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Writers and Performers

post # 136 — July 18, 2006 — a Careers, Client Relations post

Shaula Evans, part of my tech team, spotted an interesting discussion with John Updike, which raised some concerns about the future of publishing. Since we discussed the future of writing books in this blog back in February, she thought we all might be interested.

Apologizing for her rephrasing, Shaula says

In short, much of the advice to (published and aspiring) authors in the digital age boils down to: “Don’t worry about monitizing books. Give books away, and make money through collateral revenue streams.”

To which Updike responds that authors are writers, not performers, and not likely to succeed as entertainers.

Of course, you (David) have already addressed in your post the reality that those of us who are not already John Updike are not likely to make money through the conventional book publishing and promotion model, either.

It makes me wonder if the middlemen (Amazon, speaker’s bureaus, promoters) are the only ones making money here…

Shaula, I would also relate your comments to the recent stories (New York Times July 17, 2006) about film director M. Night Shyamalan’s superior ability at self-promotion. Do film makers need to turn themselves into a “brand” to get their films into blockbuster status? Should we all be taking lessons from Madonna on how to create and market (constantly evolving) personas in order to draw attention to ourselves?

Do these challenges apply also to those of us trying to practice so-called “professions?” Do we consultants, lawyers, accountants, engineers and others have to take note of all this?

I do believe that there is such a thing as marketing with greater or lesser taste, but as much as I want to sympathize with Updike, I think we live increasingly in a pop-culture world where performing and entertaining ARE indeed where the money lies.

And, Shaula, if the writer doesn’t want to take control of the marketing, the performing, the persona creation, then, as has always been true in the music business, the intermediaries will write the contracts and make the most money.


Peter Macmillan said:


You may not be too surprised to learn that English language teachers in Hong Kong are in high demand in schools and as private tutors. But the real “stars” of this industry are hired by (and sometimes own) specialist education centres created to help teenagers pass their highschool exams (and not just for English, but for science, maths, geography and all the other examinable subjects, too).

This is big business, and the teachers at the top are like sports stars. They can earn several million Hong Kong dollars a year and change “owners” in return for multimillion dollar golden handshakes. They are also the ones that own the very expensive homes featured in gossip magazines and real estate guides.

What I have never before seen any where else (but maybe it exists) is the larger than life images of these teaching professionals on double-decker buses all around the city. It’s quite surreal. They seem to be creating their own celebrity by massive public exposure of full body pictures, reassuring smiles and memorable names in very big print.

I could, for instance, easily recognise “Ken Sir” in the street, although I have never met him and would probably never have need of his services. I just quietly hope that his shabby jeans and laconic stance are more than just a stage act!

Presumably such initiatives have an impact on the buying decisions of the public who may quite like being able to tell friends that their children are being taught by the famous teacher X (who in turn is very likely under great pressure to maintain a high pass rate for his or her students).

I had always considered highschool teaching to be a very valuable profession, but I had never before seen so much of this value exploited/realised by individuals like this.

Then again, why not. Isn’t this simply free market capitalism in action?

And if it is possible to be a highschool teacher superstar, what about a lawyer, dentist or accountant superstar?

I know that there are true superstars in these areas, but maybe superstardom is more attainable for ordinary professionals than we had previously imagined.

Could the key be to present one’s self as a person first, then as a professional in a particular discipline.

The funny thing is, if he said he was capable I would probably be quite happy giving my tax return to Ken Sir …


posted on July 19, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Peter, this is FASCINATING!

At some level, I don’t want it to be true (my managerial advice has always been to try to build firmwide reputations rather than create ‘stars’) but evidence like yours really makes me want to re-consider and re-ponder.

I wonder if it is always necessary to center it in a single person. Can an organization create an equally powerful persona? As an institution?

A recent Harvard Business Review article cautioned against betting on ‘stars’ as a strategy – but is there a way to get the benefits of stardom and have it transfer to the whole organization?

Here’s the gut question, Peter. Would you trust ANYONE ELSE from Ken Sir’s organization, or just Ken Sir himself?

posted on July 19, 2006

Shaula Evans said:

David, you’re right on the money—but I’m still disturbed by the cynical postmodern fatalism here. The growing trend towards trained monkeys and dancing bears (cf

Kaavya Viswanathan, the plagiarizing Harvard undergraduate novelist (http://tinyurl.com/m3dgf) and the Spice Girlification of the publishing industry) worries me, and I don’t want to go gently into that slick, infomercial-populated night. I don’t know if this generation would recognize a Shakespeare unless he got a hair piece, received a thorough Queer-Eye treatment, and was willing to shake his booty on Americon Idol. Surely the end results is we wind up with more pap culture (sic) idols, and less qualified content producers. Quel dommage. How many Shakespeares, Momma Casses, even Peter Druckers might we be losing in the current system? I’ll take talent and ability over photogenics any day.

Putting aside my high culture snobbery and conservative, meritocratic ideals to turn pragmatic again, I agree of course that most people who want to succeed today as professional content providers will have to promote themselves incredibly agressively (unless sheer dumb luck and good timing comes through for them – not wise to bank on). But I find we’re back at the Catch-22 you described in your Marketing Complexity post (http://davidmaister.com/blog/115/). If you haven’t already made a name for yourself, how on earth do you break into the other marketing channels and capture a critical mass of attention?

At this point, one so-far undiscussed piece of the puzzle is The Long Tail (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_long_tail) idea that thanks to the power of Internet search tools, it is possible to deliver highly-specialized products to niche markets at a profit. Guy Kawasaki has an excellent post on the tactical items behind Long Tail success stories – which most people forget about (http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2006/07/the_wrong_tale_.html). One of the critical factors he cites is “a sustainable population of low-cost producers” – meaning the long tail game is about making money as a distributor, or middle man, not as a producer. You aren’t going to make money as Jane or John Q. Author – but Amazon is going to make money off of you.

I may be wrong, but I perceive the loudest evangelists behind the promote-your-way-to-create-success school to be the gatekeepers or service providers behind the “collateral revenue” channels cited above—the A-listers of PR, publishing, blogging, etc—who are A-listers and gatekeepers in some cases because of merit, wisdom, and ability, but very often because of first-mover advantages or the power, money, and reach of the institutions behind them. The gatekeepers behind for-profit promotional channels are going to be the real commercial winners in the Long Tail, celebrity-creator game – the people who are really making money in all of those “collateral revenue streams” they recommend.

This means, of course, that the people who make money telling content-producers how to succeed…are in the business of making money promoting content-producers, but not necessarily in the business of making money for content producers. I don’t know about you, but I am generally wary of taking advice from someone whose financial interests conflict with my own.

Methinks there’s something rotten in the state of iDenmark.

The real corporate excitement around The Long Tail and consumer-generated-content (CGC) seems to be “look, we can get all of these patsy consumers to create content for us for free – the ultimate low-cost production – and then turn around and make a profit off other people’s work.” Referencing back to your training article (“Why (Most) Training is Useless” – http://davidmaister.com/articles/1/96/), I feel like we are creating a cultural system that highly rewards distributors but decreases incentives for content producers. How long will creators continue to contribute content for free or for little gain? And how does that system bode for the quality of the content we collectively produce? Somehow, this all strikes me as shades of the fall of the Roman Empire.

I would like to think in the midst of this cynical, postmodern mess there is still room for quality writing, specialized artists, and big, crunchy ideas that don’t always pitch to the groundlings or encapsulate in a CNN soundbyte, that there are alternate paths to success than solely being an entertainer.

Of course, that may make me a premature anachronism and perhaps I should throw it all in and get my hair bleached and my teeth capped.

posted on July 19, 2006

Peter said:


It’s fantastic to get your feedback on my earlier post (I also want to mention that your tech support team have been wonderful in helping me to resolve a technical issue with my post. Great effort, Shaula and Colin — and I didn’t have to do a thing!).

To your question, I don’t read Chinese characters, so to be honest I have no idea who Ken Sir works for! My impression is of him alone, although I do know that he is one of a number of teacher superstars judging from all the double-decker bus ads around town. Whether they all work for the same organisation, I cannot tell but rather think not.

My personal assessment of Ken Sir and my willingness to entrust my tax return to him may be as simple as his apparent likeability. He looks ‘cool’ and having seen magazine pictures of him offering a guided tour of his US$8 million house (recently renovated to the tune of around US$1.3 million, in case you’re interested), he is the epitome of success in a success-driven city.

For his target audience, his public persona gets him well on to first base. Who would not want a successful person to teach their children how to succeed at high school exams? I am assume some people think that he is a good teacher because he is wealthy, like a restaurant with a long queue must be better than one with a short queue (a commonly held view amongst Hong Kong people). These are simple, even basic, indicators of Ken Sir’s effectiveness at what he does (getting kids through their exams) and for some parents this is probably as deep as they want — or need — to go.

Ken Sir certainly kicks the stereotype of teachers being only able to “teach” and not “do”.

Now, whether he has made his fortune from teaching alone, I don’t know. I do know that he has also written a number of books on — no surprises — how to pass the Hong Kong Secondary School Exams (very specific focus, I am told). Perhaps he has made more money from ancillary activities, but I would not question his books’ importance in his overall business plan. It’s got to be pretty tempting to have your child taught how to pass their exams by the guy who wrote the book with just the right title (and who happens to have a really expensive house because he’s so good at what he does!).

Maybe it’s as basic as Ken Sir appearing to “have his act together” that attracts me to him. Deep in our psyche there may be something about our own success being dependent on associating with other successful people — we are, after all, taught that we will be judged by the friends we keep. If a guy like this can credibly claim he can do my tax return, I would certainly be interested — assuming on his fees are reasonably competitive!

It probably also needs to be said that we live in a world where individual charisma has led entire countries to tremendous victories – and to unimaginable devastation. Ken Sir may be just playing at the edges of a personality cult, in a skilfully managed kind of way in a professional services setting where the target audience is susceptible to subtle (or not so subtle) indicators of success.

From a business person’s perspective, I wonder if King Sir’s business is more profitable than those of his competitors. I also wonder if Ken Sir is going to be around for the long haul (to what degree is he leveraging the skills of others). Will he stand out less and less as other teachers take the same approach? Will bus advertising for teachers simply become a baseline requirement — until another marketing breakthrough comes along?

Maybe we should ask Ken Sir to join this blog (seriously).

I hear he can turn a phrase or two.


posted on July 20, 2006

Matt Moore said:

As I’m sure has been noted already, most writers do not make money from their writing & probably never have. Good article here on the topic from Australia.

Many authors have also been academics, journalists & entertainers.

If you are looking for a pop-culture media whore then Charles Dickens would give most of the current lot a run for their money.

And those that weren’t had the luxury of inherited incomes or powerful patrons.

Has much really changed?

If you go back 150 years, scientists & doctors would perform in public (lectures, dissections & experiments).

Trial lawyers have always been public performers.

There are plenty of limelight-hogging engineers – but they tend to create companies based on technology (Andy Grove, Jim Clarke) as vehicles for their egos.

Arguably “the professions” are largely a creation of the early 20th century. This first phase was about institutions, standards & anonymization. And this period may have been a blip in a long history of self-promotion & star power.

Not that I’d want to make any sweeping generalisations or anything…

posted on July 20, 2006

David (Maister) said:

One aspect of this which is fascinating to me is the issue of avoiding the “backlash” of shameless self-promotion. In some cultures and contexts (Dickens, Ken Sir, Madonna) self-promotion is welcome, effective and expected.

In other cases, where the culture is not yet right (or if the individual or firm is adviosed by the wrong PR people!) it could come across as desparate, “down-market” and ineffective.

Do any of the PR types out there have any tips or hints about how you avoid this reaction? If he WANTED to, could Updike today do what Dickens did then, and still achieve both commercial success and respect?

posted on July 31, 2006