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March 2005

8 posts from February 2005

Publishing Passions

I was recently asked "What do you love about your job? "  To be honest, I hadn't thought about the answer in quite awhile.  (Btw, I recommend you ask yourself this question every so might be surprised where it leads.)

As I gave this more consideration, several different responses came to mind.  I love my job because it gives me the opportunity to:

  1. impact the future of publishing,
  2. build a new business,
  3. become the  #1 publisher in a topic area,
  4. pitch a new idea and see the light bulbs go on, and
  5. help someone develop new skills.

I plan to cover each of these in future posts, but let me give you some details on #1 here.

OK, I acknowledge it's pretty ambitious to say that I can have an "impact on the future of publishing".  But, as Jim Collins explains in Good to Great, "Big Hairy Audacious Goals" (BHAGs) are a good thing.  As Publisher of WROX, I have the opportunity to look to the future every day.

WROX is all about "programmer-to-programmer", meaning the books are written by developers in the trenches, not professional writers.  But WROX is also about community: Go check out our programmer-to-programmer forums to see what I mean.  This community site exists for the sole purpose of bringing developers together: they can ask questions, provide solutions, share code, etc.  Our goal is to be more than just a provider of printed materials.  We want to extend the customer relationship beyond the bookstore transaction.

When I think about the future of publishing, I also try to keep an eye on my own kids (ages 17, 15 and 10) and how they find answers today.  While my generation is used to looking things up in a book, my kids are always online and rarely reach for a book.  All of them are quite comfortable Googling and would probably consider a printed book as something other than their primary resource.

Speaking of printed books, I've gone so far as to read a couple of e-books on my PocketPC. It's effective, but not a great experience.  Nevertheless, I can see where even a tiny screen like this could one day be a useful way to read a book, with one caveat: the way the content is presented cannot be the same as in a printed book.

I wasn't around, but I've heard the early days of TV featured shows which were nothing more than radio programs where you could see the actors.  The medium was so new that it took awhile for the true benefits to be leveraged.  I think we're at the same stage today with e-books.  Simply taking the contents of a printed book and putting it into .PDF format, for example, doesn't really take advantage of all the benefits of delivery on a computer screen, PocketPC, etc.  The content has to be layered and presented differently but nobody has found a cost-effective way of porting from one platform (print) to the other (electronic)...yet.

How do we get past this and discover the breakthrough approach that I'm certain is out there?  I think the answer to this is (a) experimentation and (b) looking at other businesses and their models to see what might work.  As I look outside traditional publishing for ideas, I plan to test out the "flipping it" model covered in an interesting book I'm currently reading entitled Why Not?   In it, the authors talk about how to completely reverse current assumptions.  Priceline is one of their examples: Rather than having the seller state the price, why not let the buyer do it?  It's this sort of out-of-the-box thinking that will help us take the publishing industry to the next level.

What Makes a Bestseller?

This is a loaded question, and one that can have a variety of answers.  How passionate is the author about the topic/subject?  Are they able to write in an engaging manner?  Is this book unique or are there 3 others just like it already in stores?  Assuming the answers to these questions are favorable, there are typically three key ingredients for success in any type of publishing: platform, placement and promotion.

By "platform", I mean author platform, primarily.  Years ago, this implied things like author visibility, speaking engagements, whether they're a regular columnist in a key magazine, etc.  These are still important pieces, but now you have to add in things like how popular their blog is, how large an e-mail list they have access to, etc.  That's one of the reasons why I'm so excited to be part of the team that's going to publish Robert Scoble's and Shel Israel's upcoming book on blogging.  These guys have an enormous platform which will help drive sales of the book.

The placement component rests on the shoulders of the publisher.  You obviously can't sell a copy of a book if the store doesn't have it, but ensuring there's at least one copy on the shelf is only part of the battle.  You need to devise a plan that helps this book rise above the shelf noise created by all the other books.  That's where placement's close cousin, promotion, comes into play.

Promotion is often the trickiest piece of the puzzle.  I've seen far too many cases where promotional dollars were spent trying to increase awareness, only to result in a disappointingly modest increase in sales.  Authors often push their publishers to spend a load of money on ads in trade magazines and newspapers, for example.  I'd rather spend that same money on a promotion with one of the key booksellers.  Remember my earlier point about rising above the shelf noise?  The best way to win this battle is to put a book in one of the highly coveted promotional slots in the store.  This results in placement on an endcap, in the aisle, by the cash register, etc., along with a nice discount to the customer (typically 20-40% off) -- now that's where you start to move the sales needle.  A full-page ad in USA Today is great, but wouldn't you rather catch that same customer in the store with their wallet in hand, ready to close the transaction?

If you're a published author, don't go beat up your editor because your book never made it into an in-store promotion.  Only a small number of books can be promoted like this at any time.  Most promotional decisions are jointly made by the publisher and the buyer who works for the store/chain.  Lots of factors go into this, and maybe that's a good subject for a future blog entry...  Btw, although this seems to focus exclusively on brick-and-mortar sales, similar promotional techniques work for the online resellers: cover placement on a subject page at Amazon, their "Better Together" promotions (where they encourage you to buy two related books rather than just one) or inclusion in one of their e-mail blasts can have a huge impact on sales.

I wrote about author platform first because I feel it's the single most important ingredient for a bestseller.  Sure, placement and promotional activity can boost sales of just about any book.  But the sales difference between a book written by an author with a solid platform vs. one with a lesser or no platform is huge.  Thanks to all the platform vehicles available these days, authors can help drive more sales than ever before.

If you're already an author or just thinking about writing a book, take the time to develop an inventory of your own author platform.  Just because you don't have a website with tons of traffic or an e-mail list with a million names doesn't mean you have nothing to offer.  Are there any contacts in your address book who do have access to these things?  If so, how can you leverage that relationship?  The more tangible platform components you bring to the table, the greater the likelihood of getting an editor's attention -- more importantly, the greater the likelihood of becoming a bestseller.

Opening Remarks

It's appropriate that I use this first entry to thank the two people who got me into blogging: Robert Scoble and Shel Israel.  Robert is the author of the extremely popular Scobleizer blog which provides insights to his life as a technical evangelist at Microsoft.  Shel's blog, ItSeemstome is all about "Technology, Society and Where They Intersect".  Together, Robert and Shel are writing a book on blogging for my employer, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.   I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to be associated with them on this project.  Look for the latest information on their book at The Red Couch .

In the coming months I plan to use this blog as a vehicle to discuss a number of things that I'm passionate about:

  • The business of publishing, specifically, books on technology
  • The technology of publishing and where we're heading
  • Gadgets, gizmo's and the world of personal technology
  • Business challenges, lessons learned, lumps I've taken
  • Family happenings
  • Sports, sports and more sports, especially baseball (Go Yankees !)

I hope you'll contribute to the upcoming observations and opinions.