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Adopt A Startup Mentality For Your Books — By Dr. Sean Wise

Posted in: Understanding Publishing on March 30, 2015 Leave your thoughts 💬

Author Startup
“I think I’m the only person who has made the authors into Lego people”
At the Reedsy blog, we like to bring together the publishing world and the tech world. We think authors can learn a lot from entrepreneurs (and vice-versa), and today’s interview is dedicated to just that.

Dr. Sean Wise is a Canadian entrepreneur, investor, mentor and successful author. He just released his latest book, Startup Opportunities, that he co-wrote with Brad Feld. How do two of the most successful startup investors out there go about marketing their book? Sean shares their secrets on how they engage with readers (careful, it involves Lego figures).

He also gives his perspective on the changes the publishing industry is undergoing and on a few startups contributing to its disruption.

If you want to see him drive through Toronto in a cab, get out, and walk home — all while chatting with us — just play the video, it’s awesome. Else, the transcript is just below!

Dr. Sean Wise, it’s great to have you here. You’re a teacher at Ryerson university on entrepreneurship, are a mentor, advisor and investor, and have been involved with startups pretty much all your life, right? Could you give us a bit of background on that?

Absolutely! I was born very, very young, and I grew from there. At 13 I had an experience that confirmed to me that I would never make a good employee and I started my first business. I’m now 43 and I have started 5 of my own businesses, but for the most of my working career I’ve been a venture capitalist. So I’ve been an entrepreneur, a ‘funder’, a founder, a mentor, and all of that has been to accomplish one goal: to help entrepreneurs succeed. Help people fail faster, learn quicker, etc. All of my books to date have been around that topic.

That’s fantastic. And talking about your books, you wrote your first book and self-published it in 2007, back when digital publishing almost wasn’t a thing. Why did you choose the self-publishing route?

Well, I think you’d call it self-publishing. I had written a column for the Globe and Mail, which is a national newspaper in Canada, and at the end of a two-year run as a columnist on entrepreneurship, they asked if I’d like to wrap all the articles together, put a cover on it, and publish it. So they published it with me. It was “self-publishing” because we owned 100% of it, but it was edited and pushed out by a newspaper chain, so it was a very unique experience.

My second book was bought by a large publisher called Penguin: it was How To Be A Business Super Hero and it combined my love for comic books with my need to help people understand that business isn’t only about money.

For my third book, which came out three years ago, I went back to self-publishing. I published it with a magazine called Profit Magazine, and it’s another book about entrepreneurship called Hot or Not. In Canada (like in England) we have a version of that great TV show called Dragon’s Den (it’s now in 27 countries) and I spent 5 seasons working there to help entrepreneurs get the funding they needed to succeed.

Now, full circle for my latest book: FG Press is half self-publishing, half traditional publishing. It’s really a startup publishing brand that is trying to figure out what publishing isn’t doing well at all, and what can be done better.

Yes, FG Press is one of these actors that shows how exciting the publishing industry is in its current state. What is it that has changed, exactly, and how do you see it moving forwards?

Well, I’m not smart enough to talk about what everyone else is talking about, but I know what I am excited about, so I’ll focus on that. For many many years, the publishing industry has been pretty much like the music industry or the film industry: you had these experts; and these experts, whether they were editors or acquisitions people, were in charge of deciding what the world needed. Without an editor’s blessing, you couldn’t have a book: there was no one to publish or distribute it.

But like with most things, the internet has had a dramatic effect on the distribution portion of books. Now that books are digital, we know they’re just like Napster was for music: you can send them over email, you can move them digitally, you can read them on your phone, etc. So it’s made distribution a lot easier. Combine that with Amazon’s self-publishing tools, with Goodread’s ability to engage your authors, with Wattpad that can replace your editor with fans, and you really have eliminated the ability of one superstar sitting there and saying “your book isn’t good enough”.

Now, that’s a double-edged sword. Now that there is no longer some expert that you need to tell, there also is no filter, so the biggest problem with publishing today is that anyone can publish. So how do you get past that?

Exactly, and I think that’s a question for all forms of content in general, now that we have user-generated content, right?

Absolutely. So it’s not a matter of whether my book is good or not, it’s a matter of whether I can get into people’s funnel: “can I get them to think about my book, can I resonate with them?” as opposed to “can I get on the shelves at Barnes and Noble?”.

And that’s why it’s so important to build a readership before you publish your book. Which is exactly what you’re doing right now with Brad Feld. You’ve co-authored a book with him, Startup Opportunities, and you’re pretty much everywhere around the world talking about that book!

Yes, I’m surprised — but happily so —, it looks like we’re going to have a 20-city book tour. We started last week with 5 cities in Canada, and we’re going to move from there across the US, and who knows, if we’re blessed, we’ll even come to Europe!

We’re doing that to build a readership and to engage with our users. It’s very similar if you’re aware of The Lean Startup. That book says that before you sink millions and millions of dollars into building a product, check if anyone cares.

So before Brad and I got too deep in this book we started talking to readers, startups, just to ask them questions and to really understand what the need was. So we really based this book, Startup Opportunities, on the idea that people should not start stupid startups, that the problem isn’t just “how to start a company?”.

Before we even launched, we had sold 1500 copies. And I can only hope that that continues and that we’re able to find something that resonates with our readers.

What kind of out-of-the box marketing have you done for this book that could inspire other non-fiction authors out there?

I think I’m the only person who has made the authors into Lego people. So Brad and I have Lego people that will travel with us, and if people want to tweet a picture of us and them, they’ve got to tweet the little Lego people and whoever tweets that and gets the most retweets, will get their own Lego figures, custom-made for them.

I’ve never seen anyone make action figures out of authors and I thought that was kind of fun. So that was pretty unusual. The book tour is pretty standard, the Twitter is pretty standard. We did an infographics and a slideshare, too, which are now also pretty standard.

Where do you find your inspiration for all this?

I think the greatest thing about the transparency the internet allows, is that everyone can learn from everyone. So I wouldn’t want you to think that all these ideas are mine. I’ve stolen them from other successful authors. In fact, as a professor of entrepreneurship I teach that to my students: “steal with integrity and pride everywhere”. I try to give full attribution: I follow Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki, they’re sort of my “author idols”, and I try to see what they’re doing and learn.

But as far as I know, I am the only person who has a Lego version of Brad Feld and a Lego version of me.

And that’s really really cool. It’s actually the mindset that certain authors in publishing are missing: what could I do that would be cool for my readers, or cool in general?

I think, people look at Brad Feld and he’s got 5 or 6 bestsellers, he’s a multi-millionaire, a successful venture capitalist; but they don’t realise that his goal is still the same as every other author: to connect with the readers. All of these new tools are just ways to connect, and I think they’re fabulous because they cut out the middle person.

I agree. Talking about “new tools” if you had to find two startups in the publishing industry that you find particularly interesting and are going to follow closely, which would they be?

I’m a big fan of Goodreads. I know they’re owned by Amazon right now and that makes them not a startup, but I just think connecting your readers with your authors is so important.

If I couldn’t choose Goodreads, I might choose Wattpad. They’ve got about 25 million readers and allows authors to put manuscripts up and get feedback. I’m much more interested in what other founders think about my book than what my father thinks about my book. I want to hear directly from them. Amazing authors who have millions of readers are using Wattpad to engage with them and get their books even tighter. So Wattpad would be one.

I’m also another big fan of changing business models. So I found Netflix to be nice because it disrupted Blockbuster. And I think what Scribd is doing with comic books, audiobooks and digital books, this “all you can eat for $9.99”, is going to impact the business in a disruptive way. I used to buy my comic books every week at the comic book store. And then I evolved into the digital comic book store, called Comixology. Then, I moved from Comixology, when they got bought by Amazon, to directly purchasing from Amazon.

Now Scribd comes along, and it has over 100,000 comic books from Marvel, from Image, and all the things that I love, and instead of paying $30 a month in comic book sales, I pay $9,99. So it caters to another demographic. When I was young, for my birthday, I would always ask for some money for the comic book store. But now I don’t need that, I would ask for a subscription to Scribd, for $9.99.

These are part of this bigger ecosystem that’s developing and what I think is most interesting is that it’s developing exactly the same. iTunes is the same as Kindle. Netflix is the same as Next Issue for magazines or Oyster for books or Scribd for comic books.

So for me, if I look at the next 5 years, which is what I like to invest on — not companies that are amazing today, but companies that will be amazing in 2020 — I ask myself: what is the next revolution going to be? How do we emulate what’s going on in the music business in the book business? How can I increase my tour sales and keep my book sales up? How do I accept to give an album away for free?

Brad and I actually discussed whether we should do a “pay what you can” model. Radiohead did that for music and they made more money than they would have if they had sold at $9.99. Again, I think these things are still in flux, and we live in an unbelievable time, because every industry is changing, and publishing is just slow because it has very big anchor tenants.

Thank you so much for these insights, and for your time, Sean. I look forward to reading Startup Opportunities!

Follow Dr. Sean Wise and Reedsy on Twitter: @SeanWise and @ReedsyHQ

What kind of out-of-the-box marketing have you done for your book? How do you build your readership? Which publishing startups do you think are going to succeed? Leave us your thoughts, or any question for Sean, in the comments below!

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