When the Ladder Becomes a Wheel

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called American Icon by Bryce Hoffman. It’s about how Ford Motor Company came back from the brink of bankruptcy. Its CEO, Alan Mulally, took the job when Ford and the other two members of the Big Three car manufacturers were in deep trouble. Way before the 2008 crash.  While GM and Chrysler ended up begging and getting billions of bailout dollars from American taxpayers, Ford prepared for the worst, restructured and didn’t have to ask for a penny.

How Mulally got Ford out of its tailspin reminded me of pages 147 through 159 in The War of Art. In just these twelve pages, Steve Pressfield puts his finger on exactly how our world view directs our actions.

Mulally’s turnaround of Ford is a brilliant case study to support Pressfield’s ideas. He switched Ford’s orientation from hierarchy to territory. The book reveals:

We no longer live in isolated analog hierarchies.

Ford can’t rely on consistent F-150 sales just because it has enough market share, solid distribution, some economies of scale, and capacity. Rather they needed to strip down the bureaucratic hierarchies and all work toward a common goal…producing the right number of cars to meet demand with impeccable quality. No one buys a Ford just because it’s a Ford anymore.

Our world is just too connected to rely on BS.

Too many other car options…too easy to find influential tribal voices that debunk cynical marketing. Too many people online writing their truth…“don’t believe the hype, the Honda Ridgeline kicks the F-150’s butt.” (Just FYI, I don’t know anything about trucks, so please don’t take the above statement seriously. Find someone who does know trucks to give you the real scoop.)

We live in a global digital territory now.

The pursuit of “We’re Number One!” by concentrating on beating your competition is now absurd. Especially when your competition is as screwed up as you are. Create something great within your chosen territory that people don’t even know they want. Like a Ford Flex or a Pebble watch. Or a book about gardening in raised beds. Make it better. Then do it again.

Analog hierarchies use the pursuit of the fruits of labor—money, status, Big Kahuna-ship—to “incentivize” individuals. Do this and we’ll pay you more and get you into the Country Club… Daniel Pink writes a lot about this and he’s found that it is not the best way to motivate a human being.

What digital territories demand is much more difficult. They demand honesty, integrity, and connecting with other people to explore common interests. The fruits of our labor in a territory aren’t about being named one of People magazine’s 100 most beautiful people. The reward is simply to continue doing your work. If your work is professional and meaningful, there’s a tribe of like-minded people on the planet who will find and support you. If it isn’t, work on something else.

Alan Mulally’s big triumph was not making billions of dollars for Ford.  It was getting the people who spend eight hours a day at Ford to love their work.

So what does this have to do with Book Publishing?

These two books, American Icon and The War of Art, got me to think about where the book business stands today and where it’ll be tomorrow. Don’t cringe.  It’s good news. Very good news.

For fun, I made a couple of visuals to explain.

The first I’m calling “The Analog Hierarchy Ladder.”

This is the old Big Six scarcity model . . . writers getting picked by established experts who in turn present readers with officially sanctioned publications. The message is that these books are the “true gen.” The rest are vanity.

The second I’m calling “The Digital Territory Wheel.”

With the dawn of the Internet, the ladder began to lose its rigidity. And today, simply by connecting its bottom to its top, it has morphed into a wheel. The writer and the reader can now talk to each other without permission from the other four traditional players. Revolutionary.

Big traditional publishing will continue.  In order to remain profitable, though it will have to change in much the same way that Ford had to change. But we all crave third party validation. Being published by Knopf or Little Brown or St. Martin’s Press means that your work is professional and valid.

If you are offered a contract by one of the Bigs, it’s an honor. Pat yourself on the back and then start your next book. Plus, these big companies can finance projects that are extremely daunting.  They will remain the Medicis for great artists like Robert Caro and Steven Pressfield (whose next project requires a dizzying amount of work and expense). We need them to get those blockbuster works funded.

The new Territorial publishing will thrive. Brave professional souls willing to forgo the advance check and spec it, now have the ability to build their own long tail businesses. I think that these “little engines that can” will not only increase the number of book readers and writers, but will be the industry leaders that truly globalize book publishing.

The wheel is turning and it ain’t gonna stop.

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  1. Jeremy on May 4, 2012 at 5:40 am

    This is excellent Shawn. Why fight gravity and the slippery rungs when rolling momentum is what satisfies the writer and reader? Get rolling fast enough, that ladder turns into a ramp.

  2. Rick Matz on May 4, 2012 at 5:49 am

    We have to make our own products obsolete before the competition does. It will happen anyway. We might as well reap the reward for selling the replacement product.

  3. Paul C on May 4, 2012 at 7:41 am

    American Icon is a great read, like so many other books written about the auto industry that could apply to almost every business. The reporter who wrote the book stresses the importance of how he documented the research and conversations. For non-fiction, the importance of fact checking seems to be overlooked these days- until the book blows up like a defective auto part.

  4. basilis on May 4, 2012 at 7:59 am

    It is great!

  5. David YB Kaufmann on May 4, 2012 at 8:17 am

    I responded to the wheel on Facebook. (That sounds like a song title.) The two conundrums (as opposed to bongo drums) are the curative and the connective. In the traditional model they were merged – one dimensional and hierarchical. In the wheel model, they are interactive. This puts more responsibility on reader as well as writer. Readers can’t just rely on publisher-retailer (who rely on agent-editor), but have to Do The Work themselves. Same with writers. Do The Work means more now than ever.


  6. Chad on May 4, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Great post – consumers have so many choices these days…adapt or die seems more true than ever…thanks for sharing…

  7. Dave McCall on May 4, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    Excellent. But, of course, there’s yet another Manufacturing Industry parallel with the development of FabLab technology – the facilities being developed globally as fully-fitted digital fabrication workshops which give everyone in a community from young children through to entrepreneurs and businesses, the capability to turn their manufacturing needs into reality. Basically, a facility to make almost anything. When I retired from the labour market, it was the experience of Fablabs that drove me towards some of the newer principles on your “wheel” when I started writing. Thanks for the post.

  8. Ronald Sieber on May 5, 2012 at 9:41 am


    I like your conceptual model – the wheel certainly connects the dots well. I would, however, suggest 2-way arrows all around, to indicate the potential interactivity between all parties. For instance, the publisher may not connect with the agent, but he/she certainly stays in touch with the editor in a 2-way communication.

    I find that, as more and more is thrown upon writers to do, it does indeed open up connectivity possibilities as your model illustrates. But it also means that less time is available to create, as more time needs to be spent attending to all the other duties. But that is another topic.

    Best to you!

  9. Thomas on May 12, 2012 at 1:53 am

    ‘Sfunny how you describe the brave new world outside, and then urge the poor writers to seek their fortunes inside first ;o )

    “Being published by Knopf or Little Brown or St. Martin’s Press means that your work is professional and valid.”

    Oh – and here I thought that being read by a lot of readers meant that your work is valid, and that making a living creating said work meant that you’re a professional. My mistake ;o)

    Really, guys – this “you gotta be pubbed by trad pub to be REALLY pubbed” is becoming a religion. Let it go; it may still stop a lot of good tales from being published – as in “being made available to the reading public”, which is the meaning of “published”.

    Being formatted, printed and promo’ed by Knopf or Co. means just that : being formatted, printed and promo’ed by Knopf or Co. There”s no guarantee it’ll make you public or professional – that is still up to the readers.

    “If you are offered a contract by one of the Bigs, it’s an honor.” Maybe. It’s also a problem – losing control of formatting, pricing and a lot of rights (e-pubbing, options on future books, non-compete clauses, etc.). That’s the writer’s choice, of course. As a reader, I just feel irritated at the extreme slowness introduced by a fave writer going trad pub. With e-self-pub, the writer can have his latest work in my hands a few hours after he’s satisfied with his stuff (editing, formatting, etc.) – with trad pub, we’re talking months, at best.

    And if I were a writer, given the choice between a year at the top of the self-pubber bestseller lists and a print run with, say, Knopf – well, I know what I would choose. Trad for show, self-pub for dough ;o)

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