The Why of Publishing

[This is a mini-series about why and how Steve and I came to publish Solitary by Giora Romm. Thank you to the First Look Access members who jumped on the offer Steve sent them two days ago. We’ve opened a limited-offer of $3.99 per book here to everyone, available until June 30th at 11:59pm PST. Click here to access.]

So eighteen months ago, Steve calls me and says he’s just read a book he thinks I’d like. A friend of his wrote it.

That’s it.  No build up.  No pitch.  Just a “Will you read it?

The thing is that Steve rarely asks me to do anything.  He’s even reluctant to give me his own work until he absolutely has to.  He’s a pro.  And a pro doesn’t waste anyone’s time.

Straight off, I’m skeptical. I’m disinclined.  You need to be if you are a publisher.  The stuff Steve’s sent me in the past has been passionate and compelling…but none of it was right for us.  Neither have been the ones I’ve sent him.

The manuscripts we’ve recommended to one another could certainly make sense for other publishers, but we had yet to find anything that met the sweet spot of Black Irish’s raison d’etre.  And yes we have a very clear one. We have to be vigilant about our thing. Publishing can go bad very quickly.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s take a step back.

This past Friday, Tony Horwitz wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times that speaks a bit to why today’s brave new world publisher needs to have a very clear reason for being.  If a publisher (like the one described in Horwitz’s piece) is alive just to disrupt or to revolutionize the dusty old book business, its founders and its authors are in for a world of hurt.

Simon Sinek wrote a brilliant book explaining exactly why this is. START WITH WHY was inspired by his dazzling 2009 TED talk.  Steve put it in my hands the last time we met up in Los Angeles.

In a nutshell Sinek’s argument is this:

People know “WHAT” they do.  They make books.  They make cronuts.  They make PVC pipe.

After time they come to know exactly “HOW” they do it.  That is, they discover and master the processes of their work and how they can implement them to the greatest chance of critical and/or financial success.

If you are a book publisher, traditionally the HOW of the art is to get your book into the hands of influential reviewers, readers, “big mouths” before you publish the book and then pray that these core group of influentials will write/talk/proselytize about how great the book is.

Then that word of mouth will travel organically from person to person without advertising or other forms of coercion. A friend will recommend to another friend who will try the title out and if it touches a nerve in them, then he’ll tell another friend about it.  And when the publisher does his job, and I think they have a very clear job to do, a book will be given a chance to “live” or “die” on its own.

A book “Life” is equivalent to moving from person to person year after year generation after generation…like Pride and Prejudice, The Art of War, and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions etc. We all know what book “Death” is, shredded, unread and forgotten. When our creations die before we do…we suffer.

But Sinek points out that few of us spend any time thinking about WHY we do what we do and how we do it.  The WHY he’s talking about is not about making profit.  Making money from the WHAT and the HOW is a result…not a reason for being.

WHY is the belief, the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning, the cause, the thing you were put on earth to wrassle with. It’s the reason why anyone should care.  As Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do…they buy why you do it. The goal isn’t to do business with everyone who needs what you have… The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”

WHY is the inspiration for existence. It is the core idea about what you believe.

And inspired publishers, or plumbing supply companies for that matter, stay on track and keep on keeping on when they think about WHY first. The WHY is the theme or controlling idea in a story…the story of your company.

The new breed of publishing companies today that proclaim that they are going to disrupt and innovate the business just by using technology (the HOW) while creating the same WHAT as the old-school publishers (books in eBook or print form) with absolutely no WHY to attract actual readers who care about what they care about are doomed.

No matter how much money is thrown their way.

No matter if they get James Patterson to write a book for free for them.

No matter how many reviews they get in The New York Times book review or any other respected media outlet that speaks to everyone and no one at the same time.

Dedicating your company to “Long Form Narrative Nonfiction” is not a WHY.  It’s not nearly specific enough for anyone to care about.  It’s like dedicating your company to the periodic table of elements. No one cares about Helium unless it’s pushing up a balloon. Tell me about what kinds of balloons bring you joy, not about the Helium you use to make them rise!

The barriers to entry from the past that made it very expensive for people to become book publishers (seven figure investments necessary to accommodate limited shelf space distribution systems) are gone today.  The HOW is cheap.  And the WHAT is cheap too. With print on demand technology and essentially free eBook distribution, a publisher does not have to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars printing books he has no idea whether or not he’ll sell.

Making a book isn’t expensive anymore.

We now live in an age where the manufacturing costs of HOW and WHAT are negligible. You can’t buy up all of the shelf space at big box retailers anymore and you can’t keep out the competition with excessive capital requirements.  The only thing a publisher can do is to be very clear about WHY they publish in the first place.  Work on that and the rest will take care of itself.

So before I read one word of Steve’s friend’s manuscript, he and I have to agree about WHY Black Irish Books exists in the first place. We both know that the WHY of Black Irish must drive the WHAT and the HOW.

Sexy WHATs or slam-dunk HOWs cannot seduce us.

If we start publishing books just based on WHAT (I thought this was really good, so let’s publish it) or HOW (The Gates of Fire Workout Book would attract the millions of people who’ve read Gates of Fire, so let’s publish it!), we’ll be just another colophon in a sea of meaningless imprints.

And that is not WHY we started Black Irish.

We both agree that Black Irish is about waging the inner war no matter the exigencies of everyday life. It’s about Getting in the Ring and fighting for truth and authenticity within.  The hardest thing in the world is to be yourself. And all of our books have to thematically contend with that reality.

After reading the first paragraph of the manuscript, I know that we started Black Irish to find, edit, and publish books exactly like the one Steve has recommended.  After eighteen months of work (more on this work to come) the book will evolve into SOLITARY by Giora Romm.  It’s simply the purest statement of our WHY we could have imagined.

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  1. Tim on June 27, 2014 at 6:21 am

    You wrote “I know that we started Black Irish to find, edit, and publish books exactly like the one Steve has recommended” Now what is the Why behind that?

  2. Shawn Coyne on June 27, 2014 at 6:46 am

    Hi Tim,

    The reference to “the one Steve has recommended” is to the beginning of the story…where Steve has asked me to read a book that his friend has written.

    So my attempt was to harken back to the very beginning of the piece (to pay it off) and reveal my reaction to the book that Steve has asked me to read (the hook of the story).

    For me, after all of the other titles we’ve considered,this is the “one.” This is the book we need to publish because it speaks to our company’s WHY…it’s about the inner war we all fight to find our purpose in life and to fulfill it.

    The book Steve has asked me to read, the one that will become SOLITARY, is all about the inner war and the difficulties inherent in fighting it.


  3. Mary Doyle on June 27, 2014 at 6:56 am

    Shawn, glad to see you back here! Thanks for a thoughtful post about the evolution at Black Irish, and for the link to the Tony Horowitz piece.

  4. Jim on June 27, 2014 at 8:19 am

    Love this Shawn– “the hardest thing in the world is to be yourself.” Keep fighting the good fight my friend!

  5. Terry Malloy on June 27, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Hi Shawn,

    What a brilliant post. I’m a huge believer in the principle of “why”. I remember last summer when a client asked me why I would like to coach hairdressers to run their business more efficiently her jaw literally dropped when I replied, “To create more peace in the world.”

    “How on earth does that fit?” she replied.

    As I explained my answer to her she sat upright and the biggest smile I’d ever seen came across her face. It was though for the first time somebody had seen what she did with a totally fresh set of eyes and she loved what was seen.

  6. Greg Newton on June 27, 2014 at 11:41 am

    I’m about 80% through “Solitary” and my god is it a good book – I am the same as Steve where I can’t put it down! For me, the value and lessons you got back for the $1.99 is not even in the same hemisphere. Definitely contains the raw guts (and ‘why’) of what Black Irish is all about…

    So grateful that you guys found this gem from the heart of Isreal and created the bridge so that someone like me – a Canadian living overseas here in Spain – can read it via ebook. Definitely exposed to a world I previously had no idea about.

    This is not directly related to this post, but I just had to share…

    Huge THX to the Black Irish team!

  7. David Y.B. Kaufmann on June 27, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    Shawn, given your experience in the industry, I also look forward to your posts. They are educational, thought-provoking and engaging. Thanks for the insight, the analysis, the directives- and the books!

  8. Brian on June 27, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    As I was reading this post, I kept trying to guess the Why for Black Irish Books. Man’s inner struggle…overcoming ourselves..but you of course nailed it. “Getting in the Ring and fighting for truth and authenticity within.”

    I think it is important that it didn’t say victory over self, and ‘the hardest thing in the world is to be yourself’ is so true.

    The battle never ends. I have had childish rants about this truth. I have cursed the heavens because life is still hard. (I write that my life is hard after a dinner my wife made, post dog walk, in a temperature controlled house 1000 sq ft larger than I spent my entire youth, worrying about a next career with a pension in the bag…so my ‘hard’ is shamefully soft.)

    I just had a thought as I wrote this–and I wonder if I’ve missed it in the blogs or books–and that is any discussion of gratitude and its power against Resistance. Maybe it has been mentioned, but it was just a thought.

    I love Sinek’s work. He gets it. Black Irish Books gets it. Callie, Steve, yourself–the readers and contributors to this blog all get it.

  9. Kris Obertas on June 30, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    I saw the $3.99 offer running until the end of today but got a different deal at the shopping cart and no place to put the discount code. Then I thought, “Why am I balking?? How much have I learned from you guys for nothing?!” That and the Pat Conroy endorsement sealed the deal.

  10. Alec on July 4, 2014 at 5:06 am

    I heard you speak on Super Soul Sunday with Oprah this past weekend I felt a connection to your philosophy. Your point on those who like to keep us small when they see us rise and your point about sabotage. I know it does exists and sometimes thru no fault of are own.
    Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Flight or fight. When we choose to fight because we believe in ourselves some people who don’t have that pick apart the fight without knowing the entire story.

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