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The Career Toolkit And A New Wave of Innovation in Publishing with Mark Herschberg
My guest is my good friend, Mark Herschberg. From tracking criminals and terrorists on the dark web to creating marketplaces and new authentication systems, Mark has spent his career launching and developing new ventures at startups and Fortune 500s and in academia. He helps to start the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, dubbed MIT’s career success accelerator, where he teaches this course annually. Mark and I met a few years ago at an event in Monterey, California, when he was thinking about writing a book.
Over the next couple of years, we had several conversations where I gave him a little advice here and there. In January of 2021, he released The Career Toolkit, where he shares invaluable skills for success. This is a great book for recent college grads who are entering the workforce or anyone who wants to see their career move up that ladder. At MIT, Mark received a BS in physics, a BS in electrical engineering and computer science, and a Master of Engineering in electrical engineering and computer science, focusing on cryptography.
I’m not an engineer or computer expert at all, but I’m hoping some of our readers understand what all of those things mean. At Harvard Business School, Mark helped create a platform used to teach finance at prominent business schools. I want you all to pay close attention here because his computer science background is going to be especially relevant for our interview. Mark will share a brilliant new marketing strategy for authors that involves using a unique app that he has created and is testing.
He also works with many nonprofits including Techie Youth and Plant A Million Corals. He was one of the top-ranked ballroom dancers in the country. I can attest to Mark’s ballroom dancing skills as I’ve had the privilege of doing a little swing dancing with Mark on more than one occasion. He lives in New York City where he is known for his social gatherings, including his Halloween party, as well as his diverse cufflink collection.
Welcome to the show, Mark.
Thank you for having me. It’s wonderful to be here with you.
It’s so great to have you here. It’s been a bummer with COVID. We haven’t been able to get together in person, but it’s exciting to have you here to talk about your book and also your new app. This is so exciting because, to me, I’m seeing an opportunity for authors that could be the wave of the future. The next wave of innovation in publishing. Before we get to all that, tell us a little bit about Mark Herschberg, who you are, and how you even got around to doing the gorgeous book of The Career Toolkit. Tell us a little bit about your background and what led to your book.
My background was not what you would expect to bring me here today. I graduated from MIT with a bunch of technical degrees. I was that classic MIT nerd who began doing programming and worked in brilliant startups. Early in my career, I recognized I wanted to move up and get into management and become a CTO. To do that, I said, “It’s not just about being the best programmer. I need other skills. I need leadership, team building and how to hire people.” No one ever taught me any of that, so I set out to learn it.
I discovered once I had begun to learn these skills, when I’d interview other people and ask them a question about leadership or communication, I get a blank stare because no one taught them either. I had to put together training material for my team, and then a funny thing happened. I heard MIT was starting to explore these issues as well. I reached out and said, “This is what I’ve been working on. If I can be of any help, I’m happy to do so.” They said, “Come on. Help us develop the course.” I did, and then they said, “Wy don’t you help us teach this as well?” I said, “Okay.” For the past twenty years or so, I’ve been teaching these skills at MIT. It was random how he went up there.
I forgot you’d been teaching it that long.
It seems like time has flown that I’ve been doing it. In fact, having done this for so long, I’ve been encouraging MIT to take this content and put it out there because I know it’s not just our students who need it. MIT has been good about putting content out there, but for various reasons, they never had time to do it. I’ve also encouraged them to give notes to our students because when our students learn these skills within the walls of MIT, that’s not where I want them to apply them. You do apply some of this, but they’re going to use it on their jobs. I said, “Let’s write up some notes for them.” That as well, we haven’t had time. I said, “I was flying around a lot for my job.”
This is all pre-COVID. I’m spending a lot of time in hotels and planes. I thought, “I’m going to just write up some class notes.” I thought I was going to write up twenty pages of notes, and then 20 pages became 30, became 50. At 100 pages, I thought, “This might be a book.” I first reached out to Dorie Clark because she is a master. I said, “Dorie, I’m writing a book. What do I do?” She gave me some great advice. I was also fortunate to have met you at Renaissance Weekends and you gave me great advice. The two of you and others helped steer me as I went on my journey for an unplanned book.
It came together beautifully and it is such a terrific resource, especially for people who are trying to build that foundation of their career and get some of that initial momentum. It doesn’t seem that long ago. It’s not easy to do. There are many golden nuggets of wisdom here. You then decided to make an app. Tell us about that journey, your thought process and what led you to that.
The initial seed came from talking to my neighbor. We’re in the hallway one day. We’ve known each other for a while and she does marketing. She said, “You should create an app to market your book.” I said, “Okay. It’s not a bad idea. What should the app do?” She said, “I don’t know. Create an app and sell a lot of books.” I said, “I didn’t think of that.” I sat there for a while thinking about what should this app do. Fortunately, I have a background not only in technology but also marketing and I even briefly ran a digital media company.
During this time, I spent a lot of time looking at the future of digital media and understanding how things were starting to change. That led to my thinking that books, movies, all our traditional content need to change. For the past couple of centuries since the printing press, we’ve given our content in a linear format. We said, “Here’s the book and everything you need is between these pages.” If we think about our fiction books and that experience, the best fiction books are not simply books. Yes, they get turned into movies. That’s every fiction registry. That’s where the big bucks are.
Think about Harry Potter and Star Wars. You have action figures. You have an entire universe. You have toys and games. You can go on a ride. You have virtual reality experiences. You’re saying to your audience it’s not just about reading about these characters within these pages, but it is experiencing them when, where, and how you want. For business authors, let’s think about this book. You can think about my book, an exercise book, a nutrition book, or any self-help book. Where do you read it? Sitting on your couch. Where do you use it? During COVID sitting on your couch.
We’re not leading from your couch. You’re not networking from your couch. You’re not going to be carrying this book with you, so we have to take that content and move it outside of the pages. The initial germination for this was thinking about my educational background, knowing how people learn. Spaced repetition is known to work. A fancy name for flashcards or learning it over and over again. I know whenever I read these books, I go, “What a great book. Good tips.” Three weeks later, you forget it.
What if we could reinforce this, but no one’s going to want to sit there with flashcards? We came up with an app. Imagine if you took a highlighter and went, “Here’s a good quote. Here’s a key point.” Put it into the app, but no one’s even going to want to open the app. If the app each day reminds you, so you get a pop-up, a little notification. Think of it as a daily affirmation. It’s one of the tips in the book and it helps to reinforce it. From the perspective of the reader, you get better retention of the content and better value. You can also open it up.
If you’re going to a networking event, you’re not carrying my book. “Open this up and quickly swipe through it.” It’s a little like Tinder that way. You can swipe through it. You can search for a tip. From the perspective of the author, not only are you helping your reader more, which of course, is our primary goal but now you’re also staying top of mind. If you want to get that word-of-mouth marketing, are they going to think about a book they read six months ago? Are they going to think about a book that every day pops up on their phone and reminds them about your book? It’s a win for both sides.
I’m even thinking of my book, How to Write a Book That Sells You. One of the hardest things as you know for someone who’s thinking about writing a book is to get themselves to start. Sometimes, it’s a daily reminder. Even if it’s not, “Have you started yet? How about now?” It’s an inspirational tip that helps remind the reader of what they want. They picked up your book because they wanted something. That daily tip is a way for them to remember what they want.Books themselves need to change. We have to move the content outside of the pages. Click To Tweet
That’s a great point. One thing I’ve never liked about a lot of the business books I’ve read is you say, “I read 200 pages. That could have been 30. A couple of points and a lot of filler.” There are historical reasons why we’ve needed that filler that is starting to go away, but I didn’t want to do that. I want to make sure there was value continuously throughout the book. If you want to approach it that way, start by writing, “Here are all the tips. Here’s what they’re getting for chapter 1, chapter 2, and so on.”
Put that all down if you’re writing the bullet points, the tips that can go into the app. You say, “Now I’ve got my outline, and now I can fill it out.” I didn’t plan on building this. I thought I would license it. Someone must have done this. I was shocked that they didn’t. When I came up with it, I patented it, but then I also built a white label version because I know other authors can benefit. It’s not just my book. Other authors in the future are going to need to do something like this.
Tell me more about the white label version? Is this something that would be available to readers right now or is this still in development? Give us a scoop, Mark.
It’s ready. It’s early. For example, I don’t have an automatic billing setup for it. I don’t have a lot of analytics set up, but I can certainly start getting other authors to do this. I want to get some people on the platform and start to use this and get certainly input, “What other things haven’t I thought of?” This is going to be a key piece of selling our books. One important question is, what does this mean for my sales? I’m sure there’s going to be a debate. I suspect most traditional publishers will balk at this idea. They’re going to say, “If you’re giving it away, no one’s going to buy the book.”
From my perspective, from having done things like this before, I’m sure someone out there is going to say, “I’m just going to get the app. I can’t afford the $20-some for the book.” That’s fine. If that price point was going to be high for them, it was going to be a tough sell anyway. Realistically, if you’re looking at the tips, they’re not going to be as meaningful when you’re scanning through going, “This and this.” It’s that context they’re in, in the chapters where you get the stories, the setup, and how these things fit together. That’s a real value. You can get some value on your own.
I don’t even think publishers would push back on this. Think about a TV interview where you might sit down and give ten tips from your book or even five tips from your book. You’re right. Without the full context, the example story, setup, and follow-through, the tip is just a tip, but it does ignite the interest of the audience that’s most likely to buy the book.
The improved word-of-mouth marketing more than offsets any handful of people who might say, “I’m going to do this instead of buying the book.”
Is the app free then for users? Is it a subscription? What are you thinking of your business model? I love that we’re on the cutting edge here at The Author’s Corner. I just want to acknowledge that.
It’s likely going to be a subscription model. One of the things I have to figure out, there’s an interesting question. My app is a standalone app. It’s branded to show my book cover and it’s got my imagery from the book. We can talk about that. That’s an interesting thing I do as well. It’s branded just for my book. There’s a question of whether people are going to want to download for each particular book, yet another app, and have twenty apps on their phones.
One other way we can go and this is the way I’m likely to go, is doing a Kindle-like version where they say, “I’m reading Robin’s book. I’m going to download the tips from her book. I’m now reading Mark’s.” You download his tips and you can have multiple tips on there. You can remove or turn on whichever ones you want. That’s also going to allow, especially newer authors who want to get attention because we can then start doing things like people who read Robin’s book also read these other books. We can do some promotions by putting them all into one single app.
People are getting tips with this app. What are you calling this tips notifications app?
I don’t yet have a good brand name for it, so I’m open to suggestions.
I see what you mean. It would be a platform, so the user could select which books they want to get tips from based on their preferences. It sounds like they wouldn’t necessarily have to buy the book to get the tips. They would just have access to that portal where they could choose a book to get tips from.
Now, we only support free. Later on, we’re going to have a potential feature if there’s demand for it is certain tips that might be paid-only.
The platinum club or the platinum tips. It would be a great way to sell the book because if you’re just getting the tips, you’re like, “This looks interesting. I’ll get the tips for a week.” The person might say, “I’m getting a lot of value from these tips. I’m going to go get the book.” That’s more likely, frankly.
It’s a good try before you buy. You get your inset. There are other things that we can do in the future. We, as authors, think about our social media platform and how we want to reach all these people. You might have 20,000 followers, but how many are actively paying attention to anything you post? How many are engaged? Here, you’re in their pocket. You can be popping up every day. You have direct engagement with your audience. Hopefully, in the future, I’ll have a laundry list of features like notifications, “I have booked two coming out. Notify everyone who has these tips.” Now you have full attention for just a moment about your next book.
That’s brilliant. What a powerful tool for authors. I love that it’s a win-win. The reader wins, the author wins, and the publisher wins, too. It’s so smart. How much longer do we have to wait? How many more guinea pigs do you need?
I would like to get a handful of beta users, by which I mean authors, to come on and try it out. I’m happy to have you because I have gotten so much great advice from you during the process. We’ve got to get that out to other people. Getting a few people on so we can try it out and see what works and see what’s valuable to the authors and to the readers.
How exciting. It seems like the next frontier of publishing.
Ultimately, as authors, we are selling our ideas and we have to make our ideas available when, where, and how our audience wants them. The fact that it’s been between two covers on printed pages is simply for historical reasons. That was the only technology we had centuries ago. We’ve moved on and yes, now we can do TV, video, podcasts, and Zoom calls. We’re changing how we’re delivering the information. This is the next step in that evolution.In some ways publishing is dying and in some ways it isn’t. What it needs to do is evolve. Click To Tweet
I’m curious because it also seems to me that it could be a jumping-off point. I don’t know why, but I’m especially thinking of people in the health and fitness space because there’s so much instruction around nutrition and workout. It seems like the tips could be the first step, but that could be a jump-off point where the author could even develop an entire app that was related to their content and helping the reader use it away from the book.
Especially for fitness and nutrition, it’s timing. There are these stretch apps. “You’ve been sitting on your computer for two hours. We’re going to tell you to get up right now.” You can imagine similar types of apps with more advanced functionality that would do things like see what you’re doing and see where you are. It might recognize your location. Are you at work or are you at home and give you different tips based on that? If you’re still in the office at 8:00 at night, it might be giving you a different set of tips than if you’re at home.
I love how you married your technology background with your author aspirations and you’re creating this whole new thing. What does that like for you? I would imagine that’s probably fun or cool. What are some of your thoughts when you recognized that you could bring these two worlds together in this way?
That was exciting and that’s what I’ve enjoyed doing throughout my life. My background, I was first trained as a physicist, but I also studied political science and I have degrees in computer science. I worked in tech startups. I’ve done a lot of marketing. I’m a de facto HR person at every company. This book is about people skills I teach. It’s a whole bunch of different things. I remember having a moment years ago in college when we had been learning about the icing model in physics. That’s the model for magnetic materials, and how you have all these tiny atoms that are magnetic and how they align. Nearby ones influence the other ones and you get the consistency to get everything pointing in one direction and magnetic.
Around the same time, within a week or so of that lecture, I was learning within political science about a certain type of voting model where people come together in small groups. It’s similar to a caucus model. Small groups come together and then they align in a certain direction. That group then goes on to a bigger group and they align. In the end, you get a final result. I remember thinking, “This sounds similar. In fact, I’ll bet I can use the same math to model them.” I realized that there’s this concept of cross-functionality. We can take ideas from one discipline and put them in another.
I’m not the first to think of that. In fact, the famous Black-Scholes option pricing model came because there are these two finance guys who were trying to figure out how to price options. They met Bob Merton, who was a mathematician, and Bob said, “Here’s how heat transfer works. We can use the same equation,” and then trillions of dollars later, we now know how to price options. Taking ideas from one discipline and move it to another, I love doing that. I love taking my background in technology and marketing and now applying it to media.
There’s still this buzz that publishing is on the way out. Books are dead and publishing is becoming obsolete. I’m curious to know your take on this in light of some of the things we’ve been talking about.
In some ways, it is. In some ways, it isn’t. When I began this process of creating my book, I spent a lot of time researching how publishing works. I read about 1,500 articles. Everything I could find on how to pick a trim size, how to think about cover design, how to think about finding an agent, and every little thing. I keep a list of about 200 that were useful articles. I now keep online. I want to understand every aspect. When I looked at the financials of publishing, “What’s the financial model?” It’s the same as the VC model. In my world of VCs, VC says, “You’re a company and you’re making money. I’m going to bet on you. Here’s $1 million. Hopefully, you’ll spin straw into gold, come with something good.”
“We probably have to do that a few more times. You’ll need more rounds of funding, and then you’ll be a $1 billion company and I’ll make a great return.” We know with VCs, it’s referred to as the Hollywood hits model because you’re going to get 1 or 2 big hits. You’re going to get one Google out of every twenty investments. You’ll get a couple of, “That was a decent company,” and most are going to fail. You’re betting you can pick enough big winners to offset all the other losses. What happens in publishing? You’re going to have a handful of books. There are some guaranteed ones.
We knew Obama’s book was going to sell. They could even predict how many and do the math odd. When you take, for example, JK Rowling, no one knew it would do well, but she is the Google of the publishing world. When people hope they get those books and you get those runaway hits, you hope for even, “Here’s a decent book. We sold 50,000 copies.” That was good, but we know most in publishing, you’re going to sell a couple of thousand books and you might even do worse than that if it’s not selling well. Those are your losses.
You need to have enough winners to offset that. It’s the same model, except the numbers are lower and it’s a single shot. When you look at this and you say, “The cost of production has come down.” Years ago, I needed to buy or rent a printing press, which now I don’t need. Just with a word processor, I can type something out and do some spell checking. I should do a little more than that, but it didn’t. I go to Kindle publishing and book KDP and I am online. I should probably get a cover design, too, but I can get that for $50 online. There’s my book. The cost of publication has dropped. If you do it right, it should probably still be at least a few thousand.
Now that upfront cost has dropped, so then what’s the trade-off? The trade-off is if you’re an author, it’s as much work or more to market your book than it is to write it. What the publishers do is they’ll handle these upfront costs. They’ll pay for your editing and they’ll pay for cover design. The question is how much marketing are they putting in? What I’ve been hearing is it’s less and less every day. If it’s on you to market, if you’re putting in that effort, then the trade-off of having them pay for that upfront cost versus capturing most of the returns, is that a good trade-off for you? If you’re doing the work of marketing, maybe you should pay that upfront cost. That’s what’s eating into traditional publishing.
I’ll throw a couple of things on top of that. First of all, you’re right. 80% to 90% of traditionally published books do not earn back the advance that the publisher paid them to write it. You’re absolutely right that the majority are losers when it comes to the ROI for the publisher. Definitely, part of the consideration of whether to go traditional or self-published is what you’re getting back on the book sales. Royalty is less than getting most of the cover price depending on where you’re selling your book. I always say it should be a strategic decision and part of the strategy is, does your message require that you have that big brand behind your book? Is it the prestige itself of having that traditional publisher is what you’re looking for more than the money from the sales?
It’s interesting because the big challenge for publishers is that it’s educated gambling and you comparing it to VC is even more accurate than my analogy. It would be wonderful for publishers to have another way to offset some of that risk like this app idea where people can get exposure to a new book, get excited about it and get some word-of-mouth going. Part of what’s going to keep publishing from becoming obsolete, the big thing is people love books and they’re not going to want to stop reading books. That’s been well-established. We’ve had eBooks for how long? How many people do you know who are like, “I still want my print book. I spent all day looking at a screen. The last thing I want to do is read a book on a screen?”
You hit the other side of the coin there. We talked about economics. The economic advantage to going with a traditional publisher for your book royalty is has increased but as you point out, the first thing you need to ask as an author is, what are your goals? Because selling copies may not be your goal. Certainly, making money from a book is usually not the goal, not from book sales. The question is, does that book let you do something else? Improve your consulting business, become a thought leader, and lead to more opportunities. That’s where books are valuable.
This is where publishers need to evolve and say, “We are in the business of ideas.” It used to be ideas get out through books. This is the best way because years ago, you didn’t even travel often. It was through books. Now that we are conveying these ideas through other mechanisms, the publisher needs to expand. Whether they’re doing things like the app or doing things like promoting you and promoting your brand and probably taking a piece of the larger brand along with it, publishers need to evolve and be not in the business of selling books, but of selling content, however that content may come forth. That’s where they can add a lot of value but it means rolling back in that marketing and PR part that they’ve given up.
They still do it for sure. When it comes to that marketing and PR investment, they are going to tend to put more into the books where they made a bigger investment in the first place a lot of times as well. They’re going to bet on the horses that they are counting on to win, so to speak. Another interesting aspect of the app, which I’ll be curious to see that could be a potential game-changer. One of the things that’s become clear to publishers much to their chagrin is that there’s no evidence that a huge social media following translates to book sales. I’m wondering, how do you see this idea of having this app with the tips? Do you think that that could potentially have an influence over how well books sell for people with strong social media platforms?
It can. I’m not an expert on social media marketing for books, but social media faces the challenge that there are billions of people on social media with messages. People are following hundreds of other people and brands. There are all these messages. There’s a lot of noise out there. It is hard to stand out. It’s hard to get your message out. The people who do are your superfans. They’re the big followers. They’re the ones who say, “I want to see Robin’s post.” Those people are often on your mailing list. On the mailing list, you have a 100% share of voice.
If they open it.
When they’re looking at it, they go, “I’m focused on this email,” but that’s one of the hundreds of emails and we all go, “That’s our monthly letter,” or whatever.Publishers need to be in the business of selling content, however that content may come forth. Click To Tweet
“I should read that one day.”
One day, the app might suffer the same thing, but right now, it is a new channel. There’s not a lot of noise and yet, you are getting a handful of pop-ups, but most of the pop-ups are things that you initiated. They’re things where you said, “It’s my calendar alert or maybe it’s something from some other app.” It’s a handful of apps you’re choosing whether you’re saying, “I do want to get every tweet because I work in media.” The rest of us who don’t, say, “I don’t want to know about every tweet that comes out.” With this app, because it’s going to be most likely once a day, we might allow for people to set more, but they can control how much they get. You’re going to get a lot of attention because it’s not going to be a lot of noise. Early on, in the first couple of years, this is going to be powerful in reaching effectively your superfans.
That’s something interesting, too, because, I could see somebody who’s built their social platform being able to use that. One of the reasons why social media leaders don’t necessarily perform well in book sales is that people who spend a lot of time on social media aren’t necessarily readers or they’re not necessarily reading books, but they may be totally down for getting some tips through the app. When they get that initial value, then that’s a whole different conversation as far as getting the book.
It’s putting in that bite-sized content that we’re attuned to on social media.
Do you know what else occurred to me? I couldn’t even imagine having the rights to the app could be something a publisher could buy from the author.
It’s to know where this falls into media rights.
The rule into the book deal is that the publisher gets the app rights and then whatever would be earned. If the app was sold for $1 or whatever, the publisher would get a percentage of every app that was sold for that book or every book tips that were sold. It’s like audiobook rights. That’s one of the things they buy.
This goes to that concept that publishers need to say it’s about the content. Publishers should get a piece of all the different parts of the content but in exchange for marketing and promoting the content across all platforms.
Also, bigger advances or whatever and that’s what happens. The agent negotiates like, “Here are all the rights that are available.” A publisher can buy the world rights, so then they can resell the right to publish your work in different languages in different countries. They can buy the audiobook rights. They can buy the movie rights and then they turn around and resell all that. Why not buy ‘whatever Mark Herschberg app is going to be called’ rights? Mark, what have I not asked you about this whole picture that I should have asked?
We should talk about how I did the market research on the title and how I’m using the iconography across channels.
Let’s talk about the research on the title.
One thing I stumbled into and this comes from my background doing marketing, is I thought, “I knew the title I wanted or at least thought I wanted.” One thing you have to do is search for the availability of domain names. It’s always a challenge but I thought, “I’d just get a little feedback on it.” I created a simple survey form. You can do it with Google for free. I created two panels. I had the panel of who my target users were and I had my panel of friends. I specifically separated it because it was nice to get feedback from my friends, but my friends aren’t my target users necessarily.
I want to make sure to keep my target users there, but feedback from everyone can be useful. For my title, for my subtitle, and later as we looked at covers, I would send out a survey. For my friends, I post on Facebook. For others on my mailing list, I say, “Here are ten titles. Here’s what I’m thinking of.” I put out there and all they had to do is, “Check all that you liked or pick your top three, or however to do it. Any comments? Anything you want to want to say or note.” I got a lot of great feedback. It takes people a handful of seconds. This is easy to set up. Almost no cost to you. Just a little bit of time.
I thought, “This is great. My friends are helping me. I appreciate it they’re giving me something,” but it also built some loyalty. Granted, among my friends, they were probably going to buy the book and support me anyway, but a lot of them wrote to me and said, “It’s great with your book coming out. It was wonderful to see the process to feel like I was part of it.” Especially if you have your social media following, if you have a group of people, you can engage them this way. They’re going to feel connected to the book and they’re going to feel like they contributed.
That’s going to increase their excitement about your book, increase the sales, increase their ability or their likelihood of retreating and promoting your book. Engage your audience, get feedback, be sure you have your clear target market and then everyone else. In cases where they both agreed, it was like, “This is clearly the right thing to do.” If they disagreed, “We’ll lean a little more towards my target market.” You can do it for any aspect of your book, the cover design, outline or chapter title. Engage your audience.
That is great advice.
When I first started out, I was feeling frustrated. I was having trouble with my initial editor who ultimately dropped out of the project. This is a big setback, so I went out to Fiverr and I found a whole bunch of people. I paid them about $10 each and said, “Here’s the concept. Give me a cover design.” I wasn’t expecting a great cover from Fiverr, but for a little over $100, I got a whole bunch of different designs. I said, “Carte blanche. Come up with wherever you want.” That was great for getting all sorts of different ideas coming back to me cheap. I did get a professional designer and with that designer, she and her team came up with a bunch of designs as well.
This was the one that was a clear winner. Both sets of my panel said, “We liked this design best.” It was this generic as you saw with the icons, the clip-arty businessy people. I said, “I’m good with going with this.” It wasn’t my first choice, but I also know I am not a design expert. I knew where my limitations were and I listened to the market. I said, “We’re going to go with this. I’m good with that.” I said, “If we do it, I want to make the icons relevant to the content. If it was just about making it relevant to the content on the cover, that’s nice, but how important is it?”
What we do is each chapter has a theme. There’s networking, negotiating, communication, and leadership. Each one has a corresponding icon. All the icons are on the cover. Each chapter has an icon with it. Within the app, when you go to the communication category, you don’t have to read communication, you recognize the icon. When I do social media posts, we use iconography for whatever the theme of the post is. I’m rolling out a blog. Blog categories? They’re going to use that iconography. I’ve added in a couple of others that are similar in iconography.
When I go and do talks, I use the same iconography on the slides. What this is doing is creating consistent branding because our content is not just between the pages of the book. Our content is in any channel we want and you want to be consistent in your messaging. Most of us were consistent. “Here’s the catchphrase. Here’s the tagline. Here’s what I’m known for.” You can do that visually with iconography. You can do it with your cover. You can do it with lots of different things. You want to make sure as you go multi-channel, you are consistent in your branding.Your cover isn’t going to sell your book, but if it’s bad, people aren’t even going to look at the content. Click To Tweet
That’s brilliant how you did the cover design and creative, too. I had never seen anyone use icons in the way that you have. It also seems so appropriate to you and your style. Also, it’s elegant coverage. I hope our readers go and get your book and hold it, even if you don’t read it because it feels so professional. Some books scream self-published. Some books scream like, “This wasn’t a traditional book deal.” Your book has the right look and feel. It makes you want to read it. This is a big deal. That consistency with the icons drives it home. What I’m trying to say is it’s clear you didn’t skimp on production. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that. Tell the readers a little bit about your production path because you definitely had a few things to deal with.
It’s true that people do judge books by your cover. The thing is your cover isn’t going to sell your book. Your cover might catch their attention, but if the content isn’t good, no sale. If your cover is bad, they’re not even going to look at the content. All these little production things can only hurt you. A great example is picking your font. I never thought about fonts before I started to research. You have to choose a font. No one knows this font. You’ve never thought about the fonts in your book unless you happen to be a font or layout person. You’ve never noticed it because it’s just there and it works. If it was a bad font, you’d notice that you say, “I’m having a bad experience on this book,” but the good font doesn’t help. “You should get this book. This has such a beautiful font.”
A bad font can hurt you. You know it’s a good font if no one notices the font.
All these aspects of production. It is not just your cover design, but even the physical cover. Is it well done? Is the binding well done?
That’s what I’m saying. The quality of the paper is exquisite. It’s thoughtfulness every step.
You do have to pay attention to this. This is about being an entrepreneur. If you’re an entrepreneur and starting your own company, what are you doing? You can’t necessarily do everything yourself, but you have to pay attention. You can’t just say to your accountant, “Make sure everything’s paid.” You have to check-in. Budget looking like, “How are you doing? What’s our cashflow position?” In marketing, “How many leads are we getting? What’s the cost per lead? Is this working for us?” You’re not doing the work, but you better pay attention, supervise and understand.
That’s true of this process. The layout was unfortunately a challenge. It took us three months. I was not happy with the layout. Whereas cover design, beautiful job. We spent a lot of time going back and forth on the cover tweaking it, but we were moving forward. With layout, it’s something else you never notice. My book turned out to be a little challenging for our layout process. I didn’t even know this from the start. In addition to words, we have section headings. There are sections and subsections and that impacts the layout.
I also have a lot of footnotes. I prefer footnotes over endnotes because I hate flipping to the end to go find them but that impacts it and I had to look at every single page, “How’s this looking? Is there too much white space or not enough white space?” Unfortunately, their own quality control process I wasn’t happy with towards the end because every time a change was made, I’d get all the sheets to sign off on.
I remember one time, all of a sudden, we’re near the end. At the end of chapter nine, normally, you have the left word and then white space. All of a sudden, there was chapter ten. Starting with the drop cap, that thing where it starts the chapter. I eyeballed the page and clearly, this was not appropriate. No one was checking. You have to be on top of every aspect. If you self-publish or if you go a traditional route, if it’s a big house, “They’re probably Harper Collins. They know how to do this.” If it’s a smaller house, if they’re not as experienced, you may want to put in your contract that you want to review the stuff, that you want to have certain rights.
They will review it. They let you on the review. This is important, too, because I remember you reached out to me once because they were telling you something was fine and you were like, “I don’t think it’s fine.” You reached out to me and I was like, “That’s not fine,” or I said it was fine.
If I remember right, it was how we did lists. For example, when I talk about leadership. Within the leadership chapter, there are the sections then subsections. I had a list of, “Here’s a bunch of topics. Here are ten different things to think about leadership.” I saw that as you’re 1 down, 2 down. This is three layers down. They saw it as, “This is the list. This is one layer from the bottom.” Whether you’re 3, 4, or 5 down, I would have said it should be a different font because you’re level 4 versus level 5. They said, “No. You’re one up from the bottom. You’re two up from the bottom.”
That’s how they went with it. I remember I reached out to you and I couldn’t even find any documentation on this in all these 1,500 articles. No one talked about it. Thankfully, I have someone like you I could turn to, to know and get that input and get that feedback. I ultimately said, “No, this is fine,” and I went with it. That’s the level of detail you should be paying attention to if you want to put out an A-plus quality product. That’s why you need people. If you haven’t done this before, you need to trade people like Robin who have done it, who can be there to say, “What about this?” “Here’s how to think about it.”
That’s why I was bringing it up because it’s not even just about paying attention. Sometimes, it’s also good, if something seems wrong, to find someone that would know. Especially if you’ve been struggling with a provider and you don’t necessarily trust all their answers because you’ve been burned by some of their answers before or whatever. To have somebody to reach out to be able to say, “Is this okay or is this something that I need to make them fix?”
I want to share the best advice they think you gave me. I don’t know if I said this to you before. After my first editor dropped out, she said, “It needs too much work.” It killed me because I sent her the full manuscript prior to the contract and said, “Look it over. Give me a quote.” She should have looked it over and she should not have caught off guard. She said, “It needs too much work.” That sent me into a panic because I thought, “Am I a horrible writer? I’ve been fooling myself and I am so bad.”
Thankfully, I went to an editor I used to work with a company and I went to a friend of ours who is a literary agent and I said to both of them, “Can you look over a couple of pages and tell me, is this trash?” They both said, “No, you’re fine. Yes, you need an editor. We all do. We’re at the right point. This is good enough. You’re at the editor’s point.” I said, “Why is this throwing me?” You looked at and you had a great insight because, in my chapters, I go into a lot of different, “I think about leadership and this and that sort of thing.”
It can feel a little disjointed. I do try and make transitions, but still, it’s a lot of A, B, C, D within it. You said, “Add an introduction.” I would sometimes add as little as two paragraphs that laid out the chapter and set it up. That made such a huge difference. This editor, who had 30-some years of experience doing business books, this was her area but she didn’t see it. She said, “This is wrong.” Maybe you could argue that’s a developmental issue, but with 30 years of experience, you think she would have identified something like that or have seen it before. It was great to have that outside perspective that you brought and that made a huge difference in the book.
Even when I’m working on a book with a client and we’re going to the traditional publisher, I look forward to when their editors read it. I hope that they’re going to have some ideas for how we can make it even better because if there’s one thing about writing a book that’s always true is that it’s an iterative process. Nobody’s first draft is worth anything. It takes multiple drafts to get it dialed in, to the point that it’s ready to go. We’ve turned in excellent manuscripts and they always have some ideas to make it even better and that’s important.
It’s funny throughout the process. I remember when I did the first I’ll say final draft where I did my internal ads, I looked and thought, “This is great,” and then a few weeks later, I remember thinking, “This is garbage. I can’t be able to read this.” A few weeks later, “This is great.” A few weeks later, “This is garbage.” Partially based on feedback, partially based on just my own blindness of like, “This is obvious” because I’ve read and reread this twenty times. It needs all those different outside perspectives because you lose yours completely.
The closer you get to done, the harder it is to have that perspective. Mark, I cannot believe how this time has flown by. What thought would you like to leave our readers with?
If you were thinking about doing a book, don’t think of it as a book. Think of it as you have content that you want to get out. The book is a key part of that strategy. It might be the centerpiece of your strategy. It might be a stepping stone to your larger strategy. Understand what that strategy is. If you’re not used to doing this, get an expert like Robin. Get someone who can talk you through it, who can help you figure out what that strategy is, how the book fits into it, what other things will fit into it before after concurrent with the book. You can then generate the content and think about that content not for the book, but for this multi-channel presence. How when you pitch your book, you’re saying it up as one part of this larger strategy that’s going to make it much more appealing whether it’s to a publisher, an agent, or just as part of your overall strategy for your own personal branding.
Thank you again for joining us.
Thanks for having me. It’s been a real pleasure.
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About Mark Herschberg
From tracking criminals and terrorists on the dark web to creating marketplaces and new authentication systems, Mark has spent his career launching and developing new ventures at startups and Fortune 500s and in academia. He helped to start the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, dubbed MIT’s “career success accelerator,” where he teaches annually.
At MIT, he received a B.S. in physics, a B.S. in electrical engineering & computer science, and an M.Eng. in electrical engineering & computer science, focusing on cryptography. At Harvard Business School.
Mark helped create a platform used to teach finance at prominent business schools. He also works with many non-profits, including Techie Youth and Plant A Million Corals. He was one of the top-ranked ballroom dancers in the country and now lives in New York City, where he is known for his social gatherings, including his annual Halloween party, as well as his diverse cufflink collection.