News & Opinion

Publishing Chat With Michael Bungay Stanier

October 05, 2009


An interview with Michael Bungay Steiner, author of Do More Great Work.

I met Michael Bungay Stanier at this year's ASTD conference in Washington, DC, where he was kind enough to pass me a copy of his amazing little book, Find Your Great Work. In February of 2010, Workman Press will release his new book, Do More Great Work. I followed up with him to hear his take on writing, and the two paths of publishing - traditional and self-publishing. It's a nice overview of what it's like in the business author's world, and I hope you enjoy the read. Check out Michael's books, too! Great stuff.

800ceoread: How did you get the idea to even write a book? What purpose did you see it serving that wasn't addressed before you wrote it?

Michael Bungay Stanier: This is a great question and a great place to start. I think anyone who's toying with the idea of writing a book should ask: Why? Why a book? Why now? Sometimes we've just got something that has to get created, has to get out in the world. Fantastic. And if that's true, I think it's worth stopping and asking: of all the ways you could shape that information, is a book the best way? What about any number of other formats you could consider? And if you think "A book is the secret to success and fortune and fame" - well, that's also an assumption worth questioning. Most books don't open those particular doors. But to come back to your question - "for the sake of what?" - it was two things. First, the arrival of the book idea and shape almost fully formed in my head one August vacation. As it happens, I was staying at the cottage where Einstein used to stay for his summer holidays in up-state New York, and perhaps some genius juju rubbed off on me. And second, it's part of a bigger business strategy for me - the book is a way of finding and engaging future clients in the work I do around helping organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work. The right sort of book can help spread what Seth Godin would call an idea virus.

8cr: Did you initially intend to self-publish, or did you try traditional publishers first. If you tried traditional publishers, talk about what that process was like.

MBS: I jumped right into self-publishing and for a number of reasons. First, I know it takes a whole lot of effort to get a traditional publisher. If you're going for one of the bigger names, you need an agent. That's a challenge. Then, if you find an agent you need to get your manuscript accepted. And that's another challenge. And then, if you get your manuscript accepted - hurrah! - you have to deal with a very different financial model than if you self publish. If you self-publish, you'll spend money up front - perhaps on hiring an editor and hopefully on hiring some sort of designer - and then you can print your book for less than $5 a copy and often closer to $2 or $3. If you sell the book for $15, that gives you a pretty good margin. If you know how to bundle it with other products then you can sell it for more than that. With a traditional publisher, they take on the risk of the up-front costs and they give you some sort of advance on future sales. But the financial model shifts significantly. You're earning less than 10% off the cover price of any books sold - maybe a buck a book for a $15 book - and you start getting that money quite a while after the book's been published.

8cr: What were the most challenging aspect(s) to self publish? What were the most rewarding?

MBS: The more challenging aspects are keeping up the discipline of writing new drafts. Without a iron-first-in-velvet-glove editor, it's easy to flake out on a "this will do" standard. Also, holding yourself to the standard of "this can't look and feel self-published" is important - something that was both challenging and rewarding. I loved having full control over the design process. Because content is now ubiquitous, I think the design - the look and feel - of any book is a critical place where value gets created for the reader. Being in charge of creating something that's beautiful was fantastic.

8cr: Your next book will be published by a traditional publisher. Talk a bit about the difference in the process from self publishing.

MBS: Let me frame these comments by saying I'm working with Workman as my first traditional publisher. I've got nothing to compare them to, but by all accounts Workman are one of the most flexible and most innovative publishers, willing to brand themselves and to invest in their authors. And I'm excited to be working with them. AND the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing has some stark comparisions. The first thing that's different is the shift in control. Self-publishing, I'm writer, editor, designer, marketing and sales. Personally, I like that - my deeply controlling nature underneath my nice guy facade... As soon as you hand things to a traditional publishing company, control gets a little diffuse. It's now a conversation - and often a very good conversation - about content and structure and form with your editor. And it's harder to tie in marketing and "how to make this book catch people's imagination" as part of the on-going conversation, because there are now different departments - marketing, sales, corporate sales, international sales, PR, etc - all handling their own specific remits. The second thing I notice is the difference in pace. With discipline and focus, you can conceivably write and publish a book yourself in six weeks. With a traditional publisher, a pretty speedy turn-around is nine months. These days, to me, nine months feels an eternity. This is a time and a place where people carry out exchanges in 140 characters or less, where you can connect with anyone in the world instantly, when you can self-publish in an instant. The extended time comes from the number of different iterations we do of the book - perhaps 5 or 6 as it moves through various editing and design stages - and the need to get the sales force and the distribution logistics set up to make it happen. So I get why it takes 9 months - I just think it's an increasing area of vulnerability of the business model.

8cr: What do you see as the biggest benefits of working with a traditional publisher?

MBS: Well, I'm still in the process of finding that out. We're in the middle of the process right now - we're just moving the manuscript through the copy editing and type-setting phases and beginning conversations about marketing. Certainly, one of the benefits is a rigorous editor. I was pretty happy with the self-published version and - truth be told - slightly wary of my editor. What would she do? What value could she add? Will she compromise my voice? But the truth is that her edits have made the book tighter, more comprehensive and more useful for readers. Second and most obviously, distribution. The new book will be in bookstores and at airports and findable by a lot more people. My goal is to spread the idea of more Great Work and less Good Work, and for me having Workman helping with traditional channels of marketing, PR and distribution is one key element of the strategy. They're able to talk to people and open up conversations which would be much more challenging for me on my own. For instance, I'd love to get the new book into something like the Fedex-Kinko's chain so it's one of the books people can pick up after they've printed something out or sent a parcel on its way. With Workman, that's a possibility. Without them, I'd be pushing my luck.

We have updated our privacy policy. Click here to read our full policy.