What publishers should do

You can’t work at a book publisher for more than five minutes without someone telling you what publishers should do. You know, “to survive.” “Be relevant.” Something.

Even literary agents, who should know better, will get in on this action. One of the most prominent agents in New York, seated next to me at an event a few years back, took the opportunity to lecture me through the appetizer course on how book publishers should band together and “build their own Amazon” to sell books. Digital disruption = solved.

“Ma'am, you may have a point. You don’t, for All The Reasons, but let’s say you did. The book publishing industry is made of book people. Book people as a class pride themselves on knowing about everything—except computers, with a vengeance. They still edit 100,000-word manuscripts with pencils. I could count on one finger the number of people in this business who could program a coffee-maker. How in the world would the people in charge hire a single competent developer? If you’d seen the technological boondoggles, the 7-figure white-label ‘content management systems,’ these rubes have fallen for…”

If you really enjoy unsolicited opinions about what publishers should do, go work at Amazon to help build a New York book publishing imprint from the ground up. The book people who still talk to you afterward will be happy to tell you what you’re doing wrong. (Guys, I'm not working at Amazon anymore. Can we be friends again?)

All that said: I know what publishers should do. Read the rest

How to write a book that holds your reader's attention

User experience design is a holistic field that touches on every aspect of the experience the user has with your product, all the way down to opening the box. As a book editor, I've found it useful to apply the principles of UX to crafting books that grab and hold a reader's attention.

Reader experience design (or ReadX) is about building a book beginning with the experience you want the reader to have and working backward from there.

Obviously, crafting the reader's experience is something we writers, editors, and publishers have struggled with since the heady days of the Egyptian papyrus industry, a time with remarkable similarities to our own (the primary difference, in fact, was that using your "mouse" to "scroll" down when reading an article wouldn't have been any fun for you or for the mouse). Problem is, we often prioritize other goals above the reader's experience, like proving another expert wrong or impressing our peers.

In my experience, people who write books to share their domain knowledge with others usually suck at ReadX. It’s next to impossible to un-know something, to think like someone who knows less about your subject than you do (or simply sees it differently). You must constantly remind yourself that your reader is both smarter and less knowledgeable than you assume. (The smarter bit is important. You don't talk down to your reader. You just explain your topic like you would to an intelligent friend in a totally different line of work.)

To get this right, this means going to the other side of the table and putting yourself in the mind of your reader over and over again, to make sure you've dropped your assumptions and that you're actually getting through. Read the rest

I take it back – New Media isn't a cargo cult. Click here to find out why!

"Like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own." — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

You may have read my previous article on Boing Boing, Escaping the New Media Cargo Cult. Well, I take it back. To find out why, keep reading...

If you have knowledge and experience to share, your heart's desire is simply to find a decent audience and make a modest living at talking to it; meanwhile some schmuck who drinks Soylent 2.0 racks up a MASSIVE LIST HELL YEAH with slickly baited copy and bulleted tips he found on the first page of Google results.

One obvious response to this conundrum is to learn how to bait better.

Way down on the other end of this particular spectrum, you've got Matthew Butterick.

Polymathically — it's a word! — Butterick is an attorney, a typographer, and a programmer, among other things. I first discovered his work when he shared Typography for Lawyers, a fascinating primer on how to design stand-out legal documents. (While ostensibly for lawyers, it clearly applies to non-legal documents too.)

Later on, Butterick created an online book for a general audience: Practical Typography. I love it; it’s the first resource on typography that I've actually enjoyed reading. Hundreds of thousands of people have visited the site—hand-crafted by Butterick — to learn the difference between kerning and leading.

Nowadays, people creating content for mass consumption devote most of their attention to the marketing and monetization. After months of crafting the perfect newsletter drip campaign, it often seems like experts spend ten, maybe fifteen minutes tops whipping up the content people are supposed to buy at the end of the funnel. Read the rest

Escaping the new media cargo cult

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Ignore the Metrics