Admitting you’ve made a mistake is tough. Even harder is taking what you’ve learned from those mistakes and pressing on. But that’s exactly what management guru and writer Steve Taylor did when he decided to put his last two ventures into publishing behind him and self-publish for a third time – but this time, it’ll be different. Steve tells us why.
Clearing out my storage unit recently in another fit of de-cluttering, I found a couple of heavy brown cardboard boxes. Half-a-dozen years ago I wrote a book, my second. Designed and illustrated by my friend Christian, it was called The Case Against Ideas. The boxes contained a telling number of unsold copies.
A winning idea
The subject was the slow pace at which the advertising and media industries were adapting to the rampant digitization of all forms of communication, with a particular focus on how the ‘Creative Idea’ – lodestar of any ‘traditional advertising’ campaign – needed to be replaced by something I described as “the engine, the car and the road map rolled into one”.
I wanted everything about my book to be innovative, from writing it on my BlackBerry while commuting on the No.68 bus between Tulse Hill and Holborn in London to bypassing what I had previously experienced as a digitally-ignorant industry built on the sweat of trustafarians and unpaid interns.
“I wanted everything about my book to be innovative.”
Those publishers weren’t the only digital naïfs in the mix, though. I perversely decided to self-publish a physical book. Actually, getting a tree-based book made is not such a big deal. I was fortunate to find a printer that specialized in short runs (by using a digital printing process) and helped with the self-publishing process, ordering ISBN numbers and so on.
The promotion problem
When they handed me the first proof copy of The Case Against Ideas, it felt completely different from the near-decade I’d spent publishing a magazine once a month. And that was where it all started to go horribly wrong. I had spent a £1,000 on two hundred copies: now I had to do something with them. I knew I needed to get the book read and commented on by influential people; I also knew from a decade working in magazines that most physical stuff sent out in the name of publicity ends up unopened.
My solution; go digital! I built a blog – incorporating a pdf download so those influential people could read the book and post their encomiums – and got the grand total of one response – from a world-famous marketing guru who declared it a “neat think piece”, adding sternly that I was not to credit the remark to him.
I spiced up the blog with links to relevant third-party ‘content’ in the hope of seeding a perfect storm of viral sharing, only to garner just two responses; one from ‘Holy Land Tours’, the other from ‘Bible Audio’. Both were conspicuously incoherent and probably written by the same Wisconsin-based troll.
Fear of failure
I emailed the link to dozens of colleagues across the global media network where I worked: apart from a couple of polite replies – silence. Of course, all this could have been simply because the book itself was a dog, though I suspected it was sufficiently relevant – and short – to be worth a read.
“Hence the boxes languishing in the lock-up. Hence the hardback copy I’m using as a coaster.”
The problem was in me. I had a chronic case of what in his book The War of Art Steve Pressfield calls The Resistance; a powerful fear of failure and rejection that escalates the closer we get to finishing and launching a piece of work, putting up a succession of barriers – perfectionism, procrastination, mental paralysis, psychosomatic illness, minor ‘accidents’ etc.
Hence the boxes languishing in the lock-up. Hence the hardback copy I’m using as a coaster. Hence my distinct lack of self-publishing activity in the last six years. And now I’m about to do it all over again. However, it’s going to be different this time. How? Here are ten things I learned from that experience.
10 tips from a recovering self publisher. What Steve Taylor would do differently next time:
- I won’t start with a physical book: production is relatively easy; marketing, sales and distribution are definitely not.
- I’ll identify my audience and have a clear sense of the need I am meeting, whether it’s for information, entertainment, instruction or whatever. I’m a huge fan of YCombinator founder Paul Graham’s essential principle: to “make something users want” – it applies just as much to a book as it does to an app.
- I aim to scrape together the budget to engage a professional content editor and copy editor to smooth out the bumps I know I’ll be too close to the draft to even see. And if I don’t have the cash I’ll tap up some of my smarter, literate, savvy friends.
- I won’t lurk in my room waiting for the world to beat a path to my door; I will pound pavements, talk to people, do readings, run seminars, attend events and shamelessly tout my wares. I will own my creative product.
- I’ll build a marketing plan before I even sit down to write.
- I’ve been learning about social media marketing and PR, about growth hacking, content marketing and thought leadership. I’ll pay one of my college-age sons an hourly rate to execute my plan.
- I’ll expect nothing in response – and not take it personally if that’s what happens. I will, though, shrewdly leverage any responses I do get for their social currency, PR value, viral potential, etc.
- I will engage energetically in dialogue, commenting, linking, referencing and otherwise connecting to – and with – writers, thinkers, expert practitioners etc. that operate in similar territory to me and my text.
- I will accept that there’s no such thing as an overnight success and that planning, persistence, stamina and playing a longer game are required.
- I’ll be super-alert for the creeping onset of The Resistance; I won’t let the bastard get the better of me this time!