Cinematech blogger Scott Kirsner drank the digital Kool-aid some time back. So the author of 2007's The Future of Web Video and 2008's Inventing the Movies decided that he had to self-publish his newest book, Fans, Friends and Followers. "If I was writing that artists had to be their own entrepreneur," he says, "then I had to do it too."
For no up-front charge (and no advance), Kirsner selected his own fonts at Amazon's CreateSpace. He sent a PDF of the cover and interior to upload. They sent him back galleys to correct and within 10 days of signing off, he had books on sale at Amazon, and collects a bigger percentage of royalties than a publisher would pay. "If I had waited for traditional publishing it would be out in the fall of 2010," he says. "This stuff is timely, it's not the history of MGM. It would have been stale."
For the book, which has sold more than 10,000 copies, Kirsner interviewed three dozen do-it-yourself types in film and video, art and music, from internet pioneer and short video maker Ze Frank to animator M dot Strange. "Until the last three to four years," says Kirsner, "you made a film and either you picked up a distributor at SXSW or Sundance, or not. There was no plan B. You never thought about what might happen, how to get the movie out there. I tried to talk to people about Plan B."
In 2006, Strange persuaded the Sundance Film Festival to play his film We Are the Strange at a midnight screening at the Egyptian by using his YouTube following to prove that he had an audience. He then distributed the film through Film Baby and via YouTube (with a DVD click-through button) in April 2008. According to Kirsner, he made enough money to not only pay off the debt from the film, but to finance his next one.
Here's the trailer:
The agricultural documentary King Corn debuted at SXSW in 2007, went on to other festivals, had a theatrical run, aired on PBS in April 2008, and was one of the biggest selling films on iTunes. Aaron Wolff, Ian Cheney, Curt Ellis and their team kept building a database of fans in FileMaker, then created an email list on Constant Contact. They barraged their fans with new info, updated their website constantly, and kept the promo stream going by guest-blogging at different sites that they knew would be receptive to the film's green subject matter. Here's the trailer:
"A lot of online communities are interested in what you're doing, whether it's a sci-fi movie or a documentary about U.S. future policies," says Kirsner. "With the internet there's a direct link between that review or write-up and where you buy a book. People are closer to the transaction. There's a lot of innovation in terms of business models. People are trying different things. With places like Home Star Runner, which avoids advertising and built their model on selling t-shirts, merchandise and DVDs, or Lulu and CreateSpace, you can see there's a whole new infrastructure, a new pathway for getting books, DVDs, and CDs out there."
But DIY takes work, Kirsner admits: "The promotional energy has to come from you, using blogs and Twitter and getting people to write about your project. It's a whole new world. There are no more sugar daddies taking care of problems. With the old school Hollywood dynamic you had to shuck and jive to get observed by a talent agent, that was the only path to making it. Now you do what you want to get noticed and build up an audience. Then you have a choice to do a deal with a studio or record company, or do your own thing. Some will do it, some will not. But you don't have to wait around and cross your fingers and hope."
Kirsner has been working overtime to get out the word on his book. He's created a Power Tool Wiki that lists tools for building an online fan base. Here are some reviews, including Wired editor Chris Anderson, who log-rolled thusly:
"Making a living in the Long Tail means taking matters into your own hands, crafting a marketing strategy that's just right for you and your work. This book compiles the stories of those who've done it best. You'll get ideas from every one of them. Inspiring and incredibly useful--Kirsner's assembled a playbook for the social media age."