Motivational Cliches Aren’t Business Models

Snake Oil shading and coloring by opacity
Snake Oil shading and coloring by opacity

“If the people who make the decisions are the people who will also bear the consequences of those decisions, perhaps better decisions will result.”

John Abrams, The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community and Place

I hate pundits.

[ETA: Maybe I should have said I hate Twitter? Update at the end of the  post.]

Whether in politics, sports or publishing, on radio, TV or Twitter, they’re the know-it-alls who usually have no skin in the game, no accountability and, worse, no interest in seeing the big picture. They love to hear themselves talk, to offer their opinions on how things should be done, and to stir things up just to see what happens.

They also tend to love motivational quotes, dropping them into their speeches, and blogs, and tweets as if they were offering actionable advice and original insights; precious wine from water for the thirsty!

“Meh,” I say. “Meh.”

One of my favorite memes these days is that eBooks are teh future, and that publishers who aren’t jumping on the bandwagon are… well, stupid and deserve to go out of business. Most of these Ann Caterwaulers and Glenn Blechs of publishing have little to no real experience actually working in publishing, nor any public recognition that, as Richard Curtis noted, “Ebook publishing is fiendishly complicated.”

“The people running a new venture need to be free to do what’s best for that business, regardless of the potential impact on the old.”

@BookOven [see update below for attribution]

That tweet annoyed me when I first saw it, but it wasn’t until it was RTd that I got really pissed off and said something. (And another thing. And another.)

It was partly because of its cavalier dismissal of “the potential impact” — aka, collateral damage, people losing their jobs and livelihoods; not unlike eminent domain — but also because it’s the kind of broad, meaningless statement pundits love that lacks any nuance and rakes in the speaking fees. As if there’s no difference between a pure start-up and an established company transforming its core business.

What’s “best for that business” can’t be looked at in a vacuum unless it’s wholly self-supporting, and most “new venture” revenues in publishing tend to represent a fraction of the “old”, while being completely dependent upon its continued existence to grow.

I’m all for aggressive transformation and strategically seizing upon new opportunities, especially when the old ways have become increasingly less profitable, and I would go crazy working for a publisher that refused to acknowledge that times are changing fast. It seems like there are a lot of them, but only they know what internal discussions are and aren’t happening, and what “fiendish” complications lie in their path.

The Internet is littered with companies that tried to run before they could walk.

In his notes from Clay Shirky’s lecture at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, Ryan Chapman noted some of the more interesting issues related to ebooks that go way beyond the topics du jour of pricing, prioritization and piracy:

But what will define ebooks two years from now will be the nth level changes, such as: What new tools will we use now that author/book discoverability is on par with the crowded field of blogs and the rest of the internet? Which literary forms will pop up with such a low barrier to entry for writers to find their micro-communities? With an increase in noise, will the value of editors increase as the value of authorship decrease? Etc.

Every publishers’ digital challenges are going to be different. Some are much further behind the curve than others; some are able to make adjustments much faster than others. There are no magic bullets, no one-size-fits-all solutions, no motivational quotes that will alter reality and simplify the transition.

As such, the gleeful snipers with all of the answers taking potshots from their comfortable armchairs get really tiresome after awhile, especially when they have no skin in the game, and they’re not going to be held accountable for their ideas when they result in another round of layoffs or outright bankruptcy.

Decisions that are made “regardless of the potential impact” are, as Abrams implied, rarely made by those who would actually “bear the consequences of those decisions”.

UPDATED: Thanks to Mark for passing along the link for the source of the quote @Bookoven posted that indirectly sparked this post, John Temple’s insightful “Lessons from the Rocky Mountain News“. It’s a worthwhile read that largely falls into the “hindsight is 20/20” category and doesn’t qualify as the kind of punditry I was ranting about in this post; there’s also some clear takeaways for those in book publishing to mull over.

The point Temple was making in the quote, though, was related to the particularly complicated issues of unionization in the newspaper industry, and it’s really a subordinate point to the larger (and much more important) questions of strategy and purpose: “You have to have a strategy and you have to be committed to pursuing it.”

My core argument still stands: the new doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the rules are very different for a start-up than for an existing company trying to transform itself.

Also, pundits (and Twitter) should be taken with a huge grain of salt!

28 thoughts on “Motivational Cliches Aren’t Business Models

  1. Guy, thsi is a fantastic post.

    I'm WELL aware that it could, in fact, be aimed directly at me. I have, after all, no “skin in the game”, and I DO take pot shots. I guess I'll leave it to others to decide whether I'm one of teh good guys or the bad guys, but what I DO share is your frustration with the unsubstantiated.

    I may not have any background in publishing, but I DO have a background as a retail buyer and seller. And I AM a writer. The fact that I'm not “on the inside” doesn't mean my livelihood as a writer isn't at stake too (whether I get a chance to have one at all).

    I must admit my frustrations come from a different angle from yours. The two things that really get my goat are protectionism against people trying to carve out a living for themselves (as newbs, OUR living as paid content producers is just as relevant as that of people already paid to do it – the fact we're not currently paid for it is by the by – we have to do something we don't love for a day job and try to get outr writing heard;the fact that others don't have to doesn't mean they couldn't. We're not ALWAYS talking livelihoods [that's over-emotove] – we're talking livelihoods doing the thing they love – no one is actually saying tehre aren't table-waiting jobs for them to do same as we have to do now. The people I DO feel sorry for, same as with banking are the collaterals – those people who do the filing and teh cleaning and the maintenance in teh publishers' buildings).

    The second thing that frustrates me are all the social issues that just get swept under the carpet.

    I whiolly agree with your observations about Curtis. The interesting questions are the ones about gatekeeping and communities, and visibility – and the whole interrelation of creativity, interactivity and passivity. The problem is that to get these issues heard at all, even as tiny breakout sessions we have to use the “big debates” as loss leaders to draw people to the conference. But I would say, Guy, that amongst the writers I know, it's those interesting issues we talk about in our e-mails and our private Facebook groups. We want to be part of the long-term future, and that means getting under the skin of the issue.

    “Decisions that are made “regardless of the potential impact” are, as Abrams implied, rarely made by those who would actually “bear the consequences of those decisions”.” Very true, but I think the debate needs more nuance as to just who DOEs bear the consequences. It's the poet in Sao Paolo, the grandmother passing on stories in a dying Sami dialect, and it's the new authors for whom industry protectionsim means a life waiting tables as well as the editor who loses their job (and in answer to Curtis – the future is flat – editors of the future will be consultants) at the publishing house. The problem is these are hidden casualties. The jobless totals aren't.

    In conclusion: you ask for more subtlety and nuance to the debate. I'm with you, but asking for a little more still.

  2. Doesn't the intersection of art and commerce necessitate this inherent conflict? Doesn't the lag in newspaper sales and the conundrum of paying for journalistic content also intersect with the problem that the mainstream, commercialized publishing industry will continue to pump out soulless, uncreative mush but that the creatives will not make a dime?
    This isn't a new problem. There are more voices, louder voices, more platforms for the same voices to bark on and on about the same, hackneyed ideas but in a different costume this time around.
    Without creatives, we would have no culture. Like a good drink, the most successful bartenders dilute them with ice and sweet juices. So does the mainstream take the creatives and dilute their art into palatable content. Always, have, always will.
    We aren't going to change the world with free, or paid, content, regardless of how many talking heads there are out there yammering on about new ways to publish content.

    Great post!

  3. Actually, Dan, I consider you as someone who DOES have skin in the game. You're an author practicing what you preach, not a pundit just throwing around theories, and your perspective is a valuable one.

    And your point about the poet in Sao Paolo is one that rarely gets addressed in the digital debate. Did you see this WaPo article from last week: “Access to News Wildly Unequal in U.S., Study Says” ( It notes that the real digital divide is unequal access to the “free flow of information,” not free information itself.

  4. Agreed! I'm a firm believer that authors should be the primary advocates for their own work, while publishers should be advocates of specific ideas, curating the work of relevant authors accordingly.

    PS: Cory Doctorow made a similar point in reference to copyright: “If culture loses the copyright wars, the reason for copyright dies with it.” (

  5. Hey Guy, Pundits with one-off sound bites lack the peripheral vision to to solve today's remarkably complex problems.

    Generally, I find Clay Shirky's analysis to be very insightful, but rarely agree with his conclusion. I think that's because, as he has suggested himself, 'there are so many things changing at once.' (I just finished reading a live blog of a discussion among Clay Shirky, Andrew Keen, and Mathew Ingram here: Melissa Wilson “liveblogged” that Clay said: 'The central problem is that there is no central problem. There are so many things changing at once.')

    I recently posted that “when all voices are equal but separate, community is scarce.” The purpose of that post was to point out that there an opportunity to improve upon all voices being equal but separate. That's a community structure in which all voices are equally important but contribute something different to the common good.

    Your post here and the Clay Shirky comment inspire me to update that post to add another point. As long as media, marketing, content creators, technology folks are only talking among themselves about “the future” we are not going to solve anything. We need a community in which all of these stakeholders collaborate.

    Media folks are sure the advertisers will be back. But they are not listening to the marketing folks who don't see any value in advertising. Less than 10% of the internet audience clicks on display ads. The dirty little secret is that the proportion of the TV audience watching tv comm'ls may not be much higher. The fact is the more $ you spend the more frequency you get against the same heavy TV viewers (and if they watch TV that much, they probably aren't getting out to work, make money, or shop, for that matter).

    Marketing folks are shifting ad dollars to custom publishing/production/events. Aren't they listening to how many media companies are collapsing due to an abundance of consumer choices? What are they going to do when they need an independent, credible 3rd party to convey their message because of consumer backlash to custom publishing – with no representation that the website is owned and operated by a marketing company.

    Journalists are joining the club of content creators, like studio writers, who fought for ownership of their voice, without thinking about the implications for their employer. For example, Journalists are outraged by the Washington Post telling their writers that they may not express their personal views on social media. When Hollywood writers fought the studios for their ownership rights and won, their employees replaced contracted writers with independents. This could be the next step for journalism. Before saying “so what?” – I've heard some veteran Hollywood writers wonder aloud if content wasn't better when a studio paid their salary, whether they wrote a blockbuster or a flop, than today when the writer takes all the risk. In fact, I heard one say that the censorship he fears the most is the writer's self-censorship.

    Then there's the Technology guys who say they don't need media or marketing because they can just offer their product for free and consumers will figure out the best technology. That means they think Microsoft makes the best software, right :} Well, in my opinion, Microsoft is just waiting to be knocked off by a competitor who develops a solution to consumer problem caused by Microsoft's software, invests in educational marketing and sells directly to consumers instead of Microsoft's market domination strategy through exclusive distribution deals.

    I'm thinking about how to facilitate collaboration among all these stakeholders. Any thoughts?

    Katherine Warman Kern

  6. Great post! I'm not in publishing, but it applies to other industries as well.

    I also dislike pot stirrers, and I don't trust consultants (or CEOs) who describe business plans in emotional terms. But you know that any change of direction in business, however wise or even overdue, stirs up concern or outright fear within a company. I will defend the well-turned motivational phrase to help counteract that fear and create a new shared understanding of concrete business changes.

    The content-delivery industry is going through more fundamental shifts than other industries. No one can say authoritatively what it will look like on the other side. It's not a simple retooling, it's also adaptation on the fly. This is what makes otherwise grounded executives vulnerable to vague business plans.

    It's the same thing that happened in the “dotcom revolution.” My main area of expertise is financial services. In that industry, the pot-stirrers are the financial rags and websites that offer hot stock tips, and the collapse of Wall Street was due to too many securities dealers with no skin in the game.

    Many investors and financial services companies spent the last year learning that the fundamentals don't change. It was the same after the dotcom bubble collapsed. Urgency–and clever phrasing–doesn't make a vague business plan better. It was true then, and it's true for publishing now.

  7. It's a really interesting article. Two points came out of it for me. First, here in the UK it's illegal to have online applications only because of access issues, but of course you still find out about the jobs more easily online – so in a way that's just a sop. Second, we forget how skewed the online debates about the Internet are – of course it FEELS more universal than it is, because all of us debating it here are lucky enough to be connected.

  8. Nice one, Jenn – and the stuff about dilution sounds like it could have come straight from the Year Zero manifesto (only we were slightly less responsible and went with the drugs metaphor rather than the drink one).

  9. Where you seem frustrated, I am more mystified by the way that otherwise intelligent business-folk seem to buy into the notion that there is a silver bullet to saving and succeeding in publishing. Aside from landing a recurring-hit author, has there ever been a silver bullet in publishing? Of COURSE it's complicated.

    In other words: Amen, sir.

  10. I like your underlying concept, but I think “media” is too big and has too many stakeholders with different challenges, expectations and needs, for a single collaborative community. What you're proposing sounds similar to what we're trying to build for the consumer publishing community via Digital Book World. Samir Husni's Magazine Innovation Center is an interesting concept that has a similar mission for magazine publishers.

    Honestly, what's typically missing from these communities is the voice of the consumer, but social media has amplified that to a degree, though not in an equal nor fully representative manner.

  11. I wholeheartedly agree that the fundamentals don't change. It's what annoys me about social media “gurus” who pretend they've discovered a new form of marketing strategy as opposed to just another tactic.

    Motivation is, and always has been, a tactic, not a strategy, and Wall Street has emphasized short-term tactics over long-term strategy for far too long and with almost uniformly disastrous results.

    As for publishing, it's the belief that publishers are in the content delivery business instead of the idea advocacy business that's at the root of the industry's problems.

  12. Few will ever acknowledge that they're looking for a silver bullet, but all of the hoopla about ebooks and social media, and what passes for a consultant these days, suggests that's exactly what they're looking for.

  13. Well, actually ebook publishing isn't complicated at all. In fact, it's amazingly simple. For a writer, it can be as simple as uploading a Word file to Smashwords or ScribD or Kindle. It's only difficult for large-scale publishers because it's not built into their current business models. Sorry Guy, but it needed to be said.

  14. Hi Guy,

    The quote and pundit in question is John Temple, former editor of the Rocky Mountain news. I think he has the authority (professional and moral) to say what he has. See his blog for the entire text. The tweet you have included in your post was from a stream of tweets that quoted from the post. Hate pundits all you want, but I think you are off base here.

    best regards

  15. Hi Guy,

    That was from this presentation, about experiences from the demise of Rocky Mountain News:

    This comes from John Temple's experience from *within* a crumbling business, not as a pundit from without.

    I'll agree with you that it's easy to criticize without having a bottom-line and business to defend/define; but again, in this case the quote comes from the front lines, not the sidelines.

  16. Yes, for the individual author, Smashwords is a great vehicle to make their work available in a variety of electronic formats, but let's not mistake it for a viable business model for anyone other than Mark Coker at this point. It's one of many new distribution channels that have yet to prove themselves as either a viable alternative or noteworthy complement to the established channels that currently generate the vast majority of book sales, print or electronic.

    Between the rapid demise of Quartet Press, Chris Anderson's “failed” FREE experiment with Scribd, and the latest debunking of his Long Tail theory (, I'd argue that eBook publishing is in fact a lot more complicated than people — pundits and otherwise — want to admit.

  17. Thanks for the clarification, Mark. I didn't make the connection to Temple's presentation as there was no attribution in the tweet I referenced. As I noted, it was an RT of the quote, without context or attribution, that really sparked this post.

    As for Temple, the challenges he faced at the Rocky Mountain News are very different from those faced by book publishers trying to figure out where eBooks fit in their business model, but my core argument still stands: the new doesn't exist in a vacuum, and the rules are very different for a start-up than for an existing company trying to transform itself.

  18. After reading through Temple's text version of his presentation, perhaps I should change my opening line to “I hate Twitter” because the snippet Hugh quoted is completely lost without context. I'm adding a bit to the end of the post to address that. Thanks for the link!

  19. You know, I thought about that as I made the post: I really should add the link – but of course was constrained by 140 chars. Should have added it in a follow-up.

  20. Re: “The new doesn't exist in a vacuum, and the rules are very different for a start-up than for an existing company trying to transform itself.” … I think that's really Temple's point: that if a company wants to survive transformation in the long-run, it can't hamstring new ventures because of the needs of the old business. Amazon, for instance, has set up Kindle & paper books as separate business silos, which actually compete against each other. The point being that the “winning” business is the one customers like better – and if one comes at the expense of the other – well, better Amazon itself winning that business than a competitor.

    That approach causes problems of course, as does all transformation. Still, the *reason* transformation is needed in a business is because of a change in the environment (either competitors, or technology, or customer preference). So regardless of the noise made by sideline pundits, the change comes from external forces, not by the noise. And it's the smart publisher who figures out the best way forward.

  21. Guy — Irrespective of the Temple attribution, I really enjoyed the post. When I listened to Seth Godin lecture at Random House (posted at Galley Cat) I thought there is a guy who is prescribing tactics but calling them strategies. That is too say I am totally on board with your thesis re: transformation.

  22. Guy — Irrespective of the Temple attribution, I really enjoyed your post. I watched Seth Godin speak at Random House earlier this week (posted at Galley Cat) and I thought he was passing tactics off as strategies. That is to say I am on board with your thesis re: transformation.


  23. I mostly agree with you here, but the Amazon example illustrates a proactive move whereas publishers' approaches to eBooks (and most other transformational milestones) have been primarily reactive. And in that reactive state, they seem to be more susceptible to the hollow chatter of the pundit class.

    Overall, though, I think this has taught me not to blog on a Sunday, and to choose a reference point that's closer to my real source of frustration than the straw that broke the camel's back! 🙂

  24. I suspect your point in this post would have been strengthened by the Temple presentation about the epic struggle of the Rocky Mountain News with its digital self. Temple's story describes a completely separate digital execution operation from the print version. The result was a lack of strategy and commitment needed to succeed. I suspect is also resulted in a lack of collaboration from Rocky Mountain News depts that could have contributed to success, too.

    This implies that it is better to develop a strategy that is best for the entire business so there is commitment from management as well as other segments of the company. Just as you said: “What’s 'best for that business' can’t be looked at in a vacuum unless it’s wholly self-supporting, and most “new venture” revenues in publishing tend to represent a fraction of the “old”, while being completely dependent upon its continued existence to grow.”

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