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.)
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.
Our new Bard Press title The Gift of Struggle by Bobby Herrera published two weeks ago and I got a wonderful reminder: book launches are messy.
Most people just skip right to the declaration that their book is a national bestseller. They want to show momentum and excitement. They want to show social proof of the thousands who purchased it and lead more people to buy the book.
In our opening week, we sold enough copies to be the #10 business book in America.
But here is the thing: we didn’t make any list.
There are several lists that matter. Each list has different rules. If I tried to explain it all, I’d still be writing about it in my newsletter for the next three months.
We knew the rules and we worked to do our best to accommodate the different requirements, but as I said book launches are messy.
We thought our one chance to make the bestseller run was in the first week on sale. There were a few events with book sales leading into the opening week. Bobby did his work to reach out to his network to support the launch (and they did). He did interviews and podcasts. His company supported the book, even making trips to stores to see the book and shared on social media. We had great support from our retail partners—15,000 books across over 1000 stores—to bring organic sales that opening week. To hedge our bets, we worked with our distributor to meter shipments to retailers, so no one could ship or stock the book early and report sales before our publication week.
On a big launch like this, there are so many pieces and parties involved. It’s really hard to make everything go right. In our case, books arrived late into stores at one retailer. A promotion didn’t come through at another. Orders were sold the week before the book’s first week. Others were delayed and sold the following week. We just didn’t have much wiggle room on the sales we needed to make the list and make everything work with the rules.
I feel like it is important to say I believe in those rules and fully accept that we didn’t make it. For a long time, it has been easy for authors with deep pockets to buy their way onto the bestseller list. Some of the other rules are more like editorial choice. Those can be harder to swallow but I accept most of those too.
My friends in publishing I am sure are shaking their heads in acknowledgement, thinking back on those campaigns that got close. For authors in this audience, publishing has lots of moving parts and you can’t plan enough. For everyone else, call this a small view into the work it takes to launch a book in the marketplace.
We had a great opening week for The Gift of Struggle, but it might be hard to see. I am proud of Bobby, the team at Populus Group, our account reps at National Book Network and the other partners big and small who have helped deliver this book into the world. I also need to thank my business partner Ray Bard for giving this book an extra push through his counsel and commercial reach with Bard Press.
The books we read for business are not really about business anymore.
Consider these titles:
The One Minute Manager
In Search of Excellence
Out of the Crisis
All these books represent the class of business books that were published in the 1980’s. The first three titles on the list were all published in 1982 and kicked off a new trend of accessible mainstream business books. Forty years later, we are still impacted by their insights into small business, marketing, strategy, operations and change management. The mental models these books created exist now in job titles, commonly used vocabulary and a host of other thoughts about how we think the business world works.
Now consider this list:
Stumbling on Happiness
Made To Stick
Four Hour Work Week
Start With Why
Gifts of Imperfection
The One Thing
The Power of Habit
These are the high impact books of the last ten years. These books represent a pool of advice wholly different from their late 20th century predecessors. They center around the individual with emphasis on meaning, power, motivation, and self-awareness.
Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson might be the prototypical book for this shifted emphasis. The book was published in 2010 and it advocated for a new set of work practices. The book questioned everything the 20th century organizational business book extolled. The value of growth, planning, work ethic, and meetings are all reframed. Good is the enemy of great says Jim Collins; good is good enough says these authors. “Hire managers of one,” they say.
For me, the popularity of these books is based in work, in the general sense of the word—”an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” We have more responsibility than ever for our own output and our own success. Our slash careers having us freelancing, moonlighting, organizing, or leading in formal and informal settings.
For the last several years, readers have told me they choose books that can have an impact across multiple aspects of their lives. They are trying to be more efficient with that time. The advice of productivity experts supports a spiritual practice. Deep research from social work informs their creativity and parenting. Entrepreneurship impacts corporate R&D and community crowdfunding. These books give us an opportunity to be more effective in areas of our life inside and outside of the office.
There will always be books about business, but observing this shift in the books we read tells us how work has changed and the growing desire we all have to improve the work we do.
Jessica Lessin wrote an interesting bit in The Information‘s newsletter last Saturday. I couldn’t find a link to the piece online, so I am including the whole excerpt below. Jessica’s riff is the kind of piece that I love, because it is a universal struggle told through the tech lens of Silicon Valley.
In the past few weeks, as some of the Valley’s most mature internet companies have faced crisis after crisis, there’s been a theme circulating that these companies, and Facebook in particular, has lost their product way.
This chatter peaked when journalists and others suggested that Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom should run Facebook, in part, because he’s a fabulous product leader.
It’s an oh-so-familiar theme in the Valley where every VC and entrepreneur you meet will tell you “product wins” and that the quickest way to a $1 billion—or $1 trillion—business is to have your finger on the product pulse. It’s the core tenant of the myth that anyone with the right ah-ha moment in the shower can change the world and become rich in Silicon Valley. All you need is product mojo, and when it’s gone, you’re toast.
There is some truth to this. No one can build a successful company without a product that people want to use. But that product isn’t ultimately why they win—why they become Facebooks or Googles or Microsofts. It’s the systems they build to scale those products and the relentless way they fine-tune those products to maximize their business that ultimately crowns them.
It’s some luck—but mostly execution.
Google didn’t become Google because it built the perfect search experience. It became a $775 billion company because it figured out how to distribute and tune a superior search algorithm and use the cash that spewed off of it to acquire businesses like YouTube, DoubleClick, startups that formed the basis of Google Maps, and Android. Then it used the same system of great engineering and hyper-data-driven refinements to turn those products into global hits too.
Facebook’s detractors like to say that despite its success, it has only created one product: newsfeed, based on the once-novel idea that people wanted to be entertained with a stream of updates from people, businesses and publishers. I see it differently. Facebook’s leaders had excellent instincts in creating newsfeed but their talents were in scaling it and refining it endlessly so that people spend hours a day on it.
Criticizing Facebook as a “one-trick pony” fundamentally misses why it is Facebook. Also, if these companies were special because of their magic touch, why would they have long laundry lists of failures from Paper to Google+?
The product spark myth has been deeply entrenched through companies’ founding stories. Why? Because it makes their leaders seem superhuman. And who wants to work for a mere human?
Remember when you couldn’t read a story about Uber that didn’t mention that one fated Paris evening when the soon-to-be founders realized: “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could get a limo with the press of a button?” But Uber isn’t Uber because of that evening. Plenty of other entrepreneurs had the same idea. Uber just hustled its way to a bigger network of drivers, faster.
I am sure I am going to hear from many subscribers this morning telling me how wrong I am and that I just don’t “get it” because I am not a product person. (I am not, by the way, by either definition of the term. But I do work with some wonderful ones.)
But I hope that I can convince at least some people to change their minds about what makes great technology companies great.
The product-as-genius myth creates false hope for companies that seem just one good product idea away from a turnaround. (Snap comes to mind at the moment.)
More importantly, it perpetuates Silicon Valley exceptionalism—the idea that tech companies aren’t like other companies. This mentality has created the blind spots around privacy, safety, and content responsibility that are coming back to haunt Facebook, Google, Twitter and many more.
So now would be a great time to abandon the notion and admit that Silicon Valley is great because of the people whose ideas and efforts scale and grow great products. In other words, tech companies are just like every other company.
Please dear authors, Jessica is right. Always remember – you need a good idea AND you need to be able to build on that idea. Daily effort, insight and some luck give us the opportunity to be next to good ideas as they arise. Daily effort, building an audience, and scaling your work creates traction. You need both to create bestsellers.
In this episode, I talk with Michael Schrage about designing customers and running experiments in the world of book publishing.
Michael Schrage is a visiting fellow at MIT and the author of several books including Who do you want your customers to become? and The Innovator’s Hypothesis.
In the first half of the interview, we talk about an better way to think about customers and why cheap experiments are than good ideas. In the latter half, we apply these ideas to readers, authors and the world of book publishing.
I was watching a segment from The Stephen Colbert Show, where Malcolm Gladwell visits to promote the launch of his podcast Revisionist History. Colbert asks him why he wanted to create a podcast and Gladwell replies:
This is what my friend Charles always says, ‘You think with your eyes and you feel with your ears.’
After a quick Colbert joke he continues:
If you write a book, you can communicate very complicated ideas and people will grasp them, but you can’t move people emotionally…it is very hard.
The whole segment is great, but it kicked off me thinking a bunch of things.
How true is that? Memoir is a pretty effective at generating emotion and connection in readers.
This American Life, The Moth, RadioLab, WTF and Revisionist History all generate emotion with their amazing auditory storytelling.
Aren’t photographs good at conveying emotion visually?
Does this push even further towards the power of having the author narrate their audiobooks?
Should books and audiobooks have the same content?
I am convinced that good books draw us in using both thinking and feeling, but now I am thinking about what makes one form working better than another for certain kind of material.
In the final weeks of being seventeen, I moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to start college as a mechanical engineering undergrad.
In the final weeks of being twenty-seven, I was working on the last details of my wedding in Columbus, Ohio.
By thirty-seven, we were living outside Milwaukee, had three kids and I was turning in the manuscript for The 100 Best Business Books of All Time.
Today, I turned forty-seven. This last decade has been defined by our move to Portland, Oregon. Amy went back to school, graduated and started her energy medicine practice. Our kids grew up here. I started a publishing practice. I started a zen practice.
Been wondering today what I’ll be writing when I turn fifty-seven.
A few months ago, I noticed the songs I listen to give a view into how I am seeing the world. For a long time, I loved a good song about self-doubt. Lately the mix has been around positivity and growth. It’s interesting seeing myself drawn unconsciously to music ahead of the work I need to do in my life.
That insight about my listening habits lead me to look around at other parts of my life and what clues might be hiding in plain sight.
With my reading lately, I didn’t notice how much I was reading female authors. There was no plan for this curation, but it is again interesting to see.
Among recent reads are:
Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin – A recent NYT article pointed me to the book and its update this year. The book does a fine job of talking about managing your money and managing the emotions that arise. Both matter.
Powerful by Patty McCord – As the former Head of People at Netflix, Patty had a front row seat for the growth and amazing change at the entertainment giant. I believe this is the first book from an executive at Netflix and you get a view into the company.
Advice for Future Corpses by Sallie Tisdale – You may not want to read a book about death, but you should. Sallie is a great writer.
Business of Being A Writer by Jane Friedman – So much has changed about being a writer and how to pursue it as a profession. Jane’s book is dense with wonderful advice.
Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski – This is the best book I have ever read about sex. It’s not scintillating or racy. It covers the biology, the physiology, and the psychology in a positive, clear way.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat – A wonderfully different approach to cooking and the book is beautiful.
Pencil Me In by Christina Wodtke – I have never met a sketch note / visual thinking book I didn’t like. This book is a wonderful compilation of original and complied material from other experts.
Have you noticed anything in what you have been reading lately?
Early in her career, she was a copywriter and then worked in PR for the San Francisco Zoo. As a freelance writer, Mary found the stories about science were always interesting. For the books she writes, she looks for a combination of science, history and humor. She also says she had no idea she’d have a career writing about science.
What can we learn?
The titles are crystal clear and memorable.
Each topic of each book is universally human and a little surprising.
The utility the reader gets is entertainment for the curious mind.
The books she writes are uniquely her. Do same in your books.
I have this long-term desire to find good fiction that takes place in a business setting. When you find the workplace in a story, the boss is mean or the characters are depressed or someone has cheated another out of something they deserve. Business and greed are a good pairing, but I would like to see stories with less suffering.
I just got done reading Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw. I got this book after seeing a review describing it as a good portrait of modern life in China. White Tiger by Aravind Adiga did a good job of that for modern-day India.
One of the main characters uses personal development books to learn the rules of the go-go world of 21st century China. The chapter titles read like self-help tomes: “Move To Where The Money Is”, “Choose The Right Moment To Launch Yourself”, “How To Achieve Greatness.” I’ll admit this pulled me in. Aw’s observations describing Shanghai and rural Malaysia also drew me into the book.
The narrative is an intertwining story of five loosely connected characters who all want more, are at different stages of getting it, and the circumstances that intervenes. Those circumstances are slow to develop across more than 400 pages and the book loses momentum early in the book. I stayed with it though, because I wanted to see how it turned out.
For me, Five Star Billionaire is sad book about the tragedy of growth, greed and everything we’ll do to get what we want. Others will disagree and see instead the power of motivation to change your circumstances. Both exist in this book.