Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Future of Book Publishing, Part 1

Business guru David Maister and I have been involved in an extended discussion about the merits of book publishing, promotions, and Long Tail Economics over on his blog, Passion, People and Principles. With his permission, I am reproducing that exchange here in a series of posts, and I look forward to your responses. [Full disclosure: David Maister is a client of my employer, stresslimitdesign.]

The following article by David Maister, entitled Should You Write A Book?, originally appeared on his blog on February 6, 2006.

Mike Schultz, publisher of , has sent me an email about his company’s new publication. For $149 you can get a downloadable version of The Business Impact of Writing a Book which surveyed 200 authors – all professional services providers – of over 590 business books. The report overview can be found here.

Some interesting results are that 84% of authors report either Very Strong or Strong improvement in their ability to differentiate their services as a result of publishing their book and 53% of authors report either Very Strong or Strong ability to charge higher fees for their services as a result of publishing their book. The report has loads of quotes from the authors interviewed (I was not one of them.)

Mike said in his email to me that – quote – I know you're not very thrilled with the concept of book publishing these days, but it sure seems to be working out for others. Feel free to blog about it and disagree, too –end quote.

Mike was right that I don't see another book in my future. It’s unlikely to bring cheer to the publishing profession, but I think it will be much more effective for professionals to bypass books from now on and make their thoughts and theories available purely through the Internet.

In today’s world, it makes no sense to take nine months, on average, to get your material together and the same amount of time again (amazingly) to get it through the process of publication. Then begins the complicated business of marketing the book and by that time, the thoughts contained in the book are largely historic. By the time you're in print, the odds are high that someone else has already put similar thoughts into play online.

By publishing work yourself online, through a fast and efficient website, those who want to read the work can be notified electronically of any new material and can read it at their leisure. Who needs a physical book and a bookstore when there’s an RSS feed around? If you absolutely have to mail out print copies, you can still do that, too!

Anyone who has ever written a book will tell you that you don't make money on the book itself, unless by some (unknowable) miracle you become the flavor of the month. A book helps build your reputation, and reputation is all, but online, viral marketing is today a much more effective way for most professionals to do things. Books are so 20th century!

It’s like the music industry, where an increasing number of performers are happy to give free downloads of their music as an incentive for fans to come and see them perform live or to buy their (subsequent) albums. (Arctic Monkeys, anyone?)

Apart from all this, it has ALWAYS been my advice to new authors that the best way to build a reputation is through a regular, reliable and (most importantly) continuing sequence of individual articles, so that your audience comes to depend upon you as a reliable source of new ideas – some good, some not-so-good, but always trying to contribute.

The simple truth is that business people don't read books. They may buy them, but they don't read them. If you can hold people’s attention for the length of an article, that’s pretty good going. You can't impress people much if they don't actually read what you write, and, if they've heard about you at all, with a book they are probably operating on an interpretation of what someone told them they thought you meant in a book someone else told them about. (Believe me, I've been through this!)

And the pace is picking up. Mike Schultz himself told me that the way that people use the Internet nowadays is such that shorter pieces are much more effective and that I might want to rethink my strategy of writing 3,000 word articles. (He’s probably right, too!) Others keep trying to teach me that my blogs should be shorter (Sorry, folks!)

The second reason a series of articles works better than going straight for a book is that reputations are built up over time. A book is like swinging for the fences, betting everything on one big hit. And do you know what the number of business books published in a week in the US is? Probably 50 or so. Per week! The odds against you are huge.

I can tell you from bitter experience that getting a reviewer’s attention is INCREDIBLY difficult. It’s like putting out a record: if you're already Mariah Carey or P. Diddy or whomever, then a) your publisher will promote you b) the record stores will stock your book and c) Rolling Stone will review your new CD. If you're not ALREADY a superstar, then, good luck, kiddo! NONE of that is going to happen.

Finally, of course, putting out the series of articles doesn’t prevent you from subsequently collecting them together and putting them between hard or soft covers and calling it a book. You even get the chance to bury the fraction of your possible chapters that, in retrospect, turned out to be rubbish.

Oh, sure there ARE virtues to books, even today. For one, speakers’ bureaus find it a lot easier to market you if you have a hot book and there is something both effective and gratifying in having a physical artifact which enshrines your (supposed) wisdom.

Still, what many of my friends either don't know or have forgotten is that my own career and reputation (such as they are) were built on a stream of articles. It was eleven (successful and profitable) years between my first article on professional firms and the publication of my first book on the subject. You guessed it – it was, and is, a collection of my articles. Forget books — go for the online articles!

Material reprinted from
© Copyright 2001-2006 by David Maister

About the author
David Maister is widely acknowledged as one of the world's leading authorities on the management of professional service firms. For two decades he has acted as a consultant to prominent professional firms around the world, on a wide variety of strategic and managerial issues. In 2002, he was named as one of the top 40 business thinkers in the world (Business Minds, by Tom Brown, PrenticeHall/Financial Times). He is the author of five best-selling management books: "True Professionalism," "The Trusted Advisor," "Practice What You Preach," "First Among Equals; How to Manage a Group of Professionals," and the canonical management textbook "Managing the Professional Service Firm." These books have been translated into 14 languages. For seven years, he served as a professor on the faculty of the Harvard Business School (1979-85), prior to launching his consulting practice. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.  He is also the author of a blog, Passion, People and Principles, and the Business Masterclass podcast series, which along with a (free) subscription-service to his articles are available through his website,

The Complete Future of Book Publishing Series

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3