September 1, 2010

What Could a Bestselling Author's Switch to Self-publishing Mean for Filmmakers?

Lately I've been reading a number of books for independent creatives -- in film, in art, in business -- and the one I'm currently working my way through is Linchpin by Seth Godin. As soon as I can find the time I'll post reviews of these books, most of which I believe are very helpful in planning an independent career -- and most of which align very closely with my own manifesto. Recently Godin announced that Linchpin will be the last book he'll publish "in a traditional way." For me to say I'm interested in distributing films in a new way is not news. For Godin (who has written twelve bestsellers) to say the same thing, however, is worth noting. And as it turns out, the decisions he's faced with as an author aren't much different than the decisions we're faced with as filmmakers.

Here's Godin's description of the book publishing model as it stands today:

Traditional book publishers use techniques perfected a hundred years ago to help authors reach unknown readers, using a stable technology (books) and an antique and expensive distribution system.

Film distribution might not have been "perfected a hundred years ago," but celluloid itself was invented a hundred years ago, and up until recently film distribution has relied heavily on physical prints. Like books, however, that's decreasingly the case. Let's re-purpose Godin's passage for film:

Traditional film distributors use techniques perfected a hundred years ago to help filmmakers reach unknown viewers, using a stable technology (celluloid) and an antique and expensive distribution system.

What exactly will Godin be doing instead? While he didn't exactly spell out his future plans on his blog, The Wall Street Journal did:

The author of about a dozen books including "Purple Cow" said he now has so many direct customer relationships, largely via his blog, that he no longer needs a traditional publisher. Mr. Godin plans to release subsequent titles himself in electronic books, via print-on-demand or in such formats as audiobooks, apps, small digital files called PDFs and podcasts. "Publishers provide a huge resource to authors who don't know who reads their books," said Mr. Godin in an interview. "What the Internet has done for me, and a lot of others, is enable me to know my readers."

This is yet another example of an artist/writer/creative cutting out the middle man and selling direct to his followers. But Godin's blog and his book readership are essentially one and the same. No Film School, on the other hand, has a readership of independent videomakers and other creatives, but I'm hoping my forthcoming projects will find a wider audience (NFS should be a good starting point, however!). Regardless, when it comes down to it, if you look at the economics of book sales, it's easy to see why Godin would come to such a conclusion. From Tim Ferris, author of The Four Hour Work Week (another book I read recently, which I recommend highly and will be reviewing soon):

- For a hardcover book, authors typically receive a 10-15% royalty on cover price. This means that for a $20 cover price, the author will receive $2-3.

- For a trade paperback book, authors typically receive around half the royalty of a hard cover. If you are making 15% on your hardcover, you might get 7.5% when it goes to paperback.

In a world where Kindle books are already outselling hardcover books, it's obvious that switching to selling eGoods direct to your audience can bring in much higher per-unit profits. Shelf space and delivery costs very little -- and can cost nothing if you know a few tricks (for those interested, I will be posting a technique for selling eGoods -- without paying for "virtual shelf space" from companies like eJunkie -- here soon). And once you get your hands on an eReader -- whether that be an iPad or something more "primitive" like the Amazon Kindle (I bought a cheap Sony eReader) -- you realize you're never going back to paper books. Once you see a good 4K digital projection -- which looks as good the five-hundredth time it's projected as it does the first, unlike film -- I believe the sentiment is the same.

Mitch Joel of Twist Image notes that Godin's decision is not only relevant for authors, but for others as well, and sums it up thusly:

This isn't the future of publishing... this is the future of business.

Why is Godin's decision to cut out the middle man telling for filmmakers? Because movies, like books, are now digital goods. I have a lot of ideas in this space that I can't wait to bootstrap, but they're going to be reliant on my first feature film as a test case. So let me just say that I'm reading these books not as a way of procrastinating and avoiding working on said feature (I'm working on it at the same time); I'm reading these books because I'm interested in bringing to life not just a creatively successful film, but also a commercially successful one. The challenge for independent filmmakers today is twofold: one, to make a good film (duh), and two, to find a way to derive real value from that film. So when I say "commercially successful," I don't mean "it has to make a lot of money" -- my version of a successful film is one that finds an audience and creates self-sustaining revenue for its creators. In the self-distribution space today, this seems all too rare.

Your Comment

9 Comments

If you can make enough money through digital self-distribution to pay for the film, that will be... well, eaiser said than done but I hope you do it!

September 1, 2010 at 4:13PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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James

As of now, Amazon doesn't seem to allow self-published eBooks - only Print On Demand through CreateSpace. I looked into that option for my own eBook, and the economics didn't make sense. I would have had to charge $20 for a 70 page book, and I'd only make about $3 per copy. In that regard, at least, indy film distribution should be much easier for you, as people are getting comfortable with not having a physical DVD in hand.

September 1, 2010 at 5:22PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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If people were going to be buying from your site -- meaning, you already had an audience built -- why send them to Amazon, though? I mention eJunkie above but there are a number of other services that can securely deliver digital goods for a much smaller cut than Amazon.

Anyone who's donated for the DSLR Guide here will notice that it's automated, with a secure link. I customized an existing script for this purpose, and I'm working on a post showing just how to do that.

When it comes to film distribution, though, I think an entirely new toolset needs to be built. Can't quite fund that with NoFilmSchool yet, though!

September 1, 2010 at 5:38PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Bonkers. I think you and I are constantly thinking along exactly the same lines. Did you ever read that classic Ted Hope article from 1995:

http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/issues/fall1995/dead_film.php

Self-sufficiency is the key to us earning the right to call ourselves properly 'independent'. Blogged about this on Photocine News recently:

http://photocinenews.com/2010/08/23/8-things-ive-learned-from-shooting-l...

I really believe in this as passionately as you do and will be shooting my first audience-owned project in January with a view to testing whether this approach can actually work in the field. Such an interesting time.

September 2, 2010 at 5:04AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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How about distributing freely through the torrent network (cheap, easy and fast), and place a small text at the beginning of your film, and an ad at the end, asking people to make a donation if they liked the film?

I'd gladly pay $1 for a lot of films for which I would not pay $8; if the author gets the same amount in both cases, it should make sense for him. The problem there is that it is you that has to worry about marketing, but that's going to be the case in nearly every form of self-distribution.

September 2, 2010 at 5:24AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Had no idea that Apple was launching a social network built around iTunes.... now that's interesting. He says it's all about music... but could it be about films as well?

September 2, 2010 at 5:37AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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That's interesting -- hadn't thought about that. i wonder if this will be the first recommendations engine to come to iTunes for film (along the lines of Netflix)...

September 2, 2010 at 11:36AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

I think you are definitely on the right track. Seth and Gerd Leonhard are two of my heroes in this space looking at the future of media and how it will be distributed. It is all in the personalization, knowing your audience and feeding them with content THEY enjoy. Get the notion of making mass audience appeal films out of your head. The future is in niche, not mass.

I recently wrote a post citing Gerd and Seth about the future of the indie filmmaker (http://bit.ly/9gsVyS). The next book you should read of Godin's is Tribes. Filmmakers or creatives in general who want to be entrepreneurs need to build a tribe around themselves. The tribe is going to be your source of support and of spreading the word of your amazing work. If you concentrate on just feeding and cultivating your tribe, you will thrive.

Distributors will also need to do this, build a tribe of followers of a certain type of film, source just those films for their tribe and become curators. The need for a distribution service is quickly fading, but the need to market, recommend and raise awareness will remain. That is what distributors should be moving toward. Most probably won't until it is too late. If you will not build a tribe around yourself as a creative, then you can provide content to these other tribes (also mentioned in my post). Dependence on those companies will be tricky though, I'd rather have my own personally.

Anyway, would love to hear about how you are getting on. I collect case studies for use in my talks and to populate some sites of forward thinking companies. Keep up the forward momentum!

September 6, 2010 at 8:15PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Thanks for your thoughts, Sheri. I've been listening to the audio book of Tribes (multitasking!) -- it's even more relevant for filmmakers than Linchpin, I agree. I'm not familiar with Gerd Leonhard, thanks for the reference. Looking forward to reading your post at Multi--Hyphenate (which this site is very much about as well!).

September 6, 2010 at 8:55PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director