Acting “As If”

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.

Steve and I were on the same page about innovating the cover imagery, graphic layout and interior design of the book. We should NOT do that!

No matter how brilliantly we would be able to pull off something remarkable, our target audience (military nonfiction readers, plus self-help inspirational narrative nonfiction readers) would not “feel right” about it. That is, these core readers want to have something “uniquely familiar” in terms of the books physical presentation. To give them “Abstract Expressionism” for a “Portraiture” kind of story would kill it before it was even read.

If we tried to do something remarkable with the packaging for Giora’s book in the way that Seth Godin brilliantly conceived of for his book PURPLE COW (a book about marketing is a perfect way to play with packaging), we’d alienate people who would be our “early adopters,” core military nonfiction readers. Anyone who has read UNBROKEN or A HIGHER CALL of THE THINGS THEY CARRIED or BLACK HAWK DOWN had to be able to take a one-millisecond look at SOLITARY and know that it’s in the same storytelling arena (Genre).

Let me take a step back here and tell you why we changed the title of Giora’s book from its original name TULIP FOUR. Again it speaks to acting “as if” Black Irish was Random House. TULIP FOUR is a terrific title…when you know what it means. It was the call sign on the radio for Giora’s Mirage jet on September 11, 1969, when he was shot down over Egypt and captured. Did Israel’s readers know what TULIP FOUR meant immediately when they picked up the Hebrew edition? Absolutely not.

But here is the very big thing they did know. They knew who the author was. Giora Romm is a national figure in Israel, equivalent to Chuck Yeager here in the United States. Remember the title of Chuck Yeager’s book? It was called YEAGER. So just having the name GIORA ROMM on the cover of TULIP FOUR was enough for Israel’s readers to know what genre the book was. Even if the title didn’t immediately resonate with them. It would later and it pays off in a big way too, thematically, but Steve and I didn’t have the luxury to be subtle or literary with the title here in the U.S.

We had to use the title to tell potential U.S. readers what genre this book lived in. Beyond the cover imagery, which can only be seen when browsing for the book online or in a store, we needed the title to tell the reader exactly what it was about. Ideally, a cover promises the same thing a story does…a beginning hook, a middle build and an ending payoff.

Again, if we were Random House, we’d want a title as captivating as UNBROKEN…the gazillion copy bestseller about a pilot shot down, held prisoner and forced to fight like Hell to survive. Well geez, we thought, our book has the same broad stroke description as UNBROKEN. Why don’t we use that package as our inspiration? Shouldn’t we try and find a title similar to UNBROKEN? And come up with a subtitle in the same family as UNBROKEN’s, a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption?

Now you know why the book is called SOLITARY: The Crash, Captivity and Comeback of an Ace Fighter Pilot.

The cover of SOLITARY

But what of the back cover? How would Random House set up its marketing and publicity campaigns for a book like SOLITARY? That is, use the other side of the package to establish the book’s bona fides?

You’ve probably noticed recently that another book set in 1969 has somehow reached the top of’s bestseller list. And it’s not even available in print right now…just eBook format. And a company called Open Road, not one of the Big Five, publishes it. In fact, the author, John Brooks is deceased. How did that happen?

A person millions of people respect was asked what his favorite book was and he said it was BUSINESS ADVENTURES. Bill Gates make the book a bestseller just by expressing his opinion.

Publishers have known the importance of influential endorsements for years. So Black Irish Books had to recognize this importance too. SOLITARY might look like UNBROKEN or A HIGHER CALL, but without endorsements from writers in its same arena, or within the same potential readership circles, the book would not feel like a Random House book.

But…Shit…Steve and I are old salts.

We’ve been around the advance quote log roll for years. We know that it’s now virtually impossible to get anyone to give you an honest read and an honest quote.

But maybe it’s not impossible-impossible…

How could we get big name writers to actually read SOLITARY and give us quotes if we can’t roll out the “we’re a big important publisher that can help you down the line” subtext that the Big 5 uses when soliciting quotes for their books?

If we were going to get big shots, we had to make it personal.

We had to make our “ask” for a quote unique. It had to come directly from Steve and it had to be respectful of their time, yet forceful about the importance of the book. The other thing we decided was that we wouldn’t just send the book without asking first. Steve gets hundreds of copies of unsolicited books mailed to him every year from editors and writers and publishers he’s never met personally asking him to spend hours reading a book and then to offer a dazzling quote.

We didn’t want to be one of those guys that bug Steve. We wanted the people we targeted (about 30 big time writers that Steve and I either knew personally or knew their agents or editors or publishers personally) to not have to deal with the burden of having a book they never asked for dumped on their doorstep.

Ironically, we knew our courtesy would be a competitive advantage. We wouldn’t waste money printing and shipping a book to someone who didn’t have the time to read it. And we did something even more personal to give the letter the best chance of actually being read. We used Steve’s personal stationary (remember that stuff?) and each note was banged out on an ancient WWII era typewriter.

Think about it. You’re a big time writer. You get a hand typed letter directly from another big time writer you may not personally know, but you admire his work.  He asks you to consider reading…not his next book…but a book he was so in love with, he opened up his own checkbook to publish it himself.

And the capper is that in the same “ask” letter, he tells you to throw out his plea and to never think for a second that he doesn’t understand that you don’t have the time to do it. Don’t respond if you have no time. I get it. No hard feelings.

Guess what happened?

Even the people who were swamped or couldn’t read the book, like Laura Hillenbrand, got back to us with heartfelt apologies for not having the bandwidth…wished us luck. I’d bet if they ever do have a free couple of hours, they’ll check the book out anyway…

And as you’ll see on the back cover of SOLITARY, a whole slew of bestselling writers put aside the time, read the book, and gave us their heartfelt comments. So acting “as if” we were Random House, we’ve put together a Big 5 caliber package. The title, the quotes, the cover, the interior are on the mark.

But what about marketing and publicity? More on that subject next week.

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  1. seth godin on July 25, 2014 at 4:35 am

    Another generous post, Shawn. And right on.

    Thanks for leading the way.

  2. Mary Doyle on July 25, 2014 at 5:49 am

    Thanks for sharing this process – it’s fascinating, and I’d bet money that the “old salts” have a winner on their hands!

  3. Erika Viktor on July 25, 2014 at 6:36 am

    I agree with that title change. It goes along the theme of the book, rather than a detail that would not translate to a reader like myself.

    By the way, I love the typewriter detail. I collect those myself and write letters on them as well.

    Excited to hear more on the marketing hat.

  4. Brian on July 25, 2014 at 6:43 am

    Well done. I love the balance of equal parts philosophy/inspiration, functional ‘how-to’, and the practical inside examples like today.

    Callie’s post last week likely saved me a week of research, or a year of heartache for an conceived, poorly executed crowd-funding drive.

    Read a book called ‘As if’, have heard the phrase in different circles as well, but the tangible example you gave today is like bread crumbs leading us towards an executable task.

    Agree with Mary. I’d go ‘all-in’ behind the ‘old salts’ any day.

  5. Kwin Peterson on July 25, 2014 at 8:03 am

    Thanks for sharing, Shawn. Sending respectful, effective email asking for help is something I’ve always struggled with. Would you mind sharing an example of a message Steve sent?

  6. Tine Wiggens on July 25, 2014 at 8:52 am

    One thing that stood out to me the first time I saw the cover was that Giora’s name is very tiny and one heas to search for it almost. From a purely design point of view I would have given his name more presence on the cover in order to make that statement: GIORA ROMM. Boom. SOLITARY. Boom. Done. Statement made. Bold.
    I also wonder why you chose red as color for the typeface as it is so hard in contrast with the image colors. The typeface is interesting as it is non serif and yet its not qute strong enough somehow. There is too much text on the cover for my liking, it takes away from it somehow and weakens it. There should be no need for all that text at all. If, a simple short statement should be enough.
    These were simply my observations.

  7. Brian Ellis on July 25, 2014 at 10:54 am

    I was blessed to receive a “free” copy of The Lion’s Gate (Thank you Callie). Having read the book it was passed on to three sons and presently it is being read and enjoyed by another relative. I’m feeling a little guilty after reading Shawn piece today. Shouldn’t these others have purchased The Lion’s Gate?

  8. Sharon on July 25, 2014 at 11:21 am

    it’s not impossible-impossible.

    Thank you. Stealing.

    Love, Sharon

  9. antares on July 25, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    I am the core military nonfiction reader for Solitary.

    Don’t know where I saw the book first, but the cover struck a cord with me immediately. I recognized the airplane as a Mirage before I read the title.

    This is my procedure for book buying:
    1. Does the cover interest me? If yes, go to 2.
    2. Does the blurb interest me? If yes, go to 3.
    3. Does the sample read well? If yes, buy the book.

    Solitary passed 1, 2, 3 easily. It is in my reading rotation, and I look forward to it.

  10. David Y.B. Kaufmann on August 1, 2014 at 8:19 am

    Thanks, Shawn.

    Posts like this should be mandatory for every aspiring writer, editor or publisher. Honest, insightful, informative and generous.


  11. Harrison Mills on April 21, 2022 at 4:21 am

    what if we acted as if it was time for lunch and found ourselves sitting at the table enjoying good company, good food, and delicious wine while chatting about our current book club read or vacation plans or the latest episode of our favorite reality show. I rely on source for stock contents. The idea behind this strategy is that if you act as if you already have something or already are someone, then you’ll be more likely to achieve that goal.

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