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.
The title needs to clearly describe what the book is about – I know this sounds obvious. And It is! Yet, too many books fail this most basic test. Clarity is the most important quality for a book title. Most books never get picked up because the reader doesn’t know what the book is about. So, avoid jargon and made up words. And yes, Freakonomics is a made up word but we immediately know what the authors mean.
Great book titles signal the change – Good To Great. Getting Things Done. Daring Greatly. Lean In. There is no question what is going to be different after you are done reading the book. These are very direct routes to the change.
Great book titles signal positive change – Books are paper devices filled with hope.
Subtitles deliver the promise – If titles are about being clear, then subtitles are about making promises. What is the reader going to get? This is the So What? of the pitch.
Never repeat words in both the title and the subtitle – Use different words to create variety and add more meaning.
The best titles use three word or less– We are all lazy and don’t like to remember long titles. And if there is a long title, the public will shortened it anyway. And this rule is primarily for non-fiction; other genres follow different conventions
Use an odd number of syllables – Titles sound better ending on a downbeat. Try it. 90% of your favorite titles will have 3, 5 or 7 syllables.
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?
Visuals play an important part of the presentation of books.
One of the interesting problems is how you handle an author with multiple books.
There are advantages to readers being able to recognize titles from a given authority, but that can also introduce a symmetry which makes the books seems like copies of one another.
I noticed recently that Tor chose to rebrand all the books by Cory Doctorow. I honestly can’t decide if I like the decision or not. I remember the books by their original covers and I like these too.
Here is the catalog of books from Pat Lencioni.
The covers are smaller here but you can see how across the room you can identify his books.
My designer Joy pointed me to Marilynne Robinson’s books and how they have pulled them together. The balance of difference and sameness feels best to me in this series. The typography creates consistency but its placement and the images makes them feel like different books.
So, this is just three examples. Cover consistency is an interesting question because there is no magic answer, but it is interesting to see how different publishers approach it.
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.
A common problem in the manuscripts I look at is the author moving too fast through the opening section. Like screenplays for movies, business books should have three distinct acts.
Authors too often want to go running through the opening of the book. They assume the reader is with them based on the fact they opened the cover. Authors forget that no one will be there is explain why this book is important. The reader only has what is written on the page.
I like how Michael Arndt, the screenwriter behind Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, describes what the beginning of a film needs to do. He says writers should:
Show the main character
Show them in their environment
Show them doing what they love
Then show them their biggest flaw based on their love
If we translate Arndt’s ideas to business books, the author needs to throughly describe the world the reader lives in. What sort of problems are they working with? What is the reader afraid of? What do they want more than anything? And finally, what does the author believe is keeping the reader from their goal?
Readers are coming to your book already with the sense that they have a problem and are not sure how to solve it.
Make sure you are clear about the problem and they will trust you to lead them to a solution.
Today is Independence Day in the United States. Flags and fireworks fill stores ahead of the holiday.
For Valentine’s Day, we buy cards and roses.
For Halloween, we purchase costumes and candy.
My family baked me a chocolate cake for Father’s Day (the perfect gift this year).
All of those holidays were triggers for something else.
Jonah Berger talks about the power of triggers in his book Contagious. He says triggers work best when they are frequent and there is a strong link between trigger and the desired action.
The folks at Kit Kat found that people eat the candy bar during a break and with a hot beverage. They built an ad campaign called “a break’s best friend” that connected coffee and Kit Kats. The campaign was a hit and took the brand from $300 million to $500 million a year in sales.
Book publishing uses triggers too. In January, you will see publishers release titles that fit a “New Year, New You” themes like diet and personal empowerment. “Summer Reads” start to appear in May as readers make book picks for mid year vacations to the beach. And in September and October, the “big” books are released as everyone heads into the holiday gift giving season.
More and more, I am convinced that books need time stamps.
You can’t look at a book to see you it fits into your life. And that matters more as we measure our lives in smaller and smaller slices of time.
I found this image on Alexis Ohanian’s book Without Their Permission:
I liked that the image marks how much time it would take to read and when it might fit into the reader’s life. Youtube videos, Audible audiobook tracks, and Netflix movies each tell us total time for that piece of content.
With digital content, we also know how far we are with the elapsed time marker. As we approach a point in time when we need to move to something else, we can easily decide if we should pause or continue.
Books are bad at both of these concepts because books vary so much. It is easy for publishers to shrink or expand the number of words on a page through line spacing or font size. The size of the page can vary too with big implications across hundreds of pages. The language the author uses can affect the speed of reading. Let’s not even talk about how pictures and photos have no real standardization. The bottom line is the physical appearance of a book is not a good way to judge how long it will take to read.
Medium estimates the time it will take to read their articles. This function also available as a plug-in for blogs and others forms of online publishing. Maybe our devices should tell us how much time is left in a chapter based on the data it has collected, based on our reading rate and the reading rate of others for our current book, other books in the genre and all books collectively. This would be a welcome replacement to our old method of paging ahead to find the chapter’s end.
I have been wondering if we should display the time length of the audiobook alongside the page count of print books or maybe even next to the price of the title. This information is more easily gotten as audiobooks are becoming more common. This could be another useful marker for a reader to determine if they want to buy that particular book.
Smart book publishers might even help readers get over the attention anxiety by providing time estimates for each chapter:
“You can read this book in ten easy installments of 17 minutes each!”
Books definitely fit into our lives. Let’s just do a better job of showing customers how.