This project explored the product design and market viability of an email magazine I had conceived. Janesberry sends short stories to your inbox. Like a Spotify radio station, subscribers get a custom mix tailored to their preferred genres and interests. Extensive market research was conducted, a prototype was made and first launched as an author directory with a 200-person waitlist. After reviewing potential revenue against expenses, the product was too low-value and was placed on hold. A full project outline and details are available below.
- Browse over 260 creative writers by genre, format, and length
- Writers could submit their profile to be reviewed for directory inclusion
Publishers love media with a long shelf life, aka evergreen, because it can be easily repackaged and distributed. BuzzFeed and many others do it with culture, humor, recipes, lifestyle, travel tips, and more. AI will simplify its production and timed (re)publishing in the coming years.
Short creative writing like stories and poetry, is also evergreen media. It can be charming, funny, realistic, absurd, scary, insightful, and deeply humanistic. Even when exceptionally well-written though, publishers face challenges:
- Works are only briefly licensed from authors, not owned.
- Light entertainment doesn't perform as well as informational content.
- Titles tend not to grab attention nor tell a reader what it's about like headlines can.
- Creative writing takes longer to judge, editors need more time to accept a submission, and some readers won't like it and may regret the time spent.
Thus most publishers won't accept fiction or poems but might be open to creative nonfiction. This includes memoirs, personal essays, history stories, literary journalism, and combinations thereof. One redeeming quality is that they can better align with a publisher's brand and topics covered, current and ongoing events, and various popular and regional issues. Headlines and subheads can often better reveal what a work is about, and personal writing can create unique bonds with readers.
Authors, on the other hand, face the following difficulties:
- Publication acceptance rates are abysmal due to high submission volumes, variable quality, and longer review times.
- Previously published works are not acceptable, despite the atomically small probability any reader had seen them before.
- Simultaneous submissions to multiple publications are often disallowed.
- Editor responses on acceptance or with feedback are unreliable.
- Book publishers are rarely interested in short work collections.
Again, these issues are less applicable to creative nonfiction.
While the overall market for short-form literature is small compared to gaming and streaming video, it is still substantial. Wattpad is a massively popular youth-oriented platform with variable quality user-generated content. China Literature is a large corporation that publishes, syndicates and licenses out stories from many writers. Numerous other platforms exist with different genres and formats. From apps with sexy audio stories and dating simulators to detective podcasts and serialized science fiction, the landscape is vast.
Literary magazines are predominantly small, run by universities and nonprofits, and periodically publish issues in print and sometimes online. Larger magazines and web publishers post ongoing articles, creative works, author interviews, news, and book reviews, offer writing workshops, and increasingly cater programming and advertising toward authors, editors, and book publishers. Some publications focus on specific genres and themes at-large or per issue, while others are open-ended but with a particular editorial worldview.
For brand building and distribution, authors use managed websites, social media, retailers (mostly Amazon), literature platforms, and email newsletters. To effectively market themselves and engage audiences, they'll use ads, free content, author cross-promotions, and various tactics to get people to like, follow, subscribe, become a patron, and buy books.
Operational tools allow them to manage processes and observe results. Spreadsheets are commonly used, while platform-provided analytics, dashboards, actions, and alerts are a mixed bag. CMS and/or newsletter vendors can be sufficiently detailed. For retailers like Amazon, there are basic sales, royalty, ad, and performance metrics. But reader interaction data, highly valuable to authors, is lacking. Testing and managing keywords for retailers and platforms is another activity that can highly impact findability and performance. Service providers like StoryOrigin, BookFunnel, and Draft2Digital provide a suite of marketing and distribution tools.
For websites, there are many vendors with managed hosting and WordPress themes geared toward authors. But running a newsletter alongside a website can be difficult (for anyone). Substack offers writers a free integrated email/website publishing platform with the option to offer paid subscriptions. However, its layout and design options are limited, making it difficult to have unique branding and prominently feature important work and one's profile. Ghost is a similar but paid platform with more design flexibility.
While live published works are essential for demonstrating credibility and skill, search engine results for authors' names can be somewhat influenced for positioning. Interviews, articles on other publications, and author collaborations are a few ways. Profiles and promotional content in social media and various literature platforms are another. GoodReads and Amazon are must-haves if publishing books. Other places are as meaningful as the content format, genre, and typical audience found there. If works are timestamped on platforms like Medium or Substack though, the creative writer's profile may appear to be inactive and their writing old, which is irrelevant for most creative writing.
There are no portfolio-style 3rd party platforms for authors to showcase the breadth of their work. Musicians have Spotify, programmers GitHub, and visual artists Behance, Dribble, Vimeo, and 300px.
Email Product Research
With the explosion of media everywhere, it only makes sense for publishers to overcome fleeting attention spans by building brands that can first securely reach audiences via email subscriptions. [Treat the email as the product with everything they need to know there, with web links for additional information]. This is the quickest, low-friction way to directly deliver content, and develop long-term customer relationships.
Freemium email newsletters have supported B2B publishers and promoted their events for over 25 years. More recently, business/finance brands like The Hustle, Morning Brew, Litquidity, MilkRoad, and ExecSum have experienced fast growth. They've done this by curating news headlines, providing good analysis and commentary, paid advertising, and skillfully integrating sponsored content.
In the culture and creativity space, single-employee brands like BrainPickings (now 'The Marginalian') and DenseDiscovery reach over 150,000 weekly readers through consistent, high-quality writing with rich visual imagery.
Notable about these brands is they'll often use a personal voice blending objective reporting with a light-hearted attitude and humor.
In my research, however, all literature platforms and the vast majority of literary and cultural magazines used email only for promoting content on their websites or apps.
Opportunity / Feasibility Assessment
What if there was a Spotify-like service that emailed mini-magazines that could be read in under 10 min? An automated "editor" could repeatedly distribute short creative writing and excerpts from longer works. Affiliate ads would support the service, with subscribers partially acquired through reader incentives, giveaways, and advertising.
What genre and content types should be included?
For the widest possible audience, any possible genre so long as the content isn't explicitly erotic, violent, disturbing, political or has religious themes.
To build a working demo, quality works would first be sourced from famous authors more likely to be recognized. For a 10-minute read time averaging 300 words per minute, the email would be 3000 words max. This would entail 1-3 works with possible brief introductions or commentary and affiliate culture/lifestyle product listings.
Complete works would necessarily be public domain, while excerpts could be from any source. The writing and complementary text would be saved in a database and served once per subscriber. Product ads would be repeatedly served on rotation to encourage recall and interest.
With a limited initial scope, the project appeared very technically challenging. I wasn't quite sure how long it would take me, but I did find an engineer who could fill in the gaps.
I then began domain research on literature including history, genres, and copyrights, and built a preliminary database with Airtable. Various writer communities were joined and I spoke with many authors, some giving product feedback. All expressed interest in platforms that offered them free profiles, complete ownership of their work, and an easy way to promote it. One writer pointed out that while she understood a platform's need to use famous or successful authors for marketing to readers, indie authors needed exposure and discoverability much more. To gain wide attention and use, a platform would need to go beyond vague promises on how they address these needs. Any data on media distribution, reading time spent, and interactions would be immensely helpful since no platform provided this to authors. This and audience ownership were the big reasons many authors swarmed to using Substack and Ghost in 2021.
I dropped plans to kickstart the product with public domain authors and works. The content was too old and the language was sometimes obscure. Janesberry launched on a pivot, helping promote indie creative writers with newsletters in a directory, organized by genre and formats, along with a submission form and an email waiting list. This was made with a new database and the no-code web application Softr, which sent form submissions to Airtable and Mailchimp and email notifications to me.
It was announced on author groups and social media, received positive feedback, and new submissions came in. Shortly thereafter, TheSample launched—a newsletter that showcased one author's writing per day, customized to subscribers' interests. This was almost exactly what I wanted Janesberry to be, except focused on creative writing.
Using them as a model for further development seemed like the logical next step. However, circumstances and a few events made me skeptical about whether this project was viable.
A few events made me decide to discontinue. First was the closing of Curious Fictions, a YC-funded science fiction platform with an excellent UX but most likely little income. Surprisingly after all the market research, neither I nor authors in the communities I joined had ever heard of them. While Curious Fictions also made the product a website destination instead of pushing media to email subscribers, the big red flag was a single employee and the lack of awareness and customer traction.
Second was the increasing publishing media attention given to Substack and author excitement about owning their audience through an easy newsletter/website combo, among other great features. While fantastic for writers, I noted among authors a general antipathy toward 3rd party platforms. Creative writing is a labor of love and building a brand with so many recommended approaches, tools, and content marketing can be incredibly tiresome when all they want to do is write and reach audiences. Having a credible editor co-founder and building feedback metrics for reach and audience interaction would go a very long way.
Lastly, I met with two well-funded serial entrepreneurs. Both run lean operations with a small staff and are very much in it for the long run, determined to provide the best product for authors and readers.
Shepherd is a service where authors recommend books related to their own, along with topical 'shelves' and filters to make finding the right book much easier. Site traffic is generated by a high publishing volume, SEO, author outreach efforts, and word-of-mouth.
Laterpress allows authors to publish and sell digital books on their own branded website with analytics, serialization, promotions, and email updates. While Amazon remains the primary sales channel for most indie authors, the service is a great way for authors to better connect with readers, and earn more revenue per unit sold.
Customers just want to be entertained with a compact, well-designed product. They don't care if a story was first published 6 years ago. Janesberry as an email-first literary magazine that runs on-demand like a Spotify radio station is still a great product concept. But for it to succeed, it would need a long financial runway and a well-connected editor, preferably a celebrity to speed things up. Did you know Reese Witherspoon sold her book club after 5 years for $900m?
This project was fun and I remain bullish on email-first media.