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The Monetizing Unicorn

June 21, 2013

In 1985 I sat at a table on the top floor of the McGraw Hill Building on Avenue of the Americas in New York. I was invited to lunch in the elegant Corporate Dining Room, replete with servile servers, linens and table top bouquets, with the Editorial Board of Architectural Record. I had just won a Record House Award, published my first of 5 books with McGraw Hill and had proposed a Young Architects Round Table for Architectural Record Magazine. I was young once, it seems.

The Editor, Walter Wagner, loved the idea, as did the young editors around him – a little older than my 30 years. Walter dropped dead a few months later, and his successor thought me a whippersnapper whose eschewing of the AIA made me suspect in terms of the ultimate motivation of an effort to recognize diversity of thought and change in the profession. Although she did the wrong thing for the profession and killed the idea, she did understand me pretty well.

But that 1985 world where scores of white, almost exclusively male, executives dined every day in the lofted penthouses of skyscrapers that served huge staffs using IBM Selectric typewriters and fax machines that cost more than new cars, was built upon a system of public expression that was doomed by technologies and economics that only a few nerds in California were envisioning.

Within a couple of decades publishing’s income could not support the skyscraper and the ever-decreasing numbers of editorial staffs moved south to cheaper digs. When the publishing world imploded in 2008 and any number of presses, imprints and mastheads went dark over the next few years, it was just one of dozens of industries wracked by economic realities catching up to technological death sentencing.

Sure, advertising dried up to dust for a few years, killing magazines. Less disposable income meant fewer book purchases as unemployment ballooned. And the collateral impact of the near-death experience of traditional publishing hype was locked into the cascading spiral from relevance of main-stream media outlets (TV, newspapers and radio).

It seemed a century old creation/production/publicity/sales machine for all publication had its plug pulled in one bottom-out season. Editorial mastheads shrunk from football squad size to basketball team roster numbers. Whole publishing houses vaporized. Magazines went cyber, then dark.

Thousands of tiny cyber efforts – websites, blogs, e-zines, etc. exploded with little or no capitalization, the vast majority disappeared within a year or 3, and thousands of people in PR, publishing and media are left bobbing in a sea on uncertainty – and Baristahood.

My tiny place in this swirling bowl of descent into oblivion is barely a footnote, but it’s worth this ten minute read.

In the fall of 2008 I “had” a deal with an imprint of Random House (RANDOM HOUSE!) for a book. The spring of 2009 put a bullet in its head, and the dogged efforts of an agent netted about 80 notes of high praise and lamentation from risk averse publishers. So, now, I publish it here.

During that ’09 to ’11 I was able to create a book with a great publisher and it sold, and netted me, literally, about $2 an hour…Staying Put.  I also got solicited by any number of magazines a month to “pay for play” – take out an ad and get an article about any project I wanted to publish. I could write the article myself, or, I could PAY for someone to write it.

I have never paid for any media anything. My alternate (but completely unplanned) public image focus involved bankrupting my children’s inheritance by doing endless pro bono work, in lieu of writing checks to NPR, magazines or vanity presses. The PR benefits are minimal, but I associate with fellow do-gooding delusionists, versus the alternately pretentious or bitter Architect Clan or the insufferably shallow Media Whore Merry Go-Round.

As the media bubbles began to burst, I was amid the stakeholders in the death spiral, but not deeply invested. My writer friends in that ’09-’11 Publishing Panic Attack all said: “Just auto-publish”.  Do a print-on-demand book, do a limited press self-published book, publish it, just PUBLISH it. PUBLISH!

I have never owned sunglasses, blue jeans or inhaled anything (except Kentucky Fried Chicken in college) – so peer pressure was, predictably, not effective.

I do not join clubs or go to fundraisers or play golf to get work. Instead I mow my own lawn and bust it for the not-for-profits I believe in. This has, no doubt, edited my client list. But these here internets have offered up a warts-and-all exposure to what I design, write, and devote myself to.

So while I once lived by the 20th century press as subject matter and perpetrator, so far the only change in my relentless outreach has been to dive into the “new media” of the several websites I write for – Architecture Boston, Houzz & Houseplans blog – and being the design critic for the local paper – New Haven Register – and magazine – New Haven Magazine. There are tiny paychecks, ironically an ad or two (used to promote this blog and Staying Put) and some interesting collateral realities.

I dump time into radio with Binnie Klein, Bruce Barber, and Curtis Wayne, do a bunch of talks and the odd guesting on media – all for zip-zero-nada.

It turns out New Media values every metric EXCEPT money. “Likes”, “Hits”, “Visits”, “Shares”, “Followers”, “Trending” (or not), “Comments” supplant “ratings”, “Ad pages”, “Newstand sales”, Amazon rankings. I get gushy love notes from wee sites when my homies hit the pieces I write, but when the big sites see my lack of national juice, they wince. Instant and exquisitely precise measurables compounded with each and every click take all the “spin” away from the hype-ists. Factoids are still facts, and results are now precise, versus interpreted. You are either “trending” or not. You are either worth exposure and promotion or not.

Judgments are swift and sure, but the meaning of them is maddeningly unclear.

But there is a gigantic dead moose on the table everyone tiptoes around while extolling “reach”, “synergy” and “bandwidth” – “Monetization” is 21st Century’s Unicorn, El Dorado and Sasquatch.

We are in the era of Cyber Alchemy. The internet is the Crucible for making Money out of Data. Good luck. Despite 40,000 visits to the site you are now reading, there is no financial gain – but there is very little investment beyond time, either.

The small amount of money that makes this brave new world happen for me are the 30 of my 40 clients who are “retail” (versus not-for-profit) – but money is clearly NOT why all of this happens. I think connection creates its own reward – 35 years of my life measurables verify that people will use whatever it is I have to offer, if they know about it.

If I am useful to those who bump into what I do, that is ultimately why I have engaged in this low-tech but unrelenting media crawl of revelation. The means of PR is not the end, it is the means to the end of utility and relevance in a world of uncertain verities.

But for many of my architect homies who were deeply invested in the Good Old Hype Hive it’s still a dicey time of flailing assertion. Since the near-death of traditional media whoring, the New Whoring mosh pit has begun to clarify itself, and architects are just another set of hype-hungry professionals seeking a path.

Initially that meant spending dozens of thousands of dollars on a “Great Website” of movement, morphing and huge propensity to crash, then it was creating some ultimately untended blog of unalloyed propagandizing, now it seems variations on traditional modalities are being grabbed at.

Very few outside the architectural hype world knew that the very famous and gorgeous “Monographs” of Great Architects published in the last 50 years were, for the most part, vanity press efforts with one Huge Caveat: while the architect had to guarantee 5,000 or 10,000 purchased books, the cost of photography and writer, the very famous press had to accept the work as valid for publishing.

Not a bad bargain if you had the cred and the coin.

But lately very good architects are resorting to nouvelle vanity pub – self-created books, talks, NPR advertising, event sponsorships – all usually worthy, nothing like the doctor/lawyer carnival barkers we see on the side of public transit buses, but completely unvetted, unedited, without an ounce of external validation via selection by an editor, press or magazine.

Just like this blog.

I submitted a house to a competition that will publish winners in a book, IF those winners buy several hundred copies. I do not know if I have been selected, but this was a sign that desperate times lead to grab-ass methods.

But at the end of the day, bought cred ain’t cred. In the drying up publishing world there are but a few mags with dwindling pages, and a few presses that mesh with fewer and fewer vendors and require the pre-existing gravitas of the designer to dispense ink. Those mags tend to have radicalized POV’s  and thus the rejects from the diminishing traditional outlets (like me) seek out viable places of expression – like this.

While I time dump into Face Book, this blog and 7 boards of near and dear not-for-profits, I once again realize the mind-numbing reverberation of the Popeye/Polonius mantra: “I yam wut I yam”.

“Monetizing” may be the Holy Grail, but is not what I can get to in this media interregnum. Especially when no one knows anything about anything anymore….

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