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.

The shift is real and it’s forever (books by the numbers)

The shift is real and it’s forever (books by the numbers)

Books (and bookstores) have been around for 500 years, and one thing the industry has improved is data gathering. By store, by genre, by format, by author. The data is there… authors can ignore it in their quest to make a ruckus, but the trends are worth knowing about, especially if you’re a publisher or work with one.

Mike Shatzkin and the folks behind Bookstat know precisely what’s going on.

Four highlights:

  1. Amazon sells nearly half the books sold in the US now. It’s only going to keep going that way. Barnes and Noble and other outlets are shrinking quickly.
  2. ebooks account for more than half of all books sold, and in some genres, it’s way more than that. Again, it’s only going to keep going in that direction as more genre books shift and outlets disappear. An entire generation of readers is coming along that will encounter books without ever visiting a ‘real’ bookstore.
  3. Self-published and small press books at low prices dominate unit sales. You can sell a lot more ebooks for $3, and if you want to reach a lot of people, that’s what’s happening.
  4. As always, books have always been a long tail business, but now more than ever. The bestselling book of the year will likely be read by fewer than 1% of the people in the US. There’s no other form of media that’s even close to that low. In exchange, though, there are millions (not a typo) of books hanging out at the long tail. Which is fine if you’re a reader, but tough if you’re a writer.

Most of all, it’s worth noting that book sales are lumpy. The overall trends don’t matter to a single book or a single author… you only need 10,000 devoted readers to make a living. I expect there will be bestselling hit books for another twenty years. But, we’re now living in radically different times, and it doesn’t pay to act as if the world hasn’t changed.

What does this mean for publishers?

We need publishers. We need them because most authors need financial and moral and organizational support to do the year or five of work necessary to create an important book. And we need them because most authors aren’t interested in doing all the hard work necessary to build a permission asset and promotion engine necessary to make it as an author. Readers need them too, because many want a curated, thoughtful book when it’s time to buy something.

But publishers can’t persist in their high-volume, low-conviction approach to the market. It used to work–because shelf space was king, and pumping out plenty of books got you more shelf space which gave you more chances to have more hits. So, why not?

Now, of course, shelf space is free. Literally, figuratively and actually free.

Publishers have to shift to the approach that successful VCs follow. Low-volume and high-conviction.

Once they make that commitment, they need to invest the time and money to actually build a permission asset. To connect directly to readers (people like you) instead of merely catering to bookstores. I know I’ve been saying this for twenty (!) years, but I’m still right.

Build that asset and the quick speed to market and low inventory risk of Amazon become your friend, not your enemy. Amazon doesn’t care who wins or loses–they’re the casino, they win no matter what. But if you’re building a book worth reading, an idea worth sharing, it’s important to pick your audience and ignore everyone else.

Books matter because there’s nothing like the experience of quietly engaging with ideas. It makes us better. It creates opportunities for those that hope to invent and share ideas. I hope we don’t lose books any time soon.

The power of bulk sales (Building a Book IV)

The power of bulk sales (Building a Book IV)

A few years ago, I self-published What To Do When It’s Your Turn. We now have more than 150,000 copies in print. That’s amazing for a book that lists for $32, is in color and is hardly a traditional business book. It’s not sold in stores, and is rarely found on Amazon.

How did it become a bestseller?

The biggest amplifier of the success of the book is the way I chose to price and ship it. More than a third of the book’s sales have been to people who bought ten or more copies at a time. Each of these people bought a few, then a few more, then a bunch.

Arithmetic is on the side of the publisher who can embrace the power of bulk sales. When a reader finds that a book resonates, she can invest in buying more copies and give them away. And books that are given away are books that get read.

It’s worth pausing for a second to consider the significant shift that this represents. Traditional publishers have always been wary of bulk sales. It’s so difficult to figure out that an entire company (our friends at 8CR) is devoted to making it easier. The traditional model is that a bookstore might sell 50 copies of your book. Or that a particularly successful PR match might lead to a TV show or radio appearance that sells 1,000. But the thinking is that the middlemen are stores and media outlets.

But what if instead, the middlemen are your readers and fans?

Traditional bestseller lists work hard to avoid bulk sales. They don’t count as ‘real’ apparently.

But the author’s goals are different. The author merely wants to spread the word. Lists are for groceries.

Cat Hoke’s new book, A Second Chance, is about forgiveness. It’s not just a memoir, but a call to action for each of us, a chance to change the way we engage… not just with criminal justice, but with each other.

As the voluntary publishers of her book, we’re counting on bulk sales from individuals and organizations to replace the book media that used to exist but is now missing for most authors. By encouraging people to buy five or ten or fifty books for their organizations, we accomplish three things:

1. Most important, we give the reader’s organization a new vocabulary. When a team reads a book at the same time, they change in sync. They develop new words, new approaches and new cohesion. I’ve seen this happen firsthand with The Dip and Purple Cow.

2. The Proustian magic of the book format carries far more weight than an email or a video can. Handing someone a book is a respectful act, the way to open a door of possibility.

3. Priming Amazon’s pump with a significant number of bulk pre-orders ensures that we won’t run out of stock on pub date at the end of February.

Here’s a preview galley of the first thirty pages of the book.

We’ve donated 20,000 copies of the hardcover to Defy so that every copy sold generates nothing but contribution to their important work. My hope is that Defy’s supporters, plus readers of this blog will step up and invest in ten or twenty books for their friends and family. Thanks to Pamela Slim and Marketing Over Coffee for getting us started. I know that it’s a stretch, particularly for a book you haven’t read yet, but I’m hoping the galley will help you see the power of what Cat and her team are building.

You can check out the book (in hardcover and Kindle, and soon audio) here. Thank you.

The secret to designing a cover (Building a Book III)

The secret to designing a cover (Building a Book III)

Most books are self-published. Perhaps half are non-fiction.

And the number of self-publishers who miss this secret is astonishing. Here you go:

The purpose of a book cover is to remind you of a book you’ve read that you liked.

The goal is not to invent a new way to design a book cover.

The goal is not to prove to the world that you have good taste.

And the goal is not to save money by designing it yourself in Microsoft Paint.

The thing is, the eye is discerning. It can instantly tell the difference between the real thing and something that’s almost the real thing.

I had the privilege of working with our Creative Director, Alex Peck, in designing the cover for Cat Hoke’s new book.

Alex is a craftsman. And a designer. He understands the power of design thinking, and always begins with, “what’s it for?”

In the case of Cat’s book, the what’s it for is simple: The purpose of the cover is to establish quite clearly that this is a book of substance, by a professional, a woman with something important to say.

In the book world, this is communicated NOT with cutting edge fonts and colors, but with nuance. With the patina of experience. With 100 tiny adjustments, with line spacing, shading, shadows, stickers, emblems and embellishments.

It’s painstaking but it’s worth it.

Here are just a few of the iterations that Alex went through:

The book is being printed and comes out in late February. If you want to see the final cover, here it is.