against fortune-cookie writing

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After the last Maven Game¸ on dark publishing, went out, I received an email from my foil/nemesis/mentor/guiding light, Matthew Butterick:

It’s interesting that there are so many businesses / services / consultants that want to help self-published authors make books, but fewer (any?) who want to help build those higher-margin products and services around the book. (No sideways criticism of your consultancy intended.)

Matthew: I live for your sideways criticism. Please continue.

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you don’t know the power of dark publishing

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Due attention to the inside of books, and due contempt for the outside, is the proper relation between a man of sense and his books.

—Lord Chesterfield, Letters to his Son

Every time I talk to a prospective client, I ask them the same question: Why a book?

These people aren’t novelists seeking to etch their names into the literary pantheon—that’s an entirely separate illusion I leave to others to shatter.

I work with world-class experts looking to share their expertise, spread their ideas, and establish authority and credibility. With books, for some reason.

“If you don’t care about the money and you just want to get your stuff out there, why not just write everything down, export it to PDF, and share the link with everyone you know?”

(You might wonder why I routinely argue with people who want to pay me. I wonder the same thing.)

Either way, it’s at this stage that the author’s reasoning becomes vague. We ascend from the intellectual plane to the emotional.

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i’m writing a book on writing a book

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I’m in the middle of writing a book. According to Scrivener, I’ve got 27,000 words out of a projected 36,000 on draft numero uno. Tentatively entitled The Gist, it’s a manual for writing better books and making your point like a pro.

With my professional editorial practice humming along, this seemed like a good time to make a separate and permanent home for my own books as well as for the Maven Game newsletter. Hence, this site: School of Book.

(It’s a work in progress.)

I will continue to send the Maven Game on a weekly basis, and each newsletter will appear in modified form on this blog. But there will also be other stuff. Stay subscribed here and I’ll keep you posted on developments.

So why the book?

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why newsletters will save humanity

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You ever get one of those spam calls for credit card consolidation where the recorded voice says “Hello…” followed by a long pause so, just for a moment, you think it might be a real person?

Similarly, newsletters incorporate some elements of personal letters like using the recipient’s first name with a merge field. But then they frame the message as though it’s been written to a mass audience as opposed to a single person. And of course they never really ask you how you’re doing.

A skeuomorph is a holdover, a design element that was necessary in a previous version of a thing that remains in future versions as a decorative element, generally to stir a sense of familiarity.

This has long been common in architecture—the Greeks unnecessarily incorporated certain features of wooden structures into newer stone ones even though they didn’t, strictly speaking, do anything. We still do it with modern buildings.

More recently, Apple under Jobs was famous for digital skeuomorphism: wooden shelves in your iBooks collection, the leather texture in your iCal calendar, volume control knobs in GarageBand.

Newsletters still feel skeuomorphy in that tension between one-to-one letter and magazine column. Are we writing to a person or a group? Do we “automatically personalize” or just publish an essay via email regardless of who gets it?

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relax, you’re not the only clueless one

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Sorry, but this isn’t the article I was going to write.

Originally, I’d planned to start by quoting William Goldman’s famous Hollywood adage from Adventures in the Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.” Maybe as a caption over a cat executive at a desk, like so:

nobody knows anything

In coining this oft-quoted, oft-misinterpreted phrase, Goldman meant that Hollywood execs, no matter how smart, successful, and experienced, still cannot predict with any certainty which films will succeed at the box office.

This insight applies equally to the book trade. To paraphrase a former president of a Big Five book publisher, you can’t predict where lightning will strike, so you build as many lightning rods, i.e. publish as many books, as possible.

And everything else in life.

You know what, just get to work building that bunker. Prepare for the worst. Shit of some kind is gonna hit the fan. You don’t know which shit, or which fan, but either way the results won’t be pretty.

Once I’d set the Goldman bit up and established the theme of the essay, I was going to step back to the replication crisis in the social sciences. Over the past decade, an increasing number of well-regarded, widely referenced scientific papers have come under scrutiny when other researchers attempted and failed to replicate their findings.

This rapid dismantling of established scientific “fact” has already been a black eye for business book authors like bestselling Amy Cuddy, whose 2010 paper on the effectiveness of so-called “power poses” was discredited when other researchers failed to replicate her results.

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thought leaders are all clogged up

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When I was a teenager, I bought Juggling for the Complete Klutz. It came with three red beanbags. A couple of days later, I could juggle them.

To this day, that stands as my greatest learning experience (sorry, Amherst!). In fact, my goal as a writer and editor is to bring whatever I’m working on up to the level of Juggling for the Complete Klutz (sorry, clients!).

I hope you’re not scoffing. This slim book has sold more than 3 million copies. More important, it has successfully taught people something. There are many million-copy bestsellers that can’t claim that.

Juggling for the Complete Klutz has gone through a few editions over its three decades. Still, it remains 78 pages of friendly prose and clear illustrations. It gives you what you need to start—three beanbags—and tells you step-by-step how to learn to juggle them. (Not how to juggle them, but how to learn to juggle them.)

What stands between every book of practical nonfiction and this splendid achievement?

Assuming they have something useful to teach—the less said there, the better—experts still resist sharing what they know. They worry, consciously or not, that when a book explains things quickly and clearly, readers learn too easily and then don’t sufficiently value its author. Then they might not feel compelled to buy more books (and online courses and consulting and branded T-shirts and coffee mugs).

Next thing you know, the thought-leader hamster wheel has ground to a halt!

Sometimes, when I suggest giving away content for free to build an audience, authors will moan about all the effort they’ve put into accumulating their knowledge. The tens of thousands of dollars spent on market research, the years of academic study, the corporate-ladder rungs climbed. Some dude learns something useful about change management or marketing and all of a sudden he’s Gollum with his Precious.

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