The apples and oranges problem

The apples and oranges problem

Books are books. They’re made in the same factories, sold in the same stores, usually by the same publishers.

Which is absurd. Because the relevant and interesting insight gets lost if you look at books as a category.

There’s not a lot in common between a $200 medical textbook and a 99 cent Kindle romance disposable.

The same way that a survey that shows how humans can earn significant income tries to compare Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Evan the YouTube toy kid isn’t of much help.

Bernadette found us this big data study on the book industry. Alas, the authors missed just about all the nuance because they failed to do more than a cursory sorting within the industry. Mostly they determined that bestsellers sell a lot more books than books that aren’t bestsellers. Not a lot you can do with that data except try to make your book a bestseller if your goal is to sell a lot of books.

The bestseller list itself makes no sense. It’s an amalgam of many different buyers buying many different books for many different reasons. Most of the books aren’t substitutes for each other, and most of the buyers arrive and leave the market at random times. It’s not Top 40 radio.

More useful: Figure out if you’re an apple or an orange. Are you an ex-President or a biographer, a one-hit wonder or a professional writer?

For example, there are reliable paths to follow if you’re working in a specific genre, like romance. And different paths for a different genre, like cookbooks. Dig deep to see the well lit path that a self-published business author took, vs. the TV-driven approach a celebrity might follow.

The takeaway: If you can find a category, you can learn from it. But the broader the category, the less you’re going to learn.

Two reasons book covers matter

Two reasons book covers matter

Yes, in fact, people do judge a book by the title and the cover.

I think there are two reasons, not completely related:

  1. Most people don’t read, not even the books they actually buy. As a result, the title and the cover are often the best chance you have to make your point, to telegraph what you came to say, to set the stage for the first thirty pages.
  2. If someone reads a book and wants to recommend it, does the cover and the title make that easier or more difficult? Is it easy to talk about, pronounce, share? Does it embarrass or shame the recommender or the recipient? What does the look and feel remind us of?

Eat, Pray, Love was a magical cover and title combination. All Marketers are Liars was a terrible one. (My fault, not my publisher’s).

The move to tiny screens and busier lives has had many consequences. One of them is that we now use an index-card sized bucket to hold a lifetime’s worth of ideas, memes, memories and connections. It can’t possibly fit.

So, all that’s left is work to become iconic. Building an icon isn’t easy, but in a low-information, high-speed world, it’s your best bet.

Honest signals

Honest signals

Today’s publication day for Cat Hoke’s new book, A Second Chance.

It’s been a long journey, more than a year in the making, and all of us want it to do well.

Tomorrow, when I write about her book on my main blog, thousands of people will show up to the Amazon page, where they will have their first impression of the book.

How will they decide? Who will choose to buy it, who will push off the decision to later, and who will walk away for good?

Since Amazon has become the primary point of exposure for new books, and since books still drive so much of our common conversation, it’s an essential question.

Unlike the bookstore, all the books on Amazon look pretty much the same. And thus, we’re on hyper-alert for the small things, the little signals that tell us that this one is worth more of our time or money.

There are three obvious signals available:

  1. the cover
  2. the reviews
  3. the bestseller rank

And of course, along the way, ‘growth hackers’ (using the word generously, in quotes) have tried to game the system, using dishonest signals to capture more than a fair share of attention and trust. Readers, once burned, are more careful than ever.

Yes, it’s pretty simple to game a book to bestseller status, for an hour anyway. And, while it’s not as easy as it was, there are still plenty of ways to game the reviews.

But these are the only signals we’ve got in this retail setting. If you pre-ordered the Kindle edition of Cat’s book (thank you!) you now have the book on your device. Cat and I would be truly grateful if you’d post an honest review today (it’s not an accident that Amazon puts “Verified Purchase” next to some reviews–turning questionable signals back into honest ones.)

As I’ve written previously, a book is far more than a method for monetizing an idea. In fact, in 2018, it’s a pretty lousy way to monetize an idea. But Cat’s work with Defy, the work of her team, her volunteers, the EITs… all of it is amplified by this book, by this artifact that can be shared, read and cherished.

Thank you for the work you’ve done to help support Defy’s work. It’s already making a difference. Donors have stepped up with significant financial contributions, new volunteers have joined the network and people’s lives are changing. Every day.

Wish us luck this week. But with your help, we’re already making a ruckus. Thank you.


Stolen ideas

Stolen ideas

The paradox of non-fiction book publishing (and I’d stretch it to include popular fiction as well) has two components:

  1. Authors steal to write.
  2. And the writing they do gets stolen.

It’s easy to get up in arms about the second, but essential to embrace the first.

One can’t write without using the ideas, metaphors, styles, tropes, processes, concepts, examples and successes that came before. The writing would be incoherent, it wouldn’t resonate with anyone and failure would ensue.

It can’t be 100% original, but it often rhymes with what came before.

The converse of this, of course, is that if you do good work, the books and articles and conversations that follow will be inspired by (and stolen from) the work you do.

You won’t be acknowledged, and you’ll be quoted or misquoted. Or paraphrased.

If you’re successful.

If you’re not, you’ll discover that your work is merely invisible.

Here’s the cover for a book I did with Penguin about a decade ago, alongside the cover of a new book, yes, published by Penguin. I ran into the artist who did the work on my cover, and neither he nor I was informed. If I were him, having drawn all those little people with shadows, I’d be pretty annoyed. Giving him credit doesn’t hurt anyone.


Bad form aside, this is not only part of the deal, it’s the most important part of the deal. Culture is nothing but a sedimentary layering of ideas, each contributing to the next. That’s what we signed up for.

Steal and be stolen from. That’s how ideas work.

Too much static

Too much static

The 500-year-old publishing model is based on two fundamental needs:

  1. printing a lot of books at once is much cheaper than printing a few at a time.
  2. bookstores are the backbone of the industry, and all issues of timing, pricing and promotion should serve their needs.

Of course, neither of these is true any more.

So, why publish a book all at once, all or nothing, with a static price and static distribution?

Two weeks ago, Amazon made a significant mistake with Cat Hoke’s new book, A Second Chance.

The book has a pub date of February 26, 2018. In the industry a pub date is sacrosanct. Every store puts the books out on the same day, allowing publishers time to fill the warehouses, prime the pump, do the PR, organize everything, then –boom–.

Well, Amazon, our only retail storefront, screwed up and began shipping pre-orders in January, a month early. They sent hundreds of people an email confirmation, changed the book page, opened the site to reviews, the whole thing.

Long before the Defy team was ready.

We scrambled, and Amazon said it was a glitch and that they’d fix it. That no books would ship. Pub date would be saved.

But of course, they didn’t. And so hundreds of books went out, a couple of great reviews got posted and then finally, Amazon turned it back off.

You know what?

It was a good thing.

It was a good thing that at no expense to the author, hundreds of fans and supporters now have a copy of the book. A copy that, especially since no one else can get one, people are happy to talk about. It was a good thing that the reviews are there, making it more compelling to visit the book’s page on Amazon.

On balance, if we could do it again, we’d insist on it!

That got me thinking about all the ways a book launch could become something other than an all or nothing moment with a pub date, a nationwide ‘lay down’ and all the drama that comes with that.

For example: Books could launch in digital format and then, if certain numbers got hit, the paper version would become available. Or the price could change according to volume schedule set by the publisher. Or there could be windows when limited editions of a book were available, and then, automatically, the format could change. Perhaps the Kindle edition could have multiple variations, an abridged one that’s shorter, that one could upgrade to the full one. Or one with notes from early readers included, as edited by the author, etc. Or perhaps Kickstarter could have a way to hook up to the Amazon API and deliver Kindle books automatically when levels are reached.

There are 450 other ideas, some better, many worse. But we won’t know as long as the format and the timing and variables aren’t even being discussed. Just about every other form of media has been morphed and revolutionized by the digital transformation, but all that’s happened in the book world is the loss of the bookstore and the rise of the long tail.  (Special shoutout to sites like Wattpad who are trying to take new approaches.)

We can do better than a single book, at a single price, all launched on the same day, particularly if the platforms are built to support it.