In 2010, Seth Godin asked people to make a list of what they shipped. I have been doing this exercise each year since then. You can see my past #YearInReview posts here. Given how easy it is to feel like 2020 was a lost year, I feel an activity like this is more important than ever.
Took a full year of Japanese classes at my local community college.
I started a meditation group on Insight Timer for my Zen Center.
I collected a set of Buddhist writings and published a book called When We Make This Path Our Own. The print run was 10 copies. The book was created for a trip we planned to take in April and had to cancel.
Spent a week solo in a cabin on Mount Hood that restored my soul.
Read 28 books.
Wrote eight personal newsletters under the “I’ve Been Thinking…” banner.
I wrote two 3000 word papers for a class at my Zen Center. The first paper was on my experience with engaging in Rinzai Zen practices. The second paper was on my experiences with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.
You might not believe it, but there were some great business books this year. And you probably missed them, distracted by the crazed year that was 2020.
Let me talk about it in two parts :
Like last year, I worked with Marker on Medium and did a meta-analysis of best of business book lists for 2020. In total, there were seven lists I looked at. They chose exactly 100 books this year. There were five books that were selected by three or more times by those lists.
No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer – Selected by five of seven lists. Just a great book on the Netflix’s culture. Not sure everyone will agree with everything they do.
No Filter by Sarah Frier – the best account of the rise of Instagram, on three lists including winning the Financial Times / McKinsey Business Book of The Year Award.
Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Rebecca Henderson – Things are changing, lots of examples here. Appeared on three lists.
If Then by Jill Lenore – The history of the first analytics company Simulatics and how their work still resonates today. The book appeared on three lists and was a longlist nominee for the National Book Award.
Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan – Some books are written to explain a moment, other books arrive at the right moment. Uncharted is both. It was also selected three times and is my personal favorite of the whole year.
There were three books on my list of personal favorites and there is some nice overlap with the meta-analysis. Here are longer reviews for each of them.
No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
I remember being at a tech conference about six years ago and watching a set of speakers from Netflix. “No one approves our expense reports,” said one of the presenters. In a room full of corporate executives, there was an audible gasp. The speakers went on to say that no one approved the code they wrote either. Together, these two examples were meant to show that it wasn’t a question of policy or procedure. Netflix operates with a different culture.
No Rules Rules is the book that attempts to describe that culture. The book is written by two authors. The first author, to no surprise, is Reed Hastings, the co-founder and CEO of Netflix. With Hastings, you get the direct transference of his beliefs and reasoning for why Netflix is organized and run the way it is. The second author is Erin Meyer, a business professor from INSEAD. Meyer serves two roles, one as provider of confirming research and another as the voice of Netflix’s employees. As a part of writing the book, Meyer interviewed hundreds of workers all over the world. This internating narration enhances both the traditional CEO book and standard business school thesis, as they respond to each other on the pages of the book.
Hastings says Netflix’s culture is based on three reinforcing principles. The first tenet is to build the best group of talent possible, because highly talented individuals make each other more effective. “Talent density” is increased by always evaluating if the company has the best people and by paying top of market salaries. Next, increase candor among those folks, because the highly talented love feedback that can make them better. To ensure effectiveness and no hurt feelings, Netflix trains everyone to give and receive feedback. And finally, you remove controls and trust people to do their best work. Hastings says each of these practices has challenges, but the benefits of each tenet multiples when enacted with the others.
Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Everything by BJ Fogg
If you looked at the business bookstore shelf any time in the last decade, you would have seen books on habits trying to crowd each other out. Novel scientific research provided new material to writers. The growth in the gig economy and work-from-home arrangements fueled new interest from readers adjusting to the challenges with personal accountability. And everyone found help with titles like Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, Wendy Wood’s Good Habits, Bad Habits and The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.
I didn’t believe there was more room for another habits book until I read Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. His research and his writings isolate the particular components of what make up habits and show people how to best utilize each to create new habits. I can’t think of a better time for this kind of book. Fogg is like a trainer you might hire if you really wanted more and better habits. He makes it simple to learn. He discerns the particular techniques that work best. And he’s also creative in how to engage them.
Only a few pages into the book, Fogg starts talking about a universal model for behavior. He says the model applies to everything, good and bad. Every behavior has three components: motivation, ability, and prompt (BMAP, for short) Simple, right? When you are trying to change a behavior, start with the prompt and ask if there was a reliable trigger for the behavior. Next, ask if how able you were to do the new behavior? Ability could affect everything from having what you need to knowing what needs to be done. The final factor to check is motivation. High motivation makes creating a new behavior easy but motivation fluctuates and can interact with other competing motivations.
What you are getting in Tiny Habits is a 300 page workshop. There is a whole chapter with ideas on how to break habits. And a chapter on working with others on habits. And appendices with scripts, flowcharts, and lists to help you brainstorm habits for common challenges. This book is packed with tips and lessons to learn how to change your behavior and teach others to do the same.
Uncharted: How To Map The Future by Margaret Heffernan
Some books are written to explain a moment, other books arrive at the right moment. Uncharted is both. In our craving for a “new normal”, Heffernan would caution against there ever being a known future. Forecasts attempt to predict the future, but they are easily flawed with the ideologies of their creators. Memory, individual and collective, gives us the capacity to simulate the future, and we then miss the variations by creating false analogies of new situations. As our datasets grow, so does our false confidence in seeing the patterns they hold.
There are so many stories that drew my attention, the additional benefit of reading the perspectives from a European-based author. You could draw lessons from Ireland’s experiment with deliberative democracy to work with controversial topics like gay marriage and abortion. You could look to Alberto Fernandez’s work to fight corruption and reestablish a sense of ethics in his home country of Mexico. Heffernan highlights artists like playwright Henrik Ibsen and printmaker Norman Ackroyd, pointing to a different process for how one might uncover and trust what will unfold.
Uncharted read like popular nonfiction from authors like Mary Roach or Chip Heath. Heffernan mines a wide ranging cast of characters and histories. Her style favors more examples, which runs the risk of overwhelm, but never does. The throughline persists and we can see how all of these points connect into a greater understanding. Her intention is not to provide answers, but consider the questions that makes you think about how you think about the future.
I don’t remember exactly what caused me to calculate this. I vaguely remember a “How To Survive 2020” article from early in the summer and its encouragement to shorten the timeframe you were focused on.
The pandemic has shown how foolish we are in thinking we know what will happen next, how strong the illusion that all our plans will unfold and all our goals will be achieved. Our plans never survive first contact with reality, but the needed adjustments are often minor. We forget all the tinkering and how easily the direction of our lives is nudged towards another unknown destination.
I don’t know anyone who is not noticing the adjustments now, all that change that feels like has been forced on us. There is an enormous amount of denial about that change. We seem unable to accept. We cling to being certain, mostly certain that reality is something different that it really is. In times like these, “I don’t know” is a good antidote. Not knowing can be a good place to sit. The tension between ‘what we want’ and ‘what is’ is relieved.
The actuary tables say I have almost exactly 11,000 days left. I turn fifty this year and that is coming with some denial. There is also nostalgia. I want to hold onto things that aren’t true anymore. There are not more days ahead of me than behind me. Maintaining my weight is no longer automatic. My three amazing teenagers will not be here forever.
Right now, I am focusing on today and finishing writing this newsletter. That feels like a good place to sit.
Best of 2020
Last year, I wrote a piece for Medium about the best business books of 2019. I looked at all of the important lists—Financial Times/McKinsey competition, Amazon, Inc. Magazine, Porchlight Books, Strategy + Business Magazine, and Bookpal—to see how much agreement there was between them. Last year, there were three books chosen by five of those six sources. That was some incredible consistency across such a wide range of perspectives. Range, Nine Lies About Work and Loonshots are all great titles if you haven’t read them.
Medium invited me back again this year and I am working on the essay for 2020 now. It will be published next week but I thought I could give you a little sneak peak 🙂 There wasn’t the level of consistency that there was last year. One book appeared on four of the six lists and that was No Rules Rules by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and INSEAD professor Erin Meyer. I like this book alot. The book explains the media company’s culture that has propelled them forward as they disrupted their own business multiple times. The teachings are also intriguing because I am not sure they can be easily applied in other places. Hastings and Meyer talk about the convincing upsides and downsides that they knowingly accept.
Four other books were selected by three outlets: No Filter by Sarah Frier, If Then by Jill Lepore, Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Rebecca Henderson, and Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan. I’ll have more to say about those in the article.
The Season of Celebration
December is a month full of celebrations. There are almost too many to list: Christmas, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day in UK, Omisoka in Japan. You could certainly add the various forms of Thanksgiving and Diwali. I’d like to add one more to your list.
In Buddhist tradition, this week is the most venerated time in the yearly calendar. In Zen, this week is called Rohastu, which literally translates as ‘the 8th day of the 12th month.’ December 8th, which was yesterday, commemorates the Buddha’s enlightenment. The story goes that Siddharta sat under the Bodhi Tree for 49 days without moving. On the final night, he finally found the answers he had been searching for most of his life. His insights became the core teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. In temples all over the world, even this year, people are sitting seven day sesshin, in respect to the Buddha’s and their own enlightenment.
In 2017, I visited India and made a trip to Bodhgaya, where the Bodhi Tree is located. I was immediately taken by the place. There were practitioners making their way through 100,000 full prostrations in front of the temple with their kneeling boards and digital counters. Monks were circumambulating the temple, most walking, some one prostration at a time. For most of the week there were several thousand Tibetan monks on the grounds each day chanting.
Before all those ceremonies started, I spent a day sitting under the tree. I didn’t bring Siddharta’s commitment to finding the path. My intention was to just be there and be curious. I watched people chase the precious leaves that fell from the tree. I sat with my teacher for a while. I looked for images to capture with my camera, trying to hold onto the indescribable feeling of devotion and peace that this place held. As I got up to leave, someone walked over to me, smiled, and handed me a leaf.
The secret to happiness, of course, is not getting what you want; it’s wanting what you get.”
Welcome to the landing page for The Nature Preserve!
The Nature Preserve is an unofficial game campaign for Wingspan Board Game. The campaign has a series of seven interconnected games. Each game has a set of conditions that makes the gameplay unique from the standard rules for Wingspan, and in some cases, actions from one game can affect subsequent games.
A game campaign is a series of games designed to be played in sequence toward an end goal.
Each game has a set of conditions that makes the gameplay unique from the standard rules for Wingspan, and in some cases, actions from one game can affect subsequent games.
Is The Nature Preserve a legacy campaign?
The Nature Preserve is not a legacy campaign. In most legacy games, components are permanently altered to signify changes in rules or gameplay. With The Nature Preserve, you can continue to use your Wingspan base game and any expansions after playing any part or all of The Nature Preserve campaign.
How does this campaign work?
The Nature Preserve is designed to be played as a campaign of seven consecutive games.
You will always start with using the standard rules for Wingspan involving birds, food, and eggs. If there is ever a question about gameplay, you should always use Wingspan’s standard rule set.
For each game, you will get a short description and a set of modifying instructions for that game. Read those instructions carefully and set up the modifications in the order they are listed. This will help with clarity and continuity of gameplay.
How do you win?
Players accumulate campaign points through four methods:
Games Won: Each win earns a player 10 points.
Total Birds Played: This is a new metric for The Nature reserve. At the end of each game, count the number of birds, including your anchor bird, and record them on the scoresheet. The player with most birds played at the end of the campaign earns 10 points.
Total Eggs Played: The player with the most eggs played for the campaign earns 10 points.
Final Game Bonus: Each player that fills their entire habitat with the maximum of 15 birds in the final game earns 10 points.
In the event of a tie, total points earned in the campaign serves as the tie-breaker.
Does The Nature Preserve work with the one-player automa version of Wingspan?
We designed the campaign with two or more players in mind. There are some playtesters who have modified the instructions to work with the automa mode. My guess is that more work is needed to make the campaign work well with automa. If you have ideas, please reach out to us. We would love to include that. We know there are lots of single players out there!
What do I do if I am not sure about the rules in one of the games?
When in doubt, our recommendation is to always use the standard rules in Wingspan.
Well, we don’t want to say too much. Part of the enjoyment of the campaign is the surprises that each game offers. From the feedback from our testers, I can tell you that if you enjoy Wingspan, you will really enjoy The Nature Preserve.
Does The Nature Preserve work with the Wingspan expansions?
The campaign works with the orginal base game and European expansion. We have even incorporated some of the items from the European expansion into the game. And don’t worry, you do not need the European expansion to play The Nature Preserve.
We also feel good about the Oceania edition. We don’t see major conflicts. There might be one game where nectar production is affected.
Are you aware of other multi-game campaigns for Wingspan?
My first recommendation would be Balanced Sanctuary. This is a five game campaign created by a father/son team. The games are fun, thematic modifications to the Wingspan base game.
There is another campaign available called Wingspan Legacy, designed by Kristina Zivanovic. Kristina takes an approach of modifying rules and having players engage as “characters” with special abilities. Kristina’s work was part of the inspiration for The Nature Preserve.
What if I have other questions about The Nature Preserve?
We recommend the following:
Read the game rules again. The answer is probably in there.
Post your question to the Wingspan Facebook group. Tag Todd Sattersten in the post and we will be happy to help. I am sure, others will too.
Make up your own rules. It’s fine. It’s just a game 🙂
I wanted to share a little bit about how this happened, both as a record to look back on later and share with others how creativity makes its way into the world in many ways.
With creativity, I think sometimes we want to create the conditions for amazing things to happen. Sometimes, we also find ourselves in the conditions. In this case, it is more of the latter.
Over the last few years, as my kids have moved into their teens, we’ve been playing more board games as an antidote to screens. We quickly found the games of my youth like Monopoly and Life weren’t much fun and didn’t keep us playing.
Early on, we looked for alternatives and found games like Munchkin and Smash Up!. If you are not familiar both are card games where you collect create combinations to do cool things and accomplish game objectives. The gamers call these Euro-style games—a style of game that has some randomness but put more emphasis on the actions a player can take with the options they are given. Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride are two Euro-style games that are very popular and you might have played.
So, I started to look for more games that we could add to our collection as birthday and holiday presents. And once you start that search, it is like stepping through The Looking Glass into another world. Dominion, Tokaido and Dixit all started to get play at our house. We start visiting a board game museum in Portland to play even more games.
Now, if you don’t play board games, I get it. You have never heard of any of this and this sounds like a crazy geek-ish obsession. In our case, it has become a fun obsession, but it lead to other things too.
So, a couple years ago, I was hired to work on a book project. I can’t say a lot about the project because it hasn’t made it into the world yet and I don’t know if it ever will. I can say this board game hobby played a major role and was incredibly helpful. During that time, I researched the board game industry. Now, I can name popular game publishers. I read books on board game design. And for the board game lovers reading this, I, too, want to go to Essen someday 🙂
During that research, I ended up meeting Jamey Stegmaier, the guy who runs Stonemaier Games in St. Louis. I wanted to get some more background information on how board game publishing worked. Jamey’s strategy of one or two games a year also matched our one book a year publishing strategy at Bard Press. It’s been great getting to know Jamey and the games he is publishing.
Another condition that influenced things was the pandemic, like it has affected so many things this year. For our family, board games became a way connect when it got harder to connect with others. We added more boxes to our board game closet. Our oldest son pulled us into escape room style games like Exit The Room and T.I.M.E. Stories. Our middle son likes engine building games like Machi Koro. Our daughter puts up with all of this by pulling us into more straight forward games like Uno and Sushi Go Party.
With so much time, we also started a playing Pandemic: Season 1. Yes, the theme matched the times. There was a strange kind of agency that we got fighting back against a fictional global pandemic. P:S1 is also a multi-game legacy campaign, where the game changes as make decisions and win games. The game is also cooperative, so every player is working with a character to reach a collective goal. We’d never played anything like that and once we got started everybody was interested in seeing what happened next.
Birds In The Forest
I got introduced to Wingspan when it got written up in The New York Times. It was another year until we bought it. Our copy arrived in April as we were really starting to settling into #pandemiclife. We were pretty familiar with euro style games by this point and after the initial game (which has a great tutorial module), we were hooked. More accurately, my wife and I were hooked. Lots of two-player games followed. My wife was so intrigued that she learned the automa version, so she could play the one player version even more often.
I joined the Wingspan Facebook group to see what other fans were talking about and not long after getting our copy, I saw a post from Kristina Zivanovic. She has created a campaign scenario for the game called Wingspan Legacy. Being in the middle of our Pandemic: Season 1 campaign, I was very intrigued. Kristina mapped out multiple games that were connected with player types that had different abilities. We immediately downloaded it and played through it.
After that something clicked—board games, Wingspan, legacy games and the strong desire to create something new during the pandemic all led to creating The Nature Preserve.
For Amy and I, we wanted our campaign to have a few things:
We wanted players to be able to use the Wingspan base they already have and give players new ways to play it.
We wanted actions in one game to affect the next game, but not so much so, that you started permanently altering components, like you would in a legacy game. That gave a creative constraint on what we could do.
We wanted each game to have a unique challenge or goal. This might resemble an achievement sheet that you sometimes get in other board games.
Finally, I wanted there to be a story that connected all of the games together. In our case, the theme of each story point ties to the challenges that players encounter in that game.
From there, we did lots of play testing of different versions of the various games. We worked on the right order to play the games to create a compelling campaign. And then we set out to write the instructions. I have a whole new appreciation for game designers and their skills at writing clear rules for players.
When we had a prototype, we put the instructions in a Google Doc and invited folks from the Wingspan Facebook group to play test the campaign. This was one of the most satisfying parts of the whole project. Players gave us great feedback on campaign and helped us make the instructions even clearer. We had over 75 play testers from all over the world try out The Nature Preserve. And now it is your turn 🙂
Thanks for listening and if you are interested in trying out The Nature Preserve for Wingspan, you can click on the link below to download the campaign instruction booklet.
When we read the definitive account of the year 2020, the publisher in me wants a book that opens with the events of July 30th. You could pick any number of other days in this crazed year but I don’t think you will find a single day that encapsulates everything.
The economic impact will be just one effect that people will talk about when they talk about the year that COVID-19 hit. It would be hard for the writer to skip the 150,000 deaths in America due to the coronavirus. During his press conference that day, the President acknowledged the number and the loss of life. That writer might give other examples of the effects like the overall death rate in America and the fact that there were 190,000 more deaths in those prior five months than what’s found in a normal year, eliminating some of the doubt sowed in whether COVID-19 was anything to worry about or how easily it could be fixed.
The writer would address the theme of doubt in 2020. At that same news conference, the President would answer questions about a tweet he sent out earlier in the day, just ahead of the GDP announcement.
Journalists would try to pick the right verb to describe what he was doing in the tweet. Was he floating the idea? Was he suggesting that election be delayed? Maybe it was all a smokescreen for the horrible economic news? Asked directly at the news conference if he proposed delaying the election, he would just cast doubt, saying mail-in balloting won’t work. “Everyone knows it,” the president said, “Smart people know it. Stupid people may not know it. And some people don’t want to talk about it.” The writer might cite all the states that already allowed mail-in ballots, the research that shows it helps neither political party, or the fact that studies showing fraud occurs at less than one in a million mail-in ballots, meaning in a typical election there would be fourteen ballots that were falsified . The writer also might introduce the concept of gaslighting or save it for a later chapter in the book, one based on the corrosive effects that confusion, misdirection, and suspicion had grown to have on American society.
In this imagined book, the author would also write about the national conversation about race in 2020. Pages would be devoted to the shootings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks. The announcement that Breonna Taylor would be appearing on the cover of O magazine, the first time Oprah herself would not, would also be mentioned as having taken place on that day—July 30th.
Portland, my hometown, I imagine would get a mention. The author would write about Black Lives Matter, the sixty nights of local protests, and the response that spun out of control when federal forces arrived. July 30th would again be shown important, because it was the day that federal law enforcement left the city of Portland and that night, peaceful demonstrations returned to the city.
And incredibly, that wasn’t everything that happened that day.
In a day marked by economic strain, a pandemic, questions about an election, protests and even a rocket launch to Mars…in the state of Georgia, they were celebrating the life of Representative John Lewis. The writer would debate if the first chapter only be about the funeral, attended by three past presidents and many members of Congress. It would be easy to recount the speeches made about a man who fought his entire life for the rights of others and how all the speakers alluded to the divisiveness in the country. And how they also struck notes of hope and called for action. From the grave, Lewis called back, seeming to know the stories that would unfold that day.
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”
For this book, the rest of the year still needs to write itself, but July 30th, 2020 is a compelling opening. The events of that day show the past, the present, and the future all unfolding together. Whether we admit it or not, this weaving is happening all the time, and in rare moments the intertwining threads become a little more visible and we can see causes and effects in the complicated, myriad ways that the world reveals itself.
I hope someone writes this book; we all need more ways to make sense of what has happened this year.
I live in Portland and I am getting notes from friends and family.
The nature of the questions varies but they fall along the spectrum from “What the hell is going on?!” to “Are you ok?”
Most of the time downtown Portland looks like the photo above. This is outside the Apple Store.
The nightly protests are taking place just south of there, in a 12 block area surrounding the federal courthouse. The lower floors of courthouse were damaged in the first weeks of the George Floyd protests and has been boarded up ever since.
Each night for almost two months, protestors have shown up to make their voices heard. There is a point each night when one side starts to throw fireworks and the other throws tear gas.
My conversations fall in a similar duality with demands for real change and expectations of a return to law and order. Ask about thoughts on the presence of federal law enforcement and those lines start to blur. The energy downtown has been refueled by people all over the city who believe in the protests and don’t believe federal forces should be here.
This is day 56 and it is not ending any time soon.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
This is one of the questions readers ask themselves before buying an author’s book.
“Why are you the person to listen to as an authority on this topic?”
Publishers and editors bring a similar lens when they make decisions about signing book projects.
We bring all sorts of biases to that question and we are fooling ourselves if race isn’t one of them.
While black authors are dominating the major bestseller lists right now, there are no black authors on the business book bestseller list this week. Or last week. Not the Top 15. Not in the Top 50. The last book I could find by a black business book author was back in the first week of May. Before that, it was a week in March.
Try this exercise: go to your bookshelves and find the business titles written by black authors.
What did you come back with? Malcolm Gladwell (maybe), and… My guess is that most people will come back empty handed. For me, I had two business books by black authors. That’s crazy and sad.
So, I started a real search for business books by black authors. I checked list after list. The same books came up. I bought all of them. There might be a total of twenty books sitting on the table in my office. Twenty books. That’s it.
A third of the books were biographies and memoirs that aren’t really business books. The next third were self-help titles with authors writing books framed around their experiences. The final third were straight up business books.
So, the sum total of what I could find was seven business books written by black authors. Like I said, that’s crazy and sad.
To successfully publish a business book, you need a combination of expertise and popularity. For the first part, authors need to do the work, think about the work and start to tell people how the work can done better. The works needs to have scale. Do the work at a big organization or for big organizations. Or create big, remarkable things that get noticed.
And then you need an audience. People need to see your work. Write for a newspaper. Host a podcast. Make documentaries. Become a Youtuber. Publish, publish, publish. Give speeches. Host events. Do interviews. Show people your work.
That truth leaves us with a problem.
We might use the fact there are only four black CEOs in Fortune 500 as a proxy for the difficulty that black people have in gaining the business expertise and market awareness needed to publish a successful business book.
This creates a credibility problem for readers. This creates a credibility problem for editors and publishers. This starts to explain the lack of business books by black authors.
I knew there were not many black authors in the business category. The 100 Best Business Books of All Time doesn’t have any black authors. And the honest reality is that if I rewrote it today, it still wouldn’t because there are so few titles to draw from.
Not seeing scope of the problem—the almost complete absence of black authors in business books—is the part gnawing at me. The work that the black community is asking everyone to do right now is to just start looking for the bias and the blind spots you have. I am biased. I have worked in business book publishing for sixteen years and I didn’t see it. There is more to say and do on this.
Today, I am going to start with something simple. This week, there is an effort underway called #BlackoutBestSellerList. The point is to create awareness for black authors and put more authors on the list by encouraging people to buy two books this week by black authors.
If you want to support black authors in the business community, here are four great choices:
The Power of Broke by Daymond John – You likely know Daymond John from Shark Tank. He writes his books to push you. He also has written three other books including Display of Power, Rise and Grand, and his latest Powershift. If you want a brand name, buy one of Daymond’s books.
Starting Finishing by Charlie Gilkey – Charlie is a close friend and I am a fan of Start Finishing. The book covers all the things that get in the way of doing the work you want to do. Start Finishing is works well for the analytics who want a manual for better productivity and a better life.
It’s About Damn Time by Arlan Hamilton – Arlan’s book came out six weeks ago. She is the founder of a venture capital fund dedicated to the “underestimated” women, LBGT+, and people of color founding companies. For me, this book is about possibility and how grit and smarts embodies successful entrepreneurship.
Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins – Goggins completed the elite training in every branch of the U.S. military and has gone on to become a multiple world-record holder in endurance athletics. This book is for the drivers who work every day to be their best self.
If my work or the books I have published have helped you, my ask is that you buy one of these books this week.
I hope you are well. Please stay safe. More soon. -Todd
I wrote my last report on April 6th and at that point, we were starting to settle into a new normal of depressed sales in business and self-help. There had been four weeks with sales down almost 50% and the trend continued into the following week.
But then a funny thing happened—sales increased. And the same thing happened the following week. And again the following week.
You can see in the chart below that those increases have been significant and we are starting to return to pre-COVID-19 sales levels in business and self-help.
This is good news for this corner of the world. The return of business books reflects the same resilience that has been seen in the book publishing market throughout the COVID-19 period.
But in digging into the winners and losers in the larger group, I started to notice that books classified as self-help were recovering more strongly than business titles. So, I went back to the full dataset and broke out the books by business and self-help.
Business books lost sales, have started to return, but have not yet fully recovered, down over 20% from early March.
Self-help also lost sales, has recovered, AND selling better now than before COVID-19, up 19%.
Well, that’s interesting 🙂
3. Where is the recovery?
Journals – I mentioned that in a prior report that journals for self-reflection were selling well. In looking at these last three weeks of recovery, eleven titles within the twenty books with the biggest gains (in business or self-help) were journaling products like Burn After Writing, 52 Lists for Happiness and 52 Lists for Calm, Create This Book and Create This Book 2, Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice (and Michelle Obama in the public right now with the new Netflix special and the just announced 2020 prom with MTV), Do One Thing Every Day That Centers You, and Zen As F*ck. If you extend further down the list, nineteen of the top fifty books are journals or workbooks. As a point of reference, I looked back at the self-help bestseller list for the week of February 23rd and there were nine journal titles in the top 50.
Best-Selling Self-Help – Books like Girl, Stop Apologizing, The Art of Not Giving A F*ck, and You Are A Badass saw their sales decrease, but they are leading the return with additional growth alongside the overall trend of increased sales in self-help.
Brené Brown’s books – All her titles have seen sales growth, but now Dare To Lead, her business leadership title, has seen big increases in these last three weeks.
Personal Finance and Investing – Not surprisingly, money is on the reader’s minds. When you look at subcategories for business and self-help, the subjects of investing, money management and personal finance occupy three of the ten top growing subcategories. This is driven by well-known titles like The Intelligent Investor, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and Total Money Makeover.
A few in business titles – There are not many business titles that are selling better now than before COVID-19. Besides Dare to Lead, Never Split the Difference, a great book on negotiating, is seeing new growth. Atomic Habits has gained share among the titles in the habits subcategory.
4. Evolving Theories
It’s impossible to aggregate the felt need of thousands of readers and try to explain with one grand unifying theory to explain everything going on in the market, but I am going to offer a few ideas to consider.
After the initial COVID-19 shock, many people are returning to more normal routines. We are leaving immediate forms of media like websites and cable news and returning longer formats like books. Like the trend in journals, books help us reflect on our experiences.
Business books have recovered from lows in April but not fully because there are important channels that are not operating. Retail outlets like Barnes & Noble and airports stores like Hudsons are either closed or suffering from drastically decreased foot traffic. Almost all B&N stores are still closed to in-store purchases. Airlines passengers are down 90% from a year ago this time. And the events channels connected to speaking, coaching and training are way down. The authors I know are pushing hard to create virtual alternatives to in-person events and interactions. Some are connecting books to those events.
5. Shift to Digital?
There is an interesting question around how COVID-19 will affect product mix. Sales data for digital products is hard to come by, but anecdotes from several sources point towards an increased demand for ebooks.
Simon & Schuster was specific and said their ebook sales were up 13% in the first quarter.
HarperCollins reported that ebooks “returned to growth”.
Rakuten, the owner of the Kobo ebook platform, shared that they added 2.2 million new customers worldwide in the first three months of 2020. They attributed that to changes in reader behavior from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Storytel, a ebook and digital audiobook subscription service based in Europe, announced growth of 33.5% in the first quarter.
According to K-lytics, the Amazon KDP author fund of $29 million in March is the largest ever with year over year growth of 6.6%.
Ebook marketer Bookbub has reported double digit increases in sales of ebooks promoted through their service and consistent across all of their retail partners and region they operate in.
In our hometown of Portland, Oregon, we are finding ebook lending at the library much more in-demand and in the last three months, often needing to wait for popular ebooks to become available.
I plan to keep posting updates. You can sign up for my newsletter on trends and case studies from the world of book publishing by clicking on this link.
…about how long it has been since I wrote one of these.
I started to write this back in February. The mood was starting to turn. People were sick in China and Italy. I got preoccupied by all of it. And then I got sick with all the symptoms of COVID-19 at the end of the month. I just thought it was a strong flu. Even then, I was barely connecting my illness to what was happening. At some point, I hope to get a test for antibodies to see if I did get infected early in the cycle.
I have found myself struggling to figure out how to respond to everything going on. I finally relied on what has long worked for me: starting reading. This is not the first crisis that I or country or the world has faced. Many, many people have written about the struggle and the hope that is always there.
I collected a set of those thoughts and writings into an ebook called Right Now. It contains less than twenty pages and you can probably read it in about 15 minutes. There is a wide range of perspectives. I hope you will find something that lands with you. You can find the landing page here.
I also want to thank my friend and long-time collaborator Joy Stauber for helping me put this collection into the world. She does amazing work as a designer. You should check out her work.
Trends in Business Books
Another way I have felt that I have been able to help is looking at the business book market and try to make sense of it.
I was already doing market research for authors and around some future projects, when this all hit. I just shifted my focus to start looking at the macro effects.
It’s been rough. Business and self-help sales are down roughly 40%. Launches are seeing less sales and many publishers are pushing their release dates later in the year.
We now have three weeks of retail sales data from March and can compare February and March sales.
1. Total Market
Overall, the categories of business and self-help are down 33%.
NPDecisionKey has been highlighting business and self-help in the last two weeks as among the most negatively affected categories in book publishing.
And to use a Wall Street method of comparison, the ratio of losers outnumber winners in a ratio of 9 to 1.
The categories is the largest drops in business and self-help are the most popular ones:
Motivation and Inspiration
The lone mild but notable category of growth is Creativity in the Self-Help category. This group is where you find guided journals like Burn After Writing by Sharon Jones, the various versions of Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith, Create This Book by Elizabeth Moriah. This demand feels like a corollary to the huge increase in sales of children’s coloring and activity books. In the case, they are activity books for teenagers and adults.
If the top-selling categories are being affected, individual titles in those groups are too.
Titles with the biggest drops in units sales include:
StrengthFinder 2.0 by Gallup
Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Tiny Habits and BJ Fogg
Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry
Infinite Game by Simon Sinek
Dare to Lead by Brene Brown
It is very interesting to see the books people are moving to as we work to understand and deal with the current state of the world. Here are the notables on the list.
Shift – The Keller Williams CEO Gary Keller and his co-authors wrote this book in 2009 following the mortgage to help agents adjust to the new market.
The Intelligent Investor – The 1949 classic on value investing from Benjamin Graham sells, as people try to navigate the stock market.
Remote – the guide from the founders of Basecamp on how they work as a company with employees all over the world.
The Obstacle Is The Way – Ryan Holiday’s first book on stoicism with a perfect title for the time.
Speaking of timely tiles…
5. A Lesson on Framing
Mark Manson is a bestselling author with two books in the market.
His 2016 bestseller The Subtle of Art of Not Giving a F*ck has been a huge success with over three million copies sold. This book has been adversely affected at similar levels to other bestsellers listed above, with sales down 30%.
Everything Is F*cked, Manson’s follow-up from 2019, has done well but not reached the levels of his first book. The interesting part is that, in the last month, sales have been up 11%.
Like The Obstacle Is The Way, this most recent book from Manson, is titled in a way that speaks to the particular felt need that people have right now around fear and uncertainty.
The timeless lesson for developing books: be clear and direct when you title a book.
6. So, what’s going on?
I have been thinking a lot about what’s going on in the business book market and if there is a way to adjust to those changes. Here are the biggest factors in my estimation:
The events industry has been shut down completely – Conferences, conventions and training are an important source of direct selling and follow-on sales after an audience seeing an author.
Retail “stores” are almost completely closed – With state mandated closings in most states, physical bookstores are closed all over the country. Barnes & Noble reported that all their stores will be closed in the next few days. Airport stores are open but empty. Libraries, another source of literary interaction, are also shuttered during this time. While many, particularly independents, are adapting and taking online orders to solid demand from customers, our exposure to books is dampened right now and online sales are not replacing all of the prior demand.
We are choosing the more immediate – Books are great at telling stories in the long form, after the fact. The story of this time is being told right now and we are choosing more immediate forms of media to watch it unfold. Business podcast listening is up 10%. CNBC has twice the audience they did at the beginning of the year. Even President Trump’s news briefings are drawing ratings similar to a Monday Night Football game. Books don’t exactly fit the kind of information we are looking for right now.
Cost cuttings – In 2008, as the economy began to tighten during the last crisis, large organizations reduced expenses with what was deemed optional. Books were at the top of the list. That was a tough hit for the market. A combination of purchase orders and corporate credit cards fund a lot of purchases. We are seeing that belt-tightening in market segments most affected by the shutdown, such as retail and aviation, but it doesn’t feel like effect runs across all business segments.
7. What’s good?
Well, books are still selling. In March, the market was 1.9 million copies. The market isn’t going to go to zero.
Books are still launching. The Blueprint by Doug Conant, The Catalyst by Jonah Berger, and Upstream by Dan Heath all launched in March with more than 10,000 copies sold in their first month.
…BUT (and this is a huge point) all of these books launched before March 10th. Launches since then have been very modest. The business book publishers, like all media firms, are pushing publication dates into the fall, which creates another risk with the certain preoccupation we will all have with the presidential elections in the U.S.
One test will be the business book launch of Joy At Work by organizing phenom Marie Kondo and her co-author Scott Sonenshein. It will be released April 7th.
I think it is a tough mix for business books right now. Lack of attention and lack of money are slowing the market.
Books are a long lead time product. If you have written something that can help clients adjust like the Winners above, you are in a good spot right now. Share and promote to create awareness. You likely have new customers for your work.
Get close to your clients and find out what is arising for them right now. Beyond the coronavirus, everyone is finding weaknesses in their businesses. I know several examples of companies that are using this time to get their processes fixed to be ready when we get to the other side. Don’t look for the book they need now; write the book that people need next.
We have noticed the Amazon Rank of some of our titles has been increasing (i.e. #5000 vs #1000). We always remember that Amazon Rank is a relative measurement compared to other products on the website.
Well, if you have been looking at the Top 100 Books on Amazon you can get a sense of shift in categories. With schools being closed and families staying home, children’s books dominate the list right now.
Update (March 23rd) : NPDecisionKey reports sales grew 38% for titles in juvenile non-fiction education, reference, and language print books. Leading topics include “math, language arts, puzzles, sticker books, word games, geometry, study aids, and coloring books.”
4. Retail is being hit hard
The outlets selling books are being impacted in different ways.
Amazon announced this week they are prioritizing household goods and medical supplies for the next three weeks, in an effort to help customers get the products they need. They told their suppliers to expect smaller orders and that it likely didn’t not represent actual demand on their website.
Physical stores are being severely impacted with closings taking place all over the country in reaction to government declarations. Stores from The Strand in New York City to Powell’s in my hometown of Portland have shut their doors but are still taking online orders. Barnes & Noble has been closing stores as needed and running others on reduced hours.
Airport bookstores, an important segment for business books, is down. We are seeing sales of our titles down 50%, which roughly matches the decrease in airlines bookings that has been reported in the news.
The combined effect across retail outlets is going to have a negative impact on book sales in the short term.
Some things I am wondering about:
Will we see a shift in the kinds of business books being read? Remote by 37Signals (a book about the company’s remote working efforts) and Shift by the folks at Keller Williams (a title about how real estate agents adjust to economic downturns) are both sold out on Amazon.
Have digital ebooks and audiobooks sold more copies this month because of availability and quarantining?
How much more will sales drop in business books? In the depths of the 2008 crisis, sales were off 50% from normal levels.
Dr. Clayton Christensen died on Thursday January 23rd, 2020.
I was sad to hear the news. He was management thinker that changed how companies think about innovation. He created a consulting practice, an investment firm and a think tank to fully explore all of the implications of that ground-breaking research.
As an author, Christensen wrote ten books over his lifetime. His most famous was the cornerstone for all of it. If you are not familiar with it, here is my review of The Innovator’s Dilemma from The 100 Best Business Books of All Time:
“Many in book publishing have a romanticized view of the industry’s origin, beginning with Johannes Gutenburg and the movable-type press he invented in 1453. While that treasured form has changed little in the past five and a half centuries, the way the book is sold and distributed has changed dramatically in the last thirty years. Independent bookstores first struggled against the mall chains of Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, then the big-box retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, and now the online superstore, Amazon. And these retail redistributions pale in comparison for the tectonic shifts that lie ahead in the form of print-on-demand and electronic distribution of books. In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen shows how management practices that typically serve executives will fail in the face of just such disruptive innovation.
Christensen begins by drawing a distinction between two types of innovation. In the first, everything from new products to customer service is designed to meet customers’ demands. In the normal course of business, customers pay the bills, and writing those checks gives them significant influence over an organization’s decision making. New ideas and new opportunities, evaluated on their ability to serve existing customers and earn the necessary margins to support the company, are called sustaining innovations and are always successful ventures for existing (and dominant) firms.
But sometimes, innovation creates a new technology or reveals a new way to organize a firm’s resources. This disruptive innovation does not offer the performance needed in the existing market, and entrant companies are forced to find a new set of customers who value innovation on a different set of metric than those of the traditional market. Existing companies disregard the disruptive innovation because of the lower margins, and the newcomers find a small beachhead outside the existing market, using that market space to develop further. As the performance of disruptive innovation outpaces the sustaining innovations, entrants move into established markets and their lower cost structures forces incumbents further up-market, forfeiting existing profitable markets.
Clayton Christensen provides an array of case studies in The Innovator’s Dilemma, including how the steel industry is still at the mercy of the disruptive innovation of minimills. Using scrap steel over iron ore, minimills require one-tenth the scale and can produce steel at 15 percent lower cost than traditional integrated steel mills. When minimills first emerged in the 1960’s, they were able to produce only low-quality rebar. The integrated mills were happy to cede this low end, price sensitive market. What the incumbents missed was the minimills’ desire to move further into their markets. With a completely different cost structure and technology that was improving faster than existing methods, minimills began producing structural steel and sheet metal. Minimills now account for 50 percent of the steel made in the United States, and here is the amazing part: at no point did an existing steel company using integrated mills construct a minimill to take advantage of the disruptive innovation.
To suggest that the integrated steel mills simply hid their heads in the sand would be too easy. Christensen says most markets that serve as the launch point for disruptive innovation are too small for large organizations to concentrate on. These emerging markets lack clear evidence that they will turn out profitable. When disruptive technologies are being developed, the applications for them are unpredictable, and worse, companies are misled when they attempt to use the same tools from their mature markets. In nearly every case, disruptive innovation, a new set of companies rises to dominate the industry.
For disruptive innovation to flourish, says Christensen, companies need to create the right organizational structure. Companies often start by promoting successful managers to lead new efforts, but without addressing the processes and values of the new group, the leadership will start to make decisions the same way it always has. Disruptive innovation requires an autonomous organization with the appropriate cost structure to address the emerging markets. In the 1970s, the motor controls industry was disrupted by programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and the only company to successfully traverse the disruption was Rockwell Automation. The Milwaukee-based company did so by investing in two smaller companies shortly after the introduction of PLCs and combining them into a separate division, which pitted them against its existing electromechanical division. Rockwell showed that it is possible to establish dominance during a period of disruptive innovation while maintaining market leadership in the traditional product.
While the innovator’s dilemma stems from uncontrollable external pressures, dealing with it is an internal dilemma. Managers lack the information and experience needed to make confident investments in disruptive technology. The tried and true resource allocation process favors current customers and their needs., starving incubatory projects of needed love and attention. And to survive the innovation pipeline, the disruptive technology needs the marketing leader to new clients who appreciate the current capabilities. As performance improves, the customers who showed no interest in the initial idea are exactly the ones who will be clamoring for it.”
“Some habits seem to have a disproportionate influence. When a keystone habit starts changing, it seems to set off a chain reaction that changes other habits.
And in a lot of people’s lives a keystone habit is exercise. When they start exercising, they start using their credit cards less. They start procrastinating less. They do their dishes earlier. Something about exercise makes other habits more malleable.”
I like this topic of keystone habits because of the asymmetry. What are a small set of things that we can do that can have a big effect on our lives?
“Studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence. Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget. It’s not that a family meal or a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold. [p109]”
Duhigg says keystone habits do three things:
1. Keystone habits create small wins.
“Wins are the molecules of results. They’re the proof of progress. Some wins are big, some are small – all wins are motivators.” -John Kotter
In Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg says you should build small wins into your process for creating new habits. Fogg says habits depend on ability (or maybe our perceived ability) to do the new behavior. To start a habit find the smallest thing you could do—complete one pushup, floss a single tooth, read one page. Do the smallest thing for the first couple days and even after you add more to a new habit, always make sure to complete the smallest thing each day. Get the small win.
2. Keynote habits create new structures
In The Power of Habit, Duhigg tells the story of a study run by The National Institute of Health in 2009 that looked at weight loss. The researchers wanted to take a different approach to the problem. Their idea for participants to write down everything they ate. After six months, the results were clear. Those who kept daily food logs lost twice as much weight as everyone else. Food journaling gave everyone the ability to see patterns they were previously invisible. For some, it was the foods they ate. For others, it was when and how often they were snacking. The keystone habit of writing things down created new ways for people to think about their eating.
3. Keystone habits help you make tough decisions
Last year, I took on a project to write a write a 25,000 word book with a client. Writing was not foreign to me, but the scope of the project and the definitive timeline created some new challenges for me. I needed to consistently produce writing each day to meet a deadline.
The best thing I did early on was to track my daily word count. This gave me good visibility to how much work I was producing over time and how it matched up to various project deadlines. Within two weeks, I could see that I needed to make some significant changes, and committed to create a daily habit of writing helped make all of the tough decisions that followed.
I found needed to produce a consistent word count each day, too much daily variability in my word count created even more variability in the following days. And that required moving writing to first thing in the mornings, right after the kids were off the school. All my calls and meetings moved to the afternoons. I wrote until I had the word count. Some mornings that was by 9:30am, other days I was still writing at 3pm. Each of those decisions to change my routine was made easier by my deliberate habit of daily writing.
Now, there is no magic set of keystone habits. Duhigg says a search for them can be tricky.
For me, meditation has been a keynote habit over the last ten years. Similar to my writing habit, I found I needed to make it a routine. I get up an hour earlier than I used to and the first thing I do after I get out of bed is meditate. I have a place in the house, a cushion to sit on and a timer that runs for 30 minutes. As a habit, meditation lets you see each day what your mind is doing and how quickly it shifts between thoughts. Seeing that malleability gives me more flexibility in how I meet all aspects of my life.
It’s interesting that the idea of self-reflection shows up in many of these keynote habits. Dinnertime conversation and spending budgets let us see the effects of our decisions in a different way. Tracking the foods we eat or journaling about the gratitude we feel draws us into introspection about our lives. Actively noticing and deliberately analyzing the daily run of quick, borderline unconscious actions uncovers a set of patterns that can be used to inform and reinforce the new habits we want to create.
In 2010, Seth Godin asked people to make a list of what they shipped. I have been doing this exercise each year since then. You can see my past #YearInReview posts here. I have come to believe that this is an important activity, especially for entrepreneurs to see what they have accomplished.