How writing a book is like racing in the Tour de France, and not like self-marketing

I sent off the revised draft of my book last Friday, and celebrated this weekend by watching the end of the Tour de France.

the book is back, via flickr

It was great to see an Englishman win the tour (Britain’s investment in cycling is paying off, as John Kay notes), and it was also cool to see someone win who was so clear about how much his victory was a team achievement. Yes, Wiggins gets to wear the yellow jersey, but as he himself acknowledges, he stands on the shoulders of his teammates.

I was juxtaposing this to Penelope Trunk’s recent essay about self-publishing her book. The piece, a long post on her Brazen Careerist blog, is about how traditional publishers don’t know anything about their markets, they take too long to get stuff out, and you’re better off doing it yourself. The piece was really striking to me because both in scope and substance it’s so different from my recent (or current) experience.

home office, california style, via flickr

First of all, Trunk’s account of the publishing industry is all about production and distribution; the work of shaping and editing books is invisible. To me, though, this is about 90% of the value that the publishing industry offers. Fourteen months ago, give or take, I had a very very different idea for a book about contemplative computing. That book might have fit well with an academic press, but it wasn’t the book I really wanted to write. I was lucky to have an agent who pushed me to think more commercially without giving up my intellectual bona fides or the ambition of explaining to ordinary users how our deep entanglement with technology shapes us. I was also really lucky, once I’d produced a manuscript, to have an editor who could work with me to tune it up, and who insisted (in that totally self-effacing way most book editors have) on making it more accessible and useful.

Another important way in which our experiences contrast is that Trunk describes books as calling-cards, as a way of introducing to the public who you are and what services you have to offer. Now, this is totally in keeping with the Tom Peters “Brand of Me” way of seeing the world, and I had professors at Wharton who talked about how their books were really just ways of attracting clients, so clearly there are authors who either genuinely feel that a book can play this role, or see reasons to talk about it this way. For me, though, writing this book has been pretty transformative, and I have a hard time imagining starting something this hard with the assumption that there won’t be a big personal payout at the end.

it’s about ME! via flickr

I’m probably going to experiment with some digital self-publishing in the coming year, though I wouldn’t call what I’m going to create electronic books– more like electronic pamphleteering, or digital broadsheeting. A “book” feels like a different proposition than a highly illustrated, expanded version of a talk. Indeed, it’s not just a different proposition, but a promise to readers that the object they’re getting has been through a more rigorous kind of review and publishing process.

bytes, via flickr

Indeed, the only way I would self-publish a “book” would be if I could hire editorial talent as strong as Zoë and John, and I’m not sure I’d want to take on the risk of investing that much in a book. It’s possible that I could find equivalent talent in the freelance editorial market, but I quite like the idea that lots of other people at Little, Brown share the risk with me, and have an incentive to help the book be a success.

Just as important, I don’t want my relationship with an editor to become more transactional. As John Kay recently pointed out, the financial services industry worked best for investors and companies when it was more trust-based; in today’s world of super-fast transactions and massive bets, there’s less interest in building trust, because you tend to assume that you’ll be rich and retired within a couple years. I don’t need intellectual relationships that are more transactional. Indeed, I think those two things are polar opposites. Frictionless, transactional relationships are mindless (in Ellen Langer’s use of the term), and can just as easily succeed as win-lose games; meaningful relationships involve trust and struggle, and only succeed when both parties succeed.

stay, via flickr

I see tremendous benefit in having a team of people who are invested in your victory, like Team Sky was invested in Wiggins’ taking home the yellow jersey. If all you’re doing is a straight-on transaction, something you know how to do and really can do on your own, then maybe the self-publishing model works; but the way I write books requires a team.

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