Category Archives: Books

Some more thoughts on the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference

A continuation of people and things discovered at the O’Reilly TOC conference in NYC, February 13-15, 2012.

Valla Vakili, CEO of Small Demons  @smalldemons

The title of Valla’s talk was “Exaggerations and Perversions,” a phrase he borrowed from William James‘ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. James writes, “…it always leads to a better understanding of a thing’s significance to consider its exaggerations and perversions its equivalents and substitutes and nearest relatives elsewhere.”

Valla and his team have created what they call the “Storyverse,” where they bring all the details of fictional worlds to the real world. People, places, things. As they say at their site:

A place where details touch, overlap and lead you further. To new music to listen to. New movies to watch. Places to visit. People to know. And of course, new books to read. Getting started is simple. Just choose a book. See where it takes you.

This all seems very interesting. What does that character eat, drink. Where does she go? What other characters in other books end up in those same places? This can lead to an endless number of connections between an endless number of fictional characters. Readers have a passion, an obsession, for characters. I think of my own experience of reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in college and always wanting to open a bottle of wine and drink along with the characters. The worry is that collecting all this information about these characters and connecting them to shopping opportunities will lead to a world where writers write with product placement in mind. Of course that’s already occurred a couple of times. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime go obsess in that fictional world.

Good blog, too.

Eric Ries: entrepreneur and author of The Lean Startup. @ericries

His mantra: Build. Measure. Learn. His blog: StartupLessonsLearned

His provocative statement: if he were running a big publishing house he’d put together a group of 5-10 people whose sole job was to find manuscripts in the slush pile and turn them into bestsellers. Methodically. He doesn’t believe bestsellers happen by accident. Build. Measure. Learn. Test content with friends and their friends. Test different covers online. (He photoshopped different colored book covers into bookstore display shelves and asked people to tell him which one “popped” for them. [the blue one]) Test, test, test.

He took “pre-orders” for his book even before he had written the book. Charged people $30 even though he didn’t know what the publisher would charge. But put together 10,000 pre-orders before book was published. Kind of thing that gives everyone in the process a warm fuzzy feeling.

Len Vlahos (Book Industry Study Group) and Kelly Gallagher (RR Bowker) spoke on “Consumer Attitudes Toward Ebook Reading.” (And I was glad they used “toward” and not “towards.”)

Lots of stats:

E-book take-up flattened in 2011. Fiction is where the action is with e-books. When will other genres catch up? What does role of technology play in adoption.

And then this: heard from presenters more than once at this conference: “We tend to forget the reader.” (And people wonder why publishers are so terrified? Don’t forget your customers! Any first-day business-school student will tell you that.)

E-book buyer was originally male oriented but it is women with higher educations, higher income, homes. Perhaps women were waiting for the technology to shake out and settle down. Or is it just that women really are the readers and maybe it looked like men were readers because they were first to adopt the e-readers, but perhaps they were more interested in the technology than what you could read with it?

Fourteen percent of folks with an e-reader still haven’t purchased an e-book. What prevents people from buying e-books?

  1. More comfortable with print.
  2. Difficult to share with others.
  3. Inability to resell books.

Power buyers are social people. Power buyers need ability to share what they’re reading. While they buy 25 percent of physical books, they drive 50 percent of sales and value in the marketplace.

It seems that after two years of owning an e-reader, people to tend buy fewer books. In fact, there’s a slight increase in the number of physical books bought at the time. Technology backlash?

Erin McKean, CEO of   @emckean

Everything is context. Wordnik is a large large dictionary. It connects words to other words. Words don’t have meaning without context.

She says your content is your core. Getting people to the core of who you are is the new holy grail. How to discover books without browsing. How do you get books into venues where people aren’t necessarily looking for books? People are reading blogs. Sweet spot for context/content delivery. But reaching out to bloggers is labor intensive. What if you could make an API for your content? And then people could connect your content to communities you might not even know about.

Bob Young, CEO of, @caretakerbob

Spoke about starting a business and how hard it has become since all the colleges now have entrepreneurial programs. Asking for a show of hands, turns out about half the people in the audience are either currently working for a startup or want to start a new business.

But it turns out that most of the people in the audience also say they were A students in college, and Bob says the chances of them succeeding in an innovative business are slim. It’s the C students who start and succeed in business. If you’re an A student, you’ve by definition bought into the system, the current education system, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Tom Peters once had a slide about this very topic. So Bob says, “please don’t start a business.” Well, he doesn’t want any more competition. More on that…

But then he goes on to say that if you are going to start a business, 1) have fun, and 2) follow your customers. Advice clearly not followed by many since they say “we’ve forgotten about the reader.”

What Bob set out to do at Lulu was to build a platform where authors could sell books directly to their customers. Books that generally have small specialty markets, e.g., cookbooks. Lulu really is fulfilling what Chris Anderson called “the long tail.”

But in an echo of what Erin McKean was talking about, sharing APIs, Lulu at first saw all the other people coming in to the self-publishing realm as competitors, but then realized that since they had been one of the first ones in, they could in fact share their knowledge with all the newcomers. Which is what they do at

Seems the whole world these days is about opening up your API. Sharing, transparency, all that.

Good place to end the conference. Funny guy, Bob Young. No slides, which was nice.

Lulu blog

Complete list of speakers

Some thoughts on the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference

I attended the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in New York City, February 13-15. (Is it odd that these folks put together a conference that falls on Valentine’s Day? Or am I just an old sentimentalist?) Someone asked for a show of hands at one point and determined that half the people there are in publishing and scared to death of what this “digital revolution” means; the other half were entrepreneurs or at least entrepreneurially minded and hoping to start some kind of digital publishing or related venture.

Some of the folks and ventures and ideas I ran into there:

Opening keynote by LeVar Burton, he of Kunta Kinte fame from the “Roots” TV miniseries. Lifelong scifi reader. His mother was an English teacher. His main point: the importance of these two words: “What if.” @levarburton

Tim Carmody: editor at Wired and Link to his about page at Google+@tcarmody

Some articles he’s written:

“Ten Reading Revolutions before E-books”

“A Bookfuturist Manifesto”

“E-Books Are Still Waiting for Their Avant-Garde”

One of his points: yes, the publishing industry is in the midst of chaos, but guess what, it has happened before and will happen again. Don’t worry. Tells us that when paper moved from being cloth-based to wood pulp-based, the abundance created was co-equal to the digital abundance now available.

Vocabulary lesson: skeuomorph: old technology reformatted to new technology.

Barbara Genco: manager of special projects at Library Journal. @BarbaraAGenco

Says library “power users” (use library more than 4X/month) buy a lot of books as well. 9,000 libraries in the U.S. (I actually thought this number seemed low. Doesn’t every small town have its own library? How many small towns in the U.S.?) 169 million Americans use a public library.

Convergence! See this article from Boston Globe about libraries hosting their own bookstores.

Matt MacInnis: CEO of Inkling  @stanine

Reinventing books and publishing. To copy content from books to ebooks is folly, he says. The future of publishing is high fidelity content—media rich, interactive content. Check out their website. I think this guy is on to something. Also, under each chair in the auditorium was an envelope with a card inside that included a code for a free copy of one of two Inkling iPad app books: Speakeasy Cocktails or Master Your DSLR Camera.

I got the camera book. It is beautiful and instructive and useful and fun. Can’t wait to learn more about my camera. Thanks, Inkling.

Mark Johnson: CEO of Zite (personalized magazine for iPhone and iPad)   @philosophygeek

He spoke about recommendations, online recommendations. Search is not useful for everything: it doesn’t help us find the interesting stuff. Clay Shirkey said: “Curation comes up when search stops working.” Amazon, Netflix, and Pandora are the three canonical recommendation-engine-driven sites. (Canonical? Really?)

I downloaded Zite on to my iPhone and iPad. It learns what is interesting for you (for me!) from content, from social web, and from your own interactions. So far it seems a good fit and I’ve only loaded links to Delicious and Twitter. I’d recommend Zite as your own personal interest magazine.

To be continued…

Related articles

Some views on the future (present!) of publishing

Book/ebook reader

Photo by Steve Paine

Stumbled across a couple of blog posts recently that survey the current state of publishing, or at least the digital aspect of publishing. At the blog (What BookBaby is), Chris Robley sums up where he thinks the publishing world is headed in the next five years. The title of his piece also includes “or sooner.” Of course all the things he writes about are already happening somewhere, somehow. I like his first point about digital remixes and the idea of sampling different chapters/sections from different books to create your own unique book. There’s a site called ebookpie that is currently doing just that. It’s in beta (what isn’t these days?), but I’ll be curious to see what comes of that idea.

His point two comes from Todd Sattersten who predicts that in the future physical books will be what audiobooks are now. That is, because of the high cost of producing an audiobook, publishers only make them for some authors. In the future, the physical book will be seen as the “expensive” version that only elite authors will get. I’m not quite so sure about this, because the cost of a paper book is nowhere near the cost of producing an audiobook—think audio engineers, producers, studio time, etc.

On a related front (I think) there’s a post from Julien Smith (co-author with Chris Brogan of Trust Agents) called The 6 Shifts of a Kindle Dominated Marketplace, in which he posits that “This is the time we all become authors.” Why? Because there are no gatekeepers, you are your own publisher (are you going to throw your own work into the slush pile?), you can sell stuff for cheap, you can buy stuff for cheap (though I recently had the experience of buying a Kindle single from someone who is an acquaintance and, you know, it was awful; it wasn’t even worth the $2.99 I paid for it), and so almost everyone who ever wanted to write something will be writing something. Which is exciting and good and a lot of good writing that might not otherwise have made it to the world will, though there will also be tons—tons!—of crap to wade through. (In the future everyone will need their own content curator.) To say nothing of the millions of Chinese fiction authors who are soon to launch their own writing careers.

Then, on the other hand, I was talking with a guy who helps business thought leaders write their books. He thinks books still work because it collects an author’s best thinking in one place. Rather than tracking down this ebook or that .pdf or this series of blog posts, you just put all your best thoughts in an organized fashion in a book. That’s what books are good for. Whether it’s paper or digital, that doesn’t matter. Just get all the thinking organized in one place. Something to be said for that.

If you look at the people who are ringing the death knell for paper-based books, you’ll see that most of them got to be a spokesperson because they authored a big paper-based book. Big books are still the primary way to claim authority, at least in the business book world. Is this all shifting rapidly? Yes. But at this point in time and at least for a few more years, if you want to get your ideas out there and make a business of selling those ideas, you’ll still want to write a big (or fairly big) book.

Having said that, I’m still a firm believer in experimentation. I always encourage any authors I’m working with to put their ideas out there in multiple formats and ways. Anyone who is working on a book should be creating ebooks or .pdfs and giving them away at their websites and perhaps trying to sell some of them at Amazon online. Try different things. And if you’re selling things, try different prices. It’s wild west time out there. Just try stuff. Of course that then brings us back to what Julien was saying in his blog post referenced above.

Self-publish or go with a big house? Not either/or anymore. Or, as you work, so shall you publish.

Four Views of a Book Press

Flickr photo by 802

Just stumbled across this rather caustic overview of the publishing industry from Mark Hurst. (It’s from 2008, so not recent.) Mark’s got a particularly cynical outlook about most (not all!) publishing houses.

He seems to be upset that the publishers aren’t risk-takers. Well, hello, until a few years ago these folks were running around with leather elbow patches on their herringbone sport coats! These folks aren’t bungee-jumpers! And Mark seems upset that these folks want a certain guarantee that a book is going to sell. Well, they are in business. They want to make money. Anyway, you could go on and on. Mark has some valid points. He does feel the publishers take too big a cut of the revenue given what they add to the process. That may or may not be true. For some folks, having the imprimatur of a big publishing house has a value above and beyond sales of books. But it does seem that he was overly disappointed by the whole experience of trying to work with publishers. It’s probably worth asking him what he expected going in. That might explain a lot of what happened. As it turns out, he self-published his book, Bit Literarcy.

I don’t entirely agree with Mark’s presumption about why you write. He says you don’t do it for the money, and that’s true in the short term, but you should look at a published book, particularly a business book, in a longer-term way. It is your calling card for a speaking and/or consulting career. We still live in a world where “author/authority” means something. Authors have authority. People are willing to pay to hear someone who knows what they’re talking about, someone with information that will help them in their personal and/or business lives.

Whatever authorship means moving forward, I suspect that the world of publishing will be a lot like the world of work. Work-wise, people no longer have one career; they won’t spend their working life at one place. In the old days, someone would get out of college, find employment at a big company and hang in there until age 65, then left with a gold watch. Hard to imagine, but it happened. Well, in a similar way, many authors found a home with a big publishing house and then stayed with them to their mutual benefit for a long time. These days you may work for a big company for a while and then go off on your own and you may go work for another big company. There’s no one way; there’s no linear route. That’s the same for publishing these days, too.

Look at David Meerman Scott, who is one of the commenters at Mark Hurst’s blogpost. (Read all the way through the comments.)  He self-published a couple books, then went to a small publisher and then went to a big publisher, Wiley. Where he is now. He says that he sold more copies in two weeks with Wiley than he did in years with his self-published titles. But in the future he may well revert to self-publishing again. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, has published all of her books with a big publishing house, but now she’s setting up a self-publishing operation called Pottermore.

All by way of saying there’s no one solution these days. You do what works best for you at any one time. The one thing that doesn’t change, though, is the marketing. That all falls on the shoulder of the author, whether she’s self-publishing or working with a traditional publisher. (This is one of the things that ticks off Mr. Hurst about the big publishers.) It’s not worth complaining about anymore. It just is. Look at this blog post from Michael Hyatt, chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers. He lists four reasons why authors must take responsibility for their own marketing. He writes, “Yes, it is easier than ever to get a book into print, but it is more difficult than ever to sell it.”

If you’re going to self-publish, you need a following, you need people who are interested in what you have to say. That following doesn’t show up over night. I’ve heard Seth Godin say that you should give away your first book in digital form. As a way to attract an audience. If it’s good, it will spread. If it isn’t good, you’ll know soon. And that same audience is what the big publishers are looking for. Whichever way you go, you need your own audience.

Seth Godin’s advice to would-be authors. Here again, not recent, from 2006 in fact. But still relevant. Which I guess says something about how forward-thinking Seth is.

David Carnoy, a journalist at, has published a list of 25 things you need to know about self-publishing.


Send a/another copy of your book

Amazon Kindle eBook Reader

Image by goXunuReviews via Flickr

Here’s what happens. I read something about an author I have interviewed in the past and then I want to look in their book to check up on something or just re-read a passage. When I was doing interviews at, books were sent from publishers or PR people, sometimes I bought them, sometimes the author sent them, and sometimes I was just reading a galley. In one case I printed most of the chapters of a book from pdf files. A waste of paper? Perhaps, but I must say that I still prefer to read from paper and prefer to make notes on paper. Just a condition of my age? Probably.

I like looking up at my bookshelves and seeing the spines of books I’ve read. I like being able to reach up there and pull one down. In some cases I don’t have a physical book. I may have just read a galley. But I always thought that an author I interviewed should have made sure that I received a hard copy version of the book if I hadn’t already got one. Not just me, anyone who interviews them. Or at least ought to ask the interviewer if she/he wants a good copy of the book. Or in this day and age, at least ask them if they want a kindle version. Can PR people send out Kindle versions of books the way they do hard copy versions?

Just a thought for you authors. Your interviewer may really like your book and may continue speaking about it beyond the publication of their audio, video, or text version of your talk with them. Ask your interviewer if she wants another copy/version of the book.

Digital publishing: book as artifact; author as ringleader

Richard Shed's Digital book

Artwork/photo credit: Richard Shed

Seth Godin at his Domino Project blog provided a link to Craig Mod‘s essay titled “Post Artifact Books & Publishing: Digital’s effect on how we produce, distribute and consume content.” It’s a good discussion about how the publishing/authorship world  is being turned sideways and on its head. As for how the world of the author is changing, here’s Seth’s take:

In the first case, the yesterday case, the author has a job. She writes a book. In the second case, the tomorrow case, the author is the ringleader, cheerleader, ringmaster, organizer and jack of all trades of a process that might not ever end.

Craig’s essay reads well and looks good. He has done a nice job of designing it. (I’m referring to the online version. I don’t know if the design translates to the $2.99 Kindle version.) And in a David Foster Wallace-esque moment, Mr. Mod has thirty-two footnotes at the end of the essay. Rich resource there, my particular favorites being those pointers to online book experiments of one sort or another. Of particular note is the link to Frank Chimero’s blog. Frank is working on a book titled The Shape of Design and it’s quite interesting to see that his Kickstarter community has contributed $112,159.00 to keep him working on that project. That’s powerful stuff. (He’s also been very inventive about what you as a donor receive for the different levels of monetary participation.)

Then there’s this guy Peter Armstrong, co-founder of, an online publisher. (He appears in the comments section at the end of Craig’s essay.) Peter’s lean publishing motto: publish early, publish often. Peter’s idea is this:

Lean Publishing is the act of self-publishing a book while you are writing it, evolving the book with feedback from your readers and finishing a first draft before optionally using the traditional publishing workflow.

It’s worth reading the manifesto at Peter’s site, particularly the section called “The Lean Publishing How-To Guide for Non-fiction.” It’s all about writing and sharing what you’re writing with your community, and using feedback from those people as your revise your writing. In some ways there’s nothing new here, since people have always shared their writing with peers and colleagues and writing groups, but now you can reach out to more people more easily more quickly. (One question to consider is whether more/faster equals better, but that’s for another day.)

This all puts me in mind of David Weinberger, who, when he was writing Small Pieces Loosely Joined in 2001-2002 put chapters in progress out on the web and invited feedback. A fair number of people joined in the discussion at the time and David mentions a couple of them in his acknowledgments. All that resulted in a physical book, an artifact in Craig’s terms. One of his points is that now with books going digital you can continue to revise based on an ongoing discussion with your community. But how long will that last really? Any longer than it would with the “artifact”? The author will move on to new ideas, a new book. The community will move on as well. I’ll be curious to see if someone can track the discussions about books and their ideas. Will we something more substantive in the digital realm now available? Will the digital publishing realm result in a longer “shelf” life for ideas?

Taking control of your publishing future

In a Sunday New York Times Book Review essay, “The Case for Self-Publishing,” Neal Pollack details why he is going to self-publish his next novel, Jewball. (And as he writes at Twitter: 40,000 words! My novel is now only seven thousand words shorter than The Great Gatsby, and almost as good. —@nealpollack) His main point in the article:

But for a writer like me, which is to say, most working writers — midcareer, midlist, middle-aged, more or less middlebrow, and somewhat Internet savvy — self-publishing seems to make a lot of sense at this point. Early in my career, because of some lucky breaks and a kinder economy, I was able to get advances that helped me support my family over the months it took to write a book. I haven’t been a huge best seller… . But I’ve built a modest audience and a name. Now that the advances are smaller and the technology is available, why not start appealing directly to those readers?

But basically he says don’t do this unless you’ve already built up that audience. NOT something for first-time authors as far as he is concerned. Unless of course you are a first-time author with a blog and lot of followers that you’ve building up for a while. Given the amount of time he’s invested in building his own followers, Pollack is making a bet that the number of copies of his book he can sell, be it an e-version or a limited-edition hardback, will bring in more money than what he would garner from a publisher’s advance. (And I would venture to say that part of the appeal is taking control of the whole process.)