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What It Takes

What It Takes

Acting “As If”

By Shawn Coyne
Published: July 25, 2014

I had dinner with a friend the other night who makes a fine living investing in Silicon Valley start-ups. It’s his passion to follow online innovation, so I threw out a hypothetical to him:

“Say you had to set up a website/blog/online store today…how would you do it?”

UNBROKEN, the gazillion copy bestseller about a pilot shot down, held prisoner and forced to fight like Hell to survive.

And then, as I often do, I started to answer the question myself before he got a chance to respond. I blabbed on about what the conventional wisdom is for creative blogger types whose value is in their authenticity and uniqueness. About how they’d need to invent something…a look and feel…that would express their singularity in the very design of their site. It would have to be handled very delicately and done just right to reflect their particular sensibility.

He laughed at me and simply said,

There is absolutely no value in being a snowflake on the Internet. In fact being “unlike any other” can kill you. No one will know how to use your site, or even read it, if you get too cute with it. Most people get caught up today on their mobile phones, so the site has to be easy to use on a tiny screen.

He then went on to explain that what he would do and has done is to find a “plug and play” website building company that does all of the technical stuff for him. One he can fix or change in ten minutes and not have to call someone else to do it. He’d make the site look like the most popular ones in the particular blog or online store arena he was looking to emulate. He recommended that writers using the web make their material unique, not the packaging. Don’t kill yourself over aesthetic designs that detract from the core mission.

“They call embraced innovations that work ‘best practices’ for a reason…”

It was my turn to laugh because his philosophy was exactly like mine in terms of how a publisher needs to behave. No matter the publisher’s size or traditions. When Steve and I pitched Giora Romm about publishing his Israeli bestseller in English, we told him that Black Irish Books would act “as if” we were Random House.

No, we wouldn’t be paying cooperative advertising to Barnes & Noble to get the chain to pre-order in bulk. And we would not be sending out a bunch of sales reps at great expense to convince the nation’s dwindling independent bookstores to take a flier on his book and stock a single copy and to “keep their eye on it.” That traditional method of “publishing” would prove silly for a non-celebrity or proven track record bestselling writer. I don’t know why the Big 5 still do that for all the books they publish…but they do.

If your name is not James Patterson or Walter Isaacson or Elizabeth Gilbert, you cannot depend on the old “two week blitz” publishing strategy to find a critical mass of readers.

Obviously Black Irish’s competitive advantage is in not wasting our time on old school methods wooing retailers or putting all of our eggs into a two week National Publicity basket. Our books are not “frontlist.”  They are “backlist, evergreen” long-term commitments. So we spend weeks, months, years on every single one we put out there in an effort to reach what we think is the publisher’s job…getting the book into the hands of 10,000 readers. We have plans to promote all of our titles every chance we get, in any way we can do it, for as long as we’re around.

So we explained to Giora that we would act “as if” we were Random House in terms of production and packaging with only the people who will actually want to read the book in mind. So what are the Big 5 “best practices” for production and packaging?

First off, we needed to have a great cover, something that was indistinguishable from a Big 5 approach. It had to not only look like a Random House book; it had to promise even more. So we looked at all of the covers published by Big 5 publishers that were comparable to Giora’s book…UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand and A HIGHER CALL by Adam Moss and Larry Alexander were the closest comparable. And we directed our designer Derick Tsai to follow their general graphic layout sensibility. Likewise our interior design was inspired by these titles too.
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