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.

The Mechanization of Knowledge

“Improvements in communication make for increased difficulties of understanding.” — Harold Innis

This quote messed with my head for a while, yet it accurately describes the point we're at with some forms of online publishing. Breaking the barriers and killing off the gatekeepers was supposed to be freeing. But what if it wasn't compatible with our brains?

Also, this quote is from 1950.

I Launched a Book on Patreon

I finally did it. I set up a Patreon account. I don't expect a lot of people to sign up, because I've yet to launch much of what is planned for the coming year, but those who do join this early will get a free advance copy of the second edition of the A Lesser Photographer ebook, with a limited edition cover by renowned minimalist designer Daniel Benneworth-Gray!

When You Have Nothing More to Say

Patrick Rhone appeared on Anthony Ongaro’s podcast and right away the conversation focused on why Patrick Rhone ended his blog, Minimal Mac, when he did after 5 years and about 3000 posts:

Anthony: “And then you stopped.”
Patrick: “I stopped at almost the very height of its popularity.”
Anthony: “Why did you stop?”
Patrick: “I had nothing more to say.”

This is also why I stopped blogging at A Lesser Photographer. I had said it all and I felt that to say any more would be to dilute what the site had taught me and my readers about photography.

I curated the best essays from the site into a book. Patrick did the same for his blog. Now we have neat little packages of what we learned on the topics we studied.

This is important, because people need to hear the solutions to complex problems over and over until it sinks in. Concise, clear books fulfill this need better than blogs.

We both went on blogging at our personal sites. That doesn’t mean we never write about the niche topic again, but it does mean we approach it from different (healthier?) point of view. 

After months of work, I’m about to click publish on a new edition of A Lesser Photographer at Amazon and a few other places. I’ve sent review copies out to several websites, so you may see those articles soon. The book has been out of print for a while, which has given me a lot of time to contemplate its value.

I love being able to say that I have nothing more to say about a topic, and this book will make that possible once again.

The Book Hiding in Your Blog

Patrick Rhone:

"Derek Sivers is writing a book about surviving in the music industry right in plain sight. Every post he’s made to his blog in the past several weeks is a chapter around this topic. 
I not only have done this as a writer but I support it as a reader. I love the idea of being able to purchase a nicely curated and packaged collection of ideas. I don’t have to dig through a blog’s archive or skim through a category to get to the stuff I want. The author has done if for me and that is work worth paying for."

Obviously, this is also what I do, but not in the same way. I don't think in chapters. Some people do, and maybe it's a skill I could learn, but most bloggers I've seen who try this end up posting structured, formulaic chapters that look like chapters for a book (not self-contained ideas). Derek, Patrick, and Austin Kleon don't have that problem. They are the exceptions in my experience.

Here's the struggle as I see it: If you think in short posts, like I do, there's an enormous amount of work to do to piece together a book from all the random thoughts. The upside is that your readers will tell you which of your ideas resonates with them. Just look at your stats once in a great while. It's throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks.

I recently spent six months thinking about a post, drafting several versions, and finally posting it. It got a spattering of replies, but most of my audience yawned and moved on to a post they loved that took an hour to write. You never know what they'll love until it's posted, so it's become important to me to get all those ideas out there as quickly as possible. I wasted six months on that lousy post!

Posting in chapters makes the end product very easy to create, but if it doesn't resonate with the reader, no one will buy your book or your buy into your message. It's a riskier model, with the potential for burn out (single topic blogging can do that) or wasted time (time taken from projects you care about that would resonate with readers).

I don't think there's a right/wrong path here, though. As long as you're creating something, you're doing better than the majority. Try both, see what fits, then do the other anyway. It's just blogging, and it's not going to hurt anybody. You might even like it!

 

I wrote this in 15 minutes. But I don't see it going in any book. Was it wasted?

Evaluating Apps for My Next Book

I wrote a few years ago about the apps I was using to build the A Lesser Photographer book. The challenge was compiling the 400 or so blog posts into one book.

Since then, I've posted another 500-ish blog posts. That makes about 900 blog posts to edit and compile for the next edition of A Lesser Photographer. Is there an app for that?

The problem is that there's too many apps for that. And I've been testing them all.

I gave the most attention to Ulysses, since that's what all the cool kids are using, including Shawn Blanc who created a great course on the app that I happily took twice.

Unfortunately, Ulysses still lacks a lot of the powerful features of another app, Scrivener, that made editing all those posts into a book so easy years ago. Scrivener just went through a major overhaul making it even easier to juggle all the addition posts. My app for editing the book is clearly Scrivener.

Designing the book is less of a struggle. I used a young app named Vellum last time, and since then it has grown into the default app for indie ebook publishing (especially fiction authors with high volumes of books). Vellum may be the best app ever created for self-publishers. The fact that they’ve stated they’re not coming iOS means I may never be able to escape old fashioned computers. I swear, if my current laptop died, I’d buy a new MacBook just to use Vellum. It’s that good.

So, the tools for the next version of the book this spring will look a lot like the old tools. But I’ll keep experimenting with new apps (because it's fun) and report back if anything changes.

The Ad Model Reckoning Is Upon Us

Newsweek editor Gersh Kuntzman to Newsweek Media Group interim Chief Content Officer Johnathan Davis: 

“So you should be honest with everybody in this room: Are we running a money laundering operation? Are we evading taxes? You need to tell us that because we can’t work here if you’re a liar.”

This is what the ad model does to content of all kinds: blogs, podcasts, Youtube, etc. It's a broken model. I think it's also safe to say that online ads have become malware. At the very least they eat up massive amounts of your data plan and track your movements across the web. At most, they are traditional malware trying to install something on your devise to do god knows what.

What's in question with Newsweek is whether they're gaming the numbers to overcharge advertisers. This is a common practice. The ad model doesn't work for the advertiser either. Everyone is being screwed here. The reader is taking the brunt of it, though.

This is just the beginning of the reckoning for publishers. Install a good ad blocker on your devices (I like 1blocker) and don't visit sites from desperate publishers willing to compromise anything to save a buck.

"We Need Publishers"

Seth Godin in his other blog, The Domino Project

“As always, books have always been a long tail business, but now more than ever. The bestselling book of the year will likely be read by fewer than 1% of the people in the US. There’s no other form of media that’s even close to that low. In exchange, though, there are millions (not a typo) of books hanging out at the long tail. Which is fine if you’re a reader, but tough if you’re a writer.

Most of all, it’s worth noting that book sales are lumpy. The overall trends don’t matter to a single book or a single author… you only need 10,000 devoted readers to make a living. I expect there will be bestselling hit books for another twenty years. But, we’re now living in radically different times, and it doesn’t pay to act as if the world hasn’t changed.

What does this mean for publishers?

We need publishers. We need them because most authors need financial and moral and organizational support to do the year or five of work necessary to create an important book. And we need them because most authors aren’t interested in doing all the hard work necessary to build a permission asset and promotion engine necessary to make it as an author. Readers need them too, because many want a curated, thoughtful book when it’s time to buy something.”

True. I've preached that we're all publishers now. I meant primarily for ourselves. But if you have a voice, an audience, and the resources, being a publisher for others makes a lot of sense right now.

Welcome Back Blogging?

From the iA blog (I really wish they had included the writer’s name):

“There seems to be a weak undercurrent of old and young bloggers like us that feel sentimental or curious and want to bring back blogging. Blogging won’t save the world. But, hell, after two weeks now, we can confirm: it feels great to be back on the blogging line. If you are one of those old or young bloggers, please join in. Drop Facebook, drop Twitter and drop Medium for original thought. Own your traffic. You can use them to engage in discussion. But don’t get lost in there. Write daily. Publish as often as you have something to say. Link to other blogs.”

The why is clear: social media is messing us up as people and as a society.

But the how is a little more complex, especially if you’re new to blogging (this includes photo bloggers too). There seems to be two camps in the blogging world right now about what "works."

The pros advise that long-form writing (going deep into a subject) is the best way to get any real attention and deal with the way Google, Facebook and Twitter have transformed how information is consumed online. You post something epic once in a great while, and promote over and over. Attention spans are shorter and readers aren’t using RSS anymore. If you want attention and sales, you have to go out and grab the attention, then offer something with extreme value to get the authority to sell something. They’re correct.

The hobbyists (and one prominent pro — Seth Godin) profess that it’s the opposite that has the most positive impact on your life and mental health: short-form writing, and just getting your ideas out there. They’re correct.

I’ve been thinking about this in my own life and career for the past month and I think I’ve come up with a theory: one is a business model, one is a life model.