Books, base hits, and homeruns

Philip Morgan

I assume you will, at some point, write a book.

(Audio version of this email: /cpp-136-books-base-hits-and-homeruns/)

I think it's inevitable that if you're serious about this expertise/consulting thing, you'll need a bucket to catch the expertise overflow, and that bucket will look something like a book.

Perhaps you will soar through the process, propelled by benevolent winds of inspiration, a bit of naiveté, and a low bar for success -- as I did with the first edition of The Positioning Manual. The momentum you'd gain from an easy "freshman" book attempt is absolutely worth whatever you give up from having that low bar for quality and success.

Blair Enns' first book, The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, comes to mind as a sort of foil to this idea of a low bar for success. It's an excellent book, and it was Blair's first.

The first time I asked him about the process of writing it, he said he's mostly forgotten what the writing was like. The second time I asked him about the book -- in a yet-to-be-published-interview for The Self-Made Expert podcast -- he reflected on a different aspect of the process. He told me he intended to write something more like a manual or guidebook and price it at $1,000 a copy, but instead he went with the manifesto style and a mass market pricing and packaging approach instead.

The resulting book is excellent, and Blair has built a really good brand on the foundation of that book.

I still don't have an answer as to whether the writing. of. the. book. was difficult for Blair, but his book has been an unqualified freshman success, without compromising quality.

That's a high bar for the rest of us. As a first-time book author, even if you don't have a specific single book in mind that you'd like to compete with, you have a sort of Greek chorus living inside your mind, made up of all the other books you've read and admired along the way, and that chorus is commenting -- sometimes in unkind ways -- about the unfolding drama of your work.

If I had to design a single recipe for the first time author, it would be to get a win at any cost, and use bar-lowering at every turn to get that win.

  • Define the win as: selling a few copies. Maybe 10 or 100 is where you set the bar.
  • Limit your manuscript to 20,000 words.
  • Self-publish and self-distribute electronic copies only (no print). This lets you allocate your "energy budget" in an ideal way, with as much as possible of it going to the writing of the book and as little as possible to production and promotion.
  • Read I still stand 100% by the testimonial from me you'll see at the bottom of that page.
  • Get pre-publication feedback on the manuscript from nobody, or -- if you must -- at most 1 trusted feedback source. Instead, just write and publish the best thing you can manage to all by yourself. Use later editions of the same book or future new book projects as your opportunity to add complexity (cover designer, editor, beta feedback group) in service of a higher quality product.

If you follow this recipe, it's unlikely you'll write something great your first time. If Blair Enns' The Win Without Pitching Manifesto is a home run, then this recipe will produce a base hit.

There are times we should swing for the fences. Doing that landed me an interview with Al Ries when I was a nobody.

Maybe writing that first book is a time to swing for the fences. And maybe not. Maybe it's a time to bunt, or go for a base hit.

 • • • 

I'm working on the third edition of The Positioning Manual, as we all know.

With the first edition, I went for a base hit. I followed that recipe I outlined above. With the second edition, another base hit. It was a really solid base hit, in that it transformed my business, generated a bit over $100,000 in book revenue, and was helpful to lots of people.

With the third edition, I'm adding complexity in service of higher quality. A better cover, better content, more market feedback in the form of beta readers, and a print version.

I've gotten some really insightful beta feedback (thank you, beta readers!).

It's helpful, and it's not. easy. :)

It's not easy to realize I have a problem with the book's positioning. Who exactly is this book for? Software developers? Technical firms? All professional services firms? That's not clear in the current manuscript, and that problem needs to be fixed.

It's not easy to realize that the manuscript has an uneven quality. I don't believe book chapters need to be equal length. That's an arbitrary rule that serves no purpose. But some of the chapters in the manuscript are underperforming, while others are overachieving. This also needs to be fixed, along with other aspects of the manuscript.

I write and publish a lot, and I ain't skeert of writing some more. I'm pretty sure this word count from my web site is missing some, but it's correct in a ballpark sense:

I'm not afraid of writing, but throwing away and rewriting is emotionally laborious.

Additionally, the anchoring and adjusting effect seems to apply not just to pricing, but also to previous iterations of a process. Like I said before, I lowered the bar so that I could get a win with the first edition of The Positioning Manual. So as I'm working on the third edition of the book, with the much larger manuscript and more complex writing and production process, I'm anchored to the relative ease of writing and producing the first edition. As they say, comparison is the thief of joy, and there's much less peceived ease and joy in getting this third edition over the finish line in part because I can't help but compare it to the first edition, even though the two projects really shouldn't be compared at all. They're too different.

Last week, I ran for the hills rather than face this emotional labor. I retreated into a task that was like mowing a lawn: easy, mechanical, and emotionally rewarding. I migrated my website from Squarespace back to Wordpress. I had used Squarespace so I could quickly implement some design changes and as an experiment in whether a consumer-friendly web site platform is suitable for a business like mine, but I realized I really do need something that can handle lots of content better, and Squarespace ain't that.

This week, I'm ready to begin the important work of sifting through beta feedback and making deep changes to parts of The Positioning Manual. I've had enough of a mini-vacation from the project to submit myself to its demands.

 • • • 

And then... the cover design comps came in from the designer yesterday afternoon.

I had a strong negative reaction to them. I used the word "hate them" with my wife. High hopes for an easy homerun my first time at bat with a professional cover design firm turned into disappointment.

We got in the car, went to the local market in Arroyo Seco, got some sandwiches to go, ate in the car, and then hiked at Yerba Canyon in the ski valley. That helped.

I constantly have to fight this saboteur: the desire for homeruns my first time at bat. I'm not sure where it comes from, but it's a harmful expectation. I really do believe in a lean, iterative process, but I'm often taunted by this little devil sitting on my shoulder saying, "That should have worked the first time! What's wrong with you, Philip?"

Why should I expect working with another professional to be any different? Maybe I wasn't clear enough in communicating my vision to them? Maybe it's a natural and healthy part of the process to work our way progressively from me being unhappy with the designs to happy with one of them?

So now I get to be on the other end of the feedback membrane.

A good night of sleep has me thinking that the color and typography elements of the cover designs are quite good, and it's just the graphical elements that need to change. Maybe this isn't such a big deal. I've often struggled, though, to give feedback to others in the way I aspire to. The right combination of honesty and kindness has sometimes seemed out of reach.

But I'll try.

The book is worth it.

It's worth all this complexity and emotional labor I've added to the process.

By the way, thanks to all of you who had pointers regarding launching a book on Amazon. I plan to compile those and send a summary back to the list soon-ish.