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business models, strategies and technologies

Rethinking the business of the book – incrementally and more

It ain’t easy to pen a book to help your brilliant ideas establish the thought leadership they deserve. But lean publishing changes the game …

Books and thought leadership

After I recently ghost-wrote a book for a high-level client, several other clients have recently voiced interest in “doing a book”. They’ve got a great idea and want to tell the world about it. Coincidence?

I hadn’t publicised my previous book gig, so I’d reckon it’s probably something to do with the post-consumerisation of business, where it’s no longer the products or services you’re selling, but more a mindset about how technology, business and the world can interact. Products are no longer enough – companies want to establish much-vaunted “thought leadership”, establishing the whole context/scenario and rocking a platform for moulding and dominating the discussion. Platform is king, but conceptual platform is emperor.

Website not enough

Perhaps one reason for the apparent interest in “thought leadership” statements is that many modern minimalistic websites have difficulty delivering the goods on complex ideas, intangible services and game-changing interlinked capabilities. Clear context and techie tie-ins are often the key to grasping the what and how of web-based products and services, but sassy pics of hipster coolness are rarely a good match for depicting gnarly commercial realities.

Why a (printed) book?

But why a book at all? The naive answer probably lies in the gloriously old-fashioned aura of analogue authority that stems from a printed-and-bound tome – its conceptual heft. It’s a statement somehow etched in stone, transcending time and the realms of the ephemeral. If an idea’s in a printed book, it must somehow be serious and worth something – look how much time and effort must have gone into it …

Rethinking the business model for a book

For anyone who wants to write/ghostwrite or by other means give birth to a book, one of the big commercial/psychological barriers (in the traditional model, at least) is that all the effort and all the expenditure has to be in place before a single penny of income rolls in. Not many of us mere mortals are in the Elon Musk, Thomas Piketty and Michael Porter league, with six-figure advances and a guaranteed gravy train. Oodles of upfront expenditure with no guarantee of sales and subsequent income – on top of all the effort and anguish of actually writing the opus in question – isn’t exactly good for author motivation or a good night’s sleep.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. E-books and electronic publishing have rolled back the costs and globalised the logistics, while there are now lots of tools and publishing platforms that make the book production process easier and cheaper.

But none of this deals with the basic “problem” that the book has to be finished before it amounts to anything at all. The traditional business model for birthing a book is a fundamentally “all or nothing” game.

Incremental incentive

Obviously, the subscription model is one candidate for dealing with this. However, unless you’re a known name or can drag in subscribers by other means you’ll need to do a very large chunk of the conceptual work, highlighting the key ideas and planning the contents in order to make the first stages sufficiently ka-zinger attractive to make people want to sign up for the rest.

I recently came across a concept that might provide a better solution. It goes under the monikker “lean publishing” and basically involves publishing an in-progress ebook in many iterations to establish traction and to build your audience while you’re writing. Each iteration harvests reaction, encouragement and dialogue with readers that are pretty much bound to up his or her motivation to complete. Writing and publishing incrementally probably lifts an immense weight off any author’s shoulders.

Gateway to thought leadership opportunity?

Publish early, publish often, publish painlessly

The company behind the lean publishing idea is Leanpub, and there’s a good explanation of the philosophy and history of Leanpub here. There are also some good explanatory videos of Leanpub co-founder Peter Armstrong here.

Leanpub bills itself (among other things) as the best place to sell in-progress ebooks, and this is perhaps its most innovative feature. The whole “publish early, publish often” idea matches well with the pretotyping idea I’ve written about before, and has the priceless advantage of giving you real-world feedback on what you’re writing, from people who’re actually there to buy = potential long-customers.

Your mother might praise your pearls of wisdom to the stars, but she’s hardly unbiased or a qualified critic of your work. By contrast, this Leanpub setup lets you gauge real-world interest in your personal contribution to the intellectual property of the universe and gives you a healthy dose of market reality that might save you from wasting time, money and effort on a total non-flier.

Payments and financing

The good (or bad) contents of your book are one issue – the pricing model may well be another. Leanpub also features a variable pricing model that means you can fiddle and experiment with your pricing model at any time. For example, you can instantly change your prices in response to audience feedback or to reflect special events.

Writers also get payments (albeit hardly large …) early on in the writing process, which helps both cash flow and motivation (see, Mum, I’m earning money on this!…).

It’s also important to consider the pricing model from the buyer’s viewpoint. This is summed up very well by one apparently satisfied customer:

“With Leanpub, the first person who purchased my book for $9.99 almost two years ago (and only received a preface, and two short intro chapters) has had access to almost every bit of knowledge I’ve gained in those two years, and that’s the value.”

This seems to be a good dangled carrot motivation (kinda’ Kickstarter-like, really) for anyone facing just a sketchy ramping up to a good book – no guarantees for the future, but no real risk, either

The trust and financing hole

But however much it may tweak and improve the ebook publishing model, Leanpub is still fundamentally enmired in the traditional buying-and-selling model – regardless of how that might be expedited in practice.

Another author/publishing developer seems to have gone one step further. Simon de la Rouviere writes about ways that ubiquitous software running on blockchain technology (such as Ethereum) can affect and improve our society – more specifically by acting as a distributed ledger and facilitating a public infrastructure that doesn’t require intermediaries or permission and which will enable new peer-to-peer forms of wealth, commercial transactions, organisations and legal structures. The book he’s currently “lean publishing” seems to both describe key aspects of blockchain opportunity, and encourage its active use via BTC or ether donations.

Introducing the whole distributed ledger and blockchain transaction model into lean publishing would be pushing the innovation envelope even more …