Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Practical Advice for eBook Authors

John Locke has become one of the most successful Kindle authors in the world.  He’s created two popular series with an action hero series (Donovan Creed) and a re-invention of the Western with  the Emmett Love series.  In How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! he provides practical advice to authors who are writing for eBooks or other self-publishing vehicles.In full disclosure, let me begin by saying that I’m a Kindle author (albeit barely, my book Jobs Over Fifty, the Guide to New Employment for the Experienced Worker, has yet to hit the best sellers list.  But there is still hope). 
Locke is a savvy marketer and has given a lot of thought to using data and new media to promote his books.  He links blogs, Twitter and email marketing campaigns to drive purchases and build a following.  He used some very clever techniques, particularly in blogs and emails, to link his brands to other more powerful brands.  While one of his examples of linking his message campaign to Joe Paterno and Penn State would not be good idea now, it is an excellent methodology that other authors can emulate.  That is, he invents ways to link his brand to larger, more established brands through venues such as Twitter.  If some of the thousands of Penn State Twitter followers become John Locke followers, and then become John Locke buyers, then his linkage is a success.
Mr. Locke is also cleverly pushing his own books in this one.  He mentions his characters, what makes them work, what audiences like, etc.  He is open that he isn’t trying to write great fiction, but rather books that draw an audience, in particular a repeat audience.  Therefore he has two profit opportunities with How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months!  A good example of his marketing prowess.
I’ve certainly taken some of his recommendations to heart, in particular doing a better job of maintaining a consistent theme among my website, blog and Twitter, as well as making sure to maintain a database of all email addresses when I get a message from a reader.  Writing for Kindle or self-publishing?  This is easily worth the money.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review - The Mongoliad Book 1

Neal Stephenson speaking at Google,
Neal Stephenson speaking at Google, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I’ve been wondering if Neal Stephenson has decided to write a best seller of every genre’.  Diamond Age is cyberpunk. The Baroque Cycle is picaresque. Reamde and Crytonomicon are action/adventure.  Anathem is science fiction/fantasy.  If we see a romance and a murder mystery come from his inventive pen, we’ll know that my conjecture is indeed correct.

In a way, Mr. Anderson is crowdsourcing his latest work, with the first book of The Mongoliad Trilogy recently published with co-authors Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E.D. deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey and Cooper Moo.  Or perhaps he has seen the commercial success of Game of Thrones, and is creating the script writing team for the series.  (His books would be rather complicated to turn into a movie.  A Lord of the Rings series would be more appropriate.  The Baroque Cycle would have to be a series.)
I continue to view him as the most creative and inventive author writing today.  This first volume is set in the medieval era and focuses on conflict between Mongols and Western Europeans.  As with many of his prior books, a big list of characters is introduced, with multiple plot lines that experienced Anderson readers know will eventually converge.  Based on volume one I would characterize this as action fiction.  A thinly veiled Knights of the Round Table plans to take on one of the sons of Ghenghis Khan (Ogedei– Khagan-or Khan of Khans) with the goal of causing a retreat of the Mongols from what otherwise seems likely to become the complete occupation and sacking of all of Europe.

Protaganists from Volume I. are Cnan, a member of a clan named The Binders, a kind of stealthy gypsy band, and Gensukh, a Mongol warrior, sent from his officer position in the field by his father, to the court of Ogedei Khan, overlord of the Mongols.  Cnan ends up entangled with the knights, using her tracking and hiding skills as a scout and occasionally as a one-woman diversion. 

While there is action, the first segment of the series clearly is stage setting.  Keep the book handy; you will need to refresh your memory as to the legion of characters and chapter endings before opening Book 2.

I haven’t read anything by Stephenson that I wouldn’t recommend.  The Mongoliad is no exception.

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Book Review: How the Mighty Fail

English: Jim Collins (James C. Collins), an Am...
English: Jim Collins (James C. Collins), an American business consultant, author of "Built to Last" and "Good to Great". (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 27:  Clayton M. Christens...
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 27: Clayton M. Christensen Founder of Disruptive Innovation Theory attends the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival at the NYU Paulson Auditorium on April 27, 2012 in New York City. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
Cover of "Good to Great: Why Some Compani...
Cover via Amazon

As I’ve said repeatedly in previous reviews, there are certain business-book authors that are automatic purchases for me including Tom Peters, Geoffrey Moore, Gary Hamel, Ram Charan, Adrian Slywotzky, Clay Christensen, George Stalk and Jim Collins.  Since I buy all their books, I get behind, pile other books on top and later find a book that I’d forgotten.  Such is the case with How the Mighty Fail by Jim Collins which I recently discovered in my stack of books to get to.  Collins dramatically advanced business analysis with Good to Great, one of the biggest-selling business books of all time.  Even though this isn’t a hot-off-the-press book, here is my review.

In this work, Collins examines the opposite from his prior work: are there lessons to be learned from examining failed enterprises?  Or enterprises that manage to reverse a decline and reinvent themselves?  I’ve been fascinated by this topic for over twenty years, since the time when I was employed by Zale Corporation, prior to its hostile takeover by Peoples Jewelers (from which it really never recovered).  Zale operated a number of business units at the time, including O.G. Wilson, a catalog showroom.  Younger readers won’t know what a catalog showroom retailer was, but they were popular and widespread at that time.  O.G. Wilson reeled from losses to breakeven back to losses.  Zale invested millions, installed technology, opened or remodeled units and changed management.  All to no avail.  The intractability of the course of a business in decline made a strong impression on me.  Peter Senge described the self-reinforcing cycles of both improving and declining enterprises elegantly in his landmark Fifth Discipline.

Ever the researcher, Collins develops pairs of companies that branch, with one sinking and one thriving.  To qualify, the companies must have had an extensive public market history so that contemporaneous information could be gathered for an extended time frame.

He identifies five stages of decline: 1) Hubris born of success; 2) Undisciplined pursuit of more 3) Denial of Risk and Peril 4) Grasping for salvation and 5) Capitulation to irrelevance or death.

Importantly, he also examines the possibility of recovery with examples of businesses that arrested their decline and rebounded.  A quick observation – attempting that in stage five doesn’t have encouraging odds.  As most readers of business articles or books will know, the companies in the “Grasping for Salvation” phase that recruit the celebrity CEO don’t fare well.  Collins’ material supports that conclusion.  Examples of turnarounds in this book feature long-service executives promoted into the CEO role with deep knowledge of the company, markets, products and competitors.  Examples include Anne Mulcahy at Xerox and Tom Engibous at Texas Instruments.  (I would add Jim Skinner of McDonalds to that list).

There are also a series of appendices that draw some further lessons, but also one dealing with Fannie Mae.  Fannie Mae was included in an earlier Collins book as a success story and Collins wanted to comment on its decline.  In that particular case, I think Collins was too kind.  Many of us living in the Washington DC metro area at the turn of the century marveled at a company that paid salaries and bonuses like a big-time investment bank, but had the benefit of funding at treasury rates.  I remember commenting at the time that if I could borrow several billion at T-Bill rates, I could produce some earnings too.  Further, Fannie was exempt from filling full-boat 10K's etc. like the rest of public businesses.  They cleverly recruited spouses of every staffer in every congressman's office, and congressmen's spouses as well.  They could operate without constraint.  When Bush II and Greenspan separately commented that the agencies (Fannie & Freddie) were getting too large, there was a stampede to defend them.  This was a particularly egregious case, and Mr. Collins will have to do much more research on Fannie to find all the causes of their fall - although his hubris stage is a good place to start.
Add this to the permanent list on your management bookshelf.  There is a lot of good stuff here, and management hubris is a fast-moving and highly-contagious disease.

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Listening and Leadership

Nice post by positive corporate culture guru Ron Potter on the importance of leaders asking questions and listening carefully and thoughtfully on the answers.  Supports and amplifies Jim Collins' research for How the Mighty Fail.