Of Blogs and Books (or from Solo to Silo); The Need for Lean in Publishing
As a kid, I always enjoyed writing and, at one point, dreamed of being a baseball beat writer, like the father of one my best friends from elementary school who got to travel and cover the Detroit Tigers. I was editor of the high school newspaper and did very well in English and humanities classes, even though I ended up following the math and science path into engineering school.
I started blogging in 2005 and have produced about about 3000 posts. I’ve had one book published and I’m working on a second book – with a co-author this time, so let’s call that 1.5 books. It’s hard work writing a book. It’s also hard, at times, to make the transition from blog writing to book writing, especially because, as a Lean thinker, you have to wonder if the whole publishing model is broken beyond repair?
It can be hard to transition from blogging to book writing, for a number of reasons. I considered, on a number of occasions, going on “blog hiatus” for a while to help focus on the book. There’s both the time commitment of blogging (although it’s not as much time as people think) and the mindset differences.
I end up not really being able to put the blog aside because, for other reasons:
- It’s a chance to practice writing about ideas in small batches, getting feedback and input from readers (like this post).
- It’s mentally stimulating, so writing a blog post can serve as some practice swings in the on-deck circle before jumping into book writing.
- I really enjoy the interaction with readers, seeing how others build on your ideas, how people challenge your thinking, or the “great post” comments via the blog or Twitter. You just don’t get that kind of interaction from a book (other than amazon reviews, emails, or failed attempts at building reader community)
One challenge is that blogging allows a more personal, less formal, and less polished mode of writing than a book would require. A blog post is often a stream of consciousness, while a book has to be structured, organized, and edited – keeping the reader (as customer) in mind to ask, “will they understand this?” and “will this make sense?” as you’re writing.
Below is a table that summarizes some of the differences between blogging and booking (OK, that isn’t really a word, but this is just a blog). I won’t elaborate on all of the table items unless you ask a question in the comments, I can answer or write a post elaborating on a comparison.
|Small batches||Large Batches|
|Dynamic / “Kaizen”||Fixed / static|
|Iterative / “agile”||“Waterfall” method|
|Multimedia (videos)||Text & photos|
|Low credibility?||High credibility?|
|Hyperlinking easy||Endnotes hard to follow up on|
|Indirect monetization||Traditional monetization|
|Temporary / transitory||Lasting / permanent|
|Interactive reader discussion||Little direct feedback|
I’ve talked with a number of other lean authors and I think we tend to agonize over the same things and we get frustrated by the same things. This is regardless of the publisher, it seems. Traditional publishers all seem to have about the same model and processes.
For one, a book is a “large batch” of ideas, if there ever was one. Bob Emiliani, who self-publishes, maybe has the right idea by publishing a large quantity of relatively small books, in more of a continuous flow than writing one massive tome that can be intimidating or even hard to carry around (I’m resisting the urge to link to anybody on that last point).
The disadvantage of a large batch book is that you lose out on opportunities to get feedback and to iterative and improve the book, as a “lean startup” might do with it’s product and even it’s business model. Publishers take on a large part of the risk in deciding to go forward with a book project, not knowing if it might sell 150 copies or 15,000. I guess that’s why they earn more on a book than the author does. I’m not criticizing him for this, but Eric Ries chose to go the traditional publisher route with his upcoming book The Lean Startup.
When you throw a book out there, it’s pretty permanent. There’s not much opportunity to practice “kaizen” on a book, which is hard for a lean thinker. The first printing of Lean Hospitals had some defects and they couldn’t be corrected until the 2nd printing. With an e-book (yet alone a blog), you can release updated and improved versions as often as you want (which also seems like the “lean startup” practice of “continuous deployment” of new software code). I am now, almost 3 years after the original release, going to have a significantly improved (I think) and updated 2nd edition of Lean Hospitals coming out later this year.
In another parallel to software development, traditional book publishing is very much a “waterfall” development process where the book draft kinda burps along in a single big batch across the silos. I was dumbfounded with the first book when I was told to wait until the entire manuscript was done before throwing it over the wall to the publisher for editing. No small batches, no editing a few chapters at a time. My employer at the time actually paid for a wonderful editor to work with me in more of a continuous flow (Cheryl Fenske, I highly recommend her).
Editing, publishing, and printing the books is a “batch-and-queue” process if there ever was one. If it takes 6 to 9 months from manuscript submission to books being sold (I heard 10 months from another author recently), how much of that 10 months is actual “value adding” time? Most of it is waiting time. Ironic for lean books!
Now, none of this is a criticism of any of the individuals involved in publishing, especially the wonderful hard-working people who are involved in my book projects. But, much like the individual nurses in a hospital, they are great people working in an oft-fundamentally broken system.
The whole value stream needs to be rethought. The author who was told “10 months” lead time by a traditional publisher decided to go the self publishing route to get her material out there (something that can be done immediately with a blog!).
Todd Sattersten is one author who is taking a fresh approach, with a tech book publisher, O’Reilly (see an article that talks about the project and the use of “agile” software development methods).
His new book is “Every Book is a Startup.” He’s not just writing a book, he’s experimenting with a new business model, taking lessons from “lean startups” and other cutting edge development practices.
You can buy the book today for $4.99. Well, it’s an e-book – and it’s only 2 chapters so far. But if you buy the electronic version of the book, you will get free updates as the book progresses. If you wait, the price of the e-book goes up over time up until the point the print edition comes out. I bought in early, so I’m like an “angel investor” in this project.
I’d encourage you to follow his progress. I hope he succeeds and I hope we have more innovation in publishing. I love books – which is exactly the reason why we need to save books by experimenting with new models, the way Todd is.
Maybe one thing that’s out of whack is the current “value stream”:
Pitch book –> Book gets acquired –> Write book –> Edit book –> Rework book –> Promote book –> Sell book
There are more silos than flow. The process of producing a book might even be more siloed than healthcare.
Maybe “sell book” comes WAY too late in the process. I love how Eric Ries says one of the main ideas of the “Lean Startup” is to not waste the precious time of software developers by having them build a product that nobody wants. So the “Lean Startup” aims to get to market early with a “minimum viable product.” That’s Todd’s first two chapters (or that’s his hypothesis that two chapters is both minimum and viable).
Eric Ries talks about “technical risk” (can you do it?) versus “market risk” (SHOULD you do it?). Most books “can” be written. But should they? If we move the “sell book” (to real customers, not just to the publisher) earlier in the process, is that better for everyone? If books had to be funded by pre-orders (sort of the way political candidates gauge their viability through early donors), would some authors not move forward if it appeared they didn’t have a market? Can you always predict the market, particularly for first time authors? How many authors would plow ahead with a book even if it seemed a market wasn’t there? There is a huge intrinsic motivation to write a book beyond the market and “ROI” and there’s less financial investment required in a book than a startup.
Should writers continue to go the traditional book route, when there are so many new ways to get your material out there faster in ways that can ensure (or improve) quality? Yes, saying you have a book published provides a certain cachet (but should it, if it’s all about the ideas?). Many of the income opportunities from a book come from indirect activities (like speaking and consulting), rather than the book itself. The future relevance of books and publishers?
Your thoughts? As a reader, how much are you willing to participate in experiments with new publishing and purchasing models? I’m going to invite other authors I know to chime in as well.