Interview with Writers Store president Jesse Douma
By Jim Cirile
One of the first things I did upon moving to L.A. was to head over to The Writers Store at 2040 Westwood Blvd. This legendary shop represented so much to me. Here was an actual STORE for WRITERS. Even in NY, where I’m from, there’s no store writers can call their own. Simply walking in there and browsing the books and chatting with a helpful associate, it really made me feel like I had arrived in Hollywood. I’ve been back there many times since. In these days of brick and mortar businesses being crushed by the big e-tailers, it’s nice to know that The Writers Store is not only still around, but they’re ramping things up with new services, events and Storylink, an online writing community second to none. If you sometimes feel alone and adrift as a writer in L.A. look no further the helpful folks at The Writers Store.
I sat down to talk with Writers Store president & member Jesse Douma about all the things these guys are up to. And check out their online store at www.thewriterstore.com.
Jim Cirile: Can you tell us a little about your background?
Jesse Douma: I’m originally from New York, but at this point I’ve lived on the west coast so long I can’t even really claim any New York roots. I moved out here to California to go to school, because it’s a lot cheaper if you’re a resident. While I was doing that, I started working for my dad and stepmom’s business, which at the time was The Writers Computer Store back in ’86. The store actually started in ’82. At the time, I was just doing odd jobs around the store to make some money while I was going to school. I found that I really enjoyed it, and I started moving through the different positions. I became a computer tech for a while, worked my way through every role and liked it so much that when I finished school, I decided to make it my profession. I eventually became a partner and then the president.
JC: Dad was cool with keeping it all in the family, right?
JD: Yeah. He had his vision and got the ball rolling, and over time we were able to add many new things. There was no internet back then to speak of, and we’ve grown a lot in that area. Now they relax up on the Oregon coast, and I keep bugging ‘em whenever I need to.
JC: Are you a writer yourself? Did you try to jump aboard the band wagon during the spec boom of the ‘90s?
JD: I’ve always thought of myself as the guy who’s selling picks and shovels during the Gold Rush. It never really occurred to me to try to throw my hat into the ring. I have gone through the process of writing, but I wasn’t bit by the writing bug until midstream at The Writers Store. It wasn’t exactly the crap-plus-one scenario of walking out of a movie and saying, “I can do better than that,” but I did become fascinated with the whole process and saw how enjoyable it was for those that were doing it… as they completed their projects, not necessarily in the middle. (laughs) I had a few ideas, and I went through the process. I wrote treatments and turned them into screenplays, which have still only been read by myself. But it was a great experience to see exactly what our clients encounter, and it’s something I hope to return back to, because I really found that I love writing, when I have the time for it.
JC: It’s really remarkable to me is that you guys actually have a physical store. Where else can you go and find a store that sells stuff for writers? That’s such a frickin’ cool thing, I can’t even tell you.
JD: I know what you mean. In a way, we’re almost a beacon for people coming into town. It’s great having the physical location, because we do serve people from around the world, and whenever they’re in Los Angeles -- either moving here or on vacation -- we’re a destination. I look at it as being a candy store for writers, between the fasteners and the books and all that stuff. When people come in, it’s not uncommon that they’ll be here for an hour or more just looking around.
Having a physical location also means we’re a meeting place for writers, especially if they’re on the west side. It’s pretty neat, and as much as we love the online arena, it’s really nice to have that in-person contact that a store gives you. Plus the physical location allows us to have free events every week, where you can come in and sit down with 15 other Writers Store clients and hear how to budget your first film or how to use Final Draft or any of the tools. We have a lot of free workshops. They’re a lot of fun and very rewarding.
JC: It must cost a buck to keep that store on Westwood Blvd. going, and yet Writers Store prices are as good or better than anywhere else. How do you do that?
JD: We’re the largest provider of these tools worldwide, so a lot of it is just volume, but it’s also something we factor in to the cost of doing business. We could probably have higher profits if we didn’t have this location, but at the same, it seems that it’s a service we should be providing. We get calls every day. It could be anything from how many fasteners to use to bind my screenplay or specific questions regarding character development. We’re able to field those over the phone, but it’s not the same as in person. I think we enjoy that contact as much as our clients do. It is very expensive to have such a large store in the high-rent area where we’re at, but it’s just a part of doing business, and we choose not to pass those costs along to our clients.
JC: So what exactly is Storylink?
JD: Storylink (http://www.storylink.com) is a division of The Writers Store. It came about for many reasons, one of which was that we found that our clients not only here in Los Angeles but around the world were looking for a place to meet up and communicate and get feedback from like-minded people. So we developed it as a community, but it’s developed into being much more than that.
JC: And is there any cost for people to join?
JD: No, Storylink is a free site. All the content, the groups, the events, everything on there is free. There are some premium services that do involve some expense. One of them is called Pitch Perfect, and it’s a video and text pitching system where storytellers from around the world log in, upload their video or text pitch into a secure area of Storylink that only approved industry users have access to. The idea is to remove some of those barriers that exist and allow fresh material to come into Hollywood. On the agents or producers’ side, it’s nice because it’s all filtered by genre, and on the storytellers’ side, it’s a safe, secure place that they can market their material, and they don’t even have to upload a complete screenplay. They can just put up a logline and synopsis and hopefully a video pitch, so the person watching can really get a sense of who’s behind the story.
So that’s one premium service, and then another is an area called Services at Storylink, which is a marketplace for preproduction services such as coverage, written notes, anything that has to do with the written page before it goes into production, you can find in our user area, and like an eBay system, there are user ratings, so you can get a sense of who you’re working with and what their past experience has been. But the most popular area of Storylink has to be the groups. There are hundreds of groups. It’s a great place to get together and meet other people who have a common interest.
JC: There’s always an impressive amount of free content up there, too, all written by industry pros, which I find pretty cool. Now with Pitch Perfect, how do you vet the producers and industry types who subscribe?
JD: They apply, and an application consists of them creating an account and listing their professional experience along with some references. We then check those references to make sure that the person is who they say they are. Once we’ve confirmed their information, we give them access. But at the same time, we log every access to every pitch, so we always know whichever agency has accessed this story on this particular date.
JC: As a veteran inkTip.com user, one thing I’ve noticed is that many of their industry subscribers are these below-the-radar companies who aren’t getting serviced by agencies. Now that’s not a slam, because oftentimes those guys maybe had a studio deal once or had some things made but are now hungry again, or they’re up-and-coming guys trying to make their bones who really hustle. I think a lot of opportunities and careers are made from dealing with people like that. Where are you guys at in terms of your industry subscribers?
JD: Well, we just launched, so I would say we’re pretty much where inkTip is at. I agree, there’s nothing wrong with the lesser-known execs that are out there. Everyone has to start somewhere, and generally (those guys) will work a lot harder for you because, you know, they need to (laughs.) But where we’re really trying to set ourselves apart, other than the video pitch and I think a more streamlined system, is that we provide our service for free to all Writers Guild members as well as all the top contest winners. And what that does is it gives us additional material into our system from established writers so that we’re able to attract some of the higher level execs. They know that in that pool of material, they’re not only going to have those hidden gems (from) the newbie writer but also Writers Guild members who maybe are no longer on a show, or for whatever reason their agents aren’t shopping their material the way they would like it to be shopped. So that is attracting a higher caliber of execs, plus we have a lot of those inkTip-type execs, too.
JC: Let’s say someone is considering buying Final Draft, for example. What’s an advantage for a writer to get it from you guys as opposed to amazon.com, for example?
JD: There’s a number of things. One is that we’re a place you can call. So if you’re not even sure that Final Draft is the right product for you—it does come down to the differences between some of the products out there, and that’s where we can really shine. You want someone who can really help determine the product that is going to be best for your specific needs, and that’s on the software level or even on the book level. Amazon will give you a description of a book, but it won’t tell you that in chapter two, there are these great three pages that cover character development that are worth the price of the book just for that. My staff reads nearly every book title that comes through here, and they can really guide someone to the product that best fits their needs. And then after the purchase, we’re still here. So we’re able to fill in the support gaps or answer general questions that don’t fall under manufacturer’s support, such as, “What should be on my title page?” My team has a lot of information that they’ll pass along at no charge because we want to help them succeed at their creative goals.
JC: Awesome, man. Thanks for taking the time. And I have to mention, I love that you can just walk over to your store on Westwood Blvd. and buy the *right freakin’ brads,* which you can’t buy at any other store, it seems. I mean, that may seem like a little thing, but having the right brads (Acco genuine brass #6) that won’t fall apart when you read the script, and having a place to get them, well, that’s a damn community service, bro.
JD: (laughs) It’s funny, though. Those brads -- not only do we sell them off the floor all day long like an ice cream shop, but we ship them all over the world. You can pick up fasteners in other locations, but they’re never the right ones. They’re either too cheap, too flimsy… I hate to say it, but the Hollywood system looks for any reason to not read a script, and it does sometimes come down to a wrong cover or wrong fasteners. You can’t give them any reason to kick it into the pile.