Joshua Jay is an award-winning magician and the author of popular books like several popular books including Magic: The Complete Course. He’s also the founder of Vanishing Inc. one the largest magic retailers in the United States.
I recently caught up with Jay, and in this interview, he explains:
- How writing and publishing books helped grow his business
- The role of suspense and surprise in any creative work
- How he balances business and creative projects
- Why we should prepare for the next recession today (and how to do it)
And lots more
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Bryan Collins: You were just telling me about how the books feed the rest of your business and how it’s a circle almost. Could you elaborate a bit on that, please?
Joshua Jay: Yeah, so I mean, I can’t take full credit for doing this all by design, but I’ve created this really gratifying ecosystem where I write books and those books result in book tours, and the publicity on those book tours put me on TV. And those TV appearances get me bigger shows, and those big shows get me runs of shows like off-Broadway run that I’m currently doing, and round, and round it goes.
Joshua Jay: It’s really interesting how they all feed against each other. I did a study, a scientific study with the College of New Jersey, and this was just because I was curious to know how magic and science intersect. There was really no money in it. It was taking up a ton of my time, but now I’m on a university tour talking about the results that we found, and those university shows have garnered me some press. And that press attracted the attention of some brands, who are having me design commercials for them. So it all works in this really beautiful way where if I just follow my interests, everything tends to build on itself.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, that’s, that’s fascinating. Is like you sound quite busy from the way you described there. How do you organize your time?
Joshua Jay: Well, it’s very difficult and you have to love what you do. It’s really funny to me when young magicians say like, “Oh, I just really want to go full-time because this nine to five job is killing me. The hours are so tough.” And I was trying to tell them, “You’re going to work twice as hard if you do what I do than with your nine to five job you think is tough.”
Joshua Jay: I mean, I do not know many times whether it’s a weekend or a weekday because it makes no difference. My Sundays, I don’t sleep in. I get up just as early, I have to work just as hard and I stay up very late. I was up until three a.m. last night working, writing, rehearsing. It’s nonstop. But it’s not work if you love it.
Bryan Collins: And you’ve been practicing magic since you were a child, is that right?
Joshua Jay: Yep. Seven years old.
Bryan Collins: At what point did it start to turn into a career for you?
Joshua Jay: Well, I mean, I guess that would depend on your definition of career. I was performing, I was a busy children’s show performer when I was eight years old. About a year into it and I’ll never forget. I had an uncle, my parents would usually take me to my shows, but on this occasion they were both busy. So my uncle took me around and he drove me like on a Saturday to birthday party, to birthday party, to Cub Scout group.
Joshua Jay: And he said, “So what’s been going on?” I said, “Well, today I’ve got this show at the Wilcox, and then I’ve got one down the street, and then I’ve got this Cub Scout meeting, and the first one is $25, the next one, they’re paying me $10, but I told them I’m only doing 10 minutes.” And he said, “Boy, those three … You’re making about 50 bucks this weekend, you’re rich.” And I said, “I’m not rich, but I’m making a living.” I mean, even then I was professional, but of course I went to school, I went to university, got a degree and started traveling around.
Bryan Collins: When did you get into actually writing the books about your work-
Joshua Jay: At university, you have an option to do a senior thesis. And I did a senior thesis, which was advised by my professors, and my senior thesis was a new curriculum for magic. I observed that magic was taught in very old school ways. Books would contain 300 tricks, a paragraph each, very hard to follow, no theoretical underpinnings. So I wrote a book that was an entirely new curriculum for how to teach magic.
Joshua Jay: And I moved to New York City after I graduated, and I promptly sold that book to Workman Publishing. And it’s now in six languages. It’s been in about four printings. It’s had a small edition, a kid’s edition, a magic kit edition. And it is now, I’m pleased to say, used as the curriculum taught in schools in Germany, and South Africa, and lots of other places that teach magic.
Bryan Collins: That’s fantastic. Wow. Very impressive.
Joshua Jay: Yeah, it’s weird to have the curriculum I designed in my early 20s as like the curriculum used to teach these tricks.
Bryan Collins: What does the writing process look like for you? Do you come up with the tricks first and then write about them, or is there some other process you follow?
Joshua Jay: I mean, that’s a hard question to answer because it sort of depends on the project. I can tell you that when I’m writing for the public … Well, the unifying theory of all of this is I really try and think like my reader. I try and think about how they would respond and how they would think about learning a magic trick. And it’s cumulative. I’m a big believer in like you learn a skill, you learn an application. Then you learn the next skill and the application uses all the skills you’ve learned up until that point.
Joshua Jay: But basically, the way I look at all of my writing is answering questions. So this is really interesting. Magic’s about answering questions. When I do a show, if you happen to like my show, you would come up to me afterward and you would probably have questions. And the typical questions I get are things like, “How do you come up with this stuff? Or, does that trick ever fail? Or, how long did it take you to learn that? Could I learn something like that?”
Joshua Jay: I’ve learned to know what the questions are that my show isn’t answering and try to answer those things. Or, if I read a book, or if I write a book, I listen very carefully to the editors because if they come back to me and they say, “Yeah, I’ve got a question. You teach this trick, but you don’t really teach where to perform it?” Well, that’s a question I needed to answer in the text, so I’ve got to go back in and find that. I try and anticipate the way a spectator’s going to think in a magic show. And in the same way I try and anticipate the way a reader is going to think when I’m writing.
Bryan Collins: So a lot of your work involves collaboration and you have collaborated on Game of Thrones, is that right?
Joshua Jay: Yeah, that’s right.
Bryan Collins: Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Joshua Jay: Sure. So HBO came to me, I think it was after season two of Game of Thrones, and that’s when they made their big transition to HBO Go, which is the way you can watch it on iPads. And so they said, “We want to do a big ad campaign, basically saying you can now watch Game of Thrones on your devices,” which was, it’s nothing to us in 2019, but this was a big deal a few years ago. I came up with all of the magic and then starred in the commercial to make all these things come out of the iPad. So I pulled a sword out of the screen, and I did all of these different things to sort of make … I made it catch fire, I pulled a scroll out. I’m sorry about that phone.
Bryan Collins: No problem. And you were saying you that fire came out of the device, is that right?
Joshua Jay: Yeah. I pull the sword out and the sword caught fire. And then I touched a scroll to the screen where there was fire and the scroll caught fire, and so on.
Bryan Collins: Oh, very good. Very impressive. And I’m curious, do you see magic as creative work? Or, do you see it as another type of work?
Joshua Jay: Creative work. I think there are two sides to my job. There’s the artistic side and the business side and they always say, “It’s a business. It’s show business.” That is very true and I recognize that, as my career grows and expands, I am more and more needed on the business side of things, but I am very uncomfortable in that role. That’s a very reluctant role for me. What I want to be doing is writing, creating, testing, performing.
Bryan Collins: How do you balance the two?
Joshua Jay: I mean, I don’t know the answer to that question because I don’t know that I’m always the best at it. I think that the two answers that I can come up with, which aren’t exactly inspirational, but they’re true, are number one, you’ve got to be willing to basically work harder than you’d ever imagined. I mean, I don’t ever turn off. The work stops when the work is done and it’s almost never done.
Joshua Jay: And then the second thing is you have to block out time. There just comes a certain point when I know my inbox is exploding. I know that our team, which is about 12 people are in need of me for different things, but I will just literally turn it off and go, “I’ve got to spend two hours rehearsing, or building, or developing. And make the time for it.”
Bryan Collins: The activities that you’ve described, rehearsing, building and so on, is that that away from the internet and the computer?
Joshua Jay: Yeah, it’s like in the room, actually doing it.
Bryan Collins: Okay. Do you keep track of them at the time you spend doing that?
Joshua Jay: No, because again, it’s results-driven. I mean, I would say to you any trick that would go in my show, we’re about to put a new show in my New York off-Broadway show, and that trick has been in development six months, which I’m very uneasy about putting something so new in the show, and it will either get cut immediately if it’s not testing well. Or, if it’s testing so-so, which is about the best you can hope for, it gets serious development for 30, 40 minutes after each performance with the whole crew talking about it, brainstorming it, lighting it differently, different music. And the hope will be that it is a mainstay of the show and it stays in.
Bryan Collins: Do you think your work translates to other countries?
Joshua Jay: Other English-speaking countries is easier. Although I just got back from a tour of Great Britain and I didn’t make it up to … Well, I actually did one date in Scotland. I didn’t do any in Ireland, sorry to say, but I’ve been there before. And so this UK tour and then the last date was in Paris, and oh my God, the difference of reactions between Paris and the rest of the UK, it’s just two different cultures. It’s so completely different. And it was 45 days over there.
Joshua Jay: And coming to Paris was like entering a different dimension because there’s so much more expressive. It’s not that the UK audiences weren’t good, they were great, but they’re so much more reserved and subdued compared to Paris, which was like hooting and hollering. And so yeah, I would say they are all different. When I tour outside of English-speaking countries, I do a set that’s much heavier on music pieces and I do a set that’s much less talking.
Bryan Collins: I like that. I like that you’re tailoring your work for different audiences, basically.
Joshua Jay: Very much so. There are even tricks that I sort of can’t touch, I wouldn’t say politically because my work isn’t political, but there are just certain things in places like China or Russia that I just wouldn’t do because the themes of those tricks are just not going to be identifiable to maybe the audience as much.
Bryan Collins: Are there other people that you would look to for inspiration or for your creative work?
Joshua Jay: Yeah, there are, but surprisingly there as much magicians as they are other people who are doing interesting thing in their own fields. It’s much less interesting because I kind of see it as a dead end. I mean, I’m always really inspired if another magician does something wonderful or beautiful, but I don’t want to copy him or her. I want to do my own thing. I’m much more interested in like, “What did Steve jobs do that’s interesting and how can I be him for our industry?” Or, “What did Jim Henson do in his industry that really turned everything on its head and how can I do that for ours?” Those are more of the questions that I ask. I mean, I’m inspired by people that revolutionize their own field, and what lessons can I take and apply?
Bryan Collins: What about your business [inaudible 00:12:10] Inc?
Joshua Jay: Yeah, so that your listeners and readers know what finishing is. Basically, magic is a wildly popular hobby, so there’s not a lot of professional magicians. I’d put it at well beneath a 100,000 worldwide. Not a lot of people, but the hobby of magic is [inaudible 00:12:35]. There are dentists, doctors, waiters, managers, every walk of life who come home from work and can’t wait to get home, and pick up a deck of cards, and tinker. And we service the professionals, but also this huge body of amateurs. We have a ton of Irish customers, as well.
Joshua Jay: And so we’re not just a magic shop carrying stuff, but we’re also creating, so I would invent tricks. We have a staff in China that can source those, and prototype them, and manufacture them, and then we put them out. And so it’s a whole machine. We have a warehouse in the UK, we have a warehouse in the United States, we have a marketing director, we have marketing efforts and campaigns. We have engineers in China, manufacturing the stuff. And then we go to expos, conventions, magic clubs and sell these tricks, as well as online.
Bryan Collins: Just so I have an idea of the timelines, please correct me if I’m wrong. Was it during the recession that you set up [inaudible 00:13:32] Inc. because you were wanting to diversify?
Joshua Jay: So, sort of. I went to my best friend, who’s now my business partner and he was working a job in website feasibility. So he was working for a data company doing IT work, and he was a magician. And he sort of said, “You know, boy, I wouldn’t really want to spend my days doing magic, not just programming.” And I said, “That’s interesting. I’m sick and tired of selling my ideas to other outfits, and watching them make the money off my ideas.” So we formed up and did this company and then the recession hit. And what we found was, it was a very recession-proof thing. I mean, elements of my job are not recession-proof.
Joshua Jay: And I’m thinking about this a lot because I anticipate a real slow down coming up. We can talk about some leading indicators that I think magicians feel that the rest of the public doesn’t always look at. But the things I observe happening now are things that happened before the last recession. I do a lot of corporate magic, and of course, what’s the first thing to go when you’re a corporation, and you’re tightening your belt because your earnings aren’t what they used to be? Well, you don’t spend a 100 grand on the company holiday party. You spend half that. So now you don’t get the ice sculptures, and the magician, and the MTV VJ, and the sushi bar with a celebrity chef.
Joshua Jay: Now you have to tell the magician, “I’m sorry we can’t have you this year. Or, last year we had you do two shows and walk around magic. This year, we just have to have you do walk around.” So first of all, I observed that happening. And secondly, you see a slow down in sales with magic because magic for us is, for most of the amateurs, is disposable income. So we aren’t seeing a total overall slowdown in numbers, but we’re seeing a ramped up marketing effort for the same numbers. And to me, that spells certainly not doom, but a potential slowdown.
Joshua Jay: So anyway, to come back to your initial question, was really lovely last time that I was able to diversify, and as my work on the very, very high end of New York corporate clients dried up a little bit, I was able to rely on the magic community and do more magic lectures. For example, when I’ve toured with my lectures in Ireland, I’ve been to Dublin and Belfast, and both of those groups have clubs of over a 100 magicians, who pay for me to do a show and then teach my work. And that never dries up because those clubs hire magicians always and forever. And so that was a great way to sort of get through that difficult time.
Bryan Collins: So how would you advise somebody who’s engaged in creative work to prepare for the next recession?
Joshua Jay: I think that the key was that I had outlets that were under my control. So the guys that really suffered in the last recession were the guys that relied on calls from clients. They relied on work to come into their phone and their inbox, and those people really suffered because those things dried up. But I had two outlets that I just explained to you that didn’t dry up because they’re up to me. I went out and contacted Dublin Belfast and said, “Hey, I’m going to be in your area. I’m going to do a magic lecture. Let’s negotiate a price and let’s put a tour together.” I’m able to say, “Let’s put out magic and market it to magicians and have them come to us.” And that was all the difference.
Bryan Collins: I like that. I’m also curious about suspense and surprise in a creative project. I’m sure for magic, that’s key. Could you talk a little bit about the importance of suspense and surprise in your work?
Joshua Jay: Sure. I’m extremely inspired by Alfred Hitchcock. One of my signature pieces is dedicated to him, and I talk about him. And of course, he was the one to pinpoint and codify for me that … I kind of think of, when I’m inventing magic, I kind of think of it as two big dials, right. Two big twisty dials. One is suspense and one is surprise, and you’ve got to twist them both because twisting one too much one way affects the other.
Joshua Jay: You would think that they’re diametrically opposed, but if you have suspense, you can’t have surprise because the suspense is for the expected outcome. But that’s not true at all. Magicians find a way to balance suspense and surprise every day. And I think that great magic is a balance of suspense and surprise, and pinpointing what you give your spectators a peek behind the curtain about, that they can be suspenseful toward, and what’s better to hit them on the side of the head for the big surprise.
Bryan Collins: Did you have an ideal early morning routine at the moment?
Joshua Jay: I don’t, and I know that it’s very trendy in business books to sort of say, “This is what I do every morning. I start with yoga, then I make myself a protein shake, and then I do this.” I mean, that works for people. That’s great, but I thrive on the individuality and variation that my job that I’ve carved out for myself provides. I love that three days ago, I woke up in Paris and did a show. And the next day, I woke up and flew home to New York City, where I live. And the day after that, I packed up my suitcase and came to Ohio, and started to prepare for a talk I’m giving called How Magicians Think for Harvard University. Every single one of those days was a different way to wake up. One day I slept in, one day I was up at dawn, one day I was in a beautiful city. The other day I’m in the countryside and I don’t have a routine. And that’s what makes the job so wonderfully exciting.
Joshua Jay: I mean, I don’t know if it’s clear to you how much I love what I do, but I just really love that variation. I’ll wake up sometimes and I’m on a gig for HBO, and I wake up other times and I’m doing the eighth show of the week in my own theater in New York. It’s just a thrill.
Bryan Collins: Do you take any time off, because you sound like you work pretty hard?
Joshua Jay: Yes and no. I usually take off a full month in the summer. I’ll show you before we get off the phone, my family lives on a Lake and I come here to kind of decompress, and I don’t take any work in our slowest month, which is usually June. But the other thing is that I always cushion my shows with days off in interesting places because I love to travel. So that’s my other passion. I had two nights in Paris, I was working in three nights, I had to just explore and take inspiration, and I did. I took pictures of things that are going to become magic tricks, and when I go to South Africa later this year, I will take a few days for safari. I get my good times in, too.
Bryan Collins: And finally, how do you help clients or people who you’re working with to understand the value of what you do?
Joshua Jay: It’s a good question. Let me tell you a story. So I told you, I think, that I worked with the College of New Jersey on this survey of what magicians can learn from layman through these science experiments about our craft. Because most magicians don’t approach what they do with any kind of market research. And I thought that’s silly. Every other walk of life, they have data that they can go back to. We have no data in our industry. So I created a very large study and paper with the College of New Jersey in collaboration with professional statisticians, and scientists, and we were able to put together really, really strong data. And one of the many things, like 40 things we tested that I want to tell you about is this, we would show people videos with an A and a B test. In video A, we say to the viewer, “Please watch this magic trick.” It’s a magic trick of me doing a trick.
Joshua Jay: And to group B we said, “Please watch world champion magician, Joshua Jay, do what is known as one of the most difficult card tricks in the history of magic. We show them the exact same trick. So the only difference is, video one is not framed with any kind of expectation or introduction, and video two shows a level of difficulty and a level of peer review that I am a former world champion. And in both cases, we would ask the viewer to watch the trick, to rate the trick, how much they enjoyed it, and then to take a guess at how it was done. Fascinatingly, people viewed the trick with more enjoyment and better ratings with that introduction. In other words, they felt like if they were seeing somebody good, they would enjoy it more. And this is fascinating, they actually guessed less correctly then group A, who were given no sort of introduction.
Joshua Jay: So it’s almost as if people, when they think they’re watching an expert, they surrender their good judgment and just enjoy the trick and aren’t able to guess as well. So when you ask how do you impart your value to clients, there’s a few things that I do, but one of the new ones that I discovered, and I’m happy to share this with all the magicians and people in the world, is clients used to say, “How do you want to be introduced?” And I would just say, “I don’t know, just bring them out with a big round of applause and that’ll be enough.”
Joshua Jay: I want them to know that I fooled Penn and Teller on [inaudible 00:23:03], that I’ve appeared recently on the Tonight Show and James Cordon Show, that I have won the world championship of magic because these things add value to my show. They really do. It’s not about ego. I could care less what they say. I just want them to enjoy the show in the best way that they can.
Bryan Collins: It sounds like you’re building suspense, too. Setting the context.
Joshua Jay: That’s right. That’s a good link back. Yeah. I hadn’t thought about that, but it absolutely does build suspense because then they want it fulfilled.
Bryan Collins: Where can people find more information about you, Joshua, on your work?
Joshua Jay: Anywhere, any of the outlets, so Vanishing Inc., joshuajay.com, all those places.
Bryan Collins: It was great to speak to you today.
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