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« July 2010 | Main | September 2010 »

Moving on

Linchpin will be the last book I publish in a traditional way.

One of the poxes on an author's otherwise blessed life is people who ask, "what's your next book," even if some of them haven't read the last one. (Jeff did, of course). To answer your question, this book is my next book. I think the ideas in Linchpin are my life's work, and I'm going to figure out the best way to spread those ideas, in whatever form they take. I also have some new, smaller projects in the works, and no doubt some bigger ones around the corner. [PS the best analysis of this whole thing, particularly the punchline is by Mitch.]

A little background: For ten years or so, beginning in 1986, I was a book packager. Sort of like a movie producer, but for books. My team and I created 120 published books and pitched another 600 ideas, all of which were summarily rejected. Some of the published books were flops, others were huge bestsellers. It was a lot of fun. As a book packager, you wake up in the morning and say, "what sort of book can I invent/sell/organize/write/produce today?"

It took a year or so, but I finally figured out that my customer wasn't the reader or the book buyer, it was the publisher. If the editor didn't buy my book, it didn't get published. Here's the thing: I liked having editors as my customers. These are smart, motivated and really nice people who are happy to talk with you about what they want and what they believe. Good customers to have. (In all of those years, only one publisher stole any of my ideas, no check ever bounced, and no publisher ever broke a promise to me).

When I decided to become focused on being an author, the logical thing to do was to sell to that same group of people. And it worked. I've been lucky enough to work with some great editors, and my current publisher, Portfolio, has been patient, flexible and, did I mention, patient. Adrian Zackheim, who runs the imprint, is exactly what you'd hope for, even if the architecture of his industry is fundamentally broken.

Authors need publishers because they need a customer. Readers have been separated from authors by many levels--stores, distributors, media outlets, printers, publishers--there were lots of layers for many generations, and the editor with a checkbook made the process palatable to the writer. For ten years, I had a publisher as a client (with some fun self-published adventures along the way). Twelve bestsellers later, I've thought hard about what it means to have a traditional publisher.

Traditional book publishers use techniques perfected a hundred years ago to help authors reach unknown readers, using a stable technology (books) and an antique and expensive distribution system.

The thing is--now I know who my readers are. Adding layers or faux scarcity doesn't help me or you. As the medium changes, publishers are on the defensive.... I honestly can't think of a single traditional book publisher who has led the development of a successful marketplace/marketing innovation in the last decade. The question asked by the corporate suits always seems to be, "how is this change in the marketplace going to hurt our core business?" To be succinct: I'm not sure that I serve my audience (you) by worrying about how a new approach is going to help or hurt Barnes & Noble.

My audience does things like buy five or ten copies at a time and distribute them to friends and co-workers. They (you) forward blog posts and PDFs. They join online discussion forums. None of these things are supported by the core of the current corporate publishing model.

Since February, I've shared my thoughts about the future of publishing in both public forums and in private brainstorming sessions with various friends in top jobs in the publishing industry. Other than one or two insightful mavericks, most of them looked at me like I was nuts for being an optimist. One CEO worked as hard as she could to restrain herself, but failed and almost threw me out of her office by the end. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't heartbroken at the fear I saw.

All a long way of saying that as the methods for spreading ideas and engaging with people keep changing, I can't think of a good reason to be on the defensive. It's been years since I woke up in the morning saying, "I need to write a book, I wonder what it should be about." Instead, my mission is to figure out who the audience is, and take them where they want and need to go, in whatever format works, even if it's not a traditionally published book.

If you're among the majority reading this that has never bought one of my books in a bookstore, not much will change. But I thought I'd share with you this fork in the road. Thanks for reading, in whatever form you choose.

Monitoring your internal monologue

One of the best ways we have to intuit the way others decide is to understand how we decide. We have a voice in our heads and we assume others do too. We don't like rancid cheese and we assume others don't either.

I've met two kinds of successful intuitive marketers. The first kind has absolutely no ability to describe why people do what they do. They just know. I talked with a famous fashion designer for two hours and came away believing that she has no idea whatsoever how or why purchasing decisions are made. She has no words for it.

The other kind is an honest witness of the decision-making that goes on every day inside. "Why did I just choose that?" "Why do I believe this? Is it because of something my dad said when I was three?" "Why did I give $100 to that charity? Why not zero? A thousand?" This self-insight is difficult and valuable. It means that you can't take things at face value, even things that you might be more comfortable leaving unexamined, as truths. Theologians wrestle with this dilemma all the time. How can you study an idea or a trend or a belief system if you also accept it as a universal, unquestionable fact?

And so the smart marketer throws away bias and stops cheering for one outcome over another and instead quietly takes notes on herself. Notes start shallow, but if you push, you can get deeper, stripping away layers of previously unexamined instinct. You can test those notes, see if they occur in other people when you vary the inputs. And it's this series of notes and tests that give you insight on how to share your next idea.

Drop everything, we need you to perform in our circus

Critics and fans, passersby and the media crave a battle, a scandal and heroic stories of winning and losing.

Want to get written up on a tech blog? Just post a really angry rant about your competition.

Want to sell tickets to the hockey game? Just put a few brawlers on the team.

The media demands that a politician "get angry" in the face of a conflict or problem that anger won't have any effect on--but it will make a good story. Your customers demand that you stop doing what's always worked and race to follow a trend or launch a risky sideline...

When you stumble or fall, they won't say, "sorry, we were wrong." They'll say, "what were you thinking!" and talk about it even more. And then the cycle continues.

Finding inspiration instead of it finding you

One approach to innovation and brainstorming is to wait for the muse to appear, to hope that it alights on your shoulder, to be ready to write down whatever comes to you.

The other is to seek it out, will it to appear, train it to arrive on time and on command.

The first method plays into our fears. After all, if you're not inspired, it's not your fault if you don't ship, it's not your fault if you don't do anything remarkable--hey, I don't have any good ideas, you can't expect me to speak up if I don't have any good ideas...

The second method challenges the fear and announces that you've abandoned the resistance and instead prepared to ship. Your first idea might not be good, or even your second or your tenth, but once you dedicate yourself to this cycle, yes, in fact, you will ship and make a difference.

Simple example: start a blog and post once a day on how your favorite company can improve its products or its service. Do it every day for a month, one new, actionable idea each and every day. Within a few weeks, you'll notice the change in the way you find, process and ship ideas.

Splitting wood

When using an axe to split logs, it's awfully tempting to aim at the top of the log.

After all, if you miss the log entirely, it's dangerous or at the very least, ineffective. One can argue that if you don't split the top, it's pointless—nothing else will happen.

The problem with aiming at the top is that the axe loses momentum before its work is done and you end up with a stuck axe and half a split log.

No, the best approach is to focus on splitting the bottom of the log. Split the bottom and the top takes care of itself.

Amplification: some of my smartest and fastest-reading readers (and some with experience in log splitting) missed the point of the post above. I'm not Gary Larson, so I guess I should clarify.

I'm not talking about turning the log upside down or some other semantic trick. I'm pointing out that if you aim at the top (at getting started), then you don't split the wood. If you aim at the bottom (by way of the top) then you do. Hitting the top of the log isn't, the point, it's merely the beginning of the stroke. In other words, don't focus so much on starting something. It's the follow through that will get you there, so the beginning must be with the end in mind. And yes, this actually makes wood chopping far easier.

Subtlety, deconstructed

Subtle is a cousin of beautiful.

Subtle design and messaging challenge the user to make her own connections instead of spelling out every detail. Connections we make are more powerful than connections made for us. If Amazon and Zappos had been called "reallybigbookstore.com" and "tonsofshoes.com" it might have made some early investors happy, but they would have built little of value.

Subtle details demonstrate power. Instead of being in an urgent hurry to yell about every feature or benefit, you demonstrate confidence by taking your time and allowing people to explore. They don't put huge banners on the Hermes store, announcing how good the silk is and how many famous people shop there...

And subtle messaging communicates insider status. I don't have to say, "Hey I was in Skull and Bones too! You should hire me!" Instead, a subtle (secret) handshake does all the talking that's needed.

It's tempting to turn the dial all the way to 11, the make everything just a bit louder. The opposite is precisely what you might need.

I'm aware of the oxymoronic nature of spelling out details about subtlety. At least I didn't explicitly point out the Spinal Tap reference.

The road trip continues (announcing Atlanta)

Over the summer, I've done full day road trip gigs in Boston and DC. Each was different, both were amazing. (Here are some comments from DC and Boston attendees).

Coming up: I'll be in Minneapolis next Thursday, the 26th. There's a free meetup planned a few days before for those who are going.

Chicago is completely sold out (full day) but there are a few half-day tickets left.

And today we're announcing Atlanta on Friday, October 8th. Full day tickets for Atlanta are discounted $300 if for readers of this blog... just enter the discount code Sethsblog. (Half day attendees save $125, your code is Ireadsethsblog). If you're in Atlanta, I hope you can come or perhaps spread the word.

Hope to see you there.

Avoiding momentum

Some days, even the best dentist doesn't feel like being a dentist.

And a lifeguard might not feel like being a lifeguard.

Fortunately, they have appointments, commitments and jobs. They have to show up. They have to start doing the work. And most of the time, this jump start is sufficient to get them over the hump, and then they go back to being in the zone and doing their best work.

Momentum is incredibly useful to someone who has to overcome fear, dig in deep and ship. Momentum gives you a reason to overcome your fear and do your art, because there are outside forces and obligations that keep you moving. Without them, you'd probably stumble and fall.

And yet...

And yet many of us fear too much momentum. We look at a project launch or a job or another new commitment as something that might get out of control. It's one thing to be a folk singer playing to a hundred people a night in a coffeehouse, but what if the momentum builds and you become a star? A rock star? With an entourage and appearances and higher than high expectations for your next work. That's a lot of momentum, no?

Deep down, this potential for an overwhelming response alerts the lizard brain and we hold back. We're afraid of being part of something that feels like it might be too big for us.

Hint: it probably isn't.

The fear tax

Here's what happens as a result of security theater at the Orlando airport:

  • You wait in line at least twenty minutes
  • There's a scrum of pushing and shoving
  • The staff are unhappy and not afraid to share it
  • An unreasonable workload leads to fatigue and errors
  • People miss their flights

Here's what doesn't happen:

  • Security is not increased
  • Peace of mind is not enhanced

In other words, we're paying a significant tax (time and money) and getting nothing in return. In fact, we get worse than nothing. We could call it an anxiety program, instead of a tax. (After all, when you pay a luxury tax, you get some hard-won luxury as part of the deal).

The reason the TSA keeps changing the rules is not because the rules work, but because changing the rules creates more anxiety (for bad guys, they say, but for us too).

Another example: the MBA. A lot of entrepreneurs get an MBA because they are afraid to go out into world without one. They are seeking the reassurance a credential will bring them, even though the cost is huge and there's no data to indicate that they'll be more successful as an entrepreneur as a result.

We pay the fear tax every time we spend time or money seeking reassurance. We pay it twice when the act of seeking that reassurance actually makes us more anxious, not less.

We pay the tax when we cover our butt instead of doing the right thing, and we pay the tax when we take away someone's dignity because we're afraid.

We should quantify the tax. The government should publish how much of our money they're spending to create fear and then spending to (apparently) address fear. Corporations should add to their annual reports how much they spent just-in-case. Once we know how much it costs, we can figure out if it's worth it.

Instead of seeking out gatekeepers and critics and others that demand we get the broom of the wicked witch, perhaps we should just publish our work. The tax is too high.

Instead of forgetting about the wasted anxiety after the fact, perhaps we ought to keep a log of how often we needlessly pay the fear tax.

Instead of over-staffing, over-planning, over-meeting and over-analyzing, perhaps organizations should take lower-cost steps and actually ship.

Think about how much you could get done if you didn't have to pay a tax to amplify or mollify your fear...

How long before you run out of talking points?

Here's how you know if someone is living the brand, is emotionally connected to the story and is literate and informed--or if they're just emotionally connected in the moment:

Ask a lot of questions.

Cornel West can talk for hours about race, the Bible or Marx. He knows it cold.

Dan Dennett can write for three hundred pages about the philosophy of free will and consciousness and he's just getting started. There's depth there.

I've talked to brand stewards from JetBlue and Starbucks that could go deep or wide or detailed for hours.

Then compare these passionate leaders to a pundit, spin doctor or troll (for just about any cause du jour) being interviewed on TV. After three sentences, they run out of assertions, facts or interesting things to say.

There's a lot to be said for being deep, scientific and informed.

(bonus: Via Xeni at Boingboing, consider this take on how we brainwash our kids. More talking points.)

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