Posts Tagged ‘Writing for Business’

Thought Readership #20: The GOODREADS Challenge

by Liz Alexander on January 21, 2013

GaneshaWhen you get to a certain age you think you’ve seen everything, right? But no, I logged onto LinkedIn recently to find a “Can you recommend me?” request from an “award winning fiction author/top client” I’d never heard of (although I was obviously daft enough to accept a previous request to connect) whose 76-page novel was compiled by a self-publishing services entity called Infinity Publishing. Currently ranking 797,095 on Amazon, her various reviews point to the “terrible” writing, “disjointed” plot and a comment, from someone giving four stars, that “I wish it had been edited a little better.” So where did the “award-winning” part come in? (And, no surprise, I declined her invitation!)

In a world in which anyone can (and does) claim “best selling” or “award winning” status for their book I thought about how, when talking or writing about thought leadership, I remind people that this is a term that’s meant to be bestowed on you by others, not something you get to adopt just because it sounds cool. So in that vein I went searching for last year’s Best Books lists. Who gets on them, anyhow?

After giving up on the undoubtedly worthy but dull-sounding (and long!) lists of nonfiction books I’d never heard of, produced by the likes of Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, and the New Yorker, and stopping briefly by the business-specific books reviewed by strategy +business plus the December 2012 best-sellers offered up by 800-CEO-READ, I decided to wander over to Goodreads to see what had shown up in their Choice Awards nonfiction category for 2012. Why? Because what we want for our books (or, at least, I do) is approbation from a mainstream audience—people who typically read rather than get paid to review. And who do so NOT because of the “I’ll-offer-you-entry-in-a-drawing-for-a-free-iPad-if-you’ll-write-me-a-five-star-review” tactics of some self-published authors that increasingly taints the comments seen on Amazon.com; in genuine appreciation of good quality writing.

The following observations will (hopefully) spark some spirited discussion about what still constitutes successful nonfiction (at least as far as unbiased readers are concerned) in an era when it sometimes feels that we are being drowned in mediocre dross.

Among Goodreads’ Top Ten (books garnering 1,000 votes or more)

-          Despite (I’m assuming) no discrimination against self-published books, ALL of these books were published by major houses—Random House; Little, Brown; Free Press etc. Not a single CreateSpace original among them!

-          All were written by journalists or self-proclaimed professional writers (with a sprinkling of academics).

-          None was the author’s first book and several had appeared on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

Of Goodreads’ Top Three:

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

Common praise for these three very different books covered many of the themes I’ve discussed in this column over the past year:

-          Quality writing.

-          Well researched, providing not just the author’s experience and opinion but third party “science” or other content.

-          Entertaining, strong on storytelling.

-          Addressing topics that haven’t been done to death already.

-          Interesting conversation starters.

So what’s the point I’m making? Am I suggesting that, if you’re not already an award-winning, professional writer who has nothing else to do but research and write then you should give up the goal of ever crafting a book that could inspire readers to consider it (as one did for Boo’s book) “an impressive achievement”?

Not at all! But that’s where the bar is set, so it behooves those who are supporting the self-publishing revolution to rise to the challenge, not drag standards lower.

How?

  1. Stop thinking of your book as a spare-time project. Get into the mindset of a professional writer. Make regular “appointments” with your book when you do nothing but write it!
  2. Write every day—quality prose, not informal email exchanges, tweets, or stream-of-consciousness blog posts. Writing well comes from writing well a lot.
  3. Leave aside your opinion and personal experience and do some objective research. Who is supporting or rejecting the premise of your book? How can you weave this into your manuscript?
  4. Become a better storyteller. There are no end of books, articles, and blog posts (my favorite site being Copyblogger) on this topic. Take a screenwriting or novel-writing course to learn the rudiments of crafting a powerful, emotionally engaging story.
  5. Do your due diligence before you begin writing your book. There’s a reason why publishing houses (big and small) ask for a competitive analysis when you submit a book proposal: you need to be aware of what’s already been written about your topic (even tangentially connected topics) in order not to simply repeat what’s already out there.
  6. For goodness sake, hire a professional editor to help you craft a quality manuscript before self-publishing. At the very least, one who will help you avoid readers’ comments like: “terrible writing” and “I wish it had been edited a little better.”

Your thoughts?

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Atonement, Hancock, Bonfire of the Vanities…I guess we’ve all got our “sour grapes” list of movies that should have been good, but were not.

As Hollywood has long since shown us, there is no such thing as a sure-fire hit. The potential for creating a product with great characters, an exciting and emotionally gripping plot, and top talent is one thing; executing on it is quite another.

The same applies to books. This thought came to me as I began reading Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race, written by the CEO and Director of Client Services of consulting firm, The Syncretics Group.

On the face of it, this book had it all:

A sexy topic (ocean racing) linked to insights for succeeding in today’s rough and chaotic business world.

A fresh angle on a newsworthy story; as the authors point out, the media focused mostly on the tragedy of the 1998 event—of which more shortly—rather than celebrate the “David vs. Goliath” winning crew.

A “bad guy” in the form of loud mouth, “Ugly American abroad” Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle.

But less than a dozen pages in I began skimming the book, and put it down before things (presumably) got exciting. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with it; the book is well written, offers sound advice and promises a great adventure story. But it just wasn’t engrossing.

The first couple of paragraphs of the Preface began promisingly, pointing out that in the fifty-three years leading up to the 1998 Sydney to Hobart offshore ocean race—held every December 26th—only two out of the 35,000 total participants had lost their lives. But in 1998 all that changed: five boats sunk, “seven were abandoned at sea, twenty-five crewmen were washed overboard, and fifty-five sailors were rescued in an operation involving twenty-five aircraft, six vessels, and approximately 1,000 people.” The event had moved way beyond “extraordinary” to become “extraordinarily dangerous.”

Like a Hollywood screenwriter handed a best-selling novel, this was the fabulous material that Perkins and Murphy had to play with. But they ended up writing a book I wasn’t motivated to skim-read, let alone finish.

Which begs the question: Just how engaging do business books need to be these days? Well, I guess that depends on the purpose for writing them. Some books are written to add “author” to a CEO’s other titles, to help generate business for a consultancy, to have something to sell during events, or to gift to clients at holiday times. Perhaps their writers aren’t really looking beyond that level of success.

Whereas those authors looking for a more widespread, general business readership need exemplary storytelling skills. Some writers have this instinctively: Pink, Gladwell, Johansson to name just a few. Great orators like Steve Jobs and former President Bill Clinton share this ability also.

Sadly, by starting their book with a run-down of the America’s Cup and the Sydney to Hobart race, then introducing us to race veteran Bill Psaltis then his son Ed, the skipper of the winning vessel, then describing how the found their boat, then telling us about various crew members…well, by that time I’d decided it was time to take an alternative journey and go back to the YA novel I was reading. At least that plot had grabbed my attention on page one and wasn’t going to let me go until I got to the end of the book!

As I’ve hinted throughout these columns during the year, knowing how to tell a compelling story is not just essential for business book authors (at least, those who want a sizeable readership), it’s a vital business asset these days. As the author, I would have been inclined to start this book at the height of the excitement, then used back-story to fill in the gaps. As a reader, I would have cared much more about Ed Psaltis and the crew of AFR Midnight Rambler had I met them in the context of doing something extraordinarily courageous, stupid, or crazy, rather than the gentle run-up to the key events that Perkins and Murphy offer.

Which leaves me with just one question for you. What nonfiction book did you have high hopes for this year, that turned out to be a disappointing read?

This is the last Thought Readership review for 2012. Thank you to all those who have read and commented (you’re a rare bunch!) throughout the year. I look forward to sharing with you the good, the bad, and the ugly in books published in 2013. Meanwhile, happy holidays to you and yours!!

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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Thought Readership #17: Rock Your Business by David Fishof

by Liz Alexander on November 19, 2012

I’ll come right out and say it: The ideas that most first-time authors’ have for their books suck. Because they’re derivative, unimaginative, and pedestrian. So it’s hardly surprising that most of these uninspiring books die an early commercial death, relegated to a few purchases during that self-employment staple, the “back of room” sale. Now, that’s just fine and dandy if you simply want to say you’ve published a book. Or you’ve bought into the “book as the new business card” hypothesis.

But what if you want to write a good book? One that truly differentiates you?

Well, you might not like me harping on about David Fishof’s Rock Your Business: What You and Your Company Can Learn From the Business of Rock and Roll (BenBella Books). But it’s for your own good.

Forget the fact that for the past 25 years Fishof has been a music industry mastermind, the man who founded and is the CEO of Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp.

Look beyond his ability to count on the likes of Roger Daltry (The Who), Vince Neil (Mötley Crüe) and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms to write advance praise for his book.

Stop thinking that if you only occupied the glamorous world of rock ‘n’ roll, rather than consulting to rubber manufacturers, that writing a compelling book would be a slam dunk.

Because while it certainly helps to be able to share the story of how he came up with the idea for Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band to celebrate Pepsi’s twenty-fifth anniversary, that’s not what elevates Fishof book out of the Amazon swamps.

It’s because he incorporates simile, cleverly leveraging the comparisons between rock ‘n’ roll and other forms of business.

For example, Fishof (with co-author & professional writer Michael Levin), does something very cool with the Table of Contents. Each one of the 14 chapters is linked with a song title. Want to know how to barter your way to business (Chapter Six)? Their musical theme is the Bill Withers hit Lean On Me. Keen to stand out in a crowded marketplace (Chapter Eight)? They’ve tied that in to the Eagles’ New Kid in Town. And what’s the perfect anthem for dealing with the competition (Chapter Eleven)? Of course, it has to be the Queen classic We Will Rock You.

Throughout this book Fishof draws parallels between the music entertainment industry and the world of business. In Chapter One he shares how, needing to find a million dollar tour headliner for the previously mentioned Pepsi bash, Fishof’s response to his own question of “Who are some of the greatest musicians of all time?” brought to mind The Beatles. Trouble was, that more loveable member of the Fab Four, Ringo Starr, hadn’t toured since the band’s break up in 1970. But what, thought Fishof, if you took inspiration from the Beatles hit song “With A Little Help From My Friends” and teamed Ringo with classic greats like Nils Lofgren, Dr. John, and Billy Preston? In that flash of inspiration, Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band was born.

And the guidance that Fishof provides for readers in relation that story? How to find a big idea!

Yet it was a fairly lame and considerably overdone idea that one aspiring author presented to me recently during a consulting session. As part of my pre-discussion research on his topic of relationships, I discovered (because you can’t copyright a book title) three competitive books all entitled How to Treat a Woman. And nothing that I read in his treatment led me to believe that this guy was offering material that was much different. Interestingly enough, he did have a cool metaphor he could have leveraged (which I discovered mid-way through our conversation), but there was no sign of it in his proposal or sample chapter. He had absolutely no clue that to successfully market and sell this book he needed a strong, uniquely distinguishable “hook.”

On the back cover of Rock Your Business the reader is asked if they would like:

  • To burst into public awareness like Lady Gaga?
  • To have the long-lived success of the Rolling Stones?
  • To demonstrate the creativity of the Beatles?

To which I would add:

  • To come up with a book idea that truly deserves publication?

Read Fishof’s engrossing book and you just might find the big idea that could rock your reader’s world. Otherwise the chances are they’ll just Go To Sleep (Radiohead, 2003)

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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Thought Readership #14: Toughening Up On Tighter Writing

by Liz Alexander on October 1, 2012

Call me weird, but I often turn to the last few pages of non-fiction books (although never novels!) before making a decision whether or not to read them; what I find is rarely creative.

Dan Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is one exception. He signs off with a handy chapter-by-chapter summary, and even a discussion guide as they do in the Young Adult novels I’ve begun to devour.

Another is Dr. Jason Selks’s Executive Toughness: The Mental Training Program to Increase Your Leadership Performance. His conclusion is smartly crafted and, for any aspiring nonfiction author struggling with how best to scope and structure their book, could provide some much-needed inspiration.

There are several parts to Dr. Selk’s concluding chapter. The first poses two questions that help illustrate the characteristics of great people:

  1. What is one thing you have done well in the last 24 hours? (Because the greats “give themselves credit where credit is due.”)
  2. What is one thing you want to improve tomorrow? (They also “relentlessly pursue improvement.”)

Devising questions to ask your readers is one way to narrow down the scope of your book. In Selk’s case, his theme is mental toughness and how those of us who desire to be remarkable need to embrace accountability (doing what needs to be done), focus (prioritizing what’s important), and optimism (overcoming all obstacles). The two questions mentioned above speak directly to those key points, and presumably helped Selk keep his book tight and well organized.

The second part of Selk’s conclusion really drew me in. He offers a chart listing each of his ten “mental toughness fundamentals,” along with a brief explanation. It is here that the author intrigued me sufficiently to want to sit down and read his book cover to cover. He poses questions in those charts that are obviously answered and expanded upon throughout the book, as well as mentioning stories previously referred to that I wanted to know more about. Selk’s reference to acronyms and other terms piqued my curiosity sufficiently to want to check out the relevant, earlier sections: IAS (Ideal Arousal State); RSF (Relentless Solution Focus); and Gable discipline.

The third part of Selk’s concluding chapter summarizes three issues that neatly cover all obstacles to success: Apathy (lack of passion); Laziness (lack of motivation); and Fear (lack of confidence). This is a handy mental checklist to go through whenever you find yourself procrastinating.

Finally, Selk does what any good presenter would do: he encourages his audience to engage personally with the material. He gives the link to a free download work sheet – a clever way to include his web address and drive traffic to his site – and further intrigued me by pointing out that readers would have an opportunity to compare their takeaways with his.

How might such an approach help you write a better book? If you are a speaker, trainer or presenter you’ve learned the importance of summarizing your material in order to highlight for your audience the most important material to remember. Why not use that technique to formulate the scope and structure of your book? In that way you can avoid the mistake many new authors make, in publishing poorly organized material that frequently wanders off into the weeds.

Take a leaf out of Jason Selk’s book and know what you want to leave your readers with – the core takeaways – before you start to write or speak.

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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In the days before the Internet and photo-sharing sites like Flickr, Photobucket, and SlickPic, you could rarely escape the post-holiday season without someone inviting you to look at their vacation pictures. If you’re anything like me, I’d rather have root canal work than sit through another presentation documenting the minutiae of a friend’s or family’s fortnight in Venice, or wherever. Call me anti-social, but seeing endless pics of said vacationers with “that great couple we met up with from South Africa” would invariably leave me cold — and wondering why it is that human beings believe that others are as interested in their lives as they are.

That thought occurred to me as I read Gary Wimmer’s A Second in Eternity: The true story about a voyage beyond time and space and into the Infinite (The Lithomancy Institute, 2011), a book I would not normally review here but which highlights an issue of relevance to many aspiring authors – including those planning to write business books.

This memoir relates experiences the author had in 1977 that involved some profound psychic realizations. Not that I have an issue with that, given a spiritual encounter of my own (Sevenoaks, Kent, England; 1999; in the bath. Enough said!). But in reading Gary’s book I reflected back on what Trevor Blake  (whose memoir-type book I reviewed for Thought Readership #12) had written in Three Simple Steps (BenBella Books, 2012): that he had focused on the process, not the person. Hence that author used personal stories to provide a narrative framework for the “three simple steps” he has used to achieve monumental business success. In Gary Wimmer’s case the only take-away was a recounting of his spiritual experience, and I couldn’t help but think that you would have to know and like him to be that interested.

As a rule of thumb, when it comes to your book it’s always about the reader. For novelists the challenge is to “entertain me.” For non-fiction authors, it’s typically to “inform or enlighten me.” Which means that even if your book relies heavily on your life story to “show” rather than “tell,” the needs and interest of your desired reader must remain foremost in your mind.

Why do you think Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was such a huge commercial success if not for the fact that zillions of women could relate to her relationship issues at the beginning of the book and desired, vicariously at least, to journey to contentment as she did? Similarly, people are more likely to read Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety if either they’ve experienced anxiety themselves or know someone they care about who does, and are looking to better understand and share insights about this condition.

Regardless of the genre or scope of your book, ask yourself why you are writing it, from the reader’s perspective not your own, and specifically what’s in it for them — before you begin.

It’s a fact — even in this so-called age of community, crowdsourcing and the like — that most people care less about you than they do about themselves. Which makes marketing and successfully selling copies of your memoir as a relatively unknown person a mighty challenge. And in Gary Wimmer’s case, writing a well-received spiritual memoir is, as this Daily Beast post points out, extra difficult.

I suggested to Gary that instead of simply writing a chronological account he might have highlighted the link between psychic abilities and mental illness so that readers who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as he had, might regard their situation differently. Or he could have illuminated us on the difference between these spiritual experiences and his former drug use, injecting plenty of humor into the telling.

Many people believe that there’s a book within each one of us. I don’t dispute that. What I do question, however, is whether there is a sizeable market for most of them. If you start out by thinking more deeply about whom you want to read your book and why they would do so, you’re part way to achieving the commercial success most of us are seeking when we write.

Otherwise your book is likely to be as welcome as forcing a complete stranger to review your holiday albums!

WIIFM: What’s in it for Me!

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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Consider how many things we’re familiar with that come in “threes”:

Tenors. Magi. Bears.

Fates. Virtues. Graces.

Snap. Crackle. Pop.

There is something magical about the number three, which permeates writing just as much as anything else. This is perhaps why we have three-act plays; a beginning, middle, and end for stories; and sayings that come in three parts – from Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered)” to Thomas Jefferson’s “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Next time you review your favorite nonfiction books, look to see how many of them are written with three sections. Examples from my own library include: Daniel Pink’s Drive; Blue Ocean Strategy by INSEAD professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne; neuroscientist Andrew Newberg’s How God Changes Your Brain; Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port; and Alan Weiss’ mega-bestseller Million Dollar Consulting.

For serial entrepreneur, Trevor Blake, the decision to structure his book this way is immediately apparent from the title: Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life (BenBella Books, Inc., 2012). Part One: Escaping the Quicksand offers three chapters (there it is again!) on how to “reclaim your mentality” by focusing your thoughts more on what you want than what you are against. Part Two: Staying Out of the Quicksand – again, three chapters – offers one simple yet timeless and universally applied (at least by extremely successful folks like Henry Ford and George Washington Carver) technique for creating more winning ideas. And Part Three: Beyond the Quicksand articulates how to transform those ideas into achievements.

Written in the style of many of the truly great “self-help” authors of the early 20th century, Blake’s book is as much a memoir as anything – one you would advised to put on your reading list above books written by people whose only claim to fame and source of wealth has come from writing – well, self-help books. Contrast that with Blake who, like so many successful entrepreneurs, came from nothing to create businesses that were eventually sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. As the back cover blurb by Drew A. Graham, managing partner of Ballast Point Ventures states: “Finally, a book about how to succeed by an author who has actually achieved something before writing about it!” Not only that, I found Three Simple Steps to be a compelling read.

But back to the theme of this post: how to structure your nonfiction book. Oftentimes the biggest issue I see with manuscripts has to do with the way the author has organized their material – or, rather, not. Typically these books read like streams of consciousness with no discernible structure.

If you know what you want to write about but have no earthly idea how to set it out in a book, consider what I describe to my clients as The Power of Three. Of course, it’s easy if – like Trevor Blake – you have a three-part process to describe. But what if you don’t? Let’s go back to some of the other examples I gave earlier.

Take Blue Ocean Strategy. Part one outlines the philosophy and explains what it means to create a “blue ocean”; part two clarifies the strategy behind the concept; and part three explains how to execute it. Alan Weiss’s Million Dollar Consulting, on the other hand, begins by identifying what you need to do to prepare to be a million dollar consultant, then goes on to the tactics you would need to employ, and dedicates the final part of the book to ways to grow into the role.

One final example: Daniel Pink’s Drive first considers why we need to look at motivation in a different light; secondly he looks at what are the three elements of “Type 1” motivation; and thirdly shows you how to implement what you learn in his book.

So, even if you don’t find yourself with a neat “three-act play” as Trevor Blake did with Three Simple Steps, you can still find a way to make this structure work for your book. Part one might offer the philosophy behind your concept, why it’s important, or some foundational issues for the reader to consider. Part two could lay out the strategies for success and what planning needs to be put in place to use the book’s material successfully. Part three would then offer “how tos” or tactics to employ to help the reader successfully implement that learning for themselves.

What favorite book of yours is structured this way? Please let me know in the comments below. And for more about this topic, I invite you to go to Episode 6 of my audio series.

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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Innovation. Barely a day goes by without some piece of content related to that topic dropping into my e-mailbox. Are you finding that?

And what about the 385 billion links that Google provides for the search term “innovation”? Or the fact that Amazon lists over 52,000 books on the topic (without getting into sub-categories and associated terms such as “creativity”)?

Sounds like innovation has been well and truly covered, doesn’t it? So why would anyone in their right mind write another book about it – aside from the fact that “the ability to innovate” remains a top concern and priority for CEOs?

Well, let’s employ one of the tactics commonly used by innovative individuals. Let’s ask a different question. Imagine that like Scott D. Anthony, author of The Little Black Book of Innovation: How it works; How to do it (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), you’ve “been focusing exclusively on innovation for more than a decade.” How might you resolve the dilemma of writing on a topic that’s already swollen with content? You would ask yourself: How much of what’s currently available truly serves readers’ needs?

When Anthony reviewed what was already out there he came to the conclusion that, “Academics and leading practitioners have generated a huge amount of insight – but it’s not readily accessible. In addition, there isn’t a lot of practical information about innovation.”

Hence his Little Black Book  – an odd title choice given an association with the likes of Hugh Hefner and Tatler’s annually produced “shallow compilation of the 100 ‘most eligible’ below-thirty-somethings in London.” But I digress!

One of the most valuable services that have emerged in the era of information overload is “content curation.” Consider, for example, that every 60 seconds there are over 1,500 new blog posts available, more than 168 billion emails sent, and goodness knows how many presentations made. And if you’re an executive, entrepreneur, project manager, or consultant and want to know how to boost the innovative capacity of yourself or your team – well, you have over 52,000 books to choose from.

Who on earth has the time (or energy) to wade through all of that material to find which nuggets can actually help you be innovative?

Enter Anthony who (as many delighted Amazon reviewers attest) has distilled all of that otherwise confusing, conflicting, or unintelligible “wisdom” into a single book that is accessible, practical, and immediately implementable. And it’s an approach that can be “stolen” by any of you looking to write a book, whose core expertise lies in a similarly over-written area.

Instead of trying to figure out what you can say that’s new, think instead of how you can curate information that readers can use. Why not produce a “primer” that makes your topic understandable and shows people what they can do with that material to achieve their goals? Anthony does this by including, in Part Two of his book, “The 28-Day Innovation Program” offering four weekly sets of daily questions to ask, one-sentence answers to those questions, as well as how-to action points. There’s plenty of meat in the book too, including my favorite way of sharing information: stories.

How do you craft the kind of book that is truly useful in an over-populated arena where, in Anthony’s case, you’re competing with luminaries including Jim Collins and Clayton Christensen? Start with the end in mind, as the late Dr. Steven Covey outlined. What would you need to do for future reviewers to say, “If you read only one book on X, it has to be this one”?

Here are three suggestions:

  1. Make it simple: Distill what readers need to know – and no more.
  2. Make it practical: Give them a roadmap to follow.
  3. Make it readable: Write in a conversational style (as opposed to how some Amazon reviewers described Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business (HarperBusiness, 2011): “The book reads like a Ph.D. thesis written by a lobotomized 3rd grader” and “This book was as compelling to read as a college quantitative analysis text.”)

What business book have you read recently that offers all three of these must-haves? Share them by commenting below.

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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Have you ever attended a writing workshop were one of the participants doesn’t want to publicly share their book idea because it’s so good someone is likely to steal it? Yeah, right!

As avid readers of Acknowledgments pages know, (take a look – they’re incredibly instructive), professionals never think that way. Well-known novelists will tap the resources of numerous experts to research their plots; leading non-fiction authors discuss, share, and ask for feedback on their ideas before they begin to write.

It appears to be the mark of the amateur writer to fear “giving away the store.”   Which is probably why so many of them are incredibly stingy with the insights they’re prepared to give in their books. This seems to be especially true of consultants, who fear that if they put all their knowledge into a book no one will need to hire them!

If that thought has concerned you in the past, I highly recommend Gihan Perera’s excellent Fast, Flat, and Free: How the Internet Has Changed Your Business (First Step Publishing, 2011).

What Perera has produced is that rare find: a high quality, self-published book whose content is vastly more valuable than the cover price. Indeed, what stood out for me as I read the book was how generous Perera has been with his material.

How many business books have you read where you get to the end only to wonder, “How the heck do I put any of this into practice?” Particularly frustrating are those books that give high-level advice without any examples or a means of embedding true understanding (rather than just knowledge).

When I work with clients I always want to ensure that they’ve covered the “4 Es” – preferably within every chapter. By which I mean:

  • Give a clear Explanation of what you’re talking about.
  • Offer reputable Evidence (from other books, scientific papers, respected articles etc) to back up your claims.
  • Provide relevant Examples so readers can see how others have applied the advice you’re offering.
  • Follow this up with ways that readers can achieve Empowerment, by suggesting practical exercises: things they can think about and do.

It’s rare to find a book that embraces all four of these reader “must-haves” – and even rarer in a book that’s self-published – which is why, hands down, Perara’s book is so outstanding in its accessibility and usefulness.

Here are just two examples of what this author did that any subject matter expert worth their salt should be able and willing to do:

  • In the Introduction Perera identifies one of the biggest challenges for small businesses today: how to compete with the “big boys.” He relates the issues faced by owners of small wineries in the region of Western Australia close to his home town of Perth, then outlines 18 specific on-line marketing and positioning actions that these wineries could take (two for each of the nine strategies highlighted in the rest of the book) – which could be adapted by any reader.
  • In the section cleverly headed Familiarity Breeds Content, Perera mentions a prospective client who wanted to position herself as an expert in selling Belgian chocolates. He reminded her that she should think instead of becoming an expert in solving her customers’ problems and goes on to mention three concrete ways in which she – and other readers – could do exactly that. (Unfortunately the silly woman decided she just wanted to be an expert on Belgian chocolates!).

There’s a valid complaint about this book in one of many testimonials on Perera’s website, and it’s one I agree with: this isn’t a “dip in, dip out” book. It’s a book that compels you to sit down, pen in hand and take copious notes. It’s choc-full of amazing advice – the kind, I imagine, that Gihan the Consultant offers to his clients for large sums of money.

Why isn’t he concerned about “giving away the store” as so many author-consultants do? Because once you’ve read his book you’d hire him in a heartbeat!

In this Fast, Flat and Free world we now live in there are – as Perera points out – so many “passionate amateurs” who will share their expertise with you for nothing. They’re all over the place, including online bookstores, where you can often get suckered into buying their ill-conceived, poorly written works full of superficial thinking.

Authors like Gihan Perera (and you, if you follow his example) have nothing to worry about in the era of Fast, Flat and Free…because they deliver those rare, superior experiences that savvy business people will always pay for!

Note: For an interview with Gihan Perera and some of the other authors featured in the Thought Readership series, please visit my AG page.

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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Avoiding The Teenager’s Folly

Back in the days when I was young and foolish I’d be arguing (as I frequently did) with my mother about some relationship or other. Mum was pretty open-minded, but it always seemed to me as if she didn’t really understand what I was going through.

I remember her looking at me on one occasion with an arched eyebrow and saying, “You know, Elizabeth, you’re not the only person in the world who has had this experience. We were all young once!”

I was reminded of that conversation as I read Phil Simon’s Kickstarter-funded book The Age of the Platform: How Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google Have Redefined Business. 

Simon’s thesis is this. We live in The Age of the Platform, a time requiring “a completely different mindset.” One in which companies “must not only exist but they must thrive in a state of constant motion.”

Okay – nothing new there. What else?

Well, Simon says, the “Gang of Four” (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google), “are following an entirely new blueprint and business model.” Basically, I gather, by fostering “symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationships with users, customers, partners, vendors, developers, and the community at large.”

But wasn’t that what chocolate manufacturer, Cadbury, did back in the 19th century? And the Ford Motor Company in the early part of the 20th century?

Cadbury founded a model village for its employees, so were both business and community oriented. Its collaborative efforts were particularly appreciated during both World Wars when the company not only paternalistically looked after the male employees who fought on the front during WWI but converted part of the Bourneville factory to produce parts for fighter planes during WWII.

And while Simon credits today’s supposed “Platform Age” with engendering a business and consumer focus, I couldn’t help remembering that Henry Ford paid his employees enough money so they could become consumers, not just producers of his motorcars.

In their day, the assembly line and mass production were groundbreaking technologies. Between 1911 and 1920 the number of cars coming out of the Ford plant increased 1,433 per cent. And the “ecosystem” that Simon attributes to today’s Platform Age was surely evident in one particular Ford innovation: establishing brand-loyal, franchised dealers!

As my mother used to point out, just because “oldies” have lost their edge, doesn’t mean that they weren’t like today’s “youngsters” once.

If the platform is indeed a new business model and not simply another empty buzzword, one could argue it was also around in the days of the Medicis — the 14th century banking dynasty.

Through a series of clever strategic activities, including marriages of convenience, the family significantly increased their social network in a way we now describe as “stickiness.” And innovation? The reason why Frans Johansson named his book on creative breakthroughs The Medici Effect was in honor of the way the family sponsored an ecosystem of scientists, philosophers, and artists, breaking down long-established barriers in order to herald one of the biggest explosions of innovation in history.

Did the Medicis, Cadbury, and Ford do extremely interesting and innovative things in their day, “especially with respect to emerging technologies?” Check!

Did they (once) adapt extremely well and quickly to change? Check!

Did they (once) routinely introduce compelling new offerings? Check!

Did they (once) work with partners in very exciting ways? Check!

Every era has its own form of what Simon calls a platform; this is not a new concept. Which begs the question: is the way that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google do business so very different from yesteryear? Or are some so bedazzled by technology that it blinds them to historical truths?

This is where the “ecosystem” vital to crafting superior books comes in. The problem with self-published books like this one is that the author no longer has to go through the rigorous vetting process required by commercial publishers. One in which an acquisitions editor will query (and probably reject) spurious arguments and superficial thinking.

As an author, being provoked to think deeper and harder about your material either produces a superior product or reveals the unsettling fact that you don’t have much to say that’s new, so would be better off not publishing a book at all.

The best time to do this kind of thinking is early on in the project. Otherwise send your manuscript to honest, discerning readers (not your mother!) for their feedback before you go into print.

Here’s the issue with many of the books that are written in the space of a few months. If it’s that quick and easy, you’re not really thinking! Take a look at what Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow about the two kinds of thinking: System 1 is effortless, automatic, intuitive – and error-prone. It’s what most people do most of the time.

Which is why authors who wish to be taken seriously need to establish a habit of System 2 thinking, which is reasoned, slow, and takes so much more effort.

A clue to how to develop that can be found in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s wonderful book The Black Swan. In the Acknowledgments section he points out the value of finding detractors to your argument. “One learns most from people one disagrees with,” Taleb says.

An important piece of advice for any author not wanting to appear like a teenager who thinks they’ve discovered something new when they haven’t.

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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Daniel Markovitz’s A Factory of One

Imagine you’re a performance coach or consultant who wants to write a book. You’re aware of the “competition” in the form of well-known efficiency experts including David Allen, Julie Morgenstern, and Tony Schwartz. You also know that the basic advice of scheduling rather than constantly checking email and keeping your desk organized has been done to death. What can you contribute to the conversation that’s not only new – but truly transformative for the reader?

What would you do when faced with that challenge? Throw in the towel?

Not necessarily. You could do what Daniel Markovitz has so deftly done in A Factory of One: Applying Lean Principles to Banish Waste and Improve Your Personal Performance (CRC Press, 2012). You could turn your topic on its head and ask: If it were that easy, why aren’t we all more efficient? Maybe it’s not more tools that people need, but a different strategy? One that’s focused on the root cause of poor performance, not just its effects.

Markovitz has successfully illustrated one of the approaches every nonfiction author needs to consider today, unless you’re content to languish among the “me-too” authors whose books are gracing the remainder tables; combine your core topic with something no one else would think of associating with it.

In the case of A Factory of One, it’s Lean principles, a concept that originated in Japanese manufacturing to “dramatically boost quality by reducing waste and errors.” As the back cover of Markovitz’s book states, “(U)ntil now, few have recognized how relevant these powerful ideas are to individuals and their daily work.”

By cleverly combining personal performance, Lean principles, and self-awareness exercises inspired by the Japanese concept of gemba, this author has succeeded in offering a compelling read that actually works. Shortly after closing this quick and entertaining book I was eagerly on the hunt to spot “waste” in my own working day. And, yes, there was plenty – which otherwise would have remained invisible had I not reviewed this book.

You may already be familiar with the international best seller, Blue Ocean Strategy, which focuses on ways to make the competition irrelevant. This is an issue for all thoughtful authors, many of whom worry that with so many books being published these days it’s becoming harder to produce anything truly unique.

Not so! For a start, most authors (self-published or otherwise) have no clue how to market themselves, so their books don’t even come to their target audience’s attention, which reduces the competition somewhat. But by taking the approach that Markovitz so powerfully illustrates, you need never worry ever again about someone else duplicating or even “stealing” your book idea.

This question is part of my 7-step book development process: What other idea(s) could you combine with your basic concept to strengthen your book and make it uniquely yours? When you think of the permutations, you’ll realize there are endless opportunities for anyone creative enough to do this.

Just think of the ways in which this approach has produced innovations in daily life:

  • Journaling + computer technology = blogging.
  • Coffee + Italian café culture = Starbucks.
  • Wizards + school + and childhood rites of passage = Harry Potter series.
  • Ginger + chocolate + wasabi peas = Terry’s Toffee Asian Accent.™
  • The Roman republic + Montesquieu’s checks & balances + John Locke’s philosophy + English common law (Magna Carta) = The US Constitution.

If you want to avoid worrying about whether someone, in your industry or field, is writing a book identical to yours, you need to adopt a “Blue Ocean Strategy.” Which means going that extra mental distance to come up with unusual concepts – as Daniel Markovitz and others have done – that will make your book uniquely yours.

Next Up: The Teenager’s Folly: The author who only thought he had something new to say, and how to avoid making the same mistake.

To read interviews with many of the authors I’ve reviewed for this Thought Readership column, please go to my Articles page.

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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