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Bestsellers: the sequel

Boy is blogging a great way to get instant feedback ; )
[Warning: this is long, and probably quite boring to anyone not involved in creating/publishing books. You've been warned ; )]

If you've read the comments on my creating a non-fiction bestseller, you'll see a lot of thoughtful responses. It's obvious now that I left out a pile of important caveats, exceptions, perspectives, etc. so here's a quick part two...

1) I'm not suggesting that you do the book for money. My approach is that if you do the book to enhance the reader's life, then assuming other things are in place (but this is a huge frickin' assumption), you're more likely to earn out with that perspective than if the goal is to enhance your consulting prospects. However, I didn't mean to imply that this is an either/or--that if the book earns out because your goal was helping the reader that you won't see any career benefits! From a systems thinking view, things fall out naturally: you create the book focused on helping the reader, not you, but you end up benefitting from a greater awareness of your message (which is more likely to lead to more work for you, and it's a big happy reinforcing feedback loop).

2) There are some very valid reasons why a good book, with all the best intentions, still won't earn out... and yet it's still worth doing for both the author and publisher. A publisher might decide that simply having a book in a particular niche area is an important strategic goal, even if everyone knows the size of the audience simply isn't large enough (at least at the time the book is developed) to sell enough copies.

3) Dave Taylor makes a great point that it's just as unethical to mislead an author into thinking they will make money, when the the odds still show they won't. And my simplistic just care advice, without enough context, isn't by itself going to guarantee a different outcome. His original advice was based on practical realities. But my point is that we have to ask, "reality of what"? It's certainly not my reality. We can tell people, "this is where most books are, but here's how to do things differently, in order to increase your chances of doing better..." In other words, his advice is dead-on and realistic, but that's like saying, "Most adults in the US are overweight, so that's just the reality you have to accept and expect." when in fact, most people can do something to greatly improve their odds of seeing a different reality. The fact that most of your neighbors are living a different lifestyle doesn't mean you have to do it that way.

Tim O'Reilly gave us some really good advice when we got our very first royalty statement, "Assume the book is going to do well, do everything you can to make that happen, but trust me--don't take out a mortgage based on that first check."

4) And James McGovern, who also has written some excellent bestsellers, makes the point that sometimes the goal is simply to get the good information out there, regardless of whether it will sell a lot of copies. I'd put that in the same category as #1, where strategically (and for the good of, say, software development practice as an industry), there are compelling reasons to put out a book despite less-than-stellar absolute numbers given that (especially in the case of James' books) there just aren't enough readers at that advanced level.
James and I have had this debate before... and I think we more or less agreed that yes, someone still needs to do books for beginners, but James' point was that if this is all we end up with, simply because that's where the bulk of the market is, then this too becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy--the industry ends up with nothing but beginner-level thinking.

And this brings up another really important point--if every book is supposed to sell a lot of copies, then where do I (the user/reader) go for help when the thing I'm working on is too obscure or too advanced or too cutting edge to justify anyone doing a book on it? Should the publisher and author do it anyway? Maybe, sometimes. As a user, I'm thrilled if someone would do a book on my off-the-beaten-path use-case (say, "Using Java to write MIDI audio software"). I hate waiting for the critical mass of readers needed to justify someone doing a book on the topic I'm interested in.

But this is where other publishing platforms might make more sense. It doesn't always need to be a printed book, and in fact the longish lead time to go from author's head all the way to Barnes and Noble's shelf is a big problem with the bleeding edge. I've found topics I'm interested in, only to learn that the first book on it will be out... in a year. With other options like print-on-demand, or some kind of electronic delivery, there might be less need to do all topics in a traditional format.

4) Finally, someone with a much better perspective on publishing than I have, Joe Wikert from Wiley (Scoble and Shel's publisher), wrote a response/rebuttal on his blog. He points out something that I hadn't intended but was apparently implied--that the publisher would simply do a book to help the author's career without the publisher doing their own due diligence.
But I think we're addressing two slightly different points. I definitely think the decision to do a book on a specific topic, right down to the table of contents, is a crucial decision that the publisher plays a huge role in. Where I think the author's build-my-resume part comes in is not in the decision of what book/topic/TOC to do, but rather what happens when the words start hitting the page.

The problem lies in the more subtle details of the actual way in which the book is written. The delightful and wonderful tech book author Peter van der Linden put it best when he said in an interview something like, "Too many computer book authors suffer from 'clear only if known' syndrome." Where the material suffers from the same thing you often get from tech support--"Technically accurate, yet completely impenetrable until after you've figured it out."
OK, end of that rant.

Joe Wikert also pointed out is that advances are set based on the individual book, market, author, etc. and then he walks the fine (but appropriate) line between not wanting to "set the bar too low" while simultaneously painting a realistic picture (similar to Tim's advaice) where the author doesn't bet the farm on the book's royalty statements.

So, I certainly agree that there are a lot of variables, many of which the author and publisher can't fully control. And I do agree that authors have to be realistic in recognizing that the book might not earn out, and that they should have a realistic picture of how many don't. BUT... I still believe that this general acceptance of "this is simply the way it is, so do the book for other reasons" isn't as likely to create a book that will sell more copies. And whatever the author's goal is, selling more copies usually means more satisfaction of that goal (spreading "pollen", encouraging a higher level of thought, getting the message out there, creating passionate users, encouraging people to want to read more, etc.)

Most importantly, though, I want to emphasize my original point that barring all the exceptions and qualifiers, we shouldn't be looking at books that are bestsellers as somehow "lucky" or "rare". There is a formula that works! Lots of them, really... but I'm just pursuing one of many possible implementations of "how to create a bestseller." And I'm also holding my head high and not ashamed like I'm somehow "selling out" by deliberately wanting to create a bestseller. Creating a bestseller, remember, is not the goal. The goal is "enhance the reader's life." That this happens to be a formula for making a bestseller is just good news all around, because a bestseller = more opportunity to do more of the good things.

Posted by Kathy on February 28, 2005 | Permalink


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Tracked on Mar 20, 2005 4:07:46 AM


Kathy. You made an analogy to best-seller status that confused me. You wrote, "Most adults in the US are overweight, so that's just the reality you have to accept and expect."

I would never tell an artist or entrepreneur to accept and expect anything, but I would give them the facts. The fact is that the cause of most people being overweight is/was their behavior. And despite most author and publisher behavior, the fact is that the chances of creating a best-seller are slim.

Also, I was just wondering. If money isn't a big motivator - if helping people is - why not give away the content via the Internet like the folks at www.changethis.com do?

One more thing please. What is your definition of "earn out," as in "the book might not earn out?"

Great blob, by the way. Thanks.

Posted by: Tom Asacker | Feb 28, 2005 2:33:00 PM

I meant to type "blog," not "blob." ;)

P.S. Stay passionate!

Posted by: Tom Asacker | Feb 28, 2005 2:45:05 PM

Howdy Tom; I'll do my best with your questions (easier ones first ; )
1) The expression "earn out" means earns out it's advance. If the advance is a loan against royalties, then earning out means you've earned back enough royalties to pay the publisher back for your advance, and any additional royalties go to you. Whether that means the book "broke even" for the publisher is a whole different story since, as Joe pointed out in his blog, there are lot of different metrics for determining how much the advance for a book is, and there might be some authors who negotiate a deal (although rare) that says, "I want you to estimate how much you think this book will earn me in royalties, and I want it ALL in advance." Our computer book advances, for example, take roughly ninety days to "earn out" (earn back our advance), and then we collect royalties on each book after that.
Your question about motivation is a great one... if helping people is the motivation, then why not give it away? I have several thoughts on that:

1) This depends in part on the length of content. Changethis is awesome, but they're not giving away book-sized manifestos, and if they were, I'd spend a lot more money on inkjet ink than if I just bought the book in a store. So there's a limitation to how much you can reasonably "give away", because most people still cannot read as much on a screen (approximately 60% less) as they can on paper, until the technology improves dramatically, and if I have to print it out, then the user still pays.

2) The bigger issue is this: if I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd do different books, and depending on the size of the lottery, I'd most likely self-publish them and give them away, with help from a distributor if I wanted to get the widest reach. But... it's the same economics as anything else--I can't change the world unless I have the *time* to change the world (i.e. create more content to help more people), and if I'm working on another job fulltime, there won't be nearly as much left over. If I give it away, I will have to make a living doing something else, and that prevents me from doing more of this. I don't see this as different from scenarios in which people start businesses with a healthy goal of providing a great product or service, but if they don't make a profit, they'd be out of business in a heart beat, and that great product or service might disappear.
However, I believe that giving away as much as possible doesn't technically have to hurt real sales either, and we do... give away as much as we reasonably can by posting some of our chapters, etc.

The equation is that making a bestseller means you get to help more people, unless you are already financially well off enough to not have to make a living. But I'm still trying to pay the rent, dog food, kids' school, : ) I've done five and a half books in two years, and if I had a full-time job, that number would have been two. That's tens of thousands of people who (I like to tell myself) would not have benefitted from an approach that clearly makes them more comfortable than the alternatives. But if the first two books hadn't been bestsellers, I would have had to take a full-time job again. (I do still work sometimes as a contractor, to keep a real-world perspective in the field, but that's not mainly for income.)

And finally:
"...despite most author and publisher behavior, the fact is that the chances of creating a best-seller are slim." See, that's where I disagree. You're right about the fact that most books are *not* best-sellers... that's true. But I disagree about the "chances"! I think for many (not all) types of non-fiction, the chances are NOT slim (for me and my co-authors, we're six for six). There are specific steps one can take to greatly reduce the chances of not having a bestseller, and they work almost regardless of what the publisher does or doesn't do (assuming some critical baseline). For example, I don't believe that a publisher's lack of marketing has to make a big difference today, if your audience is fairly well connected. If the book does what people want, word will get around.

Hmmm... I'll have to say a lot more about what some of those specific steps are, including choosing the topic and audience, bootstrapping it intially, etc. You certainly can't put *any* book out there and hope it'll be a bestseller, but you can greatly increase your chances of the book doing well. I shouldn't say "well enough to earn out", though, because a book with a low advance could earn out and not be a bestseller, and a book with a massive advance could be a bestseller without earning out. But I should say, "earn enough to make it really worth it for the author and publisher."

Thanks for this Tom!

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 28, 2005 3:16:21 PM

One more comment on that, Tom. Virtually *everyone* disagrees with me about this notion of being able to GREATLY increase your chances of having a bestseller. So, there's the grain of salt. But it's what I truly, deeply, and in my own somewhat scientific way believe. I will qualify it that I don't believe this is true across all possible non-fiction categories, but part of the formula is in knowing what kinds of topics are most likely to succeed. And sooner or later, I'm going to be brave by taking on a riskier topic, and I'm going to increase my chances of having a "miss". But that's something where the publisher and I will make a joint decision that we have enough "hits" to justify taking a risk on something where the chances are less certain, but it's still worth the attempt. The problem is that way too many books (and way too many authors) are simply assuming the risk is high--and that there's little they can do-- when they *could* be working on a plan to figure out ways to lower it.
In a shameless attempt to self-promote, I *will* say that the "Creating Passionate Users" book will go into great details about the formulas, and the reasons and research behind those formulas (we are intensely research-driven in all this). : ) We set out to *prove* that by applying certain techniques, you could create a bestseller regardless of how much competition there was, and despite not having a "name" in the field. It wasn't luck, and it wasn't writing talent, and it wasn't a big marketing budget or book tour. And the main technique was to simply make it all about the reader, and not at all about the author. But knowing *how* to make it about the reader isn't a simple task.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 28, 2005 3:32:16 PM

Kathy -- Keep up the great work. Your blog should be required reading for all authors, regardless of their experience level! More importantly, it should be required reading for all editors and publishers. You can assume I'll remain tuned in to what you have to say. I *love* your passion and I hope it spreads.

Posted by: Joe Wikert | Feb 28, 2005 5:49:21 PM

Dear Kathy, you wrote:

‘In other words, his advice is dead-on and realistic, but that's like saying, "Most adults in the US are overweight, so that's just the reality you have to accept and expect." when in fact, most people can do something to greatly improve their odds of seeing a different reality.’

I still love your books and the blog, but the above excerpt is uninformed and almost meaningless. “…most people can do something to greatly improve their odds of seeing a different reality”? In my field (genetics) this is what I call ‘trying to pull a fast one’ by saying something so vague that it can mean almost anything to anyone.

What does this mean exactly? People can alter their reality from one where they didn’t try dieting/exercise to one where they did? You seem to be implying that most people can substantially alter their body-mass indices via diet/exercise. But most of primary literature that I’m aware of suggests that humans have a ‘set-point’ weight that, over the long-term (> 1 year), cannot *currently* be altered by more than a few % via conventional dieting/exercise regimens. Your analogy sounds nice and it’s well-intentioned, but it’s most likely wrong. You can see this is a pet-peeve of mine.

I wish all of my teachers could have taught in the style of your books/blog, but you should try and choose more informed analogies in the future.



Posted by: P-daddy | Feb 28, 2005 6:15:13 PM

Hmmm... thanks for the input P-daddy, this was obviously a confusing analogy, but it's one I meant... so I'll try to clarify. I appreciate that it's a pet-peeve, but I wasn't trying to "pull a fast one" and I apologize that it sounded vague. But FWIW, my undergrad degree is exercise physiology, and I spent a decade working in executive wellness/sports fitness, medical fitness programs (I designed exercise prescription software for Case Western/University Hospitals of Clevelend), a long stint as the training director for two of the largest health/fitness facilities in the world. So I definitely have a strong perspective on this as well, and I might have to respectfully disagree : ) I'm probably more inclined to use fitness/exercise analogies than many people simply because that's my *other* life, and one I'm *also* passionate about.

So, what I meant was that "just because the odds say your chances of [doing x] are slim, doesn't mean you have to just accept that you can't change your behavior in a way that can dramatically change those odds in your favor." Of course it's wrong to give someone false hope, but just as wrong to lead people to think that things are up to chance, when in fact we have a great deal of control. No guarantees, of course, but I'm talking about changing the odds in our favor through taking action, as opposed to just accepting that the odds are what they are, and there's nothing we can do." And yes, I *am* in fact suggesting that people can substantially alter their body mass percentages through exercise and sound eating (although not neccessarily conventional approaches). [And I'm not talking about weight.] Nobody said it's easy, of course, but I have at least a thousand fitness clients who've beat the odds almost entirely through exercise. I agree (as do many fitness professionals) that most of the *popular* exercise approaches you see in magazines, and many books, are ridiculous and almost entirely ineffective. So if that's what you meant by "conventional", then I completely agree. (And of course most diets are also a really bad idea.) We've been meaning to start up a fitness-related blog to keep the conversation off *this* one... maybe you just motivated me.

Thanks for bringing this up, though. Wow -- it's a little scary that you feel you have to add, "I still love your books..." I hope your attitude about the books has nothing to do with whether I say something completely unrelated or potentially stupid here that you don't like. The blog is another story, though. I appreciate and agree that I could easily say something bad enough to make you not want to visit the blog again : ) I've certainly done that with plenty of folks already.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 28, 2005 7:35:35 PM

Thanks for the feedback. By saying "I still love your books..." I was just worried that I was being rude by disagreeing with you--especially since it's a pet peeve.

I guess we have different views on the obesity topic [mine is similar to that conveyed in this article, which describes some of the evidence regarding genetic components of obesity and the set-point theory. A War on Obesity, Not the Obese Jeffrey M. Friedman
Science 7 February 2003. 299: 856-858].
, but if you have references for what you're suggesting(especially with respect to obesity and your ex phys background) I'd love to read them. Seriously.

Obviously, given my training, I worry that I see the entire world from a deterministic 'genetics-y' point of view, (i.e. I have a hammer and see only nails), and if there's countervailing evidence that wrecks my idea--hey--bring it on.



Apologies for being off topic.

Posted by: P-daddy | Feb 28, 2005 8:19:59 PM

I'm so glad you wrote back! No apologies needed for being off-topic... I started it.
And don't ever worry about being rude for disagreeing. That just means you're forcing me to *think*. This is a really complex topic, and the set-point is all-too-painfully real, and a constant battle. In fact, you just gave me an idea for a little thing I want to blog about, so thanks for that. It's good that you're bringing your perspective--it would be just too too weird if my "glorified aerobics instructor" world view wasn't balanced out... ; )
Thanks P-daddy.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 28, 2005 8:49:39 PM

> Maybe, sometimes. As a user, I'm thrilled if someone would do a book on my off-the-beaten-path use-case (say, "Using Java to write MIDI audio software"). I hate waiting for the critical mass of readers needed to justify someone doing a book on the topic I'm interested in.

Books, shmooks. Isn't this why God invented the internet-- specialty topics? I absolutely see a world where advanced specialty topics are only available on the internet. Don't look now, but it's already happened!

Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Feb 28, 2005 10:29:13 PM

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