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.

Book Review – The Icarus Deception

Seth Godin writes books for his tribe.

If you are not in the tribe, you might have read Linchpin or Poke The Box and be disappointed to see Seth cover the same territory.

If you are in the tribe, you’ll be happy with this next title (or spend $120 on Kickstarter to get a whole box of books).

In The Icarus Deception, Seth pushes hard on the many stories and cultural myths reinforce playing it safe.

Don’t fall too close to the sun.
Don’t step outside the norm.
Don’t challenge the system.

He makes a convincing case for how the stories we are told keeps us from doing great things.

For me, every one of Seth’s book has a passage that touches me and Icarus Deception was no different. Toward the end of the book, Seth shifts the point of view and tells the reader what the artist in your life needs from you. My wife started graduate school this fall and is studying Chinese Medicine. I read this section to her aloud and started to cry as I told her this was the template for how I planned to support her art over the next four years.

If you like the kinds of books Seth writes, I imagine you will find something just as special in this book.

“It’s not about me, It’s about them.”

You might know that Jerry Seinfeld has a online series called Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee.

In a recent episode, Seinfeld takes Michael Richards to coffee.

There are several reasons to watch the episode, but I want to point you to a segment that starts at 13:17.

Here is the transcript of the interchange:

Richards: You know those performers who just love it.

Seinfeld: Yeah.

Richards: It’s always a struggle with me.

Seinfeld: No, no. I don’t accept the judging of process. I doesn’t matter that you like to rehearse with your nose up against the flat saying lines. That doesn’t matter.

Richards: You used to see me back there doing that.

Seinfeld: Yes!

We are all trying to get to the same island. Whether you swim, fly, surf, or skydive in, it doesn’t matter. What’s matters is when the red light comes on.

Richards: OK. Because sometimes I look back at show and I think I should have enjoyed myself more.

Seinfeld: Michael, I could say that myself, but that was not our job. Our job is not for us to enjoy it. Our job is to make sure they enjoy it. And that’s what we did.

Richards: That’s beautiful. Because I think I work selfishly, not selflessly. It’s not about me, it’s about them.


This is the most difficult thing I work with clients on.

The book is about the reader, not what knowledge you have or how you need to support your ego.

Do the work in the way that works for you, keep the reader square in your sights with each word you write, and you will create a book that can change the world.

#YearInReview 2012

Seth Godin had started a meme in 2010 where he asked people to make a list of what they shipped that year. I did the exercise in 2010, missed it last year, and decided to return to it again this year.

I have come to believe that this is a important exercise, especially for freelancers to see what they have accomplished.

Here is what I came up with for 2012:

  • New Ebook Version of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time (1/4/12) – We spent months working on a new electronic edition of our book. A lot had changed with formats and devices in the three years since the book was first published and we wanted the book to act more like an app. If you buy the ebook edition, you will find it filled with links to other books both inside and outside the book.
  • Every Book Is A Startup – Version 3.0 (1/20/12) – A new edition came out and I did a short Q&A about the challenges of serialized publishing.
  • Taught Two Courses in the Publishing Program at Portland State (Winter and Spring Terms) – I spent time in the classroom this year teaching two graduate classes. In the winter, I taught Publications Management, a 10 week MBA for creative types. In the spring, we tried a new class called Entrepreneurial Publishing, where students came into the class with ideas they wanted to develop into businesses. Anyone who has taught knows how much work it is teach that a class for the first time. These were two big projects in the first half of the year.
  • miniTOC Austin Talk (3/8/12) – I was proud of this talk. I pushed hard on the idea of minimum viable publishing and talked about the possibilities in the most complete way I have to date. The tie to the copy of the Gutenberg Bible at University of Texas still feels good.
  • Ken Segall’s Insanely Simple launches (4/26/12) – I was happy to see Ken’s book about Apple so well received both here and overseas. This was the first book that I served as literary agent on.
  • “Being Direct” in Publisher’s Weekly (8/21/12) – All the talk about “discoverability” finally got to me and I wrote my rebuttal to this idea that suddenly readers where having a hard time finding books. I suggest that if publishers had a relationship with readers much of the consternation would be solved.
  • Speaking at SOBCON NW (9/28/12-9/30/12) – I was honored that Liz and Terry asked me to lead one of the Masterminds and talk about the importance of customer feedback. We talked about everything from Amazon reviews to Net Promoter Score.
  • Every Book Is A Startup – Version 4.0 (11/5/12) – This new release contained a chapter on pricing and an extended interview with Eric Ries.

The most important project we shipped this year was my wife starting at the Natural College of Nautropathic Medicine in September. It was also the best best thing to happen this year, but this beginning was another milestone among many over the last few years as we moved across the country, bought a new home and the whole family adjusted to a new life here in Portland.

Looking ahead, 2013 is already shaping up to be a great year. I am teaching again at Portland State. A number of clients have projects that will launch in the first half of the year. And I want to get back to more writing, so look for a new project early in the new year.

Best Wishes to you in the New Year!

Other Things I Liked In 2012

There was a bunch of other great stuff I ran across in 2012. Here is a list of books, apps, websites and experiences that made the year more awesome.

  • Buddha – Told across eight volumes of manga, Osuma Tezuka portrays the life of Shakyamuni Buddha in detail and with a light hand. I am not sure the interpretation would hold up to scholarly examination, but I found it a great way to become familiar with the life story of Buddhism’s founder.
  • Super Vendor – At SXSW Interactive this year, I remember being between panels and seeing in the Twitterstream that there was a vending machine across the street from the convention center dispensing notebooks. I literally ran to find it was even cooler than that. To start, you followed the machine on Twitter and, in turn, received a code, which you took to the machine, entered on the alphanumeric panel to chose your notebook. The small scout book contained a rope API, a set of git shortcuts, and many pages of kaleidoscoped patterns of dotted lines. Bravo, Bohemian Collective. Bravo.
  • Indie Game: The Movie – Project creators Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky found the perfect indie game developers to show the drama of creating. Required watching for anyone who is a maker. The soundtrack is brilliant too.
  • HackerNewsLetter – This is the one newsletter I read every week. Curator Kale Davis does a incredible job pulling the best from the popular community site. The links lean heavy toward programming and startups but the real value is in the eclectic mix of topics that come up on the forum and the honesty users have about sharing their experiences.
  • Tig Notaro Live – Cancer can be funny. Really. Tig proves it in this masterful 30 minute set and must be listened to through to the end. The recording made a big splash earlier this year when Louis CK sold it through his site. The album is now available through iTunes and other outlets.
  • Comeback by Redlight – This song was a popular track on this summer’s Avengers soundtrack and I think it works even better in this acoustic version.
  • Wirecutter – The sole purpose of this website is to tell you the best single choice to whatever technology problem you have whether you need a iPhone 5 case, are buying a HDTV, or want to know what the best condom is.
  • Kingdom Rush – The best game for the iPad, period. I spent most of the summer working through every level in this tower defense style game and on the weekend I completed all the missions, they released two more levels. Heaven.
  • Clear – The iPhone version of this app is beautiful and simple. This is the digital place that I put quick notes and to-dos when I am out. Nothing comes close to how intuitive this application for managing small bits of information. Spend the $1.99 and you won’t be disappointed.
  • The $100 Investment – I was sitting in The Newmark Theatre in Portland as Chris Guillebeau made his closing remarks at the World Domination Summit. Chris informed each attendee that as they left the theater, they would be handed an envelope with a $100 bill with the hope they would invest in a project, person or cause. It was an incredible moment that left the audience stunned and set high expectations for the works to follow.

P.S. My four favorite quotes of the year:

  • “We cook this way, not to be special, but rather to make it possible for anyone to eat here.” -Abby Fammartino talking about her philosophy to serve food that is free of gluten, dairy, soy and refined sugars at her Portland restaurant Abby’s Table.
  • “Profit is theory, cash is a fact.” -Unknown
  • “Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off.” – Clay Christensen (source)
  • “On a scale from one to Adele, how bad was your breakup?” -The Internet

My Favorite Business Books of 2012

As the year comes to a close, I have been thinking hard about what books influenced me this year.

In 2012, I read fewer books than in past years and that is why I called these books my favorites, not the best (if you are looking for the best, check out 800-CEO-READ’s Elite Eight for 2012).

“Favorite” is also probably a better description of these books because I found my reading more directed this year as I worked on growing my business and spent time thinking about the parallels between entrepreneurship and publishing.

In any case, I wholeheartedly recommend any of these titles:


Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration by Scott Doorley and Scott Without

The people behind of the innovative work environments at Standford’s d.school put everything they learned about collaboration and how to build space that support collaboration in this beautiful book. When I say everything, I mean everything from communication theory to bills of materials for the fixtures they built.

The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future by Chris Guillebeau

There is one message you get loud and clear from Guillebeau’s second book – be relentlessly useful to your customers. That means you need to be communicate in your offering clearly, give customers what they want (not what you think they need), and be OK promoting what you do. This might sound like Marketing 101, but we all miss some part of this when we launch our latest project or new business.

Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works by Ash Maurya

Maurya started his book in Lean Startup fashion as article written for his newsletter followed by a self-published edition. With a thousand copies sold of the minimum viable product sold, he partnered with O’Reilly to be their first book released in their Lean Startup Series. Running Lean is a more tactical book than Eric Ries’ Lean Startup and focuses around the three stages of startups: Problem/Solution Fit, Problem/Market Fit, and Scaling. Knowing which stage you are in allows founders to know what actions are going to move their startup forward.

The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s Most Exclusive School for Startups by Randall Stross

Books that promise an inside look into an organization are often weak. The writer often lacks the access required to provide new and insightful commentary. Stross delivers the rare exception with his fly on the wall view of the drama founders experience in the Y Combinator program. And yes it is drama with founders pivoting from one idea to the next hoping to find the funding they need to take their startup to the next level. What we also see through Stross’ reporting is the philosophy that drives the Silicon Valley’s premier boot camp/accelerator/grad school for startups.

The Essential Deming: Leadership Principles from the Father of Quality by W. Edward Deming

There aren’t many business authors who accumulate the quantity or quality of work that warrants a greatest hits album. Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis both did and it is nice to finally see Edward Deming receive the same treatment. You might find Deming’s writings more difficult to read as his arguments resemble geometry theorems in their completeness and clarity. The work might also seem foreign because his prescriptions are still largely ignored. Maybe this new volume will solve that problem.

The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking by Mike Rohde

I am a member of the sketchnoting tribe and it’s so great to see my long time friend Mike Rohde create a book that celebrates visual thinking. I have wanted to move beyond my style of a single “font, arrows pointing all directions, and lots of exclamation marks. The Handbook shows great examples from other sketch noters and exercises to improve this largely improvisational art form.