Publishers Are Not Your Friends – Part II: Missed The Mark

The intention of my essay Publisher Are Not Your Friends was to illuminate, from the author’s perspective, the highly emotional process of having a book published. Give authors some warning of the pitfalls. I instead indicted publishers and editors and made them a scapegoat for the effects on the writer.

Neal Maillet, the executive editor at Berrett-Koehler responded to my post on Facebook saying:

Point taken; I can’t claim that I can spend as much time on each book as I would like. You’re right that there is a system that needs to be fed, but my honest goal with each author is to make them feel that they made the right choice in a publisher. I don’t want to be like the car salesman who sends you to the grubby mechanic at the back door once you sign the papers. I’m sure I haven’t pleased everyone all the time, but I’d like to think my authors have sensed an honest desire to be of service to their idea.

Here’s the strange thing about Berrett-Koehler–I think our policy against paying advances makes for a different relationship after the contract is signed. There is less of a power imbalance–this policy won’t work for all books or authors, but it seems to make the relationship less fraught. And we also give the author an escape clause in case they feel we’ve sold them a pack of lies. Only two authors have exercised it in 20 years. We sort of flip the system on it’s head and it works for us.

Berrett-Koehler is wonderfully unique in so many ways from the Author Day they organize at their offices for each book they sign to the author-organized Authors Co-op. Royalty structures, cover collaboration, and yes, the ability to walk away from the contract give you some idea how engaged they have to be as a publisher.

Tim Sullivan, executive editor at Harvard Business School Press, left a comment here saying:

If I ever fall into this trap as an editor — “After the contract is signed, the relationship seems to change. The author has been given their marching orders and not really expected to be heard from until some time the next year when the manuscript is complete.” — shoot me. There is nothing (NOTHING) more terrifying than receiving a complete manuscript on the due date that I haven’t seen before. Which is not to say that I disagree with your general point.

Both editors essentially say “Yeah it is not great, but it is not that bad.”

I get that.

I missed the mark.

I am going to make another run at this topic soon, better attempting to capture the expectations authors have going into the process, how often they don’t match up with what happens and the compounding effect that has in an already high emotional state.

Publishers Are Not Your Friends

To follow on about my post yesterday about books as startups, we could similarly take Steve Blank’s recent post titled VC’s Are Not Your Friends and do a similar word swap with exchanging “venture capitalists” with the word “publishers.”

The process of a book being published is such an emotional one for a first or even second time author. Editors heap complements alongside steak frites in the effort to allure you to their publishing house. This is often the first validation that authors receive for their idea and the attention is intoxicating.

After the contract is signing, the relationship seems to change. The author has been given their marching orders and not really expected to be heard from until some time the next year when the manuscript is complete. What about the new blossoming friendship? What about those New York lunches?

The truth is that the editor has ten more books to sign and as much as they may like you as a person, they are responsible for a profit and loss statement. Ideas need to go in and successful books need to come out.

It was a business relationship all along.

P.S. If you think I am being too harsh on editors, ask one. Ask them what their responsibilities are. Ask them how much time they have to dedicate to each book. Business book editors are some of the most fascinating people I know. I love them. This system they live in constraints what they can do. When you start the process of selling a book, you need to make sure you see and respect the system.

P.P.S. Read Part Two of Publisher Are Not Your Friends.

Every Book Is A Start-Up

Most of time, we focus on the book as communication device and what the book has to do to be effective. It’s the answering of What?, So What?, Now What? that every great business book must do.

What continues to need more emphasize is that fact that books are also entrepreneurial endeavors and entrepreneurs are successful when they can find customers willing to separate themselves from their hard earned money. Authors need to think more in these terms.

Business book authors are normally supported by some other work whether it be consulting, speaking, or running a organization and the book is a way to further their existing goals. This means higher fees, more events, or a substantial promotion.

If someone proposed that you spend a year developing a new product and then get paid $2.50 for each one you sold, few would pursue that option, while that is exactly what you are signing on for as an author. As Ray Bard at Bard Press says, “You don’t make money from the book, you make money as a result of the book.”

What I want to push on a little is the idea that authors should act more like entrepreneurs and I mean this in your role as an author. You need to already have customers for whatever idea you plan on selling as a book. If someone isn’t paying you to speak, consulting, or lead using your idea, you shouldn’t write a book about it. You can certainly start a blog and lead a tribe as a route to writing a book as well.

When you take the audience from some nebulous group of people you think you can help to a set of individuals who are already paying you for the same help, the audience you are writing for becomes clear. The problems they experience appear. The language they use surfaces. And if you provide the right inspiration, they lead you to others with the same hopes for their future.

The following is a quote from the research Saras Saravathy who has been doing into the ways entrepreneurs make decisions. This is from an actual entrepreneur:

“People chase investors, but your best investor is the first real customer. And your customers are also your best salesmen.”

What if we changed a couple of words to put a publishing spin on this:

“Authors chase publishers, but your best investor is your first person you buys your book. And your readers are also your best salespeople.”

Whether we like it or not, every book is a start-up.

Time Stamp Replaces Page Number

I had been wondering lately if we needed a different way to quantify the length of a book given the variability of the digital experience.

There is no way really to tell how long a book is going to be when you download it electronically. Weight and thickness have disappeared. The screens you read on are smartphone small to desktop big.

And it struck me: time is the standard for digital products.

I wrote a whole essay on the subject for Publishing Perspectives, which they posted today.

I hope you’ll check it out.

What I Read – January 2011

I spend an enormous amount of time reading. This is something that I already knew, but I decided to track my reading more closely as a sort of New Year’s resolution. First, I want to better see the number and types of books that passed through my hands and secondly, I wanted to better assess the amount of time I was spending on this particular task.

I started using Daytum, the tool created by designer Nicholas Felton, well known for his elaborate yearly reports of his personal activities, and interactive designer Ryan Case. The service has a simple system of items and categories. With each item, you can create an entry with a quantity that gets time-stamped The service has an iPhone app that syncs with the web. You can input data using either method. And website lets you display your data in an insightful array of views.

Here is a sample of what I learned about my January reading habits:

  • I read 1577 pages in 19 different books.
  • I read on average 52.5 pages per day.
  • My average time between reading was 1 day, 4 hours.
  • The mix of the books based on release date was:
    • Backlist – 3
    • Current – 11
    • Upcoming – 5
  • I read a greater quantity of pages at the beginning of the month, but was pretty consistent with the number of books I read through January.

The biggest learning for me was the realization of how much reading I am doing. I spend between one and two hours a day just taking inputs in the form of reading books. That’s around 25% of my work day. That has also made me realize that I need to focus on spending the other parts of my day in creating outputs and telling others about what I have found.

As for books to recommend, I am still high on Practically Radical by Bill Taylor (my Idea Arena podcast is here). This is a book for everyone who wants to see how large organizations can change.

Start With Why by Simon Sinek was a book I came back to over a year after its release and really liked. His premise is simple but the material he used to support his thesis is rich. The pitch is directed toward leaders. I found good application for anyone who is trying to communicate a message.

The Price of Everything by Eduardo Porter was good, but the book didn’t get past interesting for me. Business books need utility and I had a hard time finding it in this one.

It’s All In The Frame

Both of these books appeared in my mailbox this week.

Both of these books are about solving similar problems–about completion and what keeps us from getting there. The promised solutions though are very different.

Piers Steel wants to recognize all of the things that have been stopping you from doing and deal with your delaying. Russell Bishop wants you to find a new way through your cluttered and complicated life.

Now let me ask two questions: which one would you pick up based on the cover? And, which one do you think will sell better in the long term?

The framing of the book is everything and the number of people who can identify with the problem as well as the solution will tell you a lot about how well a book will do. The frame is not the only thing, but it certainly determines the size of the prospect pool for the book.

The Very Best Business Books in 2010: A Compiled List

With 800-CEO-READ’s announcement of Rework as their Business Book of The Year, we can officially close out the year that was 2010.

To try and make sense of all the year-end selections various sources made over the course of the last 60 days, I decided to put together a spreadsheet to see if there was any agreement about what shined brighter than the rest.

The methodology was simple: each selection at each source got one vote. Nineteen sources were used in the compilation (see sources below).

The top business book was The Big Short by Michael Lewis, garnering 12 votes of the 19 votes possible. Opinions diverged quickly with the Heath Brothers’ Switch pulling in nine votes and Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness and Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From both getting seven votes.

Here a list of the top vote getters in the business books for 2010:

A Google spreadsheet with all 147 books and the votes they received can be found here.

Sources: Todd Sattersten, 800-CEO-READ, Amazon’s Customer Favorites, Amazon’s Editor Picks, Bloomberg, CNBC, Economist, FT/Goldman Sachs Business Book of The Year Short List, Fortune, Globe and Mail, Inc Magazine, The Leading Blog, Library Journal, Miami Herald, National Federation of Independent Businesses, NPR Marketplace, Tom Peters, Strategy+Business Magazine, University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business.

How Authors Can Use Twitter To Help Others

Chris Brogan wrote this week about using Twitter as a real-time prospecting tool as an author. In his case, he was looking for people who were at Barnes & Noble and might be interested in his book Trust Agents. This is great example of how authors could be using Twitter. Is there a more opportune moment to talk to a reader then when they are standing in front of hundreds of books?

In his Database of Intentions, John Batelle describes sites like Twitter and Facebook as collectors for “What I’m Doing?” and “What’s Happening?” For authors, these sites also capture the frustration of the moment; what someone is not doing or what is not happening. This gives authors another place to engage people whose problems they can help solve.

I have a saved search on Twitter for “business” and “books.” This smaller view of tweet does two things. First, I can see people asking for help on what books they should be reading.

This was a tweet I saw from JoAnn Jordan this morning:


Here was my response:


The link directed her to my website for my best of 2010 blog post. In some cases, I directly people to the list from The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. In either case, that exposes them to me and how I can help if they run across the problem of figuring what what business book they should read next.

The second part is that by listening to what people are saying on Twitter it also shows me what others are sharing as their solutions. JoAnn in her tweet above provides both a solution and a query for more help. Being able to see reviews and lists of businesses books people are sharing lets me share those with others.

Let me also give you two caveats to think about. First, search results are noisy. Some people specifically target keywords to create spam. Sometimes, the context is completely out of place. But even with the noise, I can look through the results for the past day in a couple of minutes and respond or forward posts.

The second is timeliness. Much more than a day and the strength of the intention falls dramatically. I have to treat checking my search results like looking through your email first thing every morning. And email is a good analogy. On Twitter there are a set of people asking for your help. With a little monitoring , you can connect with more people and let’s you help solve their problems.

Trends in Publishing for 2011

JWT has a interesting Slideshare presentation called 100 Things to Watch in 2011. There are a number of their points that could relate back to the world of business book publishing.


#14 – Breaking the Book: This is the most important publishing idea in the deck, and I am not sure we have even seen how this will play out. Ebooks are already change our value perception of how much we will play for the written word. Chapters are already being sold like tracks on an album. Expect more atomization to satisfy all the types of interest under the demand curve.

#18 – Children's E-books: This is interesting but I haven't seen the killer app here yet. I have young children, we have tried a number of these and it feels like we in publishing can do better than simply adding some touch activated animation.

#30 – E-book Sharing: I don't buy that this is something to be excited about. I don't even think you can call it sharing given the constraints of time and device.

#47 – Long-Form Content: 100% with this one. Longreads is my one of my favorite sites right now.

#62 – Objectifying Objects: Books, magazines, and newspapers still matter in many contexts.

#75 – Scanning Everything: I believe people want to stay in the media form they are consuming. When newspapers asking people to crossover to the web doesn't work well. I am wondering out loud if QR codes and smartphones are the right combo to make a better connection. Nick Bilton experimented with that in his book this year, but the extras weren't super great.

#83 – Social Objects: This plays to the idea that books should be more than just the words written. Where was the book read? Who has already owned this copy? What made them give it up? What did they think of it and what else was going on in their lives when it spent time with them? How often did they pick it up to read it? Notice these are all ideas beyond the data that the Kindle can capture from our reading pattern. These all have to do with the book as a physical object and the greater context for how it fit into our lives.

#93 – Transmedia Producers: This is another opportunity for business books authors. How do you make the book a point along a greater story arc?


My year started with some big questions about what was next and in May, a trip to Oregon answered many of those questions.

Seth started a shipping meme yesterday. Here is a list of what I shipped, a list I am very proud of.

Happy New Year!

The Top 10 Business Books of 2010

2010 had several books worthy of your attention. Chances are you have only read one or two of these and I would encourage you to go back and pick up one or two more.

Let’s start with a book that was published in December 2009, but really found its legs in 2010. In Drive, Dan Pink’s latest riff on the future of work, he argues that the methods of motivation we used during the Industrial Revolution do not work well in the Information Revolution. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are at the core of his Motivation 3.0. Think of Drive is a prompt. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote, there are even more interesting possibilities to consider. [I interviewed Pink in March]

The sophomore effort from the Heath Brothers arrived in January. Switch answered the question so many readers were asking Dan and Chip -“Making ideas sticky is important, but how do we create meaningful change?” Their metaphoric trinity of the elephant, the rider, and the path showed how emotion, rationality, and systems play a role each individually and interact with one another to subvert the changes we hope for. [I interviewed Chip in January.]

Also in January, Seth Godin came out his fourteenth book called Linchpin. The increased trim size and longer page count was a significant departure from his recent efforts. Godin has said that this is the most important book he has written, showing his readers how to work in a world where the old rules are breaking down. He again takes simple words like art and gifts, and redefines what they mean. Linchpin sits alongside Purple Cow and Tribes as Godin’s best work. [I interviewed Seth in January].

I had a particular interest in pricing this year as I was writing Fixed to Flexible and two 2010 books influenced me. Rafi Mohammed’s The 1% Windfall covers 40 pricing tactics in detail and provides a broader framework for how they fit into an overall pricing strategy. William Poundstone takes a different approach in Priceless and demonstrates skill at retelling the history the field of behavioral economics and at the same time taking the reader on a journey across a myriad of topics ranging from from psychophysics to prospect theory to menu design. [I did interviews with both Rafi Mohammed and William Poundstone.]

Youngme Moon wrote a book that whose approach matched its title: Different. The book is written as a personal reflection on marketing as much as it is a business book. Moon actively sheds the position of authority. She asks the reader to consider the same things she sees and draw their own conclusion. The student-teacher approach is incredibly refreshing in a business book world of quick-fixes and absolutely certain answers. [I talked with Youngme for almost two hours several months after the book came out, and she wouldn’t let me record any of it šŸ™‚ ]

The Mesh is another book that like Drive describes a fundamental shift. Author Lisa Gansky makes the case for how technology is changing our view of ownership and that sharing will become much more commonplace. Mobile communications are allowing us to declare our location and in return we can find out what restaurant close by has an open table or how many blocks will it take to return the closest ZipCar. eBay and Craiglist have long been sharing centers for unwanted possessions. Couchsurfing and RelayRides lets you share your living room or automobile with someone who needs it. The Mesh is as big an insight as Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. [I interviewed Lisa in November]

The Big Short is Michael Lewis’s account of the economic collapse we experienced over the last few years. He starts his latest narrative saying that his first book Liar’s Poker was intended to be his only book on Wall Street, fully expecting the practices he saw 20 year ago would cause the industry to implode within a couple of years. But same attitudes persisted and in many ways were rewarded. Lewis follows three groups that take bets against the mortgage market and he deftly explain how difficult those bets were without the hindsight we have today. The Big Short is not the only book you should read on the economic events of the last couple of years, but I guarantee it is the one you will enjoy the most.

In the search for better ideas than we have seen, Steven Johnson take his decade of writing about science and focuses it on the genesis of the best ideas. The prompts in Where Good Ideas Come From are familiar bromides (keep a journal, go for a walk, make mistakes, have hobbies, hang out with others), but the depth of analysis and richness of the stories he tells, reminds us again to do all of those things that we have been meaning to do, because innovation is not a clear path from A to B.

And that makes Gamestorming a perfect book to end with. Author Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo pull together is best exercises to help us get from point A to a very fuzzy point B. The book provides over 80 games that can be used in generate ideas, explore ideas, and decide which idea move us closer. The book also describes the qualities games have so that readers can develop their own games to match the situation.

Which Ones Have You Read?

My wife found a copy of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time on eBay for $5.00, so we decided to buy it.

We knew it was used but it really has been used! The previous owner had read 10 selections, was in the process of reading two books and had three more on deck.

Which have you read?

While most purchasers would have been disappointed, I rejoiced at seeing someone’s interactions with The 100 Best. The blue ink shows Jack and I were successful in engaging the reader to examine what they knew and what they wanted to know.

What more could any author ask for?

Seth’s New Company Continues Big Week in Publishing

Yesterday, Seth Godin announced his new venture The Domino Project powered by Amazon. There is a blog post that philosophically describes his move into publishing (or actually back into publishing; he was a book packager in a past life) and a FAQ page to cover some of the details.

Seth is making some distinctive bets:

  • Amazon is a large enough platform to support a publishing company.
  • Speed matters.
  • The distance between creator and receiver needs to shrink.
  • Distribution should be global from Day One.
  • Digital matters just as much as print (maybe more).
  • Books still matter.

Most publishing professionals would say they agree with most of these too (except the Amazon point), but no one has made as big a move as Seth toward solving those problems (with the exception of a handful like Richard Nash’s Cursor).