That's what we spend most of our time doing. The breakthrough speech that will change everything, or the giant insight that opens every door. We fret about the apocalyptic ending, the big crash, the slam climax as well.
Of course, it almost never happens that way.
Products and services succeed one person at a time, as the word slowly spreads. Customers defect one person at a time, as hearts are broken and people are disappointed. Doors open, sure, but not all at once. One at a time.
One at a time is a little anticlimactic and difficult to get in a froth over, but one at a time is how we win and how we lose.
Today the Domino Project is publishing Sarah Kay's new book. It's a short poem, a great gift and a book I'm proud to publish by an author on her way to big things. I hope you'll take a look.
Almost exactly a year after we started, Sarah's book is the last print book we'll be launching. Twelve books, twelve bestsellers, published in many languages around the world.
I've posted a history of what we built, along with some of what we learned along the way.
By most of the measures I set out at the beginning, the project has been a success. So why stop? Mostly because it was a project, not a lifelong commitment to being a publisher of books. Projects are fun to start, but part of the deal is that they don't last forever.
The goal was to explore what could be done in a fast-changing environment. Rather than whining about the loss of the status quo, I thought it would be interesting to help invent a new status quo and learn some things along the way. Here are a few of my takeaways:
- Permission is still the most important and valuable asset of the web (and of publishing). The core group of 50,000 subscribers to the Domino blog made all the difference in getting the word out and turning each of our books into a bestseller. It still amazes me how few online merchants and traditional publishers (and even authors) have done the hard work necessary to create this asset. If you're an author in search of success and you don't pursue this with singleminded passion, you're making a serious error. (See #2 on my advice for authors post from five years ago, or the last part of my other advice for authors post from six years ago.)
- The ebook is a change agent like none the book business has ever seen. It cuts the publishing time cycle by 90%, lowers costs, lowers revenue and creates both a long tail and an impulse-buying opportunity. This is the most disruptive thing to happen to books in four hundred years. It's hard for me to see significant ways traditional book publishers can add the value they're used to adding when it comes to marketing ebooks, unless they get busy with #1.
- Booksellers have a starfish problem. Without permission (see #1) it's almost impossible for a publisher to be heard above the noise, largely because long tail merchants haven't built the promotional tools traditional retailers have long used to highlight one title over another. You used to be able to buy useful and efficient shelf space at a retailer. Hard to do that now.
- There is still (and probably will be for a while) a market for collectible editions, signed books and other special souvenirs that bring the emotional component of a book to the fore. While most books merely deliver an idea or a pasttime, for some books and some readers, there's more than just words on paper. Just as vinyl records persist, so will books. Not because a reader can't get the information faster or cheaper, but because there's something special about molecules and scarcity.
- When you combine #1, #3 and #4, you get to Kickstarter, which it seems to me, is going to be ever more important, particularly to new authors, authors that don't write genre ebooks and anyone with a tribe who wants to produce something like a book.
- Sponsored ebooks are economically irresistible to readers, to sponsors and to authors. I'm proud to have pioneered this, and I think it's a trend worth pursuing. The value transfer to the reader is fabulous (hey, a great book, for free), and the sponsor gets to share in some of that appreciation. The author gets a guaranteed payday as well as the privilege of reaching ten or a hundred times as many readers.
- The ebook marketing platform is in its technical infancy. There are so many components that need to be built, that will. Ebooks are way too hard to give as gifts and to share. Too hard to integrate into social media. And the ebook reader is a lousy platform for discovery and promotion of new titles (what a missed chance). All that will happen, the road map is there, but it's going to take commitment from Apple, B&N and Amazon.
- If you're an author, pick yourself. Don't wait for a publisher to pick you. And if you work for a big publishing house, think really hard about the economics of starting your own permission-based ebook publisher. Now's the time.
- Most of all, the character of people in the world of books hasn't changed since I started in this business 27 years ago. Every author I dealt with was a delight. Smart, passionate, honest, humble (and yes, good looking). Readers sense this, I think, and treat books and the people who make them very differently than someone hawking a vitamin or a penny stock. Publishing is about passion and writing is a lifestyle, not a shortcut to a mansion and a Porsche. Bestselling authors are like golfers who hit holes in one. It's a nice thing, but there are plenty of people who will keep playing even without one.
I'm not going away, any time soon, but, except for a digital bonus coming soon, the Domino Project won't see any new titles (the current ones will be for sale forever). I'd like to thank Lisa who listened to me rant for more than ten years, the interns who helped me build it, the authors whose ideas we brought to the world and the passionate people (especially Amy and Alan) who made it work.
PS Thanks to everyone who has bought one of our books, and double thanks to anyone who shared a copy with a friend or colleague.
I understand the folks who wait for a creative work to come out in paperback, to be free on TV, the ones that get the half-price tickets at TKTS near the end of the run. They're cheap, at least when it comes to this particular sort of art.
I understand the audience that waits to read the reviews, that wants to hear from friends and anointed critics before they spend their money. They're careful.
So who comes on opening night? No discounts, no reviews, no warning…
The patrons come. For them, part of the attraction of art is that they don't know in advance if they're going to like it. They come for a simple reason: it feels good to support something because they can, not merely because it's a good value.
And the true fans come. They come because the artist has earned their trust. "If you made it, that's good enough for me," they say. They come because to not come is to not be a true fan, with all that entails.
Opening night is vitally important, of course. The critics come, word of mouth begins, the producers find enthusiasm and the guts to start work on their next play.
I guess the real question is: who would come to your opening? And the follow up is: what would happen after that?
So widespread, it deserves an acronym: CLASP.
You have a clasp when people criticize your new strategy because they don't know how to execute it.
Yes, a new strategy has to be executable, or it's merely a wish. No, the logistics behind it don't have to be tried and true. It's one job to dream up a strategy and another job to execute it. Whining about how hard the logistics are is just fine, but don't conflate this with thoughtful feedback about whether your strategy makes sense.
Just about every great new project couples a brilliant strategy with impossible logistics that somehow get handled.
isn't a decision.
The art of good decision making is looking forward to and celebrating the tradeoffs, not pretending they don't exist.
In June of 2008, Google launched Knol, a monetizable Wikipedia, or, as some people saw it, a Squidoo killer. Not the same as what we were doing at Squidoo, not focused on individuals and their passions, but close enough for discomfort.
Our tiny team was in the headlights of a very big company.
One of the first things investors and advisors will say to someone launching a business, particularly a tech one, is, "sure, but what happens if Google/AT&T/Starbucks/Apple decides to get into your business? You'll be dead."
While the intent behind this question is generous, it's usually wrong. That's because it misses several fundamental elements of what allows a business to thrive, and how entrepreneurs often have a significant advantage over incumbents when they are building something new.
- It's almost never about technology. Many companies that are built on tech believe that it's the tech that enabled them to succeed. This is almost never true (I know, I'm biased). It's marketing and stories and connection and tribes and commitment and structure that build businesses. The technology is essential, but it's not nearly enough.
- First movers can become obsessed with external customers, not internal reports. We paid attention to Knol for about a week (who wouldn't?) but then ignored it. It wasn't relevant to our users, so it wasn't relevant to us. Our little team focused 100% of its energy on delighting our user base (which, while small at the time, was far bigger than Knol's). If you can give your users an experience that they want to tell their friends about, you'll grow.
- There are no lifeboats. One of the reasons Google was so extraordinarily successful with search was that it was all they had. Sink or swim, those were the only options. Google's competitors a decade ago had tons of things to work on, plenty of sources of traffic and revenue. Google had only one. At the beginning, the founding team at Google came to work every day focused on just one problem. We were in the same position in 2008, and that's the case of most small companies facing down a big competitor. We focused because we had no plan B.
The most disruptive thing about the entrant of a huge player is the impact it has on partners. It's easy to get skittish when the 800 pound gorilla arrives. I'm not sure there's an obvious way to deal with this problem… we resigned ourselves to doing whatever we had to on our own, figuring the partners would figure it out eventually.
This week, three years after the launch, Google threw in the towel and closed down Knol. Our pageviews and our user base have grown by many multiples since 2008. I'm not sure you should wish for (or even plan for) a showdown with the big player, but it should give you solace to know that a focus on your tribe of customers gives you a fighting chance.
A brief visit to the emergency room last month reminded me of what an organization that's pre-digital is like. Six people doing bureaucratic tasks and screening that are artifacts of a paper universe, all in the service of one doctor (and the need to get paid and not get sued). A 90-minute experience so we could see a doctor for ninety seconds.
Wasteful and even dangerous.
Imagine what this is like in a fully digital environment instead. Of course, they'd know everything about your medical history and payment ability from a quick ID scan at the entrance. And you'd know the doctor's availability before you even walked in, and you would have been shuttled to the urgent care center down the street if there was an uneven load this early in the morning. No questions to guess at the answer (last tetanus shot? Allergies to medications?) because the answers would be known. The drive to the pharmacy might be eliminated, or perhaps the waiting time would be shortened. If this accident or illness is trending, effecting more of the population, we'd know that right away and be able to prevent more of it… Triage would be more efficient as well. The entire process might take ten minutes, with a far better outcome.
School is pre-digital. Elections. Most of what you do in your job. Even shopping. The vestiges of a reliance on geography, lack of information, poor interpersonal connections and group connection (all hallmarks of the pre-digital age) are everywhere.
Perhaps the most critical thing you can say of a typical institution: "That place is pre-digital."
All a way of saying that this is just the beginning, the very beginning, of the transformation of our lives.
for the privileges we've got is to do important work.
Your job, your internet access, your education, your role in a civilized society… all of them are a platform, a chance to do art, a way for you to give back and to honor those that enabled you to get to this point.
For every person reading this there are a thousand people (literally a thousand) in underprivileged nations and situations that would love to have your slot. Don't waste it.
My latest book, We Are All Weird, came out 8 weeks ago, to very strong reviews and gratifying feedback.
It's likely you haven't had a chance to read it yet. I hope you'll give it a shot. (The Kindle edition runs on all computers and tablets and you can read it for free if you're a US-based Amazon Prime member).
Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the book:
The mass market redefines normal
The mass market—which made average products for average people—was invented by organizations that needed to keep their factories and systems running efficiently.
Stop for a second and think about the backwards nature of that sentence.
The factory came first. It led to the mass market. Not the other way around.
Governments went first, because it’s easier to dominate and to maintain order if you can legislate and control conformity. Marketers, though, took this concept and ran with it.
The typical institution (an insurance company, a record label, a bed factory) just couldn’t afford mass customization, couldn’t afford to make a different product for every user. The mindset was: This is the Eagles’ next record. We need to make it a record that the masses will buy, because otherwise it won’t be a hit and the masses will buy something else.
This assumption seems obvious—so obvious that you probably never realized that it is built into everything we do. The mass market is efficient and profitable, and we live in it. It determines not just what we buy, but what we want, how we measure others, how we vote, how we have kids, and how we go to war. It’s all built on this idea that everyone is the same, at least when it comes to marketing (and marketing is everywhere, isn’t it?).
Marketers concluded that the more the market conformed to the tight definition of mass, the more money they would make. Why bother making products for left-handed people if you can figure out how to get left-handed people to buy what you’re already making? Why offer respectful choice when you can make more money from forced compliance and social pressure?
Mass wasn’t always here. In 1918, there were two thousand car companies active in the United States. In 1925, the most popular saddle maker in this country probably had .0001% market share. The idea of mass was hardly even a dream for the producer of just about any object.
At its heyday, on the other hand, Heinz could expect that more than 70 percent of the households in the U.S. had a bottle of their ketchup in the fridge, and Microsoft knew that every single company in the Fortune 500 was using their software, usually on every single personal computer and server in the company.
Is it any wonder that market-leading organizations fear the weird?
The End of Mass
This is a manifesto about the mass market. About mass politics, mass production, mass retailing, and even mass education.
The defining idea of the twentieth century, more than any other, was mass.
Mass gave us efficiency and productivity, making us (some people) rich. Mass gave us huge nations, giving us (some people) power. Mass allowed powerful people to influence millions, giving us (some people) control.
And now mass is dying.
We see it fighting back, clawing to control conversations and commerce and politics. But it will fail; it must. The tide has turned, and mass as the engine of our culture is gone forever.
That idea may make you uncomfortable. If your work revolves around finding the masses, creating for the masses, or selling to the masses, this change is very threatening. Some of us, though, view it as the opportunity of a lifetime. The end of mass is not the end of the world, but it is a massive change, and this manifesto will help you think through the opportunity it represents.
A conspiracy theory is a complex, alternative explanation for the truth.
By definition, they're not true. Of course there are plenty of things that are the result of conspiracies. Call them conspiracy facts instead of theories. Countries, organizations and movies are often the result of people conspiring together, sometimes in secret. But the facts don't fascinate us, the theories do. (And while I have no doubt that there is widespread deception and a lack of transparency, I'm interested today in understanding why these theories spread and stick).
People don't embrace them because they're true, they embrace them because they are more satisfying, they show agency and intent, and they provide a level of solace by implying external causes to significant events.
At the heart of the marketing of a conspiracy theory is that it must be non-falsifiable.
A key tenet of science is that every useful and productive thesis and theory must be able to be proven wrong. For example, if you say, "I have ESP, but it only works if no one is testing or tracking my results," then of course it can't be disproven. If you say, "Columbus set off on his journey because a voice came to him in the middle of the night and told him what to do but he never wrote it down nor told anyone," then we must either take your word for it or move on. No room for science here.
Which is how they market conspiracy theories. Take a look at the many theories about 9/11 or the 12 men in Geneva who run the world or the Kennedy assassination or UFOs and what you'll see each time is that as soon as anything appears to disprove part of the theory, the theory changes. What is being sold is doubt, not proof. Doubt is something people often want to buy, particularly if it gives them comfort.
Marketers of conspiracies understand this, which is why they always lead with the doubt, always reinforce the doubt that we can't help but feel about just about everything. "Are you sure?" is almost always guaranteed to generate a 'no' as an answer.