Who am I and what am I doing

A few possible answers about why I'm doing this subscriber-supported weekly essay series.

Hey, I’m Ariel.

I'm the author of three books, the founder of a bootstrapped media empire, and an emerging multimedia creator focused on video and dance. I like to poke at the soft places of overlap between culture, identity, relationships, and personal development. I'm a motivator of people, a creator of communities, and a culture bellwether.

As an author, I'm best known for my first book, Offbeat Bride, first published by Seal Press in 2007 and now in its third edition. In January of 2019, I published a erotic novelette called PROS BEFORE BROS (more about that later). I've spent the last three years working a book about personal development, self-healing, psychology, spiritual awakenings, fitness as a celebration instead of obligation, divorce recovery, ego dismantlement, interpersonal dynamics, the enneagram, bdsm, and a bunch of other stuff. That book, From Shitshow To Afterglow, is due out from Seal Press / Hachette in June 2020.

As a publisher, I've spent the last 13 years focused on my profitable bootstrapped digital media company, Offbeat Empire LLC. I launched the company in 2006, and rode the wave of blogging, monetized content, then social media content marketing for over a decade. At the high water mark, I was managing a staff of nine and publishing four websites, reaching close to two million people a month. The largest property, offbeatbride.com, reached 50 million readers. That's been cool and all, but here all these years later... I am tired of the pageviews/advertising game. Beyond tired. Exhausted.

For the past couple years, I've been exploring daily short-form media, feeling how the relationship between Creator and Receiver is shaped by daily visual connection... No bingeing allowed. Most of my videos focus on divine movement, ramblings about self-development, maturation, and non-duality.

I've been using Instagram as a platform for this emerging video work, but given my experiences with Facebook (where I built up 150k followers who I can no longer access without payment), I don't trust Instagram as a platform. Also, I'm sick of the way social media exploits creator insecurities to bolster content creation. I'm convinced the tools tap into humanity's attachment system triggers to drives the digital engagement that tech companies can then sell to advertisers. I'm sick of giving Instagram my content to sell, and I'm sick of having my nervous system hacked by social media.

I want a supportive space where I can do all my work -- the writing, the dancing, the videos, the experiments in publishing. It's clear to me that public blog posts supported by advertisers is no longer that place for that content. It's equally clear to me that a free social media platform with questionable business values also isn't the place for that content. 

Maybe Substack is that place?

My Backstory & Why Substack

I got my start in publishing back in the mid-'90s, writing for and then editing a West Coast rave magazine called Lotus. The magazines were given away for free at record stores and boutiques and raves, and the free-ness was a big part of the brand. We weren't about selling out, man! We weren't like those money-grubbing bastards at XLR8R. (…Who, it should be noted, are still in business. Unlike Lotus.)

But of course, the truth is Lotus was about selling out — we just sold out to advertisers instead of readers.

In the late '90s and early '00s, I supported myself as marketing copywriter for businesses like Microsoft and Amazon. I wrote whatever someone would pay me for, which meant stuff like ear and nose hair trimmerssquirrel-proof bird feeders, operating systems, and urine testing kits. I freelanced for alt-weeklies for a few hundreds bucks here and there, but mostly I wrote whatever I could make the most money writing — which was corporate bullshit. I called myself a word whore — you hire me, I write about whatever you want. Voice for hire.

Writing the Offbeat Bride book in 2005 was supposed to be my big ticket away from advertiser-supported or corporate writing. I launched offbeatbride.com just to help me sell books! Of course, I quickly realized that I made only $1.50 per book, and that there was no way to live off of book residuals. Within six months of launching offbeatbride.com, I realized that it was way easier for me to sell an ad for $100 than it was to try to convince 65 random people on the internet to buy my book… and VOILA! The Offbeat Empire was born.

Selling ads worked well on offbeatbride.com, but not on the other sites. Remember when Offbeat Mama was still a thing, and the readership was openly hostile toward sponsored posts? Consistently, sponsored posts would bring out a tiny, extremely vocal slice of the readership who found it personally offensive that a website about nontraditional parenting would promote a $40 organic cotton onesie. Does anyone remember that post I wrote years ago called How to slowly kill a website you love?

Over the years, I've experimented with making the sites more reader-supported, but all attempts quickly failed. Big huge publishers with global followings are still trying to make paywalls work, so I can't feel bad that as a bootstrapper in Seattle with way less resources, I'd fail too. Most people do not want to pay for content on the web, the end.

Exploring different storytelling business models

I dedicated much of 2018 to a self-publishing project called PROS BEFORE BROS, a tiny erotic art book/jewelry pairing that I sold as part of a luxe package. 

Part of my motivation with PROS BEFORE BROS was to poke deeper into the exploration of the intimacy between author and readers. Do readers relate differently to material that very few people have access to? Do they relate differently to material they had to invest in? Is it only longtime readers who will be interested in this story, people who've been invested in the longer-term narrative? At what point do readers become more patrons than readers? At what point are they more friends than readers at that point? At what point do my readers know me better than I know myself? What's too much to reveal to readers? How does my story affect their lives? How does my relationship with them shift their relationships with others? With the shift in revenue model, how does that change the relationship with readers? 

PROS BEFORE BROS marked a shift in my storytelling business model — away from paperbacks that earned me pennies, and away from selling ads on free content. Ads frame such a different relationship between reader and writer… with ad-supported content, the primary partnership is actually between the publisher and advertisers. In that paradigm, the readers are just the product. The relationship with readers is just to woo more advertisers. If I was a farmer, the readers of my free web writing are just cattle, or corn. My writing was just seduction to lure in their eyeballs... which I could then turn around and sell to my advertisers.

…But what if readers were MORE than eyeballs? What if they were invested in the work directly, and my primary business relationship was directly with them, without advertisers watching and jacking off in the corner?

PROS BEFORE BROS taught me to think tiny. This isn't a high numbers pageview game. I didn't want hundreds of thousand of people reading about my deep inner workings. The people who valued what I was doing with the project, valued the project.  

Valuing creative work separate from the ability to hustle

The PROS BEFORE BROS experiment shifted my brain. Why have I been giving my writing away for so many years, chasing strangers on the internet, begging them to love my work enough for me to sell their eyeballs to someone else? What if I shifted to lovingly producing small-batch, artisanal content, catered to the people who actually (GET THIS!) like what I'm doing? What if, instead of expending energy desperately trying to chase people, I focused on the people who are right here with me?

I do know this much: it's only going to be a few people. 

That's not only ok — that's fucking awesome. Because those people are my people.

Part of using Substack is that I want to experiment with being a small-batch content producer, connecting intimately with the people who are truly invested in my work.

I'm curious about how my work might shift when it's less about chasing eyeballs to sell, and more about secure connecting to the people who are sincerely invested in what we're doing together.

If you're ready to connect to this experiment with me, I hope you'll come on board as a subscriber.