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Talking Podcasts: The Extraordinary Business Book Club

In the second article in our Talking Podcasts series, Abbie Headon interviews Alison Jones, a regular contributor to the BookMachine blog and an expert commentator on all things digital, about her podcast, The Extraordinary Business Book Club.

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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. www.alisonjones.com

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. www.alisonjones.com

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. www.alisonjones.com

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. www.alisonjones.com

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. www.alisonjones.com

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. www.alisonjones.com

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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. www.alisonjones.com

membership economy

The membership economy


Meet Millennia. Millennia doesn’t take a taxi to the airport, she books an Uber ride. She doesn’t buy a novel at WHSmith while she waits for the plane, she loads up the latest instalment of her favourite Wattpad serial on her mobile. When she arrives, she doesn’t head for a hotel: she’s going Airbnb and staying with locals, and she eats at the restaurants recommended by TripAdvisor, not a guidebook, wearing the new maxi-dress she bought off eBay, not the high street. While she’s away, she remembered to find someone on TaskRabbit to look after the garden.

Millennia doesn’t know it, but she’s a poster girl for the sharing economy, enabled and driven by the internet (which is itself of course fundamentally a peer-to-peer network) and disrupting pretty much every industry in the process.

But there’s a new business model on the block, which holds significantly more promise for businesses: the membership economy.

Strategy expert Robbie Kellman Baxter, author of The Membership Economy and my guest in The Extraordinary Business Book Club this week, explains:

‘The membership economy is a massive transformational trend that is really transforming virtually every industry, moving from an emphasis on ownership versus access, moving from the transactional to the relationship, moving from anonymous to known relationships, moving from one-way communication to community. All of those things together are creating all kinds of new ways to build business models and, most importantly, to build long-term relationships with your customers.’

In the membership model the assets belong to the company: sharing economy businesses provide the marketplace for discovery and transactions but don’t own the assets themselves. In contrast, Netflix – an exemplar of the membership economy – allows its members to access its own content, rather than giving them a way to share their own films.

A related trend is the subscription model, which has been the cornerstone of library journal and ebook acquisition for years, but membership need not involve a subscription, and a subscription alone is just a way to pay; it doesn’t necessarily imply membership. As Robbie puts it, ‘Membership is a mindset… there’s an emotional component there. A sense of belonging. A sense of building a tribe or people with a connection.’

Given how good books are at stirring emotions and building connections, it’s not surprising that smart publishers are tapping into the power of the membership economy. Small scholarly societies have been doing this for years of course, but more recently initiatives such as Pottermore and Osprey Members have shown what’s possible for trade publishers too.

In an adjacent space, The Guardian has successfully established its membership model as an alternative to the other two dominant models in journalism: paywall and advertising. Guardian membership appeals to the readers’ values (‘fearless and independent’) and sense of identity, and the various levels of membership (supporter, partner, patron) allow a range of price points – how often do publishers allow those who really love what they do to spend serious money with them?

So many of the most interesting initiatives in the world of books use the sharing model, driven by the passionate desire of readers to dive deeper into their experience with books, to connect with each other (and ideally their favourite authors), create their own stories based on the characters and worlds they love. Just take a look at some of the start-ups featured in the Bookseller’s Futurebook recently – Litsy, The Pigeonhole, Oolipo to name but a few – plus of course well-established players such as GoodReads and Wattpad. It’s been hard for publishers to gain traction with these models, with distrust flying in both directions.

The membership mindset, on the other hand, gives publishers the opportunity to host the conversation, rather than sitting outside it, and to create new revenue streams at high margin. It’s a model worth taking seriously.


Business books

The new hustle

This week in The Extraordinary Business Book Club I interviewed Patrick Vlaskovits, co-author of Hustle (with Jonas Koffler and Neil Patel) and The Lean Entrepreneur (with Brant Cooper).

The name of the book itself raised a question about the meaning and value of words: when Patrick told his father, an old-school, first-generation Hungarian immigrant to America who’d thrown out the TV as a Bad Influence when Patrick was a child, that he was writing a book entitle Hustle, his father was baffled and dismayed. ‘Why would you write a book about stealing?’

But as Patrick points out, for millennials, the word has lost its negative connotation: today, it’s not about a con, it’s about moving fast, making money, finding a way. It’s about discovering your talent, working it, making a difference, not waiting for permission from anyone, not waiting to be asked. It’s about agency in the philosophical rather than the literary sense, ie the capacity to act.

That’s an interesting semantic shift.

And it underlines something that’s happening in publishing right now, and which Vlaskovits himself illustrates beautifully.

The Lean Entrepreneur was born in a chance conversation in a coffee shop. In Pete’s Coffee Shop in Emeryville, California, to be specific, while they were discussing Steve Blank’s brilliant but dense book on lean entrepreneurship. They were passionate about the ideas in the book and recommending it to everyone they met, but it was so hard to read that very few people ‘got it’.

‘[Heaton Shaw] said, “Someone should write the Cliff Notes,” and then Brant and I just looked at each other, like, “Why don’t we do this?” To be honest, there’s actually quite a few reasons why we wouldn’t have been good people to write the book. I don’t think we had necessarily the credibility or the experience, but what I’ve learned is, it doesn’t matter. It’s not necessarily the winners who write history. It’s the people who write history are the people who write history.’

Hustle, see?

And they didn’t just write the book, they did interesting stuff with it too: they formatted it landscape for easier reading on a screen, they made it freely available as a PDF download, they commissioned the mysterious Fake Grimlock to create cult cartoon illustrations. It sold pretty well, and still does, six years on, but as Vlaskovits acknowledges, the book sales weren’t really the point.

‘If you trace back the revenue that we generated from that book, not only from book sales, but from speaking and workshops, it’s probably in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.’

Patrick Vlaskovits is a great example of the new breed of authors, who will work with traditional publishes when it suits them but are happy to publish for themselves if it doesn’t. The book is part of something bigger for them. They’re not waiting for permission, or acceptance. They’re just doing it. And they’re writing history in the process.

The role of the print book in an increasingly online world

Back in 2010, working at a scholarly publisher, I had a bet with our Production Director that half our revenue would be digital by the end of 2013. I lost. (We weren’t too far off, in my defence – scholarly publishers generally migrated their library revenues to digital faster and more fully than trade publishers have managed, but still.)

What he realised six years ago and I didn’t was the way that print as a technology suits us as humans so beautifully. For most of us, reading a book is more than simply translating the author’s brain output into our brain input. And reading on a flat screen, with the whole distracting noisy internet just one click away, is a very different technological and sensual experience. Not worse, necessarily, but different.

This week in The Extraordinary Business Book Club I spoke to Dr Tom Chatfield, author of the gorgeously tactile Live This Book. It’s a highly designed series of provocations: invitations to explore our own minds rather than bringing our questions to the internet to find out what everybody else thinks.

We talked about the role of the print book in an increasingly online world, and how it can work for both writer and reader.

‘This is a book that you write in, that you carry around with you, and I guess the genesis of it was the fact that I’ve done five books exploring technology in society. I love this idea of trying to use technology well. More and more as I spoke and wrote and consulted in this that I found people saying that their time, their attention, their focus was this incredibly scarce resource that they were really having enormous trouble keeping under control, and I became very interested in the kind of art and science of concentration, attention, and focus, and how actually a physical book and the physical act of writing on paper is an astonishingly good tool for kind of carving out a small amount of time each day for introspection, for planning a different type and texture of quality of time that you might not otherwise get in terms of working out what really matters, what’s really on your mind, what you’re really planning and hoping and dreaming of, and so on…

‘I’m very interested in getting away from tech bashing and a vague nostalgia for “Weren’t things better in the old days?” Some things are much, much better now. We have astonishing resources at our fingertips, so I’m interested in trying to be precise about this, and what you find if you look at the cognitive science is that resisting temptation, resisting the temptation to click elsewhere, to look elsewhere, to check your email, that burns through a certain amount of mental resource. I think attention management is one of the great skills for the next generation of workers and thinkers, because human attention is spent on our behalf and maybe mispriced by all of the services we use, and the physical tactile object of the act of writing, it lights up your brain in a very different way to stuff on a screen.

‘I’m very conscious of the fact that when I take my wonderful phone or my wonderful Kindle out, everything is in competition with everything else, and I’m dealing with suffusion, and so I think in a way to try to build different kinds of time into your day, and people, I think, are doing this more and more anyway in that nobody wants all their time to be the same kind of time. As human beings, we need difference and variety if we’re going to make the most of our mental resources. We need to sort of put things in boxes, have differentiation. Otherwise, in a way, we risk doing everything as if we were machines, as if we had a limitless data capacity and a limitless memory, and we’re not… We need interpersonal contact. We need things to have friction and texture. Really, memory and understanding are information plus emotion, if you like, and I think to make things stick in our minds, to make things really belong to us, to work out what we mean rather than just what is out there in the Web of information, this is becoming more and more valuable as we’re lucky enough to have more and more information at our fingertips.’

That phrase, ‘friction and texture’ summed it up for me: this is what print provides and a white screen does not. There’s a permanence and a fitness to the words on a printed page that is simply not there with a screen that will show something entirely different the next second.

I’m no less in love with digital books and their possibilities. I love having instant access to my entire library, being able to access a new book immediately, searching for and rediscovering half-remembered phrases. But I better understand now why print is so resilient. I’ll continue to be ambidextrous, reading in print or online as the inclination takes me, knowing that both serve me in different ways. It’s all good.

future of the bookAlison 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

Business books

It’s summer – quick, grab a book

You are what you read. Barack Obama is a voracious reader, who releases his own summer reading list every year (you can see last year’s here). Donald Trump ‘doesn’t have time’ to read. Draw your own conclusions.

But what’s beside your sunlounger/in your backpack/on your Kindle right now? Some frivolous chicklit or gritty noir thriller?

Well, yes, me too. But here’s some REAL brainfood, as recommended by some of the greatest business brains going…

The 12 books Bill Gates reckons everyone should read: less dominated by white US men in suits than I’d expected.
My score: 1/12. Could do better.

EOFire’s compilation of the top 15 books as recommended by 350 leading entrepreneurs. Utterly dominated by white US males, but to be fair they’re all cracking books.
My score: 10/15. Not bad.

The 9 business books you MUST read this year (according to Startups). I bet you won’t believe it, but it’s all male too.
My score: 2/9. Pitiful.

Ryan Holiday’s Books to Base Your Life On. I’ll be interviewing Ryan shortly for the Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast so I’d better get myself clued up on these. The antithesis of chicklit.
My score: 4/8. (But that’s only because I did Classics A-level.)

And finally, in an attempt to redress the gender balance, here are Inc.com’s 9 books every female entrepreneur should read.
My score: 3/9.

So that’s a total of 20/53. I think it’s safe to say there’s room for improvement. How did you do?

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

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