The publishing industry has been through a ton of changes over the last few decades. Talk to any publisher who has been in the industry that long and they’ll tell you that the expansion of digital has turned the industry upside down. Literally, upside down because the audience has become both audience and publisher. Focus, headlines, ethics, brand credibility, everything has changed, but then media has been evolving since the stone age.

When I recently collaborated with a custom publisher on a magazine cover story (KA Confidential, the custom inflight magazine for San Francisco Bay Area private airline KaiserAir), I learned some very valuable lessons from the experience. (The cover story features celebrity charity auctioneer Abra Annes.)

I sat down with boutique custom publisher Krystyn Hartman, who has been in the industry more than 20 years in everything from TV news reporting to newspaper journalism to her favorite story form niche magazine features.


She has always stuck to the same publishing standards and mathematical formula for stories. We can learn a lot from these core principles.

  1. Respect the reader.

People are busy and have a lot of choices, so we have to constantly ask ourselves: Is this story worthy of my reader’s time and attention? Is this story worthy of print? If not, why then is it worthy of digital? The reader, the customer, will consume the content either way. Why does one platform rate greater care in content than the other? Do you proof your online content as thoroughly as you do your printed content? If not, why not?

Lowering publishing — story-telling — standards for a digital audience simply because they’re consuming stories on a digital device not only disrespects the reader’s sensibilities and intelligence but repositions the author’s brand as less valuable to that reader. (Click bait is a prime example. The reader knows they’re being played and by whom.)

2. Select your stories strategically.

Look first to your audience. As a custom publisher, there is so much magic inside a brand just waiting to be discovered — and directly accessible. Marketing begins internally, inside a brand, then builds momentum as it moves into each audience stream.

Doing a story on scuba diving? Ask inside your brand for interviews with any customers or employees or subcontractors who are avid scuba divers. In the process, you’ll learn about someone else who is an avid glider pilot, and someone else who strapped on a parachute at 80 years old and went skydiving with his grandson home on leave from the US Navy.

Get out there and build relationships with the characters in your stories. People are feeling creatures who think, not thinking creatures who feel. That’s my biggest take away from boutique publishing. It’s all about the real experience.

3. Frequency & Value of Reader Relationships

Reader relationships are not about the platform; platforms provide bridges/delivery mechanisms for relationships. Whether a print magazine subscription or online publication, it is the brand voice, credibility, and value to the reader that determines if a particular reader is moved to return. What sets your brand-relevant story (content) apart and is worth the reader’s time? Voice, credibility, value.

This is a topic that’s changed quite a bit over the years, but the moral is still the same. Understand what the reader wants, give that type of content, and build on it often. If you’ve got a niche publication, build on story topics issue to issue, but make sure they stand on their own too.

4. How to get readers back for more

Readers return when we present stories that resonate with our instinctive knowledge of xnyn = zn (spirit + earth = life). Where X is spirit, Y is earth, resulting in Z life. (See chart.)


Stories that are missing either the motivation (X spirit) or the tools (Y earth) have no conclusion (Z life). Ideas (X purpose) by themselves never make it out of our heads. Facts (Y tools) are random grains of sand blowing in the wind without a reason to use them.

Branded content stories that resonate with this basic formula xnyn=zn (or E=MC2 for in-depth investigative type stories), are far more resonant, readable, and therefore valuable for the reader. Where there is value, they will return.

5. Stories vs Information

Information is everywhere. Anyone with a device has information. How does the reader know whether your post is random information or a relevant story? And how far are we willing to go to find out?

Inspiration multiplied by tools with knowledge equals motivation to act, which is what branded content is supposed to do. The difference between a computer generated data set of information and a story is the inspiration. The purpose.

6. Teach, don’t preach!

To build readership, let them hear and remember your voice. Address readers from a voice of authenticity and confidence rather than from a voice of lofty isolated omniscience. Always read your story aloud before hitting send. Always. Because that is the voice your readers will hear when they read it.

Let the reader learn with the writer. Readable writers know how to take the reader by the proverbial hand and, safely, take them on a learning adventure. But more than that, you’ll get to understand your reader, your customer on a whole new level.

Overall, Krystyn wants publishers to not forget that the roots of all publishing is earning the readership, one of many reasons she doesn’t like hearing readers referred to as “targets. They’re customers,” she says. Publishing is something that, when considered thoughtfully, can change people’s lives. “Our readers have the ability to impact the world with the stroke of a pen. If we can present a story that inspires them to create more jobs, engage more with the customers, its worth all the investment and hard work.”

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