The Entrepreneurial Spirit: “The Game Has Changed” - Four Steps to Surviving & Succeeding On a New Playing Field


Ellen Senisi creates media--books, apps, photos, photos, multimedia video--about real-life kids and their environments for children and parents, and for the education market.  Ellen's been a children's writer and photographer for nearly thirty years, publishing her first book, BROTHERS AND SISTERS, with Scholastic in 1993, and her most recent book in 2014, ALL IN A RAINFOREST DAY, through EdTechLens Publishing, the publishing arm of Ellen's company, EdTechLens.

Ellen's work first hit the market shortly after I began my publishing career and I've always considered Ellen's photographic book work for young readers to set the highest bar and standard.  I so admire Ellen's passion and drive to reinvent herself to meet and exceed the challenges of today's market. She is inspiring! It is my great privilege to have Ellen join us on "Our Stories, Ourselves" to share her experiences and advice for becoming a successful creative entrepreneur.


I got a phone call from a photographer friend recently. "I've got a great idea for a book!" he said. And he did. He had read up on how to put together a proposal and had made a professional-looking package. He’d sent it out to several publishers but wasn't getting any responses. He knew I had published children's photo essay books and wanted to know how to break into book publishing.

I had to tell him: the game has changed.

But you know that. So I don't intend to wonder why or whine (there's enough of that going on), but to share some of what I have learned as I changed how I play in the new game of publishing for young readers.

What is changing is not the creative process we all got into this for--people still want stories; they are hungry for information, the kind we can give them with good nonfiction; and they want images--lots of them.

What is changing is the delivery model. And--oh, yeah--the revenue model; we’ll get to that later.

It is quite telling, in this new digital age,that we writers, photographers, and illustrators are referred to as “content providers.” This term really bothered me at first, as it shows an utter lack of respect for the creative process. I eventually accepted the fact that it was just a name that was part of this new game I was reinventing myself to join.

I found myself going through four stages as I went through the reinvention process and became a "content provider": research, protecting my work, finding colleagues to collaborate with, and becoming an entrepreneur.

* Research Your Niche

Writers and artists are creative people with unique skill sets and diverse interests. A good place to start if you want to reinvent is to think hard about what you know and are passionate about, then look around online to see how others are doing similar things successfully.

In my case, my first steps involved learning new skills related to digital delivery of nonfiction content. I learned about video editing and I experimented with mixing text, photos, video, and graphics. One of my first videos (I DON'T WANT TO SAY GOODBYE) used text and images from a picture book that never got picked up for publication. It was fascinating to reproduce the concept in a whole new medium! [EDD noteSee this beautiful and moving 1.38 minute video here!]

However, I realized over time that I wanted to go further than producing one-off videos. Over the last several years, I combined my new skills with my background in education to create an e-learning company called EdTechLens. The first program, recently released, teaches the life sciences portion of the K-5 science curriculum using the theme of the rainforest. And, no surprise here, self-published books will be available as supplements to the curriculum. The first one, ALL IN A RAINFOREST DAY, was published last year.

I went this route because my research found that educational technology is a growing field and that standards-aligned science curriculum is in demand. This was a no-brainer for me because I have a passion for education so I was excited about exploring new ways of learning.

* Protect Your Work

At the same time, I took steps to protect my previous and new work. This is well worth doing, as you may be able to use previous work in other ways. Repurposing is done a lot in the digital world, as you will see when you do your research. Protective actions you can take include:

-- Request rights back from your publishers for out-of-print books, if you haven’t already done so.

Fall Changes & Hurray for Pre-K! are two 
of Ellen's books-turned-apps from Auryn 
-- For out-of-print books for which you already have the rights, seek out digital publishers to reprint them as e-books. I have had four titles reprinted by digital publisher, Auryn, and I know there are more opportunities out there. 

-- Check to see if publishers really registered your work for copyright in the first place; if not, register it yourself now. (It’s not uncommon for this to be forgotten.)

-- If you have new work that has not been registered for copyright, register it now. Unpublished work can be easily registered electronically. If you end up getting it published digitally, it is covered so if someone reproduces it online, you can find it and take action against them.

-- Protect your rights; find out if they are being violated and take action.  You can search text and images easily these days and, if you find violations, send a DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act)notice.

-- Scan your picture books, original slides, prints, and artwork in as high a resolution as possible to preserve them.

* Collaborate

Collaboration with other authors and/or illustrators can be an effective and beneficial way to work. If you collaborate, you can do larger-scale projects than you could do alone. If you have the right mix of people, the synergy of working together can be invigorating and creatively productive. I would not be where I am with my e-learning program, EdTechLens, without my four collaborators. Between us, the roles we have covered include writing, editing, photography, videography, music composition, photo research, content management, and curriculum development. Along the way, we've picked up marketing (including social media) and basic tech skills.

Ellen and her son Steven, one of her
EdTechLens collaborators, 
in the rainforest
Before making any official arrangement, it’s a good idea to work together for a time to be sure you are all on the same page regarding who does what and how much time and effort is contributed by all members of the team. I had worked with my team on other, smaller projects in the past so we already had a successful history and comfort level with each other when EdTechLens launched.

There are incredible collaboration tools available online. You and your colleagues or the consultants you hire can be anywhere in the world and communicate easily in a variety of ways. You can file share, hold meetings, message each other, or use project management software with to-do lists and discussion threads.

For example, one of our photographers lives in Switzerland and travels extensively to rainforests. He can use ftp to upload photos to our server from locations around the world. We can message him in a variety of ways for research information. We have not met in person yet (I found him on the internet because of his photographic specialty), but he has become an important part of our e-learning program. He had a need for a wider audience for his work and I had a need for his (ha ha) “content.”

* Get Entrepreneurial

You could also take the next step and become an entrepreneur. Technology has opened doors for individuals and small groups, allowing them to efficiently run businesses in ways that were not possible before. The startup movement is spreading rapidly, and there are many ways to get up to speed on the process of becoming an entrepreneur. You can find everything from startup weekends to three-month incubators where participants get opportunities to learn the tools, resources, and procedures of running a digitally-based business. In the longer-term incubators you can find collaborators, consultants, mentors, even investors. (The genre is known as SaaS for "Software as a Service," which is a software distribution model in which applications are hosted by a vendor or service provider and made available to customers over the internet.)

As previously mentioned, the revenue models are changing. Not much is available in the advance-and-royalties model on the web. Some of the most common types of payment used in the digital world include one-time payments, ad-supported websites, subscriptions, ad-supported websites, and freemium. (Freemium is when users get to use the product for free at a basic level. Once they get hooked and want to use the product’s higher-level functions, wallets are opened.)

Entrepreneurship is, in a way, like legalized gambling; but, heck, people do it all the time with the stock market. Risk can be minimized by beginning small and then moving to the next level as what you are creating gets tested and improved.

One of the biggest expenses of this new age is the tech part. Partnering with someone who can write code and shares your passion is a golden arrangement. Otherwise, you need to spend a good amount to pay someone to do this. Here’s where the risk gets bigger. This is where, once again, collaborators are an important part of the entrepreneur equation. If they share your passion, they may share your risk, as my four collaborators (who have opted to profit share) are doing. Some of our consultants, such as the photographer mentioned above, and our tech person, are willing to work with us on a deferred compensation basis. This involves being paid a certain amount upfront but deferring the remainder until the business is profitable.

Working with new types of financial arrangements, such as profit sharing or deferred compensation, is an important component of this new way to work and build a business. Depending on the level of growth your business is capable of, you may even attract investors who will give you money to build with in exchange for a percentage of equity in the company. We are exploring this option now for EdTechLens after two years of self-funding and (mostly) free labor from the collaborators.

Ellen photographing kindergarteners for one of her books

If you're a writer and/or an artist, you're creative, and you will be intrigued by the multiple ways to communicate in the new digital world. The job of authorship is not going away, it is evolving. I'm not saying all this is easy or quick, but it is exciting--and it beats being left out of the game!

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