An Interview with Andrew Dubber, Author of Music in the Digital Age
Published May 29, 2012 by Peter Armstrong
Andrew is Reader in Music Industries Innovation at Birmingham City University. He’s a member of the Centre for Media and Cultural Research, and is Award Leader for the MA in Music Industries (which can be studied online via distance learning from anywhere in the world) and also runs the MA in Music Radio.
He is the founder of New Music Strategies, a pan-European music consultancy and strategy organisation focusing primarily on non-commercial and social projects that use music to improve lives. He is also a member of the Board of Advisors for Bandcamp.
He can be found online at http://andrewdubber.com.
This interview was recorded on May 21, 2012.
Peter Armstrong: I’m here with Andrew Dubber, who’s a faculty member of the Birmingham School of Media. He’s an internationally-renowned lecturer, author, consultant, public speaker, broadcaster anmd blogger, as well as being the founder of New Music Strategies and a member of the board of advisors for Bandcamp. Andrew is also the author of three Leanpub books, all of which have been published in 2012. We’re going to talk today about his books, his experiences as a writer, and about his experiences using the Lean Publishing approach on Leanpub. We’re also going to talk about ways we can improve Leanpub for him.
So, Andrew thanks for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.
Andrew Dubber: Yeah, no problem at all; thanks for having me.
A: Your title is ‘Reader in Music Industries Innovation’. What’s it like being a professor of innovation in an industry that’s being violently disrupted?
D: Yeah it’s kind of weird, ‘Reader’ is a funny term. It’s one that really only makes sense over here. It basically means ‘almost but not quite smart enough to be a Professor’.
A: Oh, OK … like ‘Sessional Lecturer’?
D: Sort of. In the US I would be called a Professor. I have a full-time job, a teaching gig, all the rest of it, but here it’s like becoming a knight or a lord or something.
A: So what’s it like teaching about innovation in the music industry.
D: It’s kind of fun actually, I’ve got to say. Because you run into some really interesting conversations. But what’s really cool is the people who come to study with us. I run an MA in Music Industries and the people who come to study with us know what they’re in for. So, in a sense, the kind of people who sign up to our MA are the kind of people who go ‘Actually I don’t want to learn about how the music industry used to be, I want to learn how it is now’, which is kind of what I focus on more than anything… The music industry shifts slowly, so it’s one of those things where it’s an analysis of what’s not going on as much as it is an analysis of what could be.
A: It’s funny, I know an academic in Vancouver who does work in a Masters program in publishing and it’s the same sort of environment where publishing is in the middle of being… is going through a lot of changes, and the students who are in there are Master’s students, and they’re, they have the same sort of mindset, you have to, because there’s so much change…
D: That’s kind of the interesting stuff that’s going on, really, is getting to grips — that’s one of the good things about being an academic I guess, you get to, you can step back from it and go, what is actually going on, and what are people doing about it, and what are they saying they’re doing, as opposed to what they’re actually performing. So that sort of arm’s-length analysis can be really interesting, but also the students that I work with, they have a really hands-on approach. So most of them are actually sort of working quite substantially within the music industries as well, particularly from a kind of independent, entrepreneurial perspective.
A: So they are actually entrepreneurial? That’s good!
D: Yeah, that’s one of the things I really push. In fact, as part of our MA, there’s a kind of core module within it called ‘Enterprise’, and basically that’s what you study as part of, it’s kind of related to some other MAs that we do around creative industries, and online journalism, and various other things, but Enterprise is a really kind strong thread in our MA. I sound like I’m shilling for our MA program! Come and do our MA program!
A: I was just curious, it was funny, when I was talking to some of the students in this publishing program, there was a mixture of typical student optimism, but also massive depression about — “Well, I’ll probably never get a job in this industry.” And I’m like, “well would you like to do some freelance stuff involving Leanpub”, you sense this sort of trepidation…
D: Yeah, I always say to my students, anybody who aspires to a job in the music industry lacks ambition. Because I think the most interesting stuff is when people find their own niche, their own thing that they’re excited about. I mean nobody gets into the music business because they think it’s a great get-rich-quick scheme. That’s the wrong reason to do it. But if you’re really passionate about music, there are ways in which you can make money at it, but most of them don’t involve sitting in a basement at Universal Music putting CDs in envelopes.
A: Along that line, besides teaching at Birmingham University, you’re also involved in a lot of projects. Tell me about New Music Strategies.
D: Well, New Music Strategies actually started as a blog about five years ago — more like six years ago — when I first started studying this. Because I didn’t start studying the online music industries. I started actually studying radio, and digital radio, and online radio, but I kind of, when I shifted to the UK, about eight years ago, it kind of coincided with a shift in focus. I kind of do both now, essentially. But the New Music Strategies was a blog in which I was kind of thinking out loud about the research that I was doing, and also the music industries that I was working with, and the innovation stuff were doing. So it was just kind of, “here is something interesting, let me share it with you.” And, at the time there were very few independent music industry blogs around. And so New Music Strategies picked up a bit of a following, particularly because I wrote this–well, I put it out as an ebook, but essentially it was just a series of blog posts–and I made it as a PDF download free from the website. And people downloaded it and shared it around. There was really kind of nothing else like it at the time. Now, every man and his dog has a blog about giving advice to independent musicians. So over time, New Music Strategies doing that became less important. But I’d worked with some really cool and really interesting people while I was operating under that name. And so what I did was I approached them and said, OK, New Music Strategies doesn’t really need to be an advice blog for online music. People can find that stuff now. And I kind of feel like I’ve said what I needed to say in that sphere, a little bit. So, why don’t we just get together and do stuff when it’s cool and interesting? And so there’s five of us. There’s a woman in Amsertdam, there’s a woman in Berlin, there’s a guy in Oxford, there was a guy in London, he’s now moved to Birmingham where I live as well, and me. So the five of us, we just try and think of interesting things to do. Call organizations to partner with. And then we try and make things happen. Which is about, not about ‘How can I be famous on the Internet’, but more about, ‘How can we get more music by more people in more places?’ And that manifests itself in all kinds of interesting ways.
A: That’s cool. So, you mentioned the blog posts, around New Music Strategies, and how those led to your book, The 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online. So, tell me how that evolved into Music In The Digital Age?
D: Sure. Well, The 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online was just a series of 20 blog posts originally. I got asked to come and do a talk locally, and they said, just come and tell us the things you think we need to know about the online music business, because you’re studying it and we’re not, and we’re trying to make money at this. And so I wrote a bullet-point list, and I went with it, and I stood up and said the first one, and then got on to the second one, and by the time I got into the third one, they said ‘well, we’re kind of out of time now’!
So I said well, what I’ll do is I’ll stick them up as blog posts, and you can just read them as you want to. And somebody said, I don’t really want to come and read your blog, can I just get it as a PDF and you send it to me when it’s done? And I thought, well that’s actually fair enough, and not a bad idea. So that’s what I did. I wrote the ’20 things’ as blog posts, bundled them up into an ebook, stuck it up online.
But like I say that was about five years ago. And ever since then people have been asking me, ‘When’s the update coming?’ or, ‘Is there a new version of it?’, or ‘Does it still do what you wanted it to do?’ And within about 18 months of me publishing it, I felt it needed revisiting. And I’ve had that at the back of my mind for a long time. And every time I’ve tried to address it, I’ve never really got the recipe right. I’ve tried to do ’20 More Things’ and I’ve tried to do ‘The 20 Things Updated’ and I’ve tried different approaches to it. I even tried to do one that was turning those 20 things into actual strategies, so, ‘You should do this’, rather than ‘Here is something to know’. And it never really felt like it worked.
But then I was doing a talk in the Netherlands, and one of the guys at it said, ‘What would the book be like if you wrote it now?’ And I thought, well that’s a good question, I hadn’t actually thought about that, because there wouldn’t be 20 things, there’d only be one, and that one thing is, this idea of the Internet as a conversational medium. The way I put it in the book is, this is a conversation. And that became the starting point of, when I first started writing it, it was called The One Thing You Must Know About Music And Everything Else Online, which was a bit of a mouthful, but actually because I ended up writing, I’m writing another book for a traditional publisher, an academic book, called Radio In The Digital Age, I thought it would be nice to have that mirror image, and just call it Music In The Digital Age. So I’ve started there, and I’ve written this kind of, here is my idea about the Internet as a conversational medium, and while I’m at it, what the hell, let’s revisit the 20 Things, but within the context of a larger book, which I’m still in the process of writing. So I’ve kind of got those bits out of the way, here is what I think about the Internet, particularly as it relates to music, and here is me just going back to that book and saying, you know what, here’s what I think about that now. And now I kind of feel like I’ve removed those shackles and I can move on and publish the next bit now.
A: Going back to the shackles for a minute, actually when I read through Music In The Digital Age and I was looking and comparing that with 20 Things You Must Know, I was trying to figure out whether you think it makes sense to… So are you assuming in Music In The Digital Age that someone has familiarity with the previous one, or would you think it would be, in the part in Music In The Digital Age where you write, addressing the 20 Things and referencing what you’d previously said, whether that makes sense to go, whether you think… the best thing to do is start fresh? Or whether, like assume that…
D: I kind of struggled with that…
A: …you know what I mean? So many other things start with, Well I said this five years ago, and it kind of relates, and I was thinking, hmmm — you know what I’m saying, right? You know what I’m getting at?
D: Yeah, I did struggle with that. I thought, do I repeat myself, or, and actually what I ended up deciding was, what the hell, I’ll just put the 20 Things book up on Leanpub as well, and if people want to look, I’ve already written it, they can just look at that, and they can have it for nothing, and that’s fine. So it kind of feels like you don’t need the 20 Things book. If you have read the 20 Things book, then this will make sense, and if you want to read the — well in the original book I said ‘This is what I feel about it now’, and you go ‘Really, he said that, let’s go and see what he actually said in detail’, and you can actually read the whole thing if you want to, because it’s all just there. And I thought, in fact, one of the things that I thought of doing was 20 Things 2.0, which actually takes the individual things, the individual chapters, from the first one, and then intersperses the update version, and actually having that as a different edition if you like. I haven’t decided not to do that yet, I just haven’t done it yet.
A: Something that assumes that the other, has one paragraph saying, ‘By the way, this is an old, the old version exists here, but let’s just ignore it from now on and just go from scratch and just talk about the ideas rather than the relationship of the old ideas to the new ideas. Yeah, I know what you mean.
D: Here’s the fun bit. With something like Leanpub, I can play with these ideas.
D: And I can just change my mind about it, or I can put things up and I can experiment. And if it doesn’t work, then I’ll just kind of, you know, that’s fine to leave it there, I mean I’ve published books that I imagine nobody will ever want to read. And when people do, it’s thorooughly gratifying, and, but the thing is you’ve go the opportunity to kind of play with it and test things as you develop them.
A: Yeah, exactly, that’s the whole idea of Lean Publishing, is being able to publish while you’re writing, get feedback from actual people who are invested, like literally invested because they paid money for the thing, and they want it to be good, right?
D: Yeah, well, that’s the thing, even that thing on pricing has been a complete sandbox for me, all the way along. What is my book worth to people? And I’ve sort of come to some weird decisions about that. The less I charge for it the more people seem to want to pay! Which is kind of nice.
A: I like that we both independently came up with sliders!
A: Because that seems like the new, the slider is the new text input for how much something should cost.
D: I think so because, and actually this is, somewhere that I’ve seen, I can’t remember where I saw it, but I’d really love to do it, is, that as you move the slider to the right, there’s a frowny face that turns into a happy face.
A: Ha! We were joking about having a plate of food — you move it to the right and you get a better dish, and a glass of wine, and stuff, and when you move it to the left it turns into like a hamburger, and then a half-eaten hamburger!
D: That’s kinda cool. But my tech skills are fairly limited and I’ve got a friend who helps me out, but it’s really just kind of a favour, so I thought, just a nice simple slider would be the way forward.
A: Let’s talk a bit about some of the ideas in the book. You’ve written about the relationship of music and commerce. Tell me about that.
D: Here’s the thing. I think people have this really weird idea that music as culture and music as commerce are in opposition to each other. That if you add the commercial element to something it ruins it, or if you just think about music as culture, you haven’t understood its commercial potential, or whatever. But I kind of step back from that and go, actually, music is culture, but culture is just what people say, make and do; that’s all culture means. And commerce is a subset of what people say, make and do. And so, music being commerce is part of music being culture. And it actually pays to understand the broader cutlural aspects of music in order to be able to make the most of it from a commercial perspective. Because music makes money for people to the extent that music makes meaning for people. I think the same can be said about books, too, actually. The more meaningful they are in people’s lives, for whatever reason, whether it’s identity or memory or whatever it is, the more those things will link into how many copies you’ll sell. And that’s true of music, it’s true of books, it’s true of all sorts.
A: Yeah, that’s why when you talk about things being a conversation, how you see releasing music, and then interacting with your listeners, and releasing a book and interacting with your readers — the same type of idea obviously…
D: I think the analogy breaks down a little there, because what musicians… what writers do is they write books. But what musicians do, making recordings is such a tiny part of what they do. This activity of being a musician, what Christopher Small calls ‘musicking’, isn’t reducible to locking yourself in a dark, windowless, airless room for three months while you make these idealized versions of what you think your songs should sound like. And then sort of selling them as commodities — that’s kind of a small part of it. And I think what’s really interesting about the online environment, is you have an opportunity to find other ways for people to make meaning from what you do, and find other ways for them to give you money for that.
A: In terms of interacting with your fans, how do you think the use of things like Twitter differs between writers and musicians?
D: I think Twitter’s really interesting because people think of it as a technology, but the more you use it, the more the technology disappears, and you start to realize it’s just human beings having conversations with each other. And this idea that ‘This is my online strategy, I want to use Twitter and I’m going to use Facebook’, is like saying, ‘This is my direct mail strategy, I’m going to use pens and paper’. What are you going to say, is the more important part, and how are you going to engage with people, and I think the fact that the online environment is a conversational space means, alright, well then I’ll have conversations. How do you have conversations? Well, you listen to people, you join in, you don’t stand on a chair and shout, ‘Look at me, I’m amazing’. I feel like, that as a social space, Twitter’s quite a bit like a bar, really. And you can kind of join in conversations, or you can hang back, or you can just say things to yourself in a corner — or you can stand on a chair and shout about how amazing you are! This retweeting praise thing is really interesting, it’s like, ‘Hey, did you hear about what this guy said about me? He says I’m awesome!’ You just wouldn’t do that in that social situation. It’s that kind of — when you think about the online environment as a conversational space, you actually, and this is why I said you only need to know one thing about music online, because actually all those 20 other things follow logically from there. If you think about it as being a conversational space, you’re not going to screw it up.
A: [laughter] Right, yeah, I’m really guilty about the retweet stuff about Leanpub! When people say nice things about Leanpub, it’s like, retweet! So I guess I do lots of the standing on a chair…
D: But you’ve got something to push, something to market. It’s a weird space to be in. Because being an organization is not the same as being a band.
D: And yeah, it’s funny, you get these bands’ Twitter accounts, you don’t know who’s talking, whether it’s the drummer or the singer or the cute guy, or whatever. And so there’s this kind of faceless, corporate entity just going ‘We’re amazing, check out our video, look at our… and there’s nothing engaging about that, and actually it turns into something quite boring, quite quickly. I think if you’re an organization, if you’re a company, there’s a reason to have a corporate, authorial voice I guess.
A: That is weird.
D: Yeah it might be different for small organizations. I kind of like the idea of ‘Peter from Leanpub’
A: Scott and I both tweet. Scott tweets stuff; I tweet stuff. We have our Leanpub one, but it’s weird, we have that for stuff like, ‘Hey, we’ve had a problem with our book generator’, or sometimes Leanpub often retweets nice stuff people say — but Scott and I tend to do things more individually as well. It’s kind of like, the account kind of functions like a tag. If you say something about @leanpub, then you know Leanpub is involved, and it becomes…
D: …it becomes part of the conversation. And there’s an opportunity to engage as an organization. I mean, we’ve got a New Music Strategies account. Unfortunately, New Music Strategies is too long to be a Twitter name so we’re @thisisnms, but the @thisisnms account almost never tweets, because we’re like Steve Lawson, and me particularly. I mean, Steve Lawson tweets more than any person alive! You follow him on Twitter and you’ve got to be prepared to balance that with other people, you have to actually start following more just so it doesn’t seem like it dominates so much. But he says some really cool and interesting stuff. But we look at the ‘corporate’ account, if you like, for New Music Strategies Twitter account, and we’re not really sure what to say there. So it’s funny, because we’re a group of individuals who happen to work together, but we have our own voice. And I guess if we were in a bar, we might have conversations with people that might be about New Music Strategies, but aren’t from New Music Strategies, if you see what I mean.
A: Exactly, and that’s what, when you’re talking in your book, Music In The Digital Age, about how the digital age compares to the electric age, right, it’s the same idea…
D: Yeah, for sure, And the electric age is all about broadcasting. It’s about, make one sell many, it’s about centralized production and then mass distribution, it’s recordings, it’s broadcasting. Whereas the digital age, I think the thing that characterizes it, is that it puts that within a conversational space. Marshall McLuhan says this thing about, the content of any new medium is its predecessor. So people think they’re watching TV on the Internet, or reading newspapers online, or whatever — that’s not TV, that’s not newspapers, that’s the Internet, and actually it’s a completely different context when it’s within there. And they become social objects, which is something I’m going to talk more about in the book. But they become the things about which the conversation takes place. So, I think the two main ingredients on the Internet are conversation and the things about which the conversation takes place. And the way that you have success with music, if you want to distribute it and get it out there, is the extent to which it makes significant meaning for people to want to take it and have conversations about it. Being shared is more important than being distributed, if you like.
A: Speaking of that, one idea when I was reading through your book is, twigged the idea for me, the notion of ‘digital native’, and that’s gotten bandied around a lot lately. Do you think that’s a legitimate and valuable term, or do you think it’s full of itself, and overblown?
D: It’s a valuable term in the sense that it distills a really simple idea. But it’s not actually descriptive of anything real in the world. It’s one of those things where you say, ‘I’m a digital native’, and it just means, ‘I know how to use computers’ — which is like saying ‘I’m a driving native’.
A: I’ve heard the stupid version, which is, people who were born after Google or after Facebook or whatever, somehow are magically, since they’ve for their entire lives these things have existed, that they somehow understand digital things better than people who, were born before Google.
D: That’s true of any technology though. There’s a great Douglas Adams line about, anything that was invented before you were born is part of the natural order of things, anything that was born between your birth and the age of 30 is something you could get a job in, and you could learn and probably become quite comepetent at, anything after that is of the devil. But that’s true no matter when you were born. I’m going to be 45 this year, so I’m not, on paper, a digital native, but actually I’ve been using computers, like immersed in computers, for the last 20 years. And I’m not a computer programmer, I’m not a code monkey, I’m not a technical person, these are just tools that I happen to have found useful, and have used over the last 20 yars. And so, I’m a digital native in the sense that, this is where I spend all my time. But, I mean, ‘digital native’ is not interesting, it’s like saying you’re an ‘electric native’. It’s like that thing about driving: you don’t just press the button and pull the lever and look in the mirror, and indicate and pull out, and turn the handle or whatever, you just drive to your friend’s place. Once the technology disappears, it just becomes the way in which you do things. So, in a sense, that kind of makes you native, but at the same time it means that the technology’s not the interesting bit. Being digital is no more interesting than being electric. It’s just, what do you do, and how do you communicate, and how do you get on with other human beings.
A: That makes sense. Speaking of tools and how you use digital tools, how did you find out about Leanpub, what made you try it?
D: Actually it was one of my colleagues at the university who suggested it. He works in the music department… well, we’ve got different departments, I teach music within the media faculty, but, there’s some really good research going on in our conservatory as well, who do the composition of music and performance of music. And there was a guy there, we were talking about online publishing, and he said, ‘Have you tried Leanpub?’, and I said ‘No’, so I had a look, and it ticked all my boxes when I went there, and it just kind of seeemed to do the trick.
A: Cool. So tell me about your third Leanpub book. How To Make Wishes That Come True.
D: Yeah, that one was kind of interesting. I’ve got a friend, Stef, who now lives in London, who’s one of the most remarkable, imaginative, creative people that I know, who is also a really amazing coder, who’s been involved in startups and so on. We did this for a while on a Friday, once a month we’d get together and we’d try to do a startup in a day — like an online, like build it and release it into the wild and see what the world made of it, and then if we got bored of it… and if it took off we’d work on it, and if we got bored with it, it would wither and die. There were a few that we did that were quite interesting, but one of the ones that we did that we liked was called “I So Wish.” And what “I So Wish” was, essentially it started out, well let’s just get people, can make wishes on the website — the end. “I wish I had a pony!’, and publish, and then it would go up, and there would be a big stream of people making more wishes. And then, people said, Well, I want to be able to do things with these wishes. And other people said, Well actually, you know what, that person who wished that, I can actually grant that wish for them! And we thought, there’s something interesting here. And so we spent a little bit more time on it, and we developed it a little bit more, and we got to the point where it was a real commununity. It wasn’t huge, but we had quite, you know, several hundred people were posting, and helping each other out, and then we were granting points for people who were particularly helpful to people — so rather than being, just sort of idly wishing things, we actually made a community where the whole point of it was to try and grant other peoples’ wishes.
It was a really cool thing to do. Like for instance, one woman posted that she wished that she lived in the US, and she was in the UK. And this guy from the States said, Well actually, I’ve got all these spare Air Miles, why don’t you use those, come over and check out some properties. Stuff like that was happening. Some of it was really moving stuff, people in tragic situations, and people coming together and really helping them. So it was a really exciting thing. Of course neither of us had the time or the money or the energy to spend on it, and it’s sad, I’d really love to revisit it later, but it withered and died.
But the really cool thing about it was, it sparked a whole lot of other things. And we were kicking around ideas about what we could contribute to it, and what we could do, and I can’t remember why, but I spent 24 hours in bed sick, but still conscious enough to write something. And so I said to Stef, Since I’m stuck here anyway, I’ll see if I can write an ebook, and we can sell that on the website. Everybody seemed to like the ebook that I did on New Music Strategies, let’s do one for here. But I didn’t want it to be this kind of wishy-washy, you know, because it’s a book about wishes, you know, very quickly you go down that really dodgy path of, if you just close your eyes and wish hard enough the universe will grant you everything you want. Which is nonsense.
But I thought, well actually, if you think about it right, wishes are just, it’s just goal-setting. It’s like, I want the world to be in this way, it’s not yet, and how do I go about doing that? And so what I did was rather than saying, Here is a goal-setting workshop, or saying, Here’s a book about wishes and fairies and pixies and whatever, it was Here’s how to make wishes that come true. And that was the core. This is like real wishing. This is the way that I want the world to be, I wish, whether it’s lose weight, or get a particular job, or have an amount of money, or write a book, or whatever it is, you know what it is you want to have about the world to be true that isn’t true at the moment.
OK so how you make wishes that come true is you start with the wish, you make sure it’s a good one, you make it’s one that’s real and practical and achievaable and measurable, and all the things that people tell you goals should be, but then you actually set in place steps that take you towards that. And in that sense it’s really kind of basic goal-seeking workshop stuff. But it is a workshop. Here’s how to make wishes, here’s how to make really cool wishes, and here’s how to make really cool wishes that come true, if you actually are a bit real about wishes, rather than just, I wish I had a pony with, whatever, pink tassels.
A: It’s funny, I just retweeted something from Tim O’Reilly; Tim O’Reilly tweeted something from Werner Vogels from way back in 2006, about how Amazon does products, and the notion of starting by writing the press release and then backing out to FAQ and thinking about that sort of company version of the same thing, thinking about what does this look like when it’s done, and describe exactly why… describe the thing completed, and then backing out to thinking, well how did it get there…?
D: That’s project management, it’s Gantt charts, it’s where do you want to end up, when do you want to end up there, what has to be true before that happens, what has to be true before that, so you can just kind of take the steps backwards, and it’s not, it’s the furthest thing from magic. But as soon as you put the word ‘wishes’ in the title, people are going to get the wrong idea, so it’s not the greatest piece of marketing in the world, and it’s not a terribly successful book either! But it’s one that I’m quite pleased with all the same, because it does actually take you through this process. There’s some friends of mine who’ve used it for things like losing weight, or, in fact one of them used it for writing a book, which was just, These are the things that I want to be true in this amount of years, and I’m going to go and set out and do it now.
A: Yeah, just working backwards; that’s nice, I like that…
Back to Music In The Digital Age. It’s been translated into a lot of languages, or been translated into a lot of languages already, and so tell me about that, and how the process is going…
D: That’s been really cool. When I put out 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online, a few people approached me and said, Can I translate this into my language? And I went Yeah, knock yourself out, fine, help yourself! And so they would go away for six months, and then come back and go, I did it! And present it to me and I’d go, Cool, and put it up on my website. But what I thought would be good this time, because I want the book to almost be an experiment in the kind of things that I talk about, so, I said, well if anybody wants to translate this book, let’s translate it as we go. You’ve got the opporunity with Leanpub to publish it in progress, why can’t we translate it in progress as well? I’ll write the next bit and publish that, you translate it, when that’s ready we’ll publish that, and we’ll just kind of tick along. And I thought, I wonder how many languages I could probably do? And so I went through a list of a) the people I know who speak other languages to start with, and then b) what are the most common spoken languages in the world? And I ended up with a list of between 25 and 30. And of those so far I’ve got 20 under way, and five of them I think are already in a state ready to be published. There are some that are just people getting started now, but I’ve got a Greek version, a German version, Spanish, Portuguese, and Estonian up on the website already. Dutch is almost ready to go, there’s a few others just waiting in the wings, and as it happens. But there’s no rush — that’s the thing about this. When people are ready, we can put it up. But what I’ve done is, to try and make it worth people’s while, because I can’t pay them to go and do translations, but if people are giving me money it would be churlish of me not to share it, so what I’ve said is, if you want to translate it into your language, whatever we sell of your language version, I’ll just split you 50/50. And people seem happy with that, not because they think they’re going to make lots of money out of it, but because that seems fair.
A: Right. Actually I have a question about translations: Since it’s being translated as you’re writing it, have you found that in-progress translation has affected the development of the original, in terms of, if one of your translators asks to clarify certain ideas, or how something possibly translates?
D: Yeah, totally. In fact there’s a chapter in the book that I had not thought of writing because the way in which I describe something doesn’t make sense in translation to every language. Which is this idea of ‘media’. Because in English, ‘media’ is the plural of ‘medium’, but there’s also this thing called ‘the media’, which is a single entity. So rather than trying to explain it each time to the translators, as they came across it, I ended up writing a chapter that said, When I say ‘media’, this is what I mean, this is how I think about it. But actually that turned out to be a really helpful clarification, and in fact that’s what I’ve had the most feedback about, That was really helpful, because all of the other stuff you talked about, I kind of had a vague idea of what you meant. Because I’ve got all these ideas — I’m in a Media Studies department, I’ve been studying media for the last 12 years, and I understand what I think of as ‘media’, but I don’t explain it very well, I sort of start as this, well, the digital media are these things, and the electric media are these things, and, What to you mean ‘media’? And you have to actually answer some more fundmental questions about what that means and how that works and how to think about it. And actually that’s made me write something better, because it was essentially untranslatable.
A: Hmm, that’s interesting.
D: The other thing was, because, when I started on Leanpub, what I would do is, I’d publish something, and then I’d go back to the first bit and I would change that and republish that, you know, updated version, but of course I need the early stuff to be canonical, so that the translators don’t go, Oh, he’s changed that, I have to translate that chapter again!
A: I was actually going to ask you about that, because I ferociously, when I write, revise old stuff, and I was trying to figure out, if that had impacted what you were doing, if it was making you hesitant to revise your older writing in the book, or whether you were just going to be like, if you’re signed up to translate, then this is what you’re in for…
D: No, what I’ve done is, I’ve decided that, what I’ll give the translators, is the stuff that I’m 100% on. So I’ve published more than I’ve given to the translators to translate, but I’m 100% happy with it. At least the first half-dozen chapters of the book will not change now. Because it wouldn’t be fair to anyone that’s tranlsating it. But by the same token, the stuff that I’ve done — I just published a couple of weeks ago, and then when I was doing the audio book, I went through and noticed a bunch of mistakes, in the latest stuff — you know, typos and stuff, and little things like, a whole chapter missing, and so I had to go back and go, actually this version that I published a couple of weeks ago, that isn’t right, let me re-publish another one. But of course the stuff that I’d changed hadn’t gone to the translators yet, so they’re about six to eight weeks behind what I’m doing.
A: That’s interesting. It’s reminiscent of a lot of things. For example, in software, unit tests are a good thing, but then the more tests you have, then when you make a change, that changes what the thing does, you have all this extra work to change the tests, which you have to do, but, yeah, the more derivative things that are based on the current reality of what something is, the more inertia… You have to decide what you’ve committed to and what you haven’t, right, which makes you think harder about what you’re doing…
D: The great thing for me is that this is a really great experimental space. And nobody dies if I mess something up, or if I do it wrong, or I change my mind about something. But, what you’re doing, is this kind of, iterations of a software service. Lots and lots of people are using the service, and lots of lots of people are banking their livelihoods on it, so there’s a little more pressure on you than there is on me to get it right with each iteration. But if I publish a version of my book which is nonsense, or which is wrong, or has bits missing, or it just doesn’t work, as a book, people will barely notice. So I’ve got this kind of freedom to try and make it as good as I can possibly make it, but also go, What happens if I do this? What happens if I try this experiment? What happens if I completely change the way I price it, for instance? What happens if I ask people to translate it, can I do that? So it’s been a really interesting experimentation, with, not music obviously, but a creative practice in the digital space, that I can take lessons from. In fact, on New Music Strategies we did a podcast which was essentially about pricing, based on some experiments Steve and I had both done, Steve with his albums and me with the books. And thinking about what pricing means, in an online environment, and how people express what they consider to be value in monetary terms. And you just saying, Well it costs this, and that’s all it is, isn’t necessarily the right answer any more.
A: Right, yeah, your books all have, all three of your books have a free minimum price, and a fairly low suggested price. Can you go into the details of what you’ve found so far, and what the thinking is?
D: Well I’ve tried a few different price points, and I’ve tried a few different recommended prices as well. I really like the idea that people can get my book for nothing if they want to. It’s a digital thing. If they really wanted it for nothing, they could get it for nothing, so I might as well be the person they get it for nothing from.
D: But by the same token, I don’t want to make a presupposition that my book has value to anybody. And if it does, great, and if they want to reward that value, fanstastic. So this idea of a recommended price is kind of cool. But what was really interesting, when I first decided, you know what, I’m going to make it minimum zero, if you want it just have it, and if it means something to you you can pay for it, and if you download it and never look at it, then why would you have paid for it anyway. So zero’s cool, and it also means that if people who need my book, who need the advice, but actually can’t pay for it — I mean I do a lot of work in South America, and countries, and India, and places where people just don’t have money, who don’t have PayPal accounts, and for me to say, Well you can’t have this unless you give me money, is sort of cutting out a large proportion of people who could find what I do useful in their lives. So that was my reason for making it zero.
But when I first put the recommended price at five dollars, just to try it out, because five dollars seems like a reasonable amount, and people didn’t really download it. Because I think they thought, and this is my reading of it, they thought that, Well, I need to pay five dollars. I’ve got five dollars, but this is not really what I want to spend five dollars on, or at least I’m not 100% certain that I want to spend five dollars on it. So I know that I can get it for free, but, I’m not going to. So a lot of people just didn’t download it when the price was five dollars. And that’s some anecdotal evidence of that. So I lowered the recommended price to $1.99. They could have put $1.99, but I put the recommended price at $1.99, which is basically a cup of coffee, or not even that, but, what it means is people go, Oh, it’s only $1.99, I’ll just, it’s that sort of impulse-purchase app thing, which is what I’ve based it on, it’s like, $1.99 is an impulse-buy app that you might use for two days and then you get bored with. And so people go, It’s only $1.99, I’ll check it out. And then they go there, and they go, Well I can’t just give $1.99, that’s really mean, I’ll give five dollars! And so what’s actually happened is, the more I move the recommended price to the left, the more likely people were to pay more than what the original recommended price was. And so, the lower, I don’t know if this is kind of, you know, if you put it at one cent, people would pay $100 -
A: We actually can’t. The floor is either zero or 99 cents, right.
D: Right, because you’ve got this PayPal account. So let’s, if you’re going to pay, I’d kind of like to give a little bit at least, so let’s not give it all to PayPal, so let’s make it $1.99 as a recommended price — you can pay $0.99 if you want, but, it’s just, you donating money to PayPal, essentially.
A: And that’s why we put the royalty slider there, is to show people what you’re getting. We’re trying to show, look, you drag it to the right and look how much better it is for the author.
D: Yeah, for sure, because it is that sort of percetage plus 50 cents sort of thing, which you know you can do the maths visually by moving the slider around, but, it’s really interesting, the number of people who, since I’ve put the recommended price down to $1.99, have paid ten dollars, has been really interesting. Nobody paid ten dollars when it was recommended five. The people who did pay, paid five.
A: Yeah, exactly. If you’re asking for something, then there’s less opportunity to be generous.
D: Exactly, yeah. And I think if you cater to people’s generosity, then that’s a really interesting, you know, situation to be in. But the other thing that I do, is, if people want to come back and pay for it, that’s cool too, and I encourage that in the book. If you start from the basis of, pay what it’s worth, you’re not going to know what it’s worth until you’ve read it.
A: Right, and so you have this thing on your website…
D: Yeah. And so if you want to come back and pay me, that’s on the website, I’ve got a thing now on my website, there’s the slider there of course, but I’ve also put, you know, Here’s my Amazon Wishlist — if you’d rather just buy me something nice, that’s cool too! And so you’ve got this opportunity to indulge people’s enthusiasms, and indulge their generosity, and I’ve had — I had a couple who produce music in the States, came to my website, moved the slider around, and ended up at $75, and gave me that.
D: …and ended up getting a Skype call out of it, and we chatted, and I gave them, did consultancy with them, and that was really cool. But this sort of thing where, you don’t get to… what my book is worth is not up to me, as far as I’m concerned, as a kind of a cultural text if you like, it’s only valuable to the extent that it’s meaningful to people. And so this is opportunity to experiment with, what does that translate to in terms of an economic transaction.
A: Yeah, we’re thinking around, we’ve had a couple of people say, Hey, I’d like to be able to come to Leanpub and pay more for the purchase afterward. And so you’ve obviously just provided that functionality yourself, but, this is one thing we’ve been thinking of doing. We’ve had people ask is to build it, to let us do that -
D: Because people could just buy it again -
A: But people don’t want to do that, it’s weird. We’ve had people say, I want to be able to modify my purchase so that I’ve paid more, instead of just buy another copy.
D: It is, because it’s a discursive thing, it’s a statement.
A: Yeah, exactly.
D: And the other thing that people don’t want to do, they don’t want to donate.
A: Yeah, they want to buy the thing.
D: They want to buy the book. But they want to, they want to have bought it for more, after the fact.
A: Yeah, and some people want to let the author know who they are. Is that something you’d be interested in…?
D: Yeah, for sure. Some authors will be interested from the perspective, Well if you let me know who they are, then I can market to them, I can sell them other stuff, I can, they can be on my mailing list. And I’m less interested in that. But I actually just want to be able to say Thank You to people! You know, to say, I’m really glad you found that interesting. At the moment, people who want to, they can drop me a note, I’m sort of the most findable guy on the planet, they can go through my website, they can catch me on Twitter, they can send me a message and go ‘Hey I’ve got your book’, but I find myself going, Hey somebody just paid ten dollars for my book, whoever that was, thanks a lot, that was really cool. And I’d really love to be able to do that in person. And so from that perspective I think, it’s not about knowing who they are, but actually being able to go, to make an individual piece of communication just to say, Thanks, that’s awesome!
A: So for us — I’m doing customer development here, and I’m trying to figure out, I think there’s some feature here, we’ve had a couple of ideas and I’m trying to get a sense of your take on it. We’ve had some authors who want to see names of everyone, but we want to keep the purchase form simple, so that people don’t have to think about how social they’re being when they click the button that buys the thing.
D: And also, by the same token, every time you go into a shop, you don’t want to tell the person your name…
A: Yeah, or else you go to IKEA and they ask for your postal code, and it’s like, No, I don’t want to. But the flip side is, I can see, after the fact, people wanting to let the author know either who they are, like name or name and email, or…
D: Well, my contact details are in the book, if people want to let me know who they are, they can let me know who they are. But I just think at that point of transaction, to have something that’s a little more than just a standard automated response — “Hi, thanks for purchasing!” — that’s meaningless. But if I, because I get these email notifications from you guys that say, ‘Somebeody just bought your book, we’re not telling you who!’ — but if somebody just bought your book for X amount, to have a link on that that says, “Thank this person” -
A: That would be really nice.
D: Yeah, that would be really cool. So I could actually type a — ‘Hey thanks very much for checking it out, if you want, here’s some information about me, be glad to hear what you think of it, etc.’ — to have that as a real person interaction rather than just an automated response, I think that would be really cool.
A: And if we did that, would you be fine with that, like even if we kept the thing right now where we don’t share emails, you could just send them a message -
D: I actually prefer that.
A: Yeah, we could make the Reply-To be from you. I want to, we had that thing the other day, where someone sent, occasionally people have sent us emails, thinking they’re emailing you, and so, we could do something where we set the Reply-To header of our email, be like you, and so you could send someone an email saying, ‘Thanks a lot for buying my book, that’s really generous’, and it would come from Leanpub, but it would be Reply-To Andrew Dubber.
A: That’s actually a good feature, I like that.
D: I would be more happy with that than you telling me the name and address and contact details. Because, from a privacy perspective -
A: …No, that’s why we’re not doing it. It would have to be opt-in, and if it’s going to be opt-in, it has to be after the fact, so we don’t clutter up the Buy button. But, it’s like, just because an author is like, I want this information — Well, yes you do, but you’ll also sell a lot less, and you don’t want that! And also, as a reader, I don’t want to provide that, if I’ve just tried to buy something anonymously and read it.
D: Well that was one of the central statements of the 20 Things book, which was, fewer clicks — you want people to give you money, get out of their way!
A: Yeah, exactly. I like this idea, I like that idea a lot. We should look into that closely…
Just a couple more things. So you’ve done a lot of things on Leanpub. What’s surprised you the most about using Leanpub so far?
D: You guys. Just how responsive you are, how helpful you are every time I’ve got a problem. Like, I’ve got a, the translation thing is causing you guys headaches -
A: Ha, Hebrew! Holy crap, it’s like, really, we’ve hit this point already?
D: But that’s the thing. To actually go to an online startup service that provides something that’s so incredibly useful, and you go, ‘Oh, I’ve got a problem with this’, and the guy who coded it says, ‘Well let me help you with that’ — that’s awesome! And I think for me, that’s been the biggest surprise and the biggest delight, actually, from working with Leanpub, is you and Scott just kind of getting it right in terms of having conversations like human beings.
A: That’s really nice to hear, thank you. Is there anything that you wish, is high on your list of what we can improve or fix?
D: Well, it would only really benefit me, it’s the Hebrew translation’s going to cause me all sorts of issues, because it’s right-aligned and it doesn’t play very well with Markdown language, and that sort of stuff, so figuring out a solution to that’s sort of top of my list at the moment, but it’s probably at the top of nobody else’s.
A: [laughter] I think you’re about right on that!
Well, this has been very interesting for me. Andrew, thank you very much for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast and for being a Leanpub author.
D: No problem at all. Look, if you want anything from me, just give me a shout.
Originally published at leanpub.com.