Do books, and book writing, still matter?

Book Reading Guy

In a world of free written content, indexed by Google and accessed by billions of people with Internet or mobile access, and a few keystrokes, what significance could writing a book possibly retain?

Let’s relate two stories that partially answer both questions:

I was at a conference earlier this summer at which I was the lunch keynote speaker. I had arrived early and was talking to the vendors who had lined up outside the hall to sell their products, services and processes to the attendees of the conference.

I stopped at several of the tables and eventually ended up engaging in a conversation with a sales representative from a company that specializes in engagement and recognition, two areas that I believe are critical to developing employees and keeping them at work.

In the course of the conversation, the person to whom I was talking mentioned that her organization had written a book about the core of their company’s focus and she wanted to give me a copy of the book.

Her assistant went to her car and 10 minutes later, I had the book (a hardcover) in my hands. I looked down at it and turned it over. Then I asked “How much do I owe you for this?” She looked at me and started laughing and said “Don’t worry, I’ve got an entire case of these books in the back of my car.”

The book—all that research, content, packaging, distributing, publishing and marketing—was $25.00.

In the second story, I was talking with a friend and colleague of mine in another industry. He and I were having lunch and discussing many topics, and in the course of our conversation, I brought up the fact that he recently had a book published. The topic of his book is on leadership and it represents his second book in several years.

He talked about how he was struggling to get attention for the book’s topic and how he had only sold one book at the time that we were talking (hopefully, by this point he’s sold a few more, but I haven’t followed up with him lately).

His book is around the same price point $25.00 as the hardcover book in the previous story, but he’s also offering workbooks, e-pamphlets and other “freebies” to sweeten the deal and make the price point more palatable. After all, there are hundreds of books on leadership published every year.

Do books, and book writing, still matter?

Some stats that show that it does. In the first half of 2014, books sales were up by 4.9% over 2013, accounting for $5,023,800 with adult nonfiction accounting for $3,310,600 of that total. [link here] In the business area, where leadership, engagement, employee motivation and entrepreneurship make their mark, there were 16, 604 [link here] books sold in 2014, up by 7% over the previous year.

In the year 1440, the printing press was invented and Johannes Gutenburg could barely monetize it, dying broke and forgotten until he was remembered almost 100 years later.

Why bring Gutenburg up?

History is littered with the bodies of failed inventors who were either too early with their innovations, too late with advocating for their work, or who got greedy, got in bed with the wrong people and died thinking of themselves as broken failures. That probably won’t happen to Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or Sergey Brin and Larry Page, but books matter, because, after 600 years, we have finally gotten the format, the feel and look of book right. We have figured out how to monetize it and the technology to make it, sell it, market it and distribute it has experienced global, explosive exponential growth.

Authors (and many potential authors) hold the internet, content creation, free online content, and e-commerce responsible for the overall reduction in the number of book sales. Our new technology and delivery systems are blamed for the difficulty that many authors (in unpopular or “boring” genres) have in marketing and selling their books to niche audiences. Finally, the development of the social web and digital distractions on a platform initially dominated by the presence of the written word, is credited for the loss of concentration and focus that audiences appear to have in an age where the greatest product of the printing press seems to be being supplanted.

Do books, and book writing, still matter?

The savvy conflict engagement professional should write, because content matters. But the kind of writing that is done for a blog (like this one) does not have to differ entirely from the kind of writing that would be in a book, or even an e-book. The frustration comes with the fact that the categories in which peacebuilding has its roots (psychology, business, sociology, legal), have never been “bestseller” categories for the general, book buying public. The other frustration for peacebuilders comes in the fact that we are, at a human level, transitioning from one technology (printing press) to another technology (the Internet) and the rules are not set, as they will be 600 years from now.

Book writing still matters for the peacebuilder, but there are three suggestions for moving forward:

  • Write for a narrow niche and deepen it through working with your network that you have built offline and online. Selling a few hundred copies of a book through connections and networks is possible in a world of fractured attention spans. However, without writing for a narrow niche, all the giveaways and sweeteners won’t move units.
  • Use the disciplines that you’ve developed through writing blog posts, engaging with social content, creating marketing efforts and connecting with people, to sell your book. This is the most daunting piece of the process. It is like having a small start-up inside the business you’re already developing.
  • Set your expectations for what “success” or “failure” looks like for you. The savvy peacebuilder is savvy because they set their expectations around outcomes at a level that matches the length of their network reach. If you have worked for 4 years to build a network of 1300 people on Twitter, and you know that only 40 of those people are in the market for your book, Twitter may not be the tool to use to promote your book. However, if you only want to sell 40 books, those 40 followers may be your best customers.

Do books, and book writing, still matter?

Yes. Now more than ever.

-Peace Be With You All-

Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principle Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)
Email HSCT: jsorrells@hsconsultingandtraining.com
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