now.

Trust Is Scarce

How is it that a lowly email newsletter has become one of the most trusted news outlets in America? Ask Dave Pell, the creator of NextDraft, one of the most successful newsletters on the internet:

"It is no surprise as to why Dave has done so well with NextDraft. In this day and age of fake news and clickbait nonsense, people recognize the lack of quality content and the trust between the reader and publications is slowly fading away. That’s why someone who personally has made it his mission to provide only high-quality, carefully assimilated materials and does it in an engaging way has managed to become a modern day news hero. This builds up a very special relationship with audiences."

This is what I've strived for in my newsletters since I started sending them out in 1990s. I started with paper newsletters, and when technology allowed, moved to digital formats (making them on 3.5" floppies and sending them by snail mail). Email newsletter technology was a godsend.

With every iteration of format and subject I learned more about how little mattered next to trust. I stopped stressing over design, delivery methods and even sometimes topics (if a story is good, it often applies across several subjects). Starting in the late 90s, I focused on totally on trust. But, trust takes years of proving yourself to your readers. It means rejecting the early, easy money for the long-term hope of relationship building. That's hard. It's why it's so extremely rare. 

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by our inboxes. But, a trusted, well-"curated" email newsletter is a thing of beauty. It saves you huge amounts of time and protects you from the throngs of hustlers vying for your attention every minute of every day.

It's my favorite form of publishing online.

I hope you subscribe to my personal newsletter and stay tuned for something new in the near future.

 

The Importance of Being Small

I've received hundreds of suggestions about how to grow my list (my primary publishing outlet).

Dozens of people approach me about doing podcasts on everything from music to photography to self-help, so I can boost my "visibility" to the creative community.

A few online course creators promise sure-fire ways to turn my books into six-figure classes.

But...

I don’t want massive growth of my list. My stuff isn’t for everyone and that’s fine. In fact, it’s by design. It would be boring if everyone liked it. I couldn’t afford the maintenance of a big, disinterested list. I like to greet everyone who joins my list personally and hold actual conversations with them. If I can keep doing that, it’s a success.

I've talked seriously with networks and hosts about creating podcasts, but popularity on the podcast circuit doesn’t much interest me either. It seems exhausting. I started recording a new podcast two months ago. I hated the way it turned out and scrapped it. I may resurrect it in a different form, but not for money, popularity, or "visibility." Success for me in podcasting would be meeting interesting people and learning new things. If a podcast doesn't get me closer to that goal, why bother?

As for courses…well, very few are done well. And the ones that are done well involve a level of work and attention that would be horrible for my health. A third full time job would kill me right now. I do have a great idea for a course that would anger every photography guru out there (which I find too hilarious not to pursue in some way), but maybe a course isn't the way. Maybe a print book? Maybe a podcast series?

The best advice I've received lately, however, is from my old self, when I stumble across notes made years ago and long forgotten. When you document what you learn, you often find the best discoveries are re-discoveries. That's why I take a lot of notes.

The advice I re-discovered recently was about the importance of smallness. What triggered it was this quote: 

"[T]he man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of works.” - Adam Smith

I realized I was no longer working small. I was planning for a year in the future, instead of today. I was trying to write 10,000 words a week, when 200 a day could produce something more interesting with greater clarity. I was wondering how to build my first photo book, instead of implementing a daily photo habit that could lead to 100 photo books.

I've written before about my love of small books, but these past few days I've re-discovered a love of small blogs, small newsletters, and small products in general. Small could mean brief. There's bravery in brevity. Small could also mean minimal, a first step towards something larger.

Small is habit-inducing, life changing, and within reach every day.

 

 This post originally appeared in my personal newsletter.