Saturday, September 27, 2008

The business of a fun-based website, part 1

Early on, I decided that a “fun” website wasn’t going to be enough for me. It had to be a real business, a website that made money from being fun. I spent considerable time on this concept, looking at the ways that businesses made money, especially businesses that weren’t selling an obvious product. Part of my research helped me realize that this book casting activity was fun in and of itself, that there were a lot of people out there who had been doing this all along, and just never had a place to do it. This was born out by our members and the authors once the site became operational. We’ve seen hundreds of comments about the ways people have been doing this in family gatherings, with classmates and co-workers sharing a common interest, or through a book readers circle. Others have no one to share this with, but have been doing it on their own for many years. So, we weren’t really creating something completely new, but rather creating a place for a pre-existing group to finally get together and do it with their casting fellows.

From a business standpoint, this meant that we were primarily an entertainment company, and our business model would somehow have to “follow the fun”. The next problem was, how do you make money when the website itself is free to join and use? We discussed the “membership” concept, used very successfully at book sites like, but we felt that the cataloguing service they provided was worth their membership fee, whereas we weren’t really offering a particular service to storycasters, just a fun place and way to do it. We decided that the newer internet model would have to do: make it free, grow it big, and then charge for our eyeballs through advertising. Our storycasters are a unique mix of people who read books and like movies, so their viewpoint has value for the publishers, the studios, and for anyone hawking celebrity wares. I also knew that, if our storycasters were excited enough, we could sell site-related logo merchandise, like shirts and mugs. Off on the horizon was the distant possibility of getting bouight - our first choice would always be Amazon – but then I read the comments by Donna Bogatin about one of the sure-fire ways of getting into the TechCrunch Deadpool: “Don’t have a business model”. We would have to have a business model that could make money on it’s own, whether anyone ever bought the site or not.

So, that’s where it’s going. We’re “following the fun” by enabling all the fun aspects of this new hobby, making it simple-fast-easy to create and post a cast, and we’re going to follow it up with the community-connection aspect – these people want to connect with others who read the same stuff and see similar (or completely different) people in the roles. Books sales (we’re an Amazon affiliate) are almost non-existent, and that’s normal, considering that these people have already read the book. Book sales won’t take off until people can look up an actor they like, see what they’ve been cast in, and then want to read the books suggested. They'll also buy books that are similar to what they already enjoy, which means tagging books into genre categories. That’s going to become a reality before the end of the year, and then we’ll see a completely new aspect of the site start to kick in.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Authors, part two

Last post, I explained my marketing push that started with authors, and how Catherine Ryan Hyde and Cheryl Kaye Tardif came on the first day to claim their Author Account and cast their works. But they were joined over the next two months by a host of others, twelve in May, either as referrals from other authors, or from contacts through MyBookTheMovie; then five in June, some of whom found the site on their own and joined as regular members, but then indicated that they were authors and wanted to get their own books on the site. Three in July, four in August, and now we’re getting a steady run of authors who either came on as members or found us first as authors. I still have a backlog of people to contact from Marshal’s blog, and a bunch more whose works have been suggested for inclusion on the site and thus get informed and invited that way. I haven’t even tried to contact the “first tier” authors, the Stephen Kings and the John Grishams of the world, simply because they have no trouble getting the attention of the studios if they want to, whereas most of our authors, although published, are still actively writing and promoting their own works, and we can work together more easily, since they know what I’m going through.

The biggest effect of supportive authors has been Google links I could have had no other way. As soon as the site went “live”, I created a Facebook and My space page for it, and whenever I saw a site or blog with a book-related “fantasy cast” on it, I commented and pointed to the site. Those posts are all visible on Google – but those are nothing compared to the comments, posts, links, and pointers provided by our authors. Some have just a web site and a blog, but mention us several times; some have three blogs of their own, and contribute to another three or four, and they have mentioned us on all of them. We’re the first reference on the first Google page, perhaps because we own the domain name. But almost every reference on the next eight pages is also a link to us, primarily because of all the posts by our authors.

The other outcome of helpful authors has been collaborative promotion. Stella and Audra Price write a series of “hot supernatural romance” books. At one point, Stella pointed out that she was always on a book-signing tour somewhere, and was always looking for some kind of interesting “freebie” to give our at signings and events. Could I come up with something? I don’t know which one of us suggested the bookmarkers, but after I saw how inexpensive they were, I agreed to print some up and send them out free. Over a dozen of the authors immediately requested some to give out from now to Christmas – I have commitments for 2900 of the first buy of 3000, so it’s already time to order some more. They just came in from the printers on Saturday, and we’re spending the next day or two to package and ship them. I have posted a photo of the front and back (thanks Malcom and Gary for the graphics work!). Getting ideas from authors who already have a feel for promotion in the book world really helps! That’s why I’m really glad I started promoting to the authors, and let them help drive traffic to the site.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Authors, part one

Sometimes, you know where you’re going. Projects at work usually have a clear goal, a definable scope of work, with knowable resources and deadlines. However, internet businesses don’t usually follow that straight path – they start with an idea, then that idea morphs into something new, and each iteration of that idea changes the picture more than slightly. Remember those old Disney time-lapse movies of a plant sprouting, growing, flowering, and then fruiting? That’s the straight path. But a time-lapse movie of an internet business would appear much more chaotic and bizarre – the seed sprouts, but then grows arms and a face, then mellows to the flower; but then the flower gets some teeth and starts snapping small creatures out of the air, finally maturing into an aggressive flower that eats only pollution – but does it with a wicked smile.

Originally, I thought that the main players on the website would just be other people like me, people who read books, like movies, and wanted to post a fantasy cast. I never really got beyond that until my sleep-breaking epiphany (see my post for August 5th). That was the first morph: the idea that authors would be even more interested in posting a fantasy cast than the regular readers. It was perfectly obvious, though, once you saw it – they were the original Storycasters, creating the story and peopling it with characters. Even if they didn’t envision a particular actor in the role, they saw somebody doing those things, and they had a much clearer picture of the situations than any of the readers ever would. At that point I realized that I would have to contact the authors and try to get them to share their own “authorcast” with the rest of us. I just had no idea how I would do that.

I spent several months in January and February of this year Googling combinations of “book” and “cast” and “movie”. That’s how I ran across a really cool blog that was already asking authors those key questions. It’s written by L.A. screenwriter Marshal Zeringue (“just like the pie”, says Marshal), and his blog is called My Book The Movie; it’s listed in the navbar. Marshal interviews authors and asks them specifically who they’d like to have directing and starring in the movie adaptations of their books. And that’s how I got “introduced” to Catherine Ryan Hyde, Cheryl Kaye Tardif, Kelly Komm, Ben Tanzer, Cory Redekop, and the rest of the authors who came on the site early. Marshal’s blog showed me the authors who were already willing to talk about casting, and when I started looking around, I found that they were not only easy to contact, but they were very interested in the Storycasting concept.

I wrote to Catherine at the end of February, explained the site concept, indicated that the site wouldn’t go “live” for another month or two, and asked if she’d consider coming on the site to “cast” her own characters. In just a few days came her definite reply: “Yes, I absolutely will. I'll leave this email in my inbox so I won't forget.” Also ready was Canadian author Cheryl Kaye Tardif, who thanked me for the invitation and told me that she knew “many authors who would be happy to participate”. When the site finally got up on May 1st, that very day Catherine and Cheryl Kaye claimed their Author Account and started casting their characters. These same authors, and the two dozen who have since joined them on the site, are the major source of our Google listings. My next post will expand on our relationship with the authors, how they promote our site, and how their fans have reacted to the casting opportunity.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Wikipedia, fantasy casting, and branding

I’m researching and writing a Wikipedia article about fantasy casting as a generic activity. I started out by using a Google search for terms like “fantasy cast”, “fantasy casting”, “dream cast”, etc. Some people also use the term “dream teaming”, which seems to have equal references to sports and Hollywood. Many followed links later, it became clear that, although nobody was ever actually defining the term, everyone seemed to know what it was about: selecting actors for an imaginary movie. I then went on to use the academic search capabilities at my alma mater (I still have access), where a slightly different picture emerged. In American print media, the “imaginary movie cast” idea was the most common usage model. By contrast, in UK newspapers and magazines, “fantasy cast” is more likely to be used the way we use “dream team” here: a best-possible set of players for a real performance. UK writers use that term whether the activity is sports, movies, television, or even a ballet company.

What surprised me was the fact that there was no Wikipedia article on fantasy casting. When you go there and type in “casting’, you immediately are presented with references to falconry, fishing, metallurgy, and “performing arts”. The “performing arts” page has additional stubs for typecasting and stunt casting, but nothing for the imaginary kind of fun activity. So, I’m preparing the text for just such an article, holding to the guidelines for strict neutrality. I’ll be allowed to cover the topic itself, but any mention of the website has to be left to the final section, “Sources and external links”. That’s fine with me; I’m even going to mention our (older, smaller and plainer) competitor as a valid example of the activity.

The “branding” aspect of the site presents its own problems. You may ask, “Don’t you want Storycasting to become a household name?” The answer is, “Not really - that dilutes the value of our trademark”. Think about the names Bandaid and Kleenex, and then read the Wikipedia entry for “genericide”, and you’ll see what I mean. Publicity and recognition is nice, but we have to maintain our exclusive rights to our trademark, by gently reminding people not to use “Storycasting” to refer to generic fantasy casting. However, we can’t complain if someone wants to talk about a “storycast”, because that’s already in use in the industry, and we don’t own that term – but I’m sure there will be some cross-over associations in the minds of all the users. I recently saw a post on an author fan site, asking if anyone had tried “Storycasting” the author’s works. I think that’s a plug for our site and not a generic use, but it’s on the edge of the kind of use we’ll need to watch out for.

The particular activity we promote on the website, which we call Storycasting, is even more narrowly focused: creating and posting an imaginary movie cast, using a book or some other story as the base material, and involving images of the books and actors. This is why I’m perfectly happy to talk about “fantasy cast” and “fantasy casting” – those are already generic terms that are more broad than the unique trademarked activity on our site. Since we own it, we can define it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

This is a new kind of HOBBY

As part of investigating the viability of what we were about to create, I was curious about the social and leisure aspects of web-based activities. During my lunch hour at work one day, I started to look over the Google postings for leisure activities. Reading, of course, is clearly one of them, but people also include “watching movies” in the list, and even count “surfing the web” as one of those “pleasant time-wasters”. But I quickly started to see a particular term show up repeatedly: the word “hobby”. Now, to me, hobby had a sort of, I don’t know, smallish kind of feel, as though one’s hobby is not really anything important. I enjoy woodworking, and I’ve made some nice things, particularly for my children, but I’m not terribly intense about it. But after reading the online materials, especially Wikipedia, it turns out that hobbies are really pretty important in the larger scheme of things. Hobbies are non-income activities people enjoy in their leisure time. These activities give them great personal pleasure. They let people learn new things and share them with others. They provide personal fulfillment. They are creative, social, and educational. They are fun, relaxing, and yet exciting. Hobbies fit that empty space that we all have that is “not-work”. And with these thoughts percolating in my head, I went to sleep that night.

I was awakened between 2am and 3am with one of those fits of creativity that sometimes move our thoughts out of fevered sleep and into feverish action. I went into my study and grabbed a piece of yellow paper and began to write and sketch. And for 45 minutes, idea after idea went down on paper, crystallizing the general musings I’d been having about what the site was supposed to do. I realized that I was on the threshold of a completely new thing – a new kind of web-based hobby. It was something that was already part of some people’s leisure time, but was as yet barely formed and only done casually, not in any particular place and certainly not by any identifiable group of people. The emerging hobby of storycasting (used here as a generic term), was about to tap into a powerful personal and social drive that is unknowingly shared by millions of people. Not everyone will “get” this hobby, any more than everyone “gets” model railroading, birding, or fly-tying – but the need and drive is very real for those who enter, and they will spend hours of time (and probably a few dollars) participating with all the others who “get” storycasting. And, like the other activities, this has the potential to drive a whole new industry, with it’s own players and lexicon. This is the first hobby that is so closely linked to both books and movies. In fact, this hobby is going to drive readers to rent more movies, and drive movie people to read more books. The reason is simple: the more actors you see and the more books you read, the more fun the hobby becomes. And it is going to have global appeal, because it works for every culture that has stories and a movie industry. So, I’m perfectly happy to be the creator of something as seemingly small as a “hobby” – something that gets included in those pleasant time-wasting not-work activities that bring pleasure and thought to our reading and moviegoing.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008 is already taken?!

At the start of my domain name exploration, I checked with just to make sure my favorite domain was still available. I had used the name to everybody I talked to about the idea, and apparently one of them listened rather well, because in that first year someone registered the domain. I was astounded. The site wasn’t being developed, just parked (and still is), but when I got a message to the nameless owner and asked what the website was going to be about, the response was clear: it was going to be about casting current movie stars in books. I felt committed to the website - I had already spoken to a few web-savvy relatives about coming in with me on the idea - and so I started to try other alternatives. I registered both CastTheStory and VirtualCastingDirector, but I was also looking at the idea of “story casting”. A key discovery for me was that, although the domain name was being used by Scott Smith for his blog about books and writers, it was semi-inactive. Also, I was looking at branding, and no one had registered the trademark or service mark of “storycasting” with the Patent Office (USPTO). Google searches of this and many other potential names had turned up the excellent teen filmmaker program at the University of New Mexico, but they had not registered the name either, and I didn’t really see any overlap – they didn’t have a website about books, and I didn’t have any young adults with cameras.

I had also noticed that, as a term, there was the feeling that "storycasting" was somewhat tied to the broadcasting function of “podcasting”. There was some question in my mind whether I could overcome the (limited) current usage to make the term mean what I wanted it to mean – using a website to create and post a fantasy cast. I decided that, with the right kind of promotion, I could turn the sense of the term my way. Soon, Storycasting came to be the thing that fit the best in my head, and so I wrote to Scott about perhaps obtaining the rights to the domain. We reached an agreement on price (which was also a kind of turning-point commitment for me), and I was suddenly the proud owner of as the core of a new kind of web-based hobby.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

It all started with Harry Bosch

In 2004-2005, I was reading the Michael Connelly stories about Harry Bosch. It was enjoyable, because Harry and I seemed to be about the same age, and had connections to Los Angeles and the military. I was an L.A. "ex-pat" by then, living in Arizona, so it was fun to read the stories that used the city as an integral part of the story and not just a backdrop. As happens when I enjoy a character, I started to get a clearer picture of Harry as a person - not just his house in the Hollywood hills or his love of jazz, but his loneliness, bitterness, and his constant surprise at his own vulnerability. He was always getting smacked in the face by other people's choices, because he put himself out there, felt things, and tried to protect people. I started to see him driving and smoking, watching his conversations, and seeing the expressions of delight or dismay on his world-weary face. Entertaining literature seems to do that for many people - you start to re-read passages, sometimes out loud, getting more and more of the feel of the moment, and replaying the movie in your mind that stories make. And I thought, as many have, about how great it would be to see Harry on screen. I wanted to watch some sensitive and gritty actor clearly portray this bitter loner as he staggered from heartbreak to heartbreak, trying to do right in a world no longer worth his efforts.

That's where Storycasting started, a simple desire to discuss who would play Harry, and how to get him up on the screen. I'd mentioned to probably two dozen people that someone ought to make a website just to let folks like me cast the book. I found out that this activity was generally referred to as a "fantasy cast" or "dream cast". I told several of people that, if I found such a website, I was going to join it and finally have my say about who I saw in the role of Harry Bosch (and other characters). I never found any such website. I did read over the posts on the Michael Connelly official site, but it was just a static text display. I was hoping for some kind of real actor-selection process, with a list of books and their characters, and some kind of visual “Players Directory” where I could see and choose who was closest to what I saw in my head. Nothing, nada, zip – it just didn’t exist. So, by the Spring of 2007, I started to explore what it would take to actually create such a thing.

Next post: The stolen domain name?