Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Interview with Michael Wiese: Michael Wiese Productions

I am very pleased to have the renowned publisher Michael Wiese (Michael Wiese Productions) here to share his views on some of the challenging issues facing writes, publishers and new media developers in today's ever-changing media marketplace.

Michael's publishing company (MWP) began in 1981 and has since become the leading independent publisher of books on screenwriting and filmmaking, with a current line of more than 130 titles. MWP also has a production arm that produces documentaries and independent films (
MWP Films).

As a successful independent small press, in an age when small presses are disappearing, MWP has managed to not only hold its brand strong, but to grow and thrive. Anyone working in the publishing world has a lot to learn from a success story like MWP's, and we're lucky enough to get some advice, wisdom and practical know how from one of the masters in the field.

MWP books that cover the whole arc of screenwriting and filmmaking may be found at http://www.mwp.com with a 25% discount.

1. Your publishing company is noted as the leader in the niche entertainment sector. In fact, MWP was recently listed by "MovieMaker Magazine" as one of the top 25 companies that filmmakers need to know. In an age when small presses are dropping like flies, or getting absorbed by larger pubs, how have you managed to maintain your brand and actually grow? And, can you bottle it for the rest of us?

Wish I could bottle it! We are plodders. We take our time. When I first started and learned I could print a book in a few weeks, I failed to understand that that is not "publishing." Publishing is not only printing but preparing the sales and marketing tracks well in advance of having hard copies available. So the ramp up is very important and towards that end we’ve spent years developing contacts and channels of communication so that when a new book comes out, our audience knows about it.

Quality is another thing we pride ourselves on. We find the best people to write what we hope are going to be the definitive books on the subject. That’s why Chris Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey”, Steve Katz’ “Shot by Shot,” Judith Weston’s “Directing Actors” and dozens of our other books are classics and sell well year in and year out.

Our other ace is that we are filmmakers who essentially publish for ourselves. We ask, "what is it I don’t know that is essential to my skill set as a filmmaker"? When we get the answer we go out and create a book to answer that question. Our competitors are unable to do that. What we do for our readers is turn outsiders into insiders. It’s our goal to make our readers better writers, better filmmakers, better craftsmen so that their work will endure and the careers will grow. Our books are not about our authors but they are about our readers. We get book proposals from big name Hollywood producers and actors but we don’t publish their name-dropping war stories because this information does not empower our readers’ careers. We’ve been successful because we make our readers successful. Those who have read our books appreciate that. So what goes around, comes around.

2. On your website you mention something called “conscious media,” in relation to the new paradigm shifts taking place in publishing. What do you mean by this and how can writers participate in helping formulate this concept?

For years we’ve been publishing "how to" books. We’ve given screenwriters and filmmakers the tools to get it done. But now that you know how to make something, what are you going to make? The big question is “what are you doing and why? Who does it serve? How are you going to use these incredible powers"?

So "conscious media" refers not only to creating works that contribute meaningful to humanity but it also refers to the process of ‘awakening’ the consciousness of the media-maker. After all, writing and filmmaking bring others into a certain state of consciousness. To lead a reader or viewer to new insights and dimensions, the filmmaker has to be conscious, awake and able to access these spaces as well.

We’ve already published books that dip into this area such as “The Writer’s Journey," “Stealing Fire from the Gods," “Deep Cinema: Film as Initiation” and others. My recent film, “The Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas,” and my new film (currently in post), “The Shaman & Ayahuasca: Journeys into Sacred Realms,” explore these dimensions of consciousness. My not so secret agenda is to empower a generation of filmmakers who will in turn inspire, engage and create works that will contribute to humanity for years to come. It’s 5 minutes to midnight. The days of creating mindless drivel and eye-candy are over. It’s time to wake up.

3. Your company has developed an impressive list of titles for filmmakers, screenwriters, and aspiring film/TV artists. With so many books on the nuts and bolts of craft already in your back list, how do you make editorial decisions when a new story structure book crosses your desk, or another book on how to write great characters? This must be getting harder and harder. Who do you pick and to whom do you send that lovely rejection letter? Can you share some of your editorial process?

There are a million facets to the diamond. There is always another way to create meaningful content. Bodies of knowledge can be sliced and diced infinitely. What we are looking for are new ideas for media making books and other communication products. Sometimes we’ll have an idea and take it to an author. Other times our authors or prospective authors will pitch an idea. My job is to twist and turn an idea with the author until we are really clear on what the book is about. Once done, we let the author roll with it. We are not about doing derivative work. We want really fresh ideas that will turn on our audiences and inspire them in some way. I like to look to other disciplines and how those bodies of knowledge influence say screenwriting, storytelling or character development - subjects like psychology, the Enneagram, the chakra system, meditation, architecture, mythic structure and so on. The list is quite long. The possibilities endless.

4. It’s looking like 2010 is going to be the year of the e-book. Two thousand nine was good, but analysts are projecting 2010 to be 30-40% better. What role will e-books play in your company next year (or coming years) and how can authors respond to this new format to jump start writing careers? Also, will you be offering Kindle books in the future?

We expect about 15 of our books to go "live" on the Kindle and other platforms any moment now. It’s taken a long time to sort this out. We have another 50 titles that are being prepared for release right now. Amazon expects a 10% uptick in our revenues from e-books (and they usually under-estimate our growth). But we really don’t know what this move means. Amazon tells us that people like to have the hard copy in their library and an e-book copy on their portable devices so that e-book growth isn’t expected anymore to wipe out the traditional book. Did television wipe out the movies? Different platforms, different purposes and experiences.

5. Author platforms are all the rage. The days when publishers promote their new writers with marketing campaigns, signing tours, etc. are long gone (unless you’re Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling). Now we writers have to “do it ourselves” and the new media platform has become essential just to get a first-time deal with many agents or pubs. What does MWP require in the way of an author having his/her platform in place, prior to submitting proposals? Do you care? What platform components would you recommend as essential for any first time writer trying to get a presence on the web?

Success in publishing comes with a collaboration between authors and publishers. The more active and visible an author is – on any platform, the more noticeable his or her book will be. The late, great Blake Snyder was a master of promotion. He told people about his book anywhere, 24-7. I saw him not just work a room but work Chicago’s Ohare airport when we walked through there together to catch a plane. He had a 5-foot-high poster for “Save the Cat" and talked to everyone about his book! When he was frisked by security he was pitching! He formed screenwriting forums both online and in dozens of cities. He held seminars, gave lectures, interviews, had an inactive and daily updated website, a Facebook fan site, etc. He did it all. Of course publishers like authors who are very proactive. If you just sit around waiting to be discovered – you won’t be. 

6. Simon & Shuster recently introduced their new concept for hybrid media: the vook (part book, part interactive video). How do you think vooks and other hybrid formats are going to impact your business? These could have a major impact in the nonfiction and how-to markets (cookbooks, instructional, etc.). Since so many of your publications are instructional and/or how-to, will you be expanding into this area? And should writers who want to submit vookish proposals be comfortable doing so?

I think this is a very cool and appropriate concept – hybrid books. But until they are more established we’ll probably only dabble in it for the moment. (We’ve got a few of these in the works.) Sometimes its better to be second rather than first. Film books that teach filmmaking should be a no-brainer for this format but you still have to clear studio movies that you would use as examples and there’s the rub. They simply won’t play unless you are willing to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on clearances. So to license that kind of video material the math will never work. Still it’s a very exciting area that we are watching closely.

One last question on the sea change taking place in publishing; not that anyone knows where things will land. But, with books, nooks, Kindles, etc. the format zoo for new media is getting as bewildering as particle physics. At the end of the day its about the written word — or is it? Do you think the web’s influence here is just “flavor of the month” or is there no going back? Are books going the way of newspapers? What does it all mean? I hope you know!

Books are artifacts. They say something about their owners. They are part of our identity. When you sit down in Starbucks and read a book it identifies you. If you read from a Kindle it doesn’t or at least not in the same specific way. However, portable devices offer other advantages. If you are a doctor going to Africa to run a clinic you’ll take a Kindle loaded with your medical reference books rather than 500 lbs of books.

But I think you answered your own question – Kindle or hard copy – the reading experience has to deliver.

8. What new projects, initiatives, or hot, new writers are you developing for 2010?

We’ve got about 30 titles in the development and writing stages. We are contemplating a whole new line of books but its far too early to announce that. I’ll be finishing and releasing
“The Shaman & Ayahuasca," which I shot in Peru, and next month am shooting a doc in Bali about the “unseen worlds." We’ve got some new things we’ll be doing with our website. But all this aside, we are plodders and will continue to carefully develop and nurture the best books we can.

9. What question should I have asked that I didn’t?

If you are traveling in space at the speed of light and you turn on your headlights, will anything happen? Thank you for your intelligent questions.

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