#YearInReview 2013

In 2010, Seth Godin asked people to make a list of what they shipped that year. I did the exercise in 2010 and 2012 and decided to do it again this year. I have come to believe that this is a important exercise, especially for solopreneuers to see what they have accomplished.

  • The Phoenix Project (1/15/13) – We spent much of 2012 building on this project and I spent most of 2013 launching and spreading word of this book. We have sold 28,000 copies of The Phoenix Project and learned so much about shipping. We used Google Adwords to test titles and subtitles. We followed up with SurveyMonkey gathered invaluable feedback on the book and how we were promoting it, which lead us to a 3-day Free Kindle giveaway and 20,000 downloads. We have more planned for this book and another in 2014.
  • Year Two at NCNM – My wife spent the last 12 months in school full time studying Chinese Medicine. It was a lot of work
  • 1000 Lunches – With my wife in school, I am the primary person shipping three kids off to school every day and picking them back up. 200 nights of homework. 250 loads of laundry. This is a nod to everyone who is doing the same.
  • Monster Loyalty (5/2/2013) – I helped my friend Jackie Huba find a home for this project at Portfolio. It was great to see Jackie take her passion for Lady Gaga and expertise in marketing to create a great book.
  • Teaching Publishing at Wizard Academy (9/4/13-9/5/13) – I was honored to teach a wonderful group of authors in Austin. I shared the stage with my good friend Ray Bard and got to spend two days talking about what make book succeed.
  • I started a Zen Buddhist practice when we moved to Oregon in 2010. This year, I decided to take the next step in my practice and take a teacher. The most visible part of that choice was the three month process of sewing of a rakasu.

2014 is shaping already to be a big year. I’ll start to share those goals next week.

The 50 Best Business Books of The Last Five Years

IN MAY 2010, Bloomberg ran a list complied by James Pressley of the Top 50 Business Books published since January 2009. If you wanted to read about financial engineering, Wall Street, economic collapse, and pessimism, this was the perfect list for you. Books like Animal Spirits, Freefall, and The Greatest Trade Ever make up the bulk of the list as is to be expected from the leading media company providing data to financial services. A better list was required though; one that provides a more well rounded, positive view of what is possible in the world of business.

I pulled together a list of forty books that year to show a different perspective and the new ways thought leaders were giving readers to think about business.

A few more years have passed. So, to end 2013, I thought I would update and add to the list.


  • The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau – Good advice for anyone starting a new project, book or business. The key to success: be relentlessly useful.
  • The 1% Windfall by Rafi Mohammed – The nuts and bolts of pricing.
  • The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni – Smart and healthy companies succeed with lots of clarity.
  • The Anatomy of Buzz Revisted by Emanuel Rosen – revision of the classic manual on word of mouth marketing.
  • The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar – if you know the jam story from Blink, you know Iyengar’s research on decision-making.
  • The Art of The Idea by John Hunt – OBSERVATION No. 11 – “An IDEA is a PARADIGM SHIFTING moment that forward projects FUTURE POTENTIAL in an initially ETHEREAL but progressively tangible MANNER.”
  • The Back of The Napkin (Expanded Edition) by Dan Roam – pictures solve problems.
  • Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur – beautifully designed book on how to think about business models.
  • Change by Design by Tim Brown – IDEO CEO makes case for wider use of design in business
  • The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gwande – New Yorker writer and practicing doctor says we should go back to making lists
  • Chief Culture Officer by Grant McCracken – Anthropologist to corporate America says not knowing culture costs companies billions.
  • Click by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman – The subtitle says it all “The Magic of Instant Connections”
  • Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky – This prognostication makes clear the promise of online collaborations.
  • Daring Greatly by Brene Brown – Don’t be confused. Brene is writing for all of us when she asks us to embrace vulnerability and imperfection.
  • Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath – The Heath Brothers take on making better decisions.
  • Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh – Zappos CEO shares his philosophy.
  • Different by Youngme Moon – a wonderfully different take on marketing.
  • Drive by Dan Pink – Motivation comes from autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
  • The Essential Bennis by Warren Bennis – a wonderful collection of his best writings.
  • The Essential Deming by W. Edward Deming – The work might also seem foreign because his prescriptions are still largely ignored. Maybe this new volume will solve that problem.
  • Fierce Leadership by Susan Scott – refreshing take on leadership
  • Free by Chris Anderson – overview of the price of zeros and the effects that has.
  • The Four Conversations by Jeffrey Ford and Laurie Ford – best book I have read on management in the last five years.
  • Give and Take by Adam Grant – Givers are more successful than Takers and Matchers. This might be news in the world of business.
  • Great by Choice by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen – Collins brings his power metaphors to explain how successful companies grow.
  • Greater Than Yourself by Steve Farber – a fable about mentoring and a lot more.
  • How The Mighty Fall by Jim Collins – The opposite of Good to Great.
  • I Moved Your Cheese by Deepak Malhorta – a thoughtful extension to the original fable and a rebuttal of the original take.
  • Ignore Everybody by Hugh Macleod – To use the author’s term, this is a cubicle grenade.
  • The Lean Startup by Eric Ries – Lean production principles meet the world of startups. Iterate and pivot to succeed.
  • Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg – The success is simple to explain – the first real business book written for women by a women in business.
  • Linchpin by Seth Godin – a book about art, gifts, and shipping.
  • The Little Big Things by Tom Peters – classic Tom.
  • Minding The Store edited by Robert Coles and Albert LaFarge – a great collection of fiction that takes place in the business setting.
  • The New Rules of Marketing & PR (2nd Edition) by David Meerman Scott – The marketing manual for Web 2.0 .
  • The Power of Pull by John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison – Big Idea means Networking book
  • The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton – the title says it all.
  • Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo – This book won the 2011 FT/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book of the Year and shows the important work going on at MIT’s J-PAL as they collect and use data to make better decisions about solving big global problems.
  • The Predictioneer’s Game by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita – great book on decision-making
  • Priceless by William Poundstone – another book on pricing, but driven by narrative and research.
  • The Power of Habit by Charles Duhhig – What you can do with sticking to something day after day.
  • Rework by 37 Signals – the guys behind Basecamp share their philosophy.
  • Rules of Thumb by Alan Webber – Founding editor of Fast Company shares what he has learned doing some amazing things.
  • Seizing The White Space by Mark Johnson – Shows how to build entirely new business models.
  • Strengths Based Leadership by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie – Just buy it, everyone else has.
  • Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath – “How to Change When Change Is Hard.”
  • Think Twice by Michael Mauboussin – Always interesting insights into how we make decisions.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kanheman – The nobel laureate takes us on a walk through his life’s work that has fundamentally changed our view of how we make decisions.
  • Trade-Off by Kevin Maney – Convenience versus fidelity, choose only one.
  • What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis – What makes Google different and interesting thought experiments on those applied to other industries.
  • Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson – His synthesis of the patterns that lead to successful innovation.

Fast Company at 20 Years

This weekend marks the twenty year anniversary of Fast Company Magazine.

Founding editor Bill Taylor sent out a tweet asking for fans for their favorite stories under the hashtag #fastcompanyreunion.

I recently wrote my letter of love for the My Favo(u)rite Magazine project. It seems like the perfect time to share that piece a little more widely.

my favourite mag 1

I encountered Fast Company in its early teens and quickly fell in love. Each month, I waited by the mailbox for the next issue like I was eleven years old again awaiting the arrival of the Christmas Wishbook from Sears .

Founding editors Alan Webber and Bill Taylor described their vision for a new business magazine as a cross between Fortune and Rolling Stone. At its height, Fast Company was certainly that. Its pages showed corporate elephants could dance alongside agile upstarts, both groups newly supercharged by the spread of technology’s disruptive energy.

I bought into the vision. I drank the Kool-Aid. I even left the too safe corporate gig to find my Free Agent/Purple Cow/Brand You world. All because of a magazine.

I could pick almost any issue from those early years for the impact they had on me, but the September 1999 issue still stands out. The cover package looks straight past Y2K crisis looming on the horizon and asks what is going to be important in the 21st century. The magazine was never about now; it was always about next.

The apex of the dot-com boom gave them the ad pages to publish a 364 page book that month. The magazine put Muhammad Yunus across from Andy & Kate Spade. They report on U.S. Special Operations Command and an Australian real estate company. They visit outdoor equipment maker K2 and ask J. Craig Venter about the future of genetics. And they present AOL’s acquisition of Netscape as a three act play with a sidebar recommending a 19 year old book, best for dealing with organizational change.

Fast Company drew inspiration from any and all appropriate sources. Business as a pursuit was always reported in the positive and the possible. They suggested a new agenda for the new economy, asked us to talk amongst ourselves and then go make something happen in the new century.

my favourite mag 2


The Camera Doesn’t Know

kevin spacey edinburgh

Kevin Spacey’s opening keynote at the Edinburgh International Television Festival has been making waves.

The whole speech is worth your time if you care about (or your livelihood depends) the future of the media industry.

He stresses the importance of talent, new talent in particular, but I want to direct you to this section from Spacey’s talk:

One way that our industry might fail to adapt to the continually shifting sands is to keep a dogmatic differentiation in their minds between various media – separating FILM and TV and MINI-SERIES and WEBISODES and however else you night want to label narrative formats.

Its like when I’m working in front of a camera that camera doesn’t know it’s a film camera or a TV camera or a streaming camera. It’s just a camera. I predict that in the next decade or two. any differentiation between these formats. these platforms – will fall away.

Is 13 hours watched as one cinematic whole really any different than a FILM? Do we define film by being something two hours or less? Surely it goes deeper than that.

If you are watching a film on your television, is it no longer a film because you’re not watching it in the theater?

If you watch a TV show on your iPad is it no longer a TV show?

The device and length are irrelevant.

The labels are useless – except perhaps to agents and managers and lawyers who use these labels to conduct business deals.

For kids growing up now there’s no difference watching Avatar on an iPad or watching YouTube on a TV and watching Game of Thrones on their computer.

Its all CONTENT. It’s all STORY.


It’s the same with words.

This keyboard I am typing on right now has no idea if this will be a blog post, a tweet, a PowerPoint slide, an essay, a newsletter communique, a book or a letter that I am going to print out and send to my mom.

I, as the writer, might have some intention about where these words will go and the container that I might put them into.

My experience from the thousands and thousands I have written is ideas are ideas and language is slowing our ability to grasp what is next.

The Power of Love


We are not our successes.
We are not our failures.
And we are not our rejections.


donmllier_not successes


Don Miller provided the first two lines. He talked honestly about his success as a bestselling author and the fear that kept him from writing the next book, the relationships he blew up and the bottles of whiskey that deaden the pain.

Holding onto our successes and failures both create that same distorted expectation:

How will it ever be good enough?


jiajiang wds2013 bw


Jia Jiang went out looking for rejection. He wanted people to say “No” and see what he could learn from it. He said he wanted rejection to become a good friend, one that he knew well.



Don’t identify with the outcome.
Certainty is a lie.
“Keep going!”

…shouted one audience member, when an attendee on stage struggled to share what her project meant to her.

Just a week prior, Tess Vigeland found out she didn’t get her dream job at NPR.  A standing ovation erupted at the end of her talk. “We are with you,” the crowd was saying. Tess was brought to tears as she walked off stage.

The audience at WDS gave back to the speakers in a way I am not sure I have seen. They held a space that allowed for acceptance, encouragement, and love. Yes, love.


wds stage


In telling one friend about the event, he said, “This sounds like a spiritual experience.”

I said, “Yes, that is exactly what this is.”

WDS is about looking at our beliefs and developing the courage to live your life. It is more than just inspiration (that has a half-life of about 22 hours).  The event has become a place to explore honesty, vulnerability and determination with an incredible group of people who want to do the same.


The Future of Bookselling

This essay The Future of Bookselling (Loosely Told In Three Acts) originally appeared in Shelf Awareness on June 2, 2011.


“There are two kinds of companies—those that work to raise prices and those that work to lower them.” -Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com

On the morning of February 11th, 2011, few were surprised by the news Borders had filed for bankruptcy. The second largest retail bookseller in the U.S. had already started to delay payments to publishers, desperate to maintain their cash-flow after the traditional crest from retail sales during the holiday season. Every day brings new developments as the company establishes bridge financing to allow the company to emerge from Chapter 11 status, bankruptcy trustees complaining about the fees paid to lawyers and executives, and 238 stores across the country go through the proceed of liquidation. Unfortunately, this was not a singular event.

Bookstores around the country are suffering from the same fate as the Ann Arbor based big box outlet. A few days before Borders’ bankruptcy announcement, Portland-based indie stalwart Powell’s Books announced they were laying off 31 people or 7% of their workforce. The regional bookseller Joseph-Beth Booksellers entered bankruptcy with nine stores and emerged with five stores spread among three owners. If we used Publisher’s Lunch as the newsletter of record, we’d find a total of 18 bookstores that closed, went bankrupt, or were in search of a new owner since the Borders entered bankruptcy in February, when compared to just four stores in the same six-week period last year.

As you read through the various reasons for closures, technology undoubtedly receives part, if not, all of the blame the general demise of bookselling. Amazon has long been the villain that has disrupted bookselling. But now, tens of millions of tablets in the marketplace, readers are choosing to buy more and more of their books digitally. Bookscan has reported that print books sales are down 7% this year compared to 2010 while most alternate indicators like the ebook sales report from American Association of Publishers show ebook sales growing substantially, now accounting for more than 20% of sales. Publishers like Sourcebooks and Bloomsbury USA have reported even higher percentages.

Given these realities, how can retail booksellers continue to stay in business? Empty bromides like “Work Harder!” and “Do Something Different!” fray the nerves of those working at bookstores around the country. Maybe things would be different if we could clearly see how to be different.


“CSV-5 has better throughput, but Cal-12 has better pavement. That is typical—Fairlanes roads emphasize getting you there, for Type A drivers, and Cruiseways emphasize the enjoyment of the ride for Type B drivers.” -Neal Stephenson in Snowcrash

Kevin Maney, the longtime technology writer for USA Today, has a theory that businesses have one of two options when they compete. The first option is to compete on convenience—make a simple to use product, make it widely available, and charge the lowest possible price. Oreo cookies and Netflix come to mind.

The second option is to pursue fidelity: produce a high-resolution experience which the customer values for its uniqueness. My mother’s homemade Grand Champion chocolate chip cookies and Avatar in IMAX 3-D contrast well to the convenient alternatives.

Maney says when Amazon introduced the Kindle they pursued the fidelity side of the continuum. If you go back and read the interviews with CEO Jeff Bezos he talked about the importance of emulating the experience you get when you read a book—the size of the screen, the weight of the object. Bezos even mentioned how the product team studied the book’s vanilla-like scent and considered how they could include that in the device. The entire approach left the market confused. Amazon was a company that for their entire existence had pursued one goal: make buying things more convenient with their hallmarks were low prices, infinite shelf space, and quick delivery.

With the introduction of Kindle 2 in 2009, Amazon changed their messaging. “Books in 60 seconds” was the new tagline and everything we have seen since in Amazon’s marketing and PR has been about convenience. Every chance they get the retailer announces how ebooks sales are overtaking some form of print book (using very subjective statistics). Every week in the New York Times Book Review, the full-page ad that sits opposite from the week’s bestseller lists telling readers how easily they can download any of the popular titles from Amazon. Convenience has come in the form of lower and lower prices, most recent being the addition of an ad-supported Kindle that costs $114.

Ebooks and the myriad of devices people will use read books play directly to the market of convenience, a market that retail storefronts selling “pbooks” will never be able to properly satisfy.


“Bookselling was and is for me a cultural and political expression, an expression of progressive change, of a challenge to oppressive authority, of a search for a community of values which can act as an underpinning of a better world. The true profit in bookselling is the social profit; the bottom line, the measure of the impact of the bookshop on the community.” -A. David Schwartz (1938-2004)

The news of the passing of Seattle bookseller Kim Ricketts caused me to stop and reflect on what she accomplished and what it means more broadly to retail segment of book publishing. Anyone in bookselling knows the story of Kim’s migration from the University of Washington bookstore in Seattle to her own business creating events that sold books. I was fortunate to be a beneficiary of her efforts firsthand during the launch of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time in 2009. At corporate events, like the one I spoke at, as well as her other events, Kim brought together wonderful groups of people who shared curiosities and passions. And while it is important for me to pay tribute Kim and the business she built, it is even more important for all of us to understand what Kim Ricketts Book Events exemplifies for the future of bookselling.

What too few booksellers understand is that the only strategic play for this entire retail segment is on the fidelity side of the continuum. Kim understood this in spades. She found great success in her Cooks & Books event, which attracted the country’s top chefs to share a meal and tell stories to those gathered from the foodie community of Seattle. Each attending member of the tribe went home with latest cookbook from that celebrity and a collection of wonderful memories. For that privilege, attendees paid two to four times the cover price of the book.

800-CEO-READ, the book retailer in Milwaukee where I spent six years, is certainly a niche player with their specialty in business books, but that fails to fully explain their completely different approach to fidelity. The entire book retail distribution system is designed to get a single book into the hands of an individual. Rather than selling one book at a time, 800-CEO-READ sells tens or hundreds of books at a time to organizations that use books for meetings, training, or large industry events. While the revenue and the margins are markedly better, these orders generate a different set of costs from the need for a call center to manage the unique requirements of corporate sales to a shipping department that understands global logistics. It is hard to call this bookselling by standards we are all familiar with.

And look at Powell’s Books. They have created a Disneyland-like destination in their City of Books location and I don’t mean in the costumed characters sense (though you can get a green-screened photo of yourself in front of the store printed on a t-shirt). The store stocks over one million new and used copies of books, an order of magnitude larger than what you would find in amy Barnes & Noble. Like Ameoba Records in Hollywood, CA, Powell’s has created a high definition experience making the store a destination for any book lover.


Kevin Maney offers a final caution worth noting. The nirvana of offering both convenience and fidelity is strategic mirage where customers increasingly understand less and less why they need your products. Starbucks doesn’t want to admit that as a 17,000 store global chain they are a convenience play (and the reason VIA “Ready Brew” is successful is because of that). The US Post Office lives in the dying space between the next day fidelity of FedEx and the convenience of text messages. Do you need to talk about 35mm film?

Booksellers need to start seeing that Amazon is not their competition; convenience is. Retail booksellers need to answer “What can I do different?” by providing higher fidelity experiences for their customers. Or put another way: the book is the start and not the end to the experience customers want to have.

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.


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.


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.