Mark Manson on the Evolution from Author to YouTube Creator

Why he's going all-in on YouTube

Illustration by Moy Zhong with photography by Mark Manson

Mark Manson has lived the dream for most modern aspiring authors. He had an award-winning blog, a book that went viral during the pandemic, and a movie with a major studio. But after Manson got a peek into the Hollywood system, he found the grass wasn’t greener.

Here, we discuss the viability of Hollywood for small creators, if all writers need to be video creators now, and the difficulties of transitioning from writer to YouTuber.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In a video last year you said you had climbed the mountain of being an author. But you didn’t like being at the top of the mountain—the learning and climbing was more interesting to you. So you decided to start at the bottom with video creation. A year later, are you still climbing?

I would say that’s the personal factor. I hit a place in my career a few years ago where I was like ‘what now’? And I realized that I really missed the scrappiness of the creator economy. The ability to experiment, try things, get it wrong, try it again, and get better. I really loved that, that’s home for me creatively. But I also just really wanted a challenge. I wanted something new, something hard that I could get better at and learn.

On the business side, I’ll just be really frank—I had two TV deals and a movie. The movie got made, the TV shows did not. And I came out of about 3 years of doing stuff in Hollywood being like ‘these people are f**ked, they have no idea what they’re doing.’ And none of them were making money. 

Meanwhile, you look at the numbers on YouTube, TikTok, and MrBeast was hitting the stratosphere at that point. So I was like ‘What am I doing? I think I’m on the wrong side of this.’ So the business reason is I’m almost absurdly bullish on the creator economy long-term. I think I’m uniquely positioned in that I’ve been doing this for 15+ years and a lot of the difficult trappings that I think a lot of creators fall into, I’ve been-there-done-that, and I felt like there was a great opportunity for me to have an advantage.

Recently MrBeast scored a giant Amazon deal and creators are distributing their own movies in theaters. Given that you’ve worked in Hollywood, what is your perspective on what’s going on right now?

Obviously the MrBeast deal is amazing. He’s the exception and is in his own category. And the number he got was absurd. I look at the films other creators are doing. Like in hindsight I really wish I had done something more like the Yes Theory guys. I’m pretty sure they’re going to net out much better financially and creatively than my film. And that’s not a knock on who I made my film with; I like those people. It’s just the system is so gummed up with all these bureaucracies, legal bullsh*t like territory rights, administrative overhead that…the money was peanuts. In one country it’s on Netflix, and the next country it’s on nothing. I’d have conversations with Universal and I could never get a straight explanation on why that was. 

The other thing I noticed too, in all three of those deals, is that it seemed that half of the reason I was in the room was because I had a large social media following. I think they saw me as free marketing, and as soon as I realized that I was like ‘what am I doing here’. I could’ve financed this myself and put it out on my own website. 

I think we’re in a transitory period at the moment. I think for my generation of creators that was the playbook. My generation, it was 1) build the audience 2) that’ll open the doors to a publisher, a studio, or radio network 3) get paid and sign a seven-figure deal. And that was probably true up until the pandemic. Since then, it’s not clear that’s the playbook anymore. I think in a lot of cases as a creator you might be better off not finding those deals.

After years of writing a newsletter and blog, why did YouTube videos and a podcast feel like the right media verticals to invest in?

Video drew me in because I think it’s the hardest thing to do well and it takes the most combination of skills. For where I was at in my life that was very exciting. I also think video is where all the growth is and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. So if you wanna be in this space and grow aggressively, video is probably the best way to do it. Once I had been doing video for a year, a podcast is easy by comparison. There is less production involved and the economics are good, so it was a no-brainer.

Do you think for the next generation of writers to succeed, they need to be proficient in video production?

I don't think they’d need to be, but it’s definitely an advantage if they are. Also if they’re well-spoken on podcasts. Podcasts drive tons of book sales and I think that’s particularly important. You can still come up and build an audience purely through Twitter and Substack and never have a video of yourself anywhere. But I do see video and podcasts as being the most powerful formats for the foreseeable future.

Do you see your books as a flywheel into your other content or are videos now feeding into book sales?

It’s funny because it’s very much flipped. Years ago the idea was ‘build up the social media audience, newsletter, and website to promote the books.’ But the books got so big that now it’s working the other way around. Every platform I appear on, books are the tailwind. I say ‘I’m the Subtle Art guy’ and then hundreds of thousands of people start following. So now books are the discovery mechanism where they’ve either read the book or heard of it, and then they see me on social and start watching me.

In terms of video ideas—you’re in the self-help genre and have 15 years worth of article archives on your website from which you’ve taken inspiration. What makes something a good video vs. a good article?

That’s a great question [laughs]. I’ve been learning the hard way. It’s interesting because some things transfer, some things don’t and it’s been an ongoing question with the team over the last couple years. There are real advantages and disadvantages to each medium. 

Writing is at its best when you’re very abstract. If I wanted to do a piece of content on personal values, that'd play better as an article than a personal video. Whereas if I was going to do something on habits, there’s so many visual examples of good habits you can play upon and leverage to create interesting shots and sequences. 

A lot of it has been trial and error. There have been a lot of scripts that I thought were great. Then we’d go to shoot it and it’s a word salad. There’s nothing for the viewer to latch onto. Other times we do a video and the editor would be like ‘idk what b-roll to get, idk what the hell to show.’ That’s been the main thing I think, the abstraction vs. concreteness of the concepts and examples, really lends itself to one or the other.

Has it been hard making content for an algorithm-based platform?

Everything’s an algorithm. Impressing an editor at Penguin is an algorithm. Writing a book proposal that will get an agent’s attention, pitching a TV pilot is an algorithm. In traditional media the algorithm is people. You have to satisfy a small number of people with specific taste and perspectives. On social media the algorithm is very wide. Ultimately, the algorithms are just people. 

It’s just reflecting a population’s preferences back at you. If you’re under-performing or dissatisfied with the results of an algorithm in some way, you’re either misinterpreting what that population of people wants or aren’t giving them what they want, and you have to decide if that’s a bad thing or not. 

That process of create something→ put something out→ get feedback→ iterate, I love that process. It’s so much fun for me, and I think when I hear creators talk about the algorithm as if it’s an evil mad scientist, Google putting their thumb on the scale, I think they’re looking at it wrong. They should be honest and be like ‘I made a thing my audience didn’t like’ and they should either own that and stand by it or change what they make.

Are there things you’ve learned from being a writer that helps you make YouTube videos?

If you’re going to have one skill to take into any part of media, it’s writing. Will Smith told me while we were working on his book that you can have the best director, actor, and crew, but if the script’s bad, the movie’s going to suck. If the script’s good, then the rest matters.

I think writing is the most fundamental component of human thought and storytelling and if you’re an expert at that, it’s really just about modifying that depending on which medium you’re in. Knowing how to change it for a podcast, book, or tweet. The core skills stay the same.

Where do you see yourself in the future of the creator economy?

10 years ago I was one of the most innovative bloggers in terms of all the things I was doing. That kind of fell by the wayside. But I want to get back to that place where my business is not only doing really well, but an example of how to do it really well. 

From there as I continue to become even more of a dinosaur, I think there’s a lot of opportunities over the next 5–10 years to pivot to adjacent businesses like production companies, agencies, help the next generation come up behind me, and eventually get off-camera myself. For now it’s mainly just seeing how far I can push my own content.

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