There has been no shortage recently of great publishing on decision-making, and thanks to bestsellers such as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly, cognitive biases and heuristics have become much more familiar to the lay reader. I was recently given a copy of a new book in this area. Where Left Brain, Right Stuff stands out is in examining how those ways of thinking apply to decision making in business. Phil Rosenzweig, a professor at IMD, argues that successful routine decision-making depends on factors such as understanding biases, but that in the context of business and competitive markets, this “left brain” analysis can be insufficient without understanding the context and a willingness to accept risk. He compares this to Tom Wolfe’s concept of the right stuff, which he defines as “the intelligent management of risk”. (This is an important point: Rosenzweig examines the breaking of the sound barrier, unpacks the popular conception of the test pilot and finds that while an element of bravado was necessary, ultimate success was equally the result of highly structured, incremental tests). Very few readers of the book will face that sort of life-or-death situation, but more commonplace decision-making will be improved by it: it presents research coherently and is written in a lively and accessible style, with case studies including competitive bidding on a construction project, Cingular’s acquisition of AT&T Wireless and the growth of VMware, and references to other fields as diverse as as cycling, golf and engineering. There are particularly good sections on the effect of confidence on performance (and the implications for “authentic” leadership); the nature of decision-making, competition, feedback and payoffs; and on the respective value of innate talent and deliberate practice. Altogether, I found it a very interesting and valuable book, and an easy one to recommend.
The King in Yellow is a smart, timely intervention by a publisher with the means and opportunity… But it’s also one of the first coherent answers to Craig Mod’s questions that we’ve seen so far.
Over the last couple of weeks, my Twitter timeline has started to get very excited about True Detective, the new HBO series which starts in the UK tomorrow. Many fans of the show have been fascinated by its inspirations, particularly the short story collection The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers, which was itself inspired in part by Ambrose Bierce’s short story An Inhabitant of Carcosa. One can gauge something of this interest from the Google search data trend for “The King in Yellow” and “Carcosa”:
On Wednesday afternoon, I was sitting with the team at Gollancz and the subject came up. As a result of this and some very smart work by Orion, Hachette and our partners at Jouve, this morning Gollancz published an ebook collecting the Chambers and Bierce stories with material from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. My colleague Marcus Gipps has written more about the ebook here; for me it has been a very interesting case study in how simple and effective digital projects can be turned around quickly—in this case, around forty five hours. You can purchase the ebook from the links below.
I’ll add to the list as the ebook goes live on other stores.
I’ve been using LinkedIn since it had about 10 million users (that was back in April 2007; it’s now about 225 million). Looking back, there can’t have been many work days in that period when I haven’t used it for research, meeting preparation or keeping up with contacts. Based on published statistics on average network size, activity and other metrics, I would estimate I’m in the top 10-15% of users. I have a paid account. I have frequently evangelised the benefits of the site to less active or convinced colleagues. But recently I’ve been put off it a little by the volume of invitations from people I’ve never heard of—and my theory is that a change to the site may be partly responsible. I have to emphasise that this is only theoretical, and it may well be that my experience isn’t representative. Connection requests from strangers aren’t a new phenomenon on the site, after all. However, in recent months they have accounted for an ever higher proportion of total requests, despite my profile having quite clear guidance about how I use the site and who I’ll connect with.
My theory is that the recent update to Who’s Viewed Your Profile is to blame. Looking through mine, it helpfully inserts suggestions for people to connect with or follow (this is a screencap I took today—I’ve obscured the name of the person involved for obvious reasons):
Now, LinkedIn has recommended people one might know for as long as I can remember. But what’s interesting and different is that it is not suggesting that I know this person (a complete stranger), but that I can grow my own profile views by connecting with them—and is therefore more focused on quantitative than qualitative measures of network. In the absence of any other factor that I’m aware of, I do wonder whether this sort of suggestion might be behind the increase in stranger requests. I’d be interested to know whether other people have had a similar experience with the site.
Hachette UK’s 2013 results were published yesterday. One of the metrics that was reported was the percentage of our sales that ebooks represented, and someone asked me via a DM how that had changed over time (the results gave 2012 for context but not the long term trend). All of the relevant figures for the last five years have been made available to the public via the trade press and our parent group Lagardère’s annual reports, but to save trawling through them, I put together the graph above for anyone besides my Twitter correspondent who might be interested in the five year trend. Please bear in mind that the data represent sales of adult trade titles only, in all markets.
There is a typically interesting essay on Amazon in The New Yorker —perhaps not revelatory, particularly for anyone who has read Brad Stone’s The Everything Store recently, but with some interesting anecdotes and good writing: it neatly summarises a lot of Stone’s book in the observation that Amazon seems destabilising and intimidating because its identity and goals are never clear and always fluid. But one point in particular deserves closer scrutiny, that Amazon “didn’t have a profitable quarter until 2001, and still struggles to stay in the black”. For context on that point, this piece by Benedict Evans has some data/graphs. Reading it, and an earlier analysis of Amazon’s cash flows, the impression one forms is not of a company struggling to stay in the black, but of “[managing] cashflow and profits to zero.”
I did my first speaking gig of the year last night at the Cognizant seminar First Thought, Last Word at the British Library, appearing on a panel with Rich Westwood of Cambridge Hitachi and Helga Zunde-Baker of Palgrave Macmillan. There were also presentations from Simon Skinner of Nielsen, Dr Mark Kerrigan of Greenwich University and an astute wrap-up by David Ingham of Cognizant. I came away with four particular takeaways from the evening:
- Trade publishing events have focused a great deal on learning lessons from adjacent industries—music, games, broadcast all spring to mind. Listening to the academic/STM presenters last night, I was struck by how many of their points were relevant to consumer publishing. My own career path has been exclusively on the trade side: it’s clear that I don’t just need to look at the adjacencies, but also more at the parallel tracks in my own industry.
- For every publishing area, the challenge is a multiplicity of routes to market and the need to balance their respective advantages and disadvantages—to paraphrase Simon’s elegant way of summarising it, managing variety and volume at velocity.
- If I can be forgiven for echoing one of my own points, which David picked up, it’s the fundamental importance of cultural change as the precursor to technological change—understanding the why before what and how.
- Finally, at the risk of sounding somewhat mercenary, it was uncommonly kind and classy of Cognizant to provide a small thank you gift for speakers. Even informal panel discussions without slides take personal time to prepare for, and it does make one feel appreciated. Unfortunately I can think of far too many event organisers who do nothing for speakers—in a couple of cases, I’ve not even had a thank you email. This is particularly galling when presenting at commercial events to a room full of people who have paid through the nose to attend. So thanks to my hosts last night for getting it right.
The Bookseller ran its annual review of the year today, including volume sales for ebooks disclosed by the big five trade publishers, which seemed to be a good opportunity to try out Chartbuilder, the online tool released by Quartz. Both the results and the data are impressive.
I will be speaking at the next Byte the Book event, to be held at the Club at the Ivy from 18:30-21:30 on 10 February 2014. The topic is pricing models for publishing. The other speakers are Jo Henry of Nielsen Bookdata and Nicholas Lovell, author of The Curve, one of my favourite books of 2013. I’m looking forward to it, and am grateful to Justine for the invitation to speak.