against fortune-cookie writing

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.

Motivated authors like Ms. Gentile and I might consider that “easy.” Most do not. You know how cafepress.com lets you upload artwork, which can then be stamped onto everything from coffee cups to thong underwear, and automatically makes a storefront? I’m surprised that that kind of thing hasn’t emerged for self-published authors. Not least because it would have a better chance of justifying its cost.

If you haven’t read the piece yet, I was basically going on at trademark length about how many authors are selling e-books directly from their websites with all kinds of digital assets thrown in as part of a premium package: videos, podcasts, worksheets, etc. You can’t do that through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, so it’s not really aggregated or tracked anywhere, hence “dark publishing.”

I wrote back:

It goes back to the same issues publishers had with CD-ROMs in the 90s—there is no standardized format or set of assets that readers expect. So usually authors end up gathering up a hodgepodge of ancillary materials (often shoddy) that might once have gone into an appendix or workbook, and then hiring a designer off of 99designs.com to put lipstick on a pig.

This is why the book as a medium is so durable post-digital—it offers a clear set of constraints. Even as a digital asset, readers expect consistency and compatibility with the physical edition. There are standards to meet.

I hesitate to write about this in the newsletter because so many peers and clients do it, but I’ve been consistently disappointed with these free giveaway “e-books” that are de rigueur for newsletter list-building.

Inevitably they consist of a few thousand words of generic, instantly forgettable advice in the form of a tastelessly overdesigned and overinflated PDF.

Yes, technically you’re giving readers a “free 35-page e-book” but if you have to use a 35-point font and enormous margins to do that, what’s the point?

You get the feeling the authors don’t expect the readers to read these, and the readers don’t care what they contain as long as it’s a “free gift for signing up”—it’s like a fortune cookie.

Actually, that’s pretty good. I’ll use that.

A lagniappe is a small gift given to a customer, like a thirteenth donut with every dozen. The word derives from Spanish, but the practice, in one form or another, has been around since Moses got a 10th commandment for the price of nine. (Ironically, he coveted that one.)

Gifts, no matter how small, exert a profound subconscious effect on us; merchants have long known that “a little something extra” goes a long way with customers. Gifts create good will, repeat business, referrals.

The problem is, once one shopkeeper starts lagniapping, the competition does, too. That charming little surprise with purchase becomes customary. Over time, the thirteenth donut degenerates into a fortune cookie. After all, if the customer isn’t actually paying for it, why bother investing any money, effort, or time in making it good? Let’s just give him a stale sugar cracker filled with lies.

Fortune cookies aren’t really food—they’re just food-shaped objects intended to fulfill an obligation as cheaply and efficiently as possible. “Free e-books” are the fortune cookie of today’s authors.

For aspiring thought leaders, this is widely touted as a best practice. In the interests of “conversion, we dutifully create book-shaped objects to “thank” new subscribers to our email lists. We don’t put the good stuff in there, of course. We just recycle the ideas that are already all over our sites and puff them up to a bare minimum length with fortune-cookie writing: stale, crumbly, with a hint of vanilla. Once the document feels substantial enough—sort of—we throw it into our newsletter software and wait for the conversion rate to climb.

What’s the harm? After all, who doesn’t love free stuff they don’t want?

Have you ever tried to actually read one of these free e-books? If you have, have you also gotten into the habit of routinely discarding the new ones you get, because why bother? Another iPhone, another pair of shitty white earbuds in the garbage.

The thing is, making a book, an actual book, is hard work. The word “book” came to connote the things it does when these were exclusively physical objects that, by default, called for a certain amount of effort and vetting. Now that you can take 500 words of lorem ipsum, save it as an EPUB, and call it a book, it’s like we’ve gotten something for nothing—an easily manufactured item that connotes value without actually delivering any.

Yet, despite all this abuse, readers continue to demand more of the things we call books. Authors should demand more of themselves when they write them. Don’t go whipping something book-shaped together just because the customer expects a fortune cookie in return for their e-mail address. When you label a 10-page, over-designed assemblage of “tips” a book, you do yourself a disservice.

After all, at some point you’re going to want these people to buy one of your actual books. Isn’t that the whole point of getting them to sign up in the first place? They visited your site because they were curious about you and your ideas, because they’d read something you’ve written or something someone’s written about you.

So you give them this fortune cookie because the metrics show you an improved conversion rate. What the metrics don’t show you is the slight frown as they crack open the cookie, read the fortune, roll their eyes, and leave the crumbled mess behind on the table.

you don’t know the power of dark publishing

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.

“No, it’s not about getting on a bestseller list. I understand that’s rigged. Yeah, I know that publishers aren’t going to be much help on the marketing side…Look, I just want to publish a book.”

Clearly, being “published” by a real publisher still carries weight even as the distinctions and definitions blur. That’s especially weird to me because I spent ten years as one of deciders. You’re gonna let me tell you whether you’re an authority or not? Remember, I was one of the more respectable ones!

typical BEA afterparty
Your typical BEA afterparty.

As with currency, traditional book publishing is an illusion maintained by shared consensus. “Real” publishers are real because we agree they are.

Of course, the illusion reflects reality and vice versa. And as new technologies spread and reader preferences change, the traditional publishing model adapts in fits and starts. The 90s craze for book CD-ROMs was short-lived, but e-books as a format are clearly here to stay, at least for genre novels.

Meanwhile, categories like business, self-help, and health are still very much tied to standard hardcover and paperback editions sold at essentially standardized prices.

Or are they?

Over the last few years I’ve seen some interesting hybrids popping up in these categories, often sold directly from authors’ websites. In many cases, these authors have the necessary marketing muscle and reputation to woo publishers. Why not just take the six-figure advance?


“Independent publishing,” “DIY publishing,” and “hybrid publishing” all fail to capture what’s different here. This is the world of dark publishing.

Why? I’m glad you asked.

Physicists calculate that visible matter—all the stars, planets, and other celestial bodies we can see through our telescopes—accounts for only a tiny percentage of the total mass of the universe. The rest, they theorize, is composed of dark matter and (to a much larger extent) dark energy. We can’t see it, we don’t know what it is or how it works, but we know it’s there.

(Bear with me, I did also help launch a popular science imprint.)

In the same way, many “books”—varying combinations of physical books, e-books, PDFs, audio, video, and other digital assets—can’t easily be sold through the ordinary book channels of Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Instead, their authors are creating and selling them directly through their own websites and with tools like Gumroad. These products may or may not have ISBN numbers. They may or may not show up in any other place where “books” are seen, sold, and counted, like bestseller lists. Their price points are all over the place.

And people are buying lots of them. Hence, dark publishing.

So if each of these books is essentially invisible to anyone outside of that particular author’s tribe, how do you learn more about dark publishing in general?

You know, if you want to try it yourself, or if you’re supposed to be a publishing expert and stuff…

In my case, I ask questions of people who are just too nice to refuse to answer them.

Tara Gentile is a small business strategist who teaches frequently on CreativeLive—I met her when I was its business channel head.

Last year, we chatted about her idea for her next book, entitled Quiet Power Strategy. I loved the concept: using gentle, persistent strategic focus to stand out in a noisy, crowded market.

On a recent visit to Tara’s site, I noticed that the book was now available for sale as a “multimedia pack.”

Could it be? Had I accidentally stumbled into the world of dark publishing? I reached out to Tara for some insight:

I realized there was an opportunity to create a “multimedia pack” for my books when I first started publishing on Amazon as well as on my own site. I knew the fair market price for a book on Amazon was far below the common going rate for a business book being sold independently. I wanted a way to justify two different prices.

How’d you do it?

Easy! I added in an audio, Kindle, and EPUB version of the book along with the usual PDF. Most of the technology I needed to create this was already on my computer: Pages and Garageband. A quick Google search brought me the small amount of technical know-how I needed.

What about Kindle?

To create the Kindle version, I used Pressbooks. It’s an easy, inexpensive way to create great-looking Kindle books.

Who’d you work with?

Amy Scott from Nomad Editorial. Amy helped me not only clean up the manuscript but provided a lot of direction on making it more engaging and effective.

What was your model?

My model was my own way of consuming books. I will often both read and listen to a book—and I do all of that from multiple devices. Why not make that as easy as possible for people? I also knew—from previous experience—that my own email list was more likely to purchase the book directly from me, while new-to-me readers would be more likely to purchase from Amazon. So another aspect of the multimedia pack is rewarding existing readers.

How’d it go?

Every time I’ve launched a multimedia pack like Quiet Power Strategy, I’ve seen a bigger bump of sales of that version at the beginning and then it tapers off and the Amazon version picks up steam. Again, that’s due to my own list preferring to buy directly from me but new-to-me folks preferring to buy from Amazon.

How’d you market it?

Tripwire offers. I offer a discount on a book as soon as someone subscribes to my list. For instance, if you sign up for my Revenue Planning Guide, you get an instant discount of $5 off Quiet Power Strategy.

What kind of feedback are you seeing?

I’ve noticed that the vast majority of people buying my multimedia packs are consuming the audio version. They go for a walk, put the book on their phone, and enjoy. They’re also listening multiple times, which is excellent for me as a marketer.

Would you do it again?

Totally! I’ve been doing this since 2012 and I wouldn’t stop. Of course, I’m always experimenting. With my last 2 books, Quiet Power Strategy and The Observation Engine, I also released a print version. I’ve been quite surprised by how well those have sold!

What else do you have cooking?

My most recent experiment is a mini-book published straight to my website: Lead Yourself Backwards: The Essential Management Mindset for Small Business Owners. While I wanted to make the text completely free, I also used the multimedia pack idea to give people a reason to give me their email addresses. You can read the full text on the site or, in exchange for your email address, you can get the PDF and audio version. Since I know how much people like that audio version, I knew it would convert well. The results have been astounding, with over 40% of people who land on the book page forgoing the completely free version and opting in for the audio version.

As you can see, Tara still uses Amazon, but it represents a smaller part of the overall strategy. Tools like Nielsen Bookscan, imperfect as they are for tracking sales of traditionally published books, are absolutely useless for gauging the scope of Tara’s success as an author. She’s gone totally dark and is quietly (get it?) succeeding beyond expectations.

Understanding how to conceive, design, build, market, and sell multi-asset, multi-channel “books” is rapidly becoming a necessary skill for authors and the people who work with them.

This goes for traditional publishers too, although their reliance on large booksellers makes the process politically difficult.

i’m writing a book on writing a book

This article appeared in modified form in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.


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?
Continue reading “i’m writing a book on writing a book”

why newsletters will save humanity

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?

As the medium evolves, we will find new norms and practices specifically suited to this new thing that we call newsletters but are really something new. Newersletters.

You see, I’m bullish on newsletters. I love writing the Maven Game, for one. I also love reading other people’s newsletters. (Do you write one? Let me know about it.)

Previously, I’d coined the acronym AD HOC for Algorithm-Defiant Human-Only Curation. I saw this concept as a needed counterbalance to the way social media steers our attention and shapes our narrative based on algorithms the cumulative effect of which no one really understands.

At the time I thought there was something in the idea for book publishers, but only this morning did it strike me that newsletters represent perfect AD HOC:

  • You, the reader, decide which newsletters to read and, more often than not, the decision to subscribe to one is based on word of mouth.
  • You receive each newsletter when it’s sent, whether or not some algorithm thinks it’s worthy of your attention (aside from spam filters, and false positives aren’t a huge problem nowadays).
  • You can forward or save the newsletter locally—it isn’t trapped in some ephemeral online landscape. And you can read it with plain old e-mail software, without worrying about whether some API change is going to lock your favorite reader app out of some closed system.
  • You can unsubscribe at any time and never, ever see that newsletter again. (Don’t get any ideas!)

When you compare newsletters to pretty much everything else you read online nowadays, isn’t the whole thing just beautiful? The newsletter-er is completely free to decide what to share with you. No algorithms, nothing tailored to your interests or adjusted so as not to disturb your delicate little political/religious/cultural/economic belief-bubble.

Also no publisher or editor or sales department or any other vested interest.

Newsletters, fundamentally, are personal. Even though they completely aren’t, [FIRST NAME]. (By the way, how’s [SPOUSE FIRST NAME]? What about [CHILD FIRST NAME 1, fallback: PET NAME]?)

Some newsletters to try

10 things for writers this week by Chantel Hamilton

Electric speed by Jane Friedman

Hack Education Weekly Newsletter (HEWN) by Audrey Watters

Orbital Operations by Warren Ellis

E-180 Fortnightly Links

Your newsletter needs a name, call me Jocelyn by Jocelyn Glei

Metafoundry by Deb Chachra

The Maven Game by David Moldawer (wink)

No point trying to summarize these. If you want to dive into AD HOC, go sign up and see what you get. You read this and I find them interesting, so maybe you’ll find them interesting. The transitive property of curiosity.

These are all idiosyncratic and scattered, sometimes boring, often fascinating. In the end, reading newsletters like these always beat what I find skimming Facebook and Twitter.

relax, you’re not the only clueless one

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.
Continue reading “relax, you’re not the only clueless one”