[0:00:00.2] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl, and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode we talk about something new coming out of Black Irish Publishing, which is the publishing house that Steven Pressfield and Shawn Coyne created, and we’re doing something new over there called Black Irish JABs, and I think it’s really interesting on two fronts; the content we’re actually releasing over there, but also the way that it’s being done and the way that it’s being presented and thinking long-term about what the publishing landscape is going to look like for independent writers and independent publishers. So it’s a really interesting episode. I think you’re really going to enjoy it.
So let’s jump in and get started.
[00:01:02] TG: So Shawn, this week over at Black Irish Publishing, we’re doing something new, something I think is pretty cool. So I just figured we’d spend some time today talking about it and sharing about it. I think it’s neat because of what it is and the content and the books and all that, of course. But I also think it has a larger impact on how we’re viewing publishing, and especially we’ve talked a lot about publishing models, traditional publishing, self-publishing on the show at different times, and I think some of our thinking has influenced this next phase of what Black Irish is doing. I thought it would be fun to talk a little bit about what we’re doing, the books and also kind of our view of publishing and how that’s affected this kind of new thing. But let’s start with just tell a little bit about, for those that don’t, Black Irish. Who’s involved? Where it came from?
[00:02:05] SC: Sure. Black Irish Books started in January 2011 and it was about – I guess it was about six weeks after a marketing meeting that Steve and I had at a major publishing house, one of the big five. We came out of that meeting so depressed, because we had a couple of marketing ideas to help launch Steve’s novel, which was called The Profession, which is a great novel, a great thriller about – It’s a military thriller. Our idea basically was to create a little mini-book that we could give away for free and we would use the hospices of the major publishing company to announce it and get the excitement going.
So Steven written a book and one of the core concept of the book was – I asked Steve, like, “What would be the first principles of being a soldier? What is the warrior ethos? If you had to boil it all down into a sort of a mini-book of philosophical treatise on the warrior life, what would it be?” He wrote this great book called The Warrior Ethos. So it’s this beautiful little package, and we presented the idea that, “Hey, why don’t we do a program for Steve’s novel, The Profession, and we’ll promote it by giving away this little mini book for free to people in the military or anybody interested?” We in fact agreed to subsidize the marketing program and pay for it.
Basically the bottom line is that they said, “That’s not a good idea. We know what we’re doing, and thank you for coming by, but our plans are going to remain the same, and good day to you.” So Steve and I left the meeting and me, being the Black Irishmen, I was and continue to be, I got a little heated in the meeting and it was a confrontation symphony.
When we left, Steve was very depressed because he felt like, “Geez! I’ve been –” He’d worked on this book for three years and it was excruciating and it was a turning point for him and he brought me in at the last minute to try and help and save the book, and I think we did. Anyway, we walked across the street and we decided to have lunch and I looked at Steve and I said, “Look, we’re going to face this the rest of our publishing lives if we don’t do something ourselves. We need to take the bull by the horns and start our own thing where we publish directly, and who knows if it’ll work? It probably won’t work, but I can’t face another meeting like that.” He just looked at me and he said, “I absolutely agree,” and he reached over and he said, “Let’s do it.” That was I think November of 2010.
So over the next eight weeks or, as an old hand in publishing, I knew how to set up a company very quickly and we got some advice from the wonderful Seth Godin. After consulting a lot of people, we launched Black Irish Books in January 2011 with the e-book publication and paperback reprint of The War of Art, which was the book that Steve and I had worked together in 2001, 10 years later we decided to bring it out, and that’s how Black Irish started. Steve came up with the name of the company based upon my performance at that meeting, because Black Irish people are very temperamental and they believe that everything is a line in the sand stand, and once you cross that line, they start hollering and hooting and making things uncomfortable.
So Steve liked that. I liked it too, because the ethos of the company was built upon frustration and lack of power, and sort of the way the book publishing business was structured and continues to be structured is very much – It’s making the writer sort of like child-like. You’re supposed to go in there and listen to the adults in the room and they’re going to tell you what to do and they know best and they’ve been doing this for 300 years. So just deliver the manuscript, smile and hope for the best. We don’t think – We don’t agree with that at all. We like the idea of experimenting, doing new things, coming up with new platforms and paradigms and just basically building books that we always wanted to read from not only ourselves, but other people occasionally, like you, who come to us with an idea that we think we want to be a part of.
So over the – Geez! It’s been almost 8 years. We have about 20, 25 books in the backlist and they’re all doing very well. We’re very proud of every single one that we published. One of the other things that we did when we started is I said to Steve, I said, “The day will come –” because at the beginning, of course, we went through Amazon on everything and we did iTunes, e-books, and Kobo and we continued to do all that. But I said to Steve, “The day will come when these great powerful companies that are opening up the doors to the distribution systems that they have in place to independent people like us, those doors are slowly going to start to close to the point where the profitability of being an independent producer is not going to be what it once was.”
Basically what that means is that Amazon, they’re a powerhouse. They control who knows? I think it’s probably between 60% to 70% of the U.S. book market in terms of gross revenue annually, and that’s only talking about like the big five. There’s this whole mysterious self-publishing platform that they own, man. They really only it, and that’s probably twice, if not three times, the dollar volume revenue annually that the big five [inaudible 00:08:19]. They basically cornered the market of book publishing.
So being the pessimist that I am, what I said very early on is, “We’ve got to build our own store, Steve. We can’t just sit back and hope for the best that Amazon is going to treat us well for the rest of time, because they’re corporation. There’s no one single benevolent person in charge. It’s a corporate entity that has to deliver no profits every quarter.”
[00:08:47] TG: You don’t see Bezos as a single benevolent entity?
[00:08:50] SC: I don’t. I think he’s a genius, but he’s got his own plans and he’s got his own – Now, obviously, he’s so smart that the business that he started with books, he basically cornered books and then moved into other arenas, and now books is a very tiny fraction of the larger annual revenue of amazon.com, which protects it in a way, because it’s kind of small beer. Jeff Bezos, I promise you, is not thinking about KDPD revenue or anything of that sort at this point. But you never say never, and we go through cyclical economic times and some bean counter somewhere at some point might be saying, “Hey, why don’t we squeeze more revenue out of all these mooks who are getting us free or offering them our distribution platform at a really bargain price?”
[00:09:48] TG: We saw that. We’ve already seen that with Audible. They used to have much, much better splits, and then now they don’t as of a few years ago. It wouldn’t be the first time.
[00:10:02] SC: Well, Audible also is – They set the price for independent people like us and they set the price purely based upon the length of the book. So a book that Steve and I would publish with great vim and vigor, because it’s short, because it’s to the point, because we kick out a lot of the junk to fill up a book that would be 385 pages. We boil it down to under 200 and we consider that a valuable service to the audience. Well, in terms of Audible, it doesn’t matter. Believe me, I had discussions with them and I say, “Look, we need to price our Audible books much higher than they are,” and they say, “Well, thank you, but our algorithm thinks otherwise and we don’t really have any recourse for that,” which only again supported the notion of us starting an online bookstore to go along with our publishing program.
As far as I know, Steve and I in the Black Irish Books paradigm, we’re one of the few people in the arena that actually sell directly to our customer base and to people who come to Steve’s site and to Black Irish Books. So that’s all well and good, but it’s still a lot easier to go to amazon.com to buy the The War of Art than it is blackirishbooks.com, and we understand that loyalty and niceties are all very well and good, but when it’s much easier to do a one click buy, we get it.
We understand that the time will come when we need to create a system by which our revenue from our own store can become self-sustaining for the entire enterprise. There’s a lot of expenses in having a publishing company, and right now we’re meeting those expenses through the goodwill of amazon.com. Now what would happen if that goodwill went away? That’s the big question. So this is all leading up to sort of this new idea that that actually Steve came up with about four years ago, but it took us that long to figure out what exactly this thing was.
So the Black Irish paradigm is based upon the inner war, getting in to the arena with resistance and doing the work that you are called to do. All of the titles that we publish have something to do with the internal war that we all wage day-in and day-out. Our tagline for Black Irish is get in the ring. What we mean by that is you got to engage with resistance. You can’t let that thing overwhelm you to the point where you’re lying in your bed watching reruns of Friends. We’ve all been there, but you got to get out of the bed, and getting in the ring means engaging with your inner gift and soul, etc., and working towards bettering your craft and whatever your chosen field is.
One of the things that’s very difficult sometimes when you’re engaged in that conflict is when resistance hits you with one of those solar plexus punches that you don’t know how to answer right off the top of your head. Anyone who’s sort of written a novel or long form work of nonfiction has all experienced this moment. You’re sitting there, you’re doing your work and you hit a very, very tough wall in your work, and say you don’t know where to go from here. So you’ve created, say, like 10,000 words of content and you’ve exhausted your energy and now you go, “Oh my gosh! What do I do now?”
The temptation at that point is to do one of two things. The first thing is, “Oh! I just need to get away from the project for a while so that the muse can visit me. So I’m going to take a vacation to Bermuda and walk on the beach and then maybe the muse will come to me as I’m walking on the beach and tell me what to do after this 10,000 words that I’ve already written.”
Now, that doesn’t work, because what happens is that you go to the beach and the muse doesn’t come and you have too many margaritas and then you start to self-flagellate yourself for not doing the work and not doing – So you start to put it out of your mind, and when you return from your vacation, all these bills that you hadn’t dealt with and then your life starts to – Meanwhile, you have to put the thing in the drawer because your everyday life has taken over. So that’s one way to deal with it.
The other way to deal with it is to go, “Oh my gosh! I’m in a sticking point. I know what I need to do. More research.” So you go out and you buy nine tomes that are 700 pages. Maybe one of them is the Story Grid and you start reading the Story Grid and that will only flush you deeper and deeper into a pit of despair, because now is not the time to do craft research. Now is the time to break through this wall and keep going.
So Steve and I were talking about this over a beer a couple years ago and he said, “You know what would be great, is that if you had these little books. You remember, like that little book I did called The Warrior Ethos, which was all about the warrior mindset? I’m like, “Yeah! That’s the thing that was one of the launching products for Black Irish.” He said, “What if we had a whole series of those books, but they’re all about sort of first principles story problems?” I said, “Well, I’m not really sure what first principles story problems mean.” Then he told me this thing that Elon Musk talks about, and Elon Musk, we all know SpaceX, and Tesla and all of his great innovations, but somebody once asked him, “How do you solve problems? How do you reason out the solutions to big problems?” He said, “Well, I always go to first principles,” and what first principles are the very fundamental statements of fact and truth that you want to build from. You don’t want to like build from analogy, saying, “Well, F. Scott Fitzgerald drank a lot, and so did Hemingway. So if I want to be a writer, I need to drink a lot.” You don’t do your work by analogy, because that will only make you an alcoholic when it comes to being a writer.
But what first principles is the way that Musk talks about, is that he said, “Years ago, they used to say, “You can never create a battery that would be workable. It’s too expensive. It’s like $600 per kilowatt hour to create a battery.” So most people would say, “Oh, geez! like I can’t do that. I mean, it’s $600 per kilowatt hour. You’ll never be able do that.”
What Musk said is that, “Instead, I looked at the battery problem from the point of view of first principles.” Now, first principles means, “What’s in a battery?” “Well, we got some carbon. We got some nickel. We’ve got some –” Whatever else is in a battery. I don’t know off the top of my head. He said, “Now, how much of those elements are in a battery? Well, if you were able to take apart a battery and reduce it the fundamental elements available, it would cost about $80 to make that battery per kilowatt hour. So $600, between $600 and $80 is all engineering problem. It’s all an intellectual exercise, because the same elements that are in the $80 kilowatt problem are in the $600 one.” He said, “There’s got to be way to create a battery in between $80 and $600,” and the way he got to that conclusion was looking at the first principles of the problem.
So that’s what Steve meant when he was talking about first principles. So what he was trying to say is – And what he’s actually pulled off was to siphon down story problems into these moments that we all hit when we’re doing work. One of them, one of my favorite study he’s created is a book called Why Right? The reason why I love this one is that we all hit a point where we go, “Why the hell am I doing this? Why have I chosen to be a writer? I mean, I could do anything else. I could’ve gone to law school. It could have a really good. I could – Why am I tormenting myself this way?”
So Steve wrote this little book which we’re calling JABs, and it’s the book that you would pick up when you’re having a crisis of conscience and you hit that roadblock and you’re like, “I don’t even know why I’m writing.” So you can pick up this book. It’s going to take you about 40 minutes tops to read it, and at the end of it you’ll be like, “Oh, okay. Now I know why I’m writing. Okay, now what’s the next problem to face?”
So he’s come up with this series of 12 mini-books that we’re calling JABs, and each month you’re going to get a new JAB in the mail that will confront one of these problems, one of these first principles story problems. The thinking here is that for people, writers and artists who are in the middle of a project and they get stuck, they can look at their library of JABs and go, “Oh! That’s what I need,” and click that thing off, read it in 40 minutes. They don’t have to go to Bermuda and they don’t have to go read Story Grid to break through that block and to keep moving.
So these, we call them JABs, because a jab in boxing is like a really short, quick, effective punch to the face of your opponent, and our opponent is resistance. So when resistance gets you down, these little jabs or these little punches that you nail right into the nose of resistance to get them back where he belongs, which is backing up.
[00:20:09] TG: Tell me a little bit more about some of the other JABs, because that’s what I want the people listening to hear about that. Because I was looking through them and I’m excited to read them, because I have two of them so far. So just tell a little bit more about these subjects that we’re covering with the JABs.
[00:20:29] SC: Well, this is great, because the reason – Believe it or not, it’s taken us four years to put together these 12 very specific JABs, and the reason why is we wanted to really – We had a lot of discussions about what are the big problems – What are the big question Steve gets asked all the time and I, Story Grid guy, get asked all the time about story problems? So the first two are the two biggest questions that we get that are very slippery, the ones that are kind of difficult to explain in a very quick way. So the first one is called; how does this story start? It’s basically a 40 minute read about the inciting incident, the global inciting incident of a story. How do you create the inciting incident in such a way that it’s going to hook your reader or your viewer or your target market, as Seth would say, Seth Godin. Who is your target market? Who are you talking to?
It’s funny, because that’s the question that you, Steve and I, had to talk about when we are restructuring our bookstore and redoing the website. Steve brilliantly came up with, “You know what? We’re not a bookstore for everyone. We don’t offer cookbooks, or diet books, or how to plan a garden books. We’re basically a bookstore for writers and artists only.”
So that’s a way, that’s a really great way of focusing how to incite a particular group of people to engage in your story. So how does the story start is one of the first two, and it’s a really terrific boiled down, laser focused point about the inciting incident. We all know the inciting incident isn’t just for the global story. It’s for a scene. It’s for a beat. It’s for a sequence.
Say you’re writing your pitch letter to Elon Musk to fund your venture capital firm, and you need to incite. This is of a book that you could read if you get stuck that will say, “What are the qualities that you need in an inciting incident to really get people engaged?” So that’s one title. The second title is, “What’s your story about?” and this is about theme, of course. That’s the other thing that knocks us all on our ass, is that when somebody says, “Well, if you had to boil down your story into one sentence, what would it be?” That can give us fevers and shivers trying to figure out that on the fly. So there is a JAB for how does your story start. There is the other one that I mentioned earlier; Why Right? Which is when you have a crisis of conscience and don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing.
The professional mindset. What does it mean to be a professional? How do you know if you’re still goofing around as an amateur? What mindset do professional writers and artists have that makes them keep getting in the ring? That make them show up every single day and do the four hours of work? What is that mindset? That’s another JAB.
Oh, here’s another one that I love. How do you use your real life in fiction? That a JAB, and Steve talks about how he uses his own life experiences in ways that help him while he’s writings, say, Gates of Fire, or Tides of War. Then he’s a book on a JAB on starting over, starting over from page 1, like doing a page 1 rewrite. How do you handle the psychic pain? This happened to Steve not so long ago, and I was the one who told him he had to do a page one rewrite. That’s a terrific one too. Then he has two on the antagonist, the importance of the antagonist in story. One’s called Bad Guys I, and Bad Guys II, because he has to move them on the Bad Guys, because that’s even more important than your antagonist.
[00:24:41] TG: You mean your protagonist.
[00:24:43] SC: Yes.
[00:24:43] TG: Okay.
[00:24:44] SC: Another one is learning to say no. That’s a really good one for us as professionals, is like how do you say, “No. I’m not going to read that thing that you want me to read to tell you it’s okay.” How do you get out of a dinner date with somebody who isn’t going to provide you any upside, but all they’re going to do is take a day away from your work? So there are 12 of these things. I think I have gone through most of them, but they’re all very specific to a specific problem.
[00:25:14] TG: I want to back up and talk a little bit more, because we’re talking the publishing side and then we start talking about the content of the books. I just want to talk a little bit more about why do something like this? Because the idea here is that you subscribe to the JABs, you get a new one every month and all that kind of stuff. But how is that helping that Amazon might want to destroy us or may not – It’s not even so much that. What I see it as is like once somebody has so much control over a market, they can do whatever they want.
One of the things I love about Amazon is they really made it – For the first time made a viable option for independent authors and independent publishers, where you could go your own route, you didn’t need the gatekeepers, you could publish on your own. I’ve taken advantage of that. So many people have taken advantage of that and I love that, but at the same time we can’t assume that forever they’re going to keep it the same.
When we were thinking through, when you and Steve came up with the idea four years ago, and as you’re figuring out how to put this into practice, why this thing? Why don’t we just release them on Amazon? Why don’t we do something else?
[00:26:33] SC: One of the reasons why it did take us four years to figure out how to position and release the JABs, is they’re not for everyone. These are not mass-market products for everyone. Like, say, The Work of Art is a very universal book that anybody can get something out of. So that’s number one.
Number two is if we were to say launch these on amazon.com, what would happen is that the price points for these books to make them work would be pretty substantial. They would probably – I’m thinking they might be like 19.95 each to make them work, because they’re these very unique trim sizes that we would have to, and we did, we have to get an independent printing company to create them. They’re not standard sized books. So Amazon doesn’t offer the trim size to do print on demand. So it’s very expensive to even create these things.
Then, we’re not stupid. We know there aren’t that many writers and artists. I would say there’re probably people who are active writers and artists are less than 100,000 in this country. That doesn’t mean that’s the entire marketplace, because there are tons of aspiring writers and artists who just need encouragement and help in developing their craft to become one of the practicing hundred thousand.
So let’s say globally in the United States – That’s an oxymoron there. In the United States, let’s say there are 250,000 people who would be interested in JABs. So those 250,000 people would have to go to Amazon and hope to find it somehow. Like maybe it’s in others who have bought The War of Art might have bought this book over here, which is $20, and it’s only 80 pages, or 50 pages. I’m not paying $20 for 50 pages. You’re not to be able to successfully convince someone of the value of the book on Amazon alone, because Amazon is a mass market. It offers everything for everyone.
Now we don’t want to sell everything to everyone, because we only have a very small market that we’re very dedicated to by choice. So to just launch them on Amazon would be a mistake. The reason why I say that is that I think it was last year or year and a half ago, I did a full analysis of Pride and Prejudice, and it’s the story grid guide to Pride and Prejudice, and I did it sort of as a premium for those who took the Story Great Love Course, Love Story Course a couple or – I think it was two years ago now. Anyway, I did it as a premium and then I just threw it up on Amazon for anybody who would be interested. Now, it’s probably one of the lowest selling titles that we have on Black Irish Books. Now it’s not because it’s not a good book. It’s just hard to find.
So the idea that we have with JABs is let’s not try to sell to everyone at Amazon. The other problem in terms of business is we don’t want to be flushed out by Amazon in 10 years. What if instead we made an exclusive deal only at Black Irish Books. You can only get these books there. You can only get these audiobooks there. The audios will be read by Steve himself. So you’re going to get it directly from Steve, which we’re not going to hire a third-party reader of these books. He’ll do it himself. If we were able to do that, how can we extend the relationship with the people who are the early adopters of the subscription model? Because the subscription model goes all the way back to the book-of-the-bonth Club, which started in the early 1900s, in the 1920s. The idea there was that there were all these people in the United States who didn’t have access to bookstores, and they like to read too. So wouldn’t it be great to be able to give them books that other people said are really good and they don’t have time to go sample everything at the New York publishing houses?
This group of people got together and they recommended a book-of-the-month club each month and they would go to these people and it would arrive in their mailbox every month and they would read it and then they would get another one. So people without access to bookstores were able to be part of the literary culture by subscribing to the book-of-the-month club. It was a great service.
Now, ironically, here we are 2018, almost 19, and guess what’s happening? The bookstores are falling. You don’t really go to a bookstore anymore, because Amazon controls the market. So what about the writers and artists who would love to have a one-stop shopping book [inaudible 00:31:36] every month that will help them with a key problem and then – So we’re basically using – We’re combining the old school book-of-the-month model with modern email marketing techniques and we’re just moving, instead of getting an email from us every week, yeah, you still get your email, but you also get a book from us every month too.
So this is only for writers and artists. So what we’re doing is we’re trying to pull in really, really dedicated people who care about what Steve and I do. So the more those people we can attract, the better our revenue will be, which will sustain our company. Even if it comes to the point in 10 years, “Hey, we might have that magical number that I always talk about,” that magical 10,000 marketing number of exposure to you sharing a title with 10,000 people will give the title an opportunity to become a backlist evergreen bestseller.
So this is all sort of like everything rolled into one, and you can see why it took us four years to figure out. It’s like how do we solve the problem of being able to survive even if Amazon pulls the plug on Black Irish Books? Is there a model that we could start now that in, say, this time that may or may not come in the future we would be able to sustain ourselves?
There’s a great book by Clayton Christensen called The Innovator’s Dilemma, which is about businesses. What it’s required of a business is to always be innovating, always be thinking about 5, 10 years down the road when new things are evolving. How are you going to build something today that can pay off in 5 or 10 years?
So we love this subscription model. We’re not crazy. We don’t think that we’re going to sell a million of these things. What we’re looking for are the really dedicated writers and artists who want to better their craft every possible opportunity, and those who appreciate all the junk that they don’t have to read to get the answer to one question.
[00:33:48] TG: Okay. So we’ve talked a lot about this and we’ve talked about – The thing I was most interested in when you were first telling me about it was that publishing side of things of thinking long term is independent writers and publishers, but let’s end here. We’re doing the Black Irish JABs. How can people, if they want to jump in on this, how can they take advantage of it?
[00:34:14] SC: Okay. It’s pretty simple. All you have to do is go to blackirishbooks.com and the offer should be on the front page of the website. For fun, Steve and I decided to do something for like the early adapters that would be kind of a fun little gift for people who sign up without really knowing exactly what they’re in for.
So we came up with this great Black Irish Baseball cap. So for the first 500 people who order the paperback package, they’ll get a baseball cap in the first mailing too. It has a great – Our new logo on the front, and then on the back of that it says, “Get in the ring.” My kids love them. I already have a few of them. So you get the hat and you get the first two books. Then every single month, shipping is included for the paperback version. It’s only going to be available in the United States, because shipping to our international friends is just crazy expensive. But what we are going to offer is a digital only subscription for the international people, and it’s half the price of the paperbacks. Unfortunately, we can’t ship you a hat, but you do get the extra hundred dollars off the price.
So the shipping is included in the annual subscription for the first 500 people, and then this thing is going out last – I don’t think we’ve set a full locker on over date, probably a little after the first of the year. Maybe we’ll close it out midnight, January 1, so that people who have their New Year’s resolutions can actually get it after they’ve had a few drinks.
Yeah, it’s a very simple deal. The first 500 people get an extra special $50 off the annual subscription. They get the hat. All kinds of stuff, we’re really excited about. I think this is going to be very, very helpful for writers and artists who hit a sticking point that this is going to save them hours and hours and maybe weeks or even years of pain by answering a question and motivating them to get back to work.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:36:21] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.
If you’d like to learn more about the Black Irish JABs and jump in on the subscription and get that special offer, you can go to blackirishbooks.com and click on the JABs banner at the top of the page. If you’d like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you’d like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcast and leaving a rating and review.
Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.