Discover more from The Honest Broker
How I Disintermediated My Writing Career
It's a clumsy word, but a lovely thing to do
It’s a clumsy word, something a slick young MBA must have concocted after the second scotch neat on an expense account. Just saying it forces my mouth into all sorts of painful contortions—like the time I bit into a Tianjin hot pepper at Chef Chu’s and had to sprint to the men’s room to douse the fire.
But it’s a lovely concept, this. You practice disintermediation when you bypass all the gatekeepers and middlemen, and go straight to the source.
You’re dissing the intermediaries. Hence the term.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to books, music, media & culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
That was always my dream as a writer—to have a direct relationship with my reader. But for the first two decades of my writing career, I didn’t even know it was possible.
I just assumed the rest of my life would be spent ‘pitching’ stories to editors, arguing over word counts, and dealing with all the behind-the-scenes turmoil of pleasing people who weren’t my actual audience.
I know some writers enjoy all that, even thrive on it. But I would rather eat a whole peck of those Tianjin hot peppers than return to the old days when gatekeepers controlled every pathway to my reader.
Maybe you’re like me. Perhaps you pursue some creative pursuit, and want more autonomy. So I will share the story of how I disintermediated my writing career.
It started on January 1, 2011.
I know the exact date, because I made a New Year’s resolution to gain more control over my writing career. I can even remember the precise event that set me off on that path.
“On January 1, 2011, I only had 68 Twitter followers. I had been on Twitter for 16 months, and there were pet canaries with a larger social media presence than me.”
A few days before, I’d noticed that an online book reviewer of fair-to-middling reputation had 6,000 Twitter followers. That blew my mind. This bloke was writing about serious books, not listicles or pop culture drivel. Yet he somehow had found thousands of readers that he could reach directly on social media.
I was envious. I thought about how much freedom I would gain if I only could make direct contact with six thousand readers, much like this fortunate guy. If I could do that, I’d forget about editors and other gatekeepers. I’d self-publish online.
Nobody could stop me.
I could finally start writing about all the subjects that editors always veto (which, by some evil coincidence, encompassed most of what I wanted to write). I could tap into the primal enjoyment I always got from taking chances with my work. I’d no longer waste days in battle with intermediaries—who absolutely hate risk-taking of any sort.
But there was a tiny little problem.
On January 1, 2011, I only had 68 Twitter followers. I had been on Twitter for 16 months, and there were pet canaries with a larger social media presence than me.
This was frustrating, and also galling. I had already written and published 7 successful books at that point. I knew I had an audience out there somewhere—my royalty statements and translation deals told me how well my books were selling. Those readers must be somewhere. But I really had no contact with them, except for an occasional letter forwarded to me by my publisher.
But, really, I was to blame myself. I am a bit of an introvert and recluse—okay, let me be even more blunt, I am an extreme introvert and reclusive beyond any reasonable measure. At family gatherings, my closest relatives make endless jokes about this, and express amazement that I have actually appeared in the flesh.
I hear them say: Even Ted has come out of his cave, and graced us with a rare appearance.
And it’s pretty much true. I haven’t given a public lecture or done a book-signing event in the last 4-5 years. I’ve agreed to a handful of podcast interviews, but not many.
It’s not that I’m antisocial. If you ever meet me in person (a longshot, but not impossible), you will find me friendly and good-humored. I’m quick with a joke and to light up your smoke. It’s just that my bliss is staying near home with my family and devoting my time to reading, writing, and music.
For a while, there was even a rumor circulating that I didn’t exist. “Ted Gioia”—or so they said—was merely a pseudonym for his brother (and fellow writer) Dana.
I actually encouraged that rumor for a spell. Dana is an extrovert, and enjoys going out and pressing the flesh. In public he’s like a fish in water, whereas I’m more of a beached whale. So I liked the idea that he could cover both of our careers in his various outings.
In fact, when I won my first ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for my debut book, I asked Dana to go to the ceremony and accept the honor on my behalf. And he did just that, making a better impression in person than I could myself.
You get the idea. My roles models in public relations are Banksy, Satoshi Nakamoto, and D.B. Cooper.
But I was also to blame for those measly 68 Twitter connections, because I was half-assed in my approach to social media. I rarely posted anything, and when I did it was usually just a link with no commentary. I had a skeptical view of the whole enterprise—Twitter was not for people like me.
I was a social media snob.
But on January 1, 2011 I started tweeting more often—chasing that dream of 6,000 Twitter followers. I’m not sure why that number was so prominent in my imagination. But everybody needs a goal, and I picked that one. It promised independence from the New York publishing labyrinth, and a Nirvana where I could work to please myself and my small cadre of readers—and stop worrying about all the rest.
Here’s the best part of the story. To my own surprise, I found that I enjoyed online interaction. It was a perfect way of socializing for me—I could connect with people all over the world and still be a recluse. And I could do this without the hassles of travel and public events.
Those of you who are familiar with my personal history may know how much I traveled in my 20s and 30s. I even had to send my passport to the State Department to get more pages added, because I had filled up all of the original book. I’m not exaggerating—I was always on a plane, and usually to some distant destination. So when I got to the point in my life when I focused on writing, I didn’t really want to do any more road trips—my wanderlust had wandered off long ago.
Thus social media was actually a godsend for me. I just hadn’t realized it at first.
But it was only half of the solution to my problem.
I also needed to find a place to publish online where I had complete freedom. Because once I had direct contact with my readers, I planned to write for them. But this required a web platform of some sort.
This was a much easier problem to solve—there are no shortage of places to self-publish online. I had already tested the waters on this, back in 2007, and what I learned was amazing.
As a trial run, I published an essay on science fiction writer Robert Heinlein on a fairly obscure website—but it gave me complete editorial control. I had never self-published anything before, and had low expectations.
The response was tremendous.
Within 48 hours of publishing my online article, I heard directly from more than 50 readers. This had never happened when I’d published in the LA Times or New York Times or Wall Street Journal, or other prominent outlets. When I wrote for a major daily newspaper, I might hear from 4 or 5 people, but rarely much more than that. I actually seemed to have more impact going directly to readers online, even on an obscure self-publishing platform, instead of using traditional media.
I understood full well that self-publishing was less prestigious. I knew that many people judge an article by its outlet rather than what it said. On the other hand, I wasn’t going back to the old system. I knew how upset editors got when I wrote about anything except jazz—which I loved, but represented only a small portion of what I wanted to address in print. And even as my interests got broader, traditional media was getting more risk-averse.
At this point, I had a plan. I just needed to execute it.
I found that I could expand my online presence and enjoy every minute of it. (Well, almost every minute of it—it took some time to learn how to avoid toxic people and posts, but I figured it out.) And I also developed a range of self-publishing platforms.
Over the next several years, I absolutely rocked and rolled. I launched an entire website focused only on science fiction, and published more than 300 essays. I launched three other websites that specialized in literary fiction, and published hundreds of other articles. I setup a fifth website, almost like an online book, called Postmodern Mystery, which ran to more than 150 pages.
I also started sharing my annual list of top 100 recordings. But I just did it on my personal website www.tedgioia.com. Yet it gradually attracted a following just as large—or maybe larger—than if I had done it for a major magazine.
I shared these (and many other things) on social media, and watched my online connections grow. I reached that original goal of 6,000 followers within 14 months, and I stopped worrying about my audience size—but it kept growing and growing.
I did nothing to build my presence from that point on, except use Twitter for fun and to share things I had written. But this alone took me to 10,000 followers—and over time I surpassed 25,000 and then 50,000 and onward.
That was when I discovered Substack. And it finally allowed me to monetize this in a fair, straightforward manner. This was what I had been looking for from the start.
Here’s an interesting sidelight:
The legacy publishing business and New York gatekeepers paid zero attention to any of this. They live in such a tightly-controlled echo chamber, that the notion of writers flourishing outside their fiefdoms is hard for them to grok.
I talk to other people who have flourished on alternative media channels, and they all tell the same story. Some of them can reach millions of people via YouTube or Substack or some other platform—but the power brokers who hold the top positions in dominant legacy institutions don’t even recognize their names.
Maybe you can already figure out how this story ends. Every year, legacy media outlets shrink a little more, and alternative channels grow a lot more. Just do a simple trendline extrapolation, and draw your own conclusions.
I recall the amusing story of YouTube star PewDiePie who got into a dispute with legacy media. He later told how the Wall Street Journal came “knocking on my home address offering me ‘a chance and platform to defend myself.’”
This was a ridiculous offer—because PewDiePie had seven times as many subscribers as the Wall Street Journal. Of course, that was a few years ago, and the gap is much larger now.
So if you want to know the benefits of disintermediation, just mull over these numbers.
PewDiePie subscribers (current): 111 million
Wall Street Journal subscribers (current): 3.7 million
I can’t stress this next part too much—so maybe I should put it in bold face:
This is the new paradigm. It goes from bottom up, not top down. And it is already much more powerful than anything traditional institutions can muster.
This is not well understood, even now—and especially not inside the board rooms of legacy institutions. And even those who ought to know better prefer to stay in denial.
But you don’t have to be. You can work to disintermediate your own career.
It’s not for everybody. Some people want to work inside the system, and have it advance their interests. Which sounds great, and maybe it works sometimes. But I don’t trust the system, and would rather take chances on my own.
I often hear from naysayers that my situation is unique. Somehow I just stumbled upon my audience, or it was handed to me. And, I’ll admit, not everything I do is applicable to others.
But I hope the narrative I’ve shared above makes clear that the independence I’ve achieved wasn’t some overnight success—or like buying a lucky lottery ticket. I managed to disintermediate my writing career because:
This was extremely important to me.
I made it my top priority as a writer.
I increasingly turned down opportunities that didn’t let me build direct contact with readers.
I’ve now been focusing on this goal for 12 years.
And, finally, the culture is shifting in the same direction as me, which puts a wind in my sails.
That’s one area in which I did get lucky. We are now living in an age of disintermediation for creative people. I didn’t cause it, but I benefit from it.
That’s the larger truth here—and it’s much larger than any unique specifics to my personal situation. To some extent, the unique items in my case even worked against me—just look at the bizarre topics I write about and the cumbersome length of some of my articles, and consider how poorly designed this is to build an audience.
So if a stubborn and reclusive jazz writer can disintermediate, maybe others can too. In any event I’m happier dealing directly with you, my reader, and you seem happier dealing directly with me.
Perhaps that runs contrary to everything you’ve heard from the experts. But I’m telling it to you straight, as befits an honest broker.
Yeah, I still don’t like saying the word. Diss-in-ter-mee-dee-ay-shun. Ouch! But I plan to keep saying it, and doing it. Even if I stopped dissing the intermediaries, they’re still losing power and clout. So my alternative route doesn’t look quite so alt anymore. I even expect to see many of you on the same path.