Active Garage

How Long Should Your Nonfiction Book Be?

This post first appeared on my Thought Readership column on ActiveGarage.com on October 15th, 2012

A while back I was playing “dueling authors” with a guy who claimed to have written 16 books (meaning he won the game!) and said he had two that he wanted to give me as gifts. Initially embarrassed that I couldn’t return the favor, I was stunned to receive a couple of – well, let’s be kind and call them “pamphlets.” This is the same term The New Republic used recently to describe the TED Book Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization, which at least has 77 pages. The ones I was given were closer to 30!

It’s hard to know what constitutes a “book” these days, given that folks like my friend believe anything over a couple of dozen pages fits the description. And I guess it’s wise not to be too snobbish about this issue, since many famous works of fiction have been short and sweet, such as Samuel Johnson’s Rasselus, Prince of Abyssinia (97 pages) or Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (96 pages). In the realm of nonfiction, Deepak Chopra captured The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success in a mere 117 pages. And one of my favorite nonfiction books, Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, runs to just 159.

I had cause to think about quantity, not just quality, after completing my latest book #THOUGHT LEADERSHIP tweet: 140 Prompts For Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign with co-author Craig Badings. We ended up with the same page count at Madson’s book (159 pages) for a word count of approximately 7,500 words. Which would take the average person, what – less than an hour to read?Except that this isn’t a book that’s meant to be read cover to cover in a single sitting.

Here’s where the issue of how long a book needs to be needs to take into account how the book is to be used, as well as what content it contains.

What we did with this book was to compile all the questions that aspiring thought leaders should ask themselves before embarking on a thought leadership campaign. Within the seven sections (each containing a short introduction followed by a series of relevant tweet-sized prompts then a couple of pages of examples under the heading ‘Putting Into Practice’), we provoke readers to consider: What it means to be a “thought leader”; What impact they want their campaign to achieve; How to measure its effectiveness; How best to discover their thought leadership point of view…and much more. We then close the book with a short Blueprint to guide readers’ actions and provide additional case studies and examples.

Would this have been a better book if we’d rambled on for page after page giving extensive details about each of these issues?

We didn’t think so. In fact, to come up with the right questions to ask in 140 characters or less takes a lot of thought and relentless editing. In this case, less is definitely more – but it’s not necessarily easier!

As former President Woodrow Wilson is reputed to have told a cabinet member who asked him how long he took to prepare a speech:

It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.

When new writers ask me how long their books should be, my answer is always: As long as it needs to be and no more, which I accept isn’t all that helpful until you actually knuckle down and start to write. (Yet it’s amazing to me how many aspiring authors want to know exactly how many words they’ve got to write, as if this were the sole measure of a good book.)

Having experienced writing #THOUGHT LEADERSHIP tweet, I would add a further caveat:

Think about how you want the reader to use your book.

Is it to be read by a single individual, cover to cover? Will it be of most value if they dip in and out as the need requires? Or, as in the case of our book, is it meant to provoke conversations among a team of people tasked with implementing a specific initiative? In our case, Craig and I considered the comprehensive yet concise nature of our material – not least the highly focused questions – to be what offers the greatest value for readers, not all the fluff we could have wrapped around them.

What are your thoughts about shorter books?

Do you think books are often longer than they need to be? To what extent might this be due to the pressure authors and publishers feel to create books that appear (at least in terms of the quantity of paper they use up) worth their cover price? Please contribute your thoughts.

The Best Way to Structure Your Nonfiction Book

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This post originally appeared on my Thought Readership column on ActiveGarage.com on August 27th, 2012

Consider how many things we’re familiar with that come in “threes”:

Tenors. Magi. Bears.

Fates. Virtues. Graces.

Snap. Crackle. Pop.

There is something magical about the number three, which permeates writing just as much as anything else. This is perhaps why we have three-act plays; a beginning, middle, and end for stories; and sayings that come in three parts – from Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered)” to Thomas Jefferson’s “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

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Next time you review your favorite nonfiction books, look to see how many of them are written with three sections. Examples from my own library include: Daniel Pink’s Drive; Blue Ocean Strategy by INSEAD professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne; neuroscientist Andrew Newberg’s How God Changes Your Brain; Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port; and Alan Weiss’ mega-bestseller Million Dollar Consulting.

For serial entrepreneur, Trevor Blake, the decision to structure his book this way is immediately apparent from the title: Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life (BenBella Books, Inc., 2012). Part One: Escaping the Quicksand offers three chapters (there it is again!) on how to “reclaim your mentality” by focusing your thoughts more on what you want than what you are against. Part Two: Staying Out of the Quicksand – again, three chapters – offers one simple yet timeless and universally applied (at least by extremely successful folks like Henry Ford and George Washington Carver) technique for creating more winning ideas. And Part Three: Beyond the Quicksand articulates how to transform those ideas into achievements.

Written in the style of many of the truly great “self-help” authors of the early 20th century, Blake’s book is as much a memoir as anything – one you would advised to put on your reading list above books written by people whose only claim to fame and source of wealth has come from writing – well, self-help books. Contrast that with Blake who, like so many successful entrepreneurs, came from nothing to create businesses that were eventually sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. As the back cover blurb by Drew A. Graham, managing partner of Ballast Point Ventures states: “Finally, a book about how to succeed by an author who has actually achieved something before writing about it!” Not only that, I found Three Simple Steps to be a compelling read.

But back to the theme of this post: how to structure your nonfiction book.

Oftentimes the biggest issue I see with manuscripts has to do with the way the author has organized their material – or, rather, not. Typically these books read like streams of consciousness with no discernible structure.

If you know what you want to write about but have no earthly idea how to set it out in a book, consider what I describe to my clients as The Power of Three. Of course, it’s easy if – like Trevor Blake – you have a three-part process to describe. But what if you don’t? Let’s go back to some of the other examples I gave earlier.

Take Blue Ocean Strategy. Part one outlines the philosophy and explains what it means to create a “blue ocean”; part two clarifies the strategy behind the concept; and part three explains how to execute it. Alan Weiss’s Million Dollar Consulting, on the other hand, begins by identifying what you need to do to prepare to be a million dollar consultant, then goes on to the tactics you would need to employ, and dedicates the final part of the book to ways to grow into the role.

One final example: Daniel Pink’s Drive first considers why we need to look at motivation in a different light; secondly he looks at what are the three elements of “Type 1” motivation; and thirdly shows you how to implement what you learn in his book.

So, even if you don’t find yourself with a neat “three-act play” as Trevor Blake did with Three Simple Steps, you can still find a way to make this structure work for your book. Part one might offer the philosophy behind your concept, why it’s important, or some foundational issues for the reader to consider. Part two could lay out the strategies for success and what planning needs to be put in place to use the book’s material successfully. Part three would then offer “how tos” or tactics to employ to help the reader successfully implement that learning for themselves.

What favorite book of yours is structured this way? Please let me know. And for more about this topic, I invite you to go to Episode 6 of my audio series.

Superficial Thinking: The Self-Published Book Disease

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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.

New Wine, Old Label (Clever Ways to Title Your Book)

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This post first appeared in my Thought Readership column on ActiveGarage.com on July 2nd, 2012

It begs the question. If human beings are so smart, how come it took us so long to combine the wheel (invented circa 3500BC) with the suitcase (first believed to have been used by Roman legionnaires traveling the then-known world)? Yet once Bernard Sadow arrived at his “aha” moment in 1970 and began manufacturing luggage that could be pulled along with castors, incremental innovations followed suit. Only to be expected, right?

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For example, by 1989 Northwest Airlines pilot Bob Plath had come up with something better than pulling along luggage horizontally on four castors with a strap, as Sadow had proposed. Plath’s Rollaboard® creation was a vertical bag with two wheels and a “telescopic” handle. Compare that today with the even more advanced 360 degree swivel wheeled versions…or the further evolution known as the Climbing UP suitcase, that can be pulled up stairs and inclined surfaces because it exchanges fixed wheels for all-round rubber tracks.

The modern, wheeled suitcase is just one example of how iterative innovation works. Why don’t we see much of that with books that directly contradict an earlier concept?

A rare example is Harvard Business Professor Deepak Malhotra’s book I Moved Your Cheese: For Those Who Refuse to Live as Mice in Someone Else’s Maze (Berrett-Koehler, 2011). Now, you’ve probably just done a double take on the title because, yes, it’s almost identical to Spencer Johnson and Ken Blanchard’s 1998 classic bestseller Who Moved My Cheese? Which was precisely the point.  (Did you know, by the way, that you cannot copyright a book title – which is why you often see so many same or similar ones appearing – such as this example of my own 1999 book?).

The point Malhotra is making is that the way we need to deal with change has, well – changed in the ensuing 13 years since Johnson and Blanchard’s classic was first published. He addressed that head-on by challenging the premise of WMMC and offering up a fresh way to look at how to handle situations where the goalposts (“the cheese”) keep shifting.

How many other classic business titles can you think of that could benefit from a 21st century overhaul?

So why don’t more authors do what Malhotra has done? We certainly expect, with respect to everyday products, that original innovations (like Sadow’s roll-along luggage) would soon be superseded by better iterations. So why do we leave it only to the original authors to update their books? Most of the time that rarely happens and is unlikely to lead to any radically different thinking in any event (largely because experts don’t like to be seen to change their minds, at least not in public).

I raise this point because you might be a business expert who wants to write a book, and need an attention-grabbing idea. My challenge to you is this: what “classic” bestseller is there in your space that you could contradict, overhaul, and bring up-to-date? What was written years ago that everyone in your industry continues to reference, when you know there’s a much better way to do things? And do you have the chutzpah, as Malhotra obviously has, to use the (slightly tweaked) original title?

If everyone in your world is still metaphorically lugging along honking big leather suitcases with makeshift castors fixed to the bottom and your business offers clients the equivalent of ones that glide on jet packs – why aren’t you writing a book like that?

As I pointed out earlier, we humans like to think we’re smart, but how many companies do you know where processes remain in place only because “this is the way we’ve always done it.” Similarly, how many business book concepts are still being embraced today, despite there being a better approach that you could share?

Next time you read an industry “standard” and think to yourself: I know a better way than this, why not bring attention to your book by directly challenging the old one? Let’s see more iterative innovation with respect to book ideas! After all, moving “cheese” around was just ripe (if you’ll forgive the pun) for an overhaul.

So whose business classic would you like to give 2013/14 “makeover” to, and what would you title it? 

 

How To Avoid Writing a “Fart App” Book

This blog post first appeared in my Thought Readership column on Active Garage.com on March 12, 2012. 

When it comes to the commonly espoused belief that a nonfiction book automatically confers credibility on an author, my feeling has always been maybe, maybe not. After all, surely it depends on whether the book is any good with respect to delivering on its commitment to the reader, and isn’t just a 250-page equivalent of what Steve Jobs called “fart apps.”

When aspiring authors ask for my opinion on what they can do to make their book more credible, my answer is always “research.” Because, as one Harvard Business Review blog post commenter (thanks, Mark Mccarthy, whoever you are!) creatively pointed out in response to an article by a couple of consultants, “…without the research data (this information) could be as useful as a chocolate fireguard.”

Before you go running for the hills at the sound of the “R” word, let me assure you it’s not necessary to go to the lengths of the three co-authors of The Customer Experience Edge: Technology and Techniques for Delivering An Enduring, Profitable, and Positive Experience to Your Customers (McGraw-Hill, 2012).

 

Having the resources of their employer SAP at their disposal in order to commission an independent study, Reza Soudagar, Vinay Iyer, and Dr. Volker G. Hildebrand might have been expected to come up with a credible book; but not necessarily so. It wasn’t just a question of doing research, but also the kind of deep analysis and organization of material that enables the average reader to immediately “get” the data’s applicability. If that doesn’t happen, all you end up with is another data-heavy, dry textbook yawn-fest.

Let me give you a brief backgrounder to how this book came about, before we look at how to scale-down their approach for the kind of credible book you might write.

The authors had taken notice of IBM’s Global CEO study, which found that getting closer to customers was the number one priority for the executives polled. So they commissioned Bloomberg BusinessWeek to research the topic by surveying their reader base and interviewing companies that had achieved significant transformations through a primary focus on customers. Deciding to weave those findings into a book didn’t strike them until the research was completed, 12 months’ later, co-author Vinay Iyer told me.

What the authors did was to break down that mass of information, extracting four essentials of customer experience: Reliability, Convenience, Responsiveness, and Relevance, which were validated by the real-world responses from 307 director-level and above executives at midsize and large companies. They then mapped these essentials onto three key technology-related areas (they work for SAP, remember) and used specific company examples to show how this framework results in the “customer experience edge.”

What can those of us do, who don’t have the resources to support this kind of large-scale research or want to wait 12 months before getting started on our book?

Why not personally interview a sample of industry or business experts to gather their perspectives about your topic, using that material as a key feature in your book? At the same time you’re gathering advocates to help market the book when it’s published.

Or you could develop a short Wufoo or SurveyMonkey questionnaire, promoting that through your social media channels, to gather relevant data.

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with writing a book based only on your opinion—although preferably if it’s been honed and refined over many years and tested against a wide range of situations. But without the added credibility of research, as the man said, your book could end up as useful to the rest of us as a chocolate fireguard.

 

Fast, Flat and Free Author, Gihan Perera, Interviewed – Part II

Gihan Perera, Author & Thought Leader

 

Australian entrepreneur and consultant, Gihan Perera is the author of the invaluable book, Fast, Flat and Free, which he self-published. In the second part of our interview we talk about 

Dr Liz: Gihan, yours is one of those rare self-published books that’s virtually indistinguishable from a commercially published book; the layout is superb, it has a great cover — very professionally done. I believe that other than hiring a cover artist you did everything on your own computer. What advice do you have for fellow authors in that regard?

GP: Thank you – I really appreciate you saying so. Yes, I did all the layout myself, using nothing more sophisticated than Microsoft Word. I’m not a designer at all, so when I started I did so fully prepared to hand it over to a professional if it was too difficult. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it relatively easy. It was simply a matter of flicking through other books until I found a layout I liked, and then using that as the starting point for my book.

The one piece of advice I would give to other non-designers like myself is to make it as simple as possible. The professionals know how to do fancy things and make them look good, we amateurs don’t. That’s why my book is (broadly) just text and pictures. Simple fonts, lots of white space, no fancy tables, no multiple columns, no text flowing around images, and so on. Even the cover just has text and one image on a plain white background.

Dr Liz: One piece of advice I give my clients is to begin by completing the following sentence: “The question I answer in this book is…..” Did you have a focus like that yourself…and what’s your opinion on that advice?

GP: Yes, I did, and I do like that advice. I used slightly different wording: “The problem I solve in this book is …” (but it comes to the same thing). I thought about the biggest problem people have about my topic — which with Internet marketing was “There’s too much to do, and I don’t know where to start”, and used that as the focus for the book. It helped me to stay on track, and avoided too many tangents and deviations.

Of course, this not only helps in the writing, but also gives you a short “sound bite” when promoting the book later.

Dr. Liz: Many consultants are realizing that it’s one thing to write a book, quite another to successfully market and sell it. Can you tell us a little about how you have marketed your book: what distribution channels you’ve used; how you promote it to current and prospective clients; how well it is selling and what indirect revenues (if any) have come from writing it?

GP: I never intended for this book to be a runaway bestseller (which is just as well, because it isn’t!), nor even for it to necessarily pay for itself through direct sales (although it has). As I said earlier, this was the flagship book for my consulting business, so it was primarily a positioning tool. In fact, I gave away the first 100 copies to my existing clients, as a thank-you gift (and, of course, an opportunity to strengthen my relationship).

I do get enough sales to cover my costs, and that’s good enough for me. So, to be honest, I haven’t done a lot to promote the book beyond my own networks. Of course, it’s available in Amazon.com, the iTunes Store and other online stores, but I know that alone isn’t enough to bring in many sales without a focussed marketing campaign.

However, it has definitely opened up opportunities for me – such as media interviews, speaking engagements and leads from people who have seen it on a client’s bookshelf. Some clients who book me for speaking engagements also buy copies of the book in bulk to give to their people, and that allows me to make more money from those engagements.

Dr. Liz: Is there anything I’ve not asked you here about your experience that you think would be important for my readership to know — mostly consultants like yourself who want to establish “thought leadership” in their space from writing a book?

GP: I think of “thought leadership” as a combination of expertise and authority – in other words, you get good (expertise) and then get known (authority). So yes, a book can help your thought leadership because it helps you get known, but that’s only half of the formula. If you don’t have expertise yet – and I mean real, true, tested-in-the-trenches expertise – then don’t write a book.

Writing a book takes commitment – not just commitment to writing, but a commitment to your ideas. Putting them in writing means they can be read, digested, analysed, twisted and thrown back in your face. As I said earlier, this book comes from 15 years of experience and expertise, so I feel confident I can stand behind all the ideas in it. I know there’s real substance behind every word, so I’m happy for you to challenge or question anything in it. Even if you don’t agree with me, I know we can have a meaningful conversation about it.

Ultimately, I want my book to spark conversations – between you and me, between you and a friend, or between you and your professional colleagues. If it can do that, it has achieved its purpose.

Dr. Liz: Excellent advice, Gihan…thank so you much.

Be part of the conversation! Buy your own copy of Gihan’s book — believe me, there is a wealth of information here for any sized business, it’s one of the most marked-up and thumb-eared on my bookshelves — here. 

And look out for my review of Gihan’s book for my ActiveGarage.com Thought Readership series. 

 

Interview with Forbes Social Media Influencer & Author, Gihan Perera – Part I

 

My review of Australian entrepreneur & consultant Gihan Perera‘s excellent self-published book — Fast, Flat and Free – will appear in my Thought Readership column on ActiveGarage.com shortly. In the meantime, I took the opportunity to ask the author — #5 in Forbes magazine’s worldwide list of the Top 10 Social Media Influencers in Book Publishing — what he did to publish a book that enhances (rather than detracts from, which is so often the case with self-published business books) his reputation – and his perspective on what many might consider “giving away the store.”

Dr Liz: How aligned is the advice and content you offer in Fast, Flat and Free with the way you do consulting? I’m thinking specifically about how many great examples you include and specific advice that the reader can follow…is this just your way of “doing business?”

Gihan Perera (GP): I’ve been in business for 15 years and, yes, the book is closely aligned with my consulting work. In fact, one of the first readers commented to me that the book was “Gihan’s Greatest Hits!” That’s pretty accurate, because much of it is a distillation of what I’ve done in my business over that period of time.

This wasn’t really a coincidence, either. I’ve written a number of books, but part of my motivation for writing Fast, Flat and Free was for it to be a flagship product for this aspect of my consulting business (that is, Internet marketing and online strategy for experts). So I set out to write something that was intended to position me as an authority – and open new doors for me – in this area.

Dr. Liz: To what extent did your thinking about your area of expertise change as a consequence of writing this book? For example, were there “aha” moments or opportunities to more deeply consider a particular aspect of your business that came about because you were writing? In short, would you say that “thought leaders” should write a book because they’re already thought leaders (i.e., just expressing what they already know), or that in writing a book a person can become a thought leader, where the discipline of writing is a form of discovery about themselves and their topic?

GP: Yes! Thought leaders should write a book only when they have something really worth saying; AND the discipline of writing a book enhances and refines your thought leadership. But I think the former is far more important than the latter, and if I had to put a figure to it, I would suggest the 80/20 rule. In other words, 80% (or more) of your book is based on your existing thought leadership, and 20% (at most) comes from new insights during the writing process.

This is especially true now that books are easy to write and publish, so they no longer have the positioning power they used to have (in the days when the only realistic way to be published was to be picked up by an external publisher). The world is awash with bad books, so don’t write a bad book. Get good – really good – first and then write a book.

Dr. Liz: I know a number of consultants who want to write books but are afraid of “giving away the store.” By which I guess they mean that if they put everything in a book then folks won’t hire them. What’s your answer to that?

GP: Yes, I can understand that fear, but it’s irrelevant. The question is not whether people can find solutions to their problems (they can, and from dozens of other sources), it’s whether they will get those solutions from YOU. And your book is one of the strongest tools you have to persuade them to choose you.

One of my friends and colleagues, Domonique Bertolucci, told me that when she published her first book she loved it because it finally allowed people to get access to her for $30. She no longer had to turn people away because they couldn’t afford her, nor did she have to offer free consulting sessions. Her book gave her a way for people to engage with her at an affordable level, and many of those people eventually did become clients as well.

Dr. Liz: How much of a reader are you? What kinds of books do you gravitate towards in the non-fiction genre, and did you use any of them as inspiration when you came to write your own — not just regarding content, but with respect to tone, structure, and layout?

GP: I’m an avid reader, and always have been! I’m sure I have been influenced in so many different ways by the books I read, but one that really stands out is in the area of storytelling. I’ve always been envious of the non-fiction authors who share their messages through compelling stories (think Malcolm Gladwell, Chip and Dan Heath, and Ori and Rom Brafman), and I would love to be able to write like that. My topic seems a bit dry and technical for that sort of narrative, but I decided to start each chapter with that sort of story – as my attempt to model that style.

I also took inspiration from the movie “The Social Network” – not because I’m particularly a fan of Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg, but I figured that if somebody could make a full-length movie about a Web site, there’s some hope that a book about Internet marketing could be mildly interesting!

In Part II of this interview,  we talk about how Gihan designed and executed his book’s layout using Word, how he markets his book, and his perspectives on thought leadership. Coming soon!

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?

 

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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!

Olivier Blanchard on Becoming An Author #1

To supplement the book reviews I offer on Active Garage.com under the category of Thought Readership (not a typo!), I like to — where possible — interview the authors.

Olivier Blanchard, Author

 

Brand strategist Olivier Blanchard’s Social Media ROI: Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization (Que – an imprint of Pearson Education, 2011) is due to appear on that site on April 30th. Before then, here’s the first of a three-parter with Blanchard, talking about — among other things — the differences between writing a blog and writing a book.

 

 

Liz: Olivier, probably the first thing that struck (and impressed) me about your book was your conversational writing style. I know that you do a lot of blogging but since this is your first book, how come you were able to write so engagingly? Is this a gift you were born with or something you’ve honed and refined over time?

Well… first, thank you. I appreciate that. I don’t know, really. I used to draw and write a lot even when I was little; that’s probably where it started. Every year until ninth grade, some random essay question that I’d answered on an exam invariably ended up getting published in the annual student “literary” publication. It was just a horrible little collection of poems and vacation stories, but it made my parents terribly proud. Naturally, it encouraged me to keep writing; that and a few of my teachers who told me I should focus on doing a lot more of it.

But there’s another piece to this: I think that writers are naturally drawn to write the sorts of things they read. Before I started blogging, I spent a lot of time reading magazine editorials and feature news stories; short stuff. I wasn’t reading a lot of books but Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Newsweek. I loved the kind of writing I found in those publications. It was crisp and fresh and had an easy style to it. When I started blogging, I sort of went with that. It seemed a natural fit. If I had been fonder of books, perhaps things would have moved in a different direction.

Let’s talk about the difference between writing a book and writing a blog. A lot of folks think writing a blog is a way of collecting material they’ll then turn into a book…is that wise, in your opinion? What are the key differences, if any, between those two writing formats? 

Until Pearson’s Katherine Bull came along and suggested I write Social Media ROI, I had pretty much given up on ever writing a book. I didn’t think I had either the talent or the brains for it. When I first started I thought it would be a lot like writing a hundred or so blog posts and putting them together in some sort of logical order that would more or less fit the Table of Contents. I actually tried that for about a week. It didn’t work at all. So yes, there is a very big difference between writing for a blog and writing a book. I think that people need to be aware of that.

The thing about writing a book is that you need to build into it a thread of continuity. Let’s forget about structure for a minute. A book, whether it’s a business book or a novel, always tells a story. It takes a reader from point A to point B, then from point B to point C, and so on. Just throwing together blog posts won’t work. Your book will come across as disjointed; it won’t be whole. So as a writer, you have to figure out what the story is. You have to find the narrative thread that will take the reader from the introduction to the conclusion and will give every topic and every chapter some measure of context. In that sense, you have to think “bigger” than when you write a three-page blog post or an editorial. You need much higher ceilings inside your own head. When it comes to managing your thoughts, books require scale.

Then there’s structure. A blog post can be about one thing, even if it fits into a ten-part series. A book is more like a Russian nesting doll: it has layers. Its structure is a lot more three-dimensional. You don’t just have a beginning, middle, and an end. Chapters reference each other; they build on concepts, ideas and anecdotes thqt you introduced in earlier chapters.

A book is a much bigger enterprise than a blog post. If I had to compare the two, I would say that writing a blog post is at best like building a tree house while writing a book is like building a working train station. I’ve gotten pretty decent at building tree houses. When it comes to building working train stations, I’m at best a novice and a dangerous one at that. It’s a very different animal.

How long did the whole process take…from idea to manuscript, then manuscript to published book? And what surprised you most along the way?

Olivier Blanchard, Author

I want to say it took about six months for my part to be done, four of which were devoted to writing. Then there was the production and printing, the stuff that I didn’t have a hand in. So all in all, maybe 8 months from the time I started writing to the release date?

The start was pretty easy. I spent a few weeks working with Pearson on the proposal itself. It seems trivial because there wasn’t a lot of heavy lifting involved, but in hindsight it was the most crucial part of the process. It was then that we put together the Table of Contents and what turned out to be the book’s DNA. That early in the process, you can’t really know what the book’s personality is going to be, but you do know what it is going to be about, what it is going to cover, in what order, etc.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it is one of the most important aspects of writing a book – or rather, to make it possible to finish a book. I don’t think that starting books is a problem for anyone who likes to write. Actually finishing one is the real challenge. 

Having a Table of Contents and a detailed proposal gives you a road map for the book. That’s crucial, vital. I don’t think that the majority of books – business or otherwise – would actually get written without one. Think about it: you’re going to be writing a book for three, five, maybe eight months. That’s a long time to be wrestling with one project. The thing about working on something for that long is that you’re going to lose your way at some point, and probably more than once. You’re going to go off on a tangent. You’re going to take a wrong turn. If you don’t have that road map to get you back on track, you could be stuck in the weeds for a really long time. That’s how books don’t get finished. It isn’t for lack of will or talent or ability. It’s just that writers go a little crazy; they get a little lost. They end up going off course and can’t find their way back. Having a strong Table of Contents right from the start — a solid road map for the book — makes sure you can always find your way again, and sooner rather than later. It takes most of the dangerous guesswork out of the equation.

The writing itself didn’t take that long for me. I’m a pretty prolific writer. I can write fifteen, twenty pages a day if I know ahead of time what it is I want to write about.

And that’s the other thing: Having a schedule and a process in place that ensures that the schedule is the schedule. In my case, the project had been divided by Pearson into four simple due dates. Every four weeks, I owed them twenty-five percent of the manuscript. That kept the momentum going. The schedule wasn’t random or vague, it was set. Meeting that schedule was a job like any other. That kept things rolling. If my publisher hadn’t set those deadlines or incentivized me to stick to them, I would probably still be working on the book. It would have never gotten written. So deadlines matter.

Aside from those types of practical insights, I was surprised by two more things.

The first was how much more work the editing took. I don’t know if other writers have the same experience, but I found the editing portion of the project a lot more difficult and time-consuming than the actual writing. I swear I must have spent three times more energy reworking chapters than writing them in the first place.

The second thing was how important it is to feel that you have someone in the trenches with you during the entire process, especially when you’re going through tough spells (and every writer does). The relationship between a writer and an acquisitions editor is far more important than people realize. The two have to get along. They have to work together, build a rapport, build trust and mutual respect and even some measure of affection. That human element is key. If you don’t have that, I think you’re going to end up with a pretty lifeless book.

In Part Two of this interview, Blanchard explains why he went with a commercial publisher rather than self-publishing his book, how well it’s selling, and his aspirations as an author. 

If you have written a book or have a particular favorite (recently published) title that you’d like me to review for the Thought Readership series, email me the details and I’ll see what I can do!

 

 

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