Superficial Thinking: The Self-Published Book Disease

This blog post first appeared in my Thought Readership column on ActiveGarage.com on June 19th, 2012

Back in the days when I was young and foolish I’d be arguing (as I frequently did) with my mother about some relationship or other. Mum was pretty open-minded, but it always seemed to me as if she didn’t really understand what I was going through.

I remember her looking at me on one occasion with an arched eyebrow and saying, “You know, Elizabeth, you’re not the only person in the world who has had this experience. We were all young once!”

I was reminded of that conversation as I read Phil Simon’s Kickstarter-funded book The Age of the Platform: How Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google Have Redefined Business. 

Simon’s thesis is this: We live in The Age of the Platform, a time requiring “a completely different mindset.” One in which companies “must not only exist but they must thrive in a state of constant motion.”

Okay – nothing new there. What else?

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Well, Simon says, the “Gang of Four” (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google), “are following an entirely new blueprint and business model.” Basically, I gather, by fostering “symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationships with users, customers, partners, vendors, developers, and the community at large.”

But wasn’t that what chocolate manufacturer, Cadbury, did back in the 19th century? And the Ford Motor Company in the early part of the 20th century?

Cadbury founded a model village for its employees, so were both business and community oriented. Its collaborative efforts were particularly appreciated during both World Wars when the company not only paternalistically looked after the male employees who fought on the front during WWI but converted part of the Bourneville factory to produce parts for fighter planes during WWII.

And while Simon credits today’s supposed “Platform Age” with engendering a business and consumer focus, I couldn’t help remembering that Henry Ford paid his employees enough money so they could become consumers, not just producers of his motorcars.

In their day, the assembly line and mass production were groundbreaking technologies. Between 1911 and 1920 the number of cars coming out of the Ford plant increased 1,433 per cent. And the “ecosystem” that Simon attributes to today’s Platform Age was surely evident in one particular Ford innovation: establishing brand-loyal, franchised dealers!

As my mother used to point out, just because “oldies” have lost their edge, doesn’t mean that they weren’t like today’s “youngsters” once.

 If the platform is indeed a new business model and not simply another empty buzzword, one could argue it was also around in the days of the Medicis — the 14th century banking dynasty.

Through a series of clever strategic activities, including marriages of convenience, the family significantly increased their social network in a way we now describe as “stickiness.” And innovation? The reason why Frans Johansson named his book on creative breakthroughs The Medici Effect was in honor of the way the family sponsored an ecosystem of scientists, philosophers, and artists, breaking down long-established barriers in order to herald one of the biggest explosions of innovation in history.

Did the Medicis, Cadbury, and Ford do extremely interesting and innovative things in their day, “especially with respect to emerging technologies?” Check!

Did they (once) adapt extremely well and quickly to change? Check!

Did they (once) routinely introduce compelling new offerings? Check!

Did they (once) work with partners in very exciting ways? Check!

Every era has its own form of what Simon calls a platform; this is not a new concept. Which begs the question: is the way that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google do business so very different from yesteryear? Or are some so bedazzled by technology that it blinds them to historical truths?

This is where the “ecosystem” vital to crafting superior books comes in.

The problem with self-published books like this one is that the author no longer has to go through the rigorous vetting process required by commercial publishers. One in which an acquisitions editor will query (and probably reject) spurious arguments and superficial thinking.

As an author, being provoked to think deeper and harder about your material either produces a superior product or reveals the unsettling fact that you don’t have much to say that’s new, so would be better off not publishing a book at all.

The best time to do this kind of thinking is early on in the project. Otherwise send your manuscript to honest, discerning readers (not your mother!) for their feedback before you go into print.

Here’s the issue with many of the books that are written in the space of a few months. If it’s that quick and easy, you’re not really thinking! Take a look at what Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow about the two kinds of thinking: System 1 is effortless, automatic, intuitive – and error-prone. It’s what most people do most of the time.

Which is why authors who wish to be taken seriously need to establish a habit of System 2 thinking, which is reasoned, slow, and takes so much more effort.

A clue to how to develop that can be found in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s wonderful book The Black Swan. In the Acknowledgments section he points out the value of finding detractors to your argument. “One learns most from people one disagrees with,” Taleb says.

An important piece of advice for any author not wanting to appear like a teenager who thinks they’ve discovered something new when they haven’t.

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2 Comments

  1. Two questions come to mind:

    (1) Is there value in achieving a middle ground, so that over-research doesn’t bog down a book from reaching completion?

    (2) Don’t “quicker” books, such as the sharing of life experiences, have value, if called out for what they are?

    Thanks!

    • Great questions, Helen and thanks for posting them.

      1. The tension between research and writing is always one that an author must consider, for sure. And it’s hard to define what is “over research” and what is sufficient research. I think this is where ensuring others (many of whom don’t share your point of view) can review your manuscript before it’s published is useful.

      Just as an example, I received an email from a client who had neglected to define one of the core concepts of his book (not yet published, thankfully). While he had come up with something on the face of it that sounded okay, when I went and reviewed what noted commentators (big research organizations, Harvard Business Review bloggers etc) had to say about the topic I was able to point out that he’d missed a key factor. That would have been a damaging oversight. The additional research he did, based on feedback, was invaluable.

      So to answer your question, I think an author has to decide how much research they are prepared to do, but then assess that based on considered feedback from their prospective audience (friends and colleagues who would normally buy the book and have a point of view on its contents) and then decide how much more, if any, they need do to get the book right!

      2. Here’s my issue with the “life experiences” argument 🙂 We all think we have unique experiences and something new to offer by recounting them. Oftentimes, however, a quick “competitive analysis” would reveal that there’s nothing really that different in what we have to say. Plus, by writing a book quickly — say, in three months or less — has the author really given the experience sufficient thought to make it more valuable to the reader, than just recounting external events? We live in a fast-paced world and there are many advantages to that. But by writing and publishing a book quickly, unless it’s been in your mind for quite some time and been thought out in some deeper way, I think authors cheat themselves and their readers.

      Just my opinion, of course! At the heart of all this is my maxim: if it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well. It’s rather like our news these days…we get the “story” before it’s really a story. And analysis before anyone has had the time to truly analyze. And where does that leave us?

      Your thoughts?

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