Memo To The CEO Series


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.


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?

quora question

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



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


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.



Better Book Titles

never eat aloneI have been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good book title.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Great book titles signal positive change – Books are paper devices filled with hope.
  4. Subtitles deliver the promise – If titles are about being clear, then subtitles are about making promises.  What is the reader going to get?
  5. Never repeat words in both the title and the subtitle – Use different words to create variety and add more meaning.
  6. 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, we shortened it anyway as we start to tell others about it.
  7. 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.

Just Sit

I started a Zen Buddhist practice about eight years ago.

I’d reached a point where the tools I had to deal with life weren’t working anymore.

The core of zen practice is zazen, or seated mediation. The image in your head of a robed monk sitting legs crossed on a cushion is exactly right. That’s what we spend most of our time doing.

With members of my sangha, I might sit for an hour or a full day.  A few times a year we’ll sit for a week in sesshin. The longer retreats are harder to do with my work and family commitments, so each morning, I sit.

Dogen, the founder of Zen, wrote a set of instructions for sitting called Fukanzazengi. This is what he says about the physical practice of zazen:

At your sitting place, spread out a thick mat and put a round cushion on it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position. In the full-lotus position, place your right foot on your left thigh, then your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, simply place your left foot on your right thigh. Tie your robes loosely and arrange them neatly. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left hand on your right palm, thumb-tips touching lightly. Straighten your body and sit upright, leaning neither left nor right, neither forward nor backward. Align your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel. Rest the tip of your tongue against the front of the palate, with teeth and lips closed. Keep your eyes open, and breathe softly through your nose.

Once you have adjusted your posture, take a breath and exhale fully, rock your body right and left, and settle into steady, immovable sitting.

I use an app called Insight Timer and it has several features that I like. Of course, it keeps track of time. There are a variety of recorded bells that you can choose. You can adjust the number of bells and when they are played. These customizations let me build the same progression of bells and timing that we use at our Zen Center for zazen. Insight Timer also keep track of your sessions and provides some graphs to help you see your practice better.

This morning, the app notified me that it had 1250 days with a session of zazen. It was a nice reminder that any practice, whether running or writing or sitting, is an accumulation of effort and something changes in you, for the better.


Does Speed Matter?

Part of my work on writing and publishing Every Book Is a Startup is working on better ways to write and publish books.

The common process for making books looks something like this:

  • Author writes
  • Editors fix
  • Designers format
  • Publishers Print

…except that the work moves back and forth between these steps for approvals and there is lots of checking to make sure new errors aren’t introduced as old ones are fixed.

There is a distance between each step. Each person lives in their silo. Each group uses with tools best suited for their type of work. The handoffs and specialization make the process slow and more prone to the errors that are trying to be avoided.

One answer I have been thinking about is speed.

Books have this certain mystique around them. Part of that charm is their slow and deliberate nature. Books take time to write and time to publish. They seems protected from sway of today’s news or popular opinion.  This leads to a vaguely held opinion that going faster compromising the best qualities of books.

All books are not produced slowly. Any publishing professional will tell you about the book that was “crashed” (think about the use of that word for a moment) to meet a cultural moment or immovable date. In the world of technology, publishers have to get books written and published in a matter of months to participate in the cycle short-lived popularity of a technical protocol or programming language. I am more interested in this latter case without the heroics where a faster cadence is maintained on a regular basis.

When you start thinking about speed as the primary metric, things shift. You can make improvements with better scheduling of resources and tasks. That tradeoff increases the time spent coordinating. You uncover a set of bottlenecks that impede faster flow. You might take months out of the publishing process, but the controlled process still takes months.

I want a bigger change. I want months to turn into days or hours. I want a decrease in publishing lead time that is an order of magnitude faster than how we practice today. So many things have to change to allow that.

The files for books need to be generated with technology, not handmade with designers. The technology should know the form of a book – page numbers, chapter headings, folios, footnotes – and account for them. Create them automatically or make them easy to create.

The manuscript needs to be stored safely in a single place. Everyone who needs to work on the book should be able to from that same, safe place. Whether a typo or an added chapter, anyone should be able to make changes and easily create a new version of the files. And if the change negatively affects the book, prior versions should be restored easily.

All of those process changes put the creator closer to the final book they are going to publish.  If there is an error, I probably created it and have the best context for how it should be fixed. Once fixed, I can created a new version themselves.

We don’t even think things like that are possible because Word doesn’t work like that. We send files through email or Dropbox with comments and tracked changes, as we change the file name in an attempt at revision control.

Using a workflow of Google Docs and Leanpub, I can do everything I described.  A new version of my book is created with a press of a button. The whole process takes about two minutes. Two minutes!

Speed is about being fast and reliable. Build systems that are easy to rebuild; where small changes can be made without affecting the whole.

Speed also creates opportunities that you probably never thought before.

What would you do if you could remake your manuscript on command in minutes?

Book Review: When by Dan Pink

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink


When is an interesting question.  I find it is either the first or the last one I ask, with who, what and why garnering most of my attention.  As the first, when acts the primary constraint.  As the last, it is just a detail to be sorted out with everything else.

Dan Pink make it the primary question in his new book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. The book is a meta-study of sorts on how time and timing affects us. Like all of Pink’s books, it is high on utility and how-to.  This book, in particular, felt like it belonged in paperback with pages dog-eared and covered in orange highlighter.

The handbook quality to this title comes from Pink covering lots of smaller things versus one overarching idea. I know that might sound contradictory since the book about one topic but it is a question of scale.  When tackles topics ranging from daily fluctuations in energy levels to the best time to start a new habit to cyclical happiness over a lifetime. We don’t carry all of those in the same mental bucket.

Here are my highlights which I think will demonstrate what I am talking about:

  • Cultures with less distinctive future tenses in their languages (Mandarin, Finnish, Estonian) are 30% more likely to save for retirement, 24% less likely to smoke, practice safer sex, and exercise more. The theory is that people feel less separated from their “future” selves using present tense verbs.
  • Endings are important. Start reading the last lines of books for inspiration from completion.
  • Ernest Hemingway used to stop mid-sentence at the end of a day of writing to give him a strong place to start from the next day.
  • Most of us experience an energy trough in the afternoon.  This leads to more medical errors, more judicial convictions and a higher likelihood to lie, cheat and steal. Antidote – TAKE BREAKS! Movement with people outside is the best combination.
  • End your work day with this five-minute routine: write down what you accomplished because measuring progress is powerful, plan your top three goals for tomorrow because goal setting is proven helpful, and thank someone because gratitude practice is a highly reliable method to higher levels of happiness.

The book holds together and you should check it out. Now.