April 2012

What Do We Really Want From Books?

And what do we, the book-buying public, want? Cheaper prices, as ever, but we’re also all expecting books to move beyond dead text and into something much more dynamic, something loaded with rich media, something that makes use of the color and graphics of our tablet screens, and perhaps the social networking powers they also sport as apps. Because those kinds of books sure as heck aren’t in Amazon’s top-selling Kindle list right now.

This summary, which concludes a recent Fast Company article about e-book publishing, doesn’t represent me. Does it you?

As someone who buys books by the boatload and reads both nonfiction and fiction voraciously, I’m not particularly interested in “rich media.” As one commentator on this article pointed out:

“Reading is an intensely personal experience. It is not a social experience unless someone is reading to me. And if I wanted that I’d get an audio book.”

I agree. My mind and imagination are all I need when reading a book, thank you very much. All that multi-media stuff is fine for e-learning courses and suchlike but when I’m reading, I want peace and quiet to really think about what I’m taking in.

One thing I’m noticing that’s continually absent from these discussions about what the buying public wants from books (electronic or otherwise) is any mention of quality content. Do we simply take it for granted that every book — and here I’m talking about my specialism of nonfiction — has been well constructed, well written, and contributes something meaningful and valuable to the conversation? That’s not been my experience.

Amazon is redefining publishing, but not in a way I particularly welcome. Commercial publishers may be criticized for failing to innovate…but most people in that industry were in that business because they loved books. What does Amazon love?

I, for one, will forgo cheaper prices for better quality content. That was the beauty of the commercial publishing model years ago before the era of the celebrity airhead author and internet marketing old boys’ network began to seduce publishing houses with the guarantee of mega-sales and big bucks. When you saw the little Penguin on the front cover or spine — or any of the other symbols of the major publishing houses — you could be guaranteed quality: from the development of the core concept, to the writing, to the editing.

Now, you’re never sure what you’re getting when you buy a book from Amazon, because with so many self-published authors rallying their friends and family to write bogus 5 star reviews (and in some cases offering inducements to strangers in exchange for glowing testimonials), you can’t even trust the market to give an honest appraisal.

By my bedside I have Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which I bought from Barnes & Noble, paying something like $25 (the RSP is $30). My experience of reading that book has been priceless as it’s generated many new thoughts and directions for my business.

So maybe it’s fine for “cheap prices” to be the top criteria for fiction. But, please, not for nonfiction. When a thoughtful author takes the time and effort (involving much more than the “write a book in a weekend” hucksters would have you believe) to craft a book with the potential to change your life — don’t they deserve to be rewarded for that? At least when writers are working with industry professionals (as opposed to most self-published authors who do everything themselves) the result is the coalescing of many expert minds and perspectives, which makes for a superior product.

Well, that’s what those of us who LOVE books think, anyway :-) How about you?

Seth Godin, System 1 Thinking, and Self-Publishing Smoke Blowing

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Every so often someone (most recently Seth Godin) will regurgitate the list of luminaries who originally self-published, such as:

  • Emily Dickinson
  • Ezra Pound
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Virginia Woolf

The implication being that today’s self-published authors have something in common with these Greats. That’s as spurious an argument as suggesting I’m like a world class athlete because I also have two arms and two legs.

Writers like those listed above are not like most of us in several significant ways. For one thing, they thought longer and harder about their material, exemplifying what Daniel Kahneman calls System 2 thinking:

… our slow, deliberate, analytical and consciously effortful mode of reasoning about the world.

That’s not the case with today’s “write-a-book-in-90-days-or-less” authors. Consider this recent LinkedIn post from one self-published writer:

“Did I really just stay up all night writing? I guess I did! Another 2,200 words down and chapter 22 is done!”

Contrast that thinking with Aldous Huxley’s explanation of how he worked, which he shared in an interview published in The Paris Review Interviews’ Writers at Work Series 2:

Generally, I write everything many times over. All my thoughts are second thoughts. And I correct each page a great deal, or rewrite it several times as I go along.

The reason why many contemporary authors can write their books so quickly is because they are  System 1 Knowledge Tellers, rather than System 2 Knowledge Transformers. The two types of thinking are qualitatively different. And so is the quality of the books that each approach produces.

I’ll be writing more about this topic shortly, including why any reputation-guarding consultant or executive should operate from a System 2, Knowledge Transforming mode of thinking before writing their book. In the meantime: how many books have you read that seem to offer little more than “easy answers and half-baked solutions” typical of those unwilling to engage in System 2 thinking. 


Olivier Blanchard, Author of Social Media ROI: Time Management Tips & More (#3)

In this final installment of my interview with Olivier Blanchard, author of Social Media ROI, we talk about discoverability, time management, and why the best books don’t always get the visibility they deserve.

Liz: Olivier, we were talking earlier about the marketing and promotion of your book. What more do you feel you could have done (or could still do) to boost its “discoverability?”

A glowing review in the Wall Street Journal wouldn’t hurt, for starters. Becoming a regular expert contributor on CNBC, Bloomberg TV or CNN would probably help too, as would my own monthly column in Fast Company or Forbes. (And I’ve mentioned airport bookstores, right?) But you know, that’s kind of the typical thing.

It’s mass media exposure. There’s tremendous power to being everywhere. I think if the book were sold at the checkout counter of every service station in North America, I would accidentally sell a few more copies. People naturally want to buy things they see. So that’s kind of the basis for exposure: the more places you are, the more likely you are to sell more of your stuff. Every writer and publisher knows this: even if your book sucks, a great cover, a whole brick of copies front and center of the store, and cool promotional posters everywhere will move copies. It’s a given.

We aren’t talking about a meritocracy here. The best books don’t necessarily get pushed to the front; the ones with the most money behind them do. The reality for a new writer like me is that no publisher is going to throw a lot of marketing money behind a book like Social Media ROI, no matter how good or important it isSo you have to get creative. You have to work with what you have.

Interviews like this help a lot. I speak at conferences around the world. My blog is also kind of well read and I have a decent following on the twitternets now. All of those things add up. You have to put your eggs in a lot of different baskets, even if you start off with a bunch of really, really small baskets. And sometimes, you just get lucky. You catch a break. That’s important too.

I would say that going into its second year, sales of the book are being driven mostly by two things: word-of-mouth, and search. Most people who discover the book and read it end up liking it a lot, so they tell their friends and coworkers – even their bosses – about it, and so it spreads that way, organically. When it comes to search, I haven’t focused on “owning” the right keywords, but I’ve kind of put my stamp on the topic of social media ROI for the last few years, so it’s kind of difficult to google the term without running into me or the book. That’s the very definition of earned media for you, and it works very well.

One more avenue that might be key to the book’s longevity is universities. Social Media ROI works very well as a textbook. There’s a massive opportunity there for a book like this at the university level – graduate and undergraduate – and we’re seeing the start of that already. Increasingly, I find myself being invited to speak to students by professors who used the book as a teaching tool. I love that and hope I will see more and more of it. When you look at the sales numbers from university book stores as opposed to just, you know, the Amazons and B&Ns of the world, you realize that there’s a lot more to the publishing world than meets the eye. Don’t underestimate niches, either when it comes to genre or distribution.

Liz: My clients are senior executives and very busy people. Many struggle with finding the time to write their books while holding down high-level positions. What time management (or self-management) tips could you give them?


© Photong | Dreamstime.com

That’s a great question. They have a few options:

1. Hire a ghost-writer. It isn’t uncommon for high-visibility CEOs and celebrities to go that route. It becomes more of a collaboration than what the average writer goes through, but it takes care of the two biggest hurdles facing a busy, high profile executive: the time factor, and the very real possibility that they might not be talented enough to actually write the book themselves — even though they are probably smart enough to be the driving force behind what the book has to say.

2. Write a short book. Some of the best management books I’ve read were less than two hundred pages. Nobody needs to write a three-hundred page brick like Social Media ROI. (It comes in at one pound, give or take a few grams.) My next book probably won’t be that big. It just so happened that this one needed to be.   Small works. Look at books like the seminal The One Minute Manager, by Kenneth Blanchard (no relation) and Spencer Johnson, or Do The Work, by Steven Pressfield. Writing a book doesn’t have to become a Herculean endeavor. Keep it simple. Keep it short.

3. Really want it. Nobody can expect to write a book unless they have a fire burning inside them to see it done. It’s a long game, this book business. Writing seems like the hardest part, but you realize it’s actually the easiest once you come through that initial gauntlet. Anybody can write a book. Look around. Walk through any book store and pick up some of those discount books that sit around in the bargain bin. Somebody sat there and wrote those. They were living the dream, right?

Well, the reality of it is that there are worse things than not getting published: like publishing a really horrible book nobody likes; a book that flops and ends up in some bargain twelve-books-for-a-dollar bin in some frozen corner of Nebraska. That’s an aspect of this kind of project that any aspiring writer, especially an executive, needs to consider. Finding the time to write a book is just part of the equation. They also have to make damn sure that six months later – and years later, even – the book is something that can be seen as a feather in their professional cap rather than a stain on their career, if not an outright black eye. So… there’s that. Think beyond just making time to write the thing. Look well beyond the crest of that next hill.

Writing a book is just the beginning. You have to follow through and make it count.

Liz: Thanks so much, Olivier. 

My review of Olivier’s book Social Media ROI appears in my Thought Readership column soon. Check back for the latest on books that work (like his) and those that don’t (like this one).

Olivier Blanchard on Commercial vs Self-Publishing: #2

Olivier Blanchard, Author

Here is the second of my three-part interview with the delightful Olivier Blanchard, author of Social Media ROI: Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization (Que, 2011).

Liz: What were your reasons for going with a commercial publisher for this book (in this case, an imprint of Pearson Education), rather than publishing it yourself? What didn’t you know that you didn’t know, prior to becoming a published author? 

Well… The publisher approached me, so that part was easy. I didn’t have to shop the book around. It was all pretty serendipitous. Having said that, I wouldn’t have dreamed of publishing this book on my own, and for two simple reasons:

The first is credibility. When it comes to fiction, I don’t think there’s much of a difference anymore between self-published authors and professionally published authors. Look at the success that some self-published authors are already seeing. It’s amazing. We’ve entered a new era of publishing for fiction authors. The gates are crumbling. Amazon is taking bulldozers to the old publishing world and carving out whole new neighborhoods, highways, and shopping malls. But when it comes to non-fiction, especially business books, we still have a ways to go before self-published books can shed the stigma of not having been “properly” published. If for no other reason, Social Media ROI had to go through a traditional publisher. It couldn’t be just a self-published e-book.

The second is the amount if work it takes to actually get a book to market: Production, distribution, publicity, etc. What most writers don’t realize until they’ve gone through this process is just how much goes into making sure that a book will become a successful product. At the core of that success is a team: The writer and the editor. I am not sure that most people appreciate the importance of the editor in that process – sometimes a whole team of editors, actually. An average writer and a fantastic editor working together can produce an amazing book. Conversely, an incredibly talented writer with no editor might just end up writing a thousand-page wreck. Working with a reputable publisher generally takes care of that problem, so there’s that.

I also mentioned earlier how having deadlines and looking at the project as a job helps get it done. Writers are natural procrastinators. Add a perfectionist streak to that trait and now you have a perfect recipe for “the book project” that takes seven years to complete. No thanks. The point is to get the book out and share it with the world, not to fiddle with it for the better part of a decade. Having someone to push you and keep you to a set schedule is pretty key. 

Also, business book readers don’t exactly have the same habits and expectations as fiction readers. They tend to shop for books differently, read books differently, and they still like paper. It’s still a lot easier to highlight, earmark and sticky-note a physical book than to take notes on a tablet. For a book like Social Media ROI, all of these little details mattered: The book needed to be in book stores. I felt that people needed to see it on the shelf, next to Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki. It needed to have a physical presence from a credibility standpoint. From a more practical standpoint, I wanted it to be discovered by business managers and executives who aren’t necessarily e-format readers or blog readers. Self-publishing limits you somewhat to the electronic format, and that would have ignored that portion of my intended audience.

Production and distribution-wise, even if I wanted to arrange for the book to be printed and had the money to do it, I didn’t want to have to deal with trying to sell it to book stores across the country, across the world, even. It just wasn’t practical. So I needed to work with a real publisher. You give up a few things when you do that, but the balance of it hasn’t been bad: the book doesn’t seem to be slowing down, it’s being sold in book stores around the world, it’s being translated into a half dozen languages. It’s a dream come true for a guy like me. Going with a traditional publisher was the right decision. It would have never been a success if I had gone the self-publishing route.

Liz: I know publishers never like to reveal sales figures, but just between you and me — how has the book done sales-wise since its publication last year? What advice would you give to first-time authors like yourself about marketing and promoting a nonfiction book? 

You’re going to laugh, but I actually don’t know how many copies the book has sold. I’m slack like that. Once it’s sold a hundred thousand copies, I’ll know that. It’s when I’ll start paying attention because that’s something I can legitimately brag about. But until then, I don’t know. At any rate, I can’t look it up right now either because I’m in France and the monthly statements I get from my publisher are back in the US. But look, the book is doing okay. It’s no New York Times bestseller or anything, but it sells so I can’t really complain.

You know, I have to talk about perspective here for a minute, because it’s important when we start talking about success and whatnot. Let’s face it: It’s my first book and I’m kind of a nobody on the world stage. By that, I mean that I’m not Jack Welch or Steve Jobs. I’m not even Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell. People aren’t going to line up around the block to read my book or score my autograph. I’m not a household name. And it isn’t being sold in airport book stores either, which for this kind of book is kind of an arrow to the knee. So once you’ve taken all of that in and you’ve taken a step back to get some perspective on how big the publishing world is, how many books are published each year, and the scandalous percentage of books that just plain fail, it’s a miracle that it’s been as successful as it has been. At least to me. Could it be doing better? Sure. But could it be doing worse? Absolutely. And it would be devastating for me, to have put so much work and hope into it only to see it flop and go nowhere.

What I can tell you is that after just a few months on the shelves, it had already beaten the odds when it comes to books making it or failing outright. I remember not too long after it came out when I saw that it had sold more than five thousand copies because that’s kind of a benchmark for pretty much any book. Most books that get published never quite manage to reach it, which is really scary when you think about how hard it is to get a book published to begin with. So I think that if you’re a new writer and you can sell five thousand copies of a book and watch it just keep going, that’s something. It’s like a series of clubs. The first club you get into is the “I’m published” club, and then there’s the “I’ve actually sold a few books club,” but then there’s that one, the “five-thousand” club, which I think also coincides with the “my publisher just broke even” club, which is nice. It gets you invited back, I think. (I hope.) Then if you’re lucky, you move up to the ten-thousand and the hundred-thousand and even the million+ clubs, and even the “my book was turned into a movie” club, and so on. One can hope. It’s what I’m shooting for anyway. Not that a movie based on this book would be all that fascinating, but you never know.

In the final part (#3) of this interview with Olivier Blanchard, we talk about “discoverability,” longevity, and his time management tips for busy executives and entrepreneurs planning to write a book. Stay tuned for Part Three soon!

“Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width”*

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It had taken me just a few hours and cost a weekend’s wages at the grocery store where I worked. At age 16 I was now a published author of several execrable (I’ll check next time I visit my mother — she still has a copy of the book!), angst-ridden teenage poems.

Feeling magnanimous (more likely, wishing to show off ) I took a copy to school, to donate to the library. Our headmistress, Miss Higginson — think Severus Snape in the guise of Professor McGonagall – took one look at the title, A Kaleidoscope of Verse, and asked, “Is this vanity published?” I didn’t know, back then, what she meant. I’d simply responded to an advertisement informing me that my poetry could be published, I’d paid my money and now saw my name in print.

That youthful “dream come true” is similar to the one experienced by Ajla Dizdarevic, only this 12-year old is aiming for three self-published books of poetry by the time she’s 15, and meantime has got herself quoted in the New York Times.

The idea of parents funding the literary aspirations of their offspring has led to opposing opinions. On the one side we have novelist Tom Robbins who asks:

What’s next? Kiddie architects, juvenile dentists, 11-year-old rocket scientists? Any parent who thinks that the crafting of engrossing, meaningful, publishable fiction requires less talent and experience than designing a house, extracting a wisdom tooth, or supervising a lunar probe is, frankly, delusional. There are no prodigies in literature (which) requires experience, in a way that mathematics and music do not.

As if on cue, Seth Godin pitches in, mocking Robbins’ allusion that writing fiction bears any resemblance to “leading part of the Apollo mission.” Godin concludes with a “what’s the harm?” argument, pointing out that:

It’s free! No gums are damaged, no thumbs are hammered, no shuttles are launched.

Leaving Robbins and Godin to debate the “what” and the “how,” I’m more interested in the question: Why? And the answer lies, I believe, in the mediocritization of our goals.

What do these parents want to impart to their kids? What, indeed, is the goal here?

To be published? So what? Anyone (or anyone with parents willing to do so) can pay to be published these days. If this is being lauded as something worthy, then I fear these kids are missing out on an invaluable lesson. The one that Miss Higginson gave when she informed – no, shamed — me on the demerits of vanity publishing. I never wanted to feel so lessened ever again and determined that would be the one and only time I paid to be published; my new goal was to have people pay me.

Was the goal to sell books?

If it was, these kids are going to be sadly disappointed. The founder of KidPubPress, one of the vanity houses presumably making a lot of money from the current “be published” obsession at least has the honesty to admit that if each sells 50 books on Amazon that would be “pretty unusual.” And that figure is 150 short of what the average, “crank out a book in 30 or 90 days” tomes written by adults can expect to sell.

Was it to learn to become a real writer?

Not if you’ve got your mother fretting — as one of these published teenager’s mothers did —  about your writing being criticized. Good grief, I hope it would be , preferably before it’s published!

If that budding novelist has any desire to make writing a career and isn’t wanting to be published just so she can tick “author” off her bucket list, then – hell yeah — you’re going to be critiqued! As Malcolm Gladwell alludes to in the Acknowledgments of his bestseller, Blink, not even a writer of his calibre can expect to complete a manuscript perfectly, first time, with no help. Writes Gladwell: “Thank you (insert names here), who deftly and thoughtfully, and cheerfully guided this manuscript from nonsense to sense.” And later, “(different names) brought focus and clarity to the text and rescued me from embarrassment and error.”

Was the goal to perfect their craft so that, eventually, these youngsters would end up writing something really good?

That doesn’t seem to be the case either, from what I read.

And that lack of desire to produce quality work is not confined to the kiddie publishing scenario. For example, an aspiring author I know announced to our cohort that she had completed the query letter she intended to send out to a number of literary agents, to pitch her self-help book. Much celebration ensued, which puzzled me. Surely she wasn’t to be congratulated simply for finishing a query letter? Which appeared to be the case, since none of the others had actually read it. I did; it was really poor. I told her — in as kind a way as possible — that she was going to have to study what made for a good query letter, because the one she had cobbled together wasn’t going to get her represented any time soon.

In the end she decided to throw money at the problem and hire a professional to write it for her. This “author” felt she had it in her to craft a book she expected to be read by millions, yet didn’t even have the skill or patience to write a compelling query letter. Go figure!

In The Closing of the American Mind, author Allan Bloom writes about college students of 25 years ago:

  They arrived ill-equipped to explore the large questions the humanities pose, and few saw the need to bother with them in any case.

Now that would be a worthy goal, surely? To use the discipline and process of writing a book to explore those “large questions,” to find your voice and a perspective that you can defend — perhaps even be open minded enough to  engage with others who take a contrary view? To incrementally shift from being a novice writer to becoming a master story-teller?

But that’s not the goal of Author Solutions, Lulu, Create Space or even KidPubPress who are providing the means with which to add “author” these youngsters’ future CVs. Their goal is to part as many folks as possible from their money — and quality be damned.

I can assure these young people that contributing unedited early material to a vanity published book is going to advance none of their writing careers. Although, sadly, gone are the days when an educator (or anyone else for that matter) will tell them that; we wouldn’t want to damage their fragile “self esteem!”

I will, however, reserve believing we’ve gone completely bonkers as a nation until the New York Times covers the latest self-published offering by a two-year old. It can’t be far off!

* In case you’re wondering, the title of this article refers to a term used by London tailors of yesteryear, which spawned a British TV series in the late 1960s/early 70s: it means diverting attention from shoddy workmanship by drawing the eye to something completely irrelevant.

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