Market Update on Business Book Publishing – March 20, 2020

Last edit: March 24, 2020

Information about book publishing is often hard to come by for authors.

To combat that, I wanted to share a few things we at Bard Press are seeing right now.

Quick note: If you’d like more updates with trends and case studies from business book publishing, you can subscribe by clicking through to the newsletter sign-up form.

And be sure to check out my next post from April 6th on the continuing shift in the business book market.

1. Sales are down

We saw a 7.5% sales drop in the business and self-help categories, looking at the top 10,000 titles as tracked by NPDecisionKey. I heard the overall book market is down 10% this week.

The Top 50 was hit harder. Almost every title in the Top 50 for business books sold less this week. The total sales for that group was down 20%

The top of the list got hit the hardest. Two week ago, the #1 title was selling 10K copies a week. This week, the #1 title is selling under 6K copies.

2. Books are still launching

In the overall market, there are books launching with success: Untamed by Glennon Doyle, Get Out of Your Own Way by Dave Hollis, and a strong second week from Carrie Underwood’s Find Your Path.

Publishers, like movie studios, have also been pushing launches later into the year. Many books were scheduled to publish early in the year to avoid the fall presidential elections in the U.S.

Interesting side note: Movie studios are launching movies into early digital release, as movie theaters close around the country. NBC Universal released The Invisible Man along with two other movies and Pixar released Unbound. They are offering the movies at $19.99 rentals.

3. There are some big shifts in categories

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.

Open questions…

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.

I’ll keep posting updates. You can sign up for my newsletter on trends and case studies from the world of book publishing by click on this link.

Clayton Christensen

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.

The best obituary I read was in the Salt Lake City’s Deseret News.

The best profile is Larissa MacFarquhar’s 2012 piece that ran in The New Yorker.

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.”

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New Year, New Habits

Happy New Year!

I have been thinking and writing about habits over the last two weeks.

I wrote a piece for Medium called 8 Essential Books for Creating New Habits.

There is great advice in all of those books, but the one piece that stuck with me was Charles Duhigg’s description of “keystone habits”.

In this interview with Harvard Business Review, Duhigg describes the effect of keystone habits:

“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?

In his book The Power of Habit, Duhigg describes some examples from the research:

“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.

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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.

2019 revolved around three things:

  1. Joining Bard Press and launching The Gift of Struggle by Bobby Herrera in June.
  2. Serving as shuso for six months at Dharma Rain.
  3. Writing a new book in collaboration with a client (more on that soon).

There were many little things that rolled into those three big things, but that was my year. It was always easy to know if I was focused on the right things.

Other notable “shipments” included

  • Help two other authors develop concepts and marketing for their book projects.
  • I sat for three week-long sesshins (meditation retreats) in three months.
  • Wrote my first paid article for a publication.
  • Wrote 15 blog posts, posted three new videos and started a monthly newsletter that has nine issues for the year (you can sign up here).
  • Started a meet-up group for Portland-based business book authors.
  • Took my first trip to New Orleans and attended Keller-Williams’ Family Reunion event.
  • Took trips to Austin, New York City, The San Juans, Phoenix, Detroit, Crater Lake, and Chicago.
  • The kids and I went to PAX West and had a blast!
  • Studied Manzan Dohaku and Menzan Zuiho, two important figures that reformed Soto Zen during the Edo Period in Japan, and wrote a research paper on their impact.

#Booknotes: Range

Range: Why Generalist Triumph in a Specialized World
By David Epstein


If you’ve been trying to excel at something and have been burning the midnight oil to hit the 10,000-hour mark, Range might make you reconsider your approach. In domains where patterns repeat and feedback is both rapid and accurate, what author David Epstein calls “kind” learning environments, you can develop useful intuition through deep and narrow practice to solve problems that have clear boundaries and stated goals, much like Tiger Woods does in golf or Garry Kasparov did in chess. Specialists rein in the worlds of medicine and sports.

The trouble is that many of the areas where we work and encounter challenges don’t look like a game of golf or chess. Patterns vary. Feedback is delayed. Successful outcomes can be hard to detect. In these more uncertain, unfamiliar scenarios, what Epstein calls “wicked” learning environments, a deep and narrow approach does not get us the best results.

There are implications for how we teach, how we approach our careers, and who we hire to staff our teams. Just consider this: Nobel laureates are 22 times(!) as likely than their non-Nobel-winning peers to participate in the arts as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer.

As Epstein says, “Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient. The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skills to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous.”


  • Kind Problems and Wicked Problems
    • Gary Klein research into intuition or naturalistic decision making
      • He studied firefighters and first responders
      • Those experts got very good at seeing patterns in their domains
      • Golf and chess are similarly kind domains with clear boundaries to the kinds of problems that need to be solved
    • Kind learning environments
      • Patterns repeat over and over
      • Feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid
      • Kind environments support 10,000 hour style learning with engagement in a particular activity with the goal of doing it better.
    • Daniel Kahenman did research into wicked problems
      • His first project was in the assessment of Israeli military officers. His predictions were awful.
      • Wicked domains have unclear rules
        • Patterns vary
        • Feedback is delayed, inaccurate or both.
    • Klein and Kahenman co-authored a paper saying that experience created expertise but it depended on the domain
  • How specialists fail
    • From Greg Duncan, education economist “Increasingly, jobs that pay well require employees to be able to solve unexpected problems, often while working in groups.”
    • Patterns
      • Chess players can memorize a board in a few seconds (they see common set of patterns that they use to make decisions), BUT if you show them pieces in random locations they are lost
      • Same for all of us! Try memorizing random words versus words in sentences
      • Experienced tax accountants do worse than novices at applying new regulations – “cognitive entrenchment”
      • Kepler looked for analogies for what he was seeing with planets – light, smell, heat, soul/power/spirit, magnetism, currents, broom, balance scales,
      • Functional fixedness – the tendency to consider only familiar uses for objects
    • Jayshree Seth when at Clarkson University – stick with in an area she knew she did’t like but already started , even thought she wasn’t that far in. Sunk Cost Fallacy.
    • Broader
      • Nobel laureates are 22 times are more likely to participate in the arts as a amateur actor, dancer, magician or other performer
      • An average adult today would have scored in the 98th percentile on a standard IQ test one hundred years ago.
      • BUT narrower specialization is making it harder for student to apply abstract concepts outside of their area of study (see James Flynn/NZ)
      • “Fermi problems” – back of the envelope problems that estimate big problems. The point is to show how someone thinks rather than an exact solution.
      • “Far Transfer”
      • Dedre Gentner – “our ability to think relationally is the reason we run the planet,” find surface analogies.
        • Adding one analogy improves problem solving by 3x, adding two analogies improves even further
        • Ambiguous Sorting Task – combination of domain (economic bubbles) and deep structure.
        • Laboratory research – Diverse teams with varied backgrounds that presented their unsolved problems to each other
      • Curse of the “inside view” from Tversky and Kahneman
        • The more inside knowledge you have, the worse your estimates end up (VC/construction/entertainment)
      • Einstellung effect – tendency for problem solvers to employ only familiar methods even if better one are available.
      • BCG created an analogies database to help consultants with engagements
      • Outsider Advantage
        • Eli Lilly posted problems for outsiders to try and figure out. The site is now called InnoCentive.
        • Harvard research from Karim Lakhani showed “The further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it.”
        • “[big things happen] when an outsider who may be far away from the surface of the problem reframes the problem in a way that unlocks the solution.”
      • Napolean needed to preserve food for troops, science failed, foodie Nicolas Appert solved the problem
    • Outsiders make better use of specialist information. They also use laggard information in new ways.
      • Gunpei Yokoi at Nintendo committed to use technology that had already become cheap, even obsolete, in new ways to create their first electronic problems.
    • Eduardo Melero and Neus Palomeras – 32,000 teams at 880 different organizations – high uncertainty domains benefited from individuals that worked with a variety of technologies and more likely to make a splash.
    • Alva Taylor and Fredric Wertham – examined comic book industry, “When seeking innovation in knowledge-based industries, it is best to find one ‘super’ individual. If no individual with the necessary combination of diverse knowledge is available, one should form a ‘fantastic’ team.
    • Forecasting
      • Richard Tetlock – Good Judgment Project
        • General public volunteers outperformed experts by at least 30%
        • His team was so good they shutdown all other teams
        • Teams are 50% more accurate than individuals
    • We Can’t Put Things Down
      • Navy seaman ignore order to remove steel toed shoes when abandoning ship
      • Fighters pilots fail to eject from disabled planes
      • Karl Weick called it “overlearned behavior.”
      • Rather than decisions, keep “hunches held lightly.”
    • There is a difference between the chain of command and chain of communication
      • Himalayan mountain climbers–5,104 groups–found that teams from countries that valued hierarchical culture got more climbers to the cummit, but also had more climbers die along the way.
    • Less Is More
      • A study of young musicians found that exceptional players generally came from kids who started later and had fewer structured lessons
    • Teaching
      • Desirable difficulties – make learning challenging, slower, and more frustrating creates short term frustration and better in the long term
      • Hints short circuit learning
      • Distributed practice – create spacing between learning sessions
      • “For knowledge to be flexible, if should be learned under varied conditions.”
      • “Desirable difficulties like testing and spacing make knowledge stick. It becomes more durable. Desirable difficulties like making connections and interleaving make knowledge flexible, useful for problems that never appear in training. All slow down learning and make performance suffer, in the short term.”
    • Match Quality – degree of fit between the work and who the person is.
      • English and Welch college graduates switched more often than the later choosing Scottish students.
      • People who randomly switched jobs were happier than those who stayed
      • Teachers that switched schools were better at helping students.
      • Herminia Ibarra – “We discover possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.” We learn who we are in practice, not in theory. “I learn who I am when I see what I do.”
      • “Outsider artists”, non-formally trained artists; reminds me of “self-published authors”
      • Howard Finster “Trying things is the answer to find your talent.”
      • “Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient. The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skill to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous.”
      • Oliver Smithie – bring new skills to an old problem or a new problem to old skills

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I’d Like To Thank…

One of the most common questions I get asked is how can authors find the best people to help them get their book published and promoted.

I always tell people go to the bookstore (or their bookshelf) and look for titles that match the one you want to publish.

You can immediately see the publishers who released the books. You can get a good sense of their choices about packaging—whether typography, titling, or trim size. But the best source can be found inside the book.

In the world of book publishing, we also have a wonderful tradition of thanking people for the work they have done on books.

By looking through the Acknowledgments section, you can see everyone who contributed to a book: the agent, the editor, the publisher, the publicist. If someone helped write it, you see who (but sometimes you have to read between the lines). Authors will often thank earlier readers and inspirations for writing in the first place. They always thank family and friends.

From there, you can get your first set of answers to things like:

  • Who might represent a book like mine?
  • Who might buy a proposal for a book like the one I want to write?
  • Who has experience promoting the kind of book I want to write?
  • Are there other experts who might contribute to the overall success of my project?

And remember the Acknowledgments section when you write your book and pay it forward to the next author who needs the same help.

Click here to receive more updates on trends, case studies, and news from the world of business book publishing.

The Three Business Books You Need To Read From 2019

I know I am making a big promise in the headline, but stay with me on this one. There are several reasons these three books can help narrow down your “I’m behind on my 2019 reading” list.

In this post, I’ll share some good sources I use every year to help with choose what I read, tell you why these books are good selections and give you a few reasons to pick up each one.

The Sources

I mentioned in a post earlier this week that we are in the heart of the “Best of” Season. Everyone is posting their favorite things of the year. I love it. You get to see what is important to people. With these curated lists, you can see if there are themes that arose out of the past year.

In the world of business books, there are a handful of outlets that I watch each year to see what they are recommending when the year closes. Let me share each of them and tell you why you should pay attention.

First, Porchlight Books (the fine folks formerly known as 800-CEO-READ) are in the 13th year of the Business Book Awards. Some of you know that I spent several years working there and starting the Awards program is one of the things I am most proud of. Last week, they announced their longlist with forty books across eight categories. In December, they’ll announce their category winners and at their New York City gala in January, they’ll crown their Business Book of the Year.

Going on even longer has been the Strategy + Business Best Business Books feature, now in its nineteenth year. The publication from PwC and its partners keeps seven categories, selecting three books for each category and choosing one title in each as their TopShelf pick. The category winners are generally curated by industry experts, as seen in their choices of Bethany McLean, James Surowiecki, and Sally Hegesen to serve this year.

Given the headliners, many consider The Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award to be the most prestigious. The judging has a nice Trans-Atlantic feel with the awards ceremony alternating locations between New York City and London. The visibility also comes from the £30,000 in prize money given to the winner. Their format is to start with a 16 title longlist announced in August, the six title shortlist shared in September, and the winner celebrated in December.

Amazon has a comprehensive set of year-end selections. These are picked by a set of editors at the company. They choose 20 books across a range of what they call “business and leadership books”. Their list is always good balancing bestsellers and practical problem solving. Already this year, they named Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber by Mike Isaac as their business and leadership book of the year.

In the world of small business, I want to mention the list that comes from Leigh Buchanan at Inc. Magazine. She covers business books for the magazine and she often write articles that look ahead to upcoming book seasons, or as she did earlier this month, she wrote an eleven title Must-Read list for entrepreneurs in 2019.

The final list is from Bookpal, a West Coast best book retailer. They have the newest awards program, The Outstanding Works of Literature (OWL) Awards, which they started in 2017. There are five categories from their OWL awards that fit into the world of business books and on their longlist, they nominate five books for each category.

Each of the lists above have different flavors. FT McKinsey is global and conglomerate. Strategy + Business is corporate and smart. Amazon plays it straight to the core of the business book category. Inc. Magazine leans toward small business. And Porchlight digs deep into their indie bookstore roots. Bookpal highlights books across the breadth of categories they sell.

The lists also have things in common. They are created by people who care about the business book category. They are journalists, booksellers, academics and business leaders who all believe they have a stake in helping readers find the best titles.

Intersections: A Meta-Analysis of The Lists

Personally, I always find myself drawn to the spaces between. With the common interests and divergent preferences, I always want to know where the business book lists intersect. A good book is a good book. And if multiple groups see that, there is something worth paying attention to. Looking at the intersections between those lists was particularly interesting this year.

Using the longlist from each group, the six groups recommend a total of 102 books. The majority of those books, 80 titles or 78% of titles, only appear once across the five lists. That represents the wonderful variety in both what these entities believe is a book that will appeal to a business audience and what represented a good book among what was published in 2019.

There were 19 books that appeared twice on those five lists. I am not sure I have pattern or conclusion I can draw from those. Porchlight nominated twice as many (or more) books and they are the common partner in 13 of the 19 titles that were selected twice. When you look at the other half of those pairs, they are evenly spread among the other five lists. The categories of those 13 books are also spread across general business, economics, current events and narratives. I believe this set of books shares the same effect of judges’ preference, as can be seen in the single titles.

This is where it gets interesting.

There were no books that were appeared on three of the lists.

There were no books that were picked by four lists.

And there were no books that were chosen by all six lists.

That leaves us with only three titles that were chosen by five lists. That’s where I want to focus the rest of the attention.

[If you’d like to see all the titles and some of the analysis, I have put all the data in a Google Sheet that you can find by clicking on this link.]

The Three Titles For 2019

Let’s start with the books:

  1. Loonshots: How To Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcali
  2. Nine Lies About Work: A (Freethinking) Leader’s Guide to the Real World by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall
  3. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

As I said, these were chosen by four different arbiters of business books. The last bit of analysis that I’ll share is that each book was chosen by a different combination of those five players. So, there was no voting block of perspective that led to these three titles.

I’ll admit there is randomness and probably pattern bias in trying to focus on these three titles. I am not going to try to justify these picks with any statistics or additional analysis. Let’s just say that the bubbling up of these three books is convenient.

It’s handy that there are only three books with such overwhelming support. Anyone can get these three titles and be through them between now and the end of the year. If that sounds hard, go read my essay on How To Read A [Business] Book.

Another convenience is this small group of books touches on the three things we should always be working to improve. First, we always need to put some focus on ourselves and Range provides an interesting thesis for how we should position ourselves in today’s world. Next, we always need to be working on how we work with others. Nine Lies pushes hard on some commonly held wisdom and turns it on its head. Finally, I don’t know anyone who isn’t touched by change and doesn’t need a way to bring new ideas and approaches into the world. Loonshots addresses that.

After I saw the broad agreement on these three titles, I decided to dig into each of them again. I’ll be posting reviews on each one of them between now and the end of the year. I hope maybe you’ll read along. When I share more about these books, I’d love to hear what you thought of them and how they helped you.

Update (11/26/19): I added the longlist selections from Bookpal’s OWL awards to the year-end lists for this article. They also chose the three common titles are well.

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My Reading List Gets Long This Time of Year

My reading list is never short, but as the year comes to a close, there are so many Best Of The Year lists that get published and I am left wondering how I missed so many good books.

Most lists cover fiction and creative non-fiction in an exhaustive way. I wish more outlets covered practical non-fiction. There is so much to recommend.

Here are a few places to look for your business and self-help needs:

Here is my current list of books to read that covers a pretty wide range of topics

Authors: Getting Better Feedback For Your Book Project

My primary job in the world of publishing is to give feedback to make book better.

That’s lead me to think a lot about how authors get the best feedback for the book they are working on.

I posted an article about this topic on LinkedIn that has a a video and more detail around working with general readers when you are gathering feedback.

Hope you’ll check it out.

#Author Booknotes: Hit Makers

The Book

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction
By Derek Thompson
Penguin Press, 2017


A staff writer for The Atlantic, Thompson pulls together a slew of fascinating stories and anecdotes to try and explain what makes things popular. The trick with a book like this is there is no singular way that phenomenon reaches critical mass. So, in that way, the overview approach to the material works well, as it does in magazine articles. The downside is that the variety dilutes the utility of a strong throughline or highly actionable advice. If you read it like you are going to move through lots of material and that will find nuggets to inform your worldview, you’ll be satisfied when you’re done.

My Notes

  • We like what we are familiar with.
    • Exposure (or repeated exposure) is one way we get more familiar
    • The impressionist painters we know today all came from a single collection.
    • James Cutting, at Cornelll, found you could change preference just by showing students obscure paintings with a higher frequency.
    • Music publishers in Tin Pan Alley agressively pushed new music to musicians playing in clubs in New York City and gather feedback about what to further promote.
    • Music prediction services like HitPredictor or SoundOut can explain part of the success of some songs, but exposure and airplay also play a huge factor.
  • The familiar needs to be balanced with the new
    • Industrial designer Raymond Loewy called this “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” – MAYA
    • “People like a challenge if they think they can solve it. [Claudia Muth] calls this moment where disfluency yields fluency the aesthetic aha.”
    • Example four chord music, cable news focus on headline topics with endless viewpoints, Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature needed new and known songs
  • The balance can be found in patterns
    • The longest time to create surprise with the fewest number of musical notes is BBBBC-BBBC-BBC-BC-D
    • Rhetorical devices like epistrophe (repetition of words at the end of the sentence), anaphora (repetition at the beginning of the sentence), tricolon (repetition in short triplicate, and my favorite antimetabole (AB;BA – do onto others as they would do onto you)
  • This leads us to another pattern – STORY
    • Joseph Campbell’s ingredients: inspiration, relatability, and suspense
    • “…[T]ake twenty-five things that in any successful genre and you reverse one of them. Reverse too many and you get genre confusion. Invert all the elements, you get parody. But one strategic tweak? Now you’ve got something that is perfectly new.”
  • Popularity is always being shaped by choice, economics and marketing
    • Industrialization is followed by the rise of fashion
    • “Distribution is a strategy to make a good product popular, but it’s not a reliable way to make a bad product seem good.”
    • Researchers Balaz Kovacs and Amanda Sharkey found that winning awards actually produces lower ratings from readers
      • Possible cause – higher expectations for those titles
  • Randomness
    • Duncan Watts studies information cascades
      • Everything starts at zero
      • And 1 in 1000 is still 1 in 1000 and very hard to predict
    • Al Greco calls the entertainment business “a complex. Adaptive, semi-chaotic industry with Bose-Einstein distribution dynamics and Pareto law characteristics with dual-sided uncertainty.”
    • Virality is a myth; broadcasters that share with millions make the difference in hits
      • “Items spread wider and faster when everyone can see what everybody else is doing.”
    • Sometimes it is not really about the product, but that someone “buys” popularity of the product.
    • Even people who produce lots of product can’t predict what will be a hit (i.e. Vincent Forrest on Etsy)
  • “Ideas most reliably spread with the piggyback off an existing network of closely connected and interested people.”
  • “The paradox of scale is that the biggest hits are often designed for a small, well-defined group of people.”
  • “Artists and teams produced their most resonant work after they had already passed a certain threshold of fame and popularity. Perhaps genius thrives in a space shielded ever so slightly from the need to win a popularity contest.
  • Random facts
    • One percent of music artists earn eighty percent of all recorded music revenue.
    • Music companies use Shazam to see where songs are being searched and find small places to launch into bigger markets
    • NBC uses 40-40-20 test for new programs
      • 40% of people say they are aware of the show
      • 40% of that (16% of total) say they want to watch it.
      • And 20% (3.2% of total!) of that say they are passionate about the new show
  • FX’s Nicole Clemens: “I am looking for a 90 hour movie. It is a Trojan horse for a deeper question: Who is the character becoming? What is he or she going to do next?”
  • Kat Kamen, first head of merchandising at Disney: “The art of film is film, but the business of movies is everywhere.”

Authors: Staple Yourself To The Problem

One place many authors go wrong is writing a book that doesn’t address a problem that a reader is having. I know that sounds crazy, but you’ve run across this problem as a reader. You pick up a book expecting to get help and find something different.

Sometimes, the problem is described in a way that doesn’t match your experiences. Other times, the solution doesn’t feel like something you can implement. Still at other points, the approach or the framing isn’t clear.

Listen to this seven minute clip of an interview I did with Geoffrey Moore. Moore has written seven books about seven problems including technology classics like Crossing The Chasm and Inside The Tornado.

In this clip, I ask him how he develops books and he says he always starts with a problem. And then he staples himself to it.

Better Books Interview with Geoffery Moore – Staple Yourself To The Problem

Authors Need Fellow Travelers

Earlier this year, I started a meet-up here in Portland for business book authors. There had gotten to be several people in town who were at some stage of working on a book. I’d talked to each of them individually and I thought there would be value in bringing them together.

Being an author can have a certain loneliness to it. We have to navigate a foreign process of developing proposals, wooing agents, and waiting to hear from editors. That’s all before we have even really started to write the book. The list gets even longer as we approach the launch with needing to rally friends, find new advocates and shout to the world, “My book is here!”

I don’t know any author isn’t deeply affected by the book they write. It’s a powerful experience to take a part of you and what you believe and release it into the world for laud and critique. The more personal the connection to the material, the more vulnerable we are. We need support in that process.

We met last night for the third time as a group. The session was ninety minutes of sharing knowledge, frustration and celebration on the crazy path to publishing books. It took another thirty minutes for the meeting to break up as the conversation continued. I’m really happy the group exists and it supports authors creating their books.

If you are starting a book, find friends to help you along the way.

Authors: Learn Everything You Can About Book Publishing

I talk to lots of authors about their books. Sometimes, their book is just an idea. Others times, they are a month away from publication. This week, I talked with authors on each end of that spectrum. Both of them were trying to learn everything they could about book publishing.

Book publishing, like every industry, has its nuances, business practices, and jargon. It gets even trickier because everyone has the illusion of knowing about book publishing. We see books on store shelves. We see ads in the Times. We watch morning talk show interviews. We hear about the next selection from Oprah’s book club.

The inventory and the ads and all the publicity is an elaborate process that starts months before a book is released. And that level of attention is given to the 1% of books written by celebrities and blockbuster authors.

The author’s realistic approach to book publishing has both a macro view and a micro view.

The macro is about establishing clarity. We ask experts about publishing trends. We pay attention to books released in our area of expertise. We look for the wedge that positions our title away from the competition. We learned more about the business model of book publishing to better understand the resources available to produce and promote the book. This is the work of a product manager, trying to fit the big pieces together.

On the micro, we focus on the details. Every person in your contacts gets a note from you, saying you have a book coming. AND there is a specific tailored ask for how they might help spread the word. We gather up anecdotes of what other authors have done to create awareness and generate sales. We examine the common tactics and brainstorm the uncommon, understanding that the unique combination of book, author and audience create singular opportunities that no one else has. AND for every ten ideas, two will work.

Start early.
Bring heaps of curiosity.
Ask lots of questions.
All that knowledge will set you apart.
(And I’ll be posting more to help in the coming weeks.)

my next six months

I have a Zen Buddhist practice. It’s a journey I started nine years ago and I took another step yesterday on that path.

In the tradition I observe, we call it a practice, because that describes a continual effort. Most mornings I meditate for thirty minutes. The app I use says I have done that 1531 times since 2011. Some mornings it is quiet and serene. Other mornings the thoughts in my head spin and whirl; my knees hurt. The practice is to keep sitting and work with whatever arises.

The Buddha was a man who got very interested in the quiet and the whirling. He concluded that the whirling is inherent in who we are as human beings. We want things—a friend we’ve lost, a different President, more hair—and we hurt because we don’t accept things for what they are as ever-changing, impermanent and unsatisfying.

I remember waking up one morning and realizing that I was no longer equipped to deal with my life. We’d been in Portland for about a year. We had moved, so my wife Amy could go back to school to study Chinese medicine. She was struggling with a sickness that couldn’t be diagnosed. I didn’t have a job and was hustling to string together a set of gigs to make the money work. We had a house back in Wisconsin that we couldn’t sell, so we were making two house payments each month. And I was about to become a single father to three young kids for the next four years. I couldn’t imagine being a good father, good husband, or good person.

I am not sure what led me to an evening class on meditation at Dharma Rain. When I told Amy I was going, she said “ok,” not sure what to make of it. After a few weeks and starting to attend the weekly service, she said, “Keep going!” Something had already shifted in how I interacted with her and the kids.

Zen is just one of many flavors of Buddhism. It came from India, through China, and into Vietnam, Korea and Japan. The Soto lineage I practice came through Japan and arrived in the U.S. about 50 years ago. My Dharma great-grandmother was Houn Jiyu-Kennett. She was an English woman who went to Japan to practice Buddhism. She was the first woman to be sanctioned by the Japanese Soto school to teach in the West and the first woman to establish a Zen monastery in America.

I remember having lunch with a friend a few years ago. They practiced deeply in another spiritual tradition and they asked me how serious my Zen practice was. I started to describe the Saturdays of 10 hours of meditation, the Tuesday evening classes on texts and forms, the four or five day silent retreats and how I decided to commit to a teacher to further explore my practice.

“Yeah, that’s serious,” he said.

It didn’t really strike me until then how much the practice was a part of my life. I served on and lead one of the ceremonial teams. I took trips to Japan and India to visit sacred sites in the Buddhist tradition. I am leading a group of practitioners to Japan next year.

Zen is interesting and challenging and transformative for me. The teachings make sense. And there are layers of depth that will take many more years to explore and appreciate. It feels easy to say ‘yes’ to practice. And I said ‘yes’ again yesterday.

I stepped into the shuso role at Dharma Rain and will be serving in that role through the end of the year. The word shuso is translated as “chief junior”. The role in our sangha is a combination of operation manager, work supervisor and protector of the forms. This person runs the meditation retreats and watches over weekly services. It is a big job and a significant commitment of time and energy.

Two years of planning have gone into making this six months possible. I changed jobs. I piled extra work into the first half of this year to make extra time in the second half. Amy is picking up more on the home front with our family. I am not traveling much. I am still working on the next book projects, just a little less. There are many things I am putting down, so I can pick up this up wholeheartedly.

A member at Dharma Rain asked me if I was ready to put my mark on our Zen Center and then he paused for a moment and said, “But it’s funny how it’s usually the exact opposite.”

It’s in that spirit that I share all of this. I can’t see how I won’t be shaped by this experience. Others who have served in the shuso role say you can’t prepare for it or know how you will be changed by it.

That’s why I said ‘Yes.’