In this Episode
Todd Sattersten is the author of the Leanpub book Every Book Is A Startup: How Authors Uncover Felt Need, Hack Growth, and Build Bestsellers. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Todd about his background in engineering and publishing, how he works with authors, and why he thinks every book is a startup.
This interview was recorded on May 25, 2018.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, I'm Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub podcast, I'll be interviewing Todd Sattersten.
Based in Portland, Todd is President of the Astronaut Projects Publishing Studio. Throughout his very diverse career, he's worked as bookseller, foreign literary scout, literary agent, editor and author. Along with his colleague Jack Covert - is that how it's pronounced?
Todd: It's Covert. It's actually kind of like a spy, it's covert.
Len: Actually I had my prepared little joke which is - Jack Covert is the greatest sounding spy name ever.
So, along with his colleague, Todd is co-author of a popular book, The 100 Best Business Books of All Time: What They Say, Why They Matter, and How They Can Help You.
He's published other works, but he's also recently published a new version of his book, Every Book Is A Startup on Leanpub - and we'll be talking about that a little bit latter.
I should note that conventionally in interviews with Leanpub authors for the Frontmatter podcast, we talk about the author's area of specialty, but we don't talk about the publishing industry like I do with guests on the Backmatter podcast. But given that in this case, Todd's area of expertise is the publishing industry, I guess you might say this is going to be the greatest crossover podcast ever. So, I'll be publishing it on both Frontmatter and Backmatter.
In this interview we're going to talk about Todd's background, career, his book, as well as his thoughts on the publishing industry generally.
Thank you Todd for being on the podcast.
Todd: Thanks for having me.
Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you grew up and how you ended up on the path to being the publishing world?
Todd: I grew up in the mid-west, the United States - from Wisconsin originally. I spent 35-plus years there, in various times - went to school, actually became a mechanical engineer by training. When I graduated, I went to work for General Electric. As a manufacturing guy, what's great about GE is they make lots of very, very interesting things. I made CT scanners, I made artificial diamond. Oh, and motor controls for paper mills. I spent seven years there, and decided that big companies weren't where I was best suited.
I went to work in a family business. My father had a small sheet metal fabrication shop. I did that for a few years. The short story on that is, it was one of those where it was a small business, spent a lot of time trying to grow it and couldn't do it after working on it for almost three years. That's really where my path goes from being this sort of manufacturing, purchasing, logistics guy - to publishing.
I started a blog, when people didn't know what blogs were. This is like 2002, 2003, 2004. I was blogging about business, and I was writing about lots of different things, in particular about books that were being published. That sort of led me to an introduction to a company, also based in Wisconsin - or actually in Milwaukee, called 800-CEO-READ. That started me on my path towards spending the last 15 plus years now working in book publishing.
Len: I saw from your LinkedIn profile that there's a reference to your time at GE with Six Sigma. I know this is a little bit random, but I've always wanted - I've read about it a little bit, and I'm sure everyone's heard about it, but what the heck is Six Sigma?
Todd: It's really a problem-solving methodology that's heavily anchored in statistics. It's a four step process, at least that's how it was taught to me. It's measure, analyze, improve and control. I spent a couple of years doing nothing but that, and then training lots of people in how to do it.
I think at GE it was adopted really well. What they did is they pulled the best people out of some of the most important positions. This is when Jack Welch was still there. He made it very important. Everybody in the entire company was trained on it, and the kinds of improvements that the company saw over those times in manufacturing and deliveries and all sorts of different parts of the business were pretty amazing.
It's a problem-solving methodology that uses - everybody goes, "Oh, statistics." Well, statistics can actually be super helpful, and they can be interesting. I think it's something that's come to influence me even all these years later, in terms of a lot of the stuff that I do now.
Len: I think that a lot of people who are interested in books and writing probably share the sentiment you expressed about fitting in at big companies. It's a very independent thing to be drawn to in its own way. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what it was about big company life that you didn't take to?
Todd: It's interesting. I didn't figure this out until later. It was probably five, six years after I left. But I kept finding myself at GE, attracted towards and moving towards groups that were very small. One of my first big jobs after I took a full-time position there was as almost a general contractor for a big construction project at one of the plants that I worked at. That was really great - sn individual project manager. I worked with lots of different people, but nobody that I was really responsible for.
I moved to a big IT transformation project. Again, there were five people on the core team that were making it all happen. I really enjoyed that. I moved back to Wisconsin and found myself working again on like this little ten-person team. There were like two or three people on the operation support side, and then there were, I think 11 maybe, who were building the product.
As I had an opportunity to go to the next thing, I found - not exaggerating - a five person team that I could go join. In the course of that last position that I had there, the team grew from five to, I think it was 80 in 18 months? We saw a huge increase in the acceptance of this particular medical device that we were making. I had to get out of there. I thought, "Oh my God, I can't -"
It was fine, it was interesting, I loved the experience of that growth. But ever since then, even in the positions and the sort of projects that I've gotten myself involved in, it's been small teams. I think, for me they're - I was spending more time at GE telling people about what I was doing, versus actually doing stuff. That's really, I think, at the core of why it really started to drag me down - was, I think I'm entrepreneurial by nature.
I love trying new things. I love experimentation. I'm not someone who's great at maintaining, but I'm very good at trying new things, innovating, seeing what will work. I think that's hard in large organizations. Whereas when I found spots within the large organization that were smaller, they worked better for me.
Len: Thanks for that really great explanation - something that a lot of people will identify with.
You spoke about projects, and I believe one of the projects you've worked on your publishing career was a book that sold over 500,000 copies? Is that correct?
Todd: It is.
Len: I was wondering if you talk a little bit about that? That's quite a success and quite a feat.
Todd: So in 2012, I had an author who approached me. Someone who lived here in Portland, and was somewhat familiar with what I did and my experience around business books. That's actually where I spend most of my time, is in non-fiction. He brought a half-written manuscript. He said, "Could you read this? I've written a novel for IT people." I thought, "That's kind of interesting."
I've never heard of that before. I've certainly heard of business fables and business novels, and people using fiction to teach. But he was very particular that he wanted to try to tell a story around how he could teach these new concepts to technology people. I read the story - fiction's tricky. A lot of times either you like it or you don't. In at least first half of the manuscript, I thought he had a lot of really good stuff going on, a lot of good tension, good characters. I decided to start working with him.
We spent about another year getting the book put together, and we launched it in January of 2013 as a book called The Phoenix Project. The author's name is Gene Kim. He was the co-founder of a company in Portland called Tripwire, which is very well-known in the technology space as an enterprise security company. He had left it, and he wanted to do something else. So that was the gist of doing the book.
We started very small. It was only available on Amazon to start with, through their Kindle platform, or as a print book that we shipped to them. It really is like one of those little engine that could stories. It came out the first month, and I think we sold 200 copies, which is pretty good for any book. But it sold 2,000 copies every month for the next eight months. We thought, "There's really something to this book if it can kind of keep that consistency to it."
Then we started looking for distribution, and signed with a distributor. About a year into the process, signing with a distributor increased sales 40%. A year later, we put it out in paperback. We decreased the price probably 30%. I think when we sold the book originally, it was a $30 book. We cut it down to $21. Increased sales 40% again.
Over the course of those four years, we sold 400,000 copies. It just celebrated its fifth anniversary in January and it's still selling. It's selling as well, if not better than - I think this year will probably be its best-selling year, in its sixth year - which is pretty amazing.
Len: That's really amazing. Did you do any special marketing around it, or was it just something that -? It seems from your description that it just kind of found a life of its own.
Todd: We did some things upfront, where we were smart about - we did some testing of titles and subtitles using Google AdWords. So we did some experimentation on the front side. Once the book came out, we could see that there were sales that were happening. One of the things that we did, was we just didn't know how much demand there was.
It was a $30 book, so it wasn't cheap. But I don't think we felt we knew quite yet what the demand for the book was yet. About three months in, we used Amazon's Kindle program to make the book available free for - I think it was three days? It was probably around April Fool's Day. We pushed pretty hard that the book was available. We gave away, I think it was 22,000 copies of the book in three days.
What we could see was, there was clearly pent up demand for this book, and that there was more that we should be doing. So one of the things that caused us to do - after finding out there was that much demand for it at that free price point - was we started giving away half of the book for free. All you you had to do is give us your email address, and we would give you an excerpt. We would give you an 180 page excerpt of the book.
Like very manipulative publishers, the spot that it ended, is the spot where the main character quits the job, walks out - and you don't know what's going to happen in the second half of the book. We found that making that excerpt available was the next point for us to having a very large sampling.
Fiction's tough, right? You can't usually, from a description, from 100 words, know, am I going to like it? Or even from 10 words or 20 words. We found by giving away an excerpt, that was really the next most important thing we did.
I would say after that, Gene was speaking quite heavily. We started a conference not that long after that. That was another big platform booster for us. I think those kinds of books don't come along very often, the kind of book that sells 400,000 copies, that this year probably sells 500,000 copies by year end. They don't come along very often, and I think in our case, even though we were very smart with all the things I've described, we caught the very early end of a trend - of a new philosophy about how enterprise technology, in this particular case, needed to be practiced. This book did the best job of describing how to do that.
I also think the other thing it did was, probably like any kind of good fiction, it was something people could really identify with. The first 100 pages of the book is about the meltdown of an IT system inside a large organization. He's written it in a way that I think anybody would read it and go, "Oh my God, this is horrible." You get to the end of that section, and they can't make payroll. It isn't that they don't have money. It's that they literally can't print the checks, because the entire IT system is fried. This becomes something you have to report to the SEC. It creates not only a huge technical problem, but business problems for the people in the book.
I think there's a lot of people who read the first part of that section - people who work in IT, who identify with how difficult it is working in that particular industry. Research shows that people who work in operations, in particular in IT, have stress levels and suicide rates similar to first responders. So firefighters, Lance Corporals in the Military. I think this book helped people personify, and I think identify with the kinds of troubles - that someone finally had told their story in a way that they could identify with.
Len: That's really interesting you bring that up. There's something interesting about working in - I guess, let's say tech - where the scale and speed with which things can go wrong is kind of unique. Often it can feel to people, like, "Oh it was just a small mistake." But now the entire production line is down and there's a bunch of suits tapping their watches, counting the money disappearing as the minutes go by. Being in those kinds of situations - it's an emergency. It teally is an emergency, and it feels like an emergency - and lives, in a way, can even be on the line in these worlds.
Todd: It's gotten to be, right? I mean the dependency that we have on technology now is incredibly important. The systems that we've built are largely monolithic, which means if one little piece of that system goes down, that the whole system goes down. It is in a lot of little pieces that can operate independently, which is what is being advocated for more and more today.
But I think that there have just been so many people that - when I worked with Gene and his organization, IT Revolution - there were so many people that came to us talking about the difficulty of working in that particular industry. It's a utility, like we expect the water to run, and we expect the electricity to run, and we expect our email to always be on now. I should always be able to connect, and I should be able to offer all the functionality that I need. I think it's difficult for people who work in that industry.
Len: There's something about the ability to communicate so quickly with so many people as well. I mean there's social media, but there's also like - just yesterday, the day before recording this on May 25th - was GDPR day, and so we had to deal with that. We had to send out like 1.2 million emails.
We're a small team, but because of the way technology works, you can do that. But when you press the button on something like that, that's going to touch over a million people's lives, you stress about it going wrong. You stress about the response. You learn very quickly that you can't please all of the people all of the time, and that the very same message that will garner praise from some will garner condemnation from others.
Len: I imagine you know - in the olden days, it certainly would have been the case that if you were running a utility and things went down, the phone banks would go off. But nowadays, Twitter can explode, and then Twitter can be - tweets get on the news. Not necessarily from presidents. Like, "User so and so said this negative thing," and then all of a sudden you've got to deal with that. The scale and speed and the universal transparency with which things are communicated nowadays make those tech jobs incredibly sensitive.
Todd: Yeah, it's that double edged sword, isn't it Len? That we have with small teams now, the ability to have in tremendous scale - like when you look at the size of the Instagram team. What did they have when they were bought by Facebook? 16 people, 18 people or something like that? Maybe 30? Pokémon GO was a team of 30 that scaled. It was the fastest app to scale to a billion people.
These are small teams, and when you think about the ability for us to influence lots of people - now, you then spoke to the other side, which is - gosh, what level of responsibility does very small teams of people now hold for very, very, very large groups of people? I think it's fascinating.
Len: I wanted to ask you about Astronaut Projects, your company. I know you recently returned to it as the full time role, and you weren't there full time for a while. Can you just talk about that company? What led to its creation? What does it, what do you do?
Todd: It's a publishing studio based out of Portland, Oregon. What it grew out of was I had a set of people - to back up one step, I spent seven years with a company in Wisconsin called 800-CEO-READ. If you know business books, you would know them. If you didn't, you probably wouldn't be very familiar with them. But they're a company that serves a very particular niche, in a very particular way.
What they do is they sell not one book at a time, but they sell boxes of books at a time. They ship books all over the country, even all over the world. It turns out that it's a very different problem when one goes into a bookstore looking for a single copy of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, versus when the author, say, is speaking to a corporate client, and they need 150 copies of the book - there on a given day, at a given time, at a given location. That's a very different problem.
CEO-READ's gotten very good at solving that particular problem, and it turns out there's a lot of people that have that particular problem. We found ourselves working with a lot of authors and a lot of publishers, so I built a pretty big network of people that I worked with there. When I moved out to Portland, I started having some of my contacts that I knew from there who showed up saying, "I want to publish a book. I'm not sure commercial publishing's the right thing for me?"
Maybe they had an experience that they didn't like? Maybe they didn't like the lack of control? Maybe they felt like they should make more money? There's all sorts of reasons why authors sometimes don't end up thrilled in the commercial space of the experience that they've had. So they were kind of shying away from that.
Then on the other end, what we had was - they felt like just publishing it on Kindle or through CreateSpace or through some self-published platform wasn't going to be enough for both the size of the platform, and the work that they wanted to produce.
They said, "Could you create something in-between? Could you give me more support than what I could expect from either end." I essentially created what has now come to be known as a hybrid publisher, where I work on a handful of books a year. One, two, three books a year. Not very many at all. I'm very particular about the clients that I work with.
What I'm trying to do is - for a commercial publisher, like a portfolio strategy, where they'll sign 10 or 20 or 30 or 50 books to an imprint there. I'm more like a stock picker, where I try to pick a book, or just a couple of books that I'll work on in a given year, and put all of my effort into those books.
What I do is, I work very closely alongside those authors to develop the book. Both editorially, and then at the same time in parallel - what's the right marketing and launch plan to make that work for the book? On the front side of their process, I probably look like a developmental editor that you might hire to work on the book.
Then on the back side of the process, what my clients do is they sign a distribution agreement with me, where I've set up a set of relationships with all the sorts of people that you want to commercialize your book. We have a commercial book distributor that can make your book available in all the other places that you'd expect it. We have a foreign rights person, who can sell translations, and other ancillary rights. I have a relationship with an audio book distributor - all the places, and a few online subscription services, where you can make your book available where they make sense.
What's interesting about the way I structure my process and the distribution side is - what I say is, "Listen, you're the author, you're the person who's going to be doing most of the heavy lifting on making this happen." What I do is I flip my royalty structure, so I take what the author normally gets, which is that 10%, 15%, and I give them what the publisher would normally make from a royalty standpoint on the book. It recognizes what I think is the reality of publishing. There's kind of a rough idea of how Astronaut Projects works.
Len: That's a really great description. It reminds me of, I think, a bio of yours that I found online, maybe on Amazon, in your profile, where you describe your work as being maybe more akin to that of a music producer than one might conventionally think about someone who's in the book publishing world.
Todd: It's interesting that in book publishing, the only person who's really a part of the process is the literary agent. Their job is really to sell a book to a publisher. They act as kind of this intermediary, where they want an author to bring them a proposal that's close to being done. They have in their mind - which editors do they have to work with that might be interested in this particular project?
When you go to the music side of things, there's a whole bunch of other players involved in that industry. There's an agent, and they act much like a literary agent, where they're handling bookings. They might handle commercial deals, sponsorships, things like that.
But there's these other two roles. There's a producer, which is usually very closely related to the actual production and creation of the music. Then there's also a manager, who usually works with a band or a couple of bands, and is kind of watching over all the business decisions that that artist is making. I just think it's super interesting that role - or those couple of roles, we don't tend to see in publishing quite as much. I've been thinking about that more and more, that in a lot of the cases when I'm acting as a - certainly, a producer - an agent to a certain extent.
But I think depending on where that author is in their evolution, sometimes a manager as well - what are the ways? That's how I worked with Gene. We grew a business from zero to seven people, a publishing operation, an events organization, a speaking business - and then actually, he had a research and assessment operation that he had co-founded with another company. It's interesting to me that when you find the right person, the right project, the right idea - there's a of possibilities about how that idea can be turned into a variety of businesses.
Len: One thing I always try to keep in mind is that for people who are on the outside of the business, it can seem like a real mystery about how to get your foot in the door. You mentioned that you work very selectively with people. How do people get their foot in your door?
Todd: It's a great question. The way they get their foot in my door is that - I think there's three problems that you have to solve when you are doing a book. The first problem that you have to solve is - are you working on a problem that people care about? I think there's two ways that you evaluate that.
One is - I've been around this for a very long time, and there's that intuitive sense that you have of, "Is this going to work? Does it sound right?" Oftentimes I'll say to people, "Does this sound like a good idea?" I think everybody knows what a good idea sounds like. It's the one where you go, "Hmm yeah, gosh that would be an interesting book if I read that."
It gets harder to dissect, what would make it better? Why didn't that idea work? What can make the idea work better? But I think on the outside, we know what a good idea and a bad idea sounds like.
I think most authors who show up on my doorstep have already proven it's a good idea. What I mean by that is that they've already come up with other methods to show that people are interested in the idea.
So they have a consulting business, they have a speaking business. They've established some company that's delivering value in some way to some set of people. Or they're a columnist. Or they're - whatever the case might be. To show up and say, "Hey, I want to write a book." I say, "Well, who knows you for wanting to write on this subject?" If your answer is, "No one," that's going to be a hard conversation for the two of us to probably have. You've got to prove value, and I think there's a bunch of ways to do that.
I think the second one is you've got to prove you can get to the customers. You've got to prove that you have a route to - and people always hate this about publishing, but the word, "platform." What's your platform, how do you get to people? But it's super important. You've got to solve that problem.
Then the third problem is - you have to have a business model that's going to work. There has to be the dollars and cents of not only the book in terms of where the book makes sense. But I think in most cases, in particular, the people that I work with - they're experts in their fields. The book in some way has to support the broader work that they're doing in all those other things that I was talking about. It needs to support it, and it probably needs to enhance it. If you can't solve those three problems, or you can't see your route to that - there's going to be trouble, yeah.
Len: That reminds me - one thing you've written that kind of surprised me was, it's not the publisher's job to market your book. It was something along those lines. It surprised me, and it was partly because it reminded me of a very specific encounter I had at Book Expo America - the big annual book fest on the east coast every year. This was in 2013, and there was one session on self-publishing and Guy Kawasaki was talking there.
He said [to paraphrase], "The last time I ever spoke to a publisher about working with them, they asked me how I was going to use my platform to help sell my book. And I said, 'Well why would I work with you at all if I'm going to be using my platform in the end anyway, and you're basically piggybacking off all the work that I have done and will do to maintain and grow that platform going forward?'" If you had been on that panel with him, how would you have responded to that tendentious way of putting things?
Todd: I think that that commentary exposes two problems. I think the first problem is - I really do like the metaphor of venture capital and entrepreneurs for publishers and authors. If we think of a publisher for a second as a venture capitalist, what we may say to ourselves is, "Well, what do both of those people have that's interesting?" Generally what they have, is they have a point of view, as to what sorts of things they want to invest in. They have privileged relationships with people. What they have is a bag of money that they're going to invest in projects.
When you go to the other side, and you go to the entrepreneurs or the founders, or in the publishing's case, the authors - their job is to bring a great idea. Their job is to bring the customers, and their job is to do the work to make the book successful. I think that metaphor holds up pretty well.
I remember my publisher who did The 100 Best said to me - I said, "Just tell me one thing: I know about publishing, but tell me, if I was a new author, what's the one thing you'd want me to know going into this?" He said, "I can't get your mom to buy the book. I can't get your ex-boss. I can't get your next-door neighbor. I can't do that as the publisher. You can. The power for you to do that is an order of magnitude stronger than what I can do."
I really took that to heart. I think there's so much truth in that. I think Guy or whatever author wants to hold that opinion could say, "Well, I want the publisher to do more for me." But the reality is, it's the founder or it's the author who's going to do a lot of the work.
Now, having said that - here's the trick. The trick is that if I look to that publisher/venture capitalist side of the equation, and I think to myself, "Bag of money, point of view, privileged set of relationships" - if any of those start to weaken, then the value relationship isn't going to work very well between the author and the publisher. I think that's what we're starting to see.
I think one of the tricky parts is to valued relationships that a publisher may or may not have - they are becoming frayed or less valuable. Is it valuable for me to have privileged relationships with a set of retail channels when 50% of books are sold through Amazon? Versus - I could just sell it, self-publish it on Amazon. There's certain cases where you should. There are certain cases where you clearly should self-publish books yourself.
I can also point to - again, completely on the other side - I can point to a whole set of books that would not have been successful without the commercial support of a publisher. People always get uncomfortable when I bring up Fifty Shades of Grey, but the backstory of it is fascinating. It's fan fiction, right? Based on Twilight, self-published in Australia - it's fan fiction to start with, then they turn it into a book. It gets some traction. If it stops there, it never sells 30 million copies or 40 million copies. It never gets there - unless Random House picks it up.
I think the conversation about publishers and authors and who should do what probably needs to be a little bit more nuanced about - are you the right author for a publisher, and can the publisher really support you in the way that you want to? There's a lot of authors where an advance from a publisher's a big deal. The ability to be able to take that money and re-invest it back into the production of a great book, and promoting it the right way - that alone can be a very important distinction for authors. I don't want to give you an "it depends," Len, but I think there's a little bit more to that conversation probably.
Len: It's really interesting. One of the implications - your book is called, Every Book Is A Startup* - one of the implications there that might be easy for people like us, in the worlds we move in, to gloss over, is that a book is like a business. One thing I just find so fascinating - nobody would be surprised to discover that their corner store was a business. Nobody would be surprised to discover that their grocery store that they go to is a business. But a lot of people seem to be surprised when they discover that like you've got to come up with a business plan.
You've got to do some marketing - well, you don't have to, obviously, right? You can just write and do what you will. But generally in order to be successful, a book does need to be approached as being like a startup, like a business.
I just wanted to ask you for your view from 30,000 feet. Why is it something about books in particular that in the popular imagination, they're divorced from an understanding of the material reality that's so obviously there?
Todd: I think there's a lot of reasons. I think one of the reasons is that we're exposed to books so early and for such a long period of our lives, where the economics don't really interact with us. If you think about - in the Western world, we're exposed to books from a very early age. Many of them either bought by our parents, or gifts from loved ones.
We then go into school, and we have libraries and we have classrooms and we have textbooks. We don't tend to run into the reality of book publishing till we get to university, and we've got to start buying $200 textbooks for our classes. Then we find out about the used market, and then we're learning all sorts of things about how books work - but in in a very particular way. I think that's one reason.
I think a second reason is that there is something very romantic about writing a book. It is something that we all dream of doing for some reason or another. I think it's because we're so - like we don't say, "Oh my gosh, I want to make a movie." We don't tend to, as a general populace, run around saying - ,aybe that's starting to change? YouTube is really starting to change that. That piece of it. But I don't think we walk around in our head saying, "Oh my gosh, I've got to make a movie." But there's a lot of people that walk around saying, "Gosh, I would really love to write a book." Because they think it's possible. They've written a lot in their lives.
Then I think what happens is that - I think it's so divorced from the art of it, and our ego associated with wanting to do the book is so divorced from the market economics reality of it .That when you start telling people - gosh, how hard is it to sell books - and how many books does an average book sell, and how wide-ranging that is? I think it's all those things kind of bundled up together in a very interesting mixture.
Len: This is the second version of your book, and the first one I believe was published in 2010. I'm surprised to say it myself, but that was eight years ago, 2010. How has your thinking about this matter changed in that time, about books being startups? Or perhaps how has the environment changed, would you say in that time, for treating a book like a startup?
Todd: I believe it more strongly than ever. I know that has to do with my experience with Gene's book and the books in my time that I worked with Gene. We published another book of his, and five books by four other authors. We're actually building a nice publishing program there. I think the reason I felt like I needed to go back and update it, is because - one - no one else was pushing on the idea.
I thought that, as I say in the book, I think the first edition of Every Book Is A Startup sold 600 or 700 copies. It was only ever available on O'Reilly's website. That's who I originally published the book with. I thought that there was a lot more that's happened. When it published, this was right after Eric Ries' book came out, The Lean Startup - I was heavily influenced by Eric's work.
I don't think enough has been said quite yet. I have a theory, and it may be wrong, but I have a theory still that if we spent more time thinking about, "Is this book solving a problem? Do we have a clear path to the customers that are going to buy it, and are the dollars and cents of this book going to work?" That if we got much clearer and we experimented with those earlier on in the process, rather write the whole book, here we go, good luck, everything's going to work out great.
If we did more experimenting with those ideas earlier in the process, I think we would have more successful books. I think we'd kill off more books earlier in the process. I think that's important. I think it's important that if I'm an author, I'm a publisher, I'm a publicist - anybody who's in this chain, I think - most importantly, readers - I think we should have better books. I think some things that get published, if they were vetted not from the standpoint of an agent or editor, but vetted better from a marketplace standpoint - when it's important, there are some books that should be published independent of economics, and authors are going to do that, and publishers are going to do that I think to a certain extent. I think they serve that role. That's not the world I live in. I live in a world that's much more driven by - I tend to publish books and work with people where the book is going to help the reader, and it's going to help the author.
I think there's more to be said. You said, "Well, what more needs to be said?" I think it's that we need to experiment more. I think, for some reason - it's almost like the same blind spot that you were talking about a minute ago, Len, of why do people think that there isn't any economics? Why is there no business around doing books?
I think in the same way, people almost don't see the risk of what they're involved in. Most people are going to spend a year, maybe more, writing a book. It's a lot of time to not be certain whether or not that time was worth it, that there's an audience waiting for it. In particular, if it's very important for you, for that book to get out into the marketplace... What I care about is, are you going to change the conversation? Is this book going to change people in some way, in whatever way that you think you can have an impact? If you're not doing some work in advance to know if you're headed in the right direction, I think you're taking on a lot more risk than you need to.
Len: For those listening who might not know, how do you experiment with a book early on in the process? What are some examples? I mean you mentioned earlier - I think AdWords and things like that. But I think a lot of people might not know what some of the avenues are for experimenting with things like that.
Todd: I think that's a great question. First I think it depends on what problem that you're trying to solve. I think first you should figure out - is there interest in the idea, in the topic, is there value in it? I think that means you're writing about it somewhere, you're talking about it somewhere. That could be using a place like Medium. That could be becoming a columnist at a journal. That could be publishing an academic article.
There's so many routes to it, but I think it needs to be written. I think if you're going to write a book, this is really about writing and capturing those ideas in some way. I think that's the easiest thing to do. I think it evolves from there pretty fast. It could be serializing the idea. It could be - can I put out a small version of this, see if there's interest in it, and then decide whether or not we want to continue with it?
That's something that I actually did with the first version of Every Book Is A Startup. I released one edition, and then we released three more over the course of a year. Then we stopped it. We actually were going to put more into it, and we actually stopped it right there. Because it wasn't getting the traction necessary.
I take pre-orders, that's a really kind of novel idea. Suggest the book that you want to write, and see - are there people who will get on that journey with you as you go write it? I would say if you don't have anyone early in that journey to come along with you, that it's not going to be any easier a year from now when you're done with the book, to go find those people.
I think that you can do a lot of experimenting around finding the right route to customers. Like, how do I know that once I publish the book that there's a good way to market or promote in the direction where there might be customers? There's a great book called Traction, which I recommend almost at every chance I get.
These guys are startup founders, and they recommend - I think they list 19 different techniques that you can use to get to customers, and they're so awesome about it. Because what they say is, listen, we've studied, I think it's 50 different startups, or 60 different startups, and every one of them used a different technique to get where they needed to, and as they grew, they needed to change to another technique. They couldn't use the same thing to get from zero to 100 million."
It just shows how important experimentation is. It shows you how important - where your customers are now, may not be where your customers are as the project grows. There's a couple of ideas.
Len: Speaking of experimentation, you had a recent post where you talked about why you love Amazon. I like the idea of loving Amazon. When you read the publishing industry news, there's quite the vocal constituency that doesn't like Amazon. There's also a very vocal constituency that does, and that's the one that's reaching tens of thousands or millions of readers and actually making money - particularly in self-publishing, in a way that wasn't possible in the past. What is it about Amazon that you like?
Todd: The first line of that post was, "I love Amazon because they're always experimenting." That's probably the most important thing, and I went on to show two experiments that they're running right now. I think they're running experiments all the time. I mean I think the data's very clear on that. Some are very visible, as were these particular cases. They were trying some things around how they were pricing products. But I think they're running all sorts of other experiments in page layout, and what information works better than other information.
I think that's what I like most about them. I mean, the other thing I like about them - and I really, I honestly do not believe that this is just PR or lip service - is, I think they care about their customers. I really do. I think that they're trying to create experiences that - there's no place easier to buy stuff than on Amazon. Really, like thier one button - when they created one-button purchasing - there are some days where you go back to another site, you've got to enter all your information to make a simple purchase. You think to yourself, "Oh my God."
Now Bezos is really clear, and he says this a bunch of different ways. Jeff Bezos, the CEO. He'll say, "There's only two kinds of companies. There's companies that raise prices, and there's companies that lower prices, and we're the latter." Now we can get into all sorts of discussions next about the morality of - are lower prices always best, and is it good for employees, and is it good for suppliers? What does the secondary marketplace on Amazon do?
You get into - again, as equally nuanced - Guy Kawasaki talking about publishers and what value there is. But there's a lot that I respect about how Amazon does business, in that particular sense that they work in small teams, they experiment a lot, they try to move closer to what the solution is that's going to work best for their customers. I think that all of us could learn from that. I think in particular, a lot of us in the publishing industry could learn from that. We don't experiment enough.
I saw a retirement posting today by someone who was leaving the publishing industry after 30 years. They said that, "The publishing industry is sometimes stubborn and prickly." They kind of held that up as kind of a positive. I thought, "That's tricky, that's a tricky sentiment for me." It's the kind of sentiment that I think gets industries disrupted and taken over by other spots. Like it or not, I think that's what's happened when you look at Amazon in particular - what it's done, in so many different ways to book publishing.
Len: Why do you think the book publishing industry is prickly?
Todd: I'm not saying I think it is. This is what this person said. I think that the tricky part about the book publishing industry is that they're highly concentrated in a couple of places. I mean geographically, which mean also sort of psychologically. It's interesting to travel to New York and have conversations. They're always wonderful conversations, but I'm normally having the same conversation with each person that I'm there with. They're all thinking about the same things at the same time.
Sometimes that's interesting, and sometimes I think, "Wow, why aren't there other conversations going on about what's important in publishing right now?" I think it gets a little bit tricky when all of your deals come through a select set of people in the form of agents. Those are the deals that generally represent the kind of books that you're going to publish. Moving out of a particular route in terms of how you publish books is very difficult for most commercial publishers.
Then when you get into - I'm publishing a lot of books, I don't have a ton of people, it's a low margin business. Does everybody get the support they need to make the best books? Are books supported the best they could be during launches? That's when you get into all those - again, I'm going to point back to what Guy's saying - of, do things go as well as they need to? Is everybody supported the way they need to? I think that's where it can get a little bit stubborn and prickly, because they bring a lot of experience to the books that they publish. I think we all know that experience can also be a little bit - it can create some blinders.
Len: You mentioned that you published the first version of your book in-progress, and you're doing the same with this version. When would you suggest to someone who's thinking of getting into this, "I'm going to experiment, I'm going to publish a book in progress," how much should they have done before they publish their first version of their book? Let's assume we're not talking about serial fiction or something like that. We're talking about a non-fiction book.
Yeah, I think that's a really interesting question actually. I think there has to be enough - they call it a minimum viable product, right? So what is the minimum viable? I think it's more than an introduction. I think it's more than a chapter, it's more than an article. I think you've got to probably lay out what you think the argument is for whatever you think you're going to do. I think you need to do a good job of stating the problem of what's going on. Which is usually what happens in those first couple of chapters.
Then you have to give me a little bit of a view of what's next. My bet is that probably looks like an introduction, and it looks like three or four chapters. So 10,000 words, 15,000 words. A long essay probably? I think less than that, and less than that - then if you're going to do less than that, then come up with a title and a subtitle and write a 100-word description.
Go to launchrock.com, and build a one-page website to collect email addresses. If you want the absolute minimum viable product, it's, "Could I put a title, a subtitle, a short description of the book, and can I make that compelling enough that someone would give me their email address - and just because they want to stay in touch with what's going on?"
I think after that, it's a step function to the next point. I think you have to have some substantial amount of material. That's why, as you were saying, I'm publishing on Leanpub. I waited till I had five chapters that I could put out there. Because I think it needed to be enough that a reader could properly judge.
Otherwise, I think one of the other pieces you miss is - even in those early stages, I think you want one person telling another person about the book. You want them going, "Hey, I read this thing. It's not done yet, but it's super interesting. I think they're headed in the right direction. I think you should totally check it out. It's an interesting experiment to maybe follow along with."
I think if it's less than that, it's like, "I don't know? I got the first chapter," and that's the last time they're going to talk about it unless like it was so compelling and you did such a good job moving from chapter to chapter. I think you're putting a lot of weight on yourself to do that. I think you're better off - sell the idea, and then sell something minimum, but maybe more minimum than you think.
Len: One very kind of in the weeds industry-related question that I like to ask people on the Backmatter Podcast is - so often if one pays attention to such things one often sees in the news, stories about declining ebook sales, particularly in the US. Do you believe that's true overall, that ebook sales are declining?
Todd: I think the answer to that question is, yes. I'm a big fan of the idea that - I think we hire things for different reasons, for different jobs in our lives. Unless it continues to do a really good job of that, we tend to fire it and we hire something else.
I think there was a segment who, when the Kindle arrived - I mean, you probably remember the first Kindle. It was rough. The first version I saw, I remember saying, "There's no way this is going to get there." I remember seeing the second one and going, "Oh this is, because it's just going to keep getting better." I can't tell you how, I don't know what it's going to look like. I'm not a technologist, but the screen's going to get better.
There's a set of people that moved to it who travel a lot and don't want to carry books. I know those sorts of people, I talk to them all the time. They'll never go back to paper books again. There's a set of people who read a lot of books in general. It's relatively well-documented that things like, a lot of genre fiction, romance, sci-fi, short story fiction - these are folks who have adopted Kindle. I think everybody's been in that case where, "I need the book right now." Like literally, "I need it right now because I'm giving a speech tomorrow. I want to be able to search the book," right?
Look at the jobs that I'm talking about. I think if the primary job was, "I wanted to read a book," I think what happened was the general population's decided that the people who adopted, and then put their Kindles down and put them under their desk - and they're still sitting there, and they're gathering dust - they decided paper books were better, that it did a better job for them. I don't know if we all know the reasons for that.
Do we like it better because it's furniture later, to put on a bookshelf? Do I like it better because I can highlight it in a more tactile way? Do I like it because I can give it to somebody else? I'm not sure what all of those reasons are. But I do believe that books, in terms of being consumed digitally through the platforms that we're used to, like Kindle and Barnes & Noble and KOBO - I think it's flattened out. I think it's because of this idea of jobs.
Now if we're going to talk about reading digitally in general, like that's a very different discussion. We know people are reading digitally more than they ever have in our lives. Because we have devices in our pockets now and we can read that way. It's very interesting to me that we're willing to read websites and texts and all sorts of different word-based communication, but we've still, as a community. largely decided that we still want to read books on paper.
Len: The last question I always ask in the Frontmatter podcast, when I'm interviewing Leanpub authors, is a selfish one. I'm looking forward to asking it of you, because of your extensive experience and thought on these matters. If there were one thing we could build for you, what would you ask for?
Todd: At Leanpub?
Todd: Layouts that look beautiful. I love the platform because I think that publishing takes too long, that speed is actually an issue. One of the things that stops speed is the handoffs between them.
As I told you earlier in the podcast, I spent five years really close to enterprise technology and a lot of people thinking about, "How do I deliver code faster?" A manuscript is code. I think one of the things that your platform does really well, is the ability for me to literally touch a button and have my files available to me that fast. What? 50 seconds maybe is what I wait for.
I think what I am, is I think I'm a pro consumer. I think I'm somebody who sits between a professional, who's probably going to use InDesign to make their PDFs for their books that they're going to print - and somebody on the other side who's like, "Oh, I would read any PDF that showed up on my doorstep, I don't care." Or they think they don't care.
There's only a couple of options in your system right now for fonts, for how those fonts can be laid out. I'd love to see the ability to assign fonts to different tagging, so different headers, so an H1 header could be a certain font, and H2 header could be another font, and an H3 header - the body text could be another font, right? I want to be able to also dictate the size of those fonts. I want to pick it, and I want to choose what the size of the font is. I want to be able to choose line spacing. That's super important. It's so dependent on the font that you choose, those particular decisions.
I'd go one step further. I'd love to be able to purchase a font inside of Leanpub, and use it on my book. I think it's really great that you're using open source, and that it's super easy to make those choices. But I think it'd be even cooler if I could even have a potentially better set of fonts available to me. I click a button, it's $50 more. I can use it on this book, and then I have those same choices.
I have the same choices about - can I make certain Markdown - I'm going to assume people who are listening to the podcast know about your platform, and the certain Markdown tags could allow me to assign how those things are generated within. In particular, in the PDF. It really matters in the PDF. It doesn't matter as much in the ebook files, because a lot of times the platform - as you know, the platforms themselves solve a lot of those problems. But in the PDF, it's so important. I think that you're about 70% of the way there right now, and I'd love to be able to press a button and have a print-ready manuscript. But right now, I feel like I still probably have to export it to InDesign and do some work with it. Which is great that I can do that.
But man, I feel like you're so close that like if you just did a couple of things, that you could make manuscripts that sing. That are really gorgeous.
Len: Thanks very much for that general observation, and for the very specific suggestions - that's how we get better over time, is precisely by those things. Coincidentally, we actually working on line spacing right now.
That's a really interesting suggestion about being able to buy fonts, and being able to set fonts for different headers or different blocks of text and things like that. I'm definitely going to communicate that to the team. It's something we think about a lot.
One of the funny things for us, is because - obviously we want things to look at good as they can, and we want to be able to do as much of that work as we can for people who aren't interested in doing all of the work themselves.
But there's always this little bit of a dance where - we've got an internal joke, which is that formatting is procrastination before your book is finished, which is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and not entirely true - it depends on the personality, depends on the project that you're working on, it depends on the audience, depends on how much your book costs, and things like that. But we've always got a bit of a balancing act that we're trying to do there, where if we give you as many formatting options as you have in like Microsoft Word for example, are we giving you a stealth fighter, when all you need is a row boat?
You can imagine - I bring up a stealth fighter, like just imagine if you present someone with all these controls - a) they might get scared, b) they might use them when they shouldn't. What does this button do? And so yeah, it's always a bit of a balancing act for us.
Todd: I think in the case of your platform, it's only in the custom menu. I think keep the other stuff that it auto-generates, and maybe it gets better with some of this functionality that we're talking about. But then if I pick the "Business" template, it still does all the work for me. I love the fact that you separate the tagging from the formatting. I think that like you just said - don't let stuff be a procrastination.
I think you're 100% right about that. I wasn't sure about it at first, but the more that I've used Markdown and tagging - it's faster and it keeps me writing. I think philosophically, it's square on. I think the sorts of things I'm talking about - I would argue it's for a larger set of people, maybe than you realize. But I'd only do it in that custom menu where someone was going to go around messing with stuff.
But what's so important to me is I feel like - I mean I call it single-button publishing. That's what you guys do. The ability for me to press a button and my files are generated. Right now, it's borderline if I felt comfortable - I know a lot of people print books, and they're probably 100% fine with it. I just want it a little bit better so I'd feel comfortable that I could - I'm okay probably with my books, but when we're talking about the clients that I work with, their standard's probably being higher. I'd love to stay on your platform and use it on the production side. Potentially use use it on the ecommerce side.
But on the production side, the ability for me to be more efficient with my customer - in terms of how we write, and to go through the editorial process and then even do production - I can take months out of my cycle if I could produce a truly - not a print-ready PDF, which is what you guys do right now, but literally a print-quality - one that I would expect to find if I were to pick up any other book. That's my opinion, that's me poking at you a little bit and saying, "I think there's more that could be done."
Len: Thank you very much for that very good response. We like being poked. That's how we get better, and more importantly - how we become better for the people who are using Leanpub to do things.
One of the interesting things - as you know, and I think you invoked earlier that - just as a final observation - when people are working on books, they do have this role in our cultural imagination, and there's good reason for that.
For example, including something you've touched on a couple of times - which is the amount of time that it takes to write a book. But also that it can be about your life. It can be about improving your life. So it's really important to people when they're working on something that it's clear that people on the other side of it are aware of how important what they're doing is. If we were prickly, we wouldn't be where we are - and neither would any of our authors.
Thank you very much Todd, for taking the time to do this interview. We really appreciate it, and best of luck with your new full-time role role at Astronaut Projects, and with your book.
Todd: Awesome, thank you so much Len.