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By Thomas Baekdal - March 2022

What makes publishers successful? And let's talk about the dip

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today I have two interesting things for you. The first article is my overall analysis of 62 publisher campaigns. And then for the second article, I'm going to talk about how independent publishing is currently 'in the dip' with many questioning its future.


What creates a successful outcome for publishers?

It's award season and I have been a judge or jury member of several media awards. One of them was the INMA Global Media Awards where I have been scoring 62 campaigns.

The finalists are now available on their website, and the final winners for each category will be announced in June. But, I wanted to give you my big picture perspective.

Very importantly, I'm not going to talk about any of the specific publishers (you can read about that on the INMA website). Instead, I will talk about the overall patterns and trends that made these publishers successful, and some of the obstacles they faced.

The purpose is not to create a 'best practice', but instead provide perspective and inspiration. But take a look at:


The dip

One of the most important trends of the past three years has been the amazing growth in independent publishing, and especially so within the journalistic profession.

Independent publishers have been around for several decades. We have bloggers, authors, podcasts, newsletters, YouTubers, and Twitch'ers ... and there have been independent publishers ever since the internet started. In fact, I am part of this group. I started my first independent publication in the late 1990s.

But, it was just a few years ago that people with a journalistic background started seeing this trend as well, and really started doing so many new things.

However, from a trend perspective, we are heading into the dip, and it is causing a lot of frustrations for many people, and will make the industry question things ... in fact, I predict that it won't be long before we start to see articles proclaiming the whole thing to be a fool's errand, or fad during a pandemic.

These articles will be wrong, of course, but let's talk about what this is.

The dip has many names, but I'm calling it the dip because this was the title of a great book from 2007, by Seth Godin (famous in the world of marketing and brands).

The dip is the moment in time where, after your initial start, things begin to go the wrong way. It doesn't necessarily have to go downwards, but it's when things are no longer moving forward the way you need them to.

This happens to everyone. It happened to me when I started Baekdal Plus. And, just this year, for the past two and a half months, three of my friends have faced the dip with their newsletters/podcasts, causing them to give up their plans.

One of them ran out of money, and because of that they were simply forced to find another job. But the two others realized that being an independent publisher simply wasn't for them. That lifestyle, the solitude, the pressure of having to do everything yourself, and not being part of a team was simply something that they didn't like.

This is especially true for independent publishers who do not have outside funding. It is brutal to live this kind of life.

More importantly, when you are hit by the dip, there are basically three outcomes.

Not for me

The first outcome is simply the realization that this is not what you want to do with your life. When I discuss independent publishing with friends, I always ask the question of where they see themselves 10 or 20 years into the future.

And if they answer that they don't see themselves doing this for that long, it's a pretty strong sign that this is not for them.

Nothing is happening

The second outcome is the painfully slow growth, which feels like a never ending dip. This is reality for most independent publishers. We have talked about this before in that, most small publishers barely make enough money to make a living.

Here is a graph of a small study done by the Press Gazette of 56 independent publishers' revenue, and it's not a pretty sight.

This is what I see most often. When journalists first start out their newsletter or podcast, they have high hopes, and a dream of financial independence and editorial freedom, while being able to just do a bit of writing each week.

And then reality hits, and instead of rapid growth and just being able to do whatever they like, it turns into a slow and difficult journey with low pay and nothing seems to really be changing. You might have a little bit of growth every year, but you are not going to become the next celebrity journalist with millions in revenue.

And so when you realize this, that's when the dip hits you ... and this is a real test of your focus. Is this what you want to do in your life? Is the work what makes you excited, or did you have a different dream in mind?

For many it isn't, and now that the pandemic is over (well, it's not actually over, most people in the west just pretend it is), they are looking for something else.

It's just a dip. Hang in there!

Of course, the third option is that it's just a dip, and things will turn back around and you have a wonderful future ahead of you.

Liz Fosslien created this great drawing recently that illustrates this well.

This is the situation that many face. We all have a plan but reality doesn't work that way, and instead it's a constant roller-coaster ride, but your publication is growing. It just needs much more work, and much more time.

This has been my reality since I started in 2010. My greatest obstacle is time. Because I'm just one person (+ a fantastic copy-editor), I just don't have enough time to do all the things I need to do. So the above graph is an extremely accurate representation of my business.

In 2021, I had a very mixed year. Overall, my business saw a growth of 23% but this was due to a lot of extra work that I did for publishers (strategy reviews, presentations, etc), and this was great. But all that work took time away from writing Plus articles, so that part of my business actually declined by 3%.

So, this year, I'm focusing on bringing that momentum back into Baekdal Plus, but this will likely cause a momentary decline in revenue, which will then come back and grow again in 2023.

And this is just the reality of being an independent publisher. It's not a straight line.

So, the trend right now is this.

The 'end of the pandemic' trend

About three to five years ago, we saw this incredible growth of independent publishers. Everyone started creating newsletters or podcasts, then came services like Substack etc ... and then the pandemic hit.

The pandemic was a mixed bag (from a publishing perspective). Some publishers really benefited from it, and it created the perfect work conditions for independent publishers where suddenly working from home was an advantage. If you were running podcasts where before you had to invite people into a studio (which is time consuming), now you could suddenly do the same online and basically double your production. But other publishers, especially business publishers, were hit by the uncertainties of their readers having locked down.

What the pandemic also created was a kind of forced reality, where even though things weren't going exactly as people planned, it was still better than not doing anything. And since we had to stay at home, this gave independent publishers something to do.

But now, we are coming to the end of this, and that creates a big change in the mood, the focus, and the perception of independent publishers ... and the result is 'the dip'.

For everyone who started publishing a long time ago, it's not really that different. I, for instance, launched Baekdal Plus back in 2010, and so I worked for 10 years as an independent publisher, pre-pandemic.

And so, we are just coming back to that focus. It's back to the regular focus on creating value. But for those who started within the past three years, and who have seen the majority of their work take place during a pandemic, this is a massive shift.

So, the prediction right now is that we are going to see a huge number of independent publishers question and abandon their focus, but none of this really changes the overall trend around independent publishing. It is still just as strong as it was in the past, and the upward trajectory will remain in that direction once we look past the dip. So, looking five or ten years into the future, independent publishing will still be an incredibly important focus area and a huge part of the future world of media.

What we will also face is the collapse of the publishing platforms, like Substack, Revue etc. Don't get me wrong, they are not going to go away, but they will be much less important.

These platforms offered a very convenient and low effort way to set up a new publication. You didn't really need to think that hard about how to build anything because they just had this simple platform you could set up in a few hours (or minutes).

But we already see how these platforms aren't really the solution to independent publishing because it's not about what they do. It's about you and your business, and you need the flexibility to take that in whatever direction works for you, and not be limited to the focus areas of the platforms.

This is a good thing because it forces independent publishers to think about this as a business, and that is a critical element of not only getting through the dip, but also to build the future publication yet to come.

So, my advice to independent publishers is this. Ask yourself if this is your dream? Is this what you want to do in the future? If it's not, then ask, what is missing? Maybe you need to create a team instead? Bring in some partners and create a publication that way? Think about new products, new niches, new solutions that you could do?

If that still doesn't inspire you, well... then move on. That's fine too, and all the things you learned from it will help you focus on other things in the future. There is nothing better than to say: I tried this. It was fun, but not what I want to do for the next 10 years.

However, if you do feel that this type of work appeals to you, then don't worry about the dip. The dip is frustrating, it's stressful, and it's hard work. But, we can work through that.

Don't focus on the dip. It's not important. Focus on 2027. And then just do the work. Keep going, keep publishing, keep refining, coming up with new ideas, and new areas of value that you can create. Don't give up the dream just because you are in the dip.

Want to know more?

If you want to know more about independent publishing, I wrote several articles about that last year. Take a look at:


Support this focus

Also, remember that while this newsletter is free for anyone to read, it's paid for by my subscribers to Baekdal Plus. So if you want to support this type of analysis and advice, subscribe to Baekdal Plus, which will also give you access to all my Plus reports (more than 300), and all the new ones (about 25 reports per year).

*** Please note. The price of Baekdal Plus will go up soon. I haven't decided what it will be yet, but if you want it for the old price, now is the time to subscribe. ***

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

 
 
 

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé

 

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