Author: Alison Jones

Infrastructure of publishing business

Now We Are Five

Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is founder of Practical Inspiration Publishing, a pioneering publishing partner for businesses, and host of The Extraordinary Business Book Club, a podcast and community for writers and readers of extraordinary business books. She sits on the board of the Independent Publishers Guild and is Head Judge of the Business Book Awards. 

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Infrastructure of publishing business

Launch tips: How’s an author to stand out in a big crowd?

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.

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Only connect: The publisher’s role in helping ideas spread

Nigel Wilcockson, head of Random House Business Books, recognizes three categories of business books:

‘There is the management strategy book, which is what people think of straight away when they think of business books… you’re trying to get across ideas that may be relatively common currency but you’re finding a fresh way of putting them across.

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Infrastructure of publishing business

The reinvention of storytelling

Thousands of years ago, we told stories to each other. The best stories were those that could be repeated over and over again, changing little, those that embodied tribal memory, with strong, often repetitive structure and big heroes and villains. There wasn’t much by way of interior monologue or intertextuality.

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Why authors need to get messy

If you’re an author, or you’re working with an author, then you may beat yourself/them up for being unable to summon up a laser-like focus on the job in hand. Alternatively you may be exasperated by the way your/their creativity and the immediacy of the writing seem to evaporate as the book progresses. (I speak from experience of both perspectives here.) ‘Just focus!’ you might yell – out loud or under your breath. ‘Stop getting distracted!’

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Content marketing for publishers – top tips from a professional

Melissa Romo

There aren’t many people who can describe themselves as a professional content marketer, publisher and writer. These are three things very close to my heart, so I was practically dancing round the room when Melissa Romo agreed to be my guest on The Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast.

Melissa is Head of Global Content Marketing at Sage (the accountancy software company, not the publisher), and wrote a novel, Blue-Eyed Son, which she set up a publishing company, Red Ship Books, to publish. (You’ll have worked out by now that this is not a woman who does things by halves.)

Content marketing is now mainstream in every industry. It’s part of what Melissa described as the ‘digital transformation’, but that doesn’t mean it’s always necessarily done well. Here are three top tips from my conversation with Melissa to check your own content marketing strategy is on track.

1) Start with them, not you

Melissa described how Sage ‘is striving to truly leverage content as a strategic element of its digital marketing in a way that it hasn’t been able to so far.’ One reason why it’s been problematic in the past was legacy structure: ‘The company has really been organised by countries or acquired units, and so activity around content has been relatively siloed in those countries or acquired units… there hasn’t been a holistic thinking about the audience.’

The audience is not monolithic, of course, and neither is it an abstract concept. The people you’re writing for are real people with their own preoccupations, fears, frustrations and hopes. ‘It’s the job of content professionals and content specialists to help define the audience, and put a face on the audience,’ says Melissa. ‘We worked on this last year, defining six personas for Sage, and that is how we define our content… we have, in the past, tended to start with the product we’re trying to sell, and what we are working hard to change at Sage is that we actually should start with the person we’re trying to sell to.’ Not the imprints. Not marketing vs editorial. Not the UK vs the US. Whatever way your company has been carved up to create neat reporting lines is almost certainly not the way you want to be presenting yourself to your readership.

2) But don’t lose yourself along the way

I was struck by the fact that Melissa is one person on Twitter (@RomoAuthor), despite wearing so many hats. It wasn’t always that way, she told me, but ‘trying to run three Twitter accounts as an author, a publisher and a content professional was too hard, and I realised I lost the synergies that go between those three types of roles, and so I just decided to dump the three and go with @RomoAuthor… I want to just be that one persona out there in social media.’ What makes her so special is precisely that blend of expertise, experience and interests. People buy people, so focusing on your audience should not mean that you lose your sense of yourself. The publishers who are winning at social media and content marketing today are those who let the personalities of their passionate, intelligent, sometimes snarky, often funny individual members of staff shine through. Having said that, you can’t always have a bright young thing on hand to answer a customer’s question so…

3) Keep looking ahead

I asked Melissa what she thought were the trends in content marketing – what do we need to be thinking about next?

‘What’s really hot right now is content coming out through robots… The bot that Sage has developed is called Pegg, and Pegg actually works through Facebook Messenger and through Slack… You know, if you ask Pegg about your accounting balance, or just “Have I been paid by this customer today?” Pegg will be able to tell you if that has happened or not.’

Some publishers are already using chat bots like this: HarperCollins has recommendation bots that work through Facebook Messenger (BookGenie and EpicReads), and Pan Macmillan are on the brink of launching theirs. The team behind it, BAM Digital, are also developing a recommendation engine for voice-activated assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, which as Melissa notes is taking the US by storm: ‘Everyone has Alexa on their kitchen counter.’

Content marketing is still a relatively young discipline. In some ways it’s simply what we’ve always done – told stories, connected with each other, made someone laugh or cry or think, or persuaded them to do something – but it’s also just beginning to explore the boundaries of what’s becoming possible in this disrupted world.

Watch this space.

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.

Publishing and Positioning: What thought leadership means for authors

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.

membership economyAlison 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.

The author platform: Why it matters for publishers

Adrian Zackheim, founder of Portfolio, Penguin’s prestigious business book list, knows a thing or two about acquiring and marketing business books. So when I spoke to him in The Extraordinary Business Book Club this week I asked what he looked for in an author. An existing platform – a strong social media following, highly ranked blog, YouTube channel, podcast or the like – is certainly one factor.

‘When we’re taking on an author who has never had a book published before, one of the indications that this is a person we should consider is the pre-existence of a significant platform… because that means that this person has already started to attract a community, and that that community can be built upon. It’s an obvious strategy for publishers to seek out people with pre-existing platforms and attempt to extend them.’

It’s not the only factor, of course. Zackheim describes the acquisition decision as a triangulation of three key elements – platform, sure, but also person and concept:

‘There is this calculation that one has to make about: where is that platform? How significant, how important is the platform, and how good is this person as a communicator? Then how significant are the ideas that are being developed here? You have to triangulate those three considerations in order to determine the prospects for an author, and obviously we’re wrong as often as we’re right.’

There’s a potential Catch-22 for publishers here, of course: if someone has a strong platform, they may be asking themselves if they need a traditional publisher at all.

And many authors, who see a book as a way of establishing a platform, certainly feel it’s a particularly vicious double bind: ‘You mean you won’t publish me until I’ve got a following? But I need the book to get a following!’

Zackheim’s logic is irrefutable, though. You may have needed a gatekeeper such as a publisher or broadcaster 10 years ago to get your ideas out and build some energy around them: now you have an embarrassment of channels and tools through which and with which to disseminate them. If you’re not using them, the inescapable conclusion is that something is lacking.

As Zackheim puts it:

‘Anybody who is a compelling thinker and communicator, who has been completely unable to build any sort of following or to even create a ripple of interest in the media world, when they come to us with their book proposal, we have to consider it with some suspicion, because how come nothing has happened around this idea set so far?… Particularly if [they are] now coming to us and saying, “I am dying to get this idea in front of a large community. You need to help me because this idea is so important, but I really have not been able to attract a single follower.”’

The age-old dance between publisher and author, the delicate power balance played out in pitch and offer and negotiation, has evolved: while the principle remains the same – to communicate an important idea effectively to the people who need to hear it – today the publisher is just one of a number of partners on the floor.

What’s exciting about this of course is that the partners aren’t competing: if the publisher takes the time to understand what underpins the author’s platform and finds ways to support and build those channels, the reward is more attention for the idea and more sales of the book.

The art of acquisition – it gets more interesting by the day.

membership economyAlison 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.

Brand building for publishers: It may not be what you think

Publishers spend a lot of time talking about building their brands, but most of us know in our heart of hearts that – for most of the readers most of the time – our brands are pretty much irrelevant. Some have nailed it – Penguin, Oxford, Nature, Rough Guides, Wiley’s Dummies Guides – but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule.

For the most part, the real brand in book publishing is the author. Which is a potential problem for publishers, as it leaves them vulnerable to disintermediation.

This week in The Extraordinary Business Book Club I talk to Alan Weiss, author of Million Dollar Consulting. Brand is central to who Alan is and what he does, and he offered two succinct definitions:

1) Brand is a uniform expression of value (as he put it, ‘Nobody goes into McDonald’s to browse, they know exactly what they’ll find in there.’)

2) Brand is how people think about you when you’re not there.

The first is where publishers have traditionally focused their brand-building efforts. They have positioned themselves as gatekeepers, curators, a guarantee of quality in a sea of indifferent (or worse) content. Nothing wrong with that. But does it go far enough?

I think that second definition is a great challenge for publishers. It carries a couple of implicit questions. Firstly, ARE people thinking about you when you’re not there? (For most of us, the answer is, not much, probably.) Secondly, WHO are the ‘people’ we’re talking about here? Publishers need their brand to have value for two (usually very different) groups: authors and readers.  And thirdly, WHAT is it they’re thinking about, exactly – your company, or your products?

Alan was clear that for him, the ultimate brand is simply his name. He wants CEOs to yell ‘Get me Alan Weiss!’ But he adds, ‘Beneath that, covered by that umbrella, you can have a multitude of brands.’

One is the ‘Million Dollar’ moniker itself, which now features not only in other books such as Million Dollar Maverick but across a whole suite of products and services including an annual convention, a regular newsletter, an online community and a training college. Daniel Priestly did something similar with Key Person of Influence, which has become a franchised business accelerator programme.  When you’re thinking of titles, it never hurts to use one with the potential for this kind of immediate recognition, something distinctive and resonant, with the ability to flex and extend beyond the book itself.

But one of the reasons that Alan knows his name is his strongest brand is that it’s the one to which people can connect most readily on an emotional level. Alan uses this very consciously, featuring his beloved dogs – Buddy and Bentley – in his videos (he even offers credit cards named after them), and often posing in front of his equally beloved flashy cars:

People expect a certain lifestyle from me. I don’t just tell people to create a business and to market better, and to write books and so forth. I help people to understand how to live, and so people are interested in my lifestyle. They’re interested in exotic cars, they’re interested in my travels, they’re interested in how I choose to live. I happen to love dogs… The more you involve your passion in your business, the better you are at it, it’s as simple as that.’

It’s hard for a business any business not just a publisher to achieve that level of emotional engagement. Certainly Summit Consulting Group as a brand doesn’t have the same cachet as Alan Weiss own name.

But here’s the interesting thing: Summit Consulting Group leverages the power of the Alan Weiss brand. The company fulfills the first of Alan’s definitions of brand – the uniform expression of value – and it’s reinforced and magnified by the more emotional connection inherent in Alan’s second definition: how people think about you when you’re not there. Clients know that when they work with the company, they’re getting something of the rock-star thrill of working with the man himself even if they never actually speak to him.

As publishers we can and should build our brands – at company, series, title level – and deliver consistently on the promise that each implies, but at the end of the day how we work to build our authors’ brands reflects back on us more powerfully than any marketing copy we can put out there. Quite simply when they succeed, we succeed.

membership economyAlison 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.

JVs and affiliates – better together

It’s a fact of life – of my life certainly, and I’m pretty sure yours too – that you can’t do everything on your own. Sometimes you need to bring specific skills and experience into the business by recruiting, sometimes you need to partner with another company, such as software developers, to deliver a project.

But those aren’t the only options.

Entrepreneurs and small businesses are pioneering new, more flexible models for collaboration and for punching above their weight. Two of the most interesting are joint ventures and affiliate programmes, which are slightly different although the terms are often used interchangeably.

Joint ventures

Typically a joint venture is less formal than a full partnership, although it may be governed by a legal agreement. It usually involves two complementary rather than competing companies coming together to create a new product or service that will appeal to both their markets, or jointly promoting complementary products or services to mutual benefit.  Because it’s a two-way process, it typically involves negotiation to secure that mutual benefit. In marketing terms, however, joint ventures are more usually understood to mean an integrated marketing strategy bringing benefits to both companies. They could do reciprocal email campaigns promoting the other’s product/service/event to their subscribers, for example, or share synergistic assets to create a content marketing campaign that’s more than the sum of the parts.

When it’s done right, a JV is a win/win: your community (and therefore you) benefit because you can offer them something of interest and value, while you leverage your partner’s network and community to reach new customers. When it’s done poorly, because the fit isn’t right or the benefit isn’t equal, it’s irritating to one or both partners and their communities.

Affiliate programmes

In an affiliate relationship, there’s less in the way of cooperation: the provider of a product or service provides a unique affiliate link or code that another organisation can use, and the affiliate receives a percentage of any sales (and/or advertising revenue) derived from that link. In an affiliate relationship the product or service belongs entirely to the originating partner, and the affiliate serves only to broaden its reach – there’s usually little if any room for negotiation. Amazon is perhaps the most obvious example – it bills itself as the ‘most popular and successful’ affiliate programme on the web.

Where are the opportunities for publishers?

You could argue that any rights deal is a joint venture – whether that’s for a translation or film adaptation. Or indeed that it’s a reasonable way to describe the relationship between publisher and author. Certainly publishing on behalf of an organisation is a great JV opportunity for publishers, such as Nosy Crow’s relationship with the National Trust or my own white-labelling services for organisations.

But there are many non-traditional opportunities for using these models too, without getting into a fully-fledged joint venture. You don’t even need tracking URL technology for all of them, and one of the best things about them is that you don’t spend a penny until the sales roll in. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Enlist co-authors for mutual benefit: for example one brings the time and ability to write while the other has the profile and reach to promote the book effectively. Patrick Vlaskovits, Neil Patel and Jonas Koffler brought a complementary set of skills to the table to create Hustle, published by Penguin.
  • Another twist on this is for the author of a general book to partner with experts in specific niches to create new ‘verticals’, as Michael E. Gerber did with the legendarily successful The E-Myth Revisited to create the E-Myth Expert series, for professions as diverse as vets, financial advisors and optometrists.
  • Your book launch will be rocket-fuelled if you get the right partners on board: in Launch, Jeff Walker describes how he generated over $1m revenue in an hour from a well-planned JV product launch. And since JV partners typically direct their subscribers to sign up on your landing page, you can simultaneously grow your mailing list at the same time, which over time is likely to be worth significantly more than the initial flurry of sales.
  • Run a multiple JV-partner direct marketing and/or social media campaign, providing marketing collateral or ‘swipe’ copy that they can use. Make it as easy as possible for them to promote your stuff, but allow them to adapt your copy and/or write their own too: they will have their own tone and stylistic quirks. (And hey, since as we’ve already established authors and publishers are by definition joint venture partners, why not make a suite of marketing collateral available to your authors too?)
  • You have great content. Your potential JV partner has a great platform and network, and platforms and networks run on content. Think creatively about what you can produce for them – a blog or vlog series, a webinar, free online training – to get the most effective exposure/content win/win.
  • Finally, and perhaps most obviously, why not take a leaf out of Amazon’s book and reward people who love your books and are willing to promote them? From the biggest (PRH) to small independents (Chronicle Books), savvy publishers run affiliate programmes typically offering up to 10% commission on sales, and often with an enhanced scheme for their own authors. In a world of horizontal selling and peer recommendations, this makes all kinds of sense.

If you’re a publisher or author running successful JV or affiliate schemes, I’d love to hear your story – perhaps you could share it in The Extraordinary Business Book Club?

membership economyAlison 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.

Building the book in public

For most publishers, the finished book is not just the main unit of currency but the single external output from the publishing process. Galleys or ARCs might go out, tightly controlled, to reviewers, but the manuscript itself and early rounds of proofs are strictly between author and editor. The exception of course is academic publishing, where editors will routinely send out proposals and manuscripts, and often points in between, such as sample chapters, for peer review – checking, advice and input from experts in the relevant field of study.

Several publishers have experimented over the last few years with making books available before publication – Safari Rough Cuts, now O’Reilly’s ‘Early Release’ programme, was one of the first, allowing customers to buy access to books as they are being written and to provide feedback along the way. Leanpub is another good example, with authors using the Leanpub tools to write and publish in a single iterative process, taking on board comments along the way.

It takes a brave author to do this, one who is secure in their own expertise and who believes passionately in collaboration and the wisdom of the crowd. One such as Guy Kawasaki, author of 13 books include Art of the Start 2.0 and Enchantment and my guest in this week’s Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast, for example. Except that Guy doesn’t participate in an early access sales programme run by a publisher: he simply puts first his table of contents and then his full first draft up online.

‘I literally post my Word file and I turn on the comment thing and I say, “Okay, insert your comments.” The bottom line is here’s my manuscript, have at it.’

What results is not only a better book, but an incredibly strong network of relationships and a body of people invested in the success of the book. As he points out:

‘A lot of people have never interacted with an author this way, never had input into a book. They go to Amazon, buy it, and their input is inputting their credit card. There are people who can fundamentally change my book, and people have.’

For Guy, it was a logical extension of the value he saw from sending the draft to a hand-selected set of beta readers.

‘Even before I came up with this idea, there were 10, 15, 20 people who I respected in the world who I would send my manuscript to, and I noticed that they came back with very good comments. Then I figured out that, God, maybe you don’t know all the intelligent people in the world first-hand, so maybe you should broaden your net… When you think about it, you just have to assume that it’s the law of big numbers, and that’s what I do.’

This is a challenging concept for publishers. Not only does it disintermediate them to some extent (the author is building links directly with potential readers), but the idea of putting the content itself, the thing that our entire revenue stream depends on, up for free on the interweb is deeply worrying. What’s the point in investing in anti-piracy measures after publication if you’re going to plaster the world with the first draft for free?

The reality of course is that most books fail for lack of attention and awareness, not a lack of adequate anti-piracy measures. Guy is sanguine about any potential loss of sales.

‘If a thousand people get my manuscript and don’t buy it, the thousand isn’t going to be the difference between success and failure. I want hundreds of thousands. I want millions of people to buy my book. If a thousand don’t, but in fact that process that makes my book better, that enables hundreds of thousands or millions of people to buy it, so be it. I would gladly give away a thousand copies to get hundreds of thousands or millions sold.’

But even when the sales forecast for a book is in the hundreds rather than the hundreds of thousands of copies, I’d argue that those who engaged with the manuscript and the author directly are in fact the most likely of all potential readers to buy the finished book, and not only that, but to rave about it to anyone who’ll listen. This is partly their book too, after all.

‘I don’t see anyone else doing it my way,’ Guy notes. I think he’s right, and it surprises me. I’d love to hear from any other publishers who can prove us wrong.

membership economyAlison 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.

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Draw me a picture: Why books are becoming more visual

When your satnav tells you your journey will take 58 minutes, are you one of those people who immediately things to themselves: ‘I bet I can bring it in in under 55.’?

I’m increasingly seeing ‘estimated reading time’ on blogs and articles these days, and I find that has a similar effect. ‘Six minutes? Rubbish. That’s 3 at the most.’

Which I do realise isn’t a very helpful attitude with which to approach either a journey or a piece of text.

But apart from tapping into our innate competitiveness, what purpose do estimated reading times serve?

Author and academic entrepreneur Heather McGowan, my guest in the Extraordinary Business Book Club last week, made the point tellingly:

If you looked at it in terms of newspapers, which is just an easy unit to understand, in the 1980s, we had the equivalent of about 40 newspapers coming at us every day. In 2008, it became 174 newspapers. In 2014, it became 280 newspapers, so we have this huge amount of content that’s coming at us every day. I think it’s giving us a fair amount of fatigue.’

There’s a famous Microsoft study on what technology is doing to our attention spans. From a frankly not wildly impressive 12 seconds in 2000, we are now down to 8 seconds, apparently. That’s just below goldfish standard (9 seconds, though how they measure this defeats me).

In one sense, books are the antidote to this frenetic grazing. In a book we can still lose track of time altogether – there’s space for deep thinking and complex issues, and the implicit contract with the reader is that they will devote their attention deeply enough and long enough to work through the chewy bits. I suspect this desire for deep diving in the face of relentless superficiality is one reason for the popularity of recent blockbusters like The Goldfinch and The Silk Roads.

But in another sense, books are just as caught up in this war for attention as any other textual content. So how do they compete in a world where people are making the decision on where to focus their attention based on a complex ROI calculation where value = benefit/processing time?

One solution, espoused by McGowan, is to start with visuals rather than text.

‘My starting process is: how would I put this on a single page so that people can understand it with very few words using shapes and different types of frameworks? I usually start with a series of frameworks that tell the story to me in my head and then after that I write… Visual processing speeds are much more quick and much more efficient. When you look at text, you turn those texts into symbols that you store in your mind visually. When you look at a picture, you can be 30,000 times faster reading all the same information that’s in a picture than in a narrative text.’

She estimates that while most business books take 6-9 hours to read, hers will be ‘consumed’ in 60-90 minutes, with better comprehension and retention.

We’re wired for pictures. Most of the information our brain processes is visual and we’re good at processing it really fast because we’ve been doing it for millions of years and our survival has historically depended upon it: reading is an evolutionary latecomer to the neurological party.

It’s exciting to see books like McGowan’s explore this more visual approach, marrying the power of visual commination with the depth and complexity of the book format. Projects such as David McCandless’s gorgeous Information is Beautiful and Dear Data, mesmerising data-visualisation postcards exchanged between Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec, are showing what’s possible in this space.

Editors and writers are traditionally ‘word’ people – our challenge is to plug into the power of visualisation to create books that serves time-poor readers not only without sacrificing the beauty, creativity and depth of our stories and ideas, but enhancing them in the process.

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.

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Coming at the book backward

Kelly Pietrangeli had a brilliant idea for a book. She and her friends had discovered a powerful way of managing the chaos and anxiety that seems an inevitable part of bringing up children today with a set of tools around life balance, productivity and goal setting. They’d been using the tools themselves with great success, and the next obvious step seemed to Kelly to write a book. Full of enthusiasm, she and a friend got started.

But then:

‘It just occurred to me one day, how are we going to get a book deal on this book called Project Me, when we have no website, no social media platform whatsoever, like, who are we, you know? We’re just a couple of mothers who are writing this book and I suddenly lost confidence in the idea.’

That’s where many book ideas start and end. Or Kelly could have decided to opt instead for self-publishing.

‘But then it occurred to me, well, we could kind of do things backwards here and set up a website, and take the chapters we’ve written so far and turn them into blog posts.’

Her friend and co-author was initially horrified. ‘What, we’re just going to take all this stuff we’ve been working on and just put it for free on a website so anybody can get it? Why would anybody later want to buy a book if it’s already there on the website?’

But Kelly convinced her it was worth the risk. They launched ProjectMe for Busy Mothers, first as a blog, then gradually as a suite of resources, online course, workshops, coaching and ultimately a community, and the book itself was forgotten. Until one day a member of that community, who happened to be a literary agent, said: ‘Kelly, there’s a book in this.’

And so the book was born, back to front. Instead of pitching the idea to publishers in the hope that they’d be the means of getting the word out and building her profile, Kelly found herself sitting at a table with publishers falling over themselves to sign her up.

She’d done the work. She’d build a following, proved her idea resonated with her target market, and created a back-end that would power the sales. (You can hear the full story here.)

Sometimes it seems like a particularly cruel Catch 22: you can only get a publishing deal if you’re already famous; if you’re already famous, you don’t need a publishing deal. But in fact it makes all kinds of sense for nonfiction.

As Adrian Zackheim, publisher at Portfolio, Penguin Random House, said when I interviewed him for the podcast recently (episode not yet broadcast):

‘There are so many tools at our disposal for communication and for building a following… anybody who is a compelling thinker and communicator who has been completely unable to build any sort of following or to even create a ripple of interest in the media world, when they come to us with their book proposal, we have to consider it with some suspicion, because how come nothing has happened around this idea set so far?… Particularly if you are now coming to us and saying, “I am dying to get this idea in front of a large community. You need to help me because this idea is so important, but I really have not been able to attract a single follower.”’

The next challenge is for publishers to go beyond seeing authors’ platforms and communities as simply a green light to take a risk on a book, to develop tools and expertise to support their authors to build their platform or business even further through the book. And as Mike Shatzkin pointed out on Book Machine last year, no publisher has this right yet.

membership economyAlison 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.

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