From Pages Read to Minutes Spent

This essay From Pages Read to Minutes Spent: Rethinking How We Quantify Reading was originally published at Publishing Perspectives on February 3, 2011.

Amazon launched Kindle Singles last week. These original works of 10,000 to 30,000 words are designed to fill the space between an essay and book. At the same time, TED, the popular conference organization, launched TED Books as a publishing imprint using the Singles program. Director Chris Anderson stated what he sees as the problem: “Busy people can be daunted at the prospect of having to read a 300- or 400-page book.” Amazon VP Russ Grandinetti suggesting a more elegant reason for this experimental evolution: “Our goal with Singles is to allow compelling ideas to be expressed at their natural length.”

What Amazon and TED clearly believe is that e-books are going to remove the fear publishers have of needing to deliver specific minimum page count. The variety of screen dimensions across an ever growing number of reading devices and the ability for readers to adjust font size in this new e-world makes the page infinitely variable in size and measuring page count pointless. Each electronic “container” now dictates the form the book will take, much like pouring same amount of water into a champagne flute and saucepan create very different results. So what do we use instead?

I wonder if the daunting “400 page problem” that Anderson suggests leads us to a better solution. Maybe minutes and seconds is the best measure of book length in the digital world. Music and movies, which migrated to digital formats years ago, consistently provide the duration of the piece and there are already signs of this standard being associated with the written word.

The curation website Longreads, which directs readers to quality long form writing, provides, along with the title, author, source, and synopsis, the number of words contained in each piece and an estimate of the time required to read. It does not seem much of a stretch that with small evolutions in our reading devices we could measure the actual speed of the person reading and customize those times to match to the individual.

Seeing those time estimates will change our perceptions of reading as an activity, for better and worse. I already have an improved and altered sense for the time I spend reading, and I do sometimes avoid pieces because of the word count exceeds my day’s quota. Smart book publishers will help readers get over the attention anxiety by providing time estimates for each chapter (“You can read this book in ten easy installments of 17 minutes each!”) –- something that is available as an easy plug-in for blogs and others forms of online publishing. Or maybe our device will tell us how much time is left in a chapter as a replacement to our old method of paging ahead to find the chapter’s end.

This shift from page count to word count will be another casualty of the physical book that will be lamented. Purists will see this as another horrible concession, wishing we returned to an age when books were shown proper respect. “We are going to start saying, ‘This is a four hour, seventeen minute book?’ That’s absurd!”

But what if this shift is a way for books to better fit into our a world where we measure in smaller and smaller slices of time? The book hasn’t changed, only the way we relate to it. And what if instead of choosing another 47 minute episode of Mad Men from iTunes, that reluctant reader picks up a book, knowing she can finish five more chapters before going to bed? That seems like a good trade-off.

Best Opening Line To A (Business) Book

How about this one?

I would like to begin our journey together on a note of optimism, partly because beginning on a note of pessimism does not sell books.

-From Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success Happiness (and World Peace) by Chade-Meng Tan, a book listed under both Books > Business & Investing > Management & Leadership > Management and Books > Religion & Spirituality > Other Eastern Religions & Sacred Texts

The Paperless Book

I originally wrote this essay for O’Reilly TOC blog on November 30, 2011.

Stephen Colbert opened his October 25th, 2011, show with his normal exuberance. He bragged about his special early access to the iPhone, the iPad, and the iV (a product that feeds the Internet directly into your veins; he assured us a short wait of six months before its release). The release of Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” would be no different, as Colbert pulled the 600-page biography from behind his desk. But Colbert immediately became perplexed.

The single finger touchscreen swipe on the cover didn’t turn pages. When you turned the book upside down, the picture didn’t reorient. Colbert complained there was no place to plug in his headphones so he could listen to it. And then he tried to activate the voice recognition by touching the bottom of the cover, “Tell me about Steve Jobs. Where is the nearest church or camera store?” He ended the segment saying that the device would soon be released with “a revolutionary softcover.” The jokes played well to the geekish sensibilities of the studio audience, but I am not sure even the show’s writers knew how well the sketch described the confused state of book publishing.

“Steve Jobs” will serve as a prominent road marker on the path from atoms to bits. The decision for Simon & Schuster to hold the digital release of the biography for two weeks to match the physical release even after the death of Jobs is worthy of a Harvard Business School case. And at the same time, even as computers now interface with us in almost every aspect of our lives and Jobs’ critical role in that proliferation, the majority of people will read his life story on paper.

Colbert poking fun at the Jobs biography repeats, again, a meme that we in the publishing industry should be gravely concerned about — our customers don’t know what a book is anymore.

The consequences of book updates

In July 2011, I launched an experimental project with O’Reilly called “Every Book Is a Startup.” The project is meant to poke at the boundaries of traditional publishing. The book was created around the idea that new material will be released over time, culminating in a finished work early in 2012. Readers are encouraged to constantly give feedback about the material. The pricing is dynamic, increasing slowly to match the amount of material released, but once purchased, a customer receives all future updates for free.

We are only using one distribution point at the start of the project, oreilly.com, because the distribution system for electronic books is not designed to allow an ebook to be updated and released again. You might remember one of the side effects of Amazon’s 2009 recall of “1984″ was that after the book was restored, customers found their bookmarks and notes had disappeared.

We, unfortunately, found the same problem with our release strategy. Wonderful publishing startups like Readmill and SocialBook have created the possibility for readers using EPUB files to highlight important passages and share those with others back through the web, but when a reader of “Every Book Is A Startup” loads a new edition, their digital artifacts suffer the same fate as the readers of “1984″ — the loss of their old thoughts as I present them with my new ones.

I have been hesitant to call “Every Book Is A Startup” a book because of the expectations people hold for a book: a finished work, written from a position of singular authority, available in some way in a physical form. What I never expected was how strongly the qualities of a book would be brought forward from the physical to the digital. Digital books have been designed to carry forward the same atomic quality of immutability of physical books. As I reached out to my colleagues working in the world of ebooks, the consensus was that no one had considered a reality where an author, given the ability to distribute directly and virtually cost free, would consider updating their work and the consequences that might have.

Bits and atoms don’t behave the same way, but we have built the next step forward in publishing as though they do.

Possibilities arise from a new name

The trouble to this point is that a book is a book. Stacey Madden used precisely those words to title an essay in the inaugural issue of “Toronto Review of Books” that describes this predicament. “I do not mean to argue the advantages of paperbound books over their electronic counterparts,” wrote Madden. “The contents of both are, for the most part, the same, and the differences lie mainly in medium. I am simply pointing out a semantic fact. E-books are not ‘books’ but digitized compositions.” Madden firmly believes the book’s 550-year-old meaning that connects both form and format should be maintained. “Before a collection of human thoughts is transformed into what we call a ‘book,’ it is merely a story, a manuscript, a document, or a text.” Madden points to the need for more of us to see the difference between a book and its electronic counterparts.

Now, Madden writes further about the poetic qualities of the book and declares the superiority of the bound volume for its weight, smell, and ability to act as apartment furnishing. This judgment undermines the broader point and shows from another perspective the real trouble we are in.

The people who love books for what they are and what they have been are grabbing for their hardcovers and their paperbacks and saying “This word belongs to us.” The digerati paving the way with wireless tablets and social networking recommendation services are trying to say, “You don’t understand, we have books and we have made them way better.” This is messy and leads to confusion.

We are living through a time in book publishing where words fail us, a situation that we should all find some irony in given the products we sell. We need some new language that describes what happens and, more importantly, what is possible when the words are separated from the paper. Those two things need to be separated so we can build systems and infrastructures that support the new capabilities of the technology.

For several decades, what we know today as a “car” was referred to as a “horseless carriage.” It was easier to describe this new invention as what it was not, rather than what it was.

Maybe there are books and there are paperless books. I know it is a little awkward, and you want to ask yourself, “What does that mean?” — but when you remove the paper from a book, it becomes so much easier to see the possibilities.

P.S. I wrote a follow-up post on some of the things that lead to my Paperless Book essay.

Happy Birthday, Purple Cow

Ten years ago, Purple Cow changed my life.

At the time, I was working with my father in his sheet metal fabrication business and trying to create awareness for the company. The market barely knew our little four-person shop existed and we needed a way to get some attention. We focused our marketing to a single industry segment, developed a remarkable marketing kit, and doubled our customer base in twelve months. All that from a book that came in a milk carton.

Now, Seth would never take credit for what happened to our business. He would say something like, “I just created the spark. You did the rest.”

What’s always been great about Seth’s books is the marketing of the book practices what is preached in the book itself. With Purple Cow, Seth printed 10,000 paperbacks of Purple Cow himself and put each copy inside a milk carton and like most truly remarkable ideas, the milk carton almost didn’t happen, in this case, because the printer balked at marketing copy on the packaging.

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Having been a columnist for Fast Company magazine for the previous four years, Godin had a built-in audience for his milk cartons and offered them to readers for five dollars each. The carton itself was designed to be sent in the mail and had a blank panel for addressing. If readers wanted additional copies, the price was the same, but you had to buy them in quantities of 12. The idea was that you would keep one or two and give the rest to friends. He sold out of the entire print run in 19 days.

Portfolio bought the rights to publish the hardcover and the book has gone on to sell more than 250,000 copies.

A few years later, when I was working at 800-CEO-READ, we found this copy in a carton of Purple Cows we received.

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Our shipping person thought we should return the book or throw it out. I told him, “No, I’ll keep it.” He looked at me with a confused “whatever, Todd” look and went back to packing orders.

Besides a few Purple Cows still in their milk cartons, this is the only copy I have left of the book. The misprinted dust jacket represents a potent mixture of what the book represent to me: the value of scarcity, failure’s power to teach and why what people talk about is the most important commodity of all.

Happy Birthday, Purple Cow.

If I were a book…

Today’s email from The Listserve was from Jack in San Francisco. He wrote:

I think… I think that if I were a book, I’d be a bulky hardcover who’s publisher never bothered with the flashy dust-jacket. I’d be quarter-bound- of soft blue and brown linen, with a shiny silver gilded title- just a tiny touch of elegance here and there. I’d be that unassuming tome in the corner, patient and polite with all those who’s hands merely skim over me on the shelf. For those who open the book and dive in (because after all, a hardcover without a dust-jacket lacks an easily accessible synopsis), they find themselves drawn into a story absolutely overflowing with footnotes and parenthesis and made up words and italics.

They’ll find tales that will remind them of Orwell’s time in Paris, poorly written poems, romantic tales of prancing steeds and courageous dogs, and all sorts of things that incite raucous laughter. My book would tell tales of life in a large family, of sun-riped blueberries still on the bush, of the sorts of trouble a young lady can find herself in in small-town america, of the smell of baking bread, and of the the things one’s capable of when one realizes you can make a difference in this world. It would be profane. It would be heart-wrenching. It would be filled with words of encouragement and self-deprecation and revelations about life and death.

The corners of my binding would be smashed from being dropped. As you turn the pages, you’ll come across pressed flowers and pretty leaves tucked away to save for a rainy day. The flowers will have stained the surrounding pages, their color bleeding out into the paper. There are all sorts of notations- underlined, circled, occasionally with comments scribbled in the margins, but more often than not, there’s little to no explanation, because either there’s no need to explain or no way to explain.

Three Things I Learn from Kindle Highlights of The 100 Best

I have been thinking about a new recommendation project for business books.

To research that, I have been looking at the feedback we got on The 100 Best Business Books of All Time and one of the more interesting feedack loops are the Kindle highlights readers made in the book.

Searching Amazon’s Kindle site, I found a total of 37 highlights.

The data is not perfect. I had to combine some of the citations because the selections were duplicates.

Below I have listed the passages below that were highlighted more than 10 times:

  1. “Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.” – The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker (42)
  2. Drucker argues that rather than doing things right, knowledge workers must strive for effectiveness by doing the right things. – The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker (41)
  3. “Effective leaders do first things first and they do one thing at a time.” - The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker (36)
  4. Three common time sponges that need to be considered include: “doing things that don’t need to be done, doing things that could be better done by others, and doing things that require others to do unnecessary things.” – The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker (35)
  5. Flow is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” – Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (33)
  6. THE SEVEN HABITS 1. Be Proactive 2. Begin with the End in Mind 3. Put First Things First 4. Think Win/Win 5. Seek First to Understand . . . Then to Be Understood – The 7 Habits of Highly The Effective People by Stephen Covey (32)
  7. “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.” - Leadership is An Art by Max De Pree (20)
  8. “To ask, ‘What can I contribute?’ is to look at the unused potential in the job,” Drucker writes. He believes that communication, teamwork, self-improvement, and development of others all become natural extensions of contribution. – The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker (18)
  9. Leadership is at its best when “the vision is strategic, the voice persuasive, the results tangible.” – The Leadership Moment by Michael Useem (18)
  10. “The Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.” – The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker (17)
  11. ‘What values, personality traits, or characteristics do you look for and admire in a leader?’ ” Twenty characteristics captured the wide range of responses, and four of them came up consistently: honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent. – The Leadership Challenge by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (17)

There are a number of things that are interesting:

First, people love Drucker. More than half of the passages above came from our review of The Effective Executive. And the publishing marketplace reflects that with other books like The Daily Drucker, The Drucker Lectures, The Definitive Drucker and Inside Drucker’s Brain.

Second, all of these highlights come from the categories of personal development and leadership (which you could make a case for also being personal development). Again, no surprise here: personal development and leadership are #1 and #2 in the business book category.

The most important learning though is that every passage above contains the original words of the author. Most highlights are direct quotes that we used in the review of the book. A few of the quotes paraphrase, but capture the essence of what the author was saying. One popular highlight is the 7 habits from The 7 Habits.

This pattern is consistent with feedback from the lower rated reviews of The 100 Best that say Jack and I talked too much about the books and not what was inside the books.

It’s funny, because this is the same hangup I have with book summaries and how often I am reading someone else’s interpretation of the book and not what the book actually says.

I wanted people to be able to read The 100 Best and be conference room literate, meaning that they knew the main ideas in the book, but what this feedback shows is that being able to use the exact language the author did is just as important.

Three Links – Cover Boys

Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead – The New York Times Magazine profile Wharton professor Adam Grant and his new book Give and Take.

The message sounds terrific: Feel good about your work, and get more of it done, and bask in the appreciation of all the people you help along the way. Nice guys can finish first! (Now there’s research to prove it.) But I couldn’t help wondering, as I watched Grant race through his marathon day (even one of his mentors admitted, “He can be exhausting”), about the cost of all this other-directedness. If you are devoted to being available to everyone, all the time, how do you relax? How can you access the kind of creativity that comes from not being on task every waking moment? How do you make time for the more important relationships in your life?

“Fifty Percent Of ‘The Tipping Point Is Wrong” – Fast Company profiles another Wharton professor, Jonah Berger, pits him against Gladwell, connects him to Chip Heath (his academic advisor at Stanford) and passed judgment on his new book Contagious.

Ever since he’d read Gladwell’s opus, he says, “I wanted to write what I’ll call”–he catches himself–”I won’t call it a better version of The Tipping Point, but a more research-focused version of The Tipping Point.” Plus, he had recently turned 30. “This is going to make me sound like an asshole,” he says, “but you read the business section of the paper, you read about these people doing startups, people who are famous playing sports and they’re, like, 28 and they’re gazillionaires and you’re sitting there going, ‘I’m working just as hard as these people. Like, what am I doing wrong?’”

Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Reality Check – Inc. Magazine finds Tim on a mini retirement in Bali and puts him on the front cover.

Ferriss’s fans tend to cherry-pick techniques from his work, something he encourages.

These Dangerous Ideas From The World of Startups

O’Reilly announced they are shutting down the Tool of Change Conference and TOC Blog. I originally wrote this essay for their blog and now want to make sure it exists here in its entirety. Here is the start:

Dustin Kurtz, marketing manager at Melville House, wrote a piece last week about the incursion of startup vocabulary in the world of book publishing. He says:

[N]ow the models and the metaphors of the tech industry are, full-throatedly, without embarrassment, being used to talk about not just the methods of publishing books, but the books themselves, and this is a grand and wondrous idiocy, a diminishment of art, a gravity well of stupidity so deep that we cannot even talk about it properly, only study its effects.

As someone who has helped without embarrassment to bring those models and metaphors to the industry, my interest was piqued.

The chain started with a blog post on the New Yorker site. Writer Betsy Morais attended O’Reilly’s Tool of Change Conference and focused her reporting on the work of Peter Armstrong‘s Lean Publishing and Tim Sanders’ Net Minds. The piece is wonderfully accurate, but structured in that way that casually dismisses the West Coast technological carpetbaggers.

Prompted by the post, Kurtz’s discomfort seems to be the always present tension art between commerce. Whenever commerce suggests a different process for art, the literati cry foul. Suggesting a more open writing process, for example, automatically means that a book will end up written for the reader of the least-desirable denominator or as Kurtz describes, “tailoring a book to a focus group the way companies might test out an ad-spot for antacid.”

When Tom Wolfe started writing Bonfire of the Vanities, he was not holed up in a writer’s colony. He shared the manuscript he was writing on the pages of Rolling Stone, releasing 27 installments over the course of a year. Wolfe called the serialization “a very public draft.” He spent two more years revising the novel before Bonfire of the Vanities was released as a book in 1987, to critical acclaim and commercial success. Charles Dickens used the same process for every one of his novels and we know through reading correspondences he had with illustrators and colleagues that the development of those stories was impacted by their feedback and the feedback of the reading public. At SXSW Interactive 2013, I heard Steve Carpenter, the creator of the TV show Grimm, talk about how he changed the ending to his novel Killer after fans didn’t like the first one he wrote. “I wanted to make the readers happy,” he said.

The most important concept we can learn from what is happening in today’s startup movement is the art of exposing our ideas to the world and listening for their response. The mantra “Get out of the building” from startup patriarch Steve Blank tells entrepreneurs that the answers they are looking for are not going to be found in front of their computers or talking amongst themselves. Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic, goes even further saying, “You can never anticipate how an audience will react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world.”

Kurtz writes, “Are we to the point where the act of being alone, writing to an imagined audience and not a real responsive audience is akin to hiding?”

Yes, that is precisely what we are saying.

Art for art’s sake is fine, but if we are going to introduce the notion of commerce and the idea that someone is going to pay for the artist’s work, then it is completely reasonable to suggest a different process to evaluate and commercialize the work.  In writing Every Book Is A Startup, we tested the notion of whether the book should even be developed. We published four iterative versions of the project and digitally distributed them with readers paying a gradually increasing price based on the amount of material included. I used feedback from readers to determine the next chapter. We ended up selling several hundred copies. By almost any measure, it is clear there is not a commercial market for the project and by taking small steps, neither my publisher and I regret the project by having over-invested in its creation.

I don’t understand Kurtz’s objections. These are not metaphors, they are business terms being used to describe the business of publishing. Publishers are venture capitalists who assemble a portfolio of projects to mitigate financial uncertainty of publishing books. Authors are entrepreneurs who bring an idea and, in the words of Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham, are “relentlessly resourceful” in their drive to succeed. And books themselves are startups in search of an audience, competing for attention in a very crowded marketplace of ideas.

Goodbye, South By

I started attending SXSW Interactive in the spring of 2003. The effect of the dot com bust were still being felt but rising up from the ashes was clearly something different. At its core, the idea was that if we shared things with each other, that act of sharing would make us all collectively better.

The event itself embodied that idea. People who were doing interesting things were sharing with people who were doing interesting things. Nobody was looking for answers. They just wanted to be exposed to point of views that opened their eyes to the wider set of possibilities as software ate the world. It would take nine more years before Marc Andressen could so aptly describe what we were all watching happen year after year in Austin.

It is hard to catalogue what has transpired in those ten years, what the festival and that gathering of people are responsible for. Delicious and flickr illuminated a new kind of sharing that would ultimately lead to Facebook and the like. This default-open, permalinked, (hash)tagged sharing would collide directly with mobile and create Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram.

I came each year to learn, to see what was happening, to try these new technologies alongside others who were just as interested as I was at exploring the possibilities.

A good thing is hard to keep good. 3000 people attended the first year I was there and yesterday the organizers announced over 30,000 people attended SXSWi in 2013. The growth of the festival over the last three years strained the infrastructure of the city to house, move, and feed (in a timely manner) the tens of thousands of people that now attend the event. To accommodate the amount of people and the wide variety of interests, the sessions have had to be spread out across many venues stretching from the convention center to the state capitol.

And as the size of SXSW has passed critical mass, the brands have descended to launch new products and woo the influencers and early adopters of social media. In some cases, I have been thankful, like Yolanda flagging me down and driving me back downtown in Chevy’s Catch a Ride program that help attendees get around. In other cases, it has been inconvenient (RackSpace’s takeover of Champions next to the convention center) or weird (Oreo’s Take and Go).

The greatest loss though has been the learning. My SXSW Prime Directive has long been “Never attend a panel about the industry you work in,” so I would purposefully find topics barely creating a Venn diagram with my world of book publishing. In the past, panels on game design and techniques to successfully sell audience driven swag fascinated me. Last year, Michelle Plotkin’s talk of her Design for Humanity work at a rural high school in North Carolina made me cry when a resident of that community who happened to be at SXSW came up to the microphone and thanked her for the work she was doing.

The ancillary topics were hard to come by this year. It could have been that tension of time and space. Maybe it was the mainstreaming of interests for the broader audience (SXSW organizers if you are listening – The Panelpicker is not working to surface the right stuff). Desperate, I violated my Prime Directive to see what might be said by industry collegues, and for those of you who know the episodes of Star Trek that hinged the Directive ignored, my experiences ended with similarly disasterous consequences.

It must be that SXSW is no longer for me.

Monday’s email from the organizers lead with:

“There are no cures for hangovers. Nothing you eat or drink is going to erase the fact that you surpassed your limits last night like a college freshman.”

I had always embraced this week in early March, clearing my calendar, bringing grandparents in to help my wife with the kids. It was my Geek Spring Break. The emphasis seemed to have shifted from Geek to Spring Break.

This is the last year I will be attending SXSW Interactive. It is hard to write that. I remember several years ago when the organizers found me a folding table to hold a small author signing for the release of book I was publishing. It was small gesture, but it deeply affect me. That small act embodied what SXSW meant to me – the community sharing with each other.

Thank you to everyone I have meet and heard and learned from over the last ten years. Every year, I created the opportunity to see old friends and make new ones.

I need to find another place now, a place where people want to come together, share and learn from each other (and no, not TED).

If you have some ideas for a geek like me, I am all ears.

Goodbye, South By.