Last week, Dan Blank, founder of WeGrowMedia and friend of SheWrites.com, released his new book, Be the Gateway: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and... Dan Blank is a true author advocate, passionate about helping others succeed—which is why he's a great fit for the "5 Questions" series, and why his new book is such a gem for aspiring authors everywhere. Read this interview, and then promptly buy the book! For more information about Dan, please visit his site.
Here are my five questions for Dan Blank:
BROOKE: In Be the Gateway: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience, you differentiate between promotion and achievement (metrics/likes/products) vs. having an inclusive creative process and making personal connections. Are you, in essence, seeking to redefine how we measure success as creative people?
DAN: With starting the book by talking about success, I’m trying to be more honest about what truly matters in how readers experience books, and what leads to the goals of authors. While bestseller lists, awards, reviews, and sales are wonderful milestones for an author to experience, they are not the goal. Yet too often, writers become blinded by them. It is all they can see for two reasons. First, they are the clearest sign of objective validation. Second, they are inundated with signals from others that they are unworthy unless they achieve these milestones.
What does an author really want? For their book to be read. For it to be appreciated. For the reader to take a journey into the story and be moved by it. For it to shape how that reader sees the world, and through that, themselves. The book should, over time, be something the reader reflects on. In small ways over the course of years, for readers to think about that book, the characters, the stories, the information it contained… and feel inspired by it. To make decisions because of it. To feel that they have been elevated by having it as a part of their life.
Does it feel good to hit an Amazon sub-category bestseller list for 10 minutes? Yes, it does. Is that the goal? Nope. It’s just a milestone on the road to truly connecting your work with readers in a meaningful way.
BROOKE: In your book you suggest that creative people become a gateway to a meaningful experience for their audience. In other words, a reader or audience member interacts with the created art and it becomes inspiration for their process of self-knowledge and actualization. If this is true, what is the responsibility of the artist to produce work that inspires their audience, and how do they find the audience that will resonate with their narrative?
DAN: No, it is not the responsibility of the artist. The artist gets to choose how they create and what they create. Some prefer a collaborative process whereby the deliver to their audience what they know the audience seeks. Others want to challenge their audience. And many simply create what is in their heart.
However, in the book I challenge authors and artists to not belittle their work by saying, “I just want to entertain people!” Some of the most entertaining work also moves people. It helps them think differently about the world. It becomes the basis for their identity. That doesn’t mean it needs to be self-serious or “inspirational” in an obvious way.
In the 50s and 60s, parents considered comic books to be throw-away garbage. Yet, the kids who read them weren’t just “entertained” for a moment by a 10 cent purchase. They deeply considered what it meant to live by a code as Batman does. To live with duality as the X-Men do. To sacrifice as Spider-Man does. To serve others as Captain America does. To help the powerless when you are given unlimited power, as Superman does.
Today, the multi-billion dollar superhero movie franchises prove how deep these stories go to shape people’s lives. All I ask is that authors challenge themselves to consider the same in the work that they craft.
BROOKE: I’m curious how your personal history as a creative person helped shape the philosophy you share in your book. For instance, as a college student you published a music zine that put you in touch with record label execs, your favorite musicians, and led to other bonuses such as free CDs and concert tickets, but at the personal expense of going into debt to finance the production costs. How did that experience influence your philosophy around audience engagement, building a support system, and befriending guides?
DAN: I grew up as an artist, attending art school starting at age five. Later I wrote poetry, learned photography, created sculptures, painted, learned paper engineering to create pop up books, played in bands, wrote, and became a graphic designer. Each of these skills were developed in the context of other creative people.
When I produced the zine with a friend, I spent infinitely more time on it than I did my school work; I was in college at the time. I would prepare for an interview with Blur instead of work on a paper. I would stay up at Kinkos later into the night trying to layout a zine, instead of study for a test.
What I learned in the process is that I should have invested more in collaborators. I should have spent less time struggling alone, and more time getting to know more musicians, more record store employees, and more music fans.
In those years, I watched so many creative projects be born and die. Some were my own, but many were from friends and those who lived in my community. What I know now is that these people needed to be more engaged with their audience, instead of hoping their “big idea” would go viral on its own. That they needed a support system for their work to truly be sustainable. That they should have forged relationships early and often to ensure their work could reach their ideal audience. Be the Gateway is everything I wish I knew back then.
BROOKE: You advise against following “best practices” for building an audience, but instead focus on fostering one-on-one connections. This seems counterintuitive. How does a creative person find interested people, find the time to forge meaningful connections with them one at a time, and still have time to create?
DAN: A large part of the book explains, step-by-step, how to conduct primary research instead of blindly copying the “best practices” that everyone else is. I think about it this way: too many people will create something and try to sell it to 1,000 people at a time. Partly, this is because they dream of big success and feel that can only happen when you sell at that scale. The problem is that they have never developed the capacity to talk to one person about what they have created. They stumble over their words, they break into a cold sweat, and they fear they have “sold out” if they sound enthusiastic about what they have created. This is why I encourage 1:1 connections. To learn who your ideal audience is, what they care about, and how to engage with them in small ways that are meaningful. Because if you can do this with one person, you can do it with two. What you learn from speaking with two people, you can do with four. Then eight, and so on. Before you know it, you are connecting with thousands. That does not mean that you have to hand-sell every single book. It means: before you try to speak to 1,000 people, learn to speak to one.
To find the time, I would ask this: instead of ending each week asking, “How many new people learned about me, my book, or followed me on social media,” instead ask, “What new thing have I learned about my audience this week? Did I make a connection to someone who represents my ideal audience? Even if in a tiny way?”
This can be a simple email that you send to a fellow author, thanking them. Them can be you spending time analyzing book reviews of comparable authors on Amazon. It can mean spending time talking to a local bookseller. What I find is this: if you take one action per week, each year you will have 52 lessons in who your audience is, what engages them, and you will have taken steps to developing trusting relationships as part of this process. Isn’t that so much more fun than waiting until book launch and feeling the pressure to “go viral?”
BROOKE: I’d love it if you could address the advantages and disadvantages of being generous as we build our gateways. What, in your opinion, is to be gained from generosity?
DAN: With generosity comes what many authors seek: a sustainable career as a writer. To not be someone who hides away, and every few years pops up to release a book, and then run back to their hole.
So many people nowadays bemoan what we have “lost” because of the internet and the pervasiveness of mobile phones. They will say, “Back in the day, you would want into a cafe and people wouldn’t all be staring down at their phones.”
With generosity, I see this as your opportunity to create the world you dream of. To walk into a cafe that acts as the creative center for your community, and be able to chat with the barista, to say hello to the other writers in your community whose work you support, to nod at the local musicians who are part of the scene, and to be able to join in the celebration of the local poet whose poem was just published.
Today, you have the opportunity to do this from anywhere you are because of email, the web, and social media. The question I ask is this: will you make the effort? Will you consider what it means to be a professional author, one whose career is a collaboration with others; who truly embraces their audience; who supports other creative people; who lives a life full of passionate creators? Or will you keep clicking “refresh” on your social media profile, merely hoping to see that your follower count has grown?
What I have found is, the follower count grows more quickly, and with greater quality when you spend more time focusing on being generous with others, than with constantly conceiving of ways to get more attention.
Generosity leads to all the things authors want: more sales, more reviews, more colleagues, more validation, and the chance for word of mouth marketing.
Check out Be the Gateway, and if you have a question for Dan, let us know here!