Growing a book

A lot of CEOs have this idea that they want to publish a book. And that can be OK. But there are some problems with books. For one, as an economic model, they make Soviet five-year plans look good.

A book takes a huge investment of time and effort over a year or two at least. During that time, only a few people around the author and book publisher read the book. Then, all of the sudden, this big body of work is wrapped in a cover and tossed out to the public, usually with minimal marketing. Then everyone hopes the book catches on. It can be a little like fishing by rowing out to the middle of the lake and hoping a big one jumps into your boat.

A better approach to books might come from some thinking we’ve been doing around branded journalism.

The advice goes something like this: Don’t think of a book as a stand-alone product. Think of it as an end product — the final packaging of a lot of work that’s made its way out to the public over a couple of years.

This can be especially effective for a big-idea or high-concept book. It might not work as well for a book that’s more of a narrative story, like a biography or history. The basic concept is to expose the research and thinking all along the way, getting the public involved and winning followers. It’s growing a book rather than just delivering one.

One example of how that can work goes back to The Long Tail. In 2004, Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, wrote a story about the Long Tail concept for his magazine. The article generated enormous buzz. Anderson then created a Long Tail blog to tease out more Long Tail ideas and get conversations going with readers. Along the way, Anderson gave talks about the Long Tail at conferences and colleges.

As Anderson wrote and conversed and researched, he collected all of that and started building a book. That book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, came out in 2006. By that point, The Long Tail was a brand, and the book was just one important expression of it.

It also became less important to Anderson that the book itself make a ton of money. Profits from the book would be a bonus, but the whole brand was more important — the brand could drive revenue through speeches, ads on the blog, ads in Wired, and so on.

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This is where book publishers have a problem. They only have a stake in the book. Book publishers might do better if they got out of the business of “books” and into the business of “ideas” — or maybe something you might call “branded concepts,” like The Long Tail or The Innovator’s Dilemma or The Tipping Point.

A publisher could contract with an author for a two- or three-year journey that would spin out web content, speeches, TV appearances, tweets, and finally a book — all managed as a whole, with revenue coming from multiple sources along the way. It would be something of a Live Nation approach to book publishing.

I don’t know of book publishers thinking that way. That’s an opportunity for companies to do exactly that in the realm of branded journalism.

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One thought on “Growing a book

  1. […] all started because — as described in the previous post — the CEO wanted to write a book. Vivek wants to be seen as a Big Thinker in technology, and […]

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