Dan Blank, who has been helping both traditionally published and indie authors for many years, has gained an incredible amount of experience and detailed knowledge about how authors can best navigate the often confusing world of modern book publishing.
Dan and I pretty much agree on how authors can avoid the overwhelm and the chase after “magical” solutions to book writing and marketing problems. What I especially like about Dan’s approach is his complete devotion to the author’s vision, and his concentration on helping authors find solutions that are authentic to them.
I took the opportunity to interview Dan because I knew these topics would arise when talking about his terrific and very helpful new book, Be the Gateway. Here’s a video of the interview, an audio version below that, and a complete transcript of our talk.
The Video Interview (31:38)
Audio File of Interview
Joel: Sound looks good. You look good. That’s what’s important. Hello everyone. This is Joel Friedlander from TheBookDesigner.com.
I am really happy today to be here interviewing Dan Blank, a colleague of mine who is a consultant and a writer; and somebody who helps authors get their creative work done in a rational way. He has consulted with many authors over the years. He has some really valuable lessons for authors.
Dan is also the proprietor of We Grow Media. His site could be found at WeGrowMedia.com. It’s a wonderful site with some excellent writing on all the issues that writers come up against when they confront their creative work. That’s why Dan and I are talking today because Dan has a new book that’s just out last week. It’s called, Be the Gateway.
Dan, that’s where I want I wanted to start. You called your book, Be the Gateway. Now, we’re all familiar with the whole idea of the “gatekeepers.” Who are the new gatekeepers? Are the authors the gatekeepers? Are the readers the gatekeepers?
Why did you pick that? What exactly do you mean? What are you trying to communicate about Be the Gateway?
Dan: First, it’s lovely to be here. I always love chatting with you. Many authors and creative professionals I’ve talked to were overwhelmed with this idea of marketing and social media, and the endless list of things they’re told they have to do to get a book deal, get self-published, to get an audience.
The gateway concept is what I came up with last summer in a really off the cuff video I did for a mastermind group I run. It was this idea that when you create your work, when you create your book whether that’s a novel, or a memoir, or nonfiction; it’s not just creating a product, and then marketing it, hoping it gets on the bestseller list, or hoping it sells a certain number; and then keeping your social media numbers up and going.
You really think about a creative person and his vision for the book. Your book is something that should open something up for other people. If you’re a novelist, you should be crafting characters that someone doesn’t just buy the book, and they read it, and they read on Amazon. You want that person to think about that character 4 years later when they’re going through a rough time.
If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you want to give information not just it isn’t re-Tweeted immediately; but it changes the way they think about their field or a topic.
From memoir, I think it’s this idea that it’s that wonderful place between a novel—it’s a story, but also nonfiction where you’re making someone else feel closer to understanding a topic. I think with all of these, invariably we’re doing is helping them better understand themselves.
The idea with the gateway is that this is what creative work does. I love all of these little metrics, all these things about newsletters, and blogs, and all that stuff. But, I think that where people feel unfulfilled in the idea of how they share their creative work; to me, the gateway is the solution to that. It’s really thinking about it in a long term way about “What is the effect you’re having on other people?”
Joel: That’s very aspirational, Dan. I mean, the idea that you could write something that would persist in people’s minds and hearts for years, that’s a big aspiration in a sense. I understand a little bit about what you’re saying that you’re creating works that lead people to an experience. In a practical sense though, here I am, sitting at my desk with my keyboard, my coffee cup–where is the gateway?
Dan: That’s a great question. The book is broken up in 3 parts. It’s this idea of first, you craft your gateway. Then you open the gate. You make it available to people. Then you walk people through the gate. What I mean from that in a practical sense is that you really have to understand the individual people you’re hoping to reach.
I think with so much of social media, people try to go viral. They try to copy these newsletter tactics and social media tactics. When you think of the actual person you’re trying to reach, one individual person; you start thinking about, “Who are they?” One aspect is thinking about “How do you reach that ideal reader?”
Some practical ways of going about that are thinking about comparable work. What other books does someone read that is like yours? What conferences did they go to? What movies do they watch? Where do they hang out online? What do they talk about? It’s this idea of first understanding about landscape of where people are. When you’re crafting your gateway, it’s not a business card or a website. Those could be components of it.
What you’re really trying to do is understand “Why do people read this kind of book?” What is the narrative going on in their head? Why do they read thriller after thriller, or romance after romance?
What is that thing they keep going back for because that thing is not just, “Oh, it’s entertaining?” It’s entertaining, but there’s something about how they view the world, what they like to experience, and how they view themselves. When you go out practically and start doing that, you start understanding the language that they speak.
One exercise a lot of people do is this idea of understanding comes not just to understand the market, but to go on to something like the Amazon reviews for these other books. What you’re seeing there is the voice of the reader.
Every time I do an analysis like this, what I’m finding is one of the words that the reader uses again and again—and Amazon is great because you’ve got that little search field for the reviews, which I think is genius and underutilized because this is literally what readers are saying they loved.
It allows you to not just think about how you can use that for how you talk about your book, how you title it, how you describe it; when you go to a conference, when you go to a bookstore, what you say to that person–you’re understanding it in terms of “this is why it resonates.”
This is that connection that it’s making. It’s not just, “I wrote a thriller. People just want to be entertained by explosions. People read Jack Reacher, Batman comics, and Harry Potter not just because they’re fun; but because they embody deeper things.
When you go to things like Comic Con when you see people dressed up, and you see them spending all this money; it’s not just surface level. It goes so much deeper than that.
Joel: Absolutely. That’s very interesting. The idea of comparable books has been around in publishing forever, basically. It’s kind of a marketing idea or something in the marketing department or even before the book is signed. That’s a big part of your book proposal, etc. You’ve kind of like turned that back around. Instead of using it for market intelligence, you’re using the comparable books for reader intelligence.
A lot of what you’re talking about in that first section of the book is something that we are somewhat familiar with getting to know your reader, and how crucial that is to actually writing something that’s going to please them if you have a certain set of readers in mind. I think that’s really interesting.
You also say in the book that it’s how you craft and share your work with others. I thought that was an interesting way to put it. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit because the whole “how you craft the work,” how does that come in to this whole “building the gateway, inviting people to the gateway, walking people through the gateway?”
It’s a great metaphor. It has a lot of resonance because of the whole gatekeeper metaphor itself. There’s a process you’re walking people through in the book. Could you talk a little bit about that process; how that works?
Dan: I’m sure you’ve seen this a hundred times. You go to a publishing conference, and there’s a pitch slam. What you see is you’re filled with hallways of people. They’re trying to describe their book, and you see them basically, failing at it. They’re repeating it.
You ask someone, “You’re an author. Tell me about it.” You get trapped in this 12-minute conversation that you don’t really understand what it is because that person doesn’t know how to describe what they’re doing.
I’m not trying to change anyone’s work. Your work is your work. I think that building your gateway and opening it up is the idea of “Can you explain it to me in a way that doesn’t just show me what you are about, but it connects it to what I really care about; the way where it lets me lean in, and I think about it?”
Two practical ways of looking at it, or whenever I talk to an author; two things I often find are missing are, one, a very, very clear sense of who their real reader is. Three people they know. I’m saying, “If I think of my reader, it’s like my friend, Diane.” They can really tell you why she reads this kind of book, and other books they read. It’s not this pie in the sky perfect reader where all they do is read romance. They’re a real person.
Likewise, I find a lot of authors have not developed relationships with colleagues. They’re in this marketplace. Publishing, in many ways is a business. I believe that you as a person can write and never publish; and that is wonderful. I grew up as an artist. I’ve done tons of art. I’ve recorded all this music, and it was never shared. It was just fun to create.
But if you’re going to operate in the business world, you’re going to put it on Amazon. You’re going to get a publisher; you’re going to do that. You can’t just be out there on your own. You need colleagues. You need to know other writers, and other people who connect to your audience. That’s different for every genre, for every topic, every type of book.
I often find that a lot of people have a book, and they have social media, and they don’t have any connections to actual readers. They don’t have any connection to actual colleagues who exist in this marketplace.
A lot of what I talk about, especially in the second part of the book, is this idea of treating this like a profession of you would never have a job opening an Italian restaurant, or being a carpenter, or setting up a mortgage business with no colleagues and no customers, and just say, “I’ve got this great idea. I got a Twitter account and a website. I’m good.” You would really force these relationships.
Joel: Absolutely. That’s very interesting. I was reading your book, and one of the things that really resonated for me is the idea of a readership and the influence on the readership. The reason I say that is because I’ve participated in—I’ve helped hundreds of people publish their books.
There’s a certain section of books that were really not intended for a large audience. I mean there are people who publish books that are intended for a very small audience. I love doing those books. I actually did a book once that was read by about 10 people, and that was the whole intent of the book. It changed those people’s lives, so I consider that a very successful publication.
When I say this to people, a lot of them kind of get a glazed look because it’s not what they’re thinking. They’re in that whole metrics thing like “How many copies did I sell?” “How much did I make today?” “What’s my Amazon rank?” all of that stuff. To me, that doesn’t drive me personally.
The idea that a writer can be focused on an audience, and creating a certain kind of personal change in a way; that to me is really powerful. I think that was partly what you are getting at in the book.
Dan: Yes, it’s such a huge part. The book starts off talking about essentially what you’re saying this idea of rejecting objects, tokens, and metrics; how I call this idea that “I want an award. I want a review. I want a number of followers or certain ranking.” These things are great. They’re fine. You can want them. They’re good milestones.
But like you said, I think that too many people think that that’s the goal. They think “If I can just get 10,000 followers, sell a thousand books, and get 40 reviews; then I’ll be validated.” They think that all their uncertainty will all go away, which it doesn’t. They think then it will be easier. “Man, if I had 10,000 followers, I could just Tweet it out. I’ll probably sell 15 books just like that.”
Talk to people with 10,000 to 15,000 followers. No. They are struggling to make it work. It’s not that it doesn’t work. It’s the idea that has always worked. At every level you get to, there’s another level.
A lot of what I’m advocating for in this book is fulfillment; just to really think about why we’re creating. Instead of putting that kind of token in the middle and saying I’m seeking that. Those rankings are great. I’m going to look at my Amazon rankings. I do not blame anyone for doing that, but the goal is to truly help someone. I want to think about how I can experience that, and how I can help that happen.
Joel: There are many things that can be satisfying when you’re an author. When I published my first book, I will tell you right out I took my wife. We went by subway down the East West Bookstore on 5th Avenue just below 14th Street. Not sure if it’s still there.
We went there specifically because I knew they had my book in the store, and I wanted to see it on the shelf. There’s a certain kind of satisfaction you can get from stuff like that that helps you keep going. I think that’s important.
Your motivation as a writer is something quite different; what makes you sit down. I know a lawyer who used to get up at 5:00 in the morning. He would pretend he was out jogging, but he was actually sneaking down to the basement and writing his novel. That’s motivation. That’s somebody who’s driven to tell that story for a particular reason. I think those are the kind of writers that you work with, isn’t it?
Dan: Yes. The writers I work with are real people who might have a day job or another source of income. They’ve got kids. They’ve got health issues. The reality of what it means to live a creative life is what I love focusing on. It’s not easy for you. It’s not easy for anyone that’s why you could use tactics.
To me, it’s a matter of not just hoping for “I figured out this one Amazon trick where this one button in Goodreads…” and those are fine. I just see too many people distracted by it. Not just a little bit distracted, but overwhelmingly distracted where they sort of lost focus of the idea of living a life where they’re connecting with people.
In the ‘90s, I was a manager of a bookstore café. We had all these different entertainment nights. We clearly had books. I was involved in the artistic community. There you saw what that was in a way of having relationships or sharing one’s work. Even if they weren’t successful in terms of being career, they were striving towards that. Some of them made it there.
Along that journey, they felt a sense of fulfillment. They felt a sense of being artistic. I think that’s different than the idea of being super duper confused about Facebook ads, but feeling that you’re convinced because some other author did it; that if you don’t figure out Facebook ads, you’re going to fail.
It’s the idea of like, “Well, that’s not the artistic experience.” That now is very frustrating, overwhelming, and lonely.
Joel: You made a big point of that in the book about not imitating what other people are doing, otherwise known as “going for the next shiny object,” whether it’s Facebook ads, or BookBub, or whatever it is. When you hear or read about somebody who had a lot of success, and you think “Oh, wow. All I have to do is imitate them.” I think it’s really valuable that you include that.
However, one thing I kept running into in your book that I want you to explain is the whole idea of “avoiding best practices.” Obviously, there is something to explain here because, look, I’m a guy who spent years trying to tell people we have best practices in book publishing. You should know what they are and follow them.
Dan, you’re kind of going up against my teaching here. What is it that you mean by “best practices?”
Dan: It depends on what you’re doing. What I’m focusing on avoiding best practices in terms of how you connect with your audience, and connect the book with an audience.
What I see too often is the idea that people have no understanding what their audience is. They’re not doing any real research. They’re not showing up anywhere. They’re not emailing anyone. They’re not talking to readers. They’re not talking to librarians and booksellers. They’re not talking to other authors.
There’s no real sense of, “I’m a student of my audience. I’m forging connections. I’m asking questions.” What there’s instead is a lot of saying, “How can I create buzz around my book?” and they’re creating, essentially, business cards, or creating Tweets and hash tags.
The best practices they’re following are these things where they have to mimic what some other author did – “We did this email blast. We’re going to give you the script, and you’re going to do that.” There’s nothing wrong with the idea of getting someone’s script and saying, “Oh wow! That’s one way to write an email I hadn’t thought about.” What I’m against is the idea that they don’t have a real connection to their reader to then say, “We have all this great data, and all this great experience because I’m really involved in that community.”
Going back to the ‘90s when I was part of the artistic community, I knew people. I could talk to people. I have all these anecdotes. If it was just sort of like, “I walk by that café. It looks like there are lots of artistic people there that might like my book. What I’m going to do is I will create a poster. The best practice is to make that poster triangular. To get everyone’s attention, I’ll put a light on it. Then I’m going to walk in. I’m going to put that poster right down in the middle of the room when I think something is going to happen.”
That’s how I view a lot of best practices where people are copying this forum without connecting with actual people, without building relationships, without thinking about—I’ve done primary research; the idea of having a script or reading up a blog post on your site; that’s wonderful. I just see too many people overwhelmed with a stack.
I remember I used to go to conferences when I had a professional day job. You’d go to a conference, you’d be really inspired. You come back with all these printed out decks like this high on your table. You’re just like amped if you got to them. Then you track email. You got meetings. It’s like 9 months later, they’re all sitting there. You still want to get to them, but you’re overwhelmed. You don’t have that drive to do that.
That’s what I mean by best practices. It’s clearly there are some things like “How do you build a porch?” “How do you design a book?” where best practices are essential because it is a craft.
Joel: Thank you for rescuing my best practices mantra. I really appreciate that. I’d like to talk a little bit about the actual publishing of the book because if somebody have said to me, “Dan Blank is publishing a book;” my first question would have been, “Which publisher is publishing?” because you’ve been working with big publishers for many years.
You’ve consulted with them. They are authors. Many of the authors you worked with are traditionally published. I would just assume that you would get a contract from somebody and publish your book, but no. You decided to self-publish it. Why did you do that?
Dan: Two years back, I decided to write a book. I was very excited about this. I want it to be a big book. I wanted to get a really good agent; get a really good publisher. I spend a few months writing. I wrote 85,000 words. I had all this researched, and interview after interview, collecting everything. This was the book. I want this to be unique and different.
What I found was that project was crushed under its own weight. Those 85,000 words were all in the wrong order and it became so big, my expectations became so big that it became impossible to manipulate it, and also live my life. So it kind of kept getting pushed to the side.
Middle of last year, this gateway concept came up. I did a video. I got a lot of great reaction. I wrote a blog that’s got a lot of great reaction. People started saying the word “gateway” back to me. I said, “I still want to write a book. What if I trick myself?”
One thing I’m very good at is I have enough control, and I know there’s no such thing as control, but just bear with me. If I had enough control over a creative project, they usually do pretty good. I’m pretty self-sufficient. I can bring people together. I’m very regimented to my schedule. They’ll need to take this concept. Don’t expand it into a little book. I’ll self-publish it. Let me just get that done where I’m doing something bigger than a blog post; and I started doing that.
What I found was that everyday I was writing every single morning at 5:30 at Starbucks. I started working with my friend of mine who’s a book coach. She started helping me construct that. I brought in a launch team of people to start giving me feedback on that.
What happened was because it was small, it became something fun. It became bigger, but it was the whole idea of how can I craft something that just feels good to me, and where it’s not the type of thing where I’m saddling it with this idea of like, “I want this to be big and get a big publisher” where I’m almost courting failure. I’m always asking for too much.
What if instead I didn’t put that on and just said, “How can I help people? How can I take this concept I know resonates and expand it, work with a book coach, do something better, have some editors come in and do that, bring in a designer, and get a cover designer?” Let’s just see what that process is like instead of writing a blog post or a newsletter–doing something more complete.
It’s been a wonderful experience. I will add one more thing to that, which is my wife and I are expecting our second child in April.
Dan: Thank you. That became a very positive boundary because everything at a certain point with this book, once we found out, had to be every decision has to get this book out before the baby is born. That was a wonderful boundary that allowed me to make every decision I did because “Can I do this? Can I do it before the baby is born?” “No.” “I guess we’ll do that after the baby is born.”
It made it fun to just be able to say “no” to things instead of saying, “How big can this book be? I’m going to do everything!” Again, crushed under the weight of it and saying, “I’m going to do a good little book and do as best I can before the baby is born.”
Joel: I resonate that idea because I’m kind of addicted to this concept of the minimum viable product, which I learned about in marketing, but you could use it in a lot places. What really is kind of the idea of “how small” instead of “How big can I make this? How many things can I throw in this pot?” Really, how small can this be and still be effective; actually, do something for somebody? It’s an amazing discipline to learn to think that way.
Oddly enough, Dan, I’ve been going through a similar process with a book that I’m going to be publishing this year that’s not about book publishing, but the same idea. Something that really fed me; something I really wanted to write.
I’ve written over a million words on my blog, which was kind of shocking when I realize that to be honest. This is a whole different kind of project, so I kind of resonate what you’re doing. I’m also an avid reader of your weekly newsletter, which I recommend to people. It’s one of the best newsletters out there, partly because you share a lot of personal stuff.
I read your recent newsletter and you said that you’re a little over a week away from pub date. “There are a million things I could freak out about instead I’m concerned over a few key things and ensuring I do them well enough.” I’ve got a lot of authors out there who want to know what are those “few key things.”
Dan: One of them is this interview. Last week, I reached out to a bunch of people. We set up these interviews and some promotion; that sort of thing. I have a long list of other people.
Last week, I said, “I should reach out to more people?” I said, “Instead of that, let me go back to the people that have already been so generous. Make sure that I’m prepared, that it’s on the calendar, and know how we’re doing it, that I’m ready for the interview, that I’ve looked at their stuff, that I can answer their questions.”
I said, “Instead of expanding.” It’s not a negative thing to expand. It’s not greedy. It’s like, “Let me take these people who’ve been generous, who were wonderful enough. I supported their work, and they supported mine, and make sure I’m going to do as best as I can with them.”
Likewise with just copy editing, copy editing, copy editing; of just being so paranoid of having beta readers, different editors, and myself; and just figuring out there’s so much about this book that in retrospect, I could say, “I should’ve done that differently.”
I don’t want there to be any egregious mistakes in the text. I want it to be as clear as it can. I don’t want there to be like, “Wow, he didn’t think to do that?” or “Didn’t he get an editor?” I’ve had so many people look at this. Even then, I know that there will be mistakes in the book because there tends to always be a mistake. I just want to catch as many as I can.
Joel: It’s tough. It’s very hard to produce a book with no mistakes. I could tell you from experience it’s very, very challenging. By and large, particularly these days, most people will not put in the time or the money to ensure that they’ve created a book that basically has no mistakes. Kudos to you.
I also want to say I think people should know Be the Gateway, which reminds me of a book from about 10 years ago; you might remember called, Be the Media. I don’t know if you remember that. It’s kind of a compendium type book; Be the Media. Anyway, I found the book to be really inspirational.
I’d like people to know that there are many practical things in the book. You guide people. You give exercises, step by step things you can do at each step of the process. That’s all really great. We need that kind of guidance, but that wasn’t the part that inspired me.
What inspired me was the stories about authors, and your whole description of your process on how this whole thing works, about how you create a gateway; you lead people to the gateway. It made me want to dive back into my own project.
I think people should know that. It’s a book that I think any author could profit from reading. It’s not a super long read, so that’s good. You really have to wonder if we need more 400-page books on book marketing; the complete encyclopedia. Who the hell is going to read it? Good for you.
Is there anything else you would like to tell people about the book? Do you have any launch events you’re doing besides these interviews? I know you’ve got a lot on your mind right now.
Dan: I’ve just been trying to make sure the book is out there and shared on wonderful places like your blog with your community. Otherwise, I’m just going to be trying to share a lot of resources this month.
A lot of what I want to do is make myself available in videos, in chats, and to answer questions. If anyone checks out my newsletter or my Facebook page, I’ll be on there as much as I can to try to give practical examples of things in the book, and that sort of thing.
My whole goal this month is to not just promote the book, but be there for people who are opening it up and thinking “How do I translate this to what I’m doing?” and to be able to answer questions around that.
Joel: That would be very valuable because in the book, you make the point it isn’t just for writers. You’re talking to creatives. You could be a musician. You could be a sculptor, or a painter, or something; you still kind of have the same process.
You make a point of talking about how artists really are storytellers; whatever your medium is. It could be words, music, whatever; that you are telling a story for the people who are going to experience it. I think that’s awesome. You’re at . How would people find you on Facebook?
Dan: If you type in “Dan Blank,” you’ll find the Facebook page. It’s got my face on it.
Joel: They’ll recognize that from this interview. Anything else? Is the book going to be in print in eBook?
Dan: Yes, it’s eBook. It’s all through Amazon right now, and then I’ll probably make it after the baby is born.
Joel: After the baby is born. That’s a loaded sentence right there. Listen, Dan. It’s really interesting to talk to you. I’ve really enjoyed the book. I haven’t quite finished yet. I’m almost finished. Like I say, it was inspirational for me. It’s very satisfying to see.
We’ve been talking for years, you and I. I’ve talked to your groups often. It’s very exciting for me when somebody with your kind of expertise, and the way you’ve spent years and years talking to authors and other creatives, to actually put something out there to encapsulate your expertise, and to offer it to people.
That is the basic reason I love publishing–exactly because of what you’re doing. Kudos to you. I want to wish you the best of luck with the book. We’ll be featuring it on the blog. Thanks for taking your time today. It’s been great talking to you.
Dan: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
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