My mum received a Christmas card from an old friend a few years back with a brief update on family news, including this plaintive summary: ‘The kids are both doing jobs I don’t understand.’ And who can blame her.
For centuries how people described what they did in the working day was fairly consistent, but suddenly there’s a whole new crop of jobs that your granny wouldn’t recognize: futurologist, digital prophet, head of analytics, genius (thanks Apple), back-end developer (which always makes me snigger), positioning expert.
Positioning expert is how Mark Levy of Levy Innovations LLC, this week’s guest in The Extraordinary Business Book Club, describes himself. And the results are dramatic: he claims the firm’s clients, experts in their fields, typically consultants, increase their fees by up to 2000% through positioning themselves in the right way online and off.
A key part of this involves writing a book that positions the expert as a thought leader, and so Mark has effectively also become a book coach (it was one of his clients, Robbie Kellman Baxter, who recommended I speak to him for the podcast).
Experts who want to be successful authors and publishers share a common focus: pleasing the reader. Many of the people Mark works with spend a significant amount of time and money finding out what people want, just as publishers pore over book sales data and run focus groups to identify what’s working and generate some more of it.
Which is great, of course. But Mark suggests that it’s not the place to start.
When he works with his clients, he asks them first to create what he calls a ‘meaning and fascination pile’: the experiences, stories, ideas, facts, images and so on that have stuck with them, that shape how they view their topic and the world. Only then does he encourage them to look out to the target reader and think about how this might apply to them.
‘I tell [my clients], “You need to write a book. If you want to be a thought leader, just looking to your audience is bad because if you look to your audience first, they’re only going to tell you what’s already been out there.”’
For many authors, this will mean drawing together threads from different areas of their life, and that cross-pollination can sometimes in itself create an enlightening shift in perception or a helpful new metaphor.
He also encourages his authors to see the writing itself as means of discovering the meaning and creating something original:
‘Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” That’s a real design parameter to me. If you just sit there and… you’re trying to write down exactly what it is you do, you’re going to be so bored and that boredom’s going to come through to the reader. You need to use the writing itself as a discovery process.’
For publishers, I think there are two challenges implied here.
1) How well are we supporting our authors to do that original thinking?
Balancing the clarity of the proposal and the decisions we need to make about the commerciality of a book against the opportunity to create something really original but more uncertain is tough, and requires the publisher to offer both support and challenge to the author. If your author’s thoughts are developing away from the original proposal as he or she writes, how will you know and how can you be involved in that process?
2) How good are we at recognizing the ‘irrelevant’ aspects of our authors’ biographies and how these might inform the book they’re writing?
The unexpected insights and perspectives that they bring from their wider experience of life could be the magic that transforms their book from an also-ran to a runaway success, and the better we get to know our authors, the more likely it is that we can spot and nurture those opportunities.
Until publishers rise to those challenges, authors will continue to look elsewhere – to positioning experts, coaches and publishing services providers – to find that support, and that could bring an even more intractable challenge to the industry in the long term.
Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. www.alisonjones.com.