Recently, Lucinda spoke with the Internet’s Managing Editor, Dave Pell, who is represented by our very own Jackie Ashton. Dave is the creator of the news site NextDraft and author of Please Scream Inside Your Heart: Breaking News and Nervous Breakdowns in the Year that Wouldn’t End, a cathartic and humorous ride that reestablishes the line between real news and real life in the maddening hellscape of the 2020 press cycle.
Lucinda and Dave discussed his experience with identifying an online audience, getting a book deal with a top tier publisher, and establishing a loyal readership for his content. Here’s an excerpt of their exclusive video interview—the full version is included as part of our new Marketing 101 course, available soon!
Lucinda: After you signed with a great agent, what was the process like for landing the book deal?
Dave: I wrote a book proposal, and Jackie and I thought it was ready to go. Then, I showed it to my neighbor, who is an extremely famous American writer. He took a look at it and immediately told me to not send it in. My brand is humor, but my proposal was seriously written. He told me if I do this, I’m going to land with an editor who might not have a sense of humor and then spend a year going back and forth with that editor because they don’t get it. So, I needed to write the intro to the proposal in the same voice I do NextDraft.
It took me three weeks to hone, but I rewrote it in about seventeen minutes. It was a good piece of advice to know about matching with the right person because I never would have thought of that. He said every publisher has the funny person and everybody on the team trusts that person to know what funny is. And he was right. I didn’t spend a year trying to convince people something was a joke. That freed me up for the whole book. The voice needed to be the thing I’ve been working on for the last thirty years, not some new book voice.
Lucinda: People love your “spin,” which we talk about in publishing quite a bit. You need something that is popular but novel, and offers your unique point of view. Those are the elements publishers, readers, and the media look for. But you don’t grow a list to half a million subscribers that way. How and when did you see your growth take off?
Dave: That happened when the press and bloggers started writing about it. I noticed early on that getting one link from a daring site made a lot more difference in terms of subscribers than even mainstream publications, because what I do and what they do is one hundred percent personality driven. You start to develop this relationship of trust with your reader. I never link to a story that I don’t think somebody should read. I always express myself. When you have a trusted brand like that and other trusted brands say hey, you should check this out, you really trust them. That’s when the momentum gets going.
For writers trying to develop a brand to help them sell books, I think that personality is huge. I learned that early on. In 2004, they let around thirty bloggers into the Democratic National Convention for the first time. There’s nothing interesting that happens in political conventions, so we were really the whole story. The interesting part was when I put on my political blog that I was doing this, I probably got the most response I ever got from readers who were psyched that I was one of the thirty selected to do this. When you are the brand, people are connecting with you the person much more than the content. The more that I can put myself into it, the more successful it will be.
Lucinda: What would you advise to new writers looking to break in?
Dave: It’s good to develop an online platform or a brand, but know that doesn’t necessarily translate into book sales. At first, I thought all my subscribers would immediately buy my book, but then I realized I watched Rachel Maddow every night of 2020 and I never even considered buying her book. So, there’s a bit of a disconnect. Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist, is really great at marketing, but even he said that after being on Twitter for fifteen years, people who love his work still don’t know he has a book. It’s hard to get over the hump with certain people. As much as you think you’d be overmarketing, there are 3000 people you are reaching everyday who still haven’t picked up on the fact that you even have a book. You keep pushing. Just don’t necessarily expect everything is going to translate into sales.
I would also say think about your real goals. There’s your public goals, and then there’s your real internal goals. I wanted to have a book in a store that I could see when I visited, and I wanted to have people whose work I really admire think highly of it. And keeping that in mind throughout the process through the ups and downs was good because ultimately you can’t control a lot, but you can do the work necessary to achieve your internal goals.
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Writer and creator of the popular newsletter NextDraft, Dave Pell has been writing about news, technology, and media since 1999. His writing has been syndicated in Time, Wired, NPR, McSweeney’s, Gizmodo, Forbes, Quartz, among numerous other outlets. He’s regularly invited to participate in public speaking opportunities and podcasts, and has recently spoken about The Future of Media in the Trump Era at UC Berkeley’s BAMPFA Theater and SXSW. Dave is a graduate of UC Berkeley and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, sits on the board of 826 Valencia, and is a longtime advisor to the Center for Investigative Reporting. Dave lives in Sausalito with his wife, two kids, two beagles, two cats, and mother-in-law.
Follow Dave on Twitter and at his daily blog, NextDraft.
Purchase your copy of Please Scream Inside Your Heart today.