Peter Armstrong from Leanpub (Better Books Podcast – Episode 1)

Better Books Podcast Tile EP1

For episode one, I am interviewing Peter Armstrong, co-founder of Leanpub.

I met Peter about eight years ago. We have been both on the same path believing that books are startups.

While I have been publishing books, his path has been creating a platform for publishing and selling books.

I hope you’ll take the opportunity to learn more about how they are changing book publishing.

Watching World Cup

In the mornings over the last couple weeks, I have been turning on the World Cup.

Seeing the games on, my wife likes to joke with me about why I watch sports that I never played.

It’s a little worse this year because the United States soccer team didn’t qualify for the tournament.

I played in pep bands in high school and college. You have to be a fan of sports to spend time and play music to support teams.

There is something magical about watching Ronaldo bend the ball around a wall of defenders. Watching Steph Curry shoot those three pointers in the NBA finals has the same quality. Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary pass to Richard Rodgers is magic.

I watch because I love seeing the feats that I didn’t think were possible.

I Am An Entreprenuer

Sometimes, the obvious is hard to see.

When I was growing up, I lived in a subdivision of homes built surrounded by Wisconsin farm fields. Half of the homes were lived in year around.  The other half were vacation homes owned by Chicagoians who drove up on the weekends.

My first job mowing lawns was for a family friend who lived down the street.  Their home sat on a small lot with lots of trees. The job wasn’t too hard except they also owned the empty plot next door which was set on a hill. For thirty minutes of work every other week I earned me ten dollars.

With some encouragement from our parents, my brother and I started leaving flyers in screen doors and mailboxes. We quickly found that the owners of the vacation homes loved showing up on Friday evening to a great looking yard.

At our height, we were mowing twenty lawns each week. We bought push mowers, gas powered trimmers, a rider mower, a trailer to haul everything. Just driving around the neighborhood with that whole rig was some of the best marketing we did.

After I got my engineering degree, I went to work for General Electric for almost seven years. I learned more in those years than any point in my life. I learned about leadership and process, politics and status, metrics and change.  I kept learnings things about myself even after I left. I noticed that I always found a way to work in the smallest groups, the ones close to the problem.

My dad is an entrepreneur. He ran his own sheet metal fabrication shop for twenty years. He started the business when I was nine. I worked there during summers while I was in college. After I left GE, I spent three years at the shop with him, working to grow the business. I learned about sales and marketing. Some things we did worked, but not at the scale they needed to for me to continue to work there.

800-CEO-READ had a little more scale and we had a little more luck. It was fun because we tried lots of things. I first got hired to write a blog about business books. We started another website to give away books each day. We took over a site from Seth Godin that published essays each month. We created a conference to help authors have more success with their books. Jack Covert and I wrote and launched a book about business books! All of that was in the service of the core business: helping people gets the books they needed for the work they were trying to do.

When I moved to Portland, there was no job waiting for me when I got here, but by then I had some skills in turning opportunities into business. I turned a tweet into a international literary scouting business. It only lasted about three years, but it was an important bridge.  I taught in the publishing program at Portland State University. I agented a few books (that I still get checks for). I edited books.  In short, I hustled. And all of that lead to see an opportunity to help authors publish books.

One of those clients took off. We started very modestly with The Phoenix Project and each month, the book kept selling. That lead to speaking opportunities for Gene and we turned that into a business. Publishing went from one book to two books to eight books from several outside authors. And all of that interest lead to a conference business with events on two continents. It was amazing what happened in five years at IT Revolution.

When I was hustling, I was worried about whether taking a job with any one client was a good idea. I asked a friend and they said, “How long do you think it will take to get another client if this one falls through?” I said about eighteen months. “Sounds about right,” they said, “and remember you have all the skills to get that next client.”

And now, I am building the next thing and I just signed my first client.

I am an entrepreneur. This is what I am wired for, and it is nice this time around to see it so clearly and be comfortable with that being a part of who I am.

Find The Parade

When Gene Kim approached me with his manuscript for The Phoenix Project, I was skeptical.  He was halfway into writing a novel for technology workers. In our meetings, Gene kept talking about DevOps and how it was going to change large organizations.

I’d never heard of DevOps, so I did some searching. There were articles talking about bringing development and operations together. It reminded me of Lean from the 1990’s when there was so much effort to get engineering on the same page as manufacturing. All of it was interesting but not strong proof of interest in DevOps.

Then, I did a quick search on Meetup.com. There were meet-ups in our hometown of Portland. I expanded the geographic area and found there were over 100 meet-ups already happening around the world. I was amazed. Here were thousands of people who were already self-organizing into groups to talk about DevOps.  When I asked Gene about it, he said, “I had no idea.” Visiting DevOps meet-up groups around the country became a regular activity after The Phoenix Project launched.

Books that do well often arrive in front of a parade that has already formed.  I got that metaphor for Marty Neumeier in his book Zag. Quoting Marty’s mother, the job of a leader is to “…[J]ust find a parade and get in front of it.”

Harry Potter’s popularity rode the largest wave of children reaching middle school in U.S. history. Fire and Fury is the best selling book of 2018, fueled by discontent with the current presidential administration. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In served as a focal point for the conversation that millions of women wanted to have about inequity in the workplace.

The readers are waiting; you just need to write the book for them.

Memo To The CEO Series

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In 2008, Harvard Business Review Press introduced a series called Memo To The CEO and I was intrigued the minute I saw them.

The books were around 100 pages. The trim size was small to signal a short reading time. The topics were specific but highly relevant to leaders, ranging from strategic alliances to lessons from private equity to manage the media. They felt like pithier, long-form articles than what you’d find in the Harvard Business Review. A total of ten books were published over the course of two years.

The series had some branding trouble because readers didn’t know if the books all belonged together and needed to be read in a sequence. Titles were priced was similar to a full-length business book, creating a value question. And though the books’ subtitles pushed utility and takeaways, the topics were still narrow.

Harvard Business Review Press went on to publish other short form books. Their Classics series reprinted articles from the magazine like Blue Ocean Strategy and Drucker’s Managing Oneself. They are simple paperbacks that cost half as much as Memo To The CEO books.

I still feel like there is a place between periodical and book that needs to be filled. We need essays and manifestos that are timely and have enough space to explore the topic. A ten to fifteen thousand word count takes pressure off an author to write more to fit a longer book length form. I wonder if the rise of subscription boxes signals the market potential for an offering focused on original business content, one that combines magazine and book publishing business models.

 

NEW! – Better Books Podcast

Given my work at Astronaut Projects, I get a chance to talk to many interesting people around the world of book publishing.

To share more of those great conversations, I am starting a new podcast called Better Books.

I want people to read better books.

I want people to write better books.

And I want people to publish better books.

Today’s episode is the trailer for the podcast.

I hope you’ll check it out!

Tower Defense Review: Radiant Defense

I am a big fan of Tower Defense games.

Last year, I wrote a comprehensive review of the best tower defense games on iOS.

Lately, I have been playing Radiant Defense.

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The storyline is that portals are opening outside the planets in your system. Creatures are appearing in waves of ever increasing difficulty. You play both military leader and chief scientist as you build towers and research new ones. There is well placed, snarky banter between “you” and the alien leader at wave breaks.

Radiant TD has a build your path approach to gameplay.  You are given a set of modules for at the start of each level and more for each wave completed.

There is a great selection of towers. More towers become available after you build the research tower. The only paid upgrades are to give you access to the most advanced towers in the game.

The alien enemies number in the dozens. The game also brings enemies at different rates of speed and combinations. That variety keeps the games constantly interesting.

There are points in the game when I wish I could have a little more control over the towers by either setting the direction or being able to target a specific enemy. Lacking those controls you learn how to build routes that minimize the targeting movement that towers make.

My main hint is make sure you use all types of towers. As the difficulty of the levels increases, you’ll need them.

Rating: 8/10

10,000 Copies

Authors, new to the world of publishing, often ask me what sort of expectations they should have for their book.

That is a hard question to answer.

A small pile of books each year will sell a million copies.

The titles that will sell 100,000 copies would fit on a small table.

Almost all books will sell hundreds or thousands of copies.

The math goes something like this:

Anyone can sell 100 copies just through the friends they know. Guaranteed.

If someone is well connected or if their friends share the book with their friends, they can sell 1000 copies.

The third layer is the hard one. The book moves out past the author’s direct influence. Readers need to feel moved to share the book with others. At the same time, the author needs to use the book push out into new areas and extend their network.

I think the magic number is 10,000 copies.  You need to get that many copies into the marketplace to really know if a book is going to be more successful.

If that seems like a big number, think about if your topic has a big enough audience and if your network is big enough to support getting that many copies into the world.

10,000 copies is a good goal to work toward on any book launch.

Best Books For Your Startup

I occasionally get email from Quora asking me to submit answer when people ask about business books they should read.

Today, the query was someone asking – “What are the best business startup books?

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I have been watching this category for almost a decade and in the last couple of months I gone back to many of these titles to research Every Book Is a Startup.

To start, read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau. They are two very different kinds of books but they are both general in their approach to the topic of startups. Ries uses a tech approach; Guillebeau uses a lifestyle approach.

If you are working on your value hypothesis (aka is anyone interested in my idea):

If you are working on your growth hypothesis:

If you are working on your business hypothesis:

Other important books in my humble opinion include:

 

Virality in Books

I am starting to hear authors and publishers saying they are going to become experts in paid advertising on Google, Facebook and now Amazon. I certainly think it is something to experiment with around growing your customer base for a book but it should be is a singular activity.

Andrew Chen posted a piece on paid marketing and how it damages many startups:

The key insight here is that Paid Marketing is tricky to grow, at scale, as the primary channel. It’s highly dependent on both against external forces – competition and platform – as well as the leadership team’s psychology when things get unsustainable.

Obvious keywords are quickly bid up by competitors.  Moving into the long tail of terms doesn’t have enough volume to drive real growth.

Chen suggests that virality is the answer.  Build an offer that encourages others to share and engage with it. Dropbox added folder sharing and their affiliate program that let users give and get extra disk space.  Slack pushed team channel creation on their platform. The great thing about these offers is they are built completely with the context of the product.  They are also very hard to replicate.

I wonder what virality looks like in books.

  • You need a book that people are proud to share with others.
  • The book could have an assessment to help me see better how I fit with others (i.e. StrengthsFinder 2.0, How The World Sees You).
  • It needs to be easy to tell someone else about.
  • Available in many format and all the places you would expect to find them.
  • The book pull together a group of people like nothing before it.
  • The unique nature of the book matches conditions in the market and in culture (i.e. Fire and Fury, Fifty Shades of Grey, Purpose Driven Life, Dr. Atkin’s New Diet Revolution).
  • A book being the right way to deliver the idea.

 

Read Books With A Determination

…Often, these impressive-looking women would take out papers or a book from their sleek bags and read them in the bus with an air of purpose, and even if they were reading mere novels. Phoebe could see that they were absorbing the contents of the words the way high-achieving people do, all the time working, working, in a way that was steely yet elegant. It reminded her of a girl at school who always came first in class, the way that girl read books with a determination that no one else had. All the teachers said she would go on to great things, and sure enough, she got a job as a quantity surveyor in Kuantan. Gradually, Phoebe realized that the reason these women looked so beautiful was that they had good positions in life; she could not deny that the two things were inseparable. Which one came first, beauty or success, she did not know.

From Chapter 5 – Reinvent Yourself, Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

Sense8

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My wife convinced me to start watching Sense8 in the run up to the movie finale today.

With 23 episodes, we needed to watch an episode almost every night and even then, we had binge watched the last four yesterday to get through them all.

Sense8 is a great series. With eight lead characters, it can be funny and moody, grim and naïve, cold and fragile, melodramatic and courageous – sometimes all at the same time.

I read that Lana has been writing another season. She believes current fans are going to create more fans.

Can’t wait to see how it ends, for now.

For Investors: Growth First, Idea Second

When you write a book proposal, the three things that publishers want to know about are the idea for the book, size of your platform and comparable books that compete with yours.

My primary argument in Every Book Is a Startup is that we should treat each of those as a hypothesis. We want to continually test if we are delivering value to readers, if we have a reliable path to gaining more customers and if the book will be challenged in the marketplace.

The order of those benchmarks matches how they are presented in a book proposal.

Here is an observation from Dani Grant, a new analyst at Union Square Ventures:

“One winning presentation format is to start with growth numbers. A lot of company presentations start with describing the product first, but nothing grabs investors’ attention like proof in data.”

That is interesting advice for authors too.

We like to think that a great book idea wins the day with publishers, but they are investors too. If you can show publishers the traction you already have, the rest of the conversation will go quicker towards getting a contract.

Book Review: The 5 Love Languages

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I heard about this book from a friend about a year ago. They asked me what my love language was and I didn’t know.

I appear out of touch not having read a book that sold 10 million copies and just celebrated its 25 year anniversary. I posted a couple shorter reviews on Instagram and Facebook and there was a warm response from fans of the book. They atested to its power in their relationships

Chapman believes we each have a way we like to receive love:

    1. Words of Affirmation
    2. Acts of Service
    3. Receiving Gifts
    4. Quality time
    5. Physical Touch.

They are all important but each of us has a strong preference toward one language. It’s one of those situations where the way we express ourselves in the world is often the way we want attention shown on ourselves.

Each chapter has a good narrative for how these love languages play out in a long term relationship. Chapman uses stories from his counseling practice. He describes the interactions that couples have before they understand each other’s language and what happens afterwards.

The book is simple and that makes it easy to talk about. That same quality also makes me a little skeptical. The book feels like the observations of a long time counselor and those are valuable, but I kept wondering if the framework would hold up to more substantial research. I wonder how the Love Language framwork overlaps with Myers-Briggs personality testing. An online search will unovered I am not the first to wonder this but the answers vary widely from site to site.

Chapman himself is a Southern Baptist pastor. You’ll find a layer of generic Christian tone throughout the book. I wasn’t bothered by it but a few times when he veers a little towards doctrine rather than science.

I give this one a could rating, maybe with a nudge toward should if you want to be ready for when you are asked your love language.

P.S. My love language is physical touch. Hugs, anyone?

Discoverability Is Overrated

Research shows that online bookstores are great when you know what you are looking for.

Retail spaces are better when you don’t.

There will be fewer places to find books.

There already are fewer places.

Barnes and Noble has closed 150 stores.

Try to find a book review in a major media outlet beside O or The New York Times.

The world of book publishing always hopes that readers will discover the new writers they publish.

Language is important here.

Discovery is unexpected.

Discovery is random.

Discovery implies being found for the first time.

Do we really want bookstores serving as showrooms?

Those don’t feel like strong qualities for maintaining a sustainable business model for everyone involved.